Why the Warriors are being so thrifty in free agency

Why the Warriors are being so thrifty in free agency

If you’re trying to decipher why the super-wealthy Warriors, of all teams, seem to be scrimping more than a bit on contract offers to valuable veteran parts of a unit that just won another championship, there were pieces of evidence strewn across the past few months.

Here’s why the Warriors didn’t match or beat Portland’s offer for Gary Payton II and Toronto’s offer for Otto Porter Jr. and pretty much low-balled Kevon Looney, though he accepted the deal on Friday:

• Recent lottery pick Moses Moody played more than 10 minutes a game in the Western Conference finals, looked quite solid doing so, and already seems like a lock for a back-end rotation spot next season. And maybe not just a back-end spot.

• Recent lottery pick Jonathan Kuminga started three games in the middle of the Memphis series and was less-than-meh in those outings and others in the playoffs, but his athletic skills still stood out in flashes, which only is evidence that he could do amazing things in much more than flashes relatively soon.

• Recent lottery pick James Wiseman started the first 16 games of his rookie season — more than a year ago — and though he missed all of this last season with lingering issues and wasn’t good in 2020-21 when he played, top team officials still have a gleam in their eyes when they imagine the havoc he could wreak on opponents if he could ever stay on the court and look comfortable out there while playing alongside Stephen Curry & Co.

If you’ve been wondering what the Warriors will look like with those three guys playing regular minutes, Bob Myers and Joe Lacob almost certainly are on the same wavelength. It’s clear that they were not going to spend extra dollars this free-agent period for players who might overlap roles with Kuminga, Moody and Wiseman into 2022-23.

• And one more thing: The Warriors have a combined payroll commitment of $148 million for Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green next season. Add in the $7 million or so that The Athletic’s Anthony Slater reports is the 2022-23 salary for Looney’s new deal, and that takes it to a $155 million estimate for five players, which is already higher than 23 of the 30 teams’ total payroll right now. It’s also over the luxury-tax line of $150.3 million. Again, that’s only accounting for five players.

The Warriors will have nine or 10 more players under contract when next season starts, which means their luxury-tax repeater bill will likely push their total salary commitment close to or over $400 million. Remember, every dollar added to the payroll is multiplied by seven. And the Warriors already have the highest payroll commitment in the history of North American sports.

They make a ton of money, but they also spend more than anybody else. Already. So Lacob and Myers might’ve finally come up on a payroll number that they will not go over. Or at least it’s going to take a year to fully digest whether they actually should go over it. Maybe that number is $450 million. Maybe it’s $500 million. Maybe it’s tied to whether the Warriors win another championship in 2023. Or how management evaluates Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody after this coming season.

But there is a line, even for the Warriors. It was way off in the distance a while ago. And it’s coming up in view right now.

Even as fans properly agonized over losing GP2’s toughness and elite defense to Portland on a three-year, $28 million deal and questioned why the Warriors couldn’t have matched that (instead of drawing the line at, say, two years and $13 million), there is a fiduciary reality here, even for the Warriors.

Lacob and Myers built this audacious two-timeline plan on the idea that their extremely expensive veteran core could lead this team back to title contention. They’ve invested massively in this belief. And it cashed in for them a few weeks ago. But the flip side is that the Warriors had to commit themselves to counting on younger, cheaper players to balance out the salary structure.

Payton, who at 29 can’t wait around for his big bite of the apple, had to take the big offer from the Trail Blazers. Otto Porter Jr. had to take the two-year offer with Toronto. Juan Toscano-Anderson had to take the contract offered by the Lakers. It’s not likely the Warriors were too close in any of these negotiations or potential non-negotiations. And Looney, always the Warriors’ top priority this summer, had to accept what seems like a below-market deal from the Warriors when there was no other team to pump up the price. There were no thank-you-gift contracts from the Warriors, nope.

Also, I suspect that the lengths of the Payton and Porter deals were more problematic than the dollar figures for the Warriors, who have to consider potential large extensions for Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins that would hit the books a year from now. It’s salary-cap calculus. It’s complicated. It’s why almost nobody else has ever tried to run multiple timelines the way Lacob and Myers are trying.

With a trio of lottery picks tabbed to take bigger roles next season, it made little sense for the Warriors to pay up to keep Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II. (Cary Edmondson / USA Today)

Could losing Payton and Porter cause irreparable damage to their repeat hopes in June 2023? Maybe. That is always possible. They both were extremely valuable in May and June last time around. If they are desperately missed next May and June, nobody should ignore that the financial aspect came into play.

But the Warriors have already won four championships with this core, they’ve made unpopular decisions in the past (remember, many people including their top vets wanted them to keep Avery Bradley over GP2 or trade Kuminga and/or Wiseman for an expensive vet last fall) and now they have three lottery picks moving into position to start taking some of the responsibility.

