From the outside peering in, the Golden State Warriors appear every bit the part of a championship contender: two of the NBA’s most devastating shooters, a top-notch wing defender, a frontcourt awash in veteran moxie, all making up one of the best—if not the best—starting fives in the game.
But, in the NBA as anywhere else, looks can be deceiving. Which is why, while the Warriors strike a stunning display, it’s through a window that could be closed for good come next summer.
Short of your dyed-in-the-wool dynasty, winning 51 games doesn’t sound like the stuff of a coaching coup. But that’s exactly what happened to Mark Jackson, dismissed on May 6 following weeks of speculation pointing to a longstanding front-office rift.
In his stead steps Steve Kerr, longtime broadcaster, former general manager of the Phoenix Suns and—perhaps most pertinently—a disciple of Phil Jackson, whose triangle offense stands to inform the Warriors' offensive philosophy going forward.
Judging by the talent at hand, the triangle makes perfect sense: Between the floor-spacing Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and the sneaky-effective playmaking of Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut, Golden State’s offense has the potential to rewrite the 21st century record books.
That it might have only a year or two to do so only heightens the intrigue.
The first and most immediate concern is how the Warriors plan to approach Thompson’s impending free agency. Per the league’s collective bargaining agreement, Golden State has the right to match any offer, even if it means extending further into the salary cap.
Considering the team balked on including the sweet-shooting guard in a prospective trade for Kevin Love, Bleacher Report’s Michael Pina highlights just how high a wire the Warriors are walking when it comes to re-signing Thompson:
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.
Should the Warriors retain Thompson, it will be virtually impossible to summon the same trick with third-year swingman Harrison Barnes, whose $5.2 million qualifying offer goes live two summers from now. Unless, of course, the North Carolina product further damages his stock by compounding last year’s dreadful sophomore season.
And while Curry, Iguodala, Lee and Bogut are all locked up for at least the next two years, there’s enough of an injury history amongst them to all but guarantee a few bumps and bruises in the road.
Capped out and facing a financial future fraught with tough decisions, Golden State enters the 2014-15 campaign if not a desperate team, then certainly one that recognizes its own basketball mortality.
Making things even more tenuous, the Western Conference—for years now the league’s superior hemisphere—stands to be an even bigger gauntlet, from the omnipresent San Antonio Spurs to the title-starved Oklahoma City Thunder, the loaded Los Angeles Clippers to the ascendant Portland Trail Blazers.
Set as their roster is, the Warriors can only count on so much chemistry to guarantee a further climb up the conference standings.
Which brings us back to Kerr, Golden State’s golden-boy coach and in many ways the key to the team’s near-future prospects.
As if replacing a onetime broadcasting peer wasn’t awkward enough, Kerr now must marshal one of the most experienced, pressure-laden teams in the league. As far as first jobs go, some presidents have probably had easier go's of it.
To be sure, Kerr could be the ideal mentor for Curry and Thompson, both because of his pedigree as one of the NBA’s all-time best shooters, and as a wellspring of knowledge for how the triangle can serve to maximize his stars’ strengths.
Such a teaching touch won’t begin and end with Golden State’s backcourt, of course. Even as a broadcaster, Kerr garnered a reputation as a formidable basketball mind—someone who saw the game at a different pace than many of his peers.
Speaking with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Rusty Simmons, Kerr shed some light on how his 15-year NBA career—mostly as a seldom-used backup—taught him how to appreciate the game’s strategic nuances.
"I think what really helped me was being able to see how the pieces fit," said Kerr. "You have different needs at different positions, but ultimately, the puzzle has to fit. I just always figured out how to forge a role."
Beyond its stellar starting five, Golden State can look forward to a much-improved bench led by Barnes, Draymond Green, Marreese Speights and, fresh off a breakout year with the Brooklyn Nets, point guard Shaun Livingston.
The Warriors have all the pieces. Now it’s up to Kerr to find the most fruitful fits.
When your team boasts a starting five of top-tier players all under the age of 32—with the two best being under 27—it’s easy to believe happy days are here to stay. But beneath the fantastic facade rests a foundation that, with the slightest storm or gale's gust, could crumble completely.
With its future prospects a potential hurricane on the horizon, Golden State would be wise to view next few seasons as its last, best chance at a championship. Lest Kerr and the Warriors have to find pieces for a new puzzle altogether.
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