NBA

Fixing the Golden State Warriors

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The Golden State Warriors have seen quite a bit of upheaval during the last 12 months. A year ago, they were the darlings of the league after an electric upset of the Denver Nuggets. Since then, they (rightly) let Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack go, then acquired Andre Iguodala in a sign-and-trade that was enabled by the trade of 2014 and 2017 first round picks to the Utah Jazz.

Yet after a 51-win regular season and a hard-fought first round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors have fired head coach Mark Jackson with one year remaining on his contract. Whether that was a wise decision remains to be seen, but with Jackson’s firing the pressure is now squarely on management to nail their next coaching hire and improve the personnel. And, as we shall see, the pressure is also going to be on owner Joe Lacob and his ownership group to open their wallets to maximize this team’s odds at a championship. Here’s what the Warriors should do moving forward:

Evaluate The Team

Warriors management has to determine whether it thinks this can be a championship core at some point in the future. A fairly obvious first step, right? As General Manager Bob Myers said to me earlier in the year, “The end goal is and will always remain winning championships and doing it over as long of a period of time as you can.”

How close the Warriors are must be determined so that management can figure out whether it should work on alleviating the weaknesses around this core or if major changes need to be made. But answering that question may be more difficult for this Warriors team than for any other good team in recent NBA history.

On one hand, the team made the playoffs for the second straight year, an unprecedented development for the franchise in the past 20 years. They improved from 47 wins to 51 wins, and perhaps more importantly from 44 “expected wins”* to 54 this year.* The team’s plus 5.4 net rating was sixth in the NBA, and the defense improved all the way to third in points allowed per possession. From a statistical perspective, this was a team that was a fringe championship contender. One could argue that the team very well might have defeated the Clippers had Andrew Bogut been healthy in the first round, or even if they had one more dependable athletic big man to replace him.

*The number of wins predicted by their point differential.

On the other hand, the team was still merely the number six seed in the West for the second straight year, and did not advance a round as it did last season. The team blew a number of winnable games against inferior opponents at home during the year that perhaps cost them a chance at the top half of the Western Conference bracket. Only a few of the more analytical writers even mentioned the possibility that the Warriors could be a championship dark horse even in their best stretches during the year. Even with a healthy Bogut it is nearly impossible to imagine the Warriors navigating through the Clippers, Thunder and Spurs without homecourt advantage this season. And perhaps the only reasons that first round series was so close were the Clippers’ distraction from the Donald Sterling affair and Chris Paul’s balky hamstring.

Whichever view you take, it seems clear the team was not quite a championship contender this year. Is this core likely to become so in the future? Stephen Curry had another healthy year and emerged as certainly a top-10 and possibly even top-five player in the NBA. Draymond Green emerged as one of the most versatile defenders in the league and vastly improved on what was a sub-replacement level season offensively a year ago to become a very solid role player. He can improve even further by becoming more of a knock down shooter. Klay Thompson improved to become a better on-ball defender and finally began to diversify his shooting-based game with more passing and drives to the basket as the year ended, though his overall season and playoff statistics still suffered from a dearth of assists, rebounds and free throws. It is also worth noting that Green and Thompson basically never get hurt. Meanwhile, former lottery pick Harrison Barnes regressed from what was a middling rookie season, posting terrible efficiency on well below-average usage. Barnes was talked about as a future star after last year’s playoffs*, but at this point his only true merits are shooting standstill threes and playing above-average defense. Nevertheless, at only 22 years old, Barnes does have the skillset to develop into a reasonable three and D wing who could come off the bench or start in a pinch.

*Surprisingly, given the fact he had a mere 13.8 PER even in the playoffs, which was by far his apex for the year.

NBA players generally hit their primes between 25 and 27, although there is some evidence that superstars may peak slightly later. So that is it for Warriors mainstays who are likely to improve next year. Andrew Bogut (30 next year), Andre Iguodala (31) and David Lee (32) are now at the point where they will begin declining. All three struggled with nagging injuries this year.

