The Golden State Warriors should not be ashamed of themselves.
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This year’s version of the team won 88 games between October and early June, and they were involved in a tie game in the final minute of a Game 7 to win it all on Sunday night before falling just short. Was that game at home? Yes. Did that contest happen two games and six days following the first of the team’s three different chances to nail a clinching win and second consecutive championship? Sure. Is Warrior fatigue a legitimate gripe? I guess?
Some teams don’t match up well with others. The embarrassing Chicago Bulls of the last two years give the Cleveland Cavaliers all they can handle in regular season games. This same Warrior franchise downed a 67-win Dallas Mavericks team nearly a decade ago after winning just about every other game during the regular season. Ted Williams couldn’t slap one the other way, and Joni Mitchell says “about” kinda funny. The greats are not infallible.
And the champion Cleveland Cavaliers? Even when they weren’t champions, all the way back in 2014-15, the squad pushed Golden State to the near-brink – taking a 2-1 Finals lead – working without a healthy rotation. Mostly without the guy that averaged 27.1 points per game during these Finals, prior to hitting the championship-winning jumper. Working without the guy that shocked us all in putting together a series-clinching stop.
The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls just aren’t an apt comparison, for myriad reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with who played better during their season-long term. Chicago infamously started Luc Longley at center and yet still managed to work through Alonzo Mourning, Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O’Neal in the 1996 Eastern bracket, losing just once along the way. They’d lose just three times in the playoffs, only in games that saw Sixth Man Award winner Toni Kukoc sit with injury, or starter Ron Harper on the pine due to a bum knee.
These Warriors lost three times in two different series’ and put up a .500 record over their final 14 games after an 81-11 start to its season. If you want to use that to compare them to a ghost, go on. It’d be a waste of your time.
Golden State gave us a season for the ages. It played a dominant, frightening brand of basketball that had the rest of the NBA plotting out championship-building plans for 2019 and beyond, rather than the summer of 2016. The team worked for over half its year without its head coach, it finished its season without a starting center, with its 2015 Finals MVP unable to bend over, and with NBA MVP Stephen Curry still begging off questions about his health, even as we watched him decline to dance into the paint for the umpteenth straight time.
They lost to a well-compensated, well-built championship-level team working with one of the greatest players ever giving in perhaps his finest performance – perhaps the best week of two-way basketball in NBA playoff history. They lost to a team designed to take the championship, one that led the East for just about the entire season prior to rushing through its own Eastern bracket with a 12-2 record. Nobody gave anything away.
It’s still an “L,” though. As would have been the case had Kyrie Irving’s jumper rimmed out prior to a Warriors championship, the loser will have to take a long look at itself.
Though Golden State had the NBA’s fourth-highest payroll in 2015-16, the squad clearly profited from remarkable bang for its buck. Those 73 wins and those 24 playoff games and two-month dive into the postseason would have been a year for the ages for any franchise, but even in the face of ill-timed injuries and Steve Kerr’s ongoing back woes this is still a rather lucky outfit.
Yes, they’ll have to pay the piper soon enough, but this was a team that paid its NBA MVP $11.3 million this year, and they’ll pay Stephen Curry $12.1 million next year in a league with a salary cap that could hit $94 million. There are a half-dozen MVP candidates ready to pounce, but there is a very real possibility that Stephen Curry could give Golden State three Most Valuable Player seasons for the sum total of just over $34 million dollars due to the contract extension he signed at the height of his ankle fears in 2012.
Klay Thompson’s deal was signed without any injury worries, but at $16.6 million next year he looks like a bargain with the rising cap. Even with all of the headaches, handing Draymond Green $16.4 million in 2017-18 also looks like the Steal of the Century – that figure might be a tenth of the NBA’s salary cap at that point.
Meanwhile, Andrew Bogut’s salary is set to decline next season, Shaun Livingston has a $5.7 million team option that the Warriors would have picked up yesterday if they could, and Andre Iguodala will make a tidy $11.1 million in the final year of a contract the Warriors moved mountains to create space for.
That’s the core. Now the questions.
Andrew Bogut didn’t suffer a typical NBA injury earlier this month, and the tougher-than-nails big man doesn’t have the typical NBA body at this point – he basically plays with his right arm in a figurative sling, still smarting from a 2010 arm injury that altered his career. It is worth wondering if the center, a massive force on both ends of the court even when he isn’t even looking at the rim, will ever be the same.
