The Golden State Warriors won the NBA title Tuesday night, beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in an exciting six-game series.
Golden State’s ascent has been gradual, but now that they have reached the top, they could remain there for the foreseeable future.
Along with a core of young talent and valuable veterans, the Warriors have a key advantage over the rest of the league: those core players are all on team-friendly contracts for the next several years.
This starts with Stephen Curry, who, when he signed a four-year, $US44 million contract extension in 2012, was still somewhat of an unknown. He was one of the league’s best shooters and a skilled ball-handler, but there major questions about recurring ankle issues that some thought could derail his career, and he was yet to become the crafty defender he turned into this season. Now, the league’s MVP, best shooter, and arguably best point guard is under contact for $US23 million total until 2017 — a huge bargain.
Curry’s backcourt partner, Klay Thompson, is set to become the Warriors’ highest-paid player in the next several seasons, making an average of $US17 million per year. While that number may seem like a lot, the Warriors handled his contract extension wisely last fall, and it too will be a bargain in a few seasons when the salary cap explodes with the league’s new TV deal.
The Warriors basically gave Thompson a fake max contract at the beginning of the season. A true max contract allows a player to make 25-35% of the league’s salary cap (depending on how many years they have been in the league) with 4.5-7.5% yearly raises. With the NBA’s salary cap set to jump, if the Warriors gave Thompson a true max, his yearly salary would skyrocket because the percentage of the cap he’d make would be higher. Instead, the Warriors locked him into the equivalent of a max contract now, which will be a bargain in two years when the cap is way higher and true max contracts are worth millions more.
Additionally, the Warriors also have a strong supporting cast of veterans locked into affordable deals. Andre Iguodala, the Finals MVP and LeBron-stopper extraordinaire, is set to make about $US22 million through 2017. Andrew Bogut (though he disappeared in the Finals) is their defensive anchor and actually has a contract that descends in yearly value, as he makes $US23 million through 2017. Shaun Livingston, a lengthy, valuable backup point guard will make just $US11 million through 2017. Harrison Barnes is still under his rookie contract, making only $US3.8 million this season if the Warriors pick up his team option.
For next season, these six contracts combine for a total of $US60 million — $US7 million under next year’s projected salary cap. In 2016-17, Curry, Thompson, Bogut, Iguodala, and Livingston (leaving out Barnes) will combine for just $US56 million when the salary cap is $US88 million.
The biggest question going forward is how the Warriors will handle Draymond Green and David Lee’s futures. Green is a restricted free agent who’s become so good at the increasingly important “playmaking four” position that he rendered Lee, a former All-Star making $US15 million per season, a bench player. Green will likely get a max offer this offseason, and the Warriors can decide whether or not to match. It’s widely assumed the Warriors will bring back Green at any price, but it’s unclear if they will make the first move and offer him a max or let other teams, who can’t legally offer as much as the Warriors, offer a contract and then match.
Lee proved in the Finals that he still has value, and next season he’ll be on an expiring contract, which makes him a good trade chip. The Warriors will likely try to trade him, which will only improve their advantage over the rest of the league, cutting $US15 million from their payroll.
If Green gets a full max contract from Golden State, the Warriors will have a core of stars in Curry, Thompson, and Green making a combined $US43 million next season, about two-thirds of the cap. In 2016-17, when the cap is $US88 million, the three will be making a combined $US46 million. With the team-friendly deals of Bogut, Iguodala, and Livingston thrown in, the Warriors will have a solid core of six players making a combined $US74 million.
The NBA champs, depending on how they handle their roster over the next year, could have cap space in 2016.
Of course, this advantage can only last so long. In 2017, when the cap is projected to be a whopping $US107 million and max contracts will stray above $US30 million per year, Curry will be a free agent. Given that he’s likely to be only the third-highest player on the team over the next two years, it seems certain he’ll want his first chance at a max contract. Additionally, by then, Iguodala and Bogut will be free agents and on the backend of their careers. Given what the Warriors did to handle Thompson’s fake max contract, there’s a possibility Green could opt for a short-term contract so he can become a free agent again in a few years when he can earn more money.
The NBA is designed to keep teams from building juggernauts that can last for years and years. The Warriors have lucked into some team-friendly contracts, but they have also managed building a strong, affordable core. Barring an unforeseen, dramatic roster shift, this Warriors team should stay in tact for the next two years, with the ability to add pieces as they go.
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