By virtue of winning the NBA championship, the Warriors could have relaxed in the offseason, comfortable in their knowledge that they have a core capable of bringing home rings. This is not what great NBA teams do, however, and there is ample evidence that back-to-back titles are difficult. The Warriors, after all, saw the 2014 champs go home in the first round this past season.
But given that all of Golden State's most important players were locked up (with the exception of Draymond Green, who was quickly re-signed), there wasn't much the Warriors could or needed to do in the offseason. You could not blame them for simply running it back and banking on further development for Green, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson.
Instead, in two quick moves, the Warriors upgraded their defensive depth up front and boosted their famous versatility. Earlier in the offseason, Golden State cut its tax bill by trading David Lee to the Celtics for the slightly cheaper, considerably less productive Gerald Wallace. The deal was necessary after Lee played the good soldier despite being benched most of 2014-15. It was time to do him a favor, and the Warriors checked that task off their list quickly.
What happened next was really interesting, though. Late last week, the Warriors flipped Wallace's dead-weight contract for Jason Thompson, sending Philadelphia minor compensation to further shrink the luxury tax bill and pick up a far more Golden State player than either Lee or Wallace.
Per Bobby Marks, the Warriors would have had a luxury tax bill of $38 million had it kept Lee. Swapping him for Wallace decreased the tax bill to $24 million. Swapping Wallace for the cheaper Thompson brought the tax bill down to $16 million. That means the trades saved Warriors ownership about $22 million in luxury tax payments to other teams ... while improving the roster and giving up basically nothing in terms of future assets. (The Sixers deal includes a pick swap that only comes into play if the Heat or Thunder finish with a better record than Golden State next season. Even if that happens, the difference should be minor unless catastrophe happens in Oakland.)
Is Thompson better than Lee? I would argue that he is a better fit for Golden State, and not just because Lee wanted to be traded.
Thompson has bounced between power forward and center much of his career, often within games. The Kings tried to replace him many times, but he won out over every challenger. His hands leave something to be desired and he really shouldn't dribble too much, but he has a nice face-up jumper, he's a passionate if slightly suboptimal defender and he has good rebounding instincts. (It's my position that his rebounding numbers have been depressed because he's played next to DeMarcus Cousins.) His contract was fair before the salary cap explosion. He's now underpaid and the Warriors have him locked up for two seasons. (If things don't work out, his contract is partially guaranteed for 2016-17.)
Lee is not a match for an up-tempo, small attack. He's fairly slow and his best attributes are on offense. Thompson can run, drive the lane and set picks. He can space the floor just enough to free up the lane for penetration. He still has enough size to be a respectable defensive presence near the basket, though he's never going to block shots or deter layup attempts like Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli.
But the biggest factor here is Thompson's history of defending a certain Western Conference power forward quite well. Over the past three seasons, Thompson has held new San Antonio Spur LaMarcus Aldridge to 44 percent shooting (88-199) over 11 regular season games. (Aldridge shot 47 percent overall in that time period.) If the Warriors are expecting a battle with the Spurs at some point next postseason, Thompson is a nice tool to use. (J.T. has also had some success marking Blake Griffin, especially as the Clippers star has transitioned to a face-up style.)
Every trade has at least two stories, and the Philadelphia end of this one is pretty bleak. I have defended the Sixers' process as recently as last week, but this trade is just weak and indefensible. Wallace won't play, and in fact might get waived. Thompson is from South Jersey and expressed legitimate excitement at playing for his hometown Sixers. He was excited, at least publicly, to be home around friends and family despite going from one dreadful franchise to another. How many veteran NBA players would be talking about a positive change of culture when being traded to Philadelphia? The list is one person: Jason Thompson.
And the Sixers traded him. In return, they got the chance to move up from No. 30 to like No. 28 or something in a best-case scenario and a few million closer to the team salary floor.
That's right: taking on Wallace's fatter deal for Thompson gets Philadelphia closer to the threshold at which the Sixers won't be penalized for spending too little. You may remember that the Sixers initially traded for Thompson and Carl Landry in part to soak up millions in empty space (in addition to picking up Nik Stauskas, a future first-rounder and some other pick swaps). Thompson would have provided some veteran leadership and on-court production for a painfully young, undersupplied team. The Sixers instead preferred more empty salary in Wallace.
(We're working on the assumption Wallace will be waived. If not, perhaps he can offer the veteran leadership. Poor guy. Hasn't he been through enough?)
I'll defend the Sixers' right to be horrible (again), but moves like this are pretty indefensible to the other players on the team and the coach, no matter how on board they say they are.
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