The challenge laid out by my editor: from the list of NBA free agents available this summer, make the roster you think gives you the best chance of beating the Golden State Warriors. My response: “Well, s***.”
That is not an easy thing to do! The Warriors, in case you missed it, are very, very good — winners of three of the last four NBA championships, and it might be four straight had Draymond Green not gotten suspended for getting his Ric Flair on midway through the 2016 NBA Finals. Constructing a team solely from available free agents that works under salary cap rules and has the combination of offensive firepower, defensive ballast and versatility to take down the champs is a tall order.
And yet, doing this beats working for a living, so I opened up a free-agent listing in one tab and a spreadsheet for tracking salaries in another, and gave the thought experiment a shot. Here’s one man’s crack at putting together an available-this-summer squad that could go into Oracle Arena and maybe, just maybe, make the Dubs blink.
The basic principles
We’re working under the financial rules as they exist right now, before the league confirms its projections for the 2018-19 season: a $101 million salary cap and a $123 million luxury tax line. Since this theoretical team does not technically exist, though, little things like “having to have enough space to be able to fit another team’s free agent under your cap, because otherwise you can’t sign them” seems kind of fruitless! We’ll still track our spending, because our owner wants to make sure we stay under the tax line — no Prokhorovs here, my pals — but if you get the urge to remind me that I can’t technically fit someone in under the cap, well, maybe just take a sec and go outside or something.
We’re looking for length, defensive switchability, the possibility of giving Stephen Curry a tough time handling the ball, shooting … and, what the hell, a couple of wild cards. We’re going to hope that, once we get a couple of big fish to sign on the dotted line, we can convince some of our preferred role players to agree to some slight squeezing on their salaries. (And, maybe, not so slight. Whatever. If you are aggrieved by our offers, have your agent call our general manager. Surprise! He is a ghost and does not exist.)
OK, now, with that established:
Who can beat the Warriors?
Well, off the top of my head, I can think of one guy in the past four years who has …
… and, as luck would have it, he’s a free agent! Welcome aboard, LeBron James. We are starting this roster by paying you a maximum salary of $35.35 million for the season ahead.
How long would you like your contract to be? What sort of options would you prefer? For the purposes of this exercise, please fill them out yourself and fax them to our Ghost GM. We are just trying to fill out a roster for this year. Who cares about anything beyond that? (Hmm. Maybe our GM is actually Billy King.)
Roster spots filled: 1
Cap space remaining: $65,650,000
Luxury tax room remaining: $87,650,000
And since LeBron’s reportedly been pretty into the idea of having another all-world two-way wing talent to team up with …
Don't try to go one-on-one against Paul George. Or to throw a pass near him. Or to do anything on offense when he's on the floor, really.
Basically, just punt the ball into the stands and trot back, I guess. pic.twitter.com/nbCZf3ezqd
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) February 7, 2018
… let’s go with one who’s proven capable of stifling Golden State’s offense for stretches, of being offensively gifted enough to carry his own team’s attack, and who seems like he might just be the perfect Scottie to LeBron’s MJ.
Step right up, Paul George. Tell the fine folks at “SportsCenter” to table Part 3 of your mini-doc until you’ve had the chance to make some last-minute edits, because you’re joining up with us on a max deal, too. Because you’ve got between seven and nine years’ of NBA service time, rather than 10-plus like LeBron, you start at $30.3 million. That’s a pretty heady chunk of change to be paying two dudes. It’s a good thing they check off basically every box we need when starting from the outside in on a squad that lines up against Golden State.
Roster spots filled: 2
Cap space remaining: $35,350,000
Luxury tax room remaining: $57,350,000
Launch the Rockets
The only other teams to come close to knocking off the Warriors in the past few years were the 2016 Oklahoma City Thunder — and Golden State took care of that problem right quick — and this year’s Houston Rockets, who pushed the Warriors to seven games and held double-digit first-half leads in Games 6 and 7 despite losing Chris Paul to a mid-series hamstring injury. They were purpose-built and tailor-made to combat the Warriors’ perimeter talent and to short-circuit their offense with switchability and length. So, y’know, let’s steal some of those guys!
Trevor Ariza might be the best non-star wing on the market, a perfect 3-and-D swingman who more than held his own defending Kevin Durant while showcasing just enough supplementary off-the-dribble juice to help activate Houston’s best lineups when Golden State smothered the other dudes. He’s reportedly said there’s no truth to the rumors that he’s demanding between $50 million and $60 million this summer, which is great, because we’re presenting him with a three-year, $45 million deal — $15 million each season, flat — to be our vital third perimeter cog. And the good news is, he’ll have some friends joining him!
We need more length, more defensive ability and more underrated offensive potential. Luc Mbah a Moute was all that and more for the Rockets last season … until, sadly, he injured his shoulder right before the start of the playoffs. By the time the Warriors series rolled around, he couldn’t even raise his arm to finish at the rim, and was essentially unplayable. His misfortune is a boon for us, though, because uncertainty surrounding his medicals present us with an opportunity to land him for the veteran minimum of $2,373,466 — less than he might otherwise have received on the open market after such a strong season, but still a decent enough paycheck to accept to stay within hailing distance of the title picture in his 11th NBA season.
