The Warriors made a quick pivot, adding D’Angelo Russell after losing Kevin Durant. Where, exactly, that pivot will take them remains to be seen.
After learning that Kevin Durant would be absconding for Brooklyn, the Golden State Warriors only waited a few hours to try to revamp their roster in the hopes of making a sixth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. They did so by negotiating to turn Durant’s contract into a sign-and-trade that would be swapped for another sign-and-trade with the Nets’ 23-year-old All-Star guard, D’Angelo Russell — who quickly became expendable this afternoon following Brooklyn’s acquisition of Kyrie Irving, another All-Star guard.
The Warriors were clearly eager to avoid losing Durant for nothing and while gaining a young player as skilled as Russell is a stellar consolation prize in a vacuum, in actuality, the trade raises far more questions about the Warriors’ future prospects than it settles. The Warriors will need to find a way to make sense of the positional overlap between Curry and Russell, who are both point guards. Both players are skilled shooters and playmakers and while, theoretically, their respective skills could bring out the best in the other, it feels a bit overly optimistic to count on that.
Russell is a ball-dominant player, and while Curry is one of the best off-ball players in the league, it would be foolish for the Warriors to take the ball out of Curry’s more than capable hands for longer than necessary in the hopes of making Russell feel more at home. While Russell is a very good young guard, Curry is still bounds better in essentially every way and he needs to remain the focal point of the Warriors’ offense. Also, playing together in the backcourt, they will be one of the more undersized guard combos in the league, making it likely that they will be at a huge defensive disadvantage more games than not. For Golden State fans who remember the mismatched and ill-fated marriage of Curry and Monta Ellis, this new pairing may be causing unhappy flashbacks, and not without reason.
These issues will be exacerbated once Klay Thompson returns from injury late next season. Will Thompson be forced to play out of position at the small forward? Will the Warriors bring Russell — a player they have signed to a max deal — off the bench? Next season already promised to be the biggest challenge of Steve Kerr’s coaching career and these challenges just became a bit more pronounced.
While Russell was technically traded for a player the Warriors were bound to lose already, his arrival will also force out several other players. Already, Golden State has traded Andre Iguodala to Memphis along with a lightly protected first-round pick, and considering that we have no clue how good the Warriors will be five years from now, they may soon wish they’d added more protections to it. Also, the addition of Russell means that it will be near impossible for Golden State to retain important supplementary pieces such as Kevon Looney, DeMarcus Cousins, and Quinn Cook, which is worrisome for a team whose lack of depth proved to be a major part of their downfall in the most recent Finals. Perhaps Russell is a more valuable player than Iguodala or Looney for the vast majority of NBA teams, but it’s an open question whether he’s more valuable for this particular team.
With Durant gone and Thompson sure to be out for the majority of next season due to an ACL tear, it makes sense for the Warriors to roll the dice. In the NBA, talent often wins out and a backcourt of Curry and Russell is sure to be as talented as any in the league. However, while this could certainly be a terrific move for the Warriors, there are many ways it could go awry, quickly making it appear to be more desperate than shrewd. If Russell and Curry fail to mesh, it would not be a surprise to see Bob Myers try to move Russell sometime in the next year in the hopes of ensuring that the end of Curry’s prime fails to go to waste. Perhaps gaining a valuable asset, a stopgap to play alongside Curry while Thompson is out, was the entire point of the deal in the first place — gain future flexibility now, figure out the on-court fit later.
Regardless of what comes next, the flurry of moves coming from the Bay tonight signifies the end of something. The Warriors may continue to make deep runs into the playoffs with Curry, Thompson, and Draymond Green, now alongside D’Angelo Russell, though without Andre Iguodala — a core piece who has been with the Warriors ever since they became a league power half a decade — this is no longer the same team who shocked the basketball-watching world by going 67-15 and winning an unexpected title in 2015. Now, if the Warriors are able to enjoy a level of success even approaching what they have achieved in recent years, that would be an even bigger surprise than their initial Finals run five years ago. What is unclear now, and will only become clear in several months, is if the acquisition of D’Angelo Russell makes such success more or less likely. While it may not be necessary for Warriors fans to expect the worst, it may be prudent to at least fear it.