Is help on the way for the Warriors?

Things have not been pretty when the Warriors rest their starters this year. - Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sport

What options exist for a Golden State Warrior self-improvement program at this point in the season? Short on assets but with some real needs to fill, GSW management should play a waiting game, looking for opportunistic avenues to strengthen a thin bench.

Matt Groening comically presented the secret to career success as such: "Get a job. Get a better job. Get an even better job. (repeat as necessary)." The instructions, if lacking nuanced advice on how to actually implement this plan, generally hold.

Simple modification to the cartoonist's career strategy make it applicable to for NBA teams wishing to improve their lot:

Get players. Get better players. Get even better players. (Repeat as necessary).

Certainly both "how" and "when" factor into executing this plan, but those are tactics for executing the general guidelines that, for the most part, all teams at some level know and, at some level, all attempt to employ.

Presently, the Warriors have five starters who would find their way into the starting lineup of most other teams, and two or three who would find their way into the starting lineups of most championship contenders. Those who believed Monta Ellis to be near-irreplaceable at guard and questioned whether Stephen Curry could ever carry a team are silent at this point.  Sending Ellis out for Andrew Bogut was most certainly a win for the Warriors.  Acquiring Andre Iguodala in the off-season strengthened the club as much as any other addition has helped any other club. This is an extreme departure from not too long ago when it took the blinders of fandom to pretend that the team had 'talent.'

But beyond starting lineup, the squad drops off appreciably in production. Harrison Barnes is now coming off the bench after starting for all of his rookie campaign. He hasn't seen his game improve to the level that most hoped for and many expected. Draymond Green has shown his value as defensive Swiss-army knife and he has some real skills handling and distributing the ball for a front court utility player, but his scoring threat has been limited to spot up threes. And of late, even those haven't been falling. During the off-season Myers and company were able to lure Toney Douglas, Marreese Speights, and Jermaine O`Neal to Golden State as free agents using the limited exceptions to the NBA salary cap at his disposal. That is about as much as one could honestly have hoped for given only those chips, but, especially given O'Neal's injury, this does not on face look like a formidable lineup or one that would alleviate fears of a starter missing significant time.

Add it all together and the 'bench mob' (Mark Jackson's collection of bench players that he strangely insists on playing together as a unit to mask their individual strengths and intensify their collective weakness) have kept opponents in games that the starters had otherwise put securely in the "Win" column. Couple this with a need for some insurance to keep the starters healthy or, forbid, have to win games if one goes down for several games, and there is an actual need to strengthen the bench. This is especially true if, as one may now believe, the Warriors are to make some actual noise in the post-season and realistically take a shot at something more than just making the playoffs. The lack of depth is real.

Typically, an in-season move would appear to necessitate a trade. But clamoring for management to "get it done" and pick up some yet unidentified super-sub is not so simple. For a number of reasons, identifying the need is only part of the problem. Solving the latter part is complicated by a couple of factors that always exist.

  1. Twenty-nine other teams are trying to improve their lot as well.
  2. Assets are not infinite.

One of the more insidious creations of the 21st century is ESPN's 'trade machine' (link purposely withheld). While it doesn't quite rival "Attack of the Clones" or texting while driving for sheer stupidity, empowering millions of basketball-management amateurs with a web browser and internet access to manipulate scenarios whereby one's favorite team manages to turn overpriced bench junk into a lineup of all-stars in their prime is most certainly an agent of evil. The click-and-drag contraption only suggests that a trade is possible under the many rules and regulations surrounding NBA player swaps. It lacks the intelligence to evaluate whether a deal apparently makes enough sense for all of the clubs involved, the cognition necessary to properly ridicule the ridiculous.

(Can you believe that Myers didn't jump all over LeBron for Biedrins and Jefferson in the off season?!?! It worked in the trade machine!)

Sadly and unfortunately, until mousing over Kevin Durant's listing on the site immediately results in .wav audio laughter and a pop-up "no, but seriously" message as negative reinforcement, it's left up to others in the blog-o-sphere to hand out the proper shaming that those who suggest the ridiculous so richly deserve.

While the trade machine is not restricted to realistic deals, actual NBA trades typically have this limitation. Yes, lopsided trades happen. Sometimes, but less often, they're accurately assessed as exceptionally lopsided when they happen. Sometimes a deal that looks lopsided in one team's favor is actually a major mistake. How lopsided a deal is usually doesn't present itself immediately though. There's usually rational thought where some reason exists where it 'makes sense' for all clubs involved. And if this reasoning isn't clear and easy to detail, then it's probably not worth thinking about. "We need a backup center and they have one" isn't enough, though it does appear that this is the sort of depth of synaptic activity that goes into 99% of the trade machine links that get pasted by fans.

