The Golden State Warriors are unique among Western Conference contenders in that they have no idea how good they actually are. The last time we saw the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green trio prior to signing Kevin Durant, it won 73 games and nearly came away with a second consecutive championship. But all three are now in their 30s. They haven't contended without Durant since 2016, and while last season might have served as an effective barometer had they been healthy, injuries to Curry and Thompson kept them out of the playoff hunt.
That makes establishing an offseason plan extremely difficult. Every other top team in the West can look at what went wrong in the playoffs (or, in the case of the Lakers, what went right) and adjust from there. The Warriors have no such opportunity. They have to eyeball their current roster, decide just how much age- and injury-related decline is coming for their stars and reload without a baseline to operate off of. It's entirely possible that they already have the best team in the NBA, and no major moves are needed. It's just as possible that there is no feasible pathway back into the championship hunt. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but the Warriors have figure out where they are before they decide how to proceed.
The stakes on that decision are enormous. With both the No. 2 overall pick and a juicy future Minnesota first-rounder in their back pocket, the Warriors could walk the Spurs path and try to stay in the hunt while developing the core of their next generation. If those assets are sacrificed, it had better make the Warriors one of the conference favorites.
Frankly, that's the only acceptable outcome for this franchise financially right now. The Warriors paid the luxury tax in their last two Kevin Durant seasons. They're not only going to pay it again next season, but are a near-lock to pay it in both the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons as well, both of which would come with the repeater tax penalty. Golden State's ownership wouldn't mind this if it was banking revenue from its new cash-cow arena, the Chase Center. But in all likelihood, the season will at least start without fans in the building. That's particularly devastating to the Warriors, who rely on gate revenue more than any other big-market team because of an outdated local television deal. The Warriors were designed to be, if not profitable, at least a break-even proposition. Yet in July, Joe Lacob was considering a $250 million loan to help the team with coming expenses. How will several expected years in the red impact ownership's appetite for spending?
That's unknowable, just like everything else about this Warriors team. Golden State has to juggle more competing agendas than any other team in basketball, and as we project what their offseason might look like, we have to do it through all of those lenses at the same time. With that in mind, let's dive into the single most complicated offseason preview of 2020.
One note before beginning: we will be using Spotrac for player salaries, and 2019-20 cap numbers for this exercise as a whole. That includes previously agreed-upon numbers like the rookie scale and the minimum salary. A frozen cap is the likeliest outcome of negotiations between the league and the NBPA, but these numbers could theoretically change in either direction. Under the assumption that the 2019-20 numbers will be used, these are the pertinent numbers for these projections.
Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception (Year 1)
Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception (Year 1)
Luxury tax apron
Cap room Mid-Level Exception (Year 1)
Cap situation and overall finances
Everything we discuss in this space needs a caveat. Golden State can do all of the following if ownership is willing to pay for it. They'd be entirely justified in not doing so. With only eight players and a first-round pick accounted for, the Warriors are already far beyond the 2019-20 luxury tax line. Based on the current formula, the Warriors would owe $149,474,266 in player salaries and $34,753,615 in luxury taxes... before factoring in the rest of their roster. Yikes.
No. 2 pick
Shaun Livingston (dead salary)
Technically, the Warriors have two powerful tools with which they could add salary. By trading Andre Iguodala into Memphis' cap space in 2019, they created a trade exception worth his salary for last season, $17,185,185. With that exception, they can absorb the salary of any player making that much or less without sending any money back. They also have the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, which starts at $5,718,000. Golden State's easiest path back into contention involves using both. The financial burden would be unthinkable. Let's imagine a Warriors roster that keeps its nine current players, adds two players at those two price points, and then finishes out its team with four minimum contracts among its partial or non-guaranteed players (whom we'll get to shortly).
That would leave the Warriors with just over $179 million in committed salary... and approximately $172.3 million in luxury taxes. That might sound extreme, but remember, the luxury tax is designed to be punitive the further a team goes into it. The incremental tax rate rises significantly for every $5 million above the line teams spend. At the highest level, the final $1.4 million on Golden State's payroll would be taxed at a rate of $6.25 per dollar above the line. Overall, this Warriors team would cost over $350 million. Spoiler alert: they are not paying that much for this roster. It isn't happening. To some extent, the Warriors are going to sacrifice championship equity for financial viability.
