What Now for the Warriors?

Kit Shepard | June 14th, 2019

Eleven months ago, in an article detailing why the Boston Celtics were the favorites for the 2019 NBA title, I labeled the Golden State Warriors dynasty as ‘fragile’. While my crowning of the Celtics proved to be premature (I wasn’t the only one fooled), this description of the Warriors proved to be correct, although I did not envisage it having such a literal meaning.

For the first 34 minutes of last night’s game six of the NBA Finals, Golden State reminded us all of their historic greatness. Missing their best player, they were fighting to stay alive against an almost fully-healthy Toronto Raptors side, and had edged ahead by three with the fourth quarter looming. No other team in the league would have had a prayer in these circumstances. With the electric Oracle Arena crowd ready to roar the Warriors home one final time, it would have taken a very brave punter to bet against a game seven at this stage.

And then, in a single, heartbreaking moment, all the energy of a spectacular occasion diminished. Klay Thompson, who had a remarkable 30 points from just twelve shots, went up for a dunk to stretch the Warriors’ lead to five. He failed to finish after a foul from Danny Green, before crashing to the ground.

Instantly, something was wrong. Thompson is the type of player who usually bounces straight back up to his feet within seconds of hitting the deck. If he stays down, he is likely to be hurt. Badly. Following the game, while the Raptors’ title celebrations were just beginning, the confirmation that Klay had torn his ACL was hugely disappointing, but not surprising. Stephen Curry appeared to know immediately that his Splash Brother was gone, and with him went the Warriors’ hopes of a three-peat:

Yet the ramifications of this injury stretch far beyond the Finals. ACL problems typically take the best part of a year to recover from, meaning that the best-case scenario would probably be Thompson returning to the court after next season’s all-star break. The same applies to Kevin Durant, who will, at the very least, miss the majority of the next campaign after rupturing his Achilles in game five. The prospect of them not playing a single game between them in the next twelve months is certainly a possibility.

So, what do the Warriors do now? Following the announcement of Durant’s injury, their hopes of holding on to the 30-year-old were resurrected. He will have a player option this offseason, and was seemingly destined to move to the New York Knicks this summer before the catastrophe of game five. Golden State can provide KD with additional financial security (they can offer him $57 million more than any other team) and when the terrible history of NBA players post-Achilles problem is taken into account, he may make the safe choice and remain in the Bay.

Likewise, Thompson, an unrestricted free agent this summer, should now perceive the Warriors as even more attractive. Most expected that Klay would re-sign with Golden State this summer provided he is offered a max contract, and his injury will have only made this deal, the most lucrative one he can sign, all the more appealing.

Ergo the Warriors chances of keeping both Durant and Thompson are the highest they have been in months, but are they willing to commit so much money to two players who may not put on an NBA uniform until the start of the 2020-21 season? Curry has the largest guaranteed salary in the league, while his annual wage increases in each of the next three seasons. Draymond Green, whose immense value to Golden State was displayed throughout these playoffs, will be hunting a major extension ahead of his current contract ending in 2020. Should the Warriors commit to KD and Klay, they will undoubtedly have some reservations about giving Green an equally large deal. Either way, they would be facing a gargantuan luxury tax bill for the foreseeable future.

Maintaining their injured superstars clearly comes at a heavy price. For much, if not all, of next season, ownership will be dedicating a huge sum of money to a team that, as presently constructed, could struggle to make the playoffs. Granted, even if they just sneak into the postseason, they would be the most dangerous eighth-seed ever if they were able to get everyone fit by April. On the other hand, they could miss the playoffs, Durant and Thompson may return below the level they once were at, and Golden State could be stuck with one of the league’s largest payrolls while being no better than an outsider for another title. This possibility might make some of their executives balk at the idea of running it back.

The solution is not to allow both to leave without making an offer. No team should lose two players with such talent and experience in the same summer, whatever their physical status. Even offering the pair contracts below the max is out of the question, per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

Another alternative would be to hope that Durant picks up his player option, allowing both him and Golden State to have a clearer picture of his health when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. However, it would take a lot of coercion for KD to opt-in due to the aforementioned salary risks, and the decision has been described as the ‘last resort‘, should no team offer him a long-term contract. This is a long shot.

If the Warriors intend to max out the pair, then they will have to delve deeper into their roster to stimulate any sort of cap relief. The most obvious option would be to let go of Green, either in a spectacular trade this summer or in free agency the next. Otherwise, they could test the trade market for Andre Iguodala, who is owed $17 million in 2019-20, or waive Shaun Livingston (he may retire anyway), saving them $5.6 million. This trio have all been in Oakland since the start of the Warriors’ rise, but this postseason exposed the lack of depth surrounding their three superstars. Freeing themselves of any of these contracts would have financial benefits and allow Golden State to add pieces to aid the Stephen Curry one-man show that will define their offense next year.

It has been an incredible, five-year run for a franchise that was previously starved of success. Nevertheless, last night, as the Warriors lost their place at the summit and the curtain fell on Oracle Arena’s final NBA game, it truly felt like the end of an era. Regardless of how free agency plays out, this iteration of Golden State will never be as dominant again. With this in mind, the Warriors’ front office has some thinking to do.

This article was updated in light of Brian Windhorst’s announcement that the Warriors plan to offer Durant and Thompson max contracts.

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