By: Corey Smith
The trade talk centered around Kevin Love and the Golden State Warriors has seemed to divide both the decision makers in the Warriors Front Office, as well as the fan base. Long term projections of/involving Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, David Lee, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, etc. lead to a variety of opinions and desired outcomes. There are a few areas that most fans don’t recognize, but are critical to deciding if a move for Love makes sense both in the short and long term. We need to look at the Warriors current salary cap situation and make some projections on future contracts for a number of players. We need to realistically project the growth of Klay Thompson. Lastly, separate short term and long term goals, and figure out where the Warriors championship window actually lies.
From a salary standpoint, the Warriors have limited cap space for the next two years. Looking at their current roster, not accounting for any major changes, there isn’t much flexibility. For this analysis, I’m operating under the assumption that there are eight players on the current roster that I see as long term values in the NBA.
Over $50 mil is committed to Lee, Bogut, Iguodala, and Curry for the 2015-2016 season, with $35 million committed to the latter three for the 2016-2017 season. Looking forward a bit, we can assume the Warriors have an interest in extending Draymond Green (free agent at the end of next season), I see three to four year at roughly $4-$6 million per year. Harrison Barnes has two years left on his rookie deal, with a $5.2 million qualifying offer in 2016-2017. Based on spending trends and Barnes’s growth, I think he’ll get a bigger offer elsewhere, so the Warriors will have to make a decision a couple of years down the line. Festus Ezeli has three more years, and is tough to project given his limited minutes. However, I do think he has the potential to be a starting center given the right situation.
All of this brings us to Klay Thompson. The crux of the Kevin Love discussion involves Thompson’s long term potential and the money he’ll demand. Given Thompson has one more year on his rookie contract, he’ll be able to demand a much higher salary after next year. The issue arises because roughly 75% of the Warriors money under the cap will be tied up in the core four players previously mentioned. Simply, how much are other teams going to offer Thompson, it’s not realistic that the Warriors will be able to re-sign Thompson with the current roster. Given a Draymond Green extension, the Warriors would barely be below the soft cap on those eight players. Personally, I see Thompson getting multiple offers of $15-$20 million per year based on the last three seasons. He can defend either guard position at a high level, is an elite shooter, and has drastically improved the other parts of his game during previous off-seasons. So if the Warriors Front Office feel like Klay is a long term piece, other moves would need to be made (read $27 million between David Lee and Andre Iguodala) in order to free up enough cap space. If the Warriors don’t find any suitors to clear up space, making the trade involving Klay makes sense from a salary perspective.
Note: This article was written before the Shaun Livingston signing. The MLE for a 28 year old is a further indication that winning now takes priority and the Warriors are sacrificing long term financial flexibility in order to acquire talent. I LOVE the Livingston signing, but the Warriors are pushing all their chips forward.
Projecting the ceiling of Klay Thompson seems to yield the most variance. Some see him as a high volume scorer (simply getting shots because Curry draws attention) and an above average defender considered better than his worth due to Curry’s inability to guard PGs. I remember an early season broadcast when Jim Barnett claimed the only two players in the NBA he would take over Thompson were a couple of SFs named Durant and James. Recently, NBA writer Chris Palmer tweeted:
While I think Barnett was being a bit of a homer, I generally agree with Palmer. Thompson has seen an increase in his FT attempts per game over the last three years and should continue to develop his ball handling and penetration skills. His post-up game has continued to develop and is quickly becoming an option for him offensively. He has started to develop a consistent midrange jumper from the left baseline (seen at the :44, 2:49, 4:40 mark in the highlight video below)
In effect, he has the ability to score from deep, has a go-to midrange move, and has shown improvement on getting to the rim and foul line. From a scoring perspective his offensive game is better-rounded than any other SG in the league not named Harden or DeRozan.
Defensively, his value is a little harder to predict, so I’ll keep the analysis simple and straight forward. Given Steph Curry is the long term point guard, the Warriors need a defensive minded player to guard Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Derek Rose, Kyrie Irving, and every other quick PG in the league. Kevin Love is a great player, but the two areas where he is a clear improvement over David Lee are rebounding and shooting (not necessarily scoring). The Warriors are an above average rebounding team with offensive deficiencies (in my opinion) related more to past gameplan than lack of offensive threats. With the Warriors current roster, I wouldn’t trade Klay Thompson for Kevin Love.
So with the money saying ‘trade’, and the value of Klay saying ‘stay’, when do the Warriors have realistic shot of winning a championship? Last year, an injury to Andrew Bogut derailed any realistic shot the team had of competing. With the ownership group having a clear commitment to winning now, acquiring the player who finished third in ESPN’s PER probably increases the short term opportunity. Furthermore, our salary analysis shows that re-signing Thompson is unrealistic with the current roster. From the Warriors perspective, a two for two trade involving Thompson and Lee for Martin and Love will increase their chances of winning next season (and maybe a year or two after). The problem is that the championship window for other contenders is expanding. I think the Heat will re-work their roster and reload. I think the Spurs put on the most impressive offensive performance I’ve ever seen in these playoffs. (Could the Warriors offensive look like the Spurs in three years?). The Thunder and Pacers are both built to win now. Frankly, I think the Warriors are better off long term by finding a way to keep Curry-Thompson-Barnes-Green-Ezeli together long term and putting complimentary pieces around those guys. That core developing together for the next five-eight years will provide a better opportunity to win a championship than trading for Kevin Love right now. Yes, Kevin Love is a great player. But Klay Thompson’s value to the team and his ability to relieve Curry on the defensive end are too valuable to give up. I hope that Lacob and Co. follow the advice given by Jerry West on the player West sponsored on draft night a few years ago. They need to find a way to open up some cap space over the next year (maybe put Lee and Barnes on the trade block and field offers) in order to maintain what I see as the best backcourt a few years down the line.
A coach’s final thought: Klay Thompson’s ceiling is a multiple All-Stars, All-Defensive NBA, and a career 20+ point scorer. I think his mental makeup gives him a good chance of getting close to that ceiling. Don’t trade Klay Thompson.