“The narrative is, ‘This will go on forever.’ On the record, it can’t. Nothing does, especially in a sport where the competition is so great,” Warriors head executive Bob Myers told The Mercury News before the 2018 NBA Finals. One week later, Golden State swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in its most decisive Finals victory yet.
But even a pragmatist like Myers couldn’t have predicted what’s befallen his dynasty this week. Five months after winning their third title in four years, the Warriors’ championship-winning foundation is starting to show cracks. You already know why: Kevin Durant and Draymond Green got into a shouting match after Green didn’t pass him the ball at the end of regulation of Monday’s loss to the Clippers. Green reportedly called out Durant for his lack of commitment to the Warriors past this season and called him a “bitch.” Golden State suspended Green for one game and denied him his six-figure game check.
The 2018-19 Warriors will be fine. They remain favorites to win the NBA Finals and become only the fourth franchise to three-peat. (And they’re not the first to have heated team disputes.) But change is coming. And while Durant’s decision this summer is drawing all of the attention, to the point that not even his teammates are willing to overlook it anymore, the Warriors’ toughest decision to come may be whether to let go of Green.
For all of his flaws, Draymond has been the heart and soul of the Warriors’ success the past four-plus years. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Durant are some of the best scorers in league history, but Green is the one who makes this team go. Let’s go back to the play that sparked this mess:
Green secures the rebound with only 5.6 seconds left. Maybe he should’ve immediately given the ball to Durant. But instead, he does what he’s been conditioned to do his entire career: push it. It isn’t just Green. Andre Iguodala sprints to the left. Thompson fills the gap on the right. Kevon Looney gallops toward the rim. Coach Steve Kerr even signals from the sideline to push the ball. This is who the Warriors are. They’ve logged the quickest time of possession following rebounds in each of the past four seasons, according to Inpredictable.
Meanwhile, Durant did what he was conditioned to do: He claps, shouts, skips, and waves his arms looking to slow it down like he used to in Oklahoma City. He doesn’t cross half court until 1.5 seconds remain. Sure, Green turns it over in a crucial situation, but the odds are he was looking for an open man. Durant could’ve been that option if he had simply played Warriors basketball.
The clash between Green and Durant, between the team they started this run with and the team they evolved into in the summer of 2016, only became worse when the organization effectively sided with Durant in its verdict. Green was “surprised by the heavy-handedness” of the punishment, according to The Athletic’s Marcus Thompson. He is fiercely loyal; when he hits free agency in 2020, he will remember the Warriors’ decision to suspend him, rather than quietly fine him like they did after an altercation with Kerr in 2016. Before this incident, there was talk around the league that the Warriors wouldn’t want to sign Green to a full max contract. If he makes an All-NBA team or wins Defensive Player of the Year or MVP, he’ll be eligible for the supermax, which would be worth roughly $240 million over five years. Currently, the max he could sign for is $200 million over five years with the Warriors or $150 million over four years with any other team. We’ll see how the Warriors approach the situation when the time comes, but not maxing out Green would make sense: He will be 30 in 2020, and because of his body type and his relentless style, there’s some concern that he won’t age well. The Warriors would also be hard-pressed to avoid a huge luxury-tax bill. If Green and Thompson, a free agent in 2019, both sign new maxes over the next two summers, the Warriors are looking at a cap hit in 2020-21 of about $110 million for Green, Thompson, and Curry alone.
Unlike Durant, Thompson is expected to re-sign next summer. But he reportedly won’t take a discount. Which means the Warriors could enter the 2020 offseason owing Curry and Thompson close to $80 million combined. If Green leaves in 2020 and Durant indeed goes elsewhere before then, Golden State could create up to about $30 million under a projected salary cap of $118 million. That won’t be enough to sign Anthony Davis (who holds an option for that summer) or any other player to a max contract. It’s unrealistic to expect the Warriors not to have any other players under contract anyway, which could further limit their cap space, leaving them with salary-cap exceptions to fill out the roster around the Splash Brothers.
