It's a cruel irony for Thunder fans that perhaps the best parallel to the momentous choice looming in Golden State -- whether to bust up an all-time team and pursue Kevin Durant in free agency -- is Oklahoma City's decision to deal James Harden.
In trading Harden to Houston, the Thunder chose depth and flexibility over a core of four stars that might have left them capped out in perpetuity. Harden needed the ball, but so did Durant and Russell Westbrook; there are real diminishing returns in pairing three ball-dominant players, and it was unclear if any of those home-grown stars had the shooting touch and deferential nature to evolve into Oklahoma City's Chris Bosh. The Warriors soared toward history the moment they gave Stephen Curry the ball on every possession. They wouldn't be able to do that with Durant on board.
Paying four players close to the maximum salary leaves almost no money for nine or 10 leftover roster spots. Top-heavy teams scrounge every summer for one-year minimum bargains, undrafted rookies and aging ring-chasers. Look how hard it has been for the Clippers, with three max guys, to build workable depth. Doc Rivers has handicapped L.A. by dealing draft picks and signing bad players for bad reasons, but filling eight roster spots on the cheap is an uphill battle. Even the Heat mostly whiffed on buy-low veterans during the Big Three era.
The Thunder's record in spreading out Harden's salary slot has been spotty, as you would expect. They churned through Kevin Martin and Reggie Jackson until they became too expensive, and have settled for now on Dion Waiters, who will likely be elsewhere next season, once he signs a pricier deal. They used the cap boom to pay Enes Kanter more than Harden, which, umm, probably isn't ideal.
They snagged extra draft picks that became Steven Adams, Mitch McGary and Alex Abrines. Adams is already a solid two-way center at 22, with a delightful mustache, but the other two aren't playing for a team that fancies itself a contender.
That was the idea: The extra breathing room would expand Oklahoma City's long-term core from four guys to six or seven, and leave more money for everyone else.
It also left only three stars, and when any of them got hurt at the wrong time, the Thunder were done. And that, in the end, may be the most persuasive argument for Golden State going after Durant: Adding a fourth star is a hedge against an injury to one of the other three. If any of Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Durant get hurt in May or June, the Warriors could still have a fighting chance. In the postseason hothouse of shorter rotations, that extra dose of star power might be a better cushion against bad luck than a deep bench.
Most of the two-dozen or so team executives I polled over the past two weeks on the Durant-Warriors possibility described it as a no-brainer ("Bench smench," texted one GM), but there is some division within the Warriors, and you can understand why. They might have the best basketball team ever assembled! How can you shake that up? They are obliterating victims by about 13 points per 100 possessions. Unless the league adds a 4-point shot or lengthens the game, it is almost literally impossible to get any better. And the Warriors have already been proven right choosing continuity over a sweet-shooting shiny object in Kevin Love.
Signing Durant would carry risk, especially with Festus Ezeli's future unclear after another knee surgery. Signing Durant with cap room would cost Golden State Harrison Barnes, and at least two of Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Andrew Bogut and Ezeli. The Warriors would have to offload two of those guys into someone else's cap space, and they are privately worried they might have to attach one or even two future first-round picks to grease the wheels.
When they needed to shed about $25 million in dead money to sign Iguodala in 2013, they bribed the Jazz with two first-round picks -- including their 2017 first-rounder. Flip two more, and Golden State -- a team that drafts well -- would be out three precious chances to fluff the roster with young talent on cheap rookie contracts.
Trade partners will know what's up, and they might drive a hard bargain in exchange for facilitating the birth of a monster. Then again, with 20 teams hoarding max-level cap space almost by accident, it might not cost much to deal quality players such as Bogut and Livingston into unused salary slots.
Another concern: The second key building block for teams over the cap -- the midlevel exception -- has been borderline useless amid the cap boom. Overflowing cap space soaks up almost every viable rotation player now. Only one guy, Brandan Wright, signed for the full midlevel last season, and other teams used chunks of it to sign game-changers such as Dante Cunningham, Shane Larkin, Alan Anderson, K.J. McDaniels and a broken-down Paul Pierce.
The Pierce example is especially relevant: Ring-chasing fogies will flock to Golden State, but for every David West and Ray Allen, there is at least one geezer who proves unplayable at money time.
Ezeli is still young, and that's why his injury is scary. The ideal Durant path for Golden State would probably involve keeping Ezeli -- a young center ready to succeed Bogut -- and Iguodala, the LeBron antidote who perhaps best represents Golden State's brand of versatile, unselfish, high-IQ basketball. Iguodala keeps the machine running. Livingston does, too, but he can't shoot 3s, and he's not stout enough to defend LeBron. The Warriors can live without him.
