Of all the handshake accords that went through within the first six hours of free agency in the National Basketball Association, the Warriors’ deal with the Nets (later expanded to include the Timberwolves) was, perhaps, the most mind-boggling. To be sure, they scrambled to create value out of Kevin Durant’s departure; they didn’t want their erstwhile top dog to leave without any compensation in return. Even as the decision made sense on paper, however, it came at a cost, and a not inconsiderable one that, if nothing else, formally marked the end of its dynasty.
Granted, the acquisition of D’Angelo Russell makes sense going by the numbers. He just came off a productive season that saw him nab an All-Star berth while leading the Nets to the playoffs for the first time in four years. And with returning cornerstone Klay Thompson out for the foreseeable future convalescing from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, his heady stat line of 21, four, and seven figures to serve them well. From the vantage point of the Warriors, his maturation into a positive locker room influence was likewise a factor; they appreciated his work ethic and desire to learn from missteps that compelled the Lakers to cut their ties with him just two years after choosing him with the second overall pick in 2015.
Unfortunately, Russell’s strengths on the court do not jibe with the Warriors’ pace-and-space predilections. As the Nets’ engine, he oversaw an elephant-walk offense that had him running screen-and-roll play after screen-and-roll play. Under head coach Steve Kerr, however, he will be forced to give the ball up as fast as he can, and keep reacting to the movement, alongside playmakers Steph Curry and Draymond Green. And, not coincidentally, he just so happens to have a better percentage from deep off the dribble than catching and shooting.
There is cause to argue that Russell will adapt in time. Talented players only too willing to learn tend to thrive alongside even more talented players only too willing to teach. And in Curry, Green, and Thompson, he has three of the most generous teammates in the league. That said, the counter-argument is likewise strong. In order to open up the cap space needed to welcome him to the fold, the Warriors had to trade vital cog Andre Iguodala. And in bidding farewell to 2015 Finals Most Valuable Player, they effectively closed the chapter on half a decade of dominance that earned them a place alongside the best of the best in pro hoops annals.
Was getting Russell worth the aggregate cost, a first-round pick included? Only time knows, and fans may not have to wait long for the answer to manifest itself. Depending on the timetable for Thompson’s return, not to mention on how well the Warriors do with him logging heavy minutes, he may be on the move anew. Indeed, part of his appeal as a consolation prize for Durant’s exit lies in his worth as trade bait. When he becomes eligible for transfer in December, the front office and coaching staff will, no doubt, be holding meetings to assess how he best gets them to meet set objectives.
Russell’s no fool, so he knows he’s on the clock. It’s likely why he continues to have no public reaction to his trade to the Warriors. He’s said to have been far more enamored with joining the Timberwolves, who were actively wooing him when the trade went down. Make no mistake, though; he’ll try. He understands his plight, and if he earns the right to stay, then well and good; there are far worse ways to burn rubber than for a first-class organization with three championships off a five-year streak of Finals appearances. If not, then so be it; his work is his audition, and there will be no shortage of suitors.
The final grade for the Warriors, then, has yet to be determined. What isn’t: They’re keen on rebooting without bottoming out, and the additional revenues they’ll be generating from their change of address will ease the burden of their proximity to the hard cap. They’re resolved to have their first season in the brand-spanking-new Chase Center be a winning one, and they will thus be keeping a close watch on the extent of Russell’s help in this regard.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing the Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.