That much has essentially already been leaked. The Athletic's Anthony Slater already reported, for example, that the Warriors would only use that trade exception for "a special opportunity." Such an opportunity probably isn't going to materialize, though the exception could be used in a smaller move. For the sake of simplifying this exercise, we need to set an artificial cap for this Golden State roster. Maybe the Warriors would go slightly beyond it, or maybe a cap compromise lessens their tax burden enough to exceed it meaningfully, but without a broad framework, this is going to get out of hand. So we'll set a line at the highest tax payment of all time: Brooklyn's $90.6 million expenditure during the 2013-14 season. That would give us approximately $163.8 million in salary to play with, enough to use the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception and fill out the roster with minimums before factoring in trades.
Who would they target with that Mid-Level Exception? In all likelihood, a center. While small-ball has always been their preferred method of play, it just isn't viable in a potential playoff series against Anthony Davis and the Lakers. They've already been linked to Dwight Howard, a target of theirs in 2013, and he makes some sense as a rim-runner and defender. The question for Golden State is how little shooting they are able to tolerate. Draymond Green has been among the worst shooters in basketball for years. Andrew Wiggins has never been known for his jumper either. Even Curry and Thompson may not be able to space the floor by themselves.
The Warriors aren't going to sacrifice defense for shooting, but there are some two-way big men worth exploration here. Marc Gasol, Aron Baynes and Serge Ibaka can all shoot and defend. All three are likely to get more lucrative offers. Is it out of the question that one of them misses out and decides to pick the best possible situation to position themselves for 2021? Gasol is the best bet here. At 35-years-old, he's made plenty of money, and rumors have suggested he's considering returning to Spain. If that's the case, money probably isn't his priority, and Golden State's beautiful game would appeal to a basketball purist like him.
We need to acknowledge the possibility that the Warriors draft and keep a center at No. 2 overall as well. Reports have deemed that unlikely, but smoke-screens are common at this point in the draft process. Beyond center, the Warriors have another weakness they need to reckon with. Draymond Green couldn't defend LeBron James at his peak, which he is likely now beyond. Neither could Kevin Durant, and even Andre Iguodala struggled with the task. Now he's gone and Kawhi Leonard is back in their conference as well. Golden State needs to leave this offseason with a better option against James than Wiggins. The Mid-Level Exception offers a few. Mo Harkless stands out, and he handled himself well in a limited sample against LeBron this season. Jae Crowder would be a dream, but he's almost certainly out of their price range. A sneaky option here might be Derrick Jones Jr., who fell out of Miami's playoff rotation due to offensive issues. Golden State loves rim-runners and athleticism.
Beyond the Mid-Level Exception, Golden State stands out as perhaps the most desirable non-Los Angeles destination for ring-chasing veterans. After using that exception, they'd have five roster spots left before considering trades. Coincidentally, they have five internal free-agents with either non-guaranteed or partially guaranteed contracts.
$1,824,003 ($800,000 guaranteed)
$1,762,796 ($600,000 guaranteed)
Chriss and Lee are probably coming back. It makes little sense for Golden State to eat that dead money, and they're the two best players in this group anyway. Neither is lasting into the playoff rotation, but Chriss (rim-running) and Lee (shooting) can both eat regular-season minutes. Bowman was the standout among the others, and probably the likeliest to make the final roster, but watch out for one or two of these three to earn a two-way slot. The Warriors are surprisingly loyal at the back end of their rotation. They'll want to keep as many of these faces in the building as possible.
Among the veteran minimum slots, the first priority is going to be a backup point guard. This will be the first Warriors playoff run since 2015 without Shaun Livingston, but Michael Carter-Williams is a reasonable facsimile. Jeff Teague and D.J. Augustin, as former starters, make sense as well, though their skill sets differ pretty greatly from Curry's and Livingston's.
The Warriors are going to walk away from free agency with one decent name. They should do well with the minimum as well. But cost is going to color their every move. The Warriors will be better, but not by as much as they could have been. That makes their handling of November's NBA Draft absolutely critical.
