The Golden State Warriors find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Facing what is likely to be their first losing season since 2011, Bob Myers and the front office are likely analyzing hundreds of iterations of what this franchise could look like over the next few years. The Warriors are in a unique circumstance historically in that their original championship core is still together, and due mostly to injuries the team is on track for a top five pick in the 2020 draft. Further, they are expected to be back to full health next season. The last time we saw a similar scenario was in 1996, when the San Antonio Spurs lost Hall of Famer David Robinson to back and foot injuries, paving the way for San Antonio to draft Tim Duncan with the number one pick the following year.
Back in September and October, many NBA pundits projected the Warriors to again make the playoffs (myself included), despite the loss of Kevin Durant to Brooklyn and Klay Thompson to an ACL injury. The thought was that the combination of Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and D’Angelo Russell was enough to carry the team at least into playoff consideration, even if few expected a championship from this iteration of the Warriors. However, with Curry going down to a broken left hand after game four of the regular season, the idea of a “gap year” emerged.
The Warriors are well set-up for about as quick and effective of a “rebuild” as you can have. Obtaining a top pick with three All-Stars still in the back end of their prime, could keep the Warriors’ championship window open for the next few years after this one. In a year where the team was likely not to win a championship, you still want to set an example for your young players and teach them how to play hard, play smart, and win. However, in today’s day and age, there is so much talk of the benefits of tanking, and whether that avenue leads you to a championship quicker. Just hearing that conversation from fans and media over and over can weigh heavily on a franchise’s current players and staff.
Steph Curry’s injury comes as somewhat of a blessing in disguise, considering the ease in which bone injuries generally heal compared to muscle tissue injuries. Curry is expected to return in March, which will surely provide a boost to the Warriors. But at that point, Golden State will only have 20 or so games remaining to improve their record. At 9-32, the Warriors are on pace for about 20 wins total. Assuming (at best), the return of Curry for the final 20 games helps them go 16-4, you’re still only looking at a 30-win team. Going back to the 2015 draft, teams with between 29 and 31 wins have ranged between 5th-9th in “lottery standings”, before the lottery occurs. Even projecting out a best case scenario for this Warriors team without trades, Golden State is still likely to obtain a top ten pick in the upcoming draft.
The events of the last six months have allowed the Warriors some control over their franchise’s inflection point. The team has time to evaluate their options and decide what direction they want to take based on the team’s play and chemistry. Looking through a magnifying glass, there are a couple prominent paths with branches embedded in each.
Path 1: Move D’Angelo Russell and/or the GSW 2020 1st Round Pick at the Trade Deadline
The Warriors’ front office made a smart play to at least get something in return for Kevin Durant. With no avenue to get a player with even 70% of KD’s skill in free agency, they were able to recoup a lot of value in D’Angelo Russell. The rumors have been swirling that the Warriors would look to trade Russell at the first sign of a reasonable package. Bob Myers has since denied that as the original intent in acquiring the guard, but it’s surely something the team is evaluating. Russell, coming off an All-Star season, will be valued around the league in a potential trade, whether at the deadline, or especially in the summer.
The first issue with a trade of Russell before July 1 is the hard cap Golden State is subjected to. Depending on the guaranteed contract signing date for Damion Lee, The Warriors cannot take on more than ~400k more in salary this season due to their sign-and-trade for Russell last summer. If that wasn’t enough of an issue, they won’t be able to take on more than one extra player in a Russell trade without adding more pieces, since they will have 14 of 15 roster spots filled. At draft time, the hard cap still applies, but roster limits will expand to 20 players, making it a little easier to formulate a deal.
Perusing the market, there are not a ton of teams that have the combination of matching salary contracts, assets with requisite value, and the ability to make the trade work under CBA rules. Looking further, there are also not any readily available All-Stars that would give a team a reason to trade that player for Russell and the 2020 pick right now. Maybe as we get through the season, that star in the right scenario will become known, but there’s not really a great option that fits all the criteria right now.
Unless Golden State is offered a ridiculous haul, I wouldn’t imagine they’d be ready to give up on Russell at this deadline for other young players and picks. After all, Russell himself only turns 24 next month, and has years of his prime ahead of him. Golden State likely has the ability to be patient and extract the most value for Russell. Here are a couple realistic offers that might not reach the level Golden State is looking for, but could help in the present and future if they insist on dealing Russell before the trade deadline.
Minnesota: Russell for Robert Covington, Gorgui Dieng, and MIN 2021 1st
Covington provides a flexible 3 and D wing who can slide to the four when the Warriors play with Draymond at the 5
Dieng, while overpaid, is serviceable and comes off the books after next season
Dieng’s deal fits into the Iguodala trade exception, and allows Golden State to create a new $16 million trade exception through the following trade deadline
Minnesota has shown significant interest in Russell, who is great friends with Karl Anthony-Towns
Philadelphia: Russell and Alec Burks for Al Horford, NYK 2020 2nd and NYK 2021 2nd
More of a “win next year” move, while keeping own pick for future building
Horford can fit into Steve Kerr’s system with his passing ability, team defense, and shooting ability, even as he ages
Horford provides almost enough salary to match in a potential Antetokounmpo sign-and-trade in 2021 (more on that later)
Philadelphia is in need of perimeter shooting and another playmaker
Path 2: Move D’Angelo Russell and/or the GSW 2020 1st Round Pick in July (With potential to agree at the draft)
Timing-wise, the much more likely option is for the Warriors to wait until July, when cap and roster limit rules expand and the direction of other teams becomes more clear. Another benefit is that the market would expand from just a couple teams to probably half the league, giving the Warriors more leverage and flexibility. To put it simply, the expiration of contracts around the league will open up cap room for a few teams, roster spots for others, and create more competition between teams.
