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On Warriors' Big 3 Possibility In 2016

I was inspired by a piece from Tim Kawakami to do a walkthrough of how I think about a situation like the Golden State Warriors adding a max player in the summer of 2016.

Like Tim, I will use a conservative estimate of a $75 million salary cap for that 2016-17 season, though I will throw in some figures of how it would work with a $80 million cap that could be closer to what we actually see two summers from now.

The Non-Negotiables

When looking that far in the future, I strip the entire salary structure down and start with only the mandatory pieces. If we are talking about Golden State and a max player in 2016, that means just Stephen Curry and the max player. We know Curry’s 16-17 salary, but the other guy’s is a mystery right now. Fortunately, if that other player is Kevin Durant we can work it out.

The most Kevin Durant can be paid for the 16-17 season is the larger of 30% of the salary cap (calculated slightly differently than the actual salary cap) and 105% of his salary from the previous season. Even at a conservative $75 million salary cap, Durant would make more under the 30% calculation.

At a $75 million salary cap, the Warriors would have to carry $40.39 million or less in non-Curry salary to sign Kevin Durant with cap space. At an $80 million cap, this number jumps to about $43.89 million. For reference, LeBron’s max is about $4 million higher than Durant’s due to his greater amount of NBA experience.

The Money on the Books

That remaining $40.39 million or so can come from any source but must include everything if the Warriors are to sign a max player using cap space. That means on the books salaries as well as cap holds to pending free agents and clearing the space would also mean no trade exceptions and the much smaller Room Mid-Level Exception.

At present, the Warriors have about $30 million committed to Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Nemanja Nedovic for that season. It should be noted that Nedovic’s contract is a team option and Livingston’s contract is reportedly about half-guaranteed, so there would be a little wiggle room if either is still in the equation at that point.

The players not counted that the Warriors would presumably want to retain include 2015 restricted free agents Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Their combined price tag is larger than the $10 million remaining (there’s a chance each of them gets that much, though I expect Thompson to get much more and Green less) so that means Bob Myers would need to make some choices. When you add in Harrison Barnes hitting restricted free agency that summer the situation gets even more challenging.

Both Iguodala and Bogut will be expiring contracts that season and we know that teams will be clearing cap space with reckless abandon to acquire a star or two so there could be interest in either or both should they age reasonably. Depending on the salary they get, either Thompson or Green could price himself out of a spot on that 2016 Warriors team as well. If the Warriors want to sign someone to a max deal using cap space, at least one and likely two of Bogut, Iguodala, Thompson and Green will need to go.

The Bigger Swings

As I said before, you can see that $40.39 million for players beyond Curry and Durant in a series of different ways: it could be retaining existing  players either currently on their deals or signing new ones soon, adding new players via free agency or trades, or some combination of the two.

By far my favorite possibilities for Golden State in 2016 come from using that $40.39 million more aggressively. The Warriors have an elite player locked up to a below-market contract and should be close to a new arena and presumably a larger revenue stream from that and their local TV deal which expires at the end of the upcoming season. Furthermore, I sincerely doubt we see a hard cap in the new CBA so playing the free agency game for a soft cap and heavy luxury tax payments makes the most sense. Plus, building a strong core then makes it a near certainty that Stephen Curry would stick around when he hits unrestricted free agency the following year.

If they could clear the money, the Warriors could actually sign two max players even at the higher 35% salary slot and still keep Curry. Doing so would require some major sacrifices at some point since the team has so many other assets. Fortunately, the fact that other teams will be clearing the decks too means that Golden State would not have to be particularly proactive unless someone’s contract looks substantially worse two summers from now. That said, we have no idea how willing other franchises would be to enable a team to have a core of Stephen Curry and two of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Al Horford and Goran Dragic. That said, each individual piece holds value right now so the sales pitch would be much easier. This approach worked reasonably well for the Rockets with Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik even though the end result may not have been to their liking.