Deals are made because the clubs involved exchange assets and liabilities of similar perceived value. Deals are typically realistic when conceived and executed. And while it may not be possible to draw a circle around what constitutes "realistic" in all circumstances, there are some characteristics of things that are not realistic. If it doesn't hurt a bit to make the deal, it's unlikely to be realistic. An "untouchable" list that includes every player on your roster who gets more than 15mpg is not realistic.

Other teams are not interested in strengthening your rotation for nothing more than the back of your bench. If your team acquires the best player in a deal and gives up the worst player, it's probably not realistic. If they acquire the two best players in a multiple player/team swap without parting with multiple productive starters, a moment of reflection about your apparent dissociation with objective reality is in order.  Your second round draftees, now spending time commuting between the practice facility and an NBDL roster are no more valuable now or to another club than they were when they were available for next-to-nothing when drafted. Dropping in 'future 2nd rounders' as a means of balancing an obviously lopsided deal is not realistic. "And filler" may make the numbers work. It doesn't make a ridiculous deal realistic. For the other team, simply being open to trading a player because they have depth at that position is only a starting point. It explains why someone may be available in a trade. On its own, it does not suggest what it actually costs to complete the transaction.

That takes assets. What constitutes an asset varies, but deals are realistic only when assets, real assets, are exchanged between both clubs.  Even teams in full tank mode do not give players away without something of value, either financially or in some sort of future improvement, as compensation.

Right now, the Warriors are short on surplus assets.

There is a cost to acquiring players. While Iguodala has been a fantastic acquisition, one of the real elite perimeter defenders, radically upgrading the team's ability to shut down opposing wings (as well as contributing efficient and timely scoring!), he did not arrive in Oakland without some real cost to the Warriors. To make the moves necessary to acquire Iguodala, the Warriors were forced to send out future 1st round picks in 2014 and 2017, as well as a host of the far less coveted 2nd rounders.

Because of rules within the NBA collective bargaining agreement, Myers cannot touch the 2015, 2016 or 2018 picks presently either. The CBA's "Stepien rule", a clause named after former Cleveland owner Ted Stepien, whose penchant for trading future picks for immediate mediocre talent resulted the the rule preventing teams from trading away future firsts in consecutive drafts.  This effectively presently prevents the Warriors from dealing the aforementioned future firsts. (After the 2014 pick is made, the 2015 selection would become available, as the rule only applies to *future* picks. A team's past trades do not influence these restrictions.) Consequently, while Andre now wears a Warriors uniform, it's that much more difficult to surround him with 'even better players'.

The move also meant having to relinquish rights to the Jarrett Jack and Carl Landy, the most productive members of last year's reserves. While free agent signings attempted to fill some of this void, this only goes so far when you're limited to now-consumed exceptions to the salary cap.

In summary, there are no picks to trade, there are few players of value to trade, and there is only very limited money to offer a free agent.

  • What to do when you have no assets.

Sadly, without any assets, there's nothing a team can do. With very few assets, there's very little a team can do. The Warriors currently have very few assets with which to make a move. As mentioned before, their draft picks have either been traded away or are untouchable for the time being, and with depth being the team's primary weakness, trading players away only solves the problem if one believes that another team's gamble on future development of a current Warrior is worth a present-day productive player.

With few assets, your best option is as follows:

Wait.

Wait.

Finally, wait.

  • What are we waiting for?

The waiting game may not be fun. It certainly does not satisfy the impatient, eager to see some new blood solve the 15 minutes or so a game when the Warriors look like Warriors of the usually futile yesteryear.  But waiting cannot last forever. Some important dates loom.

On January 6 (today for those scoring at home), 10-day contracts become available. It's very unlikely that there's much in the way of front court depth to be had. The short supply of tall people tends to mean that big men with coordination sufficient to tie their own shoelaces don't tend to be available, but occasionally, capable guards do find their way out of the NBDL. How much of a difference above Douglas could this be isn't clear, but as long shots go, it's only just unlikely to provide help as opposed to highly unlikely.

On January 10, all contracts become guaranteed for the season. Most NBA contracts are already guaranteed, but some bench players, 2nd round picks, undrafted signees and assorted others, typically on one-year deals, are not and may be cut.  Players must be waived and clear waivers by this point, else they stay on the books.  Effectively, this creates a January 7 deadline, as it takes a few days for players to clear waivers after being released by the old club. Some bench players will be cut as small salary saving moves for teams looking to stay away from the luxury tax or teams looking for a different look at the end of their bench. Some players will become available as mid-season free agents at this point. These are, of course, players that other teams have already considered not worth a full season's salary, so it's unlikely that there's substantial help there too, but teams make mistakes and at times release players who wind up helping another club.  A backup guard or two might be on the market. These are also players who are likely to be open to signing for the NBA minimum, which is all the Warriors have to offer a free agent at this point.

