At the end of training camp, as the Golden State Warriors were going through candidates for the 15th slot on their roster, they waived Gary Payton II. Payton had signed with the team at the end of the 2020-21, but the Warriors risked any of the other teams signing GPII in order to sign him to a new deal that saved them $1.7 million in luxury tax. The gamble was successful, and Payton became a hugely important part of the team all year, with his point-of-attack defense, inside-out offense that led to countless dunks, and surprisingly competent three-point shooting. In the clinching game of the Finals, Payton was a team-high +18 in his 20 minutes, and was on the floor until the literal last minute of the game.
This summer, the Warriors gambled again - or hoped against hope - that no team would open their checkbooks for Payton. And this time they lost. The Portland Trail Blazers signed GPII to a three-year, $28 million contract that the Warriors didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t match.
We aren’t going to bother to do the calculations about what matching this offer would have cost the Warriors, but it’s something like 4-6 times the value of the deal in tax, since the Warriors are well over the luxury tax threshold. That was apparently too much for Joe Lacob & Company to stomach, despite winning the title and all the accompanying revenue that went along with it. With Kevon Looney also unsigned, and their need to re-sign or replace Otto Porter Jr., the deal was too onerous for the Dubs, and thus they lost one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders. Golden State’s loss is Portland’s gain.
He’s a great fit in Portland, especially with the dynamic scoring backcourt of Damian Lillard - also an Oakland legend - and the newly-signed Anfernee Simons, who aren’t all that dynamic defensively. Young Glove is exactly the kind of point-of-attack defender that Portland has failed to add for most of Lillard’s career. Plus, he played his college ball at Oregon State, just like his Hall of Fame father, and the state will love having him back. Oh, and he also won the NBA’s Community Assist Award because the tireless work he does helping students with dyslexia.
After suffering a broken elbow when Dillon Brooks flagrantly fouled him in the conference semi-finals - Payton stayed in the game to sink a free throw before heading to the hospital - GPII was back in the lineup a month later for Game 2 of the Finals. How did Steve Kerr ease him back in? By playing him 25 minutes - Payton hit all three of his shots. He closed the series by scoring 15 points in Game 5, and racking up three steals in Games 5 and 6.
Payton didn’t play in the first two games of the season, but broke out with 10 points, two three-pointers and a steal in the third game, a 12-point win over Sacramento. He also delivered what would be the first of many end-of-quarter steals and many, many alley-oop dunks in 2021-22.
It became clear early on that while Payton might not be a regular starter, he was certainly a regular closer. And even though he was only 6’3”, Payton was going to jam on other players a lot.
In the playoffs too.
He even got poor Goga Bitadze so mad at getting dunked on - and then scratching him head in mock bemusement - that Goga got himself thrown out of the game. And if you’re wondering about how much his Warriors teammates loved GPII, check out Jordan Poole rushing over to back up Payton while scratching his own head.
But while the dunks were thrilling, Payton’s bread and butter was his defense. At least one metric had GPII as the fifth-most impactful defender in the NBA last season, just behind Draymond Green. Payton led the league in steal rate. He had a knack for knocking away passes, and even a knack for blocking the shots of befuddled opposing centers, as if they didn’t believe such a small player could reject them so savagely. Even when the center in question is the back-to-back MVP.
The whole package was a joy to watch all season. The passes, the corner threes, the timely cuts to the baskets, the impossible-looking deflections. Gary Payton II simply played winning basketball all season long, and that was never as apparent as in Game 5 against the Nuggets, when GPII made play after play in the 4th quarter to close out the series.
No one should fault Payton for grabbing his first and possibly last chance at a big NBA payday, especially after a six-year career with four different teams. Last year he played 71 games in the regular season, the same number he’d played in his whole career to date. It’s a huge, well-deserved raise. Maybe you might harbor doubts about his breakneck style and potential for injuries, though the Brooks cheap shot was his only serious injury. And sure, you might wonder about him turning 30 before next season begins, or his outside shooting regressing, or how he’s a point guard on defense but almost a power forward on offense.
But this is the first time in memory that the Warriors outright cheaped out on an important player while trying to win championships. Sure, they dumped players for cap reasons - Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut had to go to clear room for Kevin Durant, and Andre Iguodala was traded to Memphis (igniting a blood feud between the franchises) after the Durant sign-and-trade hard-capped the team - but not for outright monetary reasons. The team is paying a staggering amount of luxury tax, and people have speculated as to what the limit to the team’s expenditures might be.
We’ve found the limit. It’s nine million per year for Gary Payton II. It’s letting a crucial player leave, because he got too expensive. Even though GPII is a core piece, and 34-year-old Steph Curry is still in his prime, and we heard for weeks about how profitable the Warriors’ title run was for ownership, we now know there is a cap on what Lacob and Guber will spend. Let’s hope that newfound financial discipline doesn’t end up costing them Kevon Looney as well.