Direct deposit doesn't win championships
The implications behind the concept of a "checkbook win" and the ethics of siding with billionaires who will or won't spend more money to improve their team's title chances.
Good morning. Free Brittney Griner. Let’s basketball.
The Philosopher (Beggar With Oysters), Edouard Manet, 1864-67
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, a smart observer of the game, said this on television in the aftermath of the Golden State Warriors moving to within one win of claiming the championship.
In text form, if you like:
Andrew Wiggins, he’s not an underdog. He makes $32 million. While the Warriors were down these last couple of years, winning no games, they kept spending money. Because they’ve got it. They re-signed Draymond Green. They re-signed Steph Curry. They re-signed Kevon Looney. They kept Andrew Wiggins, and boy did it show up tonight.
Andrew Wiggins with the supreme moment in his career. He was a throw-in in a trade. Other teams would have totally gotten rid of him. They stuck with him. They have a $340 million payroll when you consider taxes. You don’t just have to beat the Warriors on the court. You have to beat their checkbook. And nothing away from Andrew Wiggins tonight, but this was a checkbook win for the Warriors.
Pardon the aggregation. Let’s run through a few of the facts here.
The Warriors re-signed Curry last summer; every team in the NBA, from the cheapest to the most spendthrift, would have done the same. Green’s extension was inked in 2019, right after Kevin Durant decamped for Brooklyn and after the Warriors lost their chance at a three-peat. Green had just been named to his fifth consecutive All-Defense team at age 29. Most if not all teams offer that extension. (Notably, it was ‘just’ 4 years, $100 million. He would have been eligible to sign a 4-year, $152 million deal had he declined the extension and became a free agent in 2020.)
Kevon Looney is making $5,178,572 this season. The Warriors signed him to a 3-year, $15 million deal in 2019 after he had played a substantial role for the team in the postseason. The Warriors paid a pittance to retain a rotation player at a need position.
And then, of course, the Warriors did decide to convince Kevin Durant, the Nets and D’Angelo Russell to agree to a sign-and-trade to get Russell to Golden State in 2019, with everyone knowing full well that Russell was a bad fit but a big salary slot, with everyone knowing full well that Thompson would be out for the season, with the Warriors having won three championships in five years and having reigned over the Western Conference for a half-decade.
This was a play that only rich teams make. Many would argue that all teams should make this type of play to preserve the championship window. But let’s be clear: the Warriors are not the only NBA franchise that would have arranged their books like this, preserving the opportunity to pay a fourth player lots and lots of money. The Warriors are simply the team that had the capacity (via the inciting incident of Durant’s exit, and going back to the cap spike in 2016 allowing KD to sign there in the first place), the vision and the green light. Maybe a dozen teams, including the Celtics, would have done the same.
The Warriors eventually flipped Russell for Wiggins and a pick that became Jonathan Kuminga. One of the best trades in the last five seasons.
The other ‘fact’ it’s worth pointing out here, something to close observers like GMIB subscribers: almost every other player besides Wiggins in the Warriors’ Finals rotation is homegrown. The players mentioned in Windhorst’s thesis — Curry, Green, Looney — were all drafted by the Warriors. A No. 7 pick, a No. 30 pick and a No. 35 pick. Klay Thompson, drafted by the Warriors (No. 11 pick, one slot behind Jimmer Fredette, I’m not bitter you’re bitter). Jordan Poole, drafted by the Warriors (No. 28 pick).
Those five key players (plus some guys who aren’t playing right now like Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman) by draft. Wiggins, as detailed, by trade. The big free agent acquisitions and their salaries: Andre Iguodala ($2.6 million, the minimum for his service years), Otto Porter Jr. ($2.4 million, the minimum), Nemanja Bjelica ($2.1 million, the minimum), Gary Payton II ($1.9 million, the minimum).
So this is the 10-man Finals rotation construction when you remove the names:
Three high-priced homegrown stars
Two cheap homegrown role players
Four minimum salary veterans
One high-priced player acquired via trade
This is not exactly a railroad baron bullying competitors out of the way here. The Warriors have built this from within more than any other competitive franchise with the exception of, ironically, the Celtics.
Despite building largely through the draft, the Warriors did have the highest payroll in the NBA this season. That’s because they have a lot of draft hits and have paid to keep their players. On what basketball planet is that a bad thing? Teams being able to retain their stars is a cause celebre among much of the national NBA punditry; there’s been no better institutional example of that then the Warriors. And yes, it cost real money to re-up Green and Looney, albeit at discounts, in 2019. And those decisions helped boost the Warriors to the top payroll in the NBA now. But … is it greedy to do that? Anti-competitive? What exactly is the argument here?
Other franchises rack up very large payrolls. Here’s something worth noodling on while you consider the concept of the “paycheck win” en route to a championship: how many combined 2022 playoff wins do the teams with the Nos. 2-4 highest payrolls this season have? If you said “zero” you receive a gold star. The Nets, Clippers and Lakers finished Nos. 2-4 in payroll this season. Brooklyn got swept in the first round; neither L.A. team made the tournament. No paycheck wins available there, I guess.
The only decision in which Windhorst and those who agree with him about the Warriors’ deep pockets leading to this championship can point to is the decision to sign-and-trade Durant instead of letting him walk for nothing. (If you missed it, Zach Lowe had an excellent piece detailing the conversations and machinations around this on ESPN Insider last week.) That’s the only real, legitimate inflection point here. And that decision does make the Warriors’ ownership different than a few (cheaper) teams. Remember, the Bucks won a title on the back of a generational superstar who decided to stay … and then got cheap by letting P.J. Tucker walk to a rival. Are we arguing that the Bucks model — saving billionaire coin at the expense of keeping the championship window open as wide as possible — is more ethical? It’s the opposite, unless you’re on the side of the billionaires. That’s what Windhorst’s argument boils down to beyond the bon mots and back-and-forth: it is the argument other billionaires would make to discredit spending all resources available to win championships. It’s a defense of cheap billionaire sports owners against accusations from the fandom of not committing the resources necessary for glory.
This wasn’t a paycheck win. This isn’t a direct deposit championship in the making. If anything, it was a front office win. In 2019, Warriors GM Bob Myers and his crew did what every front office in the NBA wants to do: convince their billionaire bosses that if we do this deal, the payroll will be higher but we’ll preserve our chances to win championships while our generational superstar (Curry, in this case) is still in or near his prime. Myers and Company had the blueprint with the Durant sign-and-trade, just as they had the blueprint for the initial Iguodala acquisition in 2013 (considered by some a risk at the time, mind you!) and the Durant signing in 2016. Not every front office is capable of having the foresight to suggest these moves with a long-term vision in mind. Not every front office that is capable of seeing it can get buy-in from the check-signers. Myers and Company did both.
This championship, should the Warriors win it (still not close to guaranteed, by the way — the Celtics are freaking good), is a triumph for Curry, for Thompson and Green and Looney, YES for Wiggins, for Poole and the minimum salary vets. And it’s definitely a win for Bob Myers and his team’s vision of preserving the championship window and his check-cutting bosses for buying in.
There’s absolutely no shame in pulling it off. To suggest otherwise is to side with the billionaires who care more about preserving their own wealth than competing at the highest possible level. To suggest otherwise is to diminish the exempleary work Myers and his crew have done to build and preserve the roster. To suggest otherwise is to shortchange the unique flavor of superstar that Curry has been for going on a decade.
Is that which side of this you want to be on?
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Be excellent to each other.