Kawakami: Inside Warriors’ foiled Paul George attempt, Klay Thompson’s inevitable departure

No need to wait for the documentaries and years of context to sort this one out: The events of Saturday night will go down as the threshold moment of a threshold offseason at a threshold point of a rather significant portion of Golden State Warriors history.

Preliminary analysis: Not so good so far! (But check back in a week or so for a final judgment.)

Klay Thompson is set for free agency and — barring a dramatic mood shift — the Warriors and Thompson are more than prepared for his fairly imminent departure from the Bay Area. So prepared, an NBA source indicated this weekend, that some cordial goodbyes have been shared between Klay and high-ranking members of the Warriors’ organization.

And Paul George, the Warriors’ home run target for acquisition this offseason, wiped out the final year of his contract with the LA Clippers and became an unrestricted free agent, which basically cut off any realistic path for the Warriors because they don’t have the cap room to sign him as a free agent.

This came after very serious negotiations among the Warriors, George and the Clippers all the way through Saturday afternoon’s deadline for George’s contract decision and after the Warriors believed — several times — that they were on the verge of landing the 34-year-old small forward, team sources said.

The Warriors had agreed to give George a max, four-year extension upon arrival. They believed they had proposed several variations of a trade that the Clippers could and would accept. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green were 100 percent on board. George gave strong indications he wanted to join the Warriors. But the Clippers never agreed to any version of a trade, and now George is a free agent and essentially beyond the Warriors’ reach.

That’s a lot to go down, all before the start of free agency Sunday. And the current big-board tally is that the Warriors are about to lose one of their three dynastic players and one of the most popular athletes in Bay Area history, they didn’t acquire the great two-way wing they were pursuing, they’ve dangled Andrew Wiggins among others in trade talks, and they now have to decide whether to guarantee Chris Paul’s $30 million contract for next season and figure out whether they can move it in a trade.

No net gains. One foundational loss. So much left to do. And all that’s at stake is the final stage of Curry’s prime.

The Warriors don’t have the cap room to sign Paul George, seen here with Luka Doncic, as a free agent. (Jerome Miron / USA Today)

Let’s take a point-by-point look at what happened over the last few days and how that sets up what the Warriors will try to do next:

• Any possible PG13 trade between the Warriors and Clippers was always going to be complicated, but Warriors executives thought they’d solved the puzzle. From what I’ve heard, some combination (but definitely not all) of Wiggins, CP3, Jonathan Kuminga or Moses Moody plus one future first-round pick were put into discussions with the Clippers.

There were versions that would’ve limited the Clippers’ long-term money liability; there were versions that would’ve increased the future benefits. I’m told the Warriors likely would not have put Wiggins and Kuminga together into any offer, but also that it never got that far, anyway. If that’s what would’ve closed the deal … who knows.

My understanding is that the money concerns weighed heavily on the Clippers’ side. If PG13 leaves as a free agent, they get nothing back … but they also get out from the second apron and have more roster maneuverability.

• If the Warriors had put Kuminga into a package for George, that would’ve been a risk all itself. The Warriors would’ve given up their most valuable young player for an older player who has had injury issues and would’ve been owed more than $260 million through the next five years, which would’ve essentially locked the Warriors into the luxury tax.

But PG13 would’ve been an immediate and elite 1B scoring option next to Curry, far better than anybody the Warriors have had in that role in years, and he could’ve drawn most of the toughest perimeter defensive assignments. Who will step into those shoes for the Warriors now? Maybe Kuminga will get some of it. Maybe Moody. Maybe Brandin Podziemski, too. It’s all a work in progress. The Boston Celtics proved again that playoff series are won by tough, two-way wings, and the Warriors still are pretty needy in that category. That’s why they tried so hard for George.

• There will be time later for many full ruminations on Thompson’s incredible legacy with the Warriors, and he deserves every single one of them. Game 6 in Oklahoma City by itself probably deserves about 100 of them. Coming back to shoot the free throws — and hobble back on defense! — after he blew out his ACL in the 2019 finals should get a thousand more memorials.

I’ll just note that, in retrospect, a lot of his actions and emotions in the last few months of last season probably were signals he was getting ready to move on, from his repeated snappy news conference moments to his struggles to adapt to his throttled-down significance on court to that last evening after the last regular-season game at Chase Center, when he walked around the locker room asking his teammates to come ride on his boat with him.

CP3 and Moody took him up on it, partly because it’s obviously an honor to ride on that boat with Thompson, but also, I thought, because they knew it was important to him on that night that they did.

• Thompson didn’t love his experience last season and said so. Many times. He didn’t love getting moved to the bench for a few games behind Podziemski. He didn’t love the questions we asked about his future. He didn’t love the national attention on his occasional struggles, obviously including his 0-for-10 shooting night in the Play-In loss to the Sacramento Kings. He really didn’t love that the Warriors put a higher priority on figuring out how to upgrade the roster than on bringing him back this offseason.

Largely, I think Thompson didn’t love being compared with himself from another era, before his two major leg injuries, when he could guard anybody and turn any game into a personal piece of NBA shooting history. He wanted a fresh start. He’s going to get one. He’s also going to come to Chase Center with his new team and want to beat the Warriors; maybe not bitterly, maybe a bit bitterly, but it will be fun to watch.

• Thompson likely wasn’t going to be a starter if he remained with the Warriors this season. It was going to be Podziemski. Or Moody. Or somebody else. I’m not sure Thompson wanted to go through that again, and I’m guessing the Warriors wouldn’t have loved it, either. It seems like a cold conclusion to this unbelievable tenure, but it was inevitable.

The Warriors will not be better without Thompson. They will miss his shooting, his personality, his wry humor and everything. He’ll have a statue outside the arena. He’ll always be warmly received anywhere there are Warriors fans. Yes, the Warriors will miss him. But they are going to get something in a sign-and-trade deal, with Thompson’s permission, when he leaves, and maybe they will not be a whole lot worse for this. They will be younger and probably more athletic.

And we’ll see what else they can add in the next week or so.

• The Warriors can use the CP3 contract as a version of a trade exception — they can negotiate with Paul to put the guarantee at any amount agreeable to both sides and use that to balance out a trade, if there’s a good one out there.

If the Warriors can’t find a trade, they can release CP3, get under the aprons and the luxury tax and maybe even under the cap line (depending on what kind of money they take back in a possible Thompson sign-and-trade). They can see what else they can get for Wiggins. As it stands, they’ll have the taxpayer midlevel exception of $5.2 million and could access the nontaxpayer midlevel of $12.9 million if they move Wiggins and get much less money in return.

• I’ll use one more Thompson quote from that seminal end-of-season news conference to close this. Thompson was asked for his reaction to Curry, Draymond and Steve Kerr all saying how much they wanted him back. Again, Thompson said these words in April, but they feel especially fitting right now.

“It means a lot,” Thompson said. “I mean, we’ve been through the highest of highs and lows. Whether it’s losing a championship, winning a championship, missing the playoffs, we’ve been through everything together, so that does mean a lot. It makes me grateful to have the times I’ve had with them. Like, that was pretty historic stuff.”

Yes, it was. Past tense now.

(Top photo of Klay Thompson: Rocky Widner / NBAE via Getty Images)

First appeared on www.nytimes.com

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