Warriors offseason review: A superteam no more, Kevin Durant's exit forces Golden State to pivot
Next year's Warriors will have a different feel with D'Angelo Russell in the fold
The Golden State Warriors couldn't stop Kevin Durant from leaving for the Brooklyn Nets, but his decision gave them a chance to add a player they couldn't have otherwise. They had to surrender multiple draft picks and lose their financial flexibility and say goodbye to Andre Iguodala and be willing to offer a max contract, but the Warriors managed to turn Durant's exit into an opportunity to acquire a 23-year-old guard who made his first All-Star Game in February. Your mileage may vary on D'Angelo Russell's value, but the sign-and-trade was certainly an imaginative way to stop opposing coaches from using the box-and-one against Stephen Curry.
Russell is coming off a career season. He improved his efficiency as his usage rate jumped to 35 percent (in the 98th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass), earning praise for the way he orchestrated the Nets' offense. He has always been a clever playmaker, but in 2018-19 he found his comfort zone manipulating defenders in the pick-and-roll and pulling up for deep 3s when he was feeling it. You never knew when he might take over a game. As impressive as he was, though, critics can still point to his below-average defense, his poor playoff performance and his infrequent forays to the paint. The Warriors are betting that last season was the work of a star who will continue to rise.
As well as acquiring Russell (four years, $117 million), Golden State re-signed Klay Thompson to a max deal (five years, $190 million), extended Draymond Green on the richest deal they were allowed to give him (four years, $100 million) and got a bargain on Kevon Looney (three years, $15 million with a player option on the final season). The Warriors have an almost entirely new collection of role players, with Willie Cauley-Stein, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III, Omari Spellman and rookies Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Alen Smailagic in the mix. Coach Steve Kerr is in China right now, on Gregg Popovich's Team USA staff, and he has to hope that his team can follow in the footsteps of Pop's Spurs, with Curry, Thompson and Green serving as foundational figures as the front office builds new iterations of the team around them.
Kerr, however, said that sustaining Spurs-like success "may be a pipe dream, honestly," per the Bay Area News Group's Mark Medina.
The Russell experiment is both the most significant thing about the Warriors' offseason and a microcosm of it. You can see how it might work out, as they probably needed to run more pick-and-rolls anyway and they definitely needed someone to ease the offensive burden on Curry. The issue is on the other end, as Golden State's collective length, switchability and smarts have taken a hit. All we know for sure is the 2019-20 Warriors will have a different feel, facing challenges that Kerr and the core players haven't had in years. That in itself can be energizing.
"I think [Russell] is going to be great. First, just having a guy who can get you 20 points a night — especially with Klay out for most of the regular season -- that's a huge luxury. The biggest thing will be playing on and off the ball. D'Angelo is a great pick-and-roll player, obviously so is Steph, they're going to both start in the backcourt together. When Klay comes back, I would imagine all three of them would start…I don't think we'll have a problem." - Kerr
What could have been
Is there even a point in wondering how many titles the Warriors could have won if Durant wanted to stick around and didn't get hurt? It seemed like a foregone conclusion that he would go elsewhere, so I'm more curious about what they would have done this summer if they hadn't hard-capped themselves with the sign-and-trade. They could have brought back more of their own free agents, and they would have had the use of their salary-cap exceptions to add others.
How different, by the way, would you feel about Golden State's offseason if it hadn't been able to bring Looney back? Potentially losing him was one of the reasons the Russell deal was risky -- after watching him play the best basketball of his career in the playoffs, I was shocked to see him accept what seemed like a below-market-value contract.
Taking the temperature
A hypothetical conversation between someone who believes that the Warriors are still elite and someone who doesn't
Optimistic fan: Bob Myers did it again! I figured it would be a year or two before the front office found a way to get another star, but they got D-Lo on the first night of free agency! Klay is right: Everybody saying the dynasty is over is ignorant, and Russell is going to be a superstar. The vibe around the team is going to be so good now that expectations are lower and they can finally play like underdogs in the regular season again.
Skeptical fan: I hear you on the underdog thing, but that's because they're not nearly as good as they were with Durant. They'll miss Iguodala, too, and I'm not totally sold on any of the new guys. Russell is interesting, but I'm not sure about the fit and I'm not sure that the sign-and-trade was the best way the front office could have spent its money. Are you really that excited about giving him the max? I fear that the Warriors will revert to what they were for years before the dynasty: a team that can put up points but can't stop anybody.
Optimistic fan: How bad can their defense be with Draymond and Looney in the frontcourt? Klay should be back for the playoffs, too, and no one is going to want to play this team then. Even if you're right, which you're not, having D-Lo is still better than not having him because of his trade value. Stop being so cynical.
Skeptical fan: If your argument is that they needed to prioritize talent over fit, fine. There's nothing inherently wrong with getting Russell and figuring everything else out later. But if it doesn't work, do you think the market for him will be the same as it was last summer? Any scenario in which the Warriors want to trade Russell is also a scenario in which people around the league are wondering whether his breakout season was a real jump or just some hot (and unsustainable) shooting. At that point, I don't know if he has much positive trade value on a max deal, although maybe the Wolves would still want him because they need to keep Karl-Anthony Towns happy.
Optimistic fan: You're way too low on him. If it doesn't work, it'll be because he had to share the backcourt with one of the best players in the league and he had to defend better players than he would on a team with more two-way wings. If it comes to that, which, again, I don't think it will, other teams will believe they can unlock his star power in a different situation. Anyway, stop making this all about D-Lo. This entire offseason has been great, you dummy. I love that they got the Draymond extension out of the way. Looney is going to be this year's Brook Lopez in terms of value for money. I feel good about Burks' playmaking and Cauley-Stein realizing his insane defensive potential. I can't wait to see Steph win his third MVP award. No one is going to miss all the Durant drama. This is going to be so much fun.
Skeptical fan: I admit I am kinda pumped to see Curry run more pick-and-rolls and put up crazy numbers. It would be cool if he won another MVP. I just don't think his supporting cast is anywhere near as balanced as the one he had the last time he did it. It's not like they replaced Iguodala and Shaun Livingston with equally intelligent passers and equally versatile defenders. Maybe it comes to together and I look like a big hater; maybe it doesn't and they wind up fighting just to make the playoffs.
Cauley-Stein, 26, has the tools to thrive in Golden State. He can set screens and catch lobs from Curry and Russell, and he has also shown an ability to facilitate from the high post, which must appeal to Kerr. He is the rare center who is quick enough to stay with guards, and if you catch him on the right night you can come away thinking he must be one of the best defensive players in the league.
His tools, however, were evident throughout his four years in Sacramento, and his inconsistent production frustrated fans. Sometimes a player needs a change of scenery to be the best version of himself, and perhaps that is the case for Cauley-Stein. He is apparently working on his jumper and calling himself "Larry the Splash Uncle," which is delightful, but the way you'll know things are going well is if you watch him and think wow, this guy is everywhere.
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