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In The War Between Golden State And The Salary Cap, The Cap Just Might Win

Owner Joe Lacob of the Golden State Warriors waves to fans during the Golden State Warriors Victory Parade on June 20, 2022 in San Francisco, California. The Golden State Warriors beat the Boston Celtics 4-2 to win the 2022 NBA Finals.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Having been quietly excoriated for lifting their hind legs on the NBA’s salary cap system, the Golden State Warriors are now on the verge of caving to it while grousing about it.

Well, to be clearer, they haven’t yet caved but they are hinting at caveage, while they are very definitely grousing about it.

According to those notorious Bolsheviks Anthony Slater and Marcus Thompson of the Athletic, principal/not majority owner Joe Lacob has finally outlined the amount of money he will not spend for more parades, and it is 7-to-1, the ratio of taxes to salary dollars spent for continuing to flout the luxury tax system that the owners always meant as the ultimate deterrent to breaching the cap. Lacob turned the tax into a small hedge he vaulted over repeatedly to get to this point in the team’s life cycle, and when Brian Windhorst of ESPN dropped his ill-explained remark about a bought championship, he was actually revealing that other owners were becoming annoyed with Lacob’s cavalier attitude about financial restrictions. He was George Steinbrenner reincarnated, and a number of other owners who mind the tax more religiously were getting their spines and back ridges up.

Whether or not this is coincidental, and we certainly hope it isn’t because there is an entertainment value in owner-on-owner crime that doesn’t involve the kinds of things Danny Snyder will have to lie about to Congress, Lacob seems to be blinking. Or at least squinting.

Slater and Thompson outline the issue thusly by hypothesizing a pay-everybody scenario that includes Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson:

Let’s do an exercise and get ambitious with it, ensuring everyone feels well-compensated for 2023-24. Give Wiggins an extension that starts around the $33 million he’s currently making. Give Poole an extension that starts around the $27 million range. Bump Green, who has a player option, into his decline-and-extend max of a $30.9 million starting salary. Thompson is already making $43.2 million that season. That zooms the total payroll for the 2023-24 season toward $222 million. The projected tax line is $161 million. The Warriors are willing to pay their players. But their enemy is the collective bargaining agreement and its luxury tax rules. The Warriors are living in the more punitive repeater tax. Crunch the numbers and you’re talking about a total bill (salary plus tax) of around $564 million.

Lacob has said even $400 million is beyond his appetite, so in that way the tax is actually working, though at a far heftier level than his fellow owners ever imagined. They didn’t realize that Lacob was going to be the crazy bastard in the room. Then again, Lacob didn’t realize when he bought the team that (a) Stephen Curry was going to be Stephen Curry, or (b) that general manager Bob Myers was going to screw Lacob by adding so many championship helpers. All but Wiggins are homegrowns, and nobody thought Wiggins was anything but a gold-plated albatross until he found that he wasn’t a first-pick-in-the-draft talent but a brilliant brick-and-mortar option who fit perfectly into a Curry-Thompson-Green world.

That is Lacob’s point when he complains that the tax shouldn’t apply to players you drafted yourself, because conveniently the Warriors have had more Battleship-level hits than any other team, and if Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman pan out as more than just teenagers on the loose, that will continue. Lacob wants to know why excellence in player recognition and development is being punished.

And here, Lacob is deliberately avoiding the point, which is that the cap isn’t designed to do anything other than to deter owners from doing what Lacob has repeatedly done—spend like a fleet’s worth of sailors on leave. His position is that there is good spending and less good spending, and he stands nearly alone on that hill. The other owners don’t mind Lacob winning or being fun to watch nearly as much as they mind him dancing on the cap and tax provisions while doing it. Or if he was going to spend like money was going to be replaced by turnips as currency, that he miss the playoffs as the Warriors did in 2020 and 2021.

All this is just billionaires sniveling about another billionaire, which would be great if it ever got to the cannibalism stage, but the nut grafs in the Slater-Thompson opus are these, truncated for clarity:

Green, according to sources, wants and believes he deserves a maximum contract extension from the Warriors. Aug. 3 is when he is eligible to sign a four-year deal. That is his desired length . . . Green is set to make $25.8 million this coming season. He is due $27.5 million for 2023-24, but it’s a player option. He can decline it and become a free agent next summer. So the maximum extension Green could sign starting next week involves him opting out of the final year of his current deal and signing a four-year extension worth $138.4 million . . . Including this coming season, a max extension would lock in Green for $164.2 million over the next five seasons. He’d turn 37 years old in the final season.

All indications, though, are that the Warriors have no plans to offer Green a maximum extension, and there isn’t any current traction on any type of extension. The typical pattern of this Golden State front office is to extend with one year remaining. Even Stephen Curry waited until one year remained before signing his max extension last offseason. Green has two years remaining on the maximum extension he signed in 2019. While he could opt out a year earlier, the Warriors’ current preference is to talk extension with Green next summer.

And now we see the third rail. Letting Green walk essentially means the end of the dynasty, and while you can all amuse yourselves with debates about his shelf life (hint: you know nothing, because the future is not there to be known but experienced in real time), the Warriors have been built and defined around Curry, Thompson and Green, with shooting stars like Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant and now Wiggins. Letting Green walk because of money means Lacob is willing, at least conceptually, to end the most successful era in franchise history, and one of the best dynasties in the history of the sport. One can think Wiggins can be the defensive stopper Green is, but all the other things Green is lauded for by the Warriors are far less easy to provide, and besides, the Warriors have always made a fetish of being player-friendly, which cutting ties with a likely Hall of Famer (Basketball Reference puts his chances of induction at 76 percent, slightly higher than Thompson) for financial reasons probably changes.

Put another way, Green is right to say he deserves every dime, but it looks like what he deserves and what he’ll actually get seem on radically divergent paths. Green has been not only a servant to this once-mordant franchise but a driver, which means that Lacob is finally putting a dollar figure on the end of his ownership leash while complaining all the while about how he is being punished for having hired well. It would be fun to see that become an ongoing issue at league meetings, even though Steve Ballmer and Joe Tsai, who have way more money than Lacob, are spending at similar levels without any of the parades Lacob has grand marshaled. Watching this develop slowly into a full-on NBA thing could be the rewarding entertainment that Durant’s future has not been, without any of the vomitous stench that attaches to Snyder. Guys in suits turning on each other may be the next big thing now that the economy is eating itself, and this could be the first sign of the billionaire apocalypse.

And if so, the loss of Draymond Green to, say, the Washington Wizards, is actually a small price to pay.

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