The Golden State Warriors have depth in droves. While top teams like the Houston Rockets are playing eight-man rotations, and top teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder are giving sizable minutes to players like Raymond Felton, the Warriors are struggling to get court time for solid contributors like Nick Young and JaVale McGee.
Golden State doesn’t just have numerous veterans who would be starting or earning 25+ minutes on most teams. They also have a host of young athletes who are forcing Steve Kerr’s hand, earning minutes that were earmarked for older players. There simply aren’t enough minutes for all of the talent on this team.
These are, of course, champagne problems. But the issue with champagne is that if you drink enough of it, you end up with a real problem the next day. And currently, the Warriors are headed towards a serious hangover in the coming years.
The veteran discount misconception
In the last few years, the Dubs have developed a reputation for convincing veterans to come to Oakland, take less money, and make up for the value lost by putting a few hundred diamonds around their fingers.
In reality, this narrative has been slightly embellished. Starting center Zaza Pachulia took a discount before joining the team last summer, but let’s be honest: he was coming off of a season in which he averaged 8.6 points and 9.4 rebounds per game for a lottery team. He left money on the table to join Golden State, but it’s not like teams were knocking down his door to throw tens of millions at him.
David West took the minimum to join the Warriors, but West also left eight figures in Indiana to join the San Antonio Spurs, because he openly didn’t care much about money. He’s a rare case in the league; there aren’t many David Wests floating around.
Andre Iguodala re-signed this year for a slight discount, but he’s still pulling in a not-insignificant $16 million a year. Shaun Livingston re-signed for three years and $24 million, but would any team come over the top of that for a 32-year old backup point guard with no three, and bad knees? If so, then not by much.
And of course, McGee returned for pennies, but, according to reports, only because he wasn’t impressed with any outside offers.
While the narrative of veterans taking discounts for the Warriors is overplayed, it finally came to fruition this offseason. After the core players were retained, the Warriors managed to get both Nick Young and Omri Casspi to come to the Bay, sacrificing big checks in the pursuit of big rings.
So, about those veterans . . .
During last year’s title run, the Warriors had a defined veteran rotation. Pachulia started, and West played decent minutes. Iguodala and Livingston got big minutes off the bench, and that was that.
The gaps were plugged with filler: McGee, a camp invite on a non-guaranteed contract, earned playing time. Rookie Patrick McCaw surprised everyone, and earned rotation time and spot starts. Ian Clark – a solid, if nondescript role player – showed up and played 15 minutes a night.
The Warriors had talent, but it was balanced and properly allocated: McCaw and Clark were middle-of-the-bench talents, and that’s how the Warriors used them.
This year is dramatically different. Clark has been replaced by Nick Young, a swingman who has played 20+ minutes in seven of the last nine years. McGee, who entered last season as an afterthought, has been replaced by himself, after finishing last year as a key bench piece.
McCaw has also been replaced by himself: no longer a wide-eyed rookie, but a proven NBA player with defensive versatility. Jordan Bell has entered the fold. And on top of it all, Omri Casspi, with a career average of 21.4 minutes a game has been added to the mix, without even replacing anyone in particular.
Suddenly, the ninth and tenth men on the bench are players who would be starting on most NBA teams.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that, with only 48 minutes in a game, it’s simply impossible to play the bench pieces for as many minutes as they deserve.
Young is averaging 15.5 minutes a game when he does play, but one week in and he’s already had a DNP-CD (Did Not Play – Coach’s Decision). Casspi hurt his ankle in the opener, but since regaining health he’s played a total of six minutes in two games.
McGee earned a DNP-CD in the opener, and was inactive on Wednesday. In the three games that his absence sandwiched, he collected just 24 minutes.
With so many established players crowding the Warriors’ bench, those who opted to come to Oakland are quickly learning the reality: it’s not just money that they’re sacrificing.
The 2018 and beyond problem
Young and Casspi signed with the Warriors for a simple reason: they wanted to play in a winning situation. But NBA players are more willing to sacrifice money than playing time, and both men are used to getting heavy minutes.
Did they know what they signed up for? Of course. Did they expect the drop-off in playing time to be this dramatic? Unlikely.
The problem for them is twofold: not only are they relegated to the pine with regularity, but their future value diminishes. Young, who likely could have gotten a big, multi-year contract in free agency, assumed he could come to Golden State, win a ring, prove his worth on a great team, and cash out next summer.
If he plays spot minutes this year, what team is going to throw him that massive payday come July? He may not only have sacrificed dough this year, but going forward as well.
Come next summer, Young, Casspi, West, and McGee will again be free agents, and Golden State will once more have gaps on the roster to fill. But those players saw Iguodala and Livingston’s roles, and thought the Warriors would be an ideal situation. Will future free agents watch Young and Casspi’s roles, and determine the same? It seems pretty unlikely.
The young player conundrum
The Warriors were high on McCaw and Bell when both young men were drafted. But even they have to be surprised by the rise of these versatile, defensive-minded players. Neither were supposed to be key rotation players as rookies.
McCaw will be a free agent this summer. Bell will hit the market the next summer. Should their current trajectories continue, both youngsters will be in line for very big paydays; paydays the Warriors likely cannot afford without breaking up their core.
It’s thrilling – both for fans and for Steve Kerr and Bob Myers – every time Bell flies to the rim for an alley-oop, and every time McCaw locks down a go-to scorer. And yet, every time those beautiful moments occur, the likelihood of those players keeping a Bay Area residence diminishes.
The plays we stand up and cheer for are the same plays that threaten to price out these great talents. The more these second-round picks look like steals now, the greater their chance of being lost in a year or two.
There’s no solution to this problem. Kerr cannot stop playing McCaw and Bell just to keep their price affordable. He can’t play Young and Casspi more minutes at the expense of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant.
These are simply the realities of being a team so deep that starting-caliber players are inactive just to slim the roster to 13 on game day.
Golden State is still in a terrific position for the foreseeable future. But the days of starters taking discounts to join the Dubs, and young players growing old in blue and gold are likely coming to an abrupt end.