Even though the 2019-20 NBA season was essentially over before it began for the Golden State Warriors, how it ends could still have a major impact on the franchise and its hopes to resume its pursuit of championships in the years to come.
After five consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals, the Warriors had the kind of sudden and steep plunge this season that would make Wile E. Coyote—or his animators, at least—proud. While the loss of Kevin Durant to free agency and arguably the best backcourt in the league (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson) to injury were the primary reasons for the plummet, the changes to the team's roster and the rise of reconstituted rivals raise questions about whether the Warriors can get to the place from whence they fell, and, if so, what are their options to get there?
The general consensus from a handful of opposing executives to the first question: maybe not all the way, but pretty close.
And the second: better than it might appear—especially if they're willing to spend.
The rival executives were generally optimistic that, assuming Curry and Thompson are healthy and in the form last seen, the Warriors should be among the top four or five teams in the Western Conference. None, though, suggested they would once more be the team to beat.
"They're not (going to be) as good as the Lakers or the Clippers the next few years," said a Western Conference executive who asked that his name and title not be used.
"I don't think it's realistic [that they'll be title contenders], but they'll still be one of the top teams in the West," an Eastern Conference GM says.
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What edge their championship pedigree provides them next season will depend on whether they enter it as the last Western Conference team to win a championship. If the season resumes and one of this year's contending teams in the West comes to understand the championship formula the way the Warriors do, one executive said, that erases their psychological edge. On the other hand, if the season were to be deemed over in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and no new champion was crowned, it would leave the Warriors as the reigning Western Conference champions.
"If the season is over, there's no question that helps the Warriors," one Eastern Conference VP says. "There's something to be said for continuity. They've won with KD and without him. They still have their championship core. They [can] feel as if they didn't miss a beat and only lost because of injury. 'We're back!' feels different if there is no [new] champ."
Even the reigning Toronto Raptors might not have a psychological advantage over them without a new champion crowned, and not only because their victory in the Finals came after Durant and Thompson were injured.
"The Raptors have a purpose this year, and that's to prove they can win without Kawhi [Leonard]," the Eastern Conference VP says. "It's not going to be the same a year later."
In theory, the Warriors' fall this season provides a rare chance for a team that still has the parts to contend for a title to add the kind of young potential star normally afforded to teams undergoing rebuilds. But in reality, if the draft lottery gods smile upon them and they land the No. 1 pick, they will do so in a draft that has no clear-cut superstars-in-waiting. The top choices are primarily wings and point guards, such as Georgia freshman Anthony Edwards and point guard LaMelo Ball, which is where, healthy, the Warriors are strongest.
"There isn't a game-changer in the draft," a lower-level Eastern Conference talent evaluator says. "Every kid is so flawed right now. Can you play Anthony Edwards with Steph and Klay? Yes, but how much better does that make them?"
One big man who has No. 1 pick potential—Memphis freshman center James Wiseman—played only three games last season. Rather than wait out a 12-game suspension imposed by the NCAA because three years ago his mother accepted $11,500 from Penny Hardaway—whom the NCAA deemed a Memphis booster then, though he is the Tigers head coach now—the 7'1" Wiseman opted to simply leave school.
A league source said the Warriors have Wiseman at the top of their draft board; understandable considering forward Dragan Bender, a late-season addition via two 10-day contracts, is the only 7-footer on the roster and 6'9" Kevon Looney is the only listed center. But none of the executives surveyed put Wiseman in the category of Dwight Howard or even Deandre Ayton, big men capable of playing a significant role on Day 1.
"Does Wiseman change the game for them, the way they play?" the lower-level Eastern Conference talent evaluator asks. "No. He doesn't play hard enough. But he makes sense. They don't need him to be great. If he goes some place and has to be Trae [Young] or Ja [Morant], he's not that. But if [the Warriors'] top four are back, he can be Harrison Barnes, a good fifth player."
All this, of course, is assuming Curry and Thompson come back healthy. One Western Conference VP added Looney's health as a prerequisite for renewed title contention as well. Looney has made only 20 appearances this season due to an assortment of injuries, but he is one of only four players with playoff experience or a championship ring on the current roster.
"His health is important," he says.
At the start of the Warriors' five-year run, the depth of their roster was a key element to their dominance. The addition of Durant compensated for the gradual loss of bench strength as players such as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston aged and others (Mo Speights, Patrick McCaw) went elsewhere. The impact of salary-cap restraints resulting from Thompson, Curry and Green being compensated for delivering championships and Looney being their only first-round draft pick drafted during the five-year run to make an impact has left them without a single significant sub. Rookie forward Eric Paschall, a 2019 second-round pick, is the first Warriors draftee to prove he could stick since Looney, their 2015 first-round pick—and even one exec isn't completely convinced Paschall is a ready-for-prime-time player just yet.
"I don't put a whole lot of stock in what Paschall did this year," the Eastern Conference VP says. "He's a rookie on a bad team. Let's see what he does when his usage rate goes down."