An interesting side note to mention is that Golden State possesses a large trade exception from the Andre Iguodala trade that helped facilitate the Durant-Russell sign-and-trade. Worth slightly over $17 million, it expires at the close of business on July 6th. The moratorium ends at noon eastern, so Golden State will have only a few hours to officially process a trade utilizing the exception, but the previous six days to negotiate.
Depending on the players involved, if the Warriors can strike a deal by July 6th and one of the contracts they recieve can fit into the Iguodala exception, they could structure a Russell trade creatively to create a potentially larger trade exception that would extend for another year. Doing so would give the Warriors an additional avenue to significantly improve the team during the 2020-21 season. Due to the limitations placed on teams who are over the cap, any tool that can be acquired to later improve the team is especially beneficial. In layman’s terms, by trading Russell on July 6th, there is a specific set of circumstances that could play a large role in future asset acquisition for the Warriors.
If they so choose, the option will still be available to trade Russell for multiple future picks and younger players to help build depth with some long term assets as they transition into a new phase for the franchise. They’d still have the solid core of Curry, Klay, and Draymond, who, even though they are getting older, may be able to extend the championship window another few years when all healthy. Any assets they can gain from a Russell trade, while keeping this year’s pick, could help build for the next iteration of the Warriors, with players who can grow patiently and become the new guard of the Chase Center.
The earlier trades from the deadline will still be available come July. Here’s one that makes some sense for Golden State to try to improve the team for the next couple of years:
Orlando: Russell for Nikola Vucevic and ORL 2021 2nd
This trade can also be done at the deadline
While a Curry, Russell, Thompson trio could provide a lot of scoring punch, adding Vucevic will add some positional balance and provide Golden State with a big who can rebound, score, and stretch the floor
Vucevic’s front loaded contract that will decrease in value each season makes for a more attractive contract as he ages
With the potential to lose both Evan Fournier and DJ Augustin in free agency, Orlando won’t have a single primary ball-handler who can shoot consistently on the roster
Path 3: Delay any blockbuster trade until the 2021 trade deadline
The third and potentially most lucrative path the Warriors can take is the patient approach. By holding steady during this gap year, the front office can continue to gather more information on what this team is able to accomplish. It’s important to remember that this season, we won’t see the starting lineup that we’d likely see next year with Steph, Russell, Klay, Draymond, and Kevon Looney. Can that starting lineup return to the top of the Western Conference? There’s a good chance that group can at least compete for a top four seed in the West next season. And let’s not forget, while the core is older, a similar lineup put up 73 wins in a season just 4 years ago. Each of the aforementioned trades could still be available in a year, and more options could open up.
Obviously, this is all speculation on whether the Warriors can return to a semblance of what NBA fans have known in the last decade. That is precisely why waiting to gather more information could be beneficial, especially if there is no trade package that blows Golden State away this season. If they look like a championship-caliber team after Klay Thompson shakes off the post-injury rust, they could look to build the team out further and add veterans to what will likely be a thin rotation. As long as the team does not sign-and-trade, use their Full Mid-level Exception, or use their Bi-annual Exception, they will no longer be hard capped and will have much increased flexibility in trades and the buyout market.
Fast forwarding a year, it’s almost a guarantee that the Warriors will be in the luxury tax for the fifth time in six years. If they are not trending towards returning as championship contenders by the trade deadline, the wheels may be put in motion to make a move.
In general, waiting to trade an All-Star caliber player only diminishes the potential return. However, at the 2021 trade deadline, Russell will still have two and a half years left on his contract. That’s plenty of time for the receiving team to give up multiple assets, knowing Russell will be around for the immediate future. Further, the salary cap is projected to increase at a rate similar to Russell’s contract. His deal will be worth roughly 24% of the salary cap for each remaining year, a reasonable amount for a mid-twenties, borderline All-Star.
Another factor to keep in mind with a Russell trade is the potential for the Warriors to enter the sweepstakes for Giannis Antetokounmpo. By the 2021 trade deadline, the world will know whether Giannis wants to stay in Milwaukee, as he will have had the opportunity to accept a $250 million dollar extension that the Bucks have already made known they will offer. If he declines that offer, the sweepstakes will be on.
The odds are extremely unlikely that Golden State can clear enough room to sign Giannis outright in the summer of 2021 if he does become a free agent. However, D’Angelo Russell’s salary and skill could be crucial in allowing them to acquire Giannis in a sign-and-trade in July 2021. Therefore, any salary filler in a trade for Russell would likely have to be enough to convince the Warriors that they could flip the return salary for Giannis in the summer. To make it even more complicated, Draymond Green would also likely have to go in order to slide under the hard cap. The front office will have a lot to navigate to become a major player in the race for Giannis, but after the events from last summer, they have proven they can make the most of a complicated situation.
All in all, if there was ever a silver lining to ACL tears and achilles injuries, it’s that the Warriors are still set up with flexibility and players that can continue the team’s success. Warriors fans still have a bright future to look forward to. The gap-year Warriors are set up to return *almost* as strong as ever with shrewd roster management. It will be interesting to see which path the Warriors take, and on what timeline the next championship window opens up for the team in "The City by the Bay".