NBA Free Agency

D’Angelo Russell was the Warriors’ Hail Mary, but is he the right choice?

As D’Angelo Russell heads to the Golden State Warriors, he will put the dynasty by the Bay to the test as it attempts to find a new identity.

In the summer of 2013, the Warriors — then the league’s upstart darling rather than a troubled dynasty — promised they would be players in free agency and pulled a rabbit out of their hat by signing Andre Iguodala. Golden State had to trade two first-round picks to move off salary but walked away with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

Injuries in this year’s Finals put them up against the ropes once again, but years of spending and upgrading made it nearly impossible for them to pivot. As Kevin Durant headed out the door, there was only one Hail Mary available, and the Warriors again shocked the NBA by connecting. A double sign-and-trade helped the franchise recoup Durant’s value and landed young All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell in the Bay.

Six years separate these offseasons, but the contrast between how the rosters were constructed is immense. The Warriors built that first team methodically. The second part of their stampede through the league with Durant in tow created a sense of pressure that reared its head in the Russell deal.

Durant’s departure is only part of the cause for panic. The Warriors’ draft picks haven’t developed into capable replacements for their aging teammate. Since they made their first Finals in 2015, no draft pick outside of Kevon Looney made any real impact, while Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell are already gone. Golden State surprised many by selecting scoring guard Jordan Poole in the first round this year, but the move at least addressed the need for scoring in the post-Durant era. The draft is typically how dynasties replenish their supply of soldiers, but the Warriors have failed in that regard.

Success unravels quickly in the NBA. For the Warriors, fabulous injury luck flipped, personalities rubbed up against one another, and dysfunction prevailed. The last conversation we had as Durant walked out the door was whose fault it was that his Achilles’ tore — not quite the legend we expected to be writing when he joined up with the 73-9 Dubs.

And not quite the way the Warriors expected to go out. In fact, they seem to have decided they couldn’t go out, even for a year. Not with a $1.4 billion new arena going up in the heart of the Bay’s more luxurious and lucrative borough, not with expectations sky high coming off five straight NBA Finals appearances. Not for the franchise that aims to be “light years” ahead of everyone else.

Perhaps a little panicked, Golden State executed what was basically the only move available to them — a deal that plopped Russell into the uncomfortable environs of the Warriors’ beautiful offense and switch-heavy defense.

It was perhaps the most unexpected move of NBA free agency, not only because of the disjointed fit but also just how bombastic it was. The Warriors didn’t just find another scorer. They got Russell, who as NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh noted, ran almost as many pick-and-rolls as the entire Warriors’ roster last season. Whereas Durant’s immersion into the hustle and flow of Golden State’s motion offense was like a tired head on a Tempurpedic mattress, the system will treat Russell’s game more like a waterbed. It’s going to be uncomfortable for a while.

Change was always going to come for this roster, with Durant or without him. Age was sneaking up on the whole core, and for veterans Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, 40 is firmly in sight. Iguodala was shipped out to make the trade work, and the deal will also bring in cheaper, younger role players such as Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham. Other useful youngsters like Willie Cauley-Stein and Glenn Robinson III are reportedly joining up.

Injuries to Durant and Klay Thompson in the Finals last month set these moves in motion and stole the sense of direction this group had since they first broke through in 2013. The Warriors are understandably anxious about what is next. But for the one franchise that felt distanced from the endless turnover of the NBA, any sense of panic is magnified.

Much has been made of the league being wide-open next season, and the Warriors’ foibles are as much a cause of that parity as anything. They were right, in theory, to grasp onto whatever remained to stay competitive now and in the future.

The Warriors, though, were already somewhat flexible. Next summer they could see an opportunity to move on from Draymond Green and restructure the roster around Thompson and Steph Curry, around whom this team has always orbited. Instead, they thrust a young man with precisely half a season of greatness (goodness?) behind him into the high stakes of Silicon Valley’s team.

Russell is the beacon. He is what’s next. Should the Warriors keep him, they will transition into more of a pick-and-roll heavy offense, especially while Thompson recovers from a torn ACL. Cauley-Stein and Russell can do enough in the regular season to help keep Curry healthy and the Warriors somewhat competitive.

Just as it was too quick prior to Russell’s move to Brooklyn to deem him incapable of improvement or leadership, so too is it rash to say he can’t be effective when the ball is in Curry’s hands. The 23-year-old had a 56.5 effective field goal percentage in catch-and-shoot situations last year, per Synergy Sports. About a third of Russell’s possessions last season came with Spencer Dinwiddie on the court, and while Russell’s impact was felt more strongly when he played without the other young guard, the pair made it work because they both could shoot. Curry will make life even easier.

Defensively, the Warriors have a lot to figure out. That was clear after Golden State lost Durant and Thompson to injury and decided to trade Iguodala. The Death Lineup is… dead. Russell’s lack of consistent energy on defense will need to be addressed if the Warriors want to make a run at the playoffs in 2020, but there are bigger issues across the roster that age will not help.

Russell is not a bad player, but to fit with Curry and the Warriors, he will have to sacrifice his preferred style. He will also have to keep getting better to live up to his maximum contract.

Golden State could have kept Iguodala, moved on from Livingston, and potentially signed someone pretty good using the full mid-level exception. They would have remained a destination for veteran role players on minimum salaries and had greater flexibility to keep Bell and Quin Cook, two young players with experience in the Warriors’ system. Perhaps DeMarcus Cousins would still have been an option as a regular-season fulcrum, much as he was in Games 5 and 6 of the Finals. Instead, by conducting a sign-and-trade, Golden State hard-capped itself and killed its financial flexibility.

This year was always going to require patience while Thompson nursed his knee. Russell will test that patience as the Warriors look to see if he can cut it defensively and capably play alongside Curry.

Or, he may be a trade piece, the token used to fetch more pieces from Minnesota, Phoenix or Orlando down the line. Golden State effectively spent two first-rounders plus $117 million to get Russell if we include the cost of dumping Igudoala to Memphis. The Warriors will need to make up that value and then some to set themselves up going forward. This makes sense in theory if a deal materializes, but let’s see a team actually sign a good young player just to flip him before we jump on this idea. None of Russell’s reported suitors have players that would improve the Warriors’ fortunes all that much.

While they would love to have Robert Covington or Aaron Gordon, the difference between Russell and those guys isn’t bringing a championship back to the Bay. The best bet may be to flip Russell for draft picks and younger pieces, or a ready-to-win star veteran. That type of deal isn’t out there yet, and Russell can’t be traded until Dec. 15.

Golden State prides itself on being light years ahead of everyone else, and they certainly know how to surprise. But after building a dynasty through the draft and topping it off with a once-in-a-lifetime free agent acquisition in Durant, the Warriors backed themselves into a corner. Whether it be their move to the Chase Center or just a fervent need to be relevant, they waved off patience and may pay the price.

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