The Golden State Warriors have followed through on their promise to find a better situation for power forward David Lee. The 2015 NBA champions have dealt the scoring forward to Boston in exchange for Gerald Wallace:
Source tells me that David Lee has been traded from Golden State to the Boston Celtics.
— Tommy Dee (@ThomasCDee) July 7, 2015
Lee was dropped as a starter to begin 2015-16 in favor of Draymond Green, who went on to earn himself a five-year, $85 million deal for his stellar work. Lee contributed in spurts during some parts of 2015-16, but by and large he was relegated to a deep bench role and often watched as other reserve big men walked to the scorer’s table ahead of him.
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The veteran big forward handled his demotion gracefully, well aware that Green’s defensive gifts and improved perimeter shooting acted as the straw that stirred Golden State’s rather potent drink. He was also getting paid quite well to wait out the season, at over $15 million.
It was that contract, signed in 2010 to the tune of six years and over $75.5 million, that was the sticking point. Golden State was set to pay yet another massive luxury tax bill in 2015-16, and paying for the luxury of keeping an ex-All-Star in the deep rotation was just too much to handle. Boston will gladly take on Lee’s scoring and rebounding gifts, and they were able to assume his contract via both the cap space that remains on its ledger and Wallace’s $10 million deal for next season.
Wallace will likely be waived via the stretch provision, which will break up that deal by thirds over the next three seasons. It was hoped for by Warriors fans that the team would be able to find a taker for Lee that had the cap space to assume the entirety of his contract, as the Pacers did in sending Roy Hibbert to the Lakers for a distant second round pick, but in the end this was obviously the best deal available.
It’s just what was out there. And while it might be annoying to have $3.3 million on your books in 2016-17 in exchange for a player whose contract expired a year earlier, knocking nearly $12.2 million off of the books in 2015-16 will be massive for the Warriors.
This isn’t an instance of Golden State acting parsimoniously. Prior to 2011 teams were chased away from working in the luxury tax because they were fearful of spending too much money. Now there are legitimate basketball-only reasons behind avoiding the tax, because repeated years of diving into those sorts of payrolls limits your ability to spend money on over-the-cap salary exceptions, the sorts of deals that allow you to, say, find a replacement for a rotation player like Leandro Barbosa, while over the cap, when his one-year, $2.5 million contract expires in 2016.
That’s not to say that off-court ramifications of paying a hefty tax aren’t real. The NBA changed its rules regarding the tax in 2011, making the penalties more punitive the more and more teams went over the cap (by $5 million increments). Golden State’s ownership group has proven they will spend whatever it takes to field a winner (and defending champion), but the team’s 2015-16 payroll was just too heavy to argue away.
Prior to dealing Lee, the team was set to enter the season with six players making eight figures a year in David, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, and the recently re-signed Draymond Green. They’ll still technically have six of those guys on the books until they waive Wallace, and even for a winner that’s just too much. Even if Curry’s $11.3 million salary for next season was one of the league’s bigger bargains even before the dude won the damn MVP.
The team will have as good a chance as any to win the title in 2015-16, and it will stare down some salary relief. The league’s salary cap is set to jump some $20 million next summer, and the contracts of Bogut, Iguodala, and Curry will also expire in 2017.
Of course, the team will also have to throw a max deal at Curry that will double his salary. On top of that, the team will look to extend Harrison Barnes into eight figures this autumn, they’ll have to find a competent replacement for Bogut (if not Bogut himself, at age 33) and find a way to either approximate the contributions of or re-sign Iguodala. Dre might be 34 at the time, but it’s hard to imagine the Warriors are 24 months away from letting a guy that just won the NBA Finals MVP go.
Bottom line? The bottom line for a champion will always be a hefty one. Even though the Warriors feature a palatable crew of old school and new money contracts, you still have to think on your feet with decisions like these. Champions have been forced to let contributors like Rick Mahorn, Bison Dele, Speedy Claxton, and Mike Miller go for years for various reasons, with all the specific influences boiling down to a need to move money around.
David Lee is two seasons removed from being an All-Star and he contributed more in the team’s Finals win than he did in the first three rounds of the playoffs, but the prize of the team’s 2010 free agent turn was just a literal luxury that even the champions could not afford.
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