Let’s (mostly) run it back, San Fran.
In their unbelievable misfortune through injuries and player departures, the Golden State Warriors have been afforded an incredible opportunity. They can use the 2019-20 season as a gap year for their main stars, preparing them mentally to be fresh for the next campaign.
They will bottom-out in the standings and increase the likelihood of securing a top-five selection in what is shaping up to be a pretty good 2020 Draft. Most importantly, they get to sit back and survey the landscape around them to see how they can reshape the roster.
Some of that shaping comes from an understanding of what it will take to beat fellow Western Conference powers. The newly constructed Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers are both heavy on star power, brute athleticism and play excellent defense. If they are to be the main threats to Golden State reclaiming their mantle, perhaps the team needs to be built differently.
Regardless of how that construction goes, the Dubs will be staring down next season with a (hopefully) healthy Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the three most pivotal pillars in their run of five consecutive NBA Finals appearances. There is, however, one move they can undertake at the trade deadline to beef up their chances of returning next year no matter how they decide on attacking their competition or who is available in the draft.
That move: D’Angelo Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Robert Covington, Jeff Teague, a top-four protected 2020 first-round pick and a future first-round pick.
Look, I’m not one to constantly throw fake trades around whether the rumor mill is (fake) spinning or not, but this is a package built around a long-spinning mill. No team reportedly pursued Russell harder this summer than the Timberwolves, who have been seeking an upgrade at point guard and know of the relationship Russell and superstar Karl-Anthony Towns already developed.
For the Wolves, the cost of an expiring Teague contract, two first-rounders (one in a year they’re knocking on the door of the playoffs) and a 29-year-old Covington is a bargain.
The Wolves would immediately have a stuffed salary sheet but now get to build around All-Stars Towns and Russell, a resurrected Andrew Wiggins and rookie Jarrett Culver. For a team already seeking an upgrade at the point and who likely will lose any battle for elite options on the market this summer, their best chance is to swing for the fences here. Russell and Towns are both under the age of 23, and a small market team like Minnesota must build this way.
Establishing their incentive and infatuation with Russell is important to this deal. In order for the Warriors to give up Russell—their key consolation to Kevin Durant’s departure but an ill-fitting Curry complement—they must get back something that clearly re-establishes their title window.
From a defensive standpoint, Robert Covington is such a guy.
29 years old and fitting into the Warriors title window, RoCo is among the best wing/ forward defenders alive. That’s critical when you check out the best competitors in the West: The Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Covington and Klay would draw those matchups, and the Dubs are still not hamstrung by size or position to leave themselves vulnerable for a mismatch elsewhere.
Covington would check LeBron James in a series with the Lakers, saving Thompson for offense while letting Draymond deal with the bigger Anthony Davis.
RoCo has some of the quickest hands in the game, routinely getting tie-ups or turnovers forced by stripping drivers of their independence and getting a paw on the rock. He blocks shots on the perimeter, chests up drivers and deters more shots than any metric can quantify.
What makes him theoretically special with the Warriors is how he already plays with the switching ability and IQ required to help protect Curry. Draymond and Andre Iguodala got so good at over the years at switching off-ball to protect Steph from blatant mismatches that arise naturally in the flow of play. Their off-ball awareness is sky high and saved the Dubs countless points.
Covington has the same experience and acumen. When a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, he used to bail out teammate TJ McConnell from numerous post mismatches by switching off-ball and taking the interior matchup. It’s an unselfish move and one that greatly matters for winning teams:
Not a lot of guys can pull this off and get stops consistently. Draymond can’t be the only one flying around trying to save the Warriors’ backcourt. Covington would add both a skilled and athletic defender, but also one that fits perfectly within the switching, cocoon-like scheme to protect the Dubs’ most valuable asset.
Golden State has done this in the past under Kerr, and Covington would be a seamless addition into its strengths:
Covington is also a career 36 percent 3-point shooter. In that area, he’s actually an upgrade over Andre Iguodala, the de facto role he’d fill with this Warriors team. What Covington doesn’t provide in playmaking (the way Iggy once did), he makes up for by spacing the floor.
Now there’s the cap gymnastics to tackle.
By essentially swapping Russell’s salary for Covington’s, Golden State would shed $16.5 million and drop to $130 million in committed money to eleven players. Two first-round picks, both likely locks to be in the top 20, would add two more players and another roughly $7 million in salary, bringing the team total to $137 million. With two more roster spots available, this is where things get interesting.
As reported by Spotrac, the NBA’s projections for the 2020-21 season have the luxury tax threshold set at $141 million, with the apron for hard-capping at $147 million. The Dubs would have about $10 million in their pocket for veterans. A starting center would be attainable with the Mid-Level Exception. Experienced pieces available could include Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Robin Lopez, DeMarcus Cousins (yes, again) and Markieff Morris.
Jeff Teague’s Bird Rights could allow the Warriors to pay him a high enough salary to stick around as a backup point guard and not cripple their finances. A Non-Tax MLE, estimated at $6 million, means general manager Bob Myers could offer Teague whatever he deemed necessary under the tax and fill out the roster to 15.
The also-ran 2019-20 Warriors could suddenly trot our a next-year lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Robert Covington, Draymond Green, Marc Gasol, Jeff Teague, Eric Paschall and two first-round picks. That’s a hell of a nine-deep.
It’s too soon to examine how those picks will turn out positionally. Who knows what ping pong balls bounce where, and this conversation could change quickly if the Warriors end up outside the top-5. But in examining this draft class, most of the truly elite prospects are backcourt players.
By clearing Russell’s albatross max contract and ridding themselves of paying $70 million next year to defensively liable point guards, the Warriors at least have the chance to take best player available and not be backed into a corner.
The rest of this season is what we all know it is: evaluation time for the youngsters. Who will stay and, (to steal a line from Ted Allen), who will be chopped is all dependent on the next few months.
Paschall seems safe to at least be a rotation wing. Jordan Poole and Omari Spellman can be role-playing shooters. Kevon Looney has proven his worth on a championship team before. Veterans like Willie Cauley-Stein, Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks could all re-up for a lesser role—one they are all better suited for and believed they’d get when they packed their bags for the Bay Area.
This isn’t a pipedream, folks. I swear this is attainable, sensible and the fast track to sending Larry O’Brien back to the Bay.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of December 21, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.