If you’ve got a plan and you’re already paying bonkers tax penalties in a way that might not be sustainable for too much longer, you better stick to that plan.

As Myers said on draft night about Kuminga, Moody and Wiseman: “Those are unusually gifted young players.”

Moody can’t exactly replace GP2. But he can be better in other areas. Kuminga can’t exactly replace Porter. But, yes, he can be better in other areas. Wiseman is a wild card. He might be terrible. He might change the entire way the Warriors set up their second unit. Or he might be hurt again. Who knows? But the whole point of drafting and keeping these guys is to play them when it’s time. And next season is time (if, as Myers points out, they can win the trust of Steve Kerr).

“We didn’t really count on Kuminga and Moody to play last year, but by the time the season ended, Steve was playing Moody rotation minutes in the Western Conference finals,” Myers said. “He started Kuminga a couple times in the second round against Memphis. You’re not doing that for charity. Those guys earned those minutes. So with that, and Steve’s trust, we think at least those two have found at least some place in the rotation.

“And then Wiseman, we’ve got to see how he does. See how he plays. But we think he’s shown that he can find a role. we have to cultivate it for him and make it a little more finite than we did in his rookie year. So you take those three guys, whether they’re six-through-eight or eight-through-10 or seven-through-nine, we think they can be part of the rotation.”

The Warriors still need to add some veterans. I’m not really sure who that could be right now. The first and second waves of free agency have come and gone and the Warriors’ only move has been to keep Looney. They also have first-round pick Patrick Baldwin Jr. and second-rounder Ryan Rollins, but their roles right now will probably be to sit and watch for a season or spend a lot of time in the G League.

So the Warriors have six stalwarts — Curry, Draymond, Klay, Wiggins, Poole and Looney. Add Kuminga, Moody and Wiseman to that. Add the two rookies. That’s 11 total. They’ll try to sign another player or two at the veteran’s minimum, the way they added Andre Iguodala, Nemanja Bjelica and Porter last year. And then the Warriors might have a tryout for the 14th and 15th spots (or just keep the 15th spot open).

“That, we think, could end up being a pretty decent roster,” Myers said.

It couldn’t be exactly like it was last season. The roster always changes. It has to change. Sometimes it’s for the better, sometimes it’s for the worse. But the Warriors weren’t going to sit still and in fact set up their roster for their recent lottery picks to change up a lot of things heading into next season.

As an aside: Curry just finished his 13th season with the Warriors, the same length that Bill Russell, Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, among many other luminaries, played for one team and only one team in their careers.

Dirk Nowitzki spent 21 seasons with Dallas, which is the record for longest career with only one team. Next is Kobe Bryant at 20 seasons with the Lakers. Then three are players at 19 — John Stockton with Utah, Tim Duncan with San Antonio and Udonis Haslem, who would make it 20 next season with Miami. There are nine players between 14 and 16 years with only one team. Curry will get into that group next season.

And the Warriors also have Klay Thompson at 11 seasons (though he missed two of them due to injury) and Draymond Green at 10, all only with the Warriors.

I’m just thinking of this now, as Kevin Durant sets up to leave the Nets after three seasons to go to his fourth team.

I always like to update the individual-player title count after every Warriors championship, just as a way to collate the years. My count includes the players who played at least a minute during the playoffs during the specific title run, so that eliminates guys like Omri Casspi, Chris Boucher, Ognjen Kuzmic and Briante Webber, who all played during championship-run regular seasons but were either released before the playoffs or didn’t play a minute in the playoffs.

Important note: This is not a ring count. This is a contributed-in-the-postseason-of-a-title-run count.

All four championships (2015, 2017, 2018, 2022): Curry, Draymond, Klay, Andre Iguodala

Three championships: Shaun Livingston (2015, 2017, 2018)

Two championships: Looney* (2018, 2022), Durant (2017, 2018), David West (2017, 2018), Zaza Pachulia (2017, 2018), JaVale McGee (2017, 2018), Patrick McCaw (2017, 2018), Damian Jones (2017, 2018), James Michael McAdoo (2015, 2017)

One championship, 2022: Wiggins, Poole, Porter, Gary Payton II, Bjelica, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Moody, Kuminga, Damion Lee

One championship, 2018: Quinn Cook, Nick Young, Jordan Bell

One championship, 2017: Ian Clark, Matt Barnes

One championship, 2015: Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, David Lee, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights, Brandon Rush, Justin Holiday

A few notes:

• Looney played in 53 regular-season games in 2016-17 but didn’t play a minute in the postseason.

• Wiseman was on the roster the entirety of 2021-2022 but didn’t play a minute in the regular or postseason.

There are other similar instances that I’m not citing, but Looney and Wiseman are just two of the more obvious cases.

(Top photo: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)

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