Small moves set up big rebound for Warriors next season

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It’s been a disastrous season for the Golden State Warriors.

Klay Thompson has missed the entire season. Stephen Curry only recently returned from a fractured left-hand suffered in the season’s fourth game. Draymond Green has missed 22 games. Even offseason signee D'Angelo Russell has come and gone, as he was traded to Minnesota at the trade deadline.

All of the absences have resulted in the once-mighty Warriors falling all the way to the bottom of the league. On Tuesday, Golden State became the first team eliminated from playoff contention, as they fell to a league-worst 15-50 on the season.

Yet, despite it all, it doesn’t feel like the Warriors are finished. Instead, it feels like after five-consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, that Golden State is taking a gap year.

Over that five-year run, the Dubs played in 101 extra games. And those are high-intensity playoff games. If you go back to 2013, when the Warriors made their first playoff appearance with the Curry/Thompson/Green core, they’ve played 120 playoff games over seven seasons.

That kind of workload was bound to wear down any team, and the wheels came off for Golden State this season. But instead of panicking and making desperate moves to put those wheels back on while careening down the highway, Bob Myers and Steve Kerr embraced the idea of a gap year.

When it became clear that Russell wasn’t going to be an ideal fit alongside a healthy Curry and Thompson, Myers shipped him off to the Timberwolves for Andrew Wiggins. The Warriors see Wiggins as a version of what Harrison Barnes was for them during the early part of their dominance. While frustratingly inconsistent, Golden State is betting on Wiggins bringing effort every night in a winning environment alongside veterans who know what it takes to win a title.

Wiggins is the big move. That’s the headliner. The next big transactions will include whatever Myers does with the team’s 2020 first-round pick.

Right now, that pick projects to be near the top of the lottery. Barring something really unexpected, the Warriors will be one of three teams with the best odds at landing the top pick in the draft. Although 2020 is considered to be a weak draft class, it’s never bad to have a pick near the top of the first round. Golden State also has the NBA’s largest trade exception to work with at $17.2 million (from the Andre Iguodala move over the summer). It’s expected that the Myers will use that to infuse some talent to the roster, either in the form of one player, or a handful of solid rotation pieces.

Those are just the big, flashy things the Warriors are set up to do. Quietly, as the season slipped away, Myers and Kerr worked together to make several other decisions that could prove just as valuable moving forward.

Myers worked a series of deals to give Golden State flexibility they haven’t had in years. Myers swapped Willie Cauley-Stein to the Mavericks for a second-round pick. The pick is nice, but this deal was mostly about clearing out the $2-plus million owed to Cauley-Stein this year and next.

At the trade deadline, Myers was able to convince Minnesota to take Jacob Evans and Omari Spellman in the Wiggins/Russell swap. That saved the Warriors $3.8 million this year and $4 million next season. Myers also sent Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III to Philadelphia for three more future second-round picks. Again, this wasn’t as much about the picks as it was clearing salary off the Warriors cap sheet.

With this series of moves, Myers achieved something once thought impossible: The Golden State Warriors were out of the luxury tax. That’s a massive savings in real dollars for a team that has been deep in the tax for several years running.

While Myers was doing his dealing, Kerr handled a revolving door of players in and out. With Curry and Thompson out long-term, and Green regularly out due to various injuries, it was a crapshoot as to who would suit up each game. Two rookies, Eric Paschall and Jordan Poole, and two former Two-Way players, Marquese Chriss and Damion Lee, will lead the Warriors in games played.

Paschall has proven to be a steal out of the second round. He’s averaged 14 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Had Golden State stayed healthy, who knows if Paschall even sees the floor? First-rounder Poole struggled early, but has come on in the season’s second half. Both look capable of being rotation players moving forward.

You hope your draft picks pan out, but it’s the diamond mining process that may have unearthed some real gems for the Warriors. Marquese Chriss was plucked off the scrap heap and has turned in his best season in the NBA. He’s averaged 9.3 points and 6.2 rebounds and has given Kerr the kind of activity around the rim that the Golden State needs. That play got him promoted from a Two-Way deal to a standard NBA deal.

Lee’s consistent shooting earned him a promotion from his Two-Way contract earlier this season. His improved defense and playmaking may keep him in the rotation going forward.

Behind Chriss and Lee, rookie Ky Bowman proved capable as a backup point guard and was also promoted from his Two-Way contract. Similarly, Juan Toscano-Anderson played well for the Warriors G-League affiliate in Santa Cruz and earned himself an NBA contract.

More recently, Mychal Mulder impressed enough on a 10 Day contract, that he earned a three-year NBA deal. And reclamation project Dragan Bender appears to be on a similar trajectory towards earning a contract past his second 10 Day deal.

However, if the Warriors are to get back to title contention, it’s not likely any of these players who have looked good for a terrible team will be a key part of the rotation. Maybe a handful stick around and have an impact, but most will probably be moved along this summer. And that’s the brilliant part of Myers’ maneuvering.

The Warriors are built around a core of Curry, Thompson, Green and now Wiggins. Everyone else is expendable. Myers has the 2020 first-rounder and the $17 million trade exception to work with, but now he’s got a lot more to pile together in trades.

As of this writing, the Warriors don’t have a single player on their roster scheduled to become a free agent after the season. They’ve got 14 players under contract heading into 2020-21. That number includes five players on partial or non-guaranteed contracts. Those contracts range from $1.5 million to $1.8 million in salary. Any one of those deals doesn’t have much trade value on its own. Together, however, that’s $8.1 million in outgoing salary.

Contracts only count in trade for the amount they are guaranteed for. But nothing is stopping Myers from guaranteeing a deal for its full amount before using the player in trade.

Let’s go a little further down this road. Kevon Looney is under contract for $4.8 million next season. Paschall and Poole are signed for $1.5 million and $2 million, respectively. Put those deals and the non-guaranteed deals together and the Warriors have $16.4 million easily traded salary.

While everyone else was focused on the Warriors slide down to a high lottery pick and their big trade exception, Myers quietly made small deals that could add up to one big deal down the line.

A lineup of Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Green and center X looks pretty good already. Now, imagine that bolstered by players acquired via trade and the inevitable ring chasers who will sign on for the minimum. It’s pretty easy to see how the Warriors are right back in the mix.

Myers and Kerr were handed lemons this season. They don’t have lemonade just yet, but it may end up tasting really sweet when the Warriors leaders are done mixing it together.