Last summer, when the Warriors brought in D'Angelo Russell on a sign-and-trade with the Brooklyn Nets and immediately gave him a four-year, $117 million max contract, everyone had the same question: Do they intend to keep him?
It's a complicated question that may take until this summer to answer. Speaking on ESPN's recent Trade Special show with Zach Lowe, Adrian Wojnarowski said the Warriors will not be "making calls" on Russell as the February trade deadline approaches, and that the plan in Golden State appears to be to wait until this summer to make a decision on Russell's future with the team.
It makes sense. Entering play on Wednesday, the Warriors have the worst record in the league at 5-23. They are very likely going to end up with a high lottery pick in next summer's draft, perhaps even No. 1 overall, which would obviously give the Warriors a ton of trade value. They could move just the pick. They could move just Russell. Multiple sources who spoke with CBS Sports expect the Warriors to seriously consider packaging Russell and their 2020 first-round pick, which would surely net them a big-time return.
If the Warriors only look to trade Russell on his own, you get mixed reviews as to what teams think he's worth. Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that Russell could "fetch a first-round pick and a solid rotation player." On the ESPN Trade Special, Lowe said "there's a healthy debate in the league about whether Russell has positive or negative trade value on that max contract."
One Eastern Conference scout who spoke with CBS Sports sees Russell as a clear positive, with one caveat.
"It has to be the right situation," the scout said. "Theoretically, if he has the ball in his hands with control of the offense, and he has guys around him who can cover for him on defense, he can be really good. We've seen that. Personally, I think he might be the best pick-and-roll player in the league. He can be so dominant when he's playing on his terms. He's so good with his body and kind of that zig-zag handle, creating space, pulling up for that little mid-range jumper. The defense obviously isn't great, so it's a give and take. But I just think he can be so good offensively that he's still a really valuable player if it's the right fit."
Which begs the question: Is Golden State the right fit for Russell? And vice versa? This season was supposed to shed some light on that pairing, particularly between Steph Curry and Russell. We know when Curry comes back, Russell is not going to have the ball as much. But with Curry out, we haven't gotten to see him function in that role. Steve Kerr hasn't gone overboard in turning the offense over to Russell in Curry's absence, but he's still running pick-and-roll on 41 percent of all possessions, per NBA.com.
For some perspective on that, Curry only ran pick-and-roll on 21 percent of possessions last season. The Warriors don't like to run pick-and-roll. They want to move the ball. Move players. Cut. Pass. Move some more. In a world that includes Curry and Thompson, not to mention Draymond Green running point-forward duties in transition and out of the high post, Russell is not going to get those same individual opportunities with the Warriors, who may ultimately be grappling with a short-term vs. long-term approach.
Short term, you can understand the Warriors believing a two-way wing would serve their immediate purposes better than Russell. With Curry, Thompson and Green healthy and back in the fold next season, that's the core of the team that won a championship in 2015 and 73 games the next season. The missing piece would be your Harrison Barnes type. A switchable defender. A floor spacer.
The Warriors could perhaps get something close to that model for Russell, whose offense next to Curry and Thompson would be more luxury than necessity, while his defense would be a liability on a team with immediate championship aspirations.
The long-term outlook could be a different story. Curry will be 32 at the start of next season. Green and Thompson will both be 30. This core is going to be exiting its prime before we know it, and whereas most organizations fall off a cliff when their championship core ages out because they've been too good to acquire young talent during their glory run, the Warriors could be positioned with Russell and a potential top-three pick this summer to transition right into their next era of winning. That's hard to give up.
In a perfect world, Russell would cover all bases -- serving as a supporting piece on a championship team now and a foundational piece on a younger team in the future. If the Warriors believe he fills both roles, it's a no-brainer. They keep him.
But again, this was supposed to be the season they figured that out, and this season hasn't been anything like they expected. Making decisions of this much importance, with this little of relevant on-court information (playing alongside Curry and Thompson), is a high-wire act that one way or another is going to impact your franchise in major ways for years to come.