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What will the Warriors do about David Lee?

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The Golden State Warriors have a bright future, but how will idealism and reality clash when it's time to pay the bill?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This is my favorite basketball team. Ever.

From James Michael McAdoo to Joe Lacob, this is the best the Warriors have been in my three plus decades following the team. It shows in the NBA's best record and in the historically great point differential. It's apparent from the nationally televised games and constant discussion from analysts and talking heads on the TV and radio. It's obvious from the blue and gold #30 Stephen Curry jerseys worn in every arena in the league, and by the offspring of his rivals.

There are multiple All Stars, the leader in Defensive Player of the Year first place votes, a Most Improved Player candidate, the runner-up Coach of the Year, the league's best Sixth Man (no offense Lou Williams, but Andre Iguodala would eat your soul), and the leading MVP candidate. There is also a league high four players among the top 26 in RPM, and four players in the top 12 in RAPM.

We are #1 in defense and #2 in offense. #1 in eFG% (.540) and #1 in opponents eFG% (.470). Finesse? #1 in assists. Power? #2 in blocks and #6 in total rebounds. A franchise record 16 game winning streak, a 41-2 home record, and a guy who shattered his own three point record (286!?!).

What's not to love? This year, nothing. This team is as lovable as this bunny.

But dynasties don't last one year. And going forward, there is one thing in particular not to love about this roster.

The price tag.

A lot of GSoM comments this year have said things like "They need to keep this roster intact.", or "They should just pay the tax", and "If they win the championship, they have to bring everyone back."  People cite relative health, chemistry, and roster stability for the Warriors fast start this season. And there's some truth to this. There has even been a lot of statements through the year from ownership about being willing to be a taxpaying team.

It's not about being below or above the tax threshold. It's about how far.

There are a few reasons, besides money, why this matters:

First of all, if you are 4 million over the tax line, you lose your MLE. That means you can't bring in a 5.4 million dollar player, for up to 4 escalating seasons. You also lose your bi-annual exception, which is a 2.1 million dollar player.

That's right, you can go 3.99 million over the tax line and still have full use of your MLE and bi-annual MLE, enabling you to bring in about 7.5 million worth of free agents. That 4 million above the tax is referred to as "the apron". That means the Warriors would have to keep their salary bill at $85 million or less.

If you cross the apron, you only have the tax-payer's MLE, which is $3.376 million for next season. This would be our prized free agent acquisition. The contract can escalate for three seasons. Any other free agent would have to be a minimum salary player.

And then the tax itself. It's not a static number. It's dynamic; the higher over the line, the higher percentage of tax paid. Here's what the scale looks like:

$1 - $4,999,999 = $1.50 tax for every dollar (7.5 million max)
$5m - $9,999,999 = $1.75 tax for every dollar (8.75 million max)

That's not so bad. Basically, if the Warriors went about 9.99 million over, besides losing their free agency options (at 4 million over), they'd be paying about 16.25 million in just tax fees, or more than any Warriors player in history has been paid for a single season.

But like I said, that's not so bad, because when the team hits $10 million over, the cap really jumps:

$10m - $14,999,999 = $2.50 tax for every dollar (12.5 million max)

$15m - $19,999,999 = $3.25 tax for every dollar (16.25 million max)

At $20 million, the tax goes up another $.50 ($4.25), and does again every $5 million from there on... $4.75 at 25 million, $5.25 at 30 million, etc.

So realistically, what does that mean the Warriors are looking at?

Right now, the Warriors are on the hook for $77,501,793 for next season, with the luxury tax threshold estimated at $81 million. The team is about $3.5 million under the tax and about $7.5 million under the apron for keeping some free agent options open.

That doesn't seem too bad, until you factor in that the figure doesn't include Draymond Green, Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights, Justin Holiday, Ognjen Kuzmic, James Michael McAdoo, or the Warriors 2015 first round pick.

Draymond will get a big contract. As a player with less than six seasons of experience, he's eligible to make up to 25% of the salary cap, which is estimated to be around 67 million for 2015-16, which means he could get paid as much as $16.75 million in the first year of the escalating deal. If the Warriors (or any of the other potential suitors) offer him a "max" deal, that's how much he'll make.  For the sake of discussion, let's say he gives the Warriors a discount and signs for $15.5 million.

