Following another much-needed victory Monday against the Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry urged his Splash Brother Klay Thompson, who was benched from the closing lineup for the second time in three outings, to "stay ready," because "everything comes back around."
You can't blame Curry and the Warriors for minding that headspace in a sub-.500 season. They emerged from two lottery campaigns, coinciding with years-long injuries to Thompson's left ACL and right Achilles, to win the 2022 NBA championship, their sixth Finals appearance in eight years and fourth title together.
Except, Thompson will be 34 years old on Thursday. Curry's 36th birthday is in mid-March. Draymond Green, the defensive edge of Golden State's dynastic trio, turns 34 in the weeks between the two guards.
In other words, there's a real chance everything doesn't come back around this time.
The Warriors are 22-25, 12th place in the Western Conference. There is still hope for making the playoffs in the final 35 games of the regular season. Their net rating (+0.1, ninth in the West) is more encouraging than their record, and they trail the 10th-place Utah Jazz for the final spot in the play-in tournament by a game.
A 30% or 40% shot at making the playoffs is far from the goal for a franchise that considers itself "light-years ahead," since Curry is still producing at an all-time great level (28-4-5 on 46/41/93 shooting splits). If Golden State is being honest with itself, more reinforcements are necessary to seriously contend again.
The Warriors have 48 hours until Thursday's trade deadline to decide who they want to be this season — and moving forward. "The two-timeline thing" is yielding mediocre results. Do they retain an aging core and hold out hope "everything comes back around," moving young talent for more veteran win-now help? Do they lean heavier into a youth movement, flipping anyone but Curry for more sweeping changes, even if it means splitting the core? Are the injured Chris Paul and struggling Andrew Wiggins part of this equation?
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr played the final 7:19 of Monday's win without Thompson, surrounding Curry and Green instead with third-year wings Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody and rookies Brandin Podziemski and Gui Santos, the latter of whom joined from the G League a few weeks ago. Wiggins also closed over Thompson on Friday but suffered a sprained left foot in Saturday's loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
When asked afterward about the difficulty in shifting responsibilities, Thompson told reporters, "Yeah. You kidding me? Go from one of the best players — it's hard for anybody. I'll be honest with you. It's very hard."
Klay Thompson said it’s hard to not close: “Yeah, you kidding me? To go from one of the best players…It’s hard for anybody.”
Klay credited the young guys.
Draymond from off camera (to reporters): “I didn’t close Game 5 of the Finals. Who the f*** cares?” pic.twitter.com/CzYNX4vulw
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 6, 2024
"I've accepted it," Thompson added. "I could be mad, but I'm happy for these young guys, honestly."
That doesn't sound like someone who is coming to terms with his basketball mortality as a star-level contributor. It sounds like someone who has come to terms with it. The same could be heard from Kerr.
"It's not easy for a guy who's been so good and a Hall of Fame player to deal with injuries, and it's never easy for any player getting older," the coach said. "But he's mentally tough. He plays through everything."
Mental toughness only takes you so far, and Kerr has prioritized physical ability twice in four days. You don't just bench one of the greatest shooters in the history of the game because he's in a bit of a shooting slump. (Thompson is shooting 36.7% from the field and 28.6% from 3-point range in his last seven games.)
Thompson is an unrestricted free agent at season's end. He reportedly rejected a two-year, $48 million contract extension offer from Golden State before the season, preferring instead something closer to the four-year, $100 million deal Green signed with the Warriors in July. That's a lot of money for a role player.
Thompson's situation is indicative of many across the roster. Green's anger has superseded his athleticism and acumen too often this season. His suspensions contributed to his absences from All-Star and Olympic discussions as much as his age. He is at risk of missing an All-Defensive team for the second time in the past decade, as his minutes have dwindled, and the Warriors' defense has plunged to a bottom-10 rating.
Wiggins is nowhere near the performer he was during the 2022 playoffs, when he was Golden State's second-best player. His 12.2 points and 1.5 assists per game are easily the lowest of his career, his 3-point shooting (31.1%) is not far behind, and the Warriors have been significantly better defensively without him.
Paul's fractured left hand will be re-evaluated in mid-February, a couple weeks closer to his 39th birthday.
Wiggins and Green are owed a combined $57.8 million in the 2026-27 season. Paul's deal expires in June, unless the Warriors commit to paying his non-guaranteed $30 million salary until 2025. Neither overpaying underwhelming veterans nor losing a near-max salary slot is conducive to fielding a contender. Committing the remainder of salary cap projections for the foreseeable future to Wiggins, Green and Thompson feels like a death sentence for Curry's prime. Never mind that Kuminga becomes extension eligible this summer.
So, something has to give. The Warriors cannot continue this precipitous decline from 2022 champion to 2023 second-round playoff exit to 2024 lottery. The title looks more like the aberration of Golden State's post-Kevin Durant era than the four years surrounding it, and NBA teams rarely come back around twice.
The 21-year-old Kuminga has been a breath of fresh air since agitating for more playing time, averaging 21.9 points on 59/46/80 shooting splits. That raises another dilemma for the front office in the days ahead. Byallaccounts, Kuminga's inclusion was a sticking point in a trade with the Toronto Raptors for Pascal Siakam (who has since joined the Indiana Pacers), and who better could Golden State get at the deadline? Marc Stein reported on his Substack that Kuminga is among the marquee players no longer on the table.
The Pacers and Dallas Mavericks are reportedly interested in Wiggins, but neither team will detract from its playoff roster to do so. The expiring contracts of Thompson and Paul are similarly distressed assets. Few, if any, locker rooms would feel comfortable incorporating Green at $25 million annually through 2027. The Warriors could find ways to sweeten the pot with their 2026 and 2028 first-round draft picks, but for whom?
It would be disenchanting for the Warriors to break up one of the league's greatest triumvirates and restrict their future flexibility for, say, Dejounte Murray or Kyle Kuzma, who may not vault them closer to contention. Golden State might be able to get into those conversations with some combination of Podziemski, Moody, picks and salary filler, but, again, we are no longer talking about a No. 5 seed trying to get a little bit friskier.
The Warriors are not a team that is one minor deal away.
A desperation heave might be best waiting until the summer, when more talented players will become available and the Warriors should have a better understanding of the value of the youth on their roster. That would afford Wiggins and Green some time to rehab their reputations, and the team some time to figure out how cost-effectively it might retain Thompson, whose desire to retire as a career-long Warrior is no secret.
A complete overhaul also delays the chemistry required to contend. Too old, too young and too much must be done to win. Stand pat, continue apace. Tweak the roster, still fall short. Make sweeping changes, build back better. It all runs the risk of wasting what's left of Curry's prime years and never coming back around.