NBA Free Agency

Warriors face steep uphill fight in continued commitment to Steph

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When the doors to NBA free agency swung open on Sunday, the Warriors already had crossed off the boldface name atop their shopping list. Nine-time All-Star Paul George, their clear priority, would not be available.

This was a severe wound to Golden State maximizing the remaining seasons of an effective Stephen Curry. If the front office can’t execute a full recovery, it will be fatal.

George, 34, was the ideal addition to join 36-year-old Curry and 34-year-old Draymond Green to try to squeeze one or two more runs to the NBA Finals. An upgraded lineup would bring dramatic improvement. This would have been a win-now core with a fighting chance to produce a fitting epilogue to Curry’s remarkable career.

The Warriors would be contenders again. That has been Curry’s focus ever since the disastrous 2019-20 season, when a fractured hand forced him to spend five months watching the Warriors – his team – finish with the worst record in the league.

The 2022 NBA Finals victory was a message to the world that the Warriors, despite being the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, had regained the status of being a team to be feared. Curry had become the all-time 3-point king. He had won that long-desired Finals MVP award. And now the Warriors were, once again, legitimately heavyweights.

Curry, perhaps more than anyone, yearned for the Warriors to maintain that level of prestige.

They have not. They finished sixth in the Western in the 2022-23 season and were bounced from the playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers in the semifinals. They finished 10th last season before bussing 75 miles to Sacramento for a Play-In Tournament game and getting blasted into the offseason by the Kings.

George would be the centerpiece of Golden State’s reset. A 6-foot-8, 225-pound wing in a league where two-way wings are taking over. The Warriors valued George over Klay Thompson for several reasons, the most pertinent being he is now a superior player.

Breaking up the best-shooting backcourt the world has ever seen, the fabled “Splash Brothers,” would be worth it if PG13 were coming to the bay.

When George opted out of the final season of his contract with the Los Angeles Clippers, he became the No. 1 player on the unrestricted free-agent market. He landed with the Philadelphia 76ers, who were so desperate for a two-way wing that they would pay him $212 million over the next four years. 

And the Warriors? They have this week and next and, well, all summer to try and surround Curry with enough talent to push their season into June.

The inability to snag George – an acquisition that had had several barriers – forced the Warriors to resort to contingencies. They had to lower their sights to pursue an All-Star.

It’s a short list of likely available players with that status. Three come to mind, with varying degrees of obtainability. Here’s a look at each, in alphabetical order:

Brandon Ingram (New Orleans Pelicans)

The 2020 All-Star is available. He wasn’t a good fit with franchise player Zion Williamson and is a worse fit now that Dejounte Murray joins CJ McCollum in the backcourt. Ingram’s greatest asset is that he’s a terrific scorer, capable of getting buckets off any action, and excelling in the midrange. He also is a solid playmaker.

Ingram’s greatest liabilities are with inconsistency, defense and availability. Like Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins, he’s a rainbow player, beautiful when visible but often not visible. The 6-foot-8, 195-pound wing’s slight frame makes him vulnerable, and physical shortcomings are among the reasons the 26-year-old has missed at least 20 games in each of the last four seasons.

Ingram is a 36.2-percent career shooter from deep. He will make $36 million in the final year of his contract, and has been a player that leaves his teams pleading for more.

Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls)

The two-time All-Star (2021, 2022) is on the market under a blinking neon sign. He entered the league as a great athlete in search of a game, and has evolved into an excellent offensive player. His streak of seasons averaging at least 23 points per game ended last season when he finished at 19.5. The 10-year vet shoots 38.2 percent from deep and is a highlight dunker.

LaVine’s biggest problem is that he never has played consistent defense. At 6-foot-5, 200 pounds with great agility, he has the tools to be a fabulous defender but applies them only sporadically.

It’s the burdensome contract – three remaining years, averaging $46 million per – that has teams circling LaVine and wondering if he’s worth it. It’s why the Warriors reportedly turned down one offer.

Lauri Markkanen (Utah Jazz)

Markkanen is a one-time All-Star (2023) who at 7 feet, 240 pounds, is among the top-five stretch fours in the league. He averaged 23.2 points per game last season, shooting 48 percent from the field, including 39.9 from distance, and 8.2 rebounds. He makes a lot of sense for Golden State.

Naturally, there is a downside. The Warriors would have to negotiate with Danny Ainge, Utah’s CEO of basketball operations. He’s not eager to move Markkanen, but his history suggests he never considers any player untouchable. He has multiple first-round picks in each of the next five drafts.

Markkanen makes a lot of sense for the Warriors, who have expressed interest. The question is whether they could arrange a package that persuades Ainge to move such an asset who has one year remaining on a contract at a mere $18 million.

George was a Hail Mary and now the Curry clock is ticking louder each day. Having fallen back to the NBA the pack, the Warriors face a steep uphill battle to get near the top. The front office is facing perhaps its toughest challenge yet.

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