If you think tickets at the Oracle are expensive now, just imagine what will happen if the team's salary doubles.


That signing alone would push the Warriors cap figure to over $93 million dollars, about $12 million over the tax. That means that they would lose their free agent flexibility, and be on the hook for $21.25 million in taxes. At this point, the total bill would be around $114.25 million dollars, and we would only have 10 players on the roster.

So what about the rest of the roster? Let's assume the team brings back the rest of the guys.

Speights has a team option, and seems like a bargain at $3.8 million. It seems unlikely that Barbosa would take another league minimum contract after having a relatively healthy season, but let's pretend he does, signing for just $1.5 million. Holiday's qualifying offer is just over $1.1 million. McAdoo gets $850K and Kuz gets $950K. And don't forget that #30 draft pick, who is due to make about $950K.

That's another $9,150,000 in salary. Add that to our previous total, and Joe Lacob is looking at $102,150,000 in salary. That shatters the previous record for highest salary, held by the 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets. Before taxes, the Warriors will exceed the tax threshold by over $21 million, and that's assuming Draymond and Barbosa sign for a discount.

So let's add the taxes in and see how much this roster costs. Let's see, there's that $7.5 million for the first 5 over, and then $8.75 million for the next 5. Add in another $12.5 million for the next bracket, and then $16.25 million for the next. And of course, the final million or so, taxed at 4.25:1, comes out to over $4.25 million.

That's $49,250,000... rounded down, assuming discounts, without using the tax payer's exception. In taxes. To keep this roster intact for next year, ownership will pay approximately $151,400,000, which is literally more than twice what the team costs this season.

If you think tickets at the Oracle are expensive now, just imagine what will happen if the team's salary doubles.

The elephant in the room here is David Lee and his upcoming $15,493,680 salary. If the Warriors can move Lee without taking any salary back, that would lower the bill to around $86.5 million. Assuming that moving Lee costs the team it's first round pick (and corresponding $950K salary), and we're now very close to that $85 million dollar apron.

For the regular season, the team went 37-12 (.755) with David Lee in the lineup and 30-3 (.909) without him (with two of those losses coming in the second week of the season and the third coming back on December 16th). That's right, when Lee DNP'd, the team hasn't lost since December 16th.

2014.

Playing more minutes hasn't helped. The team went 16-5 (.761) in games where the former All Star played more than 20 minutes, 4-3 (.571) when he topped 24 minutes, and 0-2 when he played 30 or more minutes. On the flipside, the team is 5-0 when Lee plays, but less than 10 minutes.

The team hasn't depended on Lee to play well in wins either. His TS% in wins was .527 on 19.0 USG% in 18.2 minutes. He averaged 7.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in those wins. In losses, his USG% increased to 21.0, and his TS% climbed to .575. He managed to raise his counting numbers too, posting 9.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per loss.

Occam's razor says that the more the Warriors use Lee this season, the worse the team plays. And he is the highest paid player in team history (until Klay's contract kicks in next season), before tax penalties.

A little creativity from Warriors GM Bob Myers and the Warriors could conceivably have full use of both their MLE and the bi-annual MLE. Would they still be a tax paying team? Yes. But paying 5-10 million in taxes is not remotely the same as $50 million to keep a player that doesn't translate to wins. And the team might be able to lure in a pretty good player with that MLE.

Yes, David Lee seems like a great guy. Yes, he has behaved as professionally as anyone could ever ask him to. Yes, he seems to have a great relationship with his teammates, management, and the media. Are those qualities worth around 45 million dollars in salary and penalties for the Warriors going forward? Are they worth giving up the chance to add another MLE player, along with a bi-annual MLE player? And, will David Lee be happy to play even less next season, possibly playing for his last significant contract?

The answer to those questions is no. Some fans may be in denial, but there is no realistic case to be made to keep Lee. This postseason is David Lee's farewell tour with the Warriors. The only real question is, will he have a ring when he leaves?