Lee has looked athletically overmatched of late, especially against the Clippers. He may have to transition into a role as bench scorer as early as next season, as he is going to struggle to score one on one against the league’s more athletic players and he lacks the athleticism to make a positive impact on defense or the boards. Iguodala, while he rated very well by advanced plus minus metrics, averaged a mere 10.4 points per 36 minutes. He could well decline to an unacceptable individual level offensively very quickly, and while he was a great team defender his ability to lock down great scorers is already on the wane. Bogut should hold up a bit better over time due to his size, but injury is an ever-present risk for him.

Therefore, it seems likely that among this core, improvement from the young guys will be countered by decline from the older guys, resulting in a similar performance from those players overall during the next few years. It is possible that one of the younger players breaks out to lift the core to new heights, but equally possible one of the older players drops off the map completely.

It is understandable that Warriors fans are shocked at the dismissal of Jackson. They just watched their best team since 1976, when Rick Barry brought a team that won the 1975 championship to the Western Conference finals, where they lost in seven.*

*That was a series in which it was alleged that Barry refused to shoot for much of Game 7 because his teammates did not come to his defense in a fight.

But the fact that the team has a terrible history is irrelevant to the team’s future goals of competing for a championship. Since this year’s core was not good enough to win one, and should play about the same going forward, it is clear that changes will need to be made.  Unfortunately, the team went close to all-in with the trade of two future draft picks, and contracts for Bogut and Iguodala that last until 2017. And Barnes’ value has decreased mightily since his playoff heights last season.  Therefore, the options are relatively limited for making massive improvements. Nevertheless, there are a few paths open to the Warriors.

Be Willing to Spend Big. Now.

In the modern NBA, no discussion of a team’s plans can be complete without a discussion of its finances. The Warriors have approximately $65 million in salary commitments to 11 players under contract for next year assuming Green is retained, as he will be since his $916,000 non-guaranteed salary is preposterously cheap for his production. That is over the projected* $63 million salary cap , but well under the projected $77 million luxury tax and, more importantly, the projected $81 million “apron,” over which transactions such as sign-and-trades and use of salary exceptions become quite limited.

*Those 11: Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee, Bogut, Barnes, Green, Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli, Nemanja Nedovic and Ognjen Kuzmic. This assumes the Warriors do not extend Jordan Crawford a $3.2 million qualifying offer to retain the rights to match any contract offered to him as a restricted free agent.

These figures are higher than was originally believed, a fact that could become very useful for the Warriors given the availability of a $9.8 million trade exception left over from Richard Jefferson’s trade to the Jazz last summer (which must be used prior to July 10) and the $5.3 million mid-level exception (MLE).* These exceptions can be used piecemeal, but cannot be aggregated. However, the trade exception could potentially be used to essentially “sign” a free agent for up to $9.8 million, assuming his prior team could be persuaded to assist via sign-and-trade.** The Warriors could also include sweeteners like their 2015 first-round pick (which can dealt after the draft) or perhaps Barnes to entice a team to trade a player into the exception as well, likely an overpaid but still-productive player already under contract from a team looking to dump salary.

*It should be noted that using the mid-level exception or receiving a player in sign-and-trade would result in the Warriors being hard-capped at the $81 million apron for 2014-15.

**If a free agent’s prior team believes the player will depart regardless, it will often agree to a sign- and-trade to obtain a trade exception and/or a middling future draft pick, such as the Bucks in the J.J. Redick sign-and-trade last summer.

However, the upshot of using these two exceptions to improve the team means that the Warriors would almost certainly pay luxury tax next year, as taking on $14.1 million in salary would put the Warriors at about $79 million for 13 players. The team might also merely dump unproductive guaranteed players like Kuzmic and Nedovic to free up a little more room, but avoiding the tax could prove difficult. Next year, they would only be at most $4 million over the tax, resulting in luxury tax payments of up $6 million and further costs in foregoing the tax revenues distributed by the league to non-taxpaying teams.