2020 picks: No. 2, No. 48, No. 51
Owed future first-round picks: 2024 to Memphis (top-four protected, top-one protected in 2025, unprotected in 2026)
Incoming future first-round picks: 2021 from Minnesota (top-three protected, unprotected in 2022)
Before we dive into trade options for the No. 2 pick, let's break down it's best possible usage in a world in which the Warriors decide to keep it. Most teams operate under a strict "best player available" policy in the top-two, and for good reason. Most teams in that range of the draft are too bad to discriminate positionally, and the No. 2 pick is usually so valuable that passing up the second-best player means passing up a sure thing. Neither is true this season. The Warriors, unlike most high-lottery teams, are good enough to win right now, and the opportunity cost of reaching is relatively low considering the limited upside of this entire class. That creates an interesting conundrum: do the Warriors go for the player likeliest to help them win the 2020 championship or the one they expect to have the best overall career?
If it's the former, James Wiseman is probably the answer. Despite Golden State's reported hesitance when it comes to drafting a center, his physical dimensions probably translate immediately. Rim-running isn't particularly nuanced, at least relative to other skills. He's not remotely ready to switch defensively as Golden State prefers and he's going to be offensively limited as a rookie, but he has concrete skills that should present themselves immediately.
This logic also favors some of the older players near the top of the draft. Devin Vassell and Tyrese Haliburton both played multiple collegiate seasons, and both fit pretty easily into roles the Warriors need. Haliburton, as a bigger point guard that can defend multiple positions, has a bit of Livingston in him. Vassell is the quintessential 3-and-D prospect. Obi Toppin is going to struggle defensively even at his peak, but he's probably the rookie best positioned to contribute offensively next season. He's 22 and his more diverse skill-set reflects that. Like Wiseman, he's an elite rim-runner, but he's also a viable 3-point shooter and killer short-roll passer. Draymond mastered that skill playing alongside Curry. The attention he draws makes life so much easier for passing teammates. The same is true of scorers. His gravity would help Deni Avdija put up big numbers from the get-go. Rumors linked the Warriors to the Israeli forward early in the process.
The truth is that if Golden State wants one of these prospects, they'll probably trade down for him. Picking up an extra asset helps, but the financial implications here are important as well. The difference between the No. 2 and even the No. 3 pick in first season salary is almost $1 million. Moving backward could help the Warriors spend on veterans.
Realistically, though, if they're staying put, it's probably going to be an upside pick. That points to one of the two top guards in the class: LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards. Edwards is the easier roster fit in general since he projects as a plus-shooter (though that hasn't materialized statistically yet). While reports have suggested Golden State isn't particularly interested in Ball, his passing would fit so well within Steve Kerr's offense that the possibility shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Many of his bad habits, particularly when it comes to shot-selection, would be far easier to curb on a contender than a perennial loser. The Hornets probably wouldn't be able to hold him accountable. Draymond Green could.
Minnesota will likely make the choice between the two for them. One of them is probably going to be on the board at No. 2, and the other will be a Timberwolf. The one that is available is probably the pick if the Warriors stay put. Of course, in a perfect world, they're moving the pick, and they should have plenty of options.
The fundamental problem that Golden State is going to encounter in wielding the No. 2 pick as a trade asset is that they seem to be valuing it as a typical No. 2 overall pick. The Warriors want to trade it for a star, but there doesn't appear to be a slam dunk on the market. In a perfect world, Golden State would flip both of its valuable picks along with Wiggins for Bradley Beal. The Wizards don't seem interested in shopping Beal at all right now. And then there's the matter of fit. Chris Paul and Victor Oladipo are both nominally star-caliber players, but neither make sense for the Warriors positionally. Oladipo might not be healthy anyway, and Paul is too old to net such a valuable pick.
There are two former All-Stars that make some sense, but it isn't clear how available either is, or how cooperative they'd be with Golden State. The first is Jrue Holiday. The Pelicans are inching closer to a mini-rebuild, and Holiday, now 30, is only a year away from free agency. They aren't doing better than the No. 2 pick, but will they take on Wiggins? Doing so would save the Warriors around $12 million next season, enough to potentially dip into that trade exception. The question revolves around defense. Holiday can defend small forwards in February. He can't defend LeBron in the playoffs. Opening up some of the trade exception makes it easier to seek that sort of player out, but with their best chip spent, their options would be limited if the 2021 Minnesota pick is off of the table.
The other option here is Rudy Gobert. Putting aside his possible issues with Donovan Mitchell, he is super-max eligible this offseason and the Jazz aren't paying him that much. If they get the sense that championship contention with this core is impossible, getting the No. 2 pick a year before Gobert's free agency is a nice little reboot. Including Wiggins saves Golden State a similar amount of money. Gobert solves the Davis problem for the Warriors, and his screening and lob-finishing would be more than welcome offensively. But the Jazz came one shot short of beating the Nuggets, who went on to beat the Clippers. They probably aren't willing to pull the plug quite yet.
