D’Angelo Russell to the Golden State Warriors was by far the most shocking move of the early part of free agency. It left many of us wondering what the Warriors were doing, considering the sign-and-trade transaction also forced them to dump Andre Iguodala on the Grizzlies. How will Russell possibly fit with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson? Are the Warriors really going to spend nearly $100 million per year for the next three years on three guards?
Those questions still loom, but the real reason for Golden State acquiring Russell is now coming into focus. This wasn’t about the on-court fit. It was about gaining the 23-year-old Russell as an asset.
Signing a player to a four-year, $117 million maximum contract for the purpose of eventually trading him may seem odd, but the Warriors’ thinking actually makes sense — or at least more sense than signing Russell just to have him play with Curry and Thompson. Whether it’ll actually work is a different question, but this may have been the best and, crucially, only path forward for the team.
This was the Warriors’ one shot to get this kind of player and/or trade asset
The Warriors were going to lose Kevin Durant with no means of replacing him in free agency. That much was guaranteed before Thompson agreed to a new five-year, $190 million deal, and it is certainly true after Thompson did so. Even in the absolute worst-case scenario in which Thompson and Durant had left, the Warriors would still have needed to trade Iguodalato create enough cap space for a maximum contract.
A sign-and-trade was therefore the only way to get a talent of Russell’s caliber to the Bay. That’s probably true in the next two years beyond this one, too, because Curry and Thompson will take up more than $72 million all by themselves through 2022. Draymond Green is due a new deal after the 2019-20 season.
With Curry and Thompson under contract for the long haul, the Warriors clearly couldn’t blow it up and rebuild. They had to get serious young talent somehow, and Russell, though an odd positional fit, is serious young talent.
OK, but why sign-and-trade for Russell? Why not a better fit?
Because he was literally the only player the Warriors could have acquired in a sign-and-trade. More specifically: the Nets were the only team who could conduct a sign-and-trade with Golden State directly.
You can thank a rule change in the 2011 CBA that added restrictions to sign-and-trade transactions. At the time, the league was reeling from stars like Carmelo Anthony forcing their way to new destinations and then immediately signing new long-term contracts with teams that wouldn’t have the cap space to sign those players outright. It was also reeling from a perception that the big-market teams could spend and accept the mild penalties associated with being over the luxury tax.
To solve that problem, the league instituted a rule: teams in the luxury tax couldn’t take on sign-and-traded players as easily. In effect, it instituted a team hard cap at a mark $6 million above the luxury-tax figure, known as the “apron”. For this season, that means that no team that acquires a player via a sign-and-trade can exceed a total team salary of $129.8 million under any circumstances.
(That’s the short version. Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ is a great resource for the long version).
That’s a problem for the Warriors, because they have a massive payroll. Before trading Iguodala to Memphis, they were on track to blast way past that $129.8 million number. Given the uncertainty surrounding Durant’s future, they couldn’t even execute a sign-and-trade with another team to acquire a free-agent talent of Russell’s capabilities anyway. No other players at that age and talent level were actually on the market.
So their only choice to conduct a legal sign-and-trade was to deal Durant to Brooklyn for Russell in a complex transaction while also offloading Iguodala on Memphis, at the cost of a first-round pick. Even that puts the Warriors in a pickle to fill out the roster.
But at least they gave themselves a chance this way.
Is Russell really an asset?
Sure he is! Say what you want about his game, but he’s a 23-year-old point guard who did make an NBA All-Star team (even as a replacement) and had multiple suitors this summer. The Warriors should be able to find someone willing to give up decent value to acquire him at some point.
What about Minnesota, which lusted after him this summer? Would they be willing to part with Robert Covington or one of their other young wings? Would Orlando trade Aaron Gordon if the Markelle Fultz experiment fails? Would Phoenix get in on the bidding if Ricky Rubio doesn’t fit well next to Devin Booker? Countless teams will always need a point guard, and Russell is a good one even if he only matches last season’s success.
Best of all, Russell will get an opportunity to pad his stats with Thompson out most of next season, which should only help him increase his value.
Were there really no other alternatives?
There were some, but none were close to ideal.
The Warriors could have just run it back without Durant and with Iguodala, but they’d have few young assets long term and would run into the same payroll challenges they have now.
They could have tried to recoup some assets by trading Draymond Green before his contract ends in 2020. But what is Green’s trade value right now, given the way cap space is quickly shrinking around the league? Plus, they can still do that if need be.
They could have not given Thompson a five-year maximum contract in the name of future flexibility. Uh ... good luck selling that one.
There is one other path: They could have turned Durant leaving into a sign-and-trade that yielded a giant trade exception worth the equivalent of Durant’s first-year salary with Brooklyn. (His max is about $38 million, but he might be taking less to fit DeAndre Jordan in). The Warriors could then use that exception to acquire any single player under contract with another team for that amount or less. That’s somewhat compelling, and would ensure the Warriors wouldn’t run into the issue of the self-imposed hard cap that came from trading for Russell.
At the same time, any GM in the league would rather have Russell as a trade asset than that giant exception. Plus, the Warriors got a different $17.2 million trade exception from dumping Iguodala on Memphis, so they can still use this avenue to improve the team anyway.
OK fine. But this still seems too #lightyears, even for the Warriors
Maybe it is. OK, I still kinda think it is. When you consider the future first-rounders it took to dump Iguodala and reportedly to complete this sign-and-trade, the cost is prohibitive.
But after going through this whole exercise, I at least understand the idea of acquiring Russell as a future trade asset. Truth be told, they may not have had any other choice.