The luxury tax chickens would really come home to roost the next year, assuming whomever were added via the MLE or trade exception had multi-year contracts. Green will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015, and Thompson will be if he and the team do not agree on a lucrative extension this offseason (which would kick in for 2015-16). Those two players could command up to $15 million combined in annual salary, if not more. That could push the team salary to $95 million or more in 2015-16, about $15 million over the projected luxury tax for that year. That would mean that the Warriors would be paying approximately $95 million in salary plus another approximately $28.75 million in luxury tax in 2015-16 for a year until Lee’s contract expired in the summer of 2016.* The team could also try to bribe a rebuilding team to take Lee’s contract to minimize the tax payments, as he probably will not be particularly useful by then. After that, the bill would become manageable again until the expiration of Curry, Bogut and Iguodala in the summer of 2017 would enable a major makeover.

*For nerds, the formula: $1.50/$1 for the first $5 million over the tax, then $1.75/$1 for the next $5 million, then $2.50/$1 for the next $5 million, $3.25/$1 for the next $5 million, and then increasing by $0.50/$1 for every additional $5 million after that.

It is not necessarily the case that players acquired with these two exceptions must have multi-year contracts, but the better they are the more likely they are to demand them. With big new contracts for Green and Thompson looming, the Warriors will not be able to add any significant free agents after this summer until 2017, as their new contracts plus the current core alone would put the Warriors into the tax and close to the apron. The time to strike must be this summer.

Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob has made key changes to what was once a downtrodden franchise. He is is obsessed with winning to the point of putting enormous pressure on management and the coaching staff. Will he and his partners sacrifice profits to maximize the team’s chance to win as Curry enters his prime? And how much in profits are they willing to sacrifice?

Hire a Great Coach

The Warriors are certainly taking a risk in firing Jackson, who despite his other foibles succeeded in getting his players to defend and to play together. These are perhaps the two primary jobs for an NBA coach. Some have argued that Jackson is not really responsible for the solid defense, pointing to the systems implemented by former assistants Mike Malone and Darren Erman and the intelligence of the players on the roster as the primary impetus. But the fact remains that the team defended at an elite level in last year’s playoffs and all season this year with Jackson, and we don’t know whether they will for another coach.

The good news is that Golden State has the best talent on hand of any opening, unless Oklahoma City were to falter and relieve Scott Brooks. With great fans, a wonderful community and (hopefully) ownership committed to spend, Lacob, Myers and company should be able to lure the best candidate on the market. Evaluating coaches who have not been head men before is very difficult, but winning coaches such as Stan Van Gundy and Mike D’Antoni are available. However, both have had their personality clashes and dysfunction at previous stops with both management and players, which could make management gun-shy about pulling the trigger on those coaches. Steve Kerr has also been discussed; from a personality standpoint he is nearly as beloved a figure as exists in the NBA today. He has solid NBA experience as a GM with the Phoenix Suns, but has never coached. He, like all first-time head coaches, would represent a risk as well.

For my money, I would roll the dice with Van Gundy were he willing. He has shown the ability to coach excellent defenses and got more out of his teams in Orlando than anyone had a right to.

Kick the Tires on a Big Move With David Lee

Of all the Warriors players, Lee is likely the worst fit going forward unless he somehow learns to shoot threes at age 32. Given his odd shooting form, which does not particularly utilize his legs, that seems unlikely. Lee is a big salary and overpaid at this point, but he could possibly be traded for a player signed to a four-year deal last summer if his current team has buyer’s remorse. Barnes could also potentially be added to complete the deal if negotiations so require.

The perfect example of such a player is Josh Smith.* Smith was awful for the Pistons, compiling his worst statistics in years while playing out of position at the three and taking jumpers far too frequently and inaccurately. Lee was undeniably better last year. But Smith is much younger, and is excellent defensively when playing the four in the right system. His presence would make the Warriors absolutely impossible to score on, as they could switch everything from the two through four positions and protect the rim with Smith and Bogut. With room to operate as a four, Smith would also make a nice pick-and-roll partner with Curry and could take bigger fours off the dribble. He and Iguodala would also be terrors in transition. And Smith wouldn’t need to take nearly as many jumpers on a team with Curry and Thompson as shooters around him.

