February 19, 2015 may seem like a long way away and in NBA circles it feels like an eternity at present. After all, the Association will experience four playoff rounds, one crazy offseason, and two trade deadlines in that time.
However, February 19, 2015 should hold significant importance for those who care about the Golden State Warriors because at the end of that day the basketball world will know how serious and competent their ownership group will be for the foreseeable future.
While owners certainly can and do change their ways from time to time, most stay true to form once we figure it out. Some owners are hands-on while others are not and some write angry letters in Comic Sans while others do not. These kinds of differences help give each team a distinct and fascinating personality and also make the league more predictable in a broader sense. Fans and media members alike know (or think we know) a wide variety of information about Joe Lacob’s ownership style but there are still a few pieces that are impossible to know yet.
Actual Willingness to Pay the Luxury Tax
The main reason 2/19/15 matters is that we will finally know if Golden State’s owners are actually willing to pay the luxury tax. Bob Myers did a fabulous job maneuvering draft picks and players to gain the ability to sign Andre Iguodala outright using cap space in 2013, a move necessary to call the bluff of the Denver Nuggets and acquire him via sign-and-trade over the summer. While those transactions made the team better and likely saved Lacob some money, they also deprived us of the chance to find out if ownership really has the willingness to pay the tax when put up against it. As someone who has covered and followed the league, recent years are littered with owners who talked a big talk about footing the bill and then cowered behind fiscal responsibility when the opportunity presented itself. Staring the extra financial outlay in the face apparently leads to different decisions than puffing without consequence.
While the Warriors avoided the toughest financial decisions in 13-14, it will prove much more difficult to do so by the 14-15 trade deadline. Klay Thompson becomes eligible for an extension this summer, meaning the front office has a tough negotiation ahead of them and a rough eight month waiting period if the two sides cannot come to an agreement. With Stephen Curry, David Lee, Andre Iguodala, and the now-extended Andrew Bogut on the books for 15-16 for more than $50 million combined for that season, Thompson's inevitable raise likely pushes the Warriors into tax land without meaningful changes, especially since Draymond Green will be a free agent in 2015 as well, and Harrison Barnes follows one year behind. While both Thompson and Barnes have not improved as much as hoped or expected this season, rookie contracts hold players under value so strongly that even disappointing seasons will leave the Warriors paying more for them than they have for their first four campaigns.
Even if Thompson does not receive an extension on or before Halloween 2014, the 2015 trade deadline will illuminate what paths the front office wants to leave open as possibilities. Unless they want to follow in the footsteps of former minority owner Vivek Ranadivé and let a Restricted Free Agent go with a minimal return (which was the right move for the Kings with Tyreke Evans, for the record), the team would have significant trouble getting under the 15-16 tax after the 2015 deadline. While a modest summer of 2014 could leave the team under the tax again next year, pushing it back again one year from now would take some serious sacrifices and tell us what we need to know.
While not necessarily mandatory for either team success or for consideration as a quality owner, a proven willingness to pay the big bucks necessary to keep a quality team together adds legitimacy to the Warriors’ aspiration to be considered an upper echelon NBA team. After all, only one team has won the NBA championship in the luxury tax era without paying it that season: the 2005-06 Miami Heat. While non-tax paying teams have made the Finals five other times in the last decade, none of the others held the trophy at the end of the day. On top of that reality, teams that have never bucked up convey a different impression to superstars looking to commit to a franchise. Look at all the hoops Chris Paul made Donald Sterling jump through last summer before he re-signed with the Clippers. He had the power to force his owner to show his mettle and apparently Sterling did enough to keep Paul with the Clippers after finally pulling the trigger and adding Doc Rivers. Unsurprisingly, these tests from star players often come when they are looking at their third contract and their first bite at Unrestricted Free Agency. For the Warriors, the year that matters here will be 2017 because Stephen Curry can go wherever he likes at that point. In my eyes, Joe Lacob and company have to prove their dedication before then, ideally soon enough to keep Curry’s eyes from wandering in the final year of his contract with free agency looming shortly ahead.
Deciding what to do with Mark Jackson
While reasonable minds can and do differ on how good a coach Mark Jackson has been for the Warriors, the front office faces a major series of decisions on his future between now and 2/19/15. Over the summer, they picked up the fourth year option on Jackson’s contract without working out any sort of longer term extension. That final season under his current contract would make Jackson functionally a coaching free agent after 14-15 without a new agreement. While that kind of flexibility can be desired and even the right move depending on how the team sees him, we can all be sure that Jackson would prefer both the financial and structural stability created by a firmer long-term commitment. In some ways even more importantly, coaches and players around the league will closely monitor the situation because it marks the first big decision this ownership group has had to make on one of “their” guys. After all, Lacob himself lauded Jackson as “the right person to guide this team into the future and help us achieve the success that we are striving for as an organization" when he was hired in June of 2011. Playing games with someone like that can lead to optics problems around the league, especially when the person in the middle is as popular and (comparatively) successful as Jackson. Bad decisions or even good calls handled poorly can help start distinctly unhelpful narratives and shift perceptions.
I am not advocating for any particular solution to this question at the present, just noting that it must be handled deftly and coherently.
Each of these major issues will tell the NBA what kind of owner they have in Joe Lacob and what tier of organization they can expect the Warriors to be for years to come. With stakes that high, 375 days should not be that long a wait.