It's exciting to dream of Golden State going all-in on the Death Lineup by keeping both Iguodala and Livingston, but they are already worried about overexposing Green to the rigors of guarding centers; they just ate tax money to sign Anderson Varejao.
The Warriors can squeeze Iguodala, Ezeli's cap hold and Durant under the cap by the hair on their chinny-chin-chins, but if the cap sticks at $90 million -- the league's current official projection, per league sources -- Golden State might also have to deal Kevon Looney or the player it picks in June's draft. Several teams are already projecting a $92 million cap, and that tiny uptick could make a huge difference in Golden State keeping as many of its current guys as possible.
Ezeli would also have to be complicit, and hold off on signing an offer sheet from another team in a way that could screw up the timing of all these dominos. That is why Golden State's dream scenario -- a Barnes-Durant double sign-and-trade -- is such a long shot: Barnes would have to agree to the scheme, and using the sign-and-trade tool introduces a bunch of thorny cap complications the Warriors might wish to avoid. (It would be easier to use Green or Thompson in a sign-and-trade, but that isn't happening. The possibility of dealing Thompson down the line to open up cap flexibility is intriguing, though -- and also unlikely).
The costs are real: a couple of rotation players shaved off a 50-5 juggernaut, plus the ability to restock. Recent versions of the Heat, Cavs and Lakers have reminded us that the slapped-together super-team thing is never as seamless as we anticipate.
But those worried about messing with perfection make the mistake of assuming this particular brand of perfection will last beyond 2016. Livingston, Iguodala and Bogut are all over 30, with injury histories that make you wince about how they might age. Barnes is about to quintuple his salary; combine that with the mega-max Curry has coming after next season, and keeping the current core together becomes just as expensive -- and just as restrictive going forward -- as signing Durant.
Durant is just 27, on the same age timetable as Golden State's three core stars, sporting a skill set that should eventually mesh well with the Warriors' fluid system. He's an historically elite shooter, and elite shooting smooths over jagged edges. The Warriors are deadly because almost everyone, including Curry, is a threat away from the ball as a screener, cutter and spot-up killer. The LeBron-Wade fit would have been much cleaner, much sooner, if they both shot 3s like Ray Allen. Durant is already working off the ball more now that Westbrook controls Oklahoma City's offense.
Durant also brings the same kind of positional versatility that makes Barnes so valuable, only he's Kevin freaking Durant, and he'll probably be earning only about $5 million more than Barnes in 2016-17. He can tussle with power forwards, switch onto guards, and unlock the small-ball lineups that make these Warriors so deadly. He's an underrated team defender, though he can get a little off-kilter when he isn't dialed in. Plop him into Golden State's steadier scheme under superior coaching, and he'd be fine.
He does hold the ball, and that runs counter to everything Steve Kerr has built. Curry is the only guy who gets to keep the rock for more than a couple of seconds hunting shots, and even then, he's manipulating jittery defenders with a live-wire dribble. No Warrior gets to catch the ball in triple-threat position, jab step for five seconds, and finally slice toward the rim.
But Durant is good at that, and it's a useful weapon to have in the bag, especially when Curry sits. The Warriors are an ugly minus-132 for the season with Curry on the bench. That number is a little misleading, since Golden State has logged a lot of time with bench mobs that won't see the light of day when it matters; the Warriors are plus-36 in the 130 minutes when all three of Thompson, Iguodala and Livingston have played without Curry, per NBAwowy.
Still, those non-Curry stretches are tenuous exercises in survival. One way to build a bench is to play a star with your bench players. Having four stars makes it easier to do that. And if they play their cards right, the Warriors can sign Durant and keep two of their most valuable reserves. Bat just .333 on bargain ring-chase signings, and you've got a workable 8-man rotation -- all you really need for the playoffs.
Golden State already gives Thompson, Barnes and Green permission to feast on size mismatches in the post; Durant would make even better use of those same touches. He can fly off pindowns, and has a ton of experience working both ends of the pick-and-roll -- something you can't really say for Barnes.
If an opposing coach throws everything at snuffing the Curry-Green pick-and-roll, the Warriors can slide Durant into Green's spot as Curry's screener, and let him make those 4-on-3 plays off the dribble. If Curry needs a break, Durant can run the show. As pretty as it looks, Golden State's offense outside Curry's pick-and-roll magic is pretty simple: One guy holds the ball, a bunch of great shooters cut and screen for each other all over the floor, and the passer finds the open man.
Durant isn't a great passer, but he's a good one, and he can surely manage that. He would have to make quicker decisions, and the other Warriors would have to modify their games to accommodate him. Guess what? Every team does to varying degrees every season.