*Would the Pistons do this trade? That depends what their as yet unnamed GM thinks of Barnes, what happens with restricted free agent Greg Monroe and whether they think Smith is salvageable. If Monroe returns, then the Pistons would be unlikely to accept Lee.

Smith would be a risk, but he has much more upside if the cost is only Lee and possibly Barnes. Financially, there is little cost in flexibility since Smith’s contract will expire along with nearly everyone else’s after 2017, although the Warriors would be looking at another year of potentially hefty tax payments in 2016-17 since Smith’s contract is a year longer than Lee’s.

This sort of trade would not have to happen for Smith necessarily, but it gives an example of what the Warriors could do with Lee. The Warriors’ management has proved very creative in the past with the Iguodala, Crawford and Blake deals, so one can be certain they will exhaust all possible avenues.

Address the Offense off the Bench

Regardless of whether Lee or someone else is the starting power forward, the Warriors’ biggest regular season weakness was offense off the bench. The team scored a top-five rate with Curry in the game, but cratered to near league-worst levels when he was out. Barnes and Crawford were tried in the role of bench creator, but neither was any good during the regular year. Armed with the MLE and the Jefferson trade exception, the Warriors might acquire one or more of the following free agents to handle the ball and/or create offense from the bench:

Vince Carter
Devin Harris
Darren Collison
Xavier Henry
Mike Miller
D.J. Augustin
Patty Mills
Greivis Vasquez

I am partial to Mills and Vasquez of that group. Vasquez in particular could play with Curry and guard less threatening wing players with Thompson, Iguodala and Green available to take on tougher threats. Another option would be trading for an overpaid player that another team doesn’t want to fill this role.

Acquire a Two-Way Third Big Man

While the Warriors got a wonderful performance from Jermaine O’Neal considering his age, he is a free agent and also lacks the mobility, explosion and/or shooting the Warriors would ideally have in a big off the bench. Marreese Speights can score on occasion, but kills the defense due to his lack of awareness and failures to execute the scheme.

Ezeli missed all of 2013-14 with a knee injury. His absence was pointed to as a reason for the struggles of the second unit, but Ezeli seemed like a player best suited as a third center even before the injury. Although he started at times in 2012-13, he had only a 9.3 PER and somehow had a .467 TS% despite using only 10 percent of the team’s possessions and never shooting outside of five feet. He also has horrendous hands. Ezeli is a force blocking shots and on the boards, but has so many offensive limitations that he is unlikely to be a player worthy of major playing time going forward.

Therefore, a true two-way big man is needed, especially considering that Andrew Bogut’s minutes will likely continue to be limited during the regular season. Not all of these players fit the bill, but available free agents include:

Spencer Hawes
Channing Frye
Ekpe Udoh (restricted)
Boris Diaw
Emeka Okafor
Chris Andersen (player option)

Hawes and Frye would be particularly deadly with their shooting ability, although either would likely command a high enough salary that the Warriors would have to dip into the trade exception and secure the assistance of the Cavs or Suns to get that done.

Develop the Young Talent

We touched on the need for Thompson to diversify his game. If he can become more of a threat posting up, coming off screens and playmaking for others on such plays, he could play with the second unit and alleviate some of the scoring woes. And there should still be some (if not much) hope for Barnes to become a quality scorer, as he has shown flashes such as a 30-point performance in the meaningless season finale in Denver. He supposedly has dominated in practice at times, so perhaps another offseason and a new coaching staff can unlock his talent. While I do not believe he will ever have the quickness and moves to score efficiently against real wing defenders, perhaps amazing development could prove me wrong.

Speights, while he has defensive issues, could become a real bench weapon if he turns more of his two-point jumpers into threes. He flashed that kind of range at times during the year, so it is possible. He is under contract for two more years, so the Warriors need to do what they can to maximize his effectiveness.

It is hard to imagine how Curry could improve on his skills, but he could at least serve to cut down on his turnovers through better decision-making.  He could also stand to get stronger to avoid being bumped off his path by stronger guards and provide at least some modicum of resistance when he is posted up on switches.

About Nate Duncan

Nate Duncan

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.