Why the Warriors said no to the Pacers' Paul George-for-Klay Thompson trade

Dan Devine
The Pacers reportedly pitched the Warriors on a Paul George-for-Klay Thompson trade. (AP)
The Pacers reportedly pitched the Warriors on a Paul George-for-Klay Thompson trade. (AP)

Many in the NBA community were stunned when the Indiana Pacers traded Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder just before the start of the 2017 free agency period. The shock stemmed not from the fact that newly minted Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard would flip the franchise forward — that course of action seemed all but set in stone the second George made it clear that he did not intend to stay in Indianapolis after his current contract expires next summer — but rather from when Pritchard did so, and what he managed to net in return.

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With all due respect to shooting guard Victor Oladipo and 2016 lottery pick power forward Domantas Sabonis, it felt like the Pacers should have been able to secure more for a four-time All-Star whose two-way perimeter talents are perfectly tailored for the way the game’s going. How exactly Pritchard came to rest on the Thunder’s package isn’t entirely clear, but it appears that — in the early stages, at least — he did have his sights set on a higher-level haul:

Before All-Star forward Paul George was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder last month, the Indiana Pacers talked to the Golden State Warriors and offered him for Klay Thompson, a source told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

According to the source, Golden State said no to the offer, and the talks with Indiana ended there.

The NBA’s history is littered with fascinating proposed-but-unconsummated deals that might’ve shifted the league in one way or another — stuff like Kobe for LeBron, Kobe to Detroit, Charles Barkley for James Worthy, Scottie Pippen for Shawn Kemp, and Michael Jordan for any combination of five LA Clippers players and/or draft picks. Of more recent vintage, of course, there was the 2011 three-way blockbuster that would’ve sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers, Pau Gasol to the Houston Rockets, and a package of Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and a 2012 first-round draft pick to the New Orleans Hornets … had then-Commissioner David Stern, acting as the governor of the league-controlled Hornets, not vetoed the deal for “basketball reasons,” dashing Lakers’ fans dreams of a partnership they believed would have resulted in more championships and setting in motion a redirection that landed CP3 in a Clipper uniform.

During a conversation with Adrian Wojnarowski after his arrival in Oklahoma City, George jokingly invoked Stern’s veto in discussing the possibility of adding him to the core of the defending NBA champs:

“Yeah, I think that would’ve been the Chris Paul-to-L.A. situation where they denied that trade,” George laughed. “Yeah, I was aware of it. I would’ve looked forward to it, of just being in a good situation and a chance to compete for a championship. But it didn’t happen. It’s still fun to team up with a special talent and have a chance to compete against that team.”

On one hand, it’s fun to imagine what the Warriors’ small-ball lineups would look like with George in Thompson’s place. Would George’s superior skills as a ball-handler, one-on-one scorer and individual creator trump the remarkable value of Thompson’s all-time shooting accuracy? As excellent as Klay’s been defensively, would George’s length, versatility and talent for slithering around screens be an even better fit in Golden State’s switching scheme? It’s hard to imagine a lineup being much more effective on both ends of the floor than the Warriors’ “Hamptons Five” unit was last year, but slotting in George alongside Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala just might fit the bill.

Ultimately, though, the deal never got off the ground — and, as Woj notes, that was due to a lack of interest from Golden State.

That’s not particularly surprising. For one thing, the Warriors love what Thompson brings on both ends of the court.

Three summers ago, Thompson was rumored to be the main piece in a deal that would’ve brought Kevin Love to the Bay. At the time, Klay was a starting shooting guard on the rise, but no one’s idea of a superstar. Love, on the other hand, was an All-NBA power forward who had twice finished in the top-11 in MVP voting, and who seemed like a hand-in-glove fit as a pick-and-pop partner and playmaker alongside ascendant point guard Curry. The Warriors declined; consultant Jerry West reportedly threatened to depart the organization if Thompson was traded.

Three years later, Thompson has increased his scoring average every year, maintained his elite shooting without sacrificing his vital perimeter defense, and made three All-Star teams and two All-NBA teams. With Love playing the four elsewhere, Golden State elevated a new player to the starting power forward spot. All Draymond Green’s done since getting that opportunity? Two All-Star appearances, two All-NBA selections, three All-Defensive First Team nods and 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year honors, in recognition of his efforts to unlock the identity and lineups that propelled the Warriors to two championships. Sometimes, the trades you don’t make are the ones that matter.

On top of that, what motivation would the Warriors have to ship out Thompson now to bring in a small forward after bringing back Durant, and asking George to ostensibly play out of position for one season before hitting the free-agent market? Things are going pretty freaking well for Golden State. Why upset the apple cart?

Another reason the Warriors wouldn’t entertain the move — and perhaps the biggest one, really — is that moving Thompson for George wouldn’t alleviate the financial crunch coming for Golden State.

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As Bobby Marks detailed for The Vertical last month, Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber could be in line to spend a whopping $1.4 billion in salaries and luxury tax over the next four years to keep Golden State’s current championship core together. They didn’t bat an eye at a five-year super-max deal for Curry, and while Durant did his part to keep things going by taking a $9.5 million haircut to increase Golden State’s flexibility, the owners still had to co-sign three-year deals for both Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston that general manager Bob Myers said helped the Warriors blow past the team’s offseason budget. (Yes, even a team as successful as the Warriors, and owners with pockets as deep as Lacob, have a budget.)

Durant only signed a two-year deal with a player option for 2018-19, so the Warriors will have to pony up for him again next summer, at which point we’ll find out if the sacrifice of a big pay cut was a one-time thing for the Finals MVP. Swapping in George, whose contract will also be up next summer, for Thompson, who’s locked up for two more years, would force the Warriors to either try to figure out how to pay two more max-level salaries in the same summer or let George walk to maintain some semblance of flexibility … meaning they would have had Thompson and George, only to come away with nothing. Not ideal!

Given the looming danger of payrolls skyrocketing into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the likelihood that even a Warriors team set to print money when it moves into San Francisco’s new Chase Center in 2019 won’t want to pay them, it’s entirely possible that there will come a day when the Warriors do have to seriously consider trading Thompson, who is excellent but who may be judged a less vital piece of the organization’s continued success than Curry, Durant or Green. When that day comes, though, Golden State’s braintrust will almost certainly look to flip Klay for future assets — draft picks who will come in on low, cost-controlled contracts, and contributors already in the league on manageable deals — that can give the Warriors roster depth and luxury-tax breathing room in the years to come. It won’t be a one-for-one deal for an already expensive star who’s only going to become more so … even if those hypotheticals are pretty fun to think about.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!