Forgive me for clinging to the concept of a Warriors dynasty, but late Sunday night, with roughly an hour remaining in one of the most eventful days in NBA history, Golden State reportedly agreed on a blindsiding sign-and-trade with the Brooklyn Nets for restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell—and all I could think about was how the Warriors, now at the end of their Caesaresque reign, had become desperate to find their own Augustus.
The chosen heir of the Roman Empire was only 19 when he took the reins after his great-uncle Julius Caesar’s untimely death; Russell, 23, enters the fray just as Kevin Durant’s departure has opened a void. Golden State is committing four years and $117 million to the idea that Russell could keep its winning ways intact. Given how the past half-decade has gone for the Warriors, it’s hard to imagine the franchise ever needing an Octavian figure, but time evidently flies in the NBA. The Warriors are no longer the predestined world-beaters they once were. They’re flailing in the summer heat, in search of short- and long-term answers, just like the rest of the league.
The Warriors are adding a 2018-19 NBA All-Star to their roster seemingly out of thin air, but what they’ve gained is somehow less jarring than what they’ll soon have to be without. The sign-and-trade, which will also send Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham from Brooklyn to Golden State, required a secondary deal just to make the financials work. Soon after the Russell news broke, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Andre Iguodala had been traded to the Memphis Grizzlies with a protected 2024 first-round pick. Given the Warriors’ tenuous cap situation, it had long been assumed that Iguodala, who is owed roughly $17.2 million in 2019-20, would be the first offseason sacrifice, but at this point, it remains to be seen what exactly he was sacrificed for.
The Warriors have more than $132 million in total cap allocations, which falls roughly $6 million below the restrictive luxury tax “apron,” which gave them the ability to land Russell in a sign-and-trade. However, as stated in the league CBA, the Warriors are now hard-capped at $138.9 million for the rest of the season due to receiving a player via sign-and-trade. That’s not an ideal number, since the entire back half of the roster still needs to be assembled. The Warriors currently have five fully guaranteed players in their midst (not yet counting the rookies acquired in the draft), and will almost certainly have to move on from impactful rotation players like DeMarcus Cousins, Kevon Looney, and Quinn Cook. Golden State will have around $107 million committed to three players—Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Russell—next offseason, which would make an expensive, long-term deal with 2020 free agent Draymond Green next to impossible without another round of serious rejiggering.
Thus, it’s tough to envision the Russell deal as much more than a high-upside play at returning a modicum of value instead of losing Durant’s services and having nothing to show for it. Russell’s going price on the market likely would have fielded him a max-level contract anyway, so the Warriors have in their possession an extremely tradable asset, especially once Thompson returns from injury, and especially if Russell can step in and immediately become a positive force for the former champions.
Russell’s incorporation into the starting lineup shouldn’t be too difficult on offense; he is a pick-and-roll playmaker with the ability to hit deep shots off the dribble, and teams across the NBA are trying to stockpile as many of those types of players as they can get their hands on. Russell was named an All-Star after having his best season in Year 4, averaging 21.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 7.0 assists. Young point guards typically take longer to acclimate to the rigors of the NBA, given how much of a burden they’re given in terms of creating for themselves and others. At 23, Russell finally looked at ease. That’s what makes his union with Curry tantalizing.
Both Russell and Curry are adept at playing on or off the ball. Russell wouldn’t necessarily have to sacrifice his on-ball touches given Curry’s propensity to run around in the half court like a human gyroscope, so Russell should have an adequate number of reps to continue developing his skills as a primary creator. The biggest knock on Russell’s career thus far is his inefficiency—he’s shot 41.9 percent from the field across four seasons—but he would be getting the easiest shots of his career playing next to Curry. The 23-year-old guard would also be given plenty of open opportunities as a spot-up shooter, something he was very good at last season with the Nets. Russell shot 39.3 percent on all catch-and-shoot situations last season, and 40 percent on open 3-point attempts (with no defender within four feet of him).
Defense will be a concern to start. Part of what makes the Curry-Thompson relationship so special is how much Klay does to cover for Curry’s disadvantages, and Russell offers none of Thompson’s length, strength, or instincts on defense. Klay being able to match up with any perimeter talent on the opposition alleviated the pressure on Curry, but teams will be licking their chops at the prospect of catching the Warriors’ new interim backcourt in unsavory mismatches. Russell spent most of his time on defense last season as the primary defender on the opposing team’s starting point guard, but playing next to Steph means he’ll likely have to take on a much more diverse list of players, perhaps including some of the best wings in the league. There is an interesting domino effect at play here: Draymond is playing for a new contract next season, and expertly covering for a Curry-Russell backcourt could be just what he needs to get the raise he’s eyeing.
On Twitter and NBA TV on Sunday night were images of projected Warriors starting and closing lineups that featured Curry, Thompson, and Russell together—the Splash nuclear family appears to be growing. But even that seemed to be looking too far down the line. Both teams involved in the trade will have to wait upward of an entire season to truly process what the long-term effects will be. For all we know, Russell might be dealt before we ever see how he might coalesce with a player like Klay. There is still so much left to play out between now and the rest of the week, let alone now and six months from now.
The Warriors shrewdly took a chance on Russell to ease the talent shock of losing a player like Durant, and, at the very least, he is a young star who has all the tools to be a complementary player in whatever offensive scheme the Warriors hope to implement. But it does feel like the end of something as we once knew it. Golden State had thrived on a sense of inevitability on the court for nearly a half-decade, but that sense of inevitability has since come to reflect the Warriors on the brink of dissolution. The Russell acquisition might just be the biggest gamble the team has made since unleashing the Lineup of Death on the league. And it took the dismantling of the Lineup of Death for it to happen. This could all still break the Warriors’ way in due time, but from the looks of it now, the Warriors are stepping into a wide-open contending landscape as just another face in the crowd. Suddenly, it appears, the Warriors are light-years away from being light-years ahead.