The Golden State Warriors got the wind knocked out of them in the NBA Finals, a deflation that hurt doubly because they could hardly catch their breath before hitting a foundation-shaking free-agency session.
The Warriors have a dizzying array of options—more than any 73-win conference champion should, by rights.
They'll devote all of their resources to pursuing one that would leave the rest of the NBA breathless: signing Kevin Durant.
The cleanest way to connect on this big swing involves the Warriors renouncing all eight of their current free agents, including Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli. Forgoing matching rights on those two is a big deal, but this is an all-or-nothing play, and the Warriors would be satisfied figuring out how to fill the rest of the roster if Durant was on it.
In addition to losing bargaining leverage with Barnes and Ezeli, the Warriors would also have to part ways via trade with either Andre Iguodala or Andrew Bogut to clear the necessary $26.6 million for Durant's maximum salary. That figure is based on a $94 million salary cap, which is what the latest estimates project.
There's a tweak available if the cap estimate rises to $95 or $96 million, per Marcus Thompson of the Bay Area News Group: "If the cap were $96 million, and Durant were willing to take $26 million instead of $27 million, the Warriors would have a roster of [Stephen] Curry, [Klay] Thompson, Durant, [Draymond] Green and Ezeli with Iguodala and [Shaun] Livingston off the bench (with [Kevon] Looney, Damian Jones and Pat McCaw)."
Golden State could do some damage with that group.
Though losing Bogut in the bargain would be cause for concern—especially after Ezeli's rough second half and disastrous postseason—it may be in the cards no matter what happens with Durant.
Per Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com:
Bogut’s offensive numbers are not meant to impress; scoring is not his role. But the Warriors have grown weary with his reluctance to engage himself on that end, which is something scouts have noted and opponents have exploited.
If all things were equal and the Warriors were forced to choose between Bogut and Ezeli, two sources expressed belief the team would prefer Ezeli, who was cheaper last season but almost certainly won’t be next season.
It would be nearly impossible to replace Bogut's contributions dollar-for-dollar. He's due to collect just $12.7 million in 2016-17. In a world where a declining Joakim Noah might get $18 million from the New York Knicks, per Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post, the Warriors would be stuck searching the scrap heap or trusting in rookie Damian Jones to fill Bogut's vacated spot.
But again: KD.
Running It Back (Mostly)
By rule, the status quo isn't exciting.
But Golden State keeping its current group together qualifies as an exception because, in this case, stasis means trotting out a 73-win conference champ that came within one game of earning its second straight ring.
If Durant doesn't sign, the Warriors can simply match offers for Barnes and Ezeli. It's presently unclear how much that might cost, but it's safe to assume the combined total will be north of $30 million. The downside there, in addition to the general disappointment of not adding Durant, is the degree to which a big cash outlay this summer cuts into the Warriors' cap space in 2017...when KD could be on the market again, if he signs a two-year deal with an opt-out clause.
So although the Warriors are lucky to have more options than most this summer, in this instance at least, they don't get to play both sides. Missing out on Durant this summer could mean missing out on him forever, per Dan Feldman of NBCSports.com: "They can create cap room this summer, and if Durant doesn’t come, they’ll have to invest in longer-term options. They’re too good to put everything on hold another year (which is why them signing him to a 1+1 and leaving max 2017 cap space for him is practically unworkable)."
Other than that, though, the Warriors are in a remarkably flexible spot.
They can aggressively chase Durant without foreclosing their safer fallback route. When they meet with KD on July 1, the Warriors can confidently pitch their plan to clear space by renouncing free agents. If they're convinced the cap won't be higher than $94 million and they can't keep both, the Warriors can even ask Durant if he'd prefer they retain Barnes or Ezeli.
You tell us whom you'd like to play with, Kevin.
The key: Golden State doesn't actually have to renounce rights, kiss free agents goodbye or trade anyone until well after they get an answer from Durant.
Neither Barnes nor Ezeli can sign an offer sheet with another team until July 7, at which point the Warriors will still have three more days to decide whether to match. It's difficult to imagine Durant waiting until July 10 to make up his mind.
If his answer turns out to be "no," the only potential negative consequence will be negotiating with players on the current roster who know they're only wanted back because Durant turned the Warriors down. That's not ideal, but it's better than having to shed a bunch of money ahead of time and simply hoping KD makes it worthwhile.
Other teams, like the Washington Wizards, didn't have that luxury.
The Reality Combo
Given Durant's 90 percent certainty of returning to Oklahoma City, according to Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated's sources, the most likely outcome for the Warriors is a hybrid of old and new.
Barnes and Ezeli could both return after Golden State matches offers, and the Dubs would then try to improve on the margins. Depending on what it costs to keep those two restricted free agents, the Warriors may only have the room exception of $2.9 million and minimum contracts to make that happen. Moving Bogut could yield a bit more cash, but not nearly enough to chase a starting-caliber talent.
So: a familiar seven-man rotation of Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Green, Ezeli, Iguodala and Livingston with a couple of rookies and maybe a mid-tier free-agent big man to replace Bogut.
This would feel like a major letdown for some Warriors fans, especially those who soured on both Barnes and Ezeli in the playoffs. Barnes, despite all that, wants to return, per SiriusXM NBA Radio:
If he comes back on a deal that makes him the highest-paid player on the roster, there could be some grumbling. But you'd have to think there's enough chemistry in the locker room to overcome that.
Maybe re-upping with Barnes and Ezeli, moving Bogut and signing a middling talent to an otherwise unchanged core seems like a disappointing outcome. Maybe it feels like that approach wouldn't be enough to get Golden State over the hump.
The truth is, minimal changes are probably fine for a team as good as the Warriors. Returning most of the same roster and hoping for marginally better luck on the injury front might be all it takes to get Golden State its second ring in three years. Perhaps the preservative effects of taking it a little easier in the regular season will prevent the postseason slippage that cost the Warriors so dearly.
And hey, if the Warriors are careful about limiting expenditures on Barnes, Ezeli and anyone else they pursue to market rates, those guys will always be movable in the event Golden State wants to get active in next year's free agency.
At which point we'll do this all over again.