The final target, after which waiting consists largely of hoping that Festus Ezeli and/or O'Neal return to play and can play well, is February 20 with the NBA trade deadline.

While the Warriors do not have much to initiate a trade, they may be able to extract an asset from another team by playing middle man. The traded player exceptions generated as part of the deals that sent Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush away created TPEs of ~$11 million and $4 million respectively. Consequently The Warriors can receive players making less than these amounts in deals with other teams without sending any salary out.

What would one of these deals look like?  Here's a scenario that is not entirely far-fetched whereby the Warriors may be able to extract a contributor without parting with an incumbent player or pick:

Presently, teams in the Eastern Conference twelve games south of .500 are only 3 games back from landing a playoff spot. A very modest 'tear' where one squad won half of their games for the rest of the season could, rather realistically, result in a post season appearance. An even more modest .400 over the final 50 would make them competitive for the 8th spot.

In contrast, the West is stacked. At the moment, the Lakers are 6 games under .500 and 5 games out of the final playoff spot and face a more daunting task in gaining that ground than would a club from the other side of the Mississippi. They also face a luxury tax hit once again, and the escalating 'repeater penalty' if they remain above the $71.748 million threshold. Consequently, they have added incentive to drop approximately $7.5 million in salary from their roster as soon as possible. To that end, Pau Gasol's ~$19.3 million price tag may seems like a reasonable place to start. However, the rules on NBA trades between teams over the salary cap prevent other teams from taking on Gasol's salary without shedding some salary of their own. Any team would have to jettison a shade under $14.3 million in to accommodate Gasol's contract. Assuming that the Lakers did find players on some other roster whose combined salaries met these criteria (and were likely all contracts scheduled to expire at year's end), the difference between what they'd have to take back and what they'd be sending out would not, on its own, bring the Lakers below the tax threshold. As such, a blatant give-away for the declining but still productive Gasol makes little sense as a straight swap.

Enter the Warriors. The restrictions on trades require the team hoping to acquire Gasol to part with ~$14.3 million (Gasol's salary minus $5 million), but there is no provision requiring all of the departing salary to go to the same team. With $9 million and $4 million Traded Player Exceptions created when Utah graciously accepted Jefferson and Rush for the low price of mortgaging the Warriors' drafts for a half-decade, Golden State is in a position to broker a deal between other teams by taking player(s) from the Gasol recipient. And this can potentially happen without having to part with current players or the future assets that they don't actually have to offer.  Our asset is agreeing to pay salary that the Lakers (or any other team trying to shed salary) don't want to pay.

While such a deal seems like a win, there is risk for the Warriors. They sit about $3.2 from the tax threshold themselves, so a lower dollar player, one who would fit in easily with the smaller exception would be preferable. Paying a tax penalty, especially for a player who would be a backup, only makes sense for a team who has a realistic shot at a title, where that backup could mean the difference between a deep playoff run and an early exit. When I first composed this, that former scenario still seemed absurd. But the recent run of success indicates that this is less fetched than the normal well earned Warrior-fan pessimism might suggest. As such, a truly productive player necessitating some portion of the larger TPE should not be completely discounted.

Is such a deal, or one like it, actually possible? There's reason to believe it may be. A provision in out-of-favor Cavalier center Andrew Bynum's contract only partially guarantees his salary; if waived before the deadline for guaranteed contracts, his team would only be on the hook for half of his salary. This has made him the subject of rumored Lakers/Cavs swap. As the Lakers could trade for him and immediately cut him, even if they were forced to take on a couple of million in cap filler, necessary to allow Cleveland to acquire Gasol, this deal could make sense for the Lakers. However, come January 7, this is no longer an option. And similar deals involving other players and teams, for whatever reason, may still benefit from deal brokering. As long as teams that are a dozen games under .500 believe that they can make the playoffs in the out of the Eastern Conference, there are a number of teams who may be shopping for a player as overpriced as a Russian Hill rental. And they may be willing to give us someone with a bit of gas in the tank to make this happen.

For now there isn't much the Warriors can do to initiate such an option. Other than making it known around the association that he is in a position to help broker a multi-team swap, methods to improve the club at this point aren't likely to be a result of Myers working the phones to deal one-on-one with another GM. The shape of any in-season additions are likely to be stranger and less predictable than one can hope to effectively predict at this point.

And as long as we're winning with #FullSquad intact...

(update edit: there appears to be some confusion as to the size of the larger TPE created in the dealings when Iguodala.  Sources indicate that the value of this exception is slightly more than $11 million, rather than the initially reported $9 million.)

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