Kyle Lowry stumbled as he attacked the basket. Stephen Curry took the loose basketball, and the Warriors were off to the races. Curry passed ahead to Thompson for an easy transition dunk. As Thompson elevated for the routine finish, Danny Green made contact from behind. The ball popped loose, the whistle sounded, and gravity pulled a contorting Thompson down to the hardwood at Oracle Arena. As Thompson landed, his left knee twisted awkwardly. Grabbing his knee, he writhed in pain for a long minute. With 2:22 left in the third quarter of Game 6, and the Warriors winning 83-80, Thompson was carried off of the court and into the tunnel.
But wait, if Klay didn’t shoot the free throws, he couldn’t return to the game. He stopped on his way to the locker room, turned around, and walked back to the court. Warriors fans bellowed as a limping Thompson exited the tunnel. He stepped to the line and heroically knocked down the two free throws with ease. On an adrenaline rush, he wanted to keep playing on. But DeMarcus Cousins took an intentional foul, and Thompson acquiesced to the training staff. The Splash Brother departed the game and would not come back.
90 minutes later, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Thompson had torn the ACL in his left knee. The Warriors had already lost, so the season was over. But this injury will carry far into next season. Thompson likely won’t be back until well after the new year. So, in the moments following the breaking news, it seemed as though the Warriors’ dynasty was over. Kevin Durant had torn his Achilles and was rumored to likely be on his way out of Golden State anyway. So, with Curry seemingly having to run the show with Draymond Green, NBA fans are of the belief that the Warriors’ run has expired, for better or for worse.
Except it isn’t over yet.
Let’s begin by taking a look at the possibility of the Warriors keeping the band together.
The salary cap for the 2019-20 season will be $109 million, and the tax level will be $132 million. Since this table only accounts for nine players, the payroll for next season will be in excess of the $160,317,549 projected above. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the Warriors will likely face an unprecedented luxury tax bill valued at more than $350 million. That is quite the financial obligation for not even being able to use the two players that would push such a steep tax bill. But the Warriors do intend to make full max offers to both players, so the luxury tax does not appear to concern the franchise’s ownership too much. With Andre Iguodala likely retiring after the 2019-20 season and Sean Livingston contemplating retirement right now, that tax bill could be less than anticipated. However, seeing as the team will need to add role players and rookie contracts this summer, I would expect it to come close to the $350 million at the very least.
It is a different story in the summer of 2020 and future years. Joe Lacob, Peter Guber, and Bob Myers have to determine whether they want to sign away over $150 million to Draymond Green next offseason. However, with Iguodala and Livingston definitely off the books by then, their valuation of Green may be much different at that point than it is now. As the years pass, the salary cap and luxury tax line will rise, granting the Warriors space to add bench depth and simultaneously lowering their annual tax bill.
This is where the Warriors have found their sustainability. Yes, they lucked into Curry in the 2009 draft, as the Timberwolves managed to draft a pair of underachieving point guards right before the Warriors had their pick. But since Myers joined the franchise in April of 2011, the Warriors have done an unbelievable job of discovering stars with unfavorable picks. Under Myers, they drafted Thompson with the 11th overall pick in 2011 and Draymond Green with the 35th overall pick in 2012.
It is hard to imagine a scenario where the Warriors make the playoffs if they re-sign Durant and Thompson, as they’ll have roughly $70 million going to two players who will miss the majority of the season, if not the entire thing. If Golden State finds itself fighting to just compete for the eighth seed with twenty-or-so games remaining, it would benefit them to shut down Curry and aim for a lottery pick. If they can position themselves with a mid-to-late lottery pick, the Warriors could snag a talented wing like Scottie Lewis or Bryan Antoine to develop as a cornerstone of the franchise going forward with Curry, Durant, and Thompson aging into their early-to-mid thirties. Meanwhile, with potentially two players rehabbing into 2020 and Curry resting with “load management” once the Warriors realize that there’s no point in pushing for an 8-seed, they’ll be refreshed and ready to exact revenge in 2020-21.
Application to the Spurs’ Dynasty
The Spurs’ dynasty began with Robinson and Duncan in 1999. They were able to survive the inevitable aging of their core pieces by cyclically drafting high-potential prospects with unfavorable picks and retaining them by managing relationships through time. Their dynasty ended with the mismanagement of Kawhi Leonard in the 2017-18 season. But it earned them five championships in nineteen years.
Not only is Golden State’s run not over, but it may just be getting started.