The Golden State Warriors, the five-time defending Western Conference champions, are now 1-3 with blowout losses to the Clippers, Thunder, and Suns. Even worse, Steph Curry broke his hand in Wednesday’s embarrassing loss.
This was always going to be a tough season after Kevin Durant fled, Klay Thompson got injured, Andre Iguodala got traded, and Shaun Livingston got waived. But even Warriors skeptics couldn’t have imagined how rough the start of the season would be on the court, and the Curry injury heaps additional pain.
So what now? There hasn’t been this much uncertainty and tumult in Golden State in a half-decade. There are really three paths the Warriors can take forward. Let’s visit them.
Curry could be back in November or early December. There’s an outside chance the Warriors would be within reasonable striking distance of the No. 8 seed still. Despite what we saw through four games of the Warriors’ season to date, a team with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green is dangerous. I continue to believe that.
Remember, the Warriors can’t trade D’Angelo Russell until Dec. 15 at the earliest. We should assume Curry will be cleared by then. Time without Curry could allow Russell to get back on track (albeit without a proven talent base around him) so that once Steph is on the court, the two can make the offense sing.
Meanwhile, perhaps Kevon Looney’s medical issues get sorted out and Willie Cauley-Stein improves the defense marginally enough to prevent getting blown out every other night. (I have become a Cauley-Stein skeptic over the past year, but I tend not to count out the power of the Warriors’ coaching staff to shape talent to contribute at the highest possible level.)
The big reason to believe this path will be chosen is the Warriors are in a new arena in San Francisco. You can’t imagine they want empty seats or worse, lots of fans of the opposing team scooping up tickets on secondary markets. Given how much of the revenue is already locked in, crashing out of the playoff picture fully wouldn’t necessarily hurt the immediate bottom line. But it’s an awful way to start the new era and could lead to lower revenue and less profit in future years.
There’s also the matter of potential playoff revenue. Even if the postseason looks like a long shot, the allure of a few million to host the Clippers or Nuggets for two games is strong. We don’t know how serious the Warriors are being about Klay Thompson’s outlook, and again, we don’t know exactly when Curry will be ready. But reasonable people could maintain some hope that the No. 8 seed could remain in reach even if the Warriors end up 5-15 by the end of November. Maybe. We’ll see.
2. Selective opportunism
This is the middle ground: the Warriors don’t strip to the studs but don’t hold onto any sentimentality about this season. This is the scenario where you shop Russell immediately upon him being eligible to be traded (Dec. 15), with hopes that he recovers his value during Curry’s absence. If this season is toast and Thompson will be back next year, what’s the need for Russell? The question is what the Warriors would be able to acquire for D’Angelo: you don’t really need another star in any way, so targeting multiple NBA rotation players in a package is probably the wise move. Is there a team out there with interest in Russell with multiple rotation players they are willing to move?
Selective opportunism could also mean stretching out Curry’s recovery time and managing Draymond Green’s load, all under the auspices of protecting assets for future performance and (left unsaid) improving the Warriors’ draft position. (Here’s a mock 2020 NBA draft, Warriors fans.) The Warriors are hard-capped, which restricts a lot of what they can do in the trade market compared to the few bad teams who remain under the salary cap line. But this is a smart front office who could seek out opportunities to improve the future Warriors at the expense of the current Warriors.
This seems like the most likely path forward for Golden State: bold enough to be active, sober enough not to erase the last remnants of dynasty.
No one thinks the Warriors will trade Curry. That’s off the table. But what about Green?
Golden State locked him on a four-year extension in early August. Under league salary cap rules, players who sign an extension like the one Green did can be traded six months after inking the deal. That would put Green’s trade eligibility date at Feb. 2, 2020: just before the 2019-20 trade deadline. What interesting timing on that extension, huh?
The Warriors consider themselves smarter than other franchises. Trading Green for younger talent or draft picks or some combination thereof would be the cold, unsentimental thing to do if this season is lost and the Warriors want to position themselves to compete for titles in the future. Would it actually be smart? Green is really, really good. But he seems to have lost some of his verve as the state of the Warriors shifts. If the rest of the team is so bad on defense that Green can’t save it, what’s the usefulness?
In this scenario, the Warriors keep Curry out maybe until Christmas, Thompson doesn’t even approach the season, Russell goes on the open market in December or January, Green is handled with total care until a swift move goes down in early February, and Golden State guns for a top-10 pick. This is jumping into a minecart headed straight into the apocalypse with hopes that a mutant Warriors team will come out the other end in two years.
The Warriors used to be bold enough to do something like that. Are they still? Are that this desperate? We’ll see.