Lebron James is officially back in the NBA Finals for the tenth time, the first trip with his Los Angeles Lakers team. There he will face the Miami Heat, who he led to four consecutive NBA Finals berths. For the first time since 2015 the Golden State Warriors are looking on from the sidelines.
James’ accomplishment is a remarkable feat which requires not just incredible talent, but also a level of endurance and toughness few understand. But that is something the Golden State Warriors know only too well after their own historic streak of five NBA Finals in a row extracted a gruesome price in Kevin Durant’s Achilles and Klay Thompson’s ACL.
Indeed James himself had a one-year break last season in his first year in Los Angeles. But he’s bounced back quickly. With Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green primed to come back next season after a break of potentially 18 months or more since playing a competitive basketball game, the Golden State Warriors will strongly believe that their own golden era is not yet over.
Golden State’s window is right now
Indeed if there’s one takeaway from the NBA’s so-called bubble in Disney World, it’s that the Warriors’ window is wide open. Supposed genuine contenders such as the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers look more like pretenders. The Lakers may have made it the Finals, and may well win it all, but they are not a flawless team. Throughout the last couple of months, arguably no team has looked as good as the Toronto Raptors team a broken Warriors team almost took to a Game 7 in the 2019 Finals.
On the other hand, the bubble has shown that there are a fair few up-and-coming teams who are poised to rise up. The Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics were both worthy Conference Finals contenders, and they’re only going to get better from here. Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat is showing everyone he is the league’s next superstar big. Meanwhile, Luka Doncic is coming for us all.
There’s also the potential for the 2021 offseason re-shape the NBA for the next half-decade. While the financial outlook for the league over the next couple of seasons is currently unknown, a whole host of stars will become available and good teams such as the Heat, Raptors and, yes Doncic’s Mavericks should have the cap space to get them.
All in all, the Warriors may not have a better shot at another NBA title with Curry, Thompson and Green in their primes than the 2021 season.
So what can they do to maximize their chances? Here are four steps they need to take.
Step 1: Get Green ready to go when it counts
En-route to the NBA Finals the Lakers easily went through the Houston Rockets’ experiment with super-small ball before taking down a big beast in the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic. Their journey was courtesy not just of James’ greatness, but also their own physically imposing frontline of Anthony Davis and a rejuvenated Dwight Howard. That’s led many a pundit to re-emphasize the importance of the NBA big.
It is true that the death of the NBA big man has been greatly exaggerated, but there is a major flaw in this particular analysis. The Golden State Warriors are not in the bubble. And the Warriors are the main reason the NBA center position has become so much less valuable.
While they have always had prized the roster versatility to matchup with various opponents with size, when it really mattered the Warriors have always turned to small ball.
With Green at center, the Warriors laid waste the NBA landscape for five years, running bigger, slower players off the court and sometimes out of the league. The litany of big men lying in their wake includes not just the afore-mentioned Howard, but also Davis who managed to take just one game off the Warriors in two series with the Pelicans.
The major difference that the Warriors have over other pretenders is that Green is not just a switchy under-sized big but actually a transformational talent. The playoff version of Green, rather than the dialled back version we saw this season, has the strength, length, and competitive fire to battle players much larger than himself, while playing at a pace those bigs just can keep up with.
So the Warriors shouldn’t be thinking “how do we get bigger?” but rather “how do we speed up the pace?”. That puts the ball firmly back in court of the likes of the Lakers, who will have to figure out how they keep up with Golden State’s transition game. And that means making sure Green is ready to go when it really counts.
Step 2: Find a wing stopper
The nightmare scenario for a contending Warriors team next season is not going up against Jokic or Howard. Take a second and imagine they grab a top-three seed in the West. They could quite plausibly face some version of Doncic in the first round, Kawhi Leonard in the second round, James in the conference finals, and then Antetokounmpo or old friend Durant in the NBA Finals. That is the real modern NBA, and that is what Golden State have to contend with if they want to win another title.
The Warriors are going to have to get creative. They’ve been here before, when they acquired Andre Iguodala in 2013 in a complex sign-and-trade deal. After those five NBA Finals with the Warriors, including one Finals MVP trophy in 2015, Iguodala is about to notch his sixth consecutive appearance on the NBA’s greatest stage.
A premium wing stopper who will rise to the occasion in the playoffs is the missing piece for the Warriors. It’s not that they don’t have anything. The Warriors are hoping they can coax a plus-defender out of Andrew Wiggins, with his length and athleticism. Eric Paschall has a bruising physicality that could be of use. Thompson and Green will have their opportunities in the right matchup. But another option could make all the difference for the Warriors.
The NBA draft isn’t going to help them here. This is a class without an elite wing who is ready to play at a high level right away. But they do have the $17.2m Traded Player Exception (TPE) they received when they traded Iguodala to Memphis last summer which allows them to take in a player who is earning up to that amount.
