As the dust settles from what can only be considered a wildly successful Warriors season, it’s time to look ahead towards their uncertain future and consider the options GM Bob Myers has to improve the team.
At first glance, it looks like it is going to be very difficult for the Warriors to head into next season with a better roster than they had this year. They are likely to lose Jarrett Jack, arguably their third best player for most of the year, who is an unrestricted free agent and is likely to get overpaid by a guard needy team this offseason. The Warriors are already right up against the cap, thanks to sinking a combined 20 million into the pit of ineptitude that is Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson, and won’t be able to spend any real money without paying a significant luxury tax penalty. That leaves the Dubs in desperate need of a third guard and secondary ball handler and not many resources with which to acquire one. Charles Jenkins, traded along with Jeremy Tyler at the trade deadline, would have been useful to have now, as I think he can be a capable backup guard in this league, but if you can get under the cap and delay starting to accumulate tax penalties (which increase exponentially for successive years of being over the cap) simply by jettisoning two players who barely ever play, you have to do it.
Compounding the Warriors problem is the fact that they’re likely to lose Carl Landry, and possibly Brandon Rush as well. Both players have options for 4 million dollars next year, and Landry is very likely to command more than that on the open market. Rush probably would have too if he hadn’t torn his ACL early in the season, but now he’s probably better off picking up his option and testing the free agent market next season, when he’s not coming off major surgery.
The bottom line is that the Warriors are going have to replace a lot of production. Part of this can be done through the natural growth of their young players, namely Harrison Barnes, who looks like he could be a star if he improves his three point shooting even by just a percentage point or two. Draymond Green also has to drastically improve his outside shot, and both he and Festus Ezili need to figure out how to play defense without fouling, but these are common problems for young players that are likely to get better simply through gaining experience. Even the most optimistic of projections, however, can not have these three second year players replacing Jack and Landry’s 24 points per game of efficient scoring, so help is needed from elsewhere.
The Warriors best hope is that Myers can pull off a trade like last offseason’s Dorrell Wright for Jarrett Jack fleecing (I bet you completely forgot Dorrell Wright was on the Warriors heading into this season, huh?). This is where Biedrins, Jefferson, and even Bogut (making 14 million in the final year of his contract next year) becoming intriguing bargaining chips. At some point between now and the trade deadline, all three players will go from being liabilities to becoming assets. This is because an “expiring contract” (a contract that expires after the season) is valuable to a rebuilding team wishing to get out of long term contracts of their own. The NBA’s unique “trade rules” stipulate that in crafting a transaction the salaries of the players being traded need to roughly equal each other. That means that if a team is looking to create cap room, the easiest and fastest way to do so is to trade some of their longer term contracts for ones that are expiring. The Warriors have about 40 million dollars worth of such contracts this year, giving them incredible flexibility not only next offseason, when those contracts come off the books, but also in making deals in this one.
The problem is that those contracts’ value increases as the trade deadline nears and they become closer to expiring, so making a deal with them now would be giving away an asset at its lowest value, and would not fetch as much in return. No team is going to want to pay Andris Biedrins, who is actively terrified of both the basketball and physical contact, 9 million dollars before the season, when they are trying to build a competitive team (or at least putting on the appearance of doing so, teams like the Bobcats and Suns can’t possibly think they can compete next year, but at the same time they can’t give up on the season before its even started). Around midseason however, after teams have clearly fallen out of contention and shift into tanking mode, Biedrins becomes incredibly attractive, because not only does his expiring deal give you more flexibility after the season, but if you’re actually trying to suck (to get a better draft pick) acquiring and playing someone as profoundly useless as Biedrins helps that cause. (I know I keep picking on Biedrins, but really it’s astounding what’s happened to him. 4 seasons ago he avereaged 11 and 11 on 58% shooting. Without suffering a major injury, and entering what should be his best years athletically, he averaged half a point per game this year while shooting 30% from line. Someone should make a documentary about him).
Yet the Warriors can’t go into the season with only two guards (Thompson and Curry) on their entire roster, and given how effective Curry is running off screens off the ball, someone who can competently handle the point is a necessity, not a luxury. The Dubs will have to flip at least one of those expirings for productive players at some point between now and the trade deadline, as 40 million in cap space is almost too much money to have in a single offseason; there just aren’t enough players worth spending that kind of money on (as an example, the 2009 Pistons had a ton of cap space after Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson’s contracts came off the books, and ended up with 100 million dollars worth of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva…yikes). So a trade involving either Jefferson or Biedrins with a draft pick for a backup guard is conceivable, if not ideal.
Ultimately, the best course of action for Myers and the Warriors may be to find a short term solution to their guard problem and then see what they can get for Jefferson and/or Biedrins and/or Bogut midseason when their value is highest. This entails a move that may seem cheap and unpalatable to many Warriors fans, signing an unemployed castoff for the veteran’s minimum. But this isn’t necessarily the end of the world, Nate Robinson played on such a contract this year, as did former Warrior C.J Watson for the Nets. The trick is waiting until after the music stops in the musical-chairs of free agency then identifying which player has been left without a team and can be had for a one-year bargain.
The other option is to simply bite the bullet and pay the luxury tax. The Warriors will be under the cap next year, so they may just say “screw it” and re-sign Jack, knowing that they’ll only have to pay the tax for one year. I really do believe that Joe Lacob wants to win, and is willing to spend extra money to do it, so this option is on the table. I’d be hesitant to lock into a long term contract with someone like Jack though, who isn’t likely to get much better and may in fact have just had something like the best year he’s going to have as a pro. Ideally it’d be nice to get someone younger, who’s a better perimeter defender, but beggars can’t be choosers, and right now the Warriors are closer to the former than the latter.
If we put aside the problems with the roster for next season and look at the team with a long term view in mind, the Warriors are in excellent shape, you could even argue the best in the league. 3 months into his 4 year, 44 million dollar extension Steph Curry already looks like a colossal bargain. They literally could not have signed him at a better time, as now he would likely command a max contract (something in the 17 million dollar per year range). Klay Thompson is under his extremely team friendly rookie contract for two more years, and the Dubs will have tons of space to extend him as well. Even better, Barnes, Green, and Ezeli will make a combined 5 million dollars for each of the next two years, giving the warriors 3 valuable rotation players for virtually nothing. The only “bad” contract they have is David Lee, but he’s just overpaid, not egregiously overpaid, and is still a valuable player to have. If the Warriors play don’t make any typically Warrior-ish bad decisions next year, they’re set up to head into the 2014-2015 season with a core of Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Lee, Ezeli, Green, and 30 million dollars to spend. The future has never looked brighter.