Easing Curry's load is healthy in the long run. Green and Thompson have probably hit their ceilings running the pick-and-roll and creating one-on-one in a pinch; there are times against top defenses, including during last season's Finals, when it feels like all Golden State has is the unprecedented gravitational pull of Curry sucking out traps 35 feet from the rim. Another go-to option would be nice.
Whether Durant is up for being just another go-to option on Curry's team is unclear. Durant has said nothing of substance about his free agency, and he and his agent, Rich Kleiman of of Roc Nation, have been diligent in keeping everything within a tiny circle of confidantes. Any noise about personal issues between Durant and Westbrook is bunk, according to sources close to the situation. They get along great, though there has been minor tension about touches as Westbrook's role has ascended, those sources say. Durant can go to any team he wants; all 30 teams will move the earth to sign him.
If he cares most about winning, Golden State is probably the only place that inches him closer to a title than sticking with the Thunder -- as long as Westbrook, a free agent in 2017, sticks around, too. The same old-school purists who mocked James for joining a super-team probably want Durant to stay true to what he has built in Oklahoma City, and seize the throne from Golden State. Whatever. The man can do what he wants, and only a few people on the planet know what that is today -- if Durant even knows himself.
Signing a one-year deal with a player option for 2017-18 is by far Durant's most lucrative path, but inking that contract with a team other than Oklahoma City gets tricky. That team -- say, the Warriors -- would not have Durant's Bird Rights in the summer of 2017, when the cap is projected to approach $110 million. Durant's maximum salary will leap with it, and without Bird Rights, the Warriors wouldn't be able to go over the cap while re-signing Durant, as teams typically can in bringing back their own guys. Instead, they'd have to open up something like $35 million in room to re-sign him. They can do that pretty easily as things stand now, but it would also limit the pool of players they might sign in the interim.
Hovering over all of this is the spectre of a new collective bargaining agreement in 2017. Major changes -- a harder cap, a harsher tax -- could make an expensive team in today's terms untenable in 2018 and beyond.
But Golden State will be expensive regardless of which fork in the road it takes -- if Durant even indicates any interest in going there. That is the price of greatness. The basketball question is the interesting one. There is some risk in sacrificing depth and picks to sign Durant; I'm not quite there with the rival executives who chuckle and say, "Duh," when presented with the question. Some admit they laugh a bit out of fear, and because it's easier to contemplate a dilemma that doesn't apply to them.
In the end, though, the fit would be as clean as we've ever seen with a super-team. There is just so much passing, shooting, versatility and unselfishness in that four-man core. If they have a chance in July, the Warriors should probably do almost whatever it takes to sign Durant.
10 Thing I Like And Don't Like
1. Chris Bosh, dealing with real life again
Basketball is silliness. Let's just hope this new health scare passes, and that Bosh's medical team can figure out how he might avoid more serious issues going forward.
Has any surefire Hall of Famer endured so much snickering criticism? When did the Twitter screamers decide Bosh was somehow overrated, or soft -- when he signed on as Miami's third wheel, or when Shaq labeled him "Bosh Spice" because Bosh dared to shoot jumpers?
Turns out, Shaq was wrong, and Bosh was ahead of his time. You don't even need one hand to count the number of big men who can match his two-way versatility. He is Miami's best player, and it isn't even close.
How many borderline seven-footers have the dribbling skills, shooting range and passing vision to run the pick-and-roll with a big man partner?
Get well, big fella.
2. Sacramento's alternate court
Yes, please. Is there such a thing as too much powder blue? If there is, no piece of NBA art has approached that upper bound yet.
The Kings are the third team to unveil an alternate court design this season, following the Bucks and Warriors. I'm all for this trend, provided teams stop at two or (at most) three courts. Beyond that, teams would dilute the value of their primary colors and marks.
But one alternative court, used sparingly, is a nice way to mark Big Moment games and honor history -- as the Kings are doing with this baby, which mimics their old Arco Arena design. Teams will be swimming in cash once the league's new national TV deal kicks in, and a new floor "only" runs between $100,000 and $200,000. Renting one for a few games runs in the mid five-figures. Get creative, people!
3. When teammates ignore the free throw high-five ritual
This will never stop being funny.
Karl-Anthony Towns scores major points for persistence, even if he missed a chance for some absurdist comedy. When Bogut's Milwaukee teammates ignored him at the line, Bogut just started randomly slapping invisible players:
It's silly that we waste time watching players high-five four teammates between free throws, but I kind of enjoy the NBA's fidelity to this stupid little ritual. Every sport has its quirky tics passed between generations, and honoring them is a way to signify your membership in a special tribe. Have you ever listened to the gibberish that spouts from a baseball dugout? A subculture is nothing without its secret behavioral codes.
