Perhaps it’s too soon to write this column on the Warriors. And perhaps not. Since the founding of the NBA, 32 teams have gone into Game 5 of the NBA Finals up 3-1. All 32 of those teams went on to win the championship. So if LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers are to win the title, they need to not only overcome the Golden State Warriors, but history itself. Someone always has to be first, but this probably isn’t the time.
So, it’s good to be the (soon-to-be) two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. Three-peats are hard—only three franchises have won three or more titles in a row—but if anyone is prepared to do so, it’s the Warriors. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are locked in through 2019 and 2020 respectively, while Steph Curry’s huge payday is coming in 2017. The end of that contract will be brutal, but it will totally have been worth it.
Then there is, of course, the specter of free-agent-to-be Kevin Durant, a 6’11” version of Curry with championship aspirations.
Four key Warriors hit free agency this summer. They are Mareesse Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, and Harrison Barnes. Speights and Barbosa are easy—one suspects a reasonable offer will be enough to keep them around to go for three. Ezeli is slightly more difficult. At 26, he’s the same age as Serge Ibaka, but he’s still something of a project. He’s athletic and long, a prime post defender in the modern NBA, but he’s also coming off a season where he averaged just seven points and six boards (admittedly in just 17 minutes per). It’ll all depend on the money. Continuity is a good thing, but his skillset appears to be replaceable. Losing assistant coach Luke Walton to the Lakers might hurt more than potentially losing Ezeli.
Barnes is the tough one. With the cap skyrocketing and many teams looking for three-and-D guys, Barnes will be a coveted commodity, and likely receive multiple max offers. He’ll have his choice of suitors. Maybe he won’t want to start at the bottom again, but at 24 with two rings, it’s kind of now or never. As for the Warriors, do they really want to use a max slot on Barnes when they’re already paying Thompson and Green a combined $30 million a year (with Curry’s deal nearing a max renewal in another year)? Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala come off the books that summer too, and they’ll likely take paycuts to stay, but payroll still matters.
This is where three-peats get tricky. Contracts expire, big paydays are expected, and a pecking order emerges. Some stars can handle making less than less-heralded teammates—like Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan—and the window remains open. Some can’t—like Shawn Kemp—and the window slams shut. What makes things even more interesting in the Warriors case is that their superstar DOES seem likely to be able to deal with making less (because he has). There’s no disputing that Curry should be the highest-paid Warrior—as Dirk was on the Mavs and Duncan was on the Spurs—and he hasn’t been yet. He undoubtedly will. Which has to change how the rest falls out.
In the case of Barnes, this may be one of those times where both sides benefit from a breakup. Barnes gets the max elsewhere and gets to see whether he can lead a team, and the Warriors free up salary to reload with more skilled athletes who fit their system. Barnes has been important to what the Warriors do, but he also has never posted a higher PER than 13.7. Sure, a breakout season might be on the horizon, but who do you take shots away from to get more for Barnes? Steph? Klay? And while Barnes has earned a max deal, there are other players who would take a paycut to audition for a spot in the death lineup.
Then there is, of course, the specter of free-agent-to-be Kevin Durant, a 6’11” version of Curry with championship aspirations. He could take Barnes’s spot in the starting lineup and be a much better deal in the bargain. Durant’s lowest single-season PER (not that it’s the be-all, end-all stat, but it’s a decent marker, nonetheless) was 15.8 and that was in his rookie year. He hasn’t posted one below 20 since. And he’s still just 27. It’s most likely he stays in Oklahoma City for at least one season, but the Warriors still need to take a run at him. For KD, you break the bank.
I’m not an NBA GM, but I’m pretty sure when you’re coming off a 73-win championship season and talking about the possibility of signing Kevin Durant, you’re in a good spot. The Warriors have gotten themselves into the position where, even if they just re-sign their own free agents, they should be the prohibitive favorites to win the title again next season. With Durant, who knows? Set the line at 80 wins. And take the over.