Warriors' Pursuit of Kevin Love Leaves Scars with Klay Thompson, David Lee

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterAugust 21, 2014

Kyle Terada/USA Today

There is no column in an NBA box score for playing through an injury, just as there are no bonus clauses in contracts based on defensive assignments accepted to cover a teammate's ass. It's why such players, especially ones whose place or paycheck in the league already is secure, are to be treasured.   

The Golden State Warriors have two such players in David Lee and Klay Thompson. Two players they seriously considered dealing to the Minnesota Timberwolves this summer to acquire Kevin Love. Two players they must now convince to fill those invisible columns and ignore they were nearly sent away as a reward for their previous service.

Most probably know what Lee and Thompson have contributed to the Warriors' recent rise to relevance, but it bears recounting for two reasons. One, because of how perfunctorily so many were willing to see them moved for Love, perhaps not fully appreciating their part in the Warriors' renaissance.  

And, two, because it now appears they aren't going anywhere, and Warriors management has some fence-mending to do if it wants to assure that such sacrifices and ass-covering is done with the same enthusiasm that fueled the team's recent success.   

Two years ago, Lee played well enough to be the Warriors' first All-Star in 16 years and help them to their first playoff appearance in six years. He played in 79 of 82 regular-season games only because he was willing to battle through a bruised knee, a sprained ankle and a sore back. He also missed one game on a suspension for shoving Pacers center Roy Hibbert. Without all that, the Warriors probably wouldn't have seen the postseason, what with forward Brandon Rush lost for the season in the first week and center Andrew Bogut limited to 32 games.

Lee's first career trip to the playoffs appeared to end in the first game when he suffered what the team at one point announced as a season-ending torn hip flexor. Eleven days later he was hobbling onto the court for Game 6, playing a single Willis Reedesque minute that inspired a deafening roar from the crowd and an emotional wave that contributed to a series-clinching victory.

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 27:  Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers drives on Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on April 27, 2014 in Oakland, Cal
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Thompson has made similar sacrifices, including an iron-man run of playing 182 out of a possible 183 games. Despite being a 6'7" shooting guard with one of the most textbook and trustworthy jump shots in the league, he has dedicated himself to becoming a lockdown defender. He did so well in that regard that the Warriors asked him in practically every game to guard the opponent's biggest perimeter threat, whether that be an explosive point guard such as Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul, or such elite scoring 2-guards as James Harden and DeMar DeRozan. He averaged 18.4 points and scored at least double digits in 74 of 81 games, and yet there were critics who had the nerve to question why there were nights he didn't have his legs to score 20 or, regardless of all that on-the-ball defending, didn't average more than three rebounds a night.

Ask any GM or scout and they'll tell you Thompson is one of the best two-way players in the game, yet he hasn't sniffed either All-Star or All-Defensive team recognition. To make matters worse, teammate Andre Iguodala did receive All-Defensive first-team honors last season, even though injuries left him a shell of himself and forced the Warriors to give Thompson the assignments Iguodala was expected to fill. "Klay is a much better defender," said one former Warriors assistant coach. "It's not even close. It's all based on reputation and stats. The truth is, Dre is always gambling on the weak side."

Thompson handled all of that without complaint. The reward? A summer wondering if he would be dealt to the league's moribund Minnesota outpost.

The Warriors not only dangled both him and Lee in talks with the Timberwolves, league and team sources say, but they apparently initiated the conversation. Various reports on the deal's likelihood of going down bubbled for several weeks, and while GM Bob Myers declined to address the subject directly, he certainly didn't discourage the notion that Thompson and Lee were available for the right price.

"Right now, I think it's unlikely," Myers told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. "Right now, today. ... But I will say this: If you asked me last year at this time would we be in a situation to grab an [Andre] Iguodala, I would have said the same thing."

League sources also say they could've dealt Harrison Barnes to Orlando for Arron Afflalo in conjunction with the Minnesota deal, which would've given them a reasonable substitute for Thompson.

Eventually, they passed on everything because there wasn't a strong consensus in the organization that they'd definitively be better. And when it became clear that Love would be headed to Cleveland instead of a Western Conference rival, such as the Houston Rockets, it made the need to roll the dice even less enticing. 

Myers' attempt to be as honest as possible is appreciated, but it has come with a price. While attempts to reach Lee or his representatives were unsuccessful, a source close to Thompson said the shooting guard is "pissed" that the Warriors legitimately considered moving him.

The natural refrain is, "Grow up" or "grow a pair" or, perhaps more delicately, "Hey, it's a business. Deal with it." Which Thompson and Lee no doubt will. They wouldn't have had the success they've had without a hard-hat mentality.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

But there's a way to go about pursuing a trade that doesn't invoke collateral damage or repercussions. First, don't aggressively pursue one to the point it's beyond denying and then not be willing to pull the trigger. If you're moving players who have been good soldiers, do them a solid by trying to move them somewhere they'd welcome; otherwise, you're sending the wrong message to the rest of your team that quiet sacrifice doesn't really earn you anything. One executive also warned that getting right with the players' agents after a failed trade is just as important.

Don't misunderstand; there's nothing wrong with the Warriors exploring a deal for Love. While one scout said his team would have a field day forcing a Curry-Love combination to defend pick-and-rolls "all day long," another league talent expert is convinced that Curry and Love are a far better offensive combo than Thompson and Curry and that Love would've benefitted the entire team. "I'm way on an island with this, but I believe Love would've made everybody on that team better," he said. "I just value a range-shooting 4 more. Shooting guards are replaceable."

Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

Where he's not alone is also suggesting Curry and Thompson never will reach their full potential together, the premise being that Thompson never will evolve into the scorer he could be and Curry won't be forced into carrying a heavier defensive load.

"You have to have everybody take the defensive challenge if you want to play for a championship, anyway," said one former player with a championship ring. "Steph is ultra-competitive. If you asked him, 'Do you want to score 25 or be a two-way player and MVP candidate' he'd say 'MVP candidate' for sure. But you have to challenge him to do that."

Perhaps new head coach Steve Kerr will do that. Perhaps Kerr can neatly evade the issue of alienation by telling Thompson and Lee that he fought to keep them, which is why they're still with the team.

As a first-year head coach replacing one as beloved in the locker room as his predecessor, Mark Jackson, Kerr's to-do list already is rather thick. Not losing two starters in Thompson and Lee will help the team's continuity. Its dedication to those invisible columns? Only time will tell.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.


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