Fresh off winning the 2022 NBA championship, their fourth in the last eight seasons, the Golden State Warriors head into the opening of free agency (set for Thursday at 6 p.m. ET) focused mainly on retaining their own players. Kevon Looney, Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica, all of whom played real roles in the title run, are unrestricted free agents. Looney, per Anthony Slater of The Athletic, is the team’s top priority, followed by Payton.
Before we get to that, however, with all the disarray happening in Brooklyn right now, is there any chance that Kevin Durant might find his way back to the Warriors? Kyrie Irving will reportedly opt in to the final year of his contract, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be traded. If that happens, Durant could, and likely would, soon follow.
The Warriors, on paper, would perhaps have one of the more attractive offers to present to Brooklyn. Jordan Poole (perhaps a sign-and-trade), James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, even Andrew Wiggins if a Poole sign-and-trade isn’t involved for the foundation of the salary-exchange requirements, could all be involved. Throw in a future draft pick. Brooklyn would have to listen.
But the Warriors have prioritized building a bridge from this era to the next. They have resisted trading high-leverage draft picks and the players those picks became. They’ve succeeded in that mission, winning another title without compromising the future. Durant is a different deal. He’s still one of the best players in the world, as is Stephen Curry. Putting those two back together would pretty much ensure championship contention for the foreseeable future. But owner Joe Lacob fancies an endless timeline of contention.
He recently had this to say: “I know we — I, [general manager Bob Myers], the organization — took some criticism from some people that we should trade all the draft pieces that we have to get one more great player or whatever. I was very adamant about it, and so was Bob. That was not the path that we were going down.”
Sam Amick of The Athletic recently wrote the following: “Don’t hold your breath for a Warriors reunion, as all signs point to that being a total non-starter.”
This might not just be reticence on the part of the Warriors, mind you. Durant is still taking heat for his original decision to join up with the Warriors after they beat his Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference finals. If he were to do it again, after failing to get past the second round on his own (thanks for nothing, Kyrie and James Harden) while the Warriors went out and won yet another title without him, the mocking would be endless.
Durant says he doesn’t care what people say. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. Either way, it doesn’t sound like Durant coming back to the Bay, as much sense as it might make on paper, is a realistic option.
As for Looney …
It’s a pretty big twist in Golden State’s script that it has come to value Looney this highly. They declined the fourth-year option on his rookie deal, forcing him to re-sign on a $1.5M minimum deal in 2018. Then they drafted, and immediately started, his replacement in James Wiseman in 2020. But Wiseman hasn’t panned out as a starting center, at least not yet, and in that void Looney resurfaced as a vital cog in the Warriors’ championship wheel. There’s no way they win this past title without him.
So now Looney has gone from zero leverage with the Warriors to quite a bit. All the players want him back. Steve Kerr wants him back, and knows he deserves to be paid as well. What Looney did for the Warriors last season, particularly in the postseason, for $5.1M was one of the most lopsided team-friendly values in the league.
“He’s a championship center,” Steve Kerr recently said of Looney. “A modern-day defender, a switch defender, which is what it takes in the playoffs. The way he’s worked, the way he’s developed, they way he’s become such a big part of out internal leadership, our fabric, he’s a huge component to our success. We all want him back. We also are rooting for him personally to get a really good contract. Hopefully it’s from us.”
Chances are, the Warriors will indeed be the team to pay for Looney. Marc Stein reported that rival teams are becoming “pessimistic” that Looney would decide to leave the Warriors. But it’s going to cost them big. Remember, it’s not just Looney’s salary. The Warriors are so deep in the repeater luxury tax that, per Slater, “every extra dollar spent on salary will be multiplied by around seven.”
Slater’s math starts with a rough $8M annual number for Looney. For the Warriors, in total, that would equal “somewhere around a $50 million payment.” Looney has taken minimum-to-modest salaries from the Warriors and delivered well above that rate for years. He’s not going to give them a sweetheart deal again. He’s going to see what he can get on the open market, as he should, but again, the Warriors appear pretty intent on bringing him back so long as the number is halfway reasonable.
Payton is going to cost big, too
Like Looney, whatever Payton gets paid, it will be a lot more on the bottom line of the Warriors’ books. These tax penalties are no joke. Still, per Slater, the Warriors are “considered to be the favorites” to sign. Dallas believed to be among the “most serious suitors” for Payton, but there are surely a lot of teams that would love to have him.
Golden State won’t get him for cheap. An annual rate of $12M is a fair, if rough, estimate. The most the Warriors can offer Payton is $13M annually. with early bird rights. It would have to at least be a two-year deal, but more likely three or four.
Golden State also wants Porter Jr. and Bjelica back, but they’re not the priority that Looney and Payton are. Bjelica, specifically, would probably only come back on a veteran minimum deal, per Slater. Porter could get the taxpayer MLE, which is around $6M annually.