The Warriors do have a $5.9 million taxpayer mid-level exception at their disposal with which to go after a free agent next season. They also have a $17.2 million trade exception afforded them by trading Andre Iguodala to the Memphis Grizzlies last July. That exception expires on the one-year anniversary of the trade, but because of the current league hiatus, league sources say there have been preliminary talks about extending existing deadlines.
With the hiatus also expected to reduce the salary cap for next season and create an array of unanticipated financial hardships, the Eastern Conference VP anticipates rule changes similar to those implemented in the wake of the league's most recent collective bargaining agreement negotiations, such as allowing teams to waive a player and subtract his contract from their salary-cap total. That could inspire teams to cut loose expensive veterans, which the Warriors could then acquire if their salaries are within range or less than $17.2 million.
Two players potentially ripe for such an austerity-driven move: Houston Rockets shooting guard Eric Gordon, who is owed $75.6 million over the next four years, and Brooklyn Nets veteran center DeAndre Jordan, who is under contract for roughly $30 million over the next three years. Both the Rockets and Nets have more than $130 million committed to player salaries next season. This year's luxury-tax threshold: $132.6 million.
The Warriors, of course, are scheduled to soar past next season's luxury-tax line, with a league-leading $148 million already committed to player salaries next season (the 76ers rank second with $147 million). Perhaps that's why Warriors owner Joe Lacob expressed uncertainty about utilizing those exceptions on a recent podcast with The Athletic's Tim Kawakami.
"We don't know what the salary cap is going to be, what the luxury tax is going to be," Lacob says. "So, we don't really know what we can plan on."
Warriors GM Bob Myers declined to talk about the team's future plans before this season is officially over, but there has been no indication from league sources that the Warriors are exploring ways to improve by tinkering with their current core of Curry, Thompson, forward Draymond Green and small forward Andrew Wiggins, acquired at the trade deadline from the Minnesota Timberwolves. That would be a change in philosophy for the franchise, which has shown a willingness to consider major changes during its run of success. In 2014, when the Warriors were a first-round playoff victim to the Los Angeles Clippers, they explored dealing Klay Thompson for Kevin Love; and in 2016, after losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers, half of the roster was revamped to make room for Durant.
The lower-level Eastern Conference talent evaluator suggested that if the Utah Jazz are forced to deal center Rudy Gobert, the Warriors might reconsider the idea of standing pat. The Athletic reported that Jazz star Donovan Mitchell's relationship with Gobert is not "salvageable" after the two tested positive for the coronavirus. Gobert was caught on video mocking protocol by touching all of the reporters' tape recorders at a press conference before the test results were reported.
While league sources stopped short of referring to the relationship as "irreconcilable," they did confirm that Mitchell remains unhappy with Gobert. That poses a potential problem for the Jazz because Mitchell will enter the fourth year of his rookie contract next season and is eligible to sign a long-term extension. If he doesn't, he becomes a restricted free agent in 2021 and an unrestricted free agent a year later.
A Gobert-for-Green deal meets salary-cap trade requirements, and the Jazz would get a former Defensive Player of the Year for the reigning one. The Warriors, meanwhile, would get a younger (and physically more imposing) one.
Several executives consider moving Green as something the Warriors should at least consider, whether it is for a proven talent or a potential one.
"He's , he's going to get a lot of money and his mouth continues to move," the Eastern Conference talent evaluator says.
"They could probably get another lottery pick for Draymond," the Eastern Conference GM says.
Adds the Western Conference executive, "The Draymond Green trick is over."
The Eastern Conference VP, however, insists that Green's intangibles as a leader and locker room presence remain too valuable to lose, especially with a talented but undisciplined addition to groom in Wiggins.
"Draymond is not going to allow him to take plays off, and that's invaluable," he says. "When Wiggins is your fourth-best player on a team with championship experience, that's a great situation. He is super talented, but he has no clue how to play. He's learning. He needed to play with guys who know how to play."
The idea of combining Wiggins with their first-round pick to land a more proven player did not get much traction with the surveyed executives. Dealing the pick and Wiggins, the Western Conference executive said, would potentially put the Warriors in the same position as the Boston Celtics when they hung on to their trio of 30-something stars—Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen—until Allen left as a free agent and the Celtics devolved into a 41-40 team. (They played only 81 games because their April 16 game was canceled as a result of the Boston Marathon bombing.)
"There is no guy you'd give up the No. 1 pick and Andrew Wiggins for," says the Western Conference executive. "I don't know that that guy is available. Besides, if you do go all in and trade Wiggins and the pick for some 30-year-old star, now you're looking at your core all aging out at the same time. You don't want to wake up and find yourself like the Celtics."
That, of course, would, more than likely, precipitate another Looney Tunes-worthy tumble. And it's hard to imagine the Warriors being willing to contemplate that while they're still in the process of picking themselves up from the last one.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.
Bucher hosts the podcast Bucher & Friends with NFL veteran Will Blackmon and former NBA center Ryan Hollins, available on iTunes.
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