The Golden State Warriors (28-28) are positively mediocre this year, despite Stephen Curry's recent attempts to save his franchise from missing the playoffs. They've won four straight, but they may still need to get through the NBA's play-in tournament to earn a postseason berth. Failing that, they're only hurting their lottery chances.
Meanwhile, the franchise is a .500 team with the highest total payroll ($168.8 million) in the league. A sizable amount is on the shelf with Klay Thompson earning $35.6 million while recovering from an offseason Achilles tear. Losing Thompson for a second straight year after a 2019 knee injury was a gut punch.
Add in a tax bill in the $77 million range (after the NBA discounts teams for lost revenue throughout the pandemic), and the team is on the hook for about $246 million for a roster that may need to win two play-in games for a crack at teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and L.A. Clippers.
Will Thompson’s return next season catapult the Warriors back into contention? How long will the front office pay top dollar for a non-contender? Should it cash out the young players and picks for additional veteran star power, embrace the rebuild or continue to straddle the line between the two with Curry as the face of a team holding onto its past glory?
Curry may single-handedly will the Warriors to the playoffs, but one more losing skid could prompt rotation changes to evaluate talent for next year. That Curry is earning more this season ($43 million) than anyone in NBA history makes it a bit easier to get over pangs of sympathy for their superstar.
Golden State will have many difficult questions to answer in the coming months, but the ticking clock is from Curry's impending free agency. The All-Star is under contract for just one more season at $45.8 million, after which he'll become an unrestricted free agent.
Even though Curry's current salary is well over the league's max, he will be eligible for a five-percent bump to $48.1 million starting with the 2022-23 season. Any team with enough cap space may offer that amount. The Warriors, who project to have a payroll well above the luxury tax threshold, can pay Curry without having to go under the cap.
Golden State can offer a four-year extension before the end of the 2021-22 season, but the typical option of waiting until free agency to provide a five-year deal is off the table because of Curry's age (currently 33 years old, which will trigger the Over-38 Rule in a contract through the 2026-27 season).
While it won't put competitors on equal footing, the difference in max offers would not be quite as pronounced ($215.4 million from the Warriors versus $206.7 million from elsewhere). That's a historical amount, let alone for a player who will reach 38-years old before the end of the contract, but Curry's star power probably makes that a viable investment for most of the teams in the league.
The Warriors don't need an answer before making any decisions this offseason, but they need to understand just how expensive Curry could be to retain. If they're going to part with valuable long-term pieces to try and win, they better make sure Curry will be there for the ride.
When faced with losing Kevin Durant in 2019 to the Brooklyn Nets in free agency, the Warriors arranged a rare dual sign-and-trade for All-Star guard D'Angelo Russell. By the trade deadline, they flipped Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Andrew Wiggins, a top-three protected 2021 first-round pick and a 2022 second-rounder.
That pick could be gold to the Warriors. If the Timberwolves (14-40) finish dead last in the standings, they will hold a 40.2 percent chance at a top-three pick in the NBA's draft lottery. Conversely, that would give Golden State 59.8 odds of landing the No. 4 or 5 picks, with an opportunity to draft one of the top prospects like Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham, Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs, USC's Evan Mobley or either Jalen Green or Jonathan Kuminga, both from the G League Ignite.
Provided the Warriors miss the playoffs (their pick goes to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 21-30 range as part of the Kelly Oubre Jr. trade), the team will add another lottery pick to join center James Wiseman (taken at No. 2 in 2020).
Young players typically take years to learn how to win in the NBA. Do the Warriors try to straddle winning with Draymond Green, a healthy Thompson, Wiggins and Curry while attempting to develop Wiseman and (if luck is generous) two high lottery picks? That's a difficult ask, given the team's championship aspirations.
If the Timberwolves do keep their first in the lottery, it will send its 2022 first-round pick to Golden State instead, which would still hold significant but abstract value. A guaranteed shot at one of Cunningham, Suggs, Mobley, Green or Kuminga at No. 5 may be worth more to a team than hoping Minnesota is also awful next year.
What could the Warriors get in return for Wiseman, the Minnesota pick and their own first (if top-20)? Will the Washington Wizards finally look to trade Bradley Beal? How long will Karl-Anthony Towns accept playing for one of the worst teams with the Timberwolves? Will Kawhi Leonard choose to leave the Los Angeles Clippers, and if so, to join the Warriors?
Leonard is in a similar position as Chris Paul in 2017, armed with a player option. He could threaten to decline his option to join a team with cap room like the Dallas Mavericks or New York Knicks unless the Clippers agree to trade him to Golden State. Leonard would then opt into his contract and, after a trade, extend with the Warriors.
Wiggins would presumably be the necessary outgoing salary required in a trade to bring back a high-dollar player. Each possibility may be individually remote, but if the Warriors have enough lottery fortune, that might be enough to entice the Wizards, Timberwolves, Clippers or another franchise looking to rebuild.
Serious Commitment to Tax
As a general rule, NBA teams aspire not to pay luxury taxes unless they're a title contender. The Warriors had higher hopes for the season, but the Thompson injury was a significant setback.
In addition to the current season, the franchise was a taxpayer in 2017-18 and 2018-19. In the tax for three of the last four seasons ahead of the 2021-22 campaign, the Warriors will be charged an additional penalty for being a repeat offender.
If the team matches its 2020-21 payroll of $168.8 million next season, the tax bill will climb to about $127 million (although the league will likely discount that down to $85 million as well). Raises to Curry, Thompson, Green and Wiggins will make holding payroll flat a challenge. The Warriors and Oubre will need to decide if their partnership should continue and at what price. Kevon Looney has a $5.2 million player option.
Leave out Oubre, pencil in picks at No. 5 (Minnesota) at $6.6 million and No. 13 (Golden State) at $3.7 million, and the Warriors' payroll could reach $180 million with up a staggering luxury tax bill of $198 million (discounted to a still-massive ~$133 million).
That's before Curry's next contract would kick in. The numbers will only get worse over time. Can the Warriors justify their budget for a team that might matter in the playoff race? Trading away the young pieces for All-Star-level talent should be all but mandatory.
If the Warriors are worried about giving up the next batch of All-Star players and aren’t willing to sacrifice their big-name players, then good luck in developing the young players while also trying to win. Those two are rarely compatible.
Or should Golden State be looking to go in an entirely different direction? Is it time to consider moving on from the Splash Brothers era completely, starting with Curry?
If the Warriors can stomach the taxes, so be it. They're just on a monumentally expensive path with a murky future.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.