And, hell, while we’re here, let’s pick up two more Rockets on minimum deals: Gerald Green, the trick-or-treat microwave whose athleticism, confidence, shooting stroke and at-times-surprising defensive capability make him a perfect in-case-of-emergency depth wing on a team like this at $2,373,466, and Tarik Black, a solid and smart backup center who can hold up in space for a few minutes here and there, clean the defensive glass, screen and dive, all for the low low price of $1,607,583.
Roster spots filled: 6
Cap space remaining: $13,995,485
Luxury tax room remaining: $35,995,485
Making a point
We’re going to take a little bit of a chance, here.
I know Avery Bradley isn’t a point guard. You know it, too. He’s really more of a small shooting guard who can sometimes struggle to get his shot off, and who doesn’t really facilitate enough to lead an offense.
He’s also coming off the worst year of his career, one that saw him struggle mightily to find his level removed from the all-warming halo surrounding Brad Stevens in Boston. Bradley sputtered along in Detroit for half a season before getting shipped to L.A. in the Blake Griffin deal, and only suited up a half-dozen times before undergoing season-ending surgery to repair a torn adductor muscle. There is most certainly risk associated in hitching your wagon to a 27-year-old combo guard who’s only played more than 65 games twice in eight pro seasons and who kind of forgot how to shoot last year.
When healthy and engaged, Bradley’s one of the most dogged perimeter defenders in the sport; we’re one year removed from him being on the All-Defensive First Team for his work in dampening opposing ball-handlers. He’s undersized at 6-foot-3 but plays up with his 6-foot-7 wingspan, with great instincts and footwork. He’ll be a solid (and potentially better than that) option at the point of attack against Curry, and one capable of at least making some of the Warriors’ other wings work for it when he gets cross-matched against them on switches.
Bradley will get plenty of chances to spot up in the corners playing alongside a screen-and-rolling LeBron. If a summer of rest, rehabilitation and returning to health brings the shot back around, he’d be a quality addition on a three-year, $36 million deal that, like Ariza’s, is flattened out to pay him $12 million each year.
Roster spots filled: 7
Cap space remaining: $1,995,485
Luxury tax room remaining: $23,995,485
Do it big
We need a starting center, and we can’t spend a ton, so DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan are out. We’re interested in Derrick Favors — that dude can play, man — but negotiations broke down when we found out that the Utah Jazz were willing to go up to $15 million a year to bring him back, and that’s just not a neighborhood we can’t live in, I’m afraid. So we cast our eyes north. Northwest, actually.
Ed Davis isn’t perfect — he’s never played monster minutes, he’s been a backup much more often than he’s been a starter, he can’t shoot from outside, he’s not an elite rim protector — but for our purposes, he doesn’t need to be. He’s a screening machine, ranking right near the top of the league in screen assists per 36-minutes last season. He gets dudes open, and he dives, and while he’s not as automatic at the rim as you might like — he converts closer to two-thirds of his tries in the restricted area than three-quarters — he can finish inside.
Davis is also a monster on the glass, pulling down 13.4 percent of available offensive rebounds and 28.8 percent of opponents’ misses last season, and he competes on defense, providing energy and multiple efforts to deter shots and finish possessions with the rebound. Squint and you can see a healthy, low-mileage Tristan Thompson ready for some superstar wing partners to make him famous. (Maybe not Kardashian famous, but still: pretty famous.)
Davis thinks he’s a starting-caliber center in the NBA; I think he can be one, too. So let’s find out, by giving Ed our non-taxpayer mid-level exception of $8,568,000 to round out our starting five.
Roster spots filled: 8
Cap space remaining: $-6,572,515 (over the cap!)
Luxury tax room remaining: $15,427,485
Filling out the bench
With our starters locked up and a couple of potentially key reserves already in place, we’re looking for shooting, length, versatility and wild cards, the kind of players who could potentially go off for like 10 points in two minutes (and who are also just fun to have around). Now here’s where we’re going to have to hope for a little bit of luck — that a tight market has eliminated high-priced options for a couple of dudes, and that a couple of guys who’ve already made a little money are just going to be down for playing on a potential contender. Here goes nothing:
• Hey, Wayne Ellington! Man, it sure is a bummer that nobody’s willing to give you the full non-taxpayer midlevel exception after you just made a career-high 227 3-pointers. Let us please soothe your pain with our biannual exception of $3,353,000 — admittedly not quite what you might have had in mind, but still a decent enough pact to ostensibly play Pop-a-Shot on the wing while getting your first crack at a deep playoff run, no?
• Hey, Dwyane Wade! Remember how much fun it was to link up with Bron again for a little while, and how much you missed getting to make a long postseason push this spring? Well, in the absence of another more compelling offer from a team with big money to spend in a cool place, how about you come hang out and drink wine with your boy again for the 10-plus-year vet’s minimum of $2,373,466?
• Hey, Devin Harris! You reminded us all during your half-season in Denver that you are, in fact, still around and still pretty good! Want to go back to the playoffs and be a complementary ball-handler/cutter/smart guy at both backup guard spots? You’ll be just like Shaun Livingston, only a little smaller, at our 10-plus-year vet’s minimum of $2,373,466!
