This is a massive organizational moment for the Golden State Warriors, one potential end point of a path they began walking two years ago.
The Warriors could have put themselves in the running for James Harden had they made Klay Thompson available in the fall of 2012. They chose not to, and Harden is now a perennial All-Star in Houston. But Harden is a massive liability on defense, a no-go for a team that hides the brittle Stephen Curry on an opponent’s least threatening player. Thompson has emerged as the guy who defends the league’s best point guards so Curry can rest.
Golden State saw Thompson as a building block, and it has indeed built around its starry backcourt since then. It dealt away two first-round picks to clear cap room for the surprise big-money signing of Andre Iguodala. It inked Andrew Bogut to a rich three-year extension that runs through 2017. Now it is nearly out of trade assets and cap flexibility. Every key player is at some point within his prime. This team is built to win right now.
Here’s the simple reality: The Warriors can get Kevin Love only if they are willing to trade Thompson to the Timberwolves. Everything else is detritus the two teams could divide up over a few quick phone calls — the inclusion of Kevin Martin’s awful contract, the possibility of a pick flying in one direction, and other fringe details.
The Warriors can take their chances and try to sign Love in the 2015 offseason, when he will become an unrestricted free agent. That’s a risky path. The Warriors would have to dump David Lee’s $15 million salary to clear the necessary cap room, and in the meantime, they’d have to hope whichever team has Love for the 2014-15 season blows its chance to earn his long-term affection.
You can win that gamble; the Rockets did with Dwight Howard, who spurned the Lakers after L.A. beat out Houston in the Howard trade sweepstakes, but that’s a low-percentage play. The Warriors have a chance to get Love now, and if they get him, everyone around these talks is confident they will be able to re-sign him.
There are other variables, of course. The Suns or Bulls could swoop in with an offer late in the game. Minnesota could opt for a teardown instead of an attempt to remain semicompetitive, and take Boston’s bundle of draft picks. The Wolves could play ultra-hardball and demand Harrison Barnes or Draymond Green in addition to Thompson and Lee. But as things stand now, Love is there for Golden State.
And, somehow, so is Thompson, due a pricey new contract that should start around at least $10 million when it kicks in for the 2015-16 season. There is part of you that wants to scream. Love is one of the league’s 10 best players, an unprecedented melting pot of 3-point shooting, rebounding, heady passing, and post-up skills. He is barely one year older than Thompson, and he’s younger than Curry.
It’s fashionable to brand Love as empty calories because his Minnesota teams have never made the playoffs in his six seasons. That’s fair, but only to a point. Love spent the first two of those six seasons as an underutilized backup on an awful team. He became a starter in 2010-11, and the Wolves improved only two games — from 15-67 to 17-65. But get up from your chair, grab a barf bag or some other empty receptacle, and gaze upon the roster of the 2011 Minnesota Timberwolves.
It is a horror show. Looking at it for more than five continuous seconds might actually kill you, like watching that tape in The Ring. Kurt Rambis gave huge minutes to one failed project after another in Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic, Wesley Johnson, and more. Two of the Timber Pups who have actually turned into useful NBA players, Nikola Pekovic and Kosta Koufos, barely saw the floor.
The 2011-12 Wolves were playing .500 ball despite another blown top-five pick (Derrick Williams) when Ricky Rubio tore his ACL. Pekovic began suffering foot and ankle issues around the same time, and missed 19 games during the lockout-shortened season. Love got hurt on April 11, and the team fell apart down the stretch. Love then missed all but 18 games of the 2012-13 season.
It’s basically unprecedented for a top-10 overall player to miss the postseason in each of his first six seasons, and it’s fair to argue that an all-timer like LeBron James or Kevin Durant would have found a way to squeeze at least one playoff berth from this team — even given the same miserable draft and injury luck.
But at least dig into the record and ask how many legitimate chances the Timberwolves have really had at a top-eight spot in the West during Love’s career. Love isn’t on the level of Durant and LeBron. No one would argue that, but he’s squarely in the next tier. If you can get that kind of player, you should do it.