The best possible option would Boston’s Marcus Smart. A potential trade of the Warriors’ number two pick in the 2020 draft for Smart and Boston’s 14th pick would deliver Golden State one of the best defensive guards in the NBA. Smart has the size and tenacity to guard elite-level wings, and his three-point shooting has improved markedly over the last couple of seasons.
With the 14th pick they’d be able to take a player like Villanova’s Saddiq Bey, an NBA-ready 6-foot-8 forward who guarded all five positions at a high level in college and shot 45% from long range last season.
Between these two 3-and-D aces, the Warriors wing depth would instantly get the upgrade they need. And if they’re able to use their taxpayer Mid Level Exception to add veteran center Marc Gasol in free agency as well, the Warriors’ defense would absolutely be championship level.
Why would Boston do such a trade? For one, they are approaching a financial crunch point in the 2021 offseason as young star Jayson Tatum becomes eligible for a big extension. They’ve also been keen to add an elite NBA big man in the past, chasing Davis hard before he was traded to Los Angeles. Using the number two pick in the 2020 draft on James Wiseman might pique their interest. And while Smart is one of the team’s emotional leaders, the Celtics’ front office is not renowned for their sentimentality. Just ask Isaiah Thomas.
However, Smart was fantastic in the bubble, and played a key role in Boston’s journey to the East Finals. That may well be enough to keep him off the trade market. Trading Smart would mean taking a step back for the Celtics, even with the hope that it leads to two steps forwards in the future.
A potential fallback option for the Warriors would be Philadelphia’s Josh Richardson. At 6-foot-5 he’s got decent size for a guard and can bring some playmaking and solid three-point shooting along with his energetic defense. He won’t be available for nothing, but the 76ers are staring a potentially enormous luxury tax bill next season even if the salary cap stays flat. Richardson is not worth the Warriors’ 2020 draft pick, but they could offer up their own pick in either 2021 or 2022, with Minnesota’s 2021 second-round pick. But would that be enough for such a valuable commodity in today’s NBA as a solid 3-and-D wing?
The most likely option remains the San Antonio Spurs’ Rudy Gay. He may have just turned 34, but he’s got the length and veteran smarts the Warriors need, and after a little bit of step back this season Gay acquitted himself very nicely in the bubble. The Spurs are likely looking to get younger and shed some salary, so it wouldn’t cost the Warriors much to get their hands on him. And while Gay may be more of a stop-gap option than full-on wing stopper, at the very least his $14.5m contract could be very helpful in a larger deal come the trade deadline.
Step 3: Get a player who can help now in the draft
The Warriors face a very tricky decision in the 2020 draft, assuming they aren’t able to swing a trade for Smart. With the second overall pick, they can’t get too cute. They need to take the best player available rather than draft on fit or position. But with their window firmly open the one thing they do need is a player who can help now.
The Warriors are not helped by all the restrictions on the usual draft process. They’ll be leaning heavily on their analytical models to help guide their decision. A lot will ride on their appetite to take a risk on the future of rawer prospects like Georgia’s Anthony Edwards or Wiseman.
Their best option may well end up being the NCAA Player of the Year, Dayton’s Obi Toppin, who is hands down the best player available in the draft right now. He’s got work to do on the defensive end, but with an elite versatile offensive skillset, sharp basketball IQ, and tremendous vertical athleticism, Toppin should have an impact in the NBA straight away.
And while Toppin’s age — he turned 22 in March — might scare some teams away, for the Warriors that just means he’s ready to plug in and play.
Step 4: Use Minnesota’s 2021 first round pick to get their next star
The Warriors can not afford to throw away their shot at making the 2021 NBA Finals. But it doesn’t mean they should mortgage their whole future. Their core should still have a few seasons left, and one never knows how things will change in the NBA. If the Warriors do make it back to the NBA Finals, they will want to stay there.
Golden State has one massive card up their sleeve to play in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2021 first-round pick. It may be top-three protected, but next year’s draft is projected to be a much deeper class, with star talent at the NBA’s premium wing position. There is a very real chance that pick will net a better player than this year’s second overall pick even if it’s in the 5-10 range.
That Minnesota 2021 pick is the asset that sets up the Warriors’ future and could extend their window. It is the piece that can acquire the star who will take them into the next era of Warriors basketball. That could mean taking a player in the 2021 draft, or it could mean looking to use it as the centerpiece of deal for the next disgruntled superstar. Such an opportunity may well come as soon as next season’s NBA trade deadline, but whatever the Warriors do they need to make sure they strike at the optimum moment to maximize this valuable asset.
This year’s NBA Finals will go ahead without the Golden State Warriors. But if they prepare Green for a deep playoff run, get creative to find a wing stopper, and find some help in the draft, the Warriors could well be the ones returning to the NBA Finals next season. And if Golden State can use Minnesota’s 2021 pick to find their next star, they could have a shot at staying there for some time.