This concept of a core with three max players also helps explain why moving Klay Thompson to get Kevin Love makes so much sense if Love is willing to commit to staying long-term. Even if Love takes the most money he can, the Warriors could still open up another max slot in 2016 without too much trouble as long as the league does not play some serious hanky panky with the new TV deal and the cap. We know right now that Thompson will command a massive salary on his next contract and a team with one of the best young players in the sport should be able to command someone better than Thompson to be the No. 2 or even No. 3 player, as good as Thompson could become. While the Warriors have a strong team right now, a foundation of three All-Stars in their mid to late twenties would be legitimately special regardless of what other teams around the league can manage that summer.

Bob Myers and the rest of the Warriors’ front office have some major decisions to make but the combination of Stephen Curry’s below market contract and the expanding salary cap create some genuinely compelling options.

The Human Element

Through five years of covering the NBA as a credentialed member of the media, numerous people have asked for my biggest take-away from the experience. My answer has always been the same: despite all the incredible feats we see on the court, spending time in locker rooms shows the human side of the players. These are people that can do things I could never dream of doing myself but they also have egos and insecurities, pride and obligations that loom large even in their surreal lives.

Four years ago, the joining of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in Miami stood as the final signpost on the road from elite athletes having intense rivalries to a more interconnected and businesslike league. After The Decision in 2010, I attributed some of this to the rise of AAU basketball and the simple fact that current NBA players have spent so much more time playing both with and against elite talents across the country from a young age and forged friendships then and later with connections though agents and endorsements. The pride and animosity that loomed so large in the 80’s and 90’s lives largely in the rear view mirror.

Heck, we saw Ray Allen jump from the Celtics to his biggest rival’s team for the better opportunity and he may do it again soon. The best players in the sport have transitioned from supermen to businessmen to being a business, man, at the same time the league as a whole transitioned from family owned teams to major enterprises. Like it or not, this NBA should be around for a long, long time.

Amazingly enough, the owners' intense overreaction to what Miami accomplished in 2010 fueled this homecoming as well. By effectively eliminating extensions as a logical path for elite free agents, the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement ensured that LeBron James would test the market as an unrestricted free agent- this summer would look very different with the old CBA’s extension system. While Cleveland would have held intrigue anyway because of its place in LeBron’s heart, a streak of insanely good fortune peaking at the perfect time made it the right basketball decision as well. It took a miracle to get LeBron out of Cleveland and took a miracle to get him back. While I think LeBron would have looked seriously at the Cavs regardless of what happened in the draft, his hometown team winning the lottery and securing the No. 1 pick substantially narrowed the talent gap in the short and long terms. Whether the Cavs keep Wiggins or use him to acquire Kevin Love, the team added a difference-maker in a way that would not have been feasible from the No. 9 slot.

In case they needed even more luck, the Cavs also got help from Father Time and the CBA. Despite their great success the past four seasons, Miami had peaked because of the limitations put in place in the new CBA. Unless two or more of the Big Three took gargantuan paycuts, the best they could do in terms of additions were the mid-level each season and praying a flier or two worked out. The increased value of first round picks meant buying into the 20-30 range would be unlikely and the success rate of second rounders has been dubious even in strong drafts. Barring the unforeseen, the Heat would have been lucky to be a top five team in the league the next two years even if LeBron ages gracefully despite still being the favorites to make it out of the decrepit Eastern Conference. Even though Cleveland’s roster carries more unknowns and far less experience, they have a championship ceiling now and that was enough to turn the tide.

As much as the basketball part of the equation mattered, Cleveland had advantages that no other city could match. Even in the NBA, few players have ever repped a city and area harder than LeBron James. Even after the wake of emotional destruction after The Decision, he maintained a summer residence in Akron and a meaningful connection with the area. Northeast Ohio meant a great deal to LeBron and his inner circle. I got the feeling a long time ago that all Cleveland had to do was get close- my pessimism was always that even with Nick Gilbert the human good luck charm the Cavs could not stay out of their own way long enough to make it a fair fight. To the credit of David Griffin and the lottery gods, they did.

