For the first time since 2016, the Golden State Warriors aren’t the NBA'S defending champions. Even more strange is that for the first time in a five-year period, the Warriors won’t enter the NBA season as the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA title. They probably won’t even be the favorite to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
When Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson each went down in the NBA Finals with career-altering injuries (torn Achilles’ tendon for Durant and torn ACL for Thompson), the landscape of the NBA changed as well. While there had been a lot of speculation about Durant’s free agency, it was always expected that Thompson would re-sign with Golden State. Both of those situations remain the same, but the circumstances surrounding them have changed quite a bit.
For Durant, he had long been rumored to be weighing joining the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers against re-signing with the Warriors. The appeal of New York was a combination of the market and a chance to be a conquering hero for a struggling franchise in the NBA’s biggest city. The Clippers have Jerry West, who swayed Durant to sign with Golden State, and similar circumstances exist with market and lifting a franchise. In recent weeks, speculation amped up that Durant would also consider signing with the Brooklyn Nets and teaming up with Kyrie Irving. Much like the Clippers situation, the Nets also feature market and the chance to lift a club that has been number two in their city for a long time.
Then Durant tried to play through injury in the Finals and suffered a torn Achilles. That injury has ended many careers, and few have made it back to anywhere near as productive a player as they were before. But for Durant, it hasn’t really seemed to change the outlook of his suitors at all. The Warriors, Clippers, Knicks and Nets each are reportedly poised to offer a full max contract to Durant. The hope is that modern medicine combined with Durant’s drive and individual greatness can buck the trend and that he’ll be back to his MVP ways after a year or so of rehab.
As for Thompson, the injury changes only one thing: his availability for the upcoming season. The Warriors are still going to offer him a full max as he has combined with Stephen Curry to form the NBA’s best backcourt for several years running. Players regularly make a full recovery from a torn ACL nowadays, so there is little worry about Thompson’s long-term outlook. It just means that Golden State will be without him for most, if not all, of the 2020 season.
And therein lies the complication for the Warriors this summer. If Golden State re-signs Durant and Thompson, they are both essentially taking a redshirt year to rehab. The Warriors will pay an astronomical tax bill while also likely taking a step back to the middle of the pack in the Western Conference. Much like the last few offseasons, Bob Myers will have limited resources to add depth to a roster that will really need it with the two All-Stars on the shelf.
If Durant leaves, and even Thompson very unexpectedly joins him in walking, the Warriors still won’t have the ability to add much to the roster. Such is life when Stephen Curry makes a deserved, but very large salary of $40 plus million. The cap flexibility simply isn’t there to add much help from the outside.
If one or both of Thomas and Durant re-sign, Golden State will be limited to using the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception of about $5.7 million and then minimum deals to fill out the roster. Again, finding depth this year is more important than ever because right now it is Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and not much else left. Recent first round picks of Damian Jones and Jacob Evans haven’t panned out, leaving the Warriors short on rotation players at almost every position.
One rotation player who has developed, albeit later than expected, is Kevon Looney. After the Warriors declined their fourth-year team option for Looney, he went on to have his best season. He’s not a priority free agent for the rest of the NBA, but is for Golden State. The good news for the Warriors is that they are no longer capped at paying Looney according to the rookie scale as they were a year ago. Look for the team to push to retain Looney as long as the bidding remains at least somewhat reasonable.
Both Jordan Bell and Quinn Cook were given qualifying offers, which means Golden State retains the right to match any offers they receive as free agents. Like with Looney, as long as an unexpectedly large offer sheet doesn’t come for either player, they’ll probably be back with the Warriors next season.
That leaves DeMarcus Cousins as Golden State’s other big question mark. Cousins signed on the cheap last summer when he was coming off a torn Achilles’ of his own for a shot at a ring and to show he was healthy. Neither exactly happened as hoped. Cousins got hurt again, but returned late in the playoffs and looked solid, but no ring came. Now, he’s looking to cash in and isn’t likely to take such a discount again. That could mean his stay with the Warriors is a short one.
The Warriors aren’t going to be as good next season as they have been in recent years. Whether they can get back there depends on what happens with Durant, both if he re-signs and if he can get back to full health. While adding depth is important, Durant’s situation is what will drive the Warriors approach to the roster for years to come, and ultimately their ability to get back to being a Finals contender.
Guaranteed Contracts (5): Stephen Curry, Jacob Evans, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Damian Jones
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (2): Shaun Livingston, Alfonzo McKinnie
Potential Free Agents (10): Jordan Bell (RFA), Andrew Bogut (UFA), Quinn Cook (RFA), DeMarcus Cousins (UFA), Marcus Derrickson (RFA – Two-Way), Kevin Durant (UFA), Jonas Jerebko (UFA), Damion Lee (RFA – Two-Way), Kevon Looney (UFA), Klay Thompson (UFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($0): None
First Round Draft Pick(s): Jordan Poole
Maximum Cap Space: $20.5 million
Projected Cap Space: None. $70.2 million over