There is an ideal of progress in the NBA. It happens step by step, on a carefully mapped trajectory. This is especially true for talented young teams, which should experience incremental playoff heartbreak, learning about themselves and "what it takes" to win in the NBA through defeat in the postseason hothouse. If they're lucky, said teams will grow into champions, or, at worst, noble runners-up. Michael Jordan's Bulls, which ran into the cranky Pistons year after year until finally dethroning them in 1991, stand as the most famous example of this slow-growth model. The Pacers and Thunder, at least until Russell Westbrook's injury, are the best examples 2013 has to offer.
But life in the NBA isn't always so orderly. League history is littered with promising no. 7 and no. 8 seeds that fell apart before winning even one or two playoff series. Players suffer injuries that stunt both their own development and that of the roster around them. Front offices misfire in trades for "the missing piece," or blow consecutive first-round draft picks — picks that represent the final chances to find a quality piece on the cheap before the good young players already on the roster reach free agency. Some of those young players will engage in ugly contract disputes that engulf a team, and simmering disputes might chip away at a coach's authority. All sorts of random bad things can break apart what looks to be a perennial contender in the works. Sustained success is not guaranteed. Since the lockout-delayed 1998-99 season, 14 teams have made the conference semifinals one season and missed the playoffs the next — about one per season.
The most interesting "Can they sustain this?" test case in the league right now might be the Golden State Warriors. That sounds pessimistic, considering that (a) the Nuggets exist in a whirlwind of uncertainty, and (b) the Warriors just reinvigorated an entire NBA city with their longest playoff run in six seasons — a run in which Stephen Curry announced himself as a postseason superstar, Andrew Bogut played actual basketball again, Harrison Barnes outperformed even unreasonably optimistic projections, and the Splash Brothers were christened. The Warriors' brass doesn't necessarily want you to notice this, lest you get too hyped up on Golden State Kool-Aid, but they racked up more playoff wins against the Spurs this season than the Heat, Grizzlies, and D-Fenders combined.
And yet, they won three or four more games than we'd expect for a team with such a middling point differential (less than one point per game). They got career seasons from David Lee, Jarrett Jack, and Curry, the last of whom played 78 of 82 games at nearly 39 minutes a pop. They are counting on Bogut to be a major contributor over a full season, especially since they may lose another key frontcourt piece, Carl Landry, to free agency. They possess no draft picks, though they still have about $1.5 million left to buy a second-rounder if they can find a taker.1 The Warriors are on the rise with a young core in place, but for a team in that state, they face a lot of short- and long-term questions.
"You always have to be concerned that there might be slippage," says Bob Myers, the team's GM. "It's always harder to be the hunted rather than the hunter. Next season, we're going to be more of a 'hunted' team. Other teams will get up to play us. Nothing is easier in this league. Things just get harder."
The questions mostly stem from two roster moves the team made in 2011-12 that have left $20 million in dead money linked to Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson. The Warriors are already at the edge of the luxury tax before factoring in a single dollar for Jack, an unrestricted free agent, and Landry, who could become one by declining a $4 million player option. The books are much cleaner after the 2013-14 season, when the Biedrins-Jefferson detritus expires, along with deals for Bogut and Brandon Rush.2 They also slid under the tax this season by dumping Charles Jenkins and Jeremy Tyler at the trade deadline, a slick move that cost them minimal talent (and a bit of cash) and allowed them to avoid triggering the repeater tax countdown.3
In theory, that creates a way for Golden State's future: bite the bullet with a massive tax bill in 2013-14 via new deals for rotation players — presumably Jack and Landry — while maintaining long-term flexibility. But that scenario is rosy, for two reasons:
1. It requires Jack and Landry, or replacement players of similar quality, to take one-year deals. That's unlikely after strong seasons from each. There should be a strong market around the midlevel exception, and perhaps higher, for Jack, a solid combo guard despite his struggles on defense and occasionally greedy shot choices. The Warriors, more than most teams, need a solid backup point guard; Curry's ankle issues flare up now and then, and they'd do well to curtail his minutes a bit, even if it might cost them a win or two in the regular season.4 And there is value in giving opponents another look by slotting Curry away from the ball and letting him run off screens for a dozen or so possessions each game. Jack dominates the ball more than Golden State needs from its backup point guard, since Curry clearly should be handling it more, but a team with playoff ambitions cannot leave backup point guard to chance.5
Landry has told me he loves Golden State and head coach Mark Jackson. But he's underpaid at $4 million and should be looking for long-term security. If he leaves, the front line could be paper-thin, and that may be the biggest long-term issue facing the team — even before Bogut's free agency after next season. "We don't advance this season without Bogut," Myers says.
