The entire tenor of the NBA has changed in the last few days. After two catastrophic injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, the Golden State Warriors suddenly look not only mortal but extremely vulnerable and the rest of the league will take notice as we move into the offseason. For the Warriors, their NBA Finals loss to the Toronto Raptors on Thursday came at a much greater cost – simply losing, even in four games with blowouts in each game, would have been vastly preferable to what actually occurred. Now, Golden State’s front office will face real questions about the club’s future, both on and off the court. Just as they’re moving into a new building in San Francisco, the Warriors are at their lowest point in the Steve Kerr era.
The way forward for Golden State may be to take a step back in 2019-20, even though there may be very little appetite for that plan among ownership, both from a competitive and financial perspective. Bringing back both players to rehab through the first year of their new max contracts would push the Warriors into nearly $250 million in payroll and luxury tax, and that includes just nine players under contract, two of which are Durant and Thompson, who likely won’t be contributing much, if anything, to the team next season. Filling out the rest of the roster would cost them a very pretty penny and would push them to nearly $300 million in total spend even if they simply filled out the roster with minimum contracts. That’s some unreal spending for a team that wouldn’t be significant contenders in 2019-20, but that short-term pain would be worth the long-term gain of having Durant and Thompson on the roster going forward.
How will the injuries suffered by these two affect how they think of free agency and how teams think of them? The word now is that Durant will miss the entire 2019-20 as he returns from his torn Achilles, which throws a major wrench in his free agency plans and any team’s plans for acquiring him, particularly a non-Warriors team. A true superstar of the highest order who may be the best player in the world when he’s fully healthy, nobody would begrudge Durant for thinking that he deserves the full boat in a max contract with another team, which would be a four-year deal with a player option on the final year and a full trade bonus. That option year is the thing over which a team could haggle – if they’re going to lose an entire year of his services on the front end of that contract, perhaps he would agree to a straight four-year deal so that he can still play for three full years, barring future injury.
The value in signing Durant is now on the back end of that contract, considering he’s going to miss the entire first season. Signing him to a 3+1 puts that team in significant difficulty; they’re either paying him three years’ worth of salary for two years of production or they’re paying him for the full four years and only getting three years of production, plus that production is lessened because he’s chosen to opt in to that last year of his contract in this scenario. Neither is all that attractive, which makes the negotiation over his player option more important.
Pre-injury, Thompson’s free agency seemed like an open and shut case. If Golden State had come with the full five-year max, he’d be a Warrior for the rest of his career. If not, he’d explore other options, with a number of teams ready to offer him whatever he wants to come to their team. Like Durant, Thompson’s free agency now becomes about back-end value, rather than immediate value; a team signing Thompson will be much more interested in what he can bring in 2020-21 and beyond versus how quickly he’ll be back in 2019-20.
Many of the same caveats that apply to Durant’s max contract will apply to Thompson’s. A team signing him to a 3+1 could find that to be a difficult decision, even though both players are worth more to a team than the NBA is allowed to pay them in an individual year, but essentially eating an entire year at more than $32 million for Thompson and $38 million for Durant isn’t exactly an attractive option for a lot of team owners.
For the Warriors, their incumbent advantages make those decisions a little easier. The five-year contracts they can offer both players will put a metric ton of financial pain on their books in 2019-20, but the value they would get from both guys on the back end, with at least three guaranteed years after 2019-20, could make it worthwhile, if ownership is willing to foot the bill.
Moving on from Durant, whether through their own choice or not, would alleviate a lot of these financial concerns, though it would also make the team significantly worse over the long haul. Bringing back Thompson at the max and seeing Durant walk to another team would even give them some room below the tax threshold and could save them more than $200 million next season alone, particularly if they cut back enough to stay below the tax altogether. The team would be worse off for it, of course, but they were going to be worse off no matter what if Durant decided that he wanted to take off for New York or elsewhere.
There are other aspects of Golden State’s offseason that are worth hitting on, even if their importance pale in comparison to Durant and Thompson. Kevon Looney had a breakout year and will hit unrestricted free agency this summer as a very good option for almost any team at the backup center position. Quinn Cook and Jordan Bell will be restricted free agents in a few weeks; each will have league-wide interest that may take them away from the Bay Area on larger contracts than ownership is willing to pay. How the Warriors retool, whether these players are in the fold or not, will depend on how much spending they do at the top of the roster.
After a stupendous five-year run, the injuries to Durant and Thompson may force the Warriors to take a step back in 2019-20. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are the team’s engine now more than ever before, but the fact that Golden State doesn’t have the financial flexibility to spend significantly on their roster, particularly if both Durant and Thompson return, will mean that 2019-20 could be a rough year for them. Rather than pushing every night for the playoffs and running Curry and Green into the ground to get there, perhaps it would be best to punt, in a manner of speaking, on next season. Playing each guy 50 games and letting them get totally right physically ahead of the 2020-21 season might be the right move, if you can convince those highly-competitive guys to essentially not play nearly half the season. For Curry, who already has his max contract in hand, it’s an easier sell, but Green is coming up on free agency himself next summer and pitching him on playing 50 games to preserve your body in a contract year might not go so well.
Another avenue for Golden State would be to look into trading Green and Andre Iguodala, both of whom are out of contract in 2020. Particularly if Durant is back alongside Thompson, moving on from both Green and Iguodala would save ownership a lot of money and doing so now would give them a chance to retool around Curry, Thompson, and Durant in 2020-21 and moving forward, using the assets they receive in the trade to fill out the rest of the roster. Iguodala, due to his age, likely isn’t worth a ton on the trade market, but Green showed once again during this playoff run that he’s the best defender in the world and perhaps the smartest player in the league, alongside some of the other greats in the game today. Should the Warriors decide to move on from Green, they should be able to get enough back to extend their championship window a few more years after Durant and Thompson fully recover from their injuries. If one of Durant or Thompson leaves, then that becomes a bit of a moot point, but if both are back in Golden State on five-year max contracts, Green and Iguodala might have to be shipped out to both save money and make the roster a little younger.
Then again, it’s difficult to have watched this Warriors team over the last five years and think that Green is the expendable piece. He’s the center of everything they do defensively and is a fantastic playmaker offensively, working off Curry’s gravity in the best ways. He’s the heartbeat of the team despite not being the team’s best player and moving on from him prematurely could be a real mistake.
It’s a complicated summer for the Warriors, who have to weigh their championship aspirations, a gargantuan luxury tax bill, putting too much wear and tear on Curry and Green, and the wishes of Durant and Thompson. The effects of the injuries those two suffered in the last two games of the Finals will reverberate throughout the league this offseason and in no spot will those reverberations be felt more than in the Bay Area.