The nascent Golden State Warriors dynasty was built on Stephen Curry’s below-market contract. Even after Klay Thompson and Draymond Green signed more lucrative deals, the Warriors could still fit Kevin Durant under a burgeoning salary cap because the two-time MVP was earning half his worth.
So, when Curry became a free agent this past July, it seemed all but a formality that he would sign a five-year, $201 million super-max extension that was long overdue. He eventually did, but there was reportedly one holdout before Golden State put the contract on the table: Warriors owner Joe Lacob.
As the Warriors prepared for the postseason, Warriors owner Joe Lacob was considering offering Curry a contract below the max, even though Curry has been one of the most underpaid players in all of sports over the last three seasons. Warriors general manager Bob Myers kept Lacob from bringing a reduced offer to the negotiating table, but it was enough of a thing that Myers reassured Curry of the franchise’s commitment.
Curry knew there were mumblings of possibly asking him to take less than the max. He brushed it off as meaningless until it was actually time to sign. The last thing he wanted was his contract becoming a storyline and possible distraction during the playoffs.
The Warriors stormed through the playoffs to a second championship in three years, and Curry got his money the moment free agency opened on July 1, so Lacob’s intentions never even became an issue.
But it speaks to how lucky the owner has been to have players who think nothing of earning below-market wages, even as his team’s value multiplies more than fivefold from the $450 million he paid for it in 2010 to a $2.6 billion appraisal by Forbes magazine that is probably extremely conservative.
Take Kevin Durant as Exhibit B. The Finals MVP accepted nearly $10 million less than the max, signing for $25 million this season — a move that allowed the Warriors to retain Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston on higher salaries under the NBA’s complicated salary cap structure. This is, of course, Durant’s right, and it helps the Warriors remain a title favorite, which benefits them all in the long run.
In fact, Curry told The Athletic in August he offered to take a pay cut if it helped keep the core together. Because the Warriors owned Curry’s Bird Rights and could exceed the salary cap to sign him — an exception that did not apply to Durant — any discount that wasn’t outright ludicrous would not have made retaining role players easier. Which means Lacob’s desire to offer Curry less than the max was about nothing more than saving a few bucks. (The City of Oakland can sympathize with Curry.)
“I actually asked Bob,” Curry told The Athletic a month after re-signing. “If I were to take a discount — at any number, I don’t know what it would be — how much of a difference would that make for us to be able to sign other guys. It wasn’t like (Kevin Durant’s) situation. His had a direct impact on us being able to sign Andre (Iguodala) and Shaun (Livingston). And it was just an unbelievable sacrifice by KD. But mine didn’t matter.”
Thompson is next in line for a raise, and many teams hope his is the contract that breaks up this Warriors core. The All-Star guard’s four-year, $70 million deal is up in 2019, when he will be 29 years old and fielding max contract offers from around the league. Durant can also be a free agent two years from now, and Green’s contract runs through 2020. The Warriors will own Bird Rights on all of them and could keep that quartet if they’re willing to pay luxury taxes and foot a half-billion-dollar payroll.
However, if Myers is to believed, and the Warriors went “way over” Lacob’s budget for this offseason, there is a breaking point, and Golden State’s other All-Stars would also have to start taking discounts to ensure they stay together, since Curry will start making more than $40 million annually in 2019. And Thompson says he will be open to accepting less than a max contract to make it happen — to a point.
When asked on The Athletic’s Plus/Minus podcast if he would follow Durant’s lead, Thompson said:
“I probably could, yeah. That much? I don’t know. I don’t make as much as Kevin off the court. … If it’s a few million. It’s a blessing whatever contract I sign, but it’s something I would definitely consider, because I don’t want to lose anybody.”
Thompson, who just signed an $80 million shoe contract with Anta, added on the podcast, “I have no intention of leaving. I own a home here. I have roots here. I don’t really see myself leaving, and I’d like to play for the Warriors as long as I can. It’s special when someone can play for one franchise for as long as they can. People still ask me about free agency. That’s two years away. I’m not even worried about that. I’m just going to enjoy this year, and when that time comes, we’ll talk about it, obviously.”
That Myers assembled a roster full of guys who are willing to accept discounts is nothing short of remarkable, given the size of NBA egos. Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland three years into his partnership with LeBron James. It took four years to fracture the Miami Heat’s Big Three, all of whom accepted pay cuts for a period. Tim Duncan repeatedly accepted below-market deals to ensure the San Antonio Spurs dynasty stayed afloat, as has Dirk Nowitzki on the Dallas Mavericks with less success. We shall see how long these Warriors are willing to follow this trend into the super-team era.
It’s also incredible that NBA players gave back a significant portion of the league’s income to the owners in the 2011 lockout and accepted the same 50-50 split upon extending the collective bargaining agreement in January, knowing it now takes pay cuts for teams to build competitive roster.
Now is where we point out Lacob’s ownership group took home a league-high $92 million last season, according to ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe. Curry made $56 million in the first eight years of his NBA career before Lacob wanted to offer him