This is the fork in the road for Golden State. They're likely exhausting these possibilities as we speak and will eventually come to a realization that the star they covet isn't available right now. They can either decide to lower their expectations, or they can settle on keeping the pick.
This shouldn't be a difficult decision. They should still trade the pick. Nowhere is it written in the NBA's bylaws that four superstars are required to win a championship. Golden State knows from experience that having four is nice, but that winning with three is entirely possible so long as they have the right team around them. Using the No. 2 pick as bait could get them the right team, and more importantly, it could get them the right matchups. The LeBron problem still hasn't been solved here. If the Warriors are willing to eschew a star, they can seek out wing defenders to throw at the Finals MVP.
So let's say the Warriors settle on the concept of trading the pick for a package that doesn't involve a star. What could be out there for them? Honestly, a lot:
- Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier for No. 2, Wiggins and Looney is the best pure role-player swap on the table here. Orlando kick-starts its rebuild. Golden State gets a theoretical LeBron defender in Gordon and two switchable wings when you factor in Fournier. Both can shoot and dribble well enough to function in Golden State's offense.
- Oladipo is the most-discussed Pacer on the trade market, but Myles Turner appears to be available as well. He'd give the Warriors near-Gobert-caliber rim-protection, but with legitimate 3-point shooting. While we're on the phone here, it wouldn't hurt to ask about T.J. Warren. He's probably not available, but his low-maintenance offensive game would fit like a glove in Golden State. Money is the issue here. Turner doesn't make enough for the Pacers to take on Wiggins, and they probably wouldn't be thrilled about that idea anyway, but the Warriors can't absorb Turner into their trade exception as he will make just a hair too much next season ($17.5 million).
- Portland has no trading ambition whatsoever, but hear me out: Wiggins and No. 2 for Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Trent Jr., Trevor Ariza and No. 16. The Warriors fill their center slot and get two 3-and-D wings (one of whom is young and cheap) along with another first-round pick. The Blazers get to take two swings on potential long-term partners for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Maybe Lillard's leadership turns Wiggins into the defender Portland has always needed. Probably not, but hey, the Blazers are long overdue for a high-risk, high-reward trade.
- This isn't a dump Wiggins move, but Looney and No. 2 for Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle is worth floating by Philadelphia. For the 76ers, it's essentially a chance to reboot starting from the Markelle Fultz pick. Edwards or Ball could be their second chance at a long-term third star. For the Warriors, it's two more 3-and-D wings for their pile. It would also be a chance to buy low on Richardson. Remember, he was Miami's leading scorer during the 2018-19 season. He's better than last season suggests.
- The following rookie-scale players make any degree of sense in one-for-one swaps involving the No. 2 pick: O.G. Anunoby, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Cam Reddish, Brandon Clarke and Mikal Bridges. My guesses: the Warriors are rejected soundly on Anunoby, Clarke and Bridges, both sides turn down the Atlanta deal, and Golden State isn't interested in the Chicago big men. I very, very badly wanted to include Luguentz Dort. He defended LeBron better than anyone on this list aside from Anunoby, just scored 30 points in a Game 7 and is owed only $5 million over the next three seasons, but even I couldn't talk myself into trading the No. 2 pick for him.
- Golden State should be open about moving down from No. 2 to virtually anywhere in the top 10. The most enticing possibility is the Knicks. If they're desperate for Ball's star-power to offer Mitchell Robinson to jump up, the Warriors should accept in a heartbeat. That isn't all that likely, but a more realistic package involving future Knicks picks isn't a bad idea either.
- I don't think Sacramento would have any interest in a Wiggins-for-Harrison Barnes trade, but they're similar contracts, and the Warriors obviously know how to win with Barnes. If it takes a future pick to make that swap feasible, they should go for it. If nothing else, reviving a version of the Death Lineup with Barnes back would create some incredible nickname potential. Give me the Undead Lineup.
- This involves too much reading of the tea leaves, but it's worth noting: Tilman Fertitta cited James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker as reasons not to rebuild. He left Robert Covington out. Covington fits neatly into the Iguodala exception. If the Warriors can clear the cash to use some of that exception, either the Timberwolves pick or multiple Warriors picks should be offered, just in case. The Rockets are desperate to save money themselves. It might actually work.
