How Warriors righted their wrong by bringing GP2 back to Bay


SAN FRANCISCO – When the Warriors step onto the floor at Golden 1 Center on Wednesday, they’ll have several responses to the problems posed by Sacramento Kings star point guard De’Aaron Fox.

One of the responses is Gary Payton II. The Warriors watched him leave as a free agent last July before deciding seven months later, despite his injured status, to reacquire him specifically to address such challenges.

Rarely does a professional sports franchise acknowledge a personnel miscalculation, rarer still that it moves quickly to rectify its own error. The Warriors realized during their last NBA playoff run that Payton is a rare player. Rare enough to doggedly pursue a few months after balking at the cost.

At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Payton will see plenty of Fox in Game 5 as the Warriors and Kings resume their first-round Western Conference playoff series. He’ll see more of Sacramento’s cheetah-quick star for as long as this series lasts.

Should the Warriors advance, they will turn Payton toward the Memphis Grizzlies' 6-foot-2 point guard Ja Morant or 6-foot-5 shooting guard Desmond Bane. Or 6-foot-8 Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James. Or 6-foot-10 Lakers center Anthony Davis.

Yeah, Payton is that unique.

“In some instances, you’re hoping to get what the team needs,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told NBC Sports Bay Area. “That was the feeling at the start of the season. With Gary, you know what you’re getting. He’s smart, he does a little bit of everything a winning team needs, and he fits our team really well.

“I’ve been in basketball most of my life, and I haven’t seen many players like him.”

Andrew Wiggins was a bit more descriptive in his assessment of Payton’s tools.

“GP is someone you can throw out there and he can lock up the other team’s best player, make it hard for him,” Wiggins said. “He can rebound, defend and create extra possessions for us. He does a lot.”

Payton’s value -- exponentially higher than his $1.9 million veteran’s minimum contract -- was on full display last season, which ended with the Warriors winning an NBA championship. When he became a free agent last summer, players and coaches reached a consensus in the desire to re-sign him and keep the core together.

But when the Portland Trail Blazers offered Payton a three-year contract worth as much as $26.1 million, Warriors CEO Joe Lacob, staring at another massive luxury-tax bill, opted out. Not only did Dub Nation express its displeasure, but hushed boos rippled through the locker room.

“I’ve been told,” Payton told NBC Sports Bay Area. “We tried to figure it out in the summer, but it didn’t work. The Bay has always been about love. When I came back, the question I got [from fans] was, ‘Why did you leave?’ Really, it was a business thing.

“But it’s crazy how the world works out. They had to do what they had to do to get pieces, guys they trust and believe in. I’m thankful that I was one of those guys they believe in and were willing to go through what they did to get me back.”

Barely a month into the season, the Warriors realized, predictably, that their point-of-attack defense -- Payton’s specialty -- was not of championship quality. Free-agent signee Donte DiVincenzo is a solid option. Andrew Wiggins can defend some point guards, but he’s better suited for wings. The Warriors believe rookie Ryan Rollins can develop into a defensive menace, but he’s not yet ready. 

Seeing their defense get shredded on drives penetrating the paint, the Warriors' hope for a deep postseason run in the West was growing dim.

The Denver Nuggets have Jamal Murray at the point. The Grizzlies have Ja Morant. The Phoenix Suns have Chris Paul and Devin Booker – and don’t think Payton wouldn’t guard Kevin Durant. The Kings have Fox. Then, three days before the trade deadline, the Dallas Mavericks acquired Kyrie Irving. The Warriors, their record hovering around .500, knew they could not seriously compete for a title with their roster.

With the hours ticking down to minutes at the Feb. 9 trade deadline, Golden State reluctantly gave up on 2020 No. 2 overall draft pick James Wiseman because that was the circuitous price it had to pay to reacquire Payton.

Payton, healing from offseason core muscle surgery, was resting on a training table when Portland general manager Joe Cronin walked in to tell him of the trade.

“I was just as surprised as everybody else,” Payton recalled. “I wasn’t thinking they would do anything like that. I was getting ready for practice. I was confused. For what? Why would you do that? And then, it was like alright. Can’t do nothing about it now.”

Within an hour, Payton had digested the news. No need to call his mother, Monique, or his NBA Hall of Fame father, Gary.

“They already knew,” Payton said. “My phone was blowing up as soon as [Cronin] told me he was sending me back. As soon as we sat down in his office, I could feel my phone. Vibrating, vibrating, vibrating and vibrating for like 15 minutes.”

The Warriors reached out, wondering if Payton wanted to leave that evening or the next morning. He chose the Thursday evening flight from Portland to the Bay Area. He slept through the 95-minute trip.

“I was getting my life back,” Payton said. “It was cool. I knew I was going to have rehab again, get my body right. I locked into that. It was time.

“Everything goes back to being simple. I already know [the Warriors], already know what we’re trying to do, how we do it. I can be myself. Play the dunker. Play defense. Get the ball to the guys that need it.”

The Warriors welcomed Payton back with warm arms wide open. They got their wish, only seven months delayed. They were willing to wait for Payton to get healthy, which took almost seven weeks. Kerr and Payton used the exact some word in describing his role on the Warriors.

“He really fits our roster,” said Kerr, adding that he “hated” losing Payton last summer.

“It just fits, like one of those pieces to a puzzle,” Payton said. “And I bring something they need. Our core goes pretty deep, with seven or eight guys that have experience and know what it takes and want to win. Those seven or eight guys are pretty elite.

“But they let me be me. I’m an easy dude. I don’t care about scoring. I don’t care about stats. I don’t care about shots. I just want to win. I’ll find my shots where I find them, get my layups when I get them. We have the type of players that get a lot of attention, so [opponents] can forget about me.”

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The Warriors paid a premium for this reunion, but Payton’s salary slot -- $8.3 million this season, $8.7 million next season, $9.1 million on a 2024-25 player option in year three -- is about $5 million less over this season and next than they would have owed Wiseman.

The move was made with relatively instant gratification in mind, as it makes Golden State better prepared for this postseason.

Payton missed Game 3 of the series with an illness. He returned for Game 4 but clearly was without his usual vitality and played only seven minutes. He’ll get more on Wednesday -- and in every game the Warriors play for as long as they are active in these playoffs.

“We’re going to have to see somebody [great] every series, every game,” Payton said. “There aren’t that many big guys that are go-to guys in the West. It’s mostly guards and wings. You’re going to see somebody tough all the way through the Finals. It’s top of the line. You’ve got to bring your A-game every night because they’re going come after you.

“I’m glad to be back here. With the backup we have, we can throw different bodies and strategies at them. It’s exciting to me. It’s fun. I love it.”

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