That said, it's damn funny when members of that subculture forget them.
4. Teams that STILL don't stagger minutes
How is this still a thing? How do coaches who have (presumably) watched Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle pepper every lineup with one alpha creator for a decade-plus still manage to roll out punchless bench mobs?
When TNT and ESPN broadcast Thunder games, they are ready at the start of every second quarter with camera shots of Westbrook and Durant on the bench -- a cue for the analysts to discuss how Billy Donovan adheres to this insane holdover policy from the Scott Brooks era. You can watch the games on mute, and follow the conversation.
On Sunday against the Hornets, Brooklyn started the second quarter with all three of Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez on the bench -- and a lineup of Shane Larkin, Markel Brown, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thomas Robinson and Chris McCullough. This may shock you, but Charlotte held that lineup to seven points in five minutes, and opened up a huge lead before Nets interim coach Tony Brown subbed Lopez back in.
Coaches: Stop doing this.
5. Dallas, zoning you up
Teams flirted with full-on zone defenses during the late 2000s and early 2010s, but the weirdo Mavs are the only ones left whipping out college-style zones. God bless this wackadoo bunch, and Carlisle, their warlock coach. Some strategic variety between teams is healthy, and Carlisle is always trying out-of-the-box stuff to compensate for weak spots across the roster.
The zone hasn't really worked -- the Mavs have allowed more points per possession when they use it, per Synergy Sports -- but it makes any Dallas game a unique NBA viewing experience.
6. Pressing Andrew Bogut
This is one of the more interesting mini-debates within the game: Should you pressure a ball handler who can't shoot, making it harder for him to see passing lines, or sag way off him and cut off those lanes yourself?
I'm not sure what the answer is, only that you can't use the same tactic on every possession. But I wonder if Golden State opponents are erring too far in the direction of hounding Bogut far from the rim as the Warriors' flock of cutters whirs around him:
Bogut is tall enough to pass over most defenders, and he's cagey about slipping bounce passes under the arms of giants. Retreat away from Bogut, and you might smother his first and second options -- and even force him to put the ball on the floor. Hell, this is exactly how Bogut treats non-threatening centers on the other end when they loiter near the 3-point arc.
Opponents should mix it up, but pressing Bogut is probably wrong as a default, every-possession strategy.
7. The Clippers, stepping it up when you ignore DeAndre Jordan
On the flip side, when smart teams realize you're ignoring their non-shooting centers, they will exploit that by having those bricky behemoths set picks for their best shooters. Witness this beauty Doc Rivers uses after timeouts:
That first pick-and-roll, with Jordan lurking as a second screener for Chris Paul, is designed to drag Jordan's man, Pau Gasol, toward the rim in pursuit of Paul. Once Gasol lurches there, he has no shot to scamper back and defend the real thing: J.J. Redick rocketing off a Jordan off-ball screen. If that Jordan pick hits flush, Redick can fly it in open space.
This is why Golden State is so deadly: Ignore Bogut this way, and the Warriors will immediately pivot into some action in which Bogut screens for Curry or Thompson. If those guys see daylight around a pick, you're toast.
8. The San Antonio art of the re-post
When a post-up threat kicks the ball out of a double-team, the guy who catches that pass too often moves the ball along with a rote swing pass instead of revisiting the original idea. Not the Spurs. Nobody re-posts the ball with the precision and artistry of San Antonio:
Oh, Manu. You sly dog. Ginobili sees his guy trap LaMarcus Aldridge, and understands that most coaches order that double-teamer to rotate across the court to a shooter in the weakside corner -- triggering a series of rotations around the perimeter. That scheme is based on the notion that the offensive team will ping the ball around the outside.
Ginobili knows the Nets are expecting that, fools them all with a pass fake, and slings the ball back into Aldridge for an easy bucket.
Get better, Manu. The league isn't the same without you.
9. The light-up 3-point arc
Umm ... so ... I'm sorry to say this, because some really smart people had a hand in creating it, but I don't really get the point of the extra-thick, glowing 3-point arc. Is that OK? Can I say that? Should we just move on?
10. Washington's pajama jerseys
There is something about these blood-red, stripey, sleeved jerseys that reminds me of pajamas. It might be the way the blue-and-white stripe carries down from the top onto the shorts, as if the whole outfit is one item of clothing, not two. It's like a basketball onesie!
There are better ways to honor the Baltimore Bullets. These are terrible.