In the NBA, nobody can see into the future. Nobody knows for sure what trades will win and which will crash and burn. Nobody can account for the limitless variables that eventually decide whether a deal is successful or disastrous, and all that lies in between.
But what teams do possess are intelligent people. Their movements are based on facts in the present that help predict the future. Probabilities are juggled, and logical process is used to reach a conclusive decision.
This brings us to the Golden State Warriors and their refusal to part ways with Klay Thompson—a young shooting guard who’s never made an All-Star team and very well may never—in a trade for Kevin Love.
According to a report from Yahoo! NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cleveland Cavaliers will forfeit the league's past two number one overall picks (Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett) plus a 2015 first-rounder for Love. That doesn't sound like "risk," per se, especially because Love is supposedly committing to a five-year, $120 million deal, but it's a seriously valuable package to give up.
ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst reported that the Warriors were "unwilling to bend" on their insistence that Thompson would not be included in any package for Love.
On the surface, this is supreme ludicrousness. Love is 25 years old and already one of the NBA’s very best players. The end game of every team should be winning a championship, and it’s virtually impossible to do so without multiple top-20 players on the roster (unless you’re the San Antonio Spurs).
Still, the Warriors aren’t stupid, and their decision to keep the 24-year-old Thompson was made behind some sound logic. That doesn’t mean not trading for Love won’t severely come back to bite them in the behind, but let’s go over a few possible reasons why they didn’t pull the trigger.
Thompson is good
As the sub-header above clearly states: Thompson is good. And that’s always a pretty good reason to not trade someone. Last season, the only player in basketball to make more threes was Thompson’s backcourt mate Stephen Curry, arguably the best shooter in world history.
Thompson shot 41.7 percent from downtown on a ridiculous 6.6 attempts per game. His greatest skill happens to be one of the most important traits in the NBA right now, making him more valuable today than, say, five years ago.
He’s also very tall. At 6’7”, Thompson can get his shot off over almost any opposing shooting guard in the league, allowing him an extra split second rising up off a screen or pulling up off the dribble. Thompson’s height also comes in handy down low in the post. He’s a matchup nightmare who’s only going to get better.
On defense, he’s already one of the better on-ball security guards at his position and can handle point guards up to small forwards. This type of versatility is very important and becomes extra useful on a team that employs Curry at point guard.
Here’s Warriors head coach Steve Kerr talking about Thompson’s defense to USA Today’s Sam Amick in mid-July:
Klay guarded Chris Paul the entire Clippers series. He has allowed Steph to conserve some energy at the defensive end, and to slide over to a shooter. The versatility that we have defensively between Klay and (new point guard) Shaun Livingston and (small forward) Andre (Iguodala), it's really important for us...We're excited about our roster.
Giving up two-way contribution can really stink, even if what’s coming in return is a top-10 player.
In order to make this transaction possible under the NBA’s rules, more salary needed to leave Golden State than just Thompson's rookie contract. In all likelihood, that meant David Lee and the $30.5 million he’s due over the next two seasons.
Lee and Love play the same position, and neither is particularly imposing on the defensive end.
Lee can’t shoot threes, but he has a respectable mid-range jumper and can rebound, pass and finish at the rim. He also seems to be a fantastic teammate and loved by mostly everyone in Golden State’s locker room.
Even though that last characteristic can’t be quantified by numbers, it’s important and deserves mentioning. Chemistry is important in basketball, and liking your teammates is better than not liking them (as was the case between several Timberwolves and Love last season).
Including Lee along with Thompson would have shipped out an additional 18.2 points (on 52.3 percent shooting) and 9.3 rebounds per game. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Lee is a legitimate contributor who produces within Golden State’s offense.
The Warriors would undoubtedly have been upgrading if they acquired Love, but by how much?
It’s basically always smart to acquire a superstar at any cost, but in this specific context, is it worth giving up two good players for one really good player? That alone is a difficult question to answer, and the next point makes it even harder.
A primary criticism directed at Golden State's decision to keep Thompson surrounds his contract. Thanks to the dearth of effective and versatile 2-guards around the league, an appropriate obsession with elite three-point shooting and the numerous teams around the league that have tons of cap space, Thompson will likely command a max contract when he hits restricted free agency next summer.
Due to an escalating salary cap, his next deal could be slightly more than the four-year, $62.9 million deal Gordon Hayward signed with the Utah Jazz. Thompson is not "worth" this much money, as he isn't a suitable No. 1 offensive option, but what matters more to Golden State is their control on the situation.
Thompson is restricted. They’ll match any offer that comes in, and if no passes are made, they might even get him for less than the max.
Compare this contract situation with Love, who has a player option on his contract in two years per Hoops Hype. If the Warriors relinquished Thompson and Lee, there was the possibility it would have been for one year of Love’s service. That would be a disaster.
Love could have either opted out of that deal (again, thanks to the rising salary cap) or become an unrestricted free agent at the age of 28. If things went south and he had a bad taste in his mouth next season, who’s to say he wouldn't leave the Bay Area for another team? Suitors with enough cap space will be aplenty.
Thompson is all but guaranteed to stay in a Warriors jersey another four seasons. From a financial standpoint, it’s tough to say that isn’t the safer play.
Still, after all that, the Warriors were in an enviable position to undoubtedly improve their basketball team next season, and there's rarely anything "safe" about putting yourself in position to win a championship. Risk is almost always a necessary ingredient.
Love and Stephen Curry would have been one of the best duos in the league, a deadly pick-and-roll puzzle with no correct answer.
Trap Curry and force the ball out of his hands, and leave yourself at the mercy of Love either launching a three (he shot 37.6 percent from deep on 6.5 attempts per game last season), driving past a close-out defender or quickly moving the ball along the perimeter to the next open shooter. Switch and create a bad mismatch at two positions. Hedge hard and risk a Curry bomb from 30 feet.
Saying “no thanks!” to having that avalanche of offense on your team is silly, in a vacuum. But the Warriors have their own process, and only time will tell if it's led them down a path of success or failure. Odds are they stumble a bit. Love is that good.
Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, FOX Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.