The Toronto Raptors not only won their first NBA championship on Thursday, they ruined the goodbye party for the iconic Oracle Arena. The question remains, though: Did they say goodbye to the Golden State Warriors dynasty at the same time, or just momentarily put it on pause?
Free agency was always going to loom over these Finals, with arguably the best three potential free agents this summer (if you believe that Klay Thompson is better than Kyrie Irving unlike the all-NBA voters) all playing in the series. Well, now those free agency waters that both franchises and players have to navigate are murkier in the wake of serious injuries suffered by Thompson and Kevin Durant. And both are members of the Warriors.
Should the Warriors bring both back? Can they? If they do, does that automatically extend the team’s title window? The franchise that seemed to be on autopilot now has the toughest road to travel this summer.
Thompson and Durant can both become unrestricted free agents. They also both sustained leg injuries that will keep them out anywhere from six months to a year.
If they leave, the Warriors are sunk. Golden State can’t replace their hall-of-fame skill sets and there is no pathway via the CBA to have the financial capability to add comparable talent.
Both men were playing the best basketball of their careers when they got hurt and now have injuries that could mean they never return to that level.
Thompson enters unrestricted free agency for the first time while rehabbing a left ACL tear he suffered on Thursday, while Durant’s ruptured Achilles in his right foot during Game 5 of the NBA Finals means he has to rehab from the sport’s most menacing injury.
Both Los Angeles franchises will be interested in Thompson. The Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks have long been rumoured Durant landing spots.
For Thompson, the decision is very binary. He’s always stated he wants to stay in the Bay Area. Assuming they offer him a full five-year, $190-million max contract, the three-time NBA champion has no reason to leave.
Even with a catastrophic injury, Durant has all the leverage. He can choose to exercise his $31.5-million player option for the 2019-20 season with the Warriors and not become an unrestricted free agent. Under that scenario he could choose to rehab on company time with the Warriors, then re-enter the free agent market a year from now with less elite player competition.
But Durant’s injury and uncertain physical health actually makes it more likely he will opt for long-term security. So, after being expected to leave Golden State in search of a new challenge and validation, his injury actually makes the Warriors a more intriguing option. In the wake of his injury, and with the Warriors losing without him, Durant is receiving the most praise he ever has during his time in the Bay. The former MVP is no longer being ridiculed for joining a 73-win team, as it’s now apparent the Warriors can’t get four wins in the Finals without him.
Durant is looking at four years and $164 million with a new team if he chooses to leave, compared to $221 million over five seasons if he stays. Those expected salaries are based on the assumption that competing teams will still be willing to give him the full max shortly after suffering a serious injury.
The other advantage the Warriors have is they could get some cap relief, which gives them an added incentive to allocate salary cap space to a player who’s not going to be playing basketball on Opening Night.
Given they’re the team Durant was on when he got hurt, the Warriors can apply for the Disabled Player Exception. That would allow Golden State to get cap relief if it’s believed Durant’s injury could keep him out for a full year, even if the injury doesn’t keep him out for the entire season.
The Warriors were able to sign Durant as a consolation prize after losing the 2016-17 Finals in the first place because of an unlikely cap spike that summer thanks to the NBA’s lucrative TV deal. Now another unlikely scenario could mean the consolation prize to a lost Finals and losing Durant to injury would be re-signing him until he’s 35.
In two weeks, the duo of Thompson and Durant will be offered over $400 million combined in five-year max contracts from Golden State. The Warriors are going to pay them a boatload of cash because they have no alternative. If they don’t spend that money on two of the best three-point shooters ever, it’s not like they can spend it on anybody else. The fact that Golden State has both players’ Bird rights means they are no longer luxuries for the Warriors; they are necessities.
It’s already been reported the Warriors want to keep both on five-year max deals, as they should and anybody would.
But it won’t be cheap. Owner Joe Lacob will be looking at a salary cap and luxury tax bill of $375 million.
In the short term, bringing them back brings the franchise stability but not immediate ability.
If Durant and Thompson not only miss the balance of the 2019-20 season, but also take awhile to return to their former form, the Warriors will look similar to the version of the team that lost Game 3 of the Finals despite Stephen Curry going off for 47 points. The box-and-one will go from a janky defence to a steady diet of what Curry will see because of the rest of Golden State’s offensive limitations.
It’s worth noting a top playoff seed isn’t even a guarantee, as they may need to load manage Curry and Green just to keep them healthy until the spring.
This is the tradeoff when building a super team. You lose your depth, you lose your flexibility, and you get expensive and old quickly.
Even if the entire Hamptons Five lineup moves in to the Chase Center, they’ll be in their 30s next year. The oldest member of the group would be Andre Iguodala, who at 36 will likely play one or two more seasons before retiring. Shaun Livingston, who has been the team’s other stalwart super sub since 2015-16, is expected to retire.
At this point, dynasties go one of two ways. They break up prohibitively — think the 1990s Chicago Bulls or the “Big Three” Miami Heat — or they run it back and run it into the ground — think the 1980s Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. Sometimes the actors in the dynasty are the last to know it’s over.
The players themselves seem defiant that the Warriors dynasty is done.
“I wouldn’t bet against us being back on this stage next year and going forward,” Curry said post-game.
Draymond Green went even further saying, “I think everybody thinks it’s kind of the end of us. But that’s just not smart. We’re not done yet. We lost this year. Clearly just wasn’t our year, but that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes. But, yeah, I hear a lot of that noise, ‘It’s the end of a run’ and all that jazz. I don’t see it happening, though. We’ll be back.”
The question is who will that “we” be comprised of? With Curry and Green alone, the floor for the team is still high. But with injury and free agency questions looming, it could be them alone for some time.
The Warriors are more vulnerable than ever before. That fact alone means the dynasty will be different if somehow they get back to their winning ways. The fact they are no longer the prohibitive favourite no matter what they do means it’s a dawn of a new day in the NBA.