Love’s limitations as a defender are real, and I went into them extensively here. He’ll never be able to protect the rim; he can’t jump very high, and he has a shorter wingspan than Green, who is two inches shorter than Love. He has too often acted as the big man’s Dwyane Wade in transition nondefense, and though he gets into the right positions against the pick-and-roll, his presence isn’t going to scare elite ball handlers away from the basket.
His issues on defense have been a part of Minnesota’s yearslong run of catastrophic crunch-time bumbling.1 The Wolves haven’t been able to get stops, and when the score is within three points late in games, they’ve fouled at an absurd rate in some panicked effort to compensate. It’s a glaring point since the Wolves commit an incredibly low amount of fouls per game (third-fewest in the league during the regular season).
Don’t blame Love for Minnesota’s scoring yips in the clutch. He was one of the league’s most dangerous crunch-time scorers last season, and his post game has improved to the point where teams can dump him the ball and count on Love generating a good look. He has a useful righty jump hook from the left block and a smart face-up game.
Love shot 44 percent on a large helping of post-ups last season and drew a ton of fouls, per Synergy Sports. The Wolves scored 0.92 points per possession on trips that Love finished via a post-up play, a mark that ranked 32nd among 117 players who recorded at least 50 post-ups — above guys like DeMarcus Cousins, Tim Duncan, Zach Randolph, and LaMarcus Aldridge.
It’s Love’s shooting that would prove transformative for a Warriors team that ranked just 12th in points per possession last season — unthinkably bad for a team blessed with such marksmanship and passing.
That number is really at the crux of the front office’s debate on Love. The Dubs know they are an elite defensive team as currently constructed; they finished third in points allowed per possession. Love would improve the offense, sure, but might they manage that with internal improvement — under Steve Kerr — and without sacrificing an above-average wing defender in Thompson?
This is about replaceability. Whose skills are easier to find on the open market? Thompson is getting short shrift in this regard. He is not a fungible player. A wise front-office guy on another team often cautions against tricking yourself into thinking you can replace one talented two-way wing by signing three cheaper ones who each have a couple of discrete skills.
That wing Voltron almost never works as well as the one do-it-all guy. Each Voltron member has a fatal flaw that becomes exploitable in the postseason.
Thompson isn’t an elite stopper, but he worked his ass off with Golden State’s coaching staff to become a good defender. “When we first got him, he was not a defender,” says Mark Jackson, Thompson’s only NBA head coach so far. “He couldn’t defend a simple action. But he worked hard every single day to become, in my opinion, the best two-way shooting guard in basketball.”
Added Jackson: “If I’m Golden State, I don’t put him in the deal. If I’m Minnesota, I say he’s gotta be in the deal.”
Thompson fights over picks, and when he falls behind faster Chris Paul types, he’s smart about using his long arms to pester them from behind. He plays angles well, and he has thrived in Golden State’s scheme.
Curry pipes up once or twice a season about wanting to defend point guards more, but he’s not as good at it as Thompson, and it takes a physical toll. The Warriors want their point guards fighting through picks, and Curry told me early in the 2012-13 season how taxing it was to bang his skinny body into the league’s behemoths 30 times per game.
Iguodala could slide into the job. But he’s 30, entering his decline, and the Warriors need him to defend the league’s elite wings. Barnes? Perhaps. But he was a disaster last season, and he’s topped out so far as an average 3-point shooter.
Green is a sticky-handed beast, but he’s not quick enough to defend wily point guards without fouling out. There is a real trickle-down effect here. Sacrificing one good defender to get Love puts more pressure on the remaining good defenders, especially Bogut, the team’s rim protector. Bogut has a checkered injury history, and as of now, Festus Ezeli is the team’s only backup shot-blocker. We haven’t seen Ezeli and his stone hands in a year.
Green improved his 3-point range, but he still checked in below the league’s average mark last season. Stick two of the Iguodala-Green-Barnes combo on the wings and opposing defenses will take an extra step or two into the lane to pinch the paint.