Even if Bogut returns to full health, the Warriors still badly need to find the Next Andrew Bogut. Someone to anchor the team’s defense from the starting pivot position, someone to screen and someone to pass. Even if J.R. Smith hadn’t fallen into the veteran center, finding an eventual replacement for a guy who turns 32 this November was always going to be a pressing concern. Especially with Festus Ezili, a restricted free agent this summer, disappointing so intensely this postseason.
At points during the season it appeared as if the reserve center (who turns 27 this fall) looked like a logical replacement for Bogut at the right price, but even though Ezili was (rightfully; Golden State couldn’t start small) given the starting nod in Game 7 of the Finals, the Warrior coaching staff appears to have lost faith in the big man. Which is a shame, because both player and staff are better than that.
In a weak free agent market that was always going to overpay players, Golden State probably won’t fight to keep Ezili and/or match any RFA offer. This immediately cuts his $5 million cap hold off the team’s books, which wouldn’t seem to matter much to a squad set to pay four different (and possibly more) players eight figures next year, but we’re not done yet.
If Golden State wants to get cruel with things, it could also use the stretch provision on the ailing Bogut next month. This would cut his $12.8 million salary by two-thirds, and free up even more space. So would saying goodbye to Livingston or even, shock horror, dealing the final year of the 32-year old Iguodala’s deal to one of the several NBA teams that would have the cap space to absorb it without sending a contract back in return. “Bye-bye” to free agent Marreese Speights.
All would chip-chip-chip away at the team’s cap, leaving the team with just Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Looney under contract. That looks less like a scorched earth policy and more like the Gamble of the Century when you remember what we were all told last winter: Kevin Durant might kinda like these guys.
Even without dealing Iguodala the Warriors would have enough room under that plan to offer him a max deal. The question of whether or not Durant would want to turn down more money to leave the only front office he’s ever known in order to join the team that just barely beat him in the postseason is best left for another day. What is important is that there is the potential to make it happen.
Would the Warriors want to make it happen, though?
Not because of some silly, cable TV argument over whether or not he could share the ball with his three new All-Star teammates: Kevin Durant led the NBA in scoring on a team that featured Russell Westbook’s badass bringing the ball up court, the guy knows how to share (and that isn’t a dig at Westbrook).
No, the question has to do with allocation of resources. Durant helps in several areas, he’s hardly an offense-only guy, but the Warriors were tops by far in the NBA in offensive efficiency this season. They were the highest-scoring team since Paul Westhead went mad with the Denver Nuggets. Do they really need Kevin Durant?
What it really looks like the team needs is the next Andre Iguodala. Not just because Dre is set to become a free agent in 2017, but because he’s 32 and for years was amongst the leaders in minutes played while in Philadelphia. As mentioned above the team needs to find the next Andrew Bogut, and also the next Shaun Livingston. These aren’t pat statements – each of these players is in their 30s, and each is ridiculously integral to the team’s championship hopes.
And before any of these replacements are lined up, presuming they even exist, the Warriors will immediately be faced with the question of just what the hell sort of ‘Next Harrison Barnes’ Harrison Barnes wants to turn himself into.
The Warriors swingman infamously struggled mightily in the Game 5 and 6 losses, missing 14 straight shots at one point, and after breaking that streak with a made jumper to begin Game 7 he went on to make just two of his next nine shots.
A seven-game sample size against a single team – especially while at times being guarded by or guarding LeBron James – is no way to gauge worth in full, but Barnes disappointed. And he’ll be a restricted free agent on July 1. One set to potentially command $20 million a year, one working with a nearly $9.7 million cap hold that could get in the way of Golden State either chasing the Durant Dream, or finding a series of rotation parts to settle in for the next battle.
July – heck, just the first couple of days of July – will be one heady stretch, and though you have to trust Warriors general manager Bob Myers to no end, it will be a franchise-shifting turn. Even if Durant is a pipe dream. Even if the Cavs were just a bad matchup. Even if Stephen Curry runs up a 50-50-100 percent season in 2016-17.
It’s the price for getting it right, even if Game 7 didn’t go according to plan. As it was on League Pass at 10:30 ET on a Tuesday in February, we’ll be watching.
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