Lost in the shuffle of yesterday’s free agent madness, the Golden State Warriors championship window might have slammed shut. If so, they closed it on themselves.
LeBron James‘ return to Cleveland not only monumentally shifted the power structure of the Eastern Conference, but it affects key Western Conference teams as well. Not only are the Cavaliers now favorites to come out of the NBA’s sister league, but they’re also the most likely destination for one Kevin Love. Love has already said he’d re-sign in Cleveland to play with James and the two teams have already engaged in trade discussions.
Of course, the favorite to get Love just a few weeks ago were the Golden State Warriors. Equipped with a dominant defense (No. 4 in defensive rating) and a game plan destroying superstar in Stephen Curry, Love would be a perfect fit sliding into the four spot alongside Andrew Bogut. His defensive deficiencies – i.e. rim protection – would be covered up and he’d provide Curry an unfairly good pick-and-pop partner. Golden State’s defense was dominant last season, while the offense finished just 12th in points per possession. They need Love. They need another superstar to help Curry carry the load offensively.
But the Warriors have handled trade negotiations with Minnesota with a palpable arrogance that looks now like it’s going to come back and bite them. The reported trade discussions center around Golden State sending a less than inspiring package of Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and David Lee to Minnesota in exchange for Love and Kevin Martin. Barnes and Lee are subpar assets at best. The former took a step back in his second season after a nondescript rookie season while the latter can’t shoot threes or defend and is grossly overpaid for each of the next two seasons. Thompson is good, but he’s still not anywhere close to being a franchise player, or even an All-Star. He also becomes a restricted free agent after next season and will likely make upwards of $15 million annually.
Golden State’s reluctance to include Thompson in the deal is admirable, yet foolish at the same time. On one hand, there’s something to be said for posturing. They want to get the best deal and keep their best players. Fine. But at the same time, it’s Kevin Love; a top 6 player and arguably the best power-forward in the league. Acquiring him for Thompson, Barnes, and Lee would be highway robbery, even if the Warriors do have to take back a bad contract in Kevin Martin. The Warriors seemingly weren’t satisfied with acquiring Love for 25 cents on the dollar. Rather they wanted to get him for 10 cents or 5. But with all that happened Friday, it looks like the Warriors may have overplayed their hand. They were never the only player at the table, but they seemingly had the advantage. Now, they’ll have to fight and claw their way to get back into the game.
What Cleveland can offer to Minnesota is far more attractive than what Golden State can. Outside of LeBron and Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers have a plethora of high draft picks on the roster. Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson, and number one pick Andrew Wiggins give Cleveland a clear edge over Golden State in putting together an attractive offer for Love. It’s already been reported that the Cavaliers have offered Bennett and Waiters to Minnesota. That won’t get it done; they’ll likely need to include Wiggins.They should do it.
And while the Cavaliers are the heavy favorites, Phoenix also made a move Friday that could strengthen their positioning in the Love sweepstakes. By acquiring the underrated and still underpaid Isaiah Thomas from the Kings, they now have the ability to make either Eric Bledsoe or Goran Dragic the centerpiece of an offer to Minnesota. The Timberwolves have made it known that they don’t want to tank and want to be competitive now. Grabbing either Bledsoe or Dragic would give them a chance to remain competitive right away, as both players were instrumental figures on last year’s 48 win Suns team.
For the Warriors, acquiring Love should have been a no-brainer. He’d be replacing the weakest part of their starting five (Lee) and gives them a legitimate chance to win a championship. Running out a Curry – Iguodala – Green – Love – Bogut lineup each night would’ve been a nightmare for opposing teams, even in the West. Their defense would’ve continued to be a top-10 unit while the offense would’ve also made the leap to elite status. Thompson is a good player, but the Warriors have seriously overvalued him.
There is a lot of talk right now about whether guys like Thompson and the just traded Arron Afflalo are undervalued because of the lack of true two guards in today’s NBA. I’d argue the opposite. Those guys are being overvalued on the basis of old-school thinking that a two guard should have size and needs to be able to post up, etc. What they bring to the table are good, useful basketball skills, but if Miami’s recent run of dominance showed us anything it’s that positions don’t really matter. The Suns won 49 games in the West last season running out two point guards on the floor at the same time. The Knicks won 54 games the year before doing the same thing. Brooklyn made their run to the playoffs last season after going small and putting Paul Pierce at the “four,” if you will.
Rather than focus on how Thompson’s a traditional two guard in a league barren on them, it’s more important to put together cohesive five man units that fit together as a whole. Two seasons ago, the Warriors played Curry and Jarrett Jack together for over 1500 minutes, outscoring opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions. It didn’t matter that neither of them was a traditional two guard. It’s this same archaic thinking that undervalues scoring point guards like Curry and Russell Westbrook. It’s a different league now. Thompson’s skill set is unique and he has potential, but he’s very replaceable.
The Warriors have already signed Shaun Livingston. Though he can’t shoot to save his life, he’s strong defensively and can be played alongside Curry to defend the opposing ball handler. Thompson is a strong outside shooter, but Love’s floor spacing ability is far more useful. New Warriors coach Steve Kerr spoke earlier offseason about how the team could use “stretch four” on offense to space the floor and open things up. Nobody’s better at doing that than Love.
It’s still early in the off-season, but momentum in the Love trade negotiations has shifted. Where it once seemed like the Warriors were close to making a deal, the Cavaliers are now the clear favorites for Love’s services. A lot can happen between now and the trade deadline. Maybe Love does end up in Cleveland and the Cavaliers win 63 games in a weak Eastern Conference. Or maybe no deal happens at all. Maybe the Timberwolves end up being next season’s Trail Blazers behind Love’s offensive dominance. And if that happens, we’ll probably be looking at another 6th seeded Warriors team wondering what could have been.