Warriors owner Joe Lacob told The Athletic in June that he aspires to have a “20-year run” like the Spurs. Curry and Thompson are the types of players who can help keep the window open past this roster’s current iteration, but doing so would require more success in the bargain bin than the Warriors have had lately. San Antonio was able to acquire Kawhi Leonard, the no. 15 overall pick in 2011, because George Hill, the 26th overall pick by the Spurs three years prior, was a good enough trade chip. San Antonio found critical role players like Bruce Bowen and Danny Green on the fringes of the league. Draft picks and free-agent signings birthed this Warriors dynasty, but the franchise hasn’t yet hit a home run during the Durant era. It’s used its limited resources on retreads and projects like Nick Young, and players who support the ring chase, like Quinn Cook and Jonas Jerebko, rather than players who might serve as future pieces. Maybe Alfonzo McKinnie will be one. Golden State has cycled through young bigs in Looney (30th overall pick in 2015), Damian Jones (30th in 2016), and Jordan Bell (purchased the 38th overall pick in 2017). Rookie wing Jacob Evans, the 28th overall pick in 2018, is unproven. Pat McCaw, a 2016 second-rounder, plateaued and is stuck in a contract dispute that has kept him out all season. Golden State needs to get some runners on base.
Replacing Durant, should he leave next summer, will be impossible; two-time Finals MVPs don’t just grow on trees. But even coming close will be difficult, as the Warriors wouldn’t have any cap space and would have only exceptions available to use in free agency. They could push for a sign-and-trade to get something in return for Durant, but the teams he’s reportedly interested in—New York, both Los Angeles squads, etc.—can create full max cap space without the Warriors’ help. The expiring contracts of Iguodala ($17.2 million) and Shaun Livingston ($7.7 million) could be used as salary filler in a deal to acquire more talent, but the Warriors lack assets to get a player who’s at the level of even Harrison Barnes, who was dumped in 2016 to clear the path for KD. The Warriors’ best bet to add players and assets to sustain success deep into the next decade may be to trade Green.
Draymond remains one of the NBA’s top defensive players and an elite playmaker for his position. He will be a defensive anchor no matter who he’s playing with, and, on a team with fewer future Hall of Famers, he could take on a more significant role as a facilitator, whether it be in the pick-and-roll, in transition, or from the post. Green averages more assists (7.4) than shots (6.5) and has ranked in the top 25 in assists logged in transition over the past five seasons, according to Synergy. Because of his scoring limitations, Green is at his best when surrounded by other stars; he’s averaging 7.5 points per game, a low since he first became a regular starter in 2014-15. But Green can still thrive outside of the Warriors system.
It would go against the Spurs’ Dynasty Handbook for the Warriors to trade a foundational piece of a championship core. (And even after all the chaos this week, it’d be unwise to deal Green this season, when Golden State’s path to a three-peat is still very much open. As Thompson eloquently said of the KD-Draymond beef, “This thing will be in the past like a ponytail.”) But dealing Green next summer, before his production begins to tails off and ahead of his next payday, would be the type of shrewd, emotionless move the Patriots have made to keep their title window open. Over the years, New England has traded All-Pros like Richard Seymour and Logan Mankins and used the draft picks it’s received in return to select new core players.
I asked a handful of league executives whether the Warriors would trade Green, considering the team’s murky cap situation, and I was met with a resounding no. “They’re all in, brother,” one source said. Another said that Myers and Green have such a close bond that it’d be a shocker if they ever parted ways. Or, as another source put it: They probably wouldn’t because it’d create so much uncertainty; if they moved Draymond and Durant left too, they’d find themselves without their most talented player and their heartbeat. It would be tough for the Warriors to find equal value for Green, considering his age and impending free agency. If they did, those players could be keepers or blossom into assets to use for future trades to bring in new talent that they otherwise couldn’t acquire. But star trades have not always led to large returns for teams, and Golden State wouldn’t be able to replicate what he’s meant to the franchise.
Green is part of the Warriors’ fabric. Despite everything that’s happened this week, Myers might be most swayed by that. At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2017, Myers marveled at how the Spurs honed a process over 20 years with the same core of people, from ownership down to the players. “What gets lost is they have had continuity and consistency,” Myers said. “That’s why we try to keep the same guys. ... It’s about recognizing your process and getting the best people to implement it.”
But as important as Green has been to the Warriors’ run so far, it remains to be seen whether he’s one of those players to transition the franchise into its next phase, whenever that may be. At the very least, the clash between Durant and Green was a reminder that all good things must end. Myers, as hard as he tries to fight against that, knows it. “At one point, players get older and teams get broken up,” Myers said. “It always happens. You just don’t know when.”