2. The bill on this roster would be massive. Spending $10 million on Jack and Landry, a low estimate, and filling out a couple of roster spots on the cheap would take the payroll to at least $82 million, triggering something like a $15 million tax bill atop that. Are the Warriors willing to spend that much to keep a solid playoff team together? Almost certainly not, though no one will say so directly.
Joe Lacob, the team's owner, allowed the Warriors to go about $1.5 million over the cap in the middle of last season, even after Myers warned him they might not be able to get back below in time to duck the tax, Myers says. Dodging the tax also brings the Warriors a share of the league's collective tax revenue, a prize reserved only for non-taxpayers, and the team is flush with six home games' worth of playoff revenue. Maybe this is the year to spend big?
"The best thing about working for Joe and the other owners has been that the mandate from day one has been to win," Myers says. "If that means going into the tax to sign a player or players who can help us win, the owners are willing to do that. But we have to be prudent about it, and not inefficient and wasteful."
Bottom line: Is it even possible for Golden State to re-sign both Jack and Landry? "It's possible," Myers says. "Is it acceptable? I'd say yes. Is it conceivable? I'd say yes. There has been no directive from ownership in the way of spending."
Not yet, anyway, or at least not publicly. But I'll be blown away if Lacob actually green-lights a payroll in the low $80 million range. The only move that would lighten the load permanently6 is to trade Lee, whose contract somehow runs through 2015-16. Lee is a very good offensive player with a wide enough skill set to blend into any system, but he's a glaring minus on defense and on the glass.7 Harrison Barnes thrived as a small-ball power forward in Lee's absence during the playoffs, and though Golden State may not want to play even half of every game (on average) in such small-ball alignments, they could fill the remaining spot by slotting power forward time to Draymond Green and a cheap replacement for Lee. Power forward, after all, is the league's deepest position; Paul Millsap made about 67.5 percent of Lee's salary last season, and even Al Horford made about $750,000 less — on a deal that keeps Horford's salary flat as Lee's rises dramatically.
But there is very little leaguewide interest in Lee's contract right now, according to several executives outside Golden State. It's simply too long. The very best semi-reasonable scenario for Golden State would be to unload Lee for another bad contract that expires a year earlier, but even teams with such players — Kris Humphries, Carlos Boozer, Amar'e Stoudemire, Dwyane Wade8 — aren't going to bite on Lee as of now.
None of these issues would have been as pressing without the transactions that led to Biedrins and Jefferson still being on the team. Biedrins is here because the Warriors used their one-time-only amnesty provision to shed Charlie Bell's piddling $4 million salary — an expiring one, to boot! — before the 2011-12 season in order to free up space for a DeAndre Jordan offer sheet the Clippers matched. There is basically no gray area here: This was a bad miscalculation that will strain Golden State's ability to retool the roster this summer. At least a half-dozen league executives have told me since then that the Warriors' alternate plan at that time involved amnestying a larger salary (i.e., Biedrins and his skillfully parted hair) and making a mammoth offer for Nene. Golden State may have accidentally dodged a bullet there, though Nene will be worth his $13 million annual salary if he can ever give his team 30-35 minutes per game over 75 games.
The Warriors took on Jefferson at the 2012 deadline as the poison pill for snagging San Antonio's first-round pick in exchange for Stephen Jackson's expiring deal. A bunch of folks, including then-ESPN.com columnist John Hollinger (now vice-president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies), immediately panned the deal as a massive overpay; the Warriors were effectively ponying up at least $11 million (Jefferson's salary next season) for a pick that would end up at no. 30.