• Hmm … minimum-salary scorer who can play both forward spots. This is a tough one. Tough, tough stuff.
… Wait a second.
When you're filling out the bench and you realize exactly what you need. pic.twitter.com/k4Az2ibhdz
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) June 29, 2018
• Hey, Michael Beasley! You are a nightly carnival who sometimes seems to be playing Calvinball and other times can go for 32 in 25 minutes. Let’s make you this year’s JaVale/Swaggy, and get you in the title round on a 10-plus-year vet’s minimum of $2,373,466!
OK, now, this is going to be a tough one:
• Hey, Seth Curry! Had you not suffered a left tibia fracture that kept you out for the entirety of the 2017-18 NBA season, you’d almost certainly be in line for a long-term deal, and possibly even a starting job, because you were well on your way to establishing yourself as a hell of a lot more than Just Steph’s Brother during that year in Dallas. Now, though, you’ve got to show people you’ve still got it and put yourself in position to lock down a longer, more lucrative deal next summer. So how about you come through, show you’re healthy, and knock down some shots from deep? A one-year vet’s minimum deal at $1,607,583 ain’t much, but it’s an opportunity to prove you’re all the way back and maybe … juuuuuuuust maybe … get the chance to stick it to Big Bro come crunch time.
Roster spots filled: 13
Cap space remaining: $-18,653,496 (way over the cap!)
Luxury tax room remaining: $3,346,504 (whew!)
Our mercenary squadron’s depth chart
We wind up, then, with:
C: Ed Davis | Tarik Black
PF: LeBron James | Michael by God Beasley
SF: Trevor Ariza | Luc Mbah a Moute | Gerald Green
SG: Paul George | Dwyane Wade | Wayne Ellington
PG: Avery Bradley | Devin Harris | Seth Curry
Not too bad, I think.
An alternate proposal
After presenting this roster to my colleague Ben Rohrbach, he had the following thoughts to offer:
I very much like that team, especially if Bradley is the AB of old! I wish there was a way to get Chris Paul and/or J.J. Redick on there. My first thoughts were: better point guard off the bench, even more shooting and better use of the MLE.
That is hard to argue with! Paul was amazing in the Western Conference finals before going down. He’s got plenty of on-court chemistry with Redick from their years together in L.A. After clocking a $23 million balloon payment this past year in Philly, maybe Redick’s amenable to taking a haircut this time around to take another whack at a ring. And while I like the general idea of what I did with the bench, maybe I can find a better lottery ticket in the middle than Davis (who I like more than Ben does).
So I came up with the following:
In this framework, we work the Klutch connection to put Nerlens Noel on the squad. Things went disastrously for him in Dallas last year, but count me among those who believe in his all-court defensive game and rim-running potential, and in the likelihood that he’d play his best ball playing in games that actually matter with LeBron and CP3 keeping the fire under his posterior.
We bid farewell to George, opting instead to go for the higher 10-year max for Paul and squeezing J.J. on the midlevel exception to give us what ought to be an awfully potent offensive starting five (albeit with some defensive liabilities in the undersized backcourt). We move our “shooter suffering from a crunched market” attention from Ellington to Brooklyn Nets forward Joe Harris, a quietly solid and very accurate off-the-catch shooter with the size (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) to play two and some three in smaller lineups. And behind CP3, we opt for a couple of graybeard standbys — Raymond Felton, last seen playing better than you probably realized behind Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and Jason Terry, last seen forcing you to rub your eyes and go, “Wait, Jason Terry’s still in the league?” during the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round playoff loss to the Boston Celtics.
This is a little less like-sized, a little less switchy and, with longtime friends but fierce competitors James and Paul sharing the rock, a little more potentially combustible. But the ceiling’s probably higher, especially when it comes to being able to get buckets with Golden State.
A moment of somber reflection
I regret to inform you all that I have a shocking and horrifying news bulletin: I am not sure either of these teams could beat the Warriors four times in seven games.
For the first one, an awful lot depends on George being something other than the “Playoff P” we saw for much of this year’s Round 1 stinker vs. Utah, on Bradley being at least as good as he was two years ago, on Davis being better than he’s ever been before, and on a bunch of relatively long-in-the-tooth vets hanging in there. I’m not sure there’s really enough viable wing depth here to consistently and meaningfully combat the Curry-Durant-Klay Thompson trio. If Davis can’t hold up for a Clint Capela-ish number of minutes, we might get destroyed inside.
For the second one … well, that sure is asking a lot of Nerlens Noel, isn’t it? We already know the Warriors can handle the Paul-Redick backcourt — I mean, the Warriors beat their Clippers teams like a million times in a row over the last few years of that L.A. team — and I’m still not sure there’s quite enough juice on the wing. Hmmph.
The more I look at these rosters, the more I think that, for this team to knock off the Warriors, LeBron would have to be absolutely superhuman. Sometimes even our fantasies must inevitably submit to the cold, hard grip of reality.
Oh, well. At least I stayed under the tax.
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