Thompson, of course, is a miraculously great shooter. He jacked nearly seven triples per 36 minutes and canned 42 percent of them. The list of guys who have shot that often, and that accurately, is very short. And these are tough, quick-release looks with dudes in his grill. The Warriors will not be able to find a comparable shooter in their price range on the open market.
That price range would be limited. Acquiring Love-Martin for Thompson-Lee would leave Golden State with about $69 million committed to 11 players going into next season. It would still need a backup point guard for Curry — a gaping roster hole — and some depth up front.
It could use the midlevel exception to fill some of those holes, but a multiyear midlevel deal could be a problem going forward. The Warriors next summer would have to re-sign Love at the max2 and reserve some cash for Green, who will be a free agent. Depending on how the cap and tax shake out, the Warriors may have to choose between using the midlevel twice (this summer and next) and keeping Green. After that, you’re filling the roster mostly with minimum salaries. Good luck.
Thompson is about to become more expensive, and probably overpaid, but he’ll still earn something like $6 million per season less than Love. That matters for a team that has limboed under the tax despite some big words about being willing to exceed it.
The Warriors can in theory search for Love’s shooting elsewhere. They might already have a capable stretch power forward in Green; lineups with Green at power forward generally did well last season, and the seldom-used Green-Bogut front line played off-the-charts ball on both ends, per NBA.com. Green isn’t a knockdown shooter, but he’s capable of hitting open shots, and he can dribble and pass well enough to keep the machine moving when defenders run him off the arc.
If Green won’t do, the Dubs might be able to find a cheap Love facsimile. Channing Frye, who opted out of his deal with the Suns in hopes of signing a multiyear contract, would be ideal. The midlevel would represent a pay cut for him, but one Frye might accept in exchange for security.
Frye’s taller than Love, he tries hard on defense, and like Love, he has a quick release that allows him to shoot over strong close-outs. Having Frye pick and pop contorts an entire defense; Goran Dragic often sliced clean into the lane because Frye’s man was too terrified to help. But he’s 31, a minus overall on defense despite the effort, and he can really only post up against blatant mismatches.
And here’s the thing: Beyond Frye, there really aren’t available big men who can approximate Love’s shooting. And it’s unwise to pin all your free-agency hopes on one guy for whom the whole league can compete.
Love isn’t really a stretch power forward. He’s a great shooter who happens to be tall. A lot of other stretch big men who will be free agents over the next two seasons need an unusual amount of time to launch their bombs — Matt Bonner, Josh McRoberts, even Thaddeus Young, Ersan Ilyasova,3 and Anthony Tolliver. They need space to wind up. Others just aren’t big or skilled enough to defend the post against every opponent — Marvin Williams, Dorell Wright, Chris Copeland, Mike Scott, Mirza Teletovic.
Some would be hard to get, either because they’re happy where they are (Bonner, Boris Diaw, Dirk Nowitzki), or because they’ll be restricted free agents (Teletovic next year, Patrick Patterson now).4
Love is prolific, and dangerous from deep even in tight quarters. About 72 percent of his 3-pointers were contested this season, according to a SportVU report provided to Grantland;5 only eight players attempted more contested 3s. Love made 35 percent of those shots, a mark on par with triple-happy guards like Damian Lillard, Harden, and Kyle Lowry.
Most long-range shooting bigs rely more on wide-open looks; SportVU classified only 56 percent of Ryan Anderson’s 3-point tries as contested. Bonner came in at 32.7 percent, Serge Ibaka at 37 percent, and Spencer Hawes at 61 percent.6
Love cannot be left alone. He instills fear. He has gravity. Losing Thompson’s shooting isn’t as painful if you replace him with a top shooter at another position — a guy who can be involved in more plays, and in more varied ways, simply because of his size.
A Curry-Love pick-and-roll would be impossible to guard without leaving at least one Golden State player open — one of the pick-and-roll duo or a spot-up shooter around them. The guys guarding Iguodala and Barnes would have to cover longer distances in crashing down on Love’s rolls to the hoop and then recovering back out onto Iggy and Barnes. That makes driving easier. The Warriors often battled a clogged lane last season; Bogut can’t shoot, and Lee’s midrange jumper deserted him.