While wonderful tools like the Trade Checker and the NBA2K video games help us enjoy the Association in different and engaging ways, they also obscure the undeniable truth that basketball players are human beings with their own motivations and priorities. Pat Riley and the Heat did an excellent job on the aggregate bringing LeBron into the fold and adding enough quality pieces to put together an incredible four year run- no one should diminish the difficulty of making four straight NBA finals and repeating as champions. Despite all their talent and star power. Miami never suffered from the “Disease of More” their architect coined more than thirty-five years ago. They were just vanquished by good fortune like what brought The King to South Beach in the first place.

Sometimes the human element can just be too much to overcome.

The Law Of Small Numbers

Part of what makes basketball so fun is that it combines the collaborative play of team sports with individual dominance. Even though team quality matters a great deal, we know that stars win championships in the NBA.

Five years ago, I dug out the stat for my old site that since 1956, only five teams had ever won an NBA championship without a player who won or would win an MVP award.

Even more astoundingly, only the Detroit Pistons have won a championship without a player who had already won an MVP award since 1981 when the Boston Celtics took the title on a team that had a pre-MVP Larry Bird along with Parish, McHale, and Tiny Archibald. Both of those streaks have added another six champions since that piece was written.

While Kevin Love does not factor heavily into the conversation of players who could win the MVP, he has been an elite player before the age of 26.

NBA teams understand this and value elite talent. We see this throughout the transaction system. The other reason why high-quality players fetch such high prices is that there are not enough of them to go around.

I call this the NBA’s law of small numbers: if you have a valuable asset rare enough, teams will find a way to make it happen.

The Miami Heat cleared their books via sorcery to create the three-player allure strong enough to draw LeBron James away from other opportunities in 2010, and this year we have seen quality franchises like the Houston Rockets combine space for a max player with a strong roster.

All of these factors make the Golden State Warriors’ apparent caginess at getting a Kevin Love deal completed dangerous for their future. While taking a quick glance at the market for Love around draft day could have led to confidence in Oakland, any concept that letting the string play out would be to their advantage would be deeply misguided. After all, the other effect of the NBA’s law of small numbers is that some teams do not get what they want.

In this case, that could potentially be three potential teams: Houston, the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers if LeBron ends up there. With LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and possibly Chris Bosh sitting as the major difference-makers this time with exactly none of them spending last season with any of those three teams, it always stood to reason that at least one or more of them would miss out on the best of the best.

Inevitably, whatever franchises end up without a chair when the music stops will turn to Kevin Love. This should scare the Warriors because each of those teams holds assets that they cannot match should those teams choose to deploy them: Chicago possesses a high-end young player in Jimmy Butler on the same salary timeline as Klay Thompson and quality cost-controlled players that could help Minnesota now in Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, while Houston has a series of fun young prospects and a shiny new draft pick from New Orleans, and Cleveland has a whole ton of assets if they can pick up the best player in the sport with cap space.

Flip Saunders may like Klay Thompson quite a bit and may see David Lee as an asset despite his contract. Even then, the Bulls and Cavs could put together trade offers to blow Golden State’s out of the water. While we do not know if those teams will enter the Kevin Love derby, the mere possibility should have indicated that the Warriors needed to push hard for a good deal instead of a slight chance at a steal.

The even more jarring fact is that the Warriors would have needed to make a big sacrifice somewhere even if they somehow added Kevin Love without losing Klay Thompson in the process. For the 2015-16 season, a team that has never paid the luxury tax would have commitments to Stephen Curry, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Love with both Thompson and Draymond Green in line for substantial raises. Simply put, I would not have expected Joe Lacob and company to foot that kind of luxury tax bill for two-plus seasons even with a new arena on the horizon. That means at least one of those key pieces would have to go anyway- why not use one to make this trade happen?

If the reporting on this story has been correct, the Warriors better have an ace in their pocket or pray for a huge season from Thompson because playing the long game rarely pays off when non-major markets go after elite young players.

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