Are the Golden State Warriors really championship contenders?
It's a debate the basketball world never expected to have, and one that still carries a slightly unbelievable tone.
It's not, however, one being held within this franchise. The Dubs believe they have the building blocks in place for a title run and continue making win-now moves to fortify their ranks.
Have they acted too soon? Or could this be the perfect time for this success-starved franchise to strike?
Mortgaging the Future
Swiss Army knife Andre Iguodala arrived last summer as part of a sign-and-trade that eliminated some of Golden State's worst contracts (Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson) but also hit the franchise hard for future assets. Veterans Jermaine O'Neal, Marreese Speights and Toney Douglas—who was subsequently shipped out in Wednesday's swap—came on board via free agency.
For a franchise that had been throwing D-League darts to fill its roster for years, it was suddenly wheeling and dealing with proven NBA commodities. Unfortunately, they came with proven-NBA-commodity price tags.
Golden State did a decent job of stocking its shelves, but the reserve supply has now been extinguished. The Dubs sent out two of their next four first-round picks (2014 and 2017, both headed to Utah) and each of their next five second-round choices.
This roster was costly to put together and will be even more expensive to maintain. The Warriors have already made significant financial commitments to four of their core players for each of the next two seasons, via ShamSports.com.
|The Price of Competition: Golden State's Four Heaviest Contracts|
Now, this is far from being salary cap hell. David Lee's contract stands out as the worst—and he's one of only two players averaging at least 19 points, nine rebounds, two assists and shooting 50 percent from the field this season.
The Warriors are paying a premium, but they're seeing returns on their investment.
That being said, Golden State's hands are officially tied as far as further improvements are concerned. Crawford's arrival suggests as much.
All three were proven playmakers. They all had the smarts to control the ball alongside sharpshooter Stephen Curry—just as Jarrett Jack had last season—and the experience to accept a limited role in pursuit of a title.
But none of them were going to come cheaply. The Warriors would have had to cough up a draft pick they don't have or part with one of their promising young pieces: Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes or Draymond Green.
They couldn't meet that price tag, but they still needed to upgrade the league's lowest scoring bench (23.0 points per game, via Hoopsstats.com).
So they got back into the dart-tossing business, hoping that Crawford's mild emergence wasn't an anomaly and Brooks isn't actually hopeless.
There are no guarantees that either pickup will pan out. There never are when teams go digging through the NBA bargain bin.
Building a contender isn't easy.
Risks are unavoidable. But are the Warriors gambling too much in pursuit of a title?
Crawford and Brooks aren't going to make or break this season. But both symbolize the chances this front office is willing to take to realize its championship dream.
Crawford had something greater than a best-case-scenario start to his 2013-14 campaign.
Pressed into duty by Rajon Rondo's absence, he saw more minutes than ever (30.7 a night) and made the most of them early on. Good times became great when a torrid three-game stretch in early December (23.3 points on .610/.522/.800 shooting and 6.7 assists) saw him capture an unlikely Eastern Conference Player of the Week award.
The hoops world couldn't believe its eyes.
Crawford was flying so far above Earth, his plummet back to reality was sure to be rough. It wound up being something far worse.
In the 17 games since he added to started his hardware collection, he managed just 13.5 points. He hit 36.1 percent of his shots and only 22.7 percent from distance.
For reference, he owns a career .404/.305/.827 shooting slash. This recent valley has been unfortunately less surprising than his earlier peak.
He's always had explosive potential. But it's anyone's guess whether he'll do damage to the opposition or his own team on any given night.
"He's not afraid of the moment—he takes big shots, makes big shots," Warriors general manager Bob Myers said, via Carl Steward of the Bay Area News Group. "He's dangerous, which is a word I like to use for a player like that."
Dangerous is one way to put it. Reckless might be a more fitting term:
He has managed to bump his distributing numbers to a career-best 5.7 dimes a night, but his trigger finger itches more than a setup man's should. Coach Mark Jackson's interminable green light could be the best or the worst thing that's ever happened to Crawford.
It could wind up being both, even in the same game.
Crawford thrived under first-year Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who seemed to loosen his leash but also crack the whip when necessary. A little bit of freedom seems to treat the volatile scorer well, but Jackson has to know when to pull the plug.
If Crawford is Golden State's gamble, Brooks is the scratch ticket.
There's a potentially decent payout, but the odds of seeing it are slim. He tallied 12.6 points as a rookie in 2011-12, but hasn't even seen that many minutes since. He made just 10 garbage-time appearances for the Celtics this season.
Both of these players can score, but neither does it all that efficiently. Defense has never been a priority for either player, each of whom must now be worked into Golden State's tight-knit locker room.
What happens if one, or both, of these gambles pays off, though? Just how high does this team's ceiling stretch?
Contender or Pretender?
The Warriors have to hope it's the former. Nothing short of a championship would justify what they've done to their future.
How likely is that goal?
The numbers say this is a good, not great team. The Warriors (25-15) sit sixth in the Western Conference standings. Their plus-4.5 points per 100 possessions net rating ranks No. 8.
This is, however, a great starting five. Elite, even.
With Jackson's regulars—Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee and Andrew Bogut—on the floor, Golden State's net rating jumps to plus-20.1. That's more than double Indiana's league-best plus-9.4 mark.
The bench has been an issue, thus leading to the arrivals of Brooks and Crawford. But it hasn't been the only problem.
There's a championship focus that the Warriors can't find some nights (league-worst 17.0 turnovers per 100 possessions). There's the inability to consistently generate easy scoring chances, leaving them overreliant at times on jump shots. There's a tendency to make what should be one of the league's most colorful offenses very vanilla as Jackson tends to stick to the same well once he finds the slightest bit of water.
But there are issues with every team in the league.
The Heat struggle against size. The Pacers can't consistently find good point-guard play. The Clippers like to watch Chris Paul (when he's healthy), rather than help him. The Spurs are still racing against Father Time. The full-strength Thunder don't have a reliable No. 3 option.
Are Golden State's weaknesses more concerning than those?
Not necessarily. If a team's going to live and die by the long ball, employing Curry (a career 43.6 percent three-point shooter) and Thompson (40.7) would seem to give it a good chance for survival.
The Warriors have to deliver on this championship potential, though. If this window closes without a ring, it might be a long time before the next one opens.
Even by this franchise's standards.
*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.