Are the Warriors preparing for a future without Draymond Green?

As the 2022 NBA championship hangovers subsided and gave way to the sober self-analysis every team must perform entering the summer, the Golden State Warriors faced some very important offseason questions. How would they handle the unrestricted free agencies of several contributors to their title run? (The answer: Let Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. walk, but bring back Kevon Looney and Andre Iguodala.) How would they replace whatever talent they lost? (The answer, it seems: Let the kids cook.)

And, perhaps most importantly: What would they do about the four vital pieces who’d just become eligible for contract extensions?

The weekend before the 2022-23 NBA season provided clarity on that last front. Restricted free agent Jordan Poole, who averaged 18.5 points and four assists per game in a breakout third season as Stephen Curry’s understudy-turned-running buddy, got a four-year deal that could be worth as much as $140 million if he reaches certain incentives. Andrew Wiggins, the oft-maligned former No. 1 overall pick who blossomed into a central-casting complementary two-way wing en route to a championship, agreed to a four-year extension of his own, tacking an additional $109 million onto a pact that could keep him with the Warriors through 2027.

Klay Thompson, now three years removed from the full-boat maximum-salaried contract he inked after rupturing his Achilles tendon in the 2019 NBA Finals, can re-up to add as many as three more years to his deal. But with Thompson set to make $40.6 million this season and $83.8 million over the next two, and reportedly eager “to see if he can play himself into another big deal” after his half-season return from two years lost to injury, all parties involved appear to be in wait-and-see mode; he “didn’t even try for an extension,” according to Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green warms up before an NBA preseason basketball game against the Denver Nuggets in San Francisco, Friday, Oct. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
There are a lot of factors the Warriors must consider when pondering what to do with Draymond Green. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

That leaves Draymond Green: the centerpiece of Golden State’s second-ranked defense, the Warriors’ leader in assists in six of the past seven seasons, and the burning heart of a dynastic run that has included six NBA Finals appearances and four championships in eight years. Entering this summer, Thompson and his Athletic colleague Anthony Slater reported that Green “want[ed] and believe[d] he deserves a maximum contract extension” that would add four more years to the contract he signed in 2019. No such deal has been reached, and with the season’s opening tip mere hours away, none appears to be forthcoming.

You can probably guess at least one reason why.

Maybe Green’s mid-practice detonation on Poole really didn’t have anything to do with the likelihood that he’d have to wait his turn to talk dollars and years — despite a resume that includes four All-Star berths, seven All-Defensive Team nods, a pair of All-NBA selections, a Defensive Player of the Year trophy and fingerprints all over four Larry O’B’s — while Poole and Wiggins got taken care of first. ("I can assure you I don't count other people's pockets," Green recently told reporters.) Maybe the aftermath of the incident, with Green apologizing and taking a brief leave of absence before receiving an undisclosed fine and returning to the fold, included enough contrition and restoration to mend the rifts Draymond opened when he hauled off.

Maybe multiple publicproclamations of professionalism and private conversations about what needs to happen to rebuild fractured trust after “the biggest crisis” the Warriors have faced in the Steve Kerr era can put the Warriors back on track toward winning the West and returning to the Finals — something they’re still favored to do, according to BetMGM. Amid all those maybes, though, the events of the last two weeks have introduced another element of uncertainty: Just how much longer will Draymond continue to ply his trade in the Bay?

Green will be back with the team to receive his championship ring, to watch another banner raised to the rafters of Chase Center, and to take part in the season opener against the Lakers because, it appears, Poole’s OK with it. He’ll start at the 4 next to Looney, Wiggins, Thompson and Stephen Curry, as he did throughout the playoffs, because the Warriors have a title to defend, and the current version of Draymond Green gives them a better chance to do it than the current version of Jonathan Kuminga. All parties involved, from Poole to Kerr to general manager Bob Myers, understand the specific qualities Green brings to the court, even entering his 11th season with more than 800 games and nearly 25,000 hard-fought minutes on his odometer, and it would be impossible to replace for this Warriors team, at this stage.

"He's on our team,” Myers told reporters over the weekend. “We think he can help us win.”

Those caveats and qualifiers, though — the current version, for this team, at this stage — will likely bear closer scrutiny after the season. Green holds a $27.6 million player option for 2023-24 — one that, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, he will “almost assuredly” exercise. If he does, and if he doesn’t reach an extension agreement thereafter, he’ll be in line to hit unrestricted free agency in 2024 at age 34 — which could be a tricky position from which to find one more lucrative long-term deal, whether in Golden State or elsewhere.

“My general view of the year is I'm here this year trying to win a championship,” Green told reporters last week. “I have a contract that ranges through next year. If I so choose to pick up that option, that is my view of how it will be here. We all have a goal to win a championship, and that is that.”

One thing’s for sure: Paying up to keep Green would catapult the Warriors’ spending to even more staggering levels. Golden State has routinely blown past the salary cap line in recent years, paying an estimated $170 million in luxury tax for last year’s title team, with another $170 million tax bill likely to come after this season. Tack the new extensions for Poole and Wiggins onto Curry’s supermax deal, Thompson’s final year, Green’s existing player option, and various club options for recent draftees, and the Warriors are already so far over the cap as to be in line for a mind-blowing $280 million in luxury tax payments for the 2023-24 season — a total outlay approaching $500 million.

An expected increase in the salary cap and tax level will reduce the sting of that outlay a bit, but you can’t really “Cap’s going up!” your way past that much money. Myers made it clear before the 2022 NBA draft that his budget “is not limitless.” While he told reporters on Sunday that he “can't evaluate what we do next season until we see what happens this season,” it seems extremely unlikely that team governor Joe Lacob — despite a net worth estimated at $1.5 billion, despite the value of the Warriors franchise increasing a dozen times over since he bought it, despite Chase Center continuing to produce the NBA’s highest gate revenues and the promise of a soon-to-come new broadcast rights deal to further fill the coffers — will gleefully greenlight a $500 million spending plan that, sources told Tim Kawakami of The Athletic, “would lead to at least $100 million in red ink for the franchise.”

Something’s got to give. It won’t be Steph; given this weekend’s commitments, it seems unlikely it’ll be Poole or Wiggins. Achilles and ACL woes aside, it’d still be shocking if it was Klay, who likely has more equity with the franchise than any player save Curry to go with a career-long track record of unimpeachable vibes. Golden State’s entire “bridge-the-gap” dual timeline development plan hinges on Kuminga, James Wiseman (eligible for an extension of his rookie contract next summer, by the way) and Moses Moody sliding into larger roles.

Which, again, leaves Green — the one core piece without a long-term deal. The one who has missed 95 games over the past five seasons, and whose game seems most likely to experience increasingly severe age-related decline. The one who plays two positions where the Warriors recently spent top-seven picks. The one who, as commendable as his fire is on the court, remains most likely to set one off it. And the one who, right now, seems to represent the most direct route to realizing the kind of cost savings that Lacob might eventually insist on, whether by trading him before he reaches free agency or just letting him walk.

Maybe they won’t. Maybe Green, understanding the need to rebuild both what he’s broken within the Warriors’ walls and his reputation/value in the broader NBA world, comes in on his best behavior, plays his best ball in years, wins another Defensive Player of the Year award, and helps propel Golden State back to within arm’s reach of a fifth championship. Maybe, by that point, bygones will be bygones, the resurgence of good vibes will wash clean the bad ones everyone’s feeling right now, and Draymond and Warriors brass will find a more cost-effective compromise that keeps him in the only uniform and organization he’s ever known.

Or maybe, when the Warriors begin their title defense on Tuesday night, they’re also beginning the end of an era.