The NBA Playoffs start in just over 3 weeks. The Golden State Warriors are within reach of finishing with the best record in the NBA for the third straight season. They’ve been to the Finals twice, won a title and turned Harrison Barnes into Kevin Durant (and hopefully briefly into Matt Barnes). The good news is that Durant will reportedly be back for the playoffs. As for the bad news…
The Warriors have had a turbulent season. At least as turbulent of a season as is possible when winning 80% of your games as you move towards the #1 seed. When Kevin Durant went down he was leading the team in points, rebounds and blocks. The Warriors immediately went through a rough 2-5 stretch before rebounding to win five straight against one definite playoff team (Thunder), one likely playoff team (Bucks) and three lottery teams (76ers, Magic, Mavericks).
“There’s one guy in particular on the team that keeps saying the same thing to me, and I can’t say who he is, but he keeps saying ‘We’ve got problems and it ain’t basketball.'”
Now, that could be regular complaints during a down portion of the season. And we have no idea who the source of that quote is, but it still sounds ominous. So what is the most obvious non-basketball problem for the Warriors – and most regular people? Money.
This season, Kevin Durant is making $26.5 million. The new guy is the highest paid player on the team. Second is Klay Thompson at $16 million. Then Draymond Green is right behind Thompson at $15 million. The fourth highest paid player on the Warriors is the face of the franchise, Stephen Curry. Steph is making $12 million – less than a million more than Andre Iguodala. That’s all going to change this summer as Curry becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Curry, the two-time MVP is just finishing a 4-year $44 million deal that he signed back before he was one of the league’s biggest stars and his ankles made him a gamble. It’s no secret that Curry’s injury problems helped the Warriors luck into one of the greatest bargains in NBA contract history. Over the last five years he’s been downright durable missing 4 games in ’12-’13 and ’13-’14, 2 games in ’14-’15, 3 games last season and just 1 so far this year.
Now 29, he’s healthy, in his prime and due to sign the richest deal in NBA history if he stays in Golden State. The new CBA will make Curry eligible to sign a 5-year $207 million deal with the Warriors. This deal would triple Curry’s salary. He would suddenly be making as much as Draymond Green and Klay Thompson COMBINED for each of the next two seasons.
Maybe that doesn’t matter. I mean, Draymond has said as much. Via the Mercury News:
“Money doesn’t motivate me,” he said. “I didn’t even take the full max amount of money I could’ve got on this contract I’m on now. It’s not about that for me. Obviously I want to make a good living and I’m making a great living. But making an extra few bucks, sometimes that can sabotage winning. And winning is much more important to me than an extra few dollars. My motivation is not to be some designated player exception. Nah. I don’t need that to feel validated. I’d rather win.”
Still, Draymond has spent the last few years as one of many Warriors making the NBA’s version of middle class money. In ’15-’16, the entire Golden State starting five was making between $11 million and $15 million. Before that season, Draymond was making less than a million a year on his rookie deal. Suddenly making $14.2 million (second-highest salary on the team) probably made it easy to focus on winning.
That started to change this season with Kevin Durant and his $26.5 million salary, but that had to be done. Green recruited Durant as hard as anyone, but reality could set in this summer.
In addition to dealing with Curry’s contract, the Warriors may again have to deal with Kevin Durant’s contract. Durant can opt out and test the market again if he wants. Or, he could stay in Golden State and make less than Curry despite the fact that Durant looked like the best player on the team while healthy. Via CBS Sports:
So Durant’s going to have to either stay another year under a deal making $10 million less (unlikely), re-sign using Non-Bird Rights and make less money, or go somewhere else on a max deal, but even then he can’t sign for five years. The Warriors will figure out a way to make this work, but it’s looking more and more like the Warriors are going to have a hard time down the line making upgrades.
As an example, if Durant and Curry wind up signing, at any point, for the max at $36 and $31 million respectively, the total for those two, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green will be just over $101 million.
Next season’s salary cap is probably going to be around $102 million. The good news is that Kevon Looney ($1.2 mil), Damian Jones ($1.2 mil) and Patrick McCaw ($905k) are the only other players under contract next season so the luxury tax payment won’t be that bad. The bad news is that Kevon Looney, Damian Jones and Patrick McCaw are the only other players under contract next season.
It certainly seems like the Warriors will have to make some tough decisions over the next couple years. I know they’re smarter than everyone else and have more than enough money to act like the early-century New York Yankees, but will they? How much longer can they underpay All-Stars and MVPs without someone getting upset? Someone has already said there’s a problem with the franchise that isn’t basketball-related. Could the Warriors trade a star or let someone walk for a little more financial responsibility? The fans might not like it, but it wouldn’t be the first time management changed its mind about a player’s value.
So why aren’t people talking about Curry and Durant’s impending free agency like everyone seemed to obsess over Durant’s last season? One “contender” discussed the possibility after Durant signed, but things have been quiet during the season. It makes just as much sense for Curry to want to go home to play for the Charlotte Hornets as it did to think Durant would go home to Washington. Curry kind of addressed the idea of a homecoming earlier this year. Via the Mercury News:
“I’ve gotten that since I’ve been in the league,” Curry said. “This is my home. I grew up here the first 20, 21 years of my life. So there’s obviously going to be an attachment to the city and that kind of chatter is something I’ve been asked about and dealt with since the first time I came back my rookie year. It’s fun. You know you have that support here. It just kind of is what it is.”
It’s certainly not unheard of for a former MVP to switch teams of his own accord in the middle of his prime after spending his entire career with one team. LeBron James and Kevin Durant did it. What happens if the Warriors fail to win the championship for the second straight season? Devastating playoff losses led to LeBron and Durant and many other leaving their teams for better options.
And what if they do win? Durant will have his title and can go get paid wherever he wants. Curry will have delivered two titles to Golden State. Why not try to win one in his hometown? Is any of this really that far-fetched?
Why aren’t more teams dreaming of stealing Stephen Curry from the Warriors like they so obviously were with Durant? Is it that much of a certainty around the league that the Warriors want to spend a quarter-billion a year on salaries and luxury taxes? That certainly seems like a problem that isn’t basketball.