That analysis is basically right: That is a lot to pay for the no. 30 pick, even if the Warriors turned that pick into a rotation player in Festus Ezeli.9 Teams have been able to purchase late first-round picks for much less in sheer cash, and both the Cavaliers and Rockets snagged first-round picks at the same trade deadline while taking on significantly less dead long-term salary. The Cavs did so again ahead of the most recent deadline in a deal with Memphis, and got a much more valuable pick for their troubles.
The closest comparison, in terms of sheer dollar value, is probably Charlotte's willingness to swallow Ben Gordon's $13.2 million salary for next season in exchange for a future Detroit first-rounder. But Charlotte has some cap flexibility, both now and going forward, and they're so bad that retooling their roster to get more 2013-14 wins (i.e., signing a better player or players in Gordon's salary slot) is not even close to a consideration. And that Detroit pick has a good chance of landing in the lottery. Ezeli is a rotation piece, but he's more a fringe guy, and he's probably not as valuable as the lost opportunity to spend on a quality cog this summer. But the Dubs aren't sweating the back of the rotation, even if an athletic defense-first big with good hands — a Birdman type — would be an ideal fit. "What you see in the playoffs," Myers says, "is the top six or seven guys on a roster really determining the outcome."
The Warriors could have looked elsewhere at the 2012 deadline for a Jackson dumping ground that would have brought back a first-round pick and a bad contract that was either cheaper or shorter than Jefferson's — to Washington (Rashard Lewis); New Orleans (Trevor Ariza); Detroit (Charlie Villanueva); Atlanta (Marvin Williams); or the Lakers (a pile of dead salary). But all such scenarios brought complications. The Wizards and Lakers, for instance, clearly wanted on-court talent in exchange for their dead assets. The Bulls viewed Richard Hamilton, their now-dead salary, as a contributor in 2011-12, and they chose to pay the tax this season rather than give up a first-round pick to dump Hamilton.
So maybe there were no alternate ways to get a 2012 first-round pick at a moment when it looked as if Golden State would lose its own pick to Utah. (Only a furious tank job saved them, and even then, they needed to win a pre-lottery draft-order coin flip with Toronto.) And the Warriors didn't have much time before the deadline to peddle Jackson after netting him in the Bogut–Monta Ellis trade. But given what they got, the Warriors might have been better off doing nothing or chasing a high second-round pick.
But here we are. And the Warriors are in a conference where it's quite possible to win 45 games and miss the playoffs. Kobe Bryant's injury and the chaos in Denver are a boon for Golden State, especially if Andre Iguodala opts out of his contract, and Utah seems at least a 50-50 bet to take a temporary step back next season. But Houston and Dallas loom as free-agent unknowns, Portland's core has a year of seasoning, and the Wolves project as a strong playoff team if they can stay healthy (and re-sign Nikola Pekovic).
Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA. Those 14 conference semifinalists that flopped the following season encompass every kind of team — old teams on the downward slope (the 2004-05 Wolves and 2007-08 Nets, for instance); teams that whiffed on foundation-shaking trades (the post-Shaq Lakers and this season's Sixers); teams that underwent roster overhauls and/or fired their coaches (the 1999-2000 Hawks and 2010-11 Suns); teams that suffered injuries to multiple key players; and young teams that disintegrated amid a combination of injuries, internal discord, and plain old bad luck. The 2007-08 Bulls probably stand as the best example of the last type. The exciting young Ben Gordon–Luol Deng core flopped a season after going 49-33 and sporting the league's top defense. Gordon and Deng sulked about not getting contract extensions, Ben Wallace suffered through knee and foot issues, Tyrus Thomas (there's that trade gone bad!) had to play more minutes than he was prepared to play, and the players soured on head coach Scott Skiles until the Bulls fired him on Christmas Eve. "The psyche of a young team can be very fragile," says Gar Forman, the Bulls' GM and longtime executive.
None of this is to say things are going to go poorly in Golden State. They've got a fantastic foundation on the wing in Barnes, Klay Thompson, and Curry. They locked up Curry to a below-market contract that will be one of the league's best bargains if he stays healthy. They've got a bright, young front office, a bold head coach the players like, and a diligent staff of assistants. But one playoff run is only a single step, and going forward from that point can be more challenging than getting there. "This year, the goal for us was to make the playoffs," Myers says. "We were lucky enough to accomplish that. Now the goal is to see if we build on that accomplishment."