The overarching point here is, Golden State will not want for options. If the Warriors keep an open mind, there are going to be interesting offers. It's ultimately going to come down to their asking price. If they wait for a perfect offer, they're going to miss out on a bunch of good ones.
What would an ideal offseason look like?
Keeping the No. 2 pick doesn't make sense. If this were a normal draft, it might, but the Warriors want to win the championship right now and there isn't a player in this class that seems particularly able to help them do that. The Minnesota pick gives them another chance at a young star in a year, and holding onto it makes far more contextual sense. That pick is in a better draft, and it has no salary attached for the 2020-21 season.
There is an argument to be made for making the pick and trying to trade that player at the deadline in the hopes that someone like Beal becomes available, but the risk involved in doing so is enormous. What if that rookie flounders? What if the other team simply doesn't like or need that player? Picks are significantly more valuable before they are used, as front offices would rather choose their own player than take someone else's. There's a chance that the Warriors could use the pick and turn it into a more valuable young player, but it's far likelier that using the pick takes options off of the table rather than putting more on it.
Practically speaking, the No. 2 pick is probably going to be a bad financial value next season. Most rookies aren't worth nearly $9 million. They make that gap up down the line. The Warriors aren't in a position to wait, and their financial issues are so straining that using that money on veteran talent makes more sense, especially if it means moving off of the Wiggins deal.
There are going to be offers we can't foresee if the Warriors don't demand a star. Predicting all of them would take 20,000 words, but let's play out the two most realistic options on the table, one involving a star and one that doesn't. There is no guarantee that either trade actually is available, but both make sense and both allow us to look at how the Warriors might go about filling in the rest of their team after making this sort of trade.
Option A: The Warriors trade for Jrue Holiday
The simplest construction here is just Wiggins and No. 2 for Holiday (though the Pelicans might need a bit more financial incentive to take on that much long-term money). Presumably, this moves Klay Thompson to small forward, but a better defensive option against LeBron and Kawhi is needed in the playoffs. Fortunately, this deal saves the Warriors around $12 million. We'll use spend those savings through the Iguodala trade exception. These would be the sensible following moves:
- Sign Harkless for the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception.
- Trade future draft compensation to the Knicks for Taj Gibson, who is absorbed into the trade exception.
- Five roster spots remain. Two go to Chriss and Lee. One goes to whichever second-round pick stands out at training camp (for the rookie minimum). Two go to veteran ring-chasers. One needs to be a point guard. The other should be a perimeter shooter. If Looney isn't healthy enough to play or the center depth otherwise falters, add a center on the buyout market.
This gives us a team salary just over $160 million, well within our range. The Knicks might want to keep Harkless or Gibson (a favorite of Tom Thibodeau's) around to help build a culture, but these are the sorts of players that the Warriors can seek out in these roles.
Option B: The Warriors trade with the Magic
Among the non-star trade options, Orlando makes by far the most sense. They have players that fit in Golden State and should be moving towards a tanking year with Jonathan Isaac out recovering from a torn ACL. Let's treat Gordon and Fournier for Wiggins, No. 2 and Looney as our baseline. This doesn't save the Warriors nearly as much, so the trade exception expenditure should be cheaper. All told, we're looking at around $4 million below our artificial hard cap. That's enough for a contributor, but not much more.
- We're using the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception on a center here. Gasol and Baynes are the dream fits. Howard and Tristan Thompson are the fallback plans. I'd lean Thompson over Howard due to his switchability and age.
- We'll absorb a cheap point guard into the trade exception to avoid signing one for the minimum. The Pacers have a guard glut, and might look shedding T.J. McConnell's contract.
- Our minimums are being devoted to the same causes. Two go to incumbents Chriss and Lee. One goes to a rookie. Two go to ring-chasers. With backup point guard accounted for, the final spot can be used for the best available player.
Again, the specifics here might be a bit hazy, but the broad strokes work out. In both scenarios, the Warriors use all of the tools at their disposal to add several supplementary players to their three-man core, and they do so under a somewhat feasible budget. Until we know what that budget will be and what sort of offers they're getting for the No. 2 pick, though, accurately predicting what the Warriors will do this offseason is basically impossible.