Spot Love up around a Curry-Bogut pick-and-roll, and you present his defender with a choice: help in the middle and leave Love alone (no!), or stick to Love and let Curry and Bogut play 2-on-1 in the middle after a solid Bogut screen (NO!).
Since Love is a big, you can use him in lots of creative ways — as an off-ball screener at the elbow, or as a dribble handoff cog. Anytime he interacts with a teammate, Love is leveraging his shooting to help get that player open. The Wolves had all sorts of fun tricks like this, and they had nowhere near the surrounding perimeter talent of the Warriors.
And even so, the Wolves scored at the rate of a top-five offense with Love on the floor and fell into Sixers territory when he sat, per NBA.com.
The Dubs might be able to build an elite offense with their current roster. Doing so would be the expectation with Love. The defense might suffer at first, but if the Green-Barnes-Iguodala trio can’t make up for that loss, there are bigger issues afoot.
The Dubs could also ease the cap burden of Martin’s deal by using the stretch provision on him after next season. That would allow Golden State to spread his remaining cap hit over five seasons,7 opening up about $4 million in room — enough to put the midlevel exception back in play each summer.
And that’s how you can try to replace Thompson. It would be hard, but there are more wing names than stretch bigs to choose from over the next two free-agency periods — Danny Green, DeMarre Carroll, Jerryd Bayless, Devin Harris, Wesley Johnson, Wesley Matthews, Evan Turner, Jordan Hamilton, C.J. Miles, and others. A guy like Harris, who can serve as a backup point guard, would be especially useful, but the Mavs badly want to retain him.
Matthews is a useful comparison for Thompson, actually — a killer spot-up guy who plays solid defense against multiple positions, but has obvious off-the-bounce limitations on offense. Matthews is a nice starter at $7 million per season. At $11 million, he’d be overpaid, even with the cap rising every season.
Let’s be fair: Thompson made strides as a ball handler this season, mostly because he became more comfortable attacking off all the screens the Warriors set for him:
He shot 46 percent off screens last season after hitting just 39 percent in 2012-13, and that understates the development. Thompson took many more 3s in those situations, something Jackson says was a point of emphasis going into the season. He got more comfortable finishing with his left hand, using little hesitation feints to keep defenders off balance, and scoring through contact:
But Thompson doesn’t project as a top ball handler. He’s much more comfortable attacking this way from the left side, when he catches the ball going toward his strong hand, and toward the middle. He was shakier on the other side,8 and he’s not much of a pick-and-roll threat.
He’s mostly a pull-up artist, popping for midrange jumpers after going around the pick:
He doesn’t puncture the defense with the extra dribble or two that would open things up for shooters and big-man moochers near the hoop. When he does manage that, he has trouble making the right pass at the right time. He mostly dribbles to score from midrange. “He’s not selfish,” Jackson says. “He’s a scorer.”
In one-on-one situations, he’s hugely dependent on his left hand. He’ll get better at this stuff and chisel the imbalances out of his game. He’s already improved, and like Matthews, he can be a useful post-up threat in the right matchup. But he’s not going to become Harden or Kobe Bryant as a wing creator, and he has benefited from his partnership with Curry — from the extra attention defenses pay to Curry, and the panic that ensues when Curry and Thompson screen for each other under the basket.
Thompson is a really good player. Losing him will hurt. But it’s not worth losing out on Love, a legitimate star whose skills mesh well with Curry. They could stay together for years, bridging the gap between this Golden State team and the contender the Warriors could build around them once contracts to Bogut, Iguodala, and others expire. Love can survive in a sound defensive system; Minnesota played a style similar to Golden State’s, and it ranked as a league-average defense despite playing most of its minutes without a rim protector.
It’s not an easy decision, in basketball terms or even emotionally. Sometimes you have to make tough choices to build a title contender.