Saturday, May 25, 2024
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Klay Thompson may have just played his last Warriors game — here’s what might come next for the team legend

It’s somewhat fitting that the Sacramento Kings, specifically, were the team to knock the Golden State Warriors out of the 2024 postseason. For the bulk of their decade-long dynasty, the Kings were Golden State’s doormat. The Warriors went 23-7 against their neighbors to the north between the 2014-15 and 2021-22 seasons. The Kings never reached the playoffs in that span. They finally did a season ago, and they pushed the Warriors to the brink in a seven-game war. Golden State just barely survived. This time, in the Play-In Tournament, they weren’t so lucky.

Life comes at you fast in the NBA. Dynasties never live quite as long as you hope, and their deaths are often swifter and more brutal than you can possibly imagine. The Warriors lasted long enough for even the lowly Kings to catch up to them. Now, they’re at the end of their contending cycle, and for perhaps the first time in this entire run, the dynasty is truly at risk of ending, not because the Warriors will never contend again, but because the holy trinity of superstars that made it possible may finally break up.

Klay Thompson is set to become a free agent this offseason. For the bulk of Golden State’s tenure atop the league, the thought of a Splash Brother ever waiving goodbye seemed impossible. But things have changed. Thompson is no longer a superstar. He went scoreless in Tuesday’s season-ending loss and just averaged below 20 points per game for the first time since 2014. For a stretch earlier in the season, he wasn’t even a starter. He ceded that position to rookie Brandin Podziemski before ultimately claiming the spot back later on. Golden State reportedly offered Thompson a two-year, $48 million extension last offseason. It’s hard to imagine them going much higher with Podziemski waiting in the wings to replace him. Thompson has said he’s open to a smaller role if it means staying with Golden State. A smaller role and a smaller deal aren’t necessarily the same things.

Thompson obviously won’t command another max contract in his current state, but the market is breaking right for him to get a significant chunk of change. Grayson Allen just re-upped in Phoenix for $70 million over four years, establishing a market for shooters in the $20 million per year range. Removing Allen from the market also gives Thompson less competition in free agency. Malik Monk’s injury might do the same. Without another strong playoff performance, he appears somewhat likelier to re-sign in Sacramento using Early Bird Rights.

Seven teams are currently looking at $20 million or more in cap space this offseason. Most of them could use shooting. If Monk does indeed stay put, Thompson becomes the obvious target for anyone looking for an offensive jolt. The Orlando Magic have already been linked to him.

The fit is obvious. The Magic have pathways to over $45 million in cap space. They ranked 29th in 3-point attempts and 22nd in offense this season, but their No. 3-ranked defense is more than equipped to cover for his age-related deficiencies on that end of the floor. The Magic are about to begin their first playoff run of this era. Experience will be vital as they attempt to make the leap from playoff team to genuine contender. Thompson offers plenty of it.

Fred VanVleet set something of a model for this sort of free-agency pursuit last offseason when he landed what was functionally a two-year max deal with the Houston Rockets. That contract got the Rockets the short-term help they needed without exposing them to long-term risk, effectively setting VanVleet up as a bridge point guard until Amen Thompson would hopefully be ready to replace him. Orlando, with plenty of young guards in the pipeline and the trade assets to land more later, may be eyeing a similar path. The Magic wouldn’t go to the max for Klay, but their cap space gives them room to offer a shorter deal at a higher immediate cap figure that would make matching a deal particularly painful for Golden State. 

The Warriors have racked up nearly $628 million in estimated luxury tax bills alone over the past four seasons, according to Spotrac. That approach isn’t sustainable no matter how much revenue Golden State’s fancy new arena generates. Owner Joe Lacob has said openly that his preferred plan for next season would be to avoid the luxury tax entirely.

Is that feasible? Well, maybe, but perhaps not sustainably. The projected tax line for next season is $172 million. At present, the Warriors have only $134 million or so committed in salary for next season. However, that only accounts for eight players, not including the impending free agent Thompson or Chris Paul, Kevon Looney and Gui Santos, whose deals are not guaranteed. The Warriors could conceivably fill out the roster while retaining Thompson and possibly Paul while staying below the line, but it’s hard to imagine them improving in any significant way while doing so.

More importantly, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody become extension-eligible this offseason. Kuminga’s extension alone is likely to vault Golden State’s payroll back up into the stratosphere. That makes guaranteeing Thompson any long-term money potentially impossible. With both earning high-end salaries in the 2025-26 season couple with existing contracts for Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors would be right back in repeater tax territory. Good luck finding a trade taker for Wiggins after the season he just had or Green given his disciplinary issues.

Ultimately it’s just money. Joe Lacob has a lot of it. The Warriors earn plenty thanks to the Chase Center. If they want to pay Thompson what it takes to bring him back, they could probably find a way. Would it be worthwhile for a team that just finished No. 10 in the Western Conference?

Head coach Steve Kerr was part of a dynasty in Chicago. He saw it end after the 1998 championship, and the culprit was the same one that will likely bring down the Warriors. “I think ultimately the reason the Bulls were broken apart was that everyone’s contract ended in 1998,” Kerr said in a 2005 episode of ESPN Classic’s Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame… which centered around the end of Chicago’s dynasty. “I think it was unrealistic to expect the team to all of a sudden just say, ‘sure, we’ll put together a $100 million payroll and try to win one more championship.'”

If one more championship were on the table for Golden State, such a payroll (adjusted for inflation, of course) might be a worthwhile risk. It just doesn’t seem like there are any more championships left to be squeezed out of this group. Now that even the Kings have outgrown the Warriors, the reality of the dynasty ending may finally set in. There is a good chance Thompson just played his last game as a Warrior, but whether he has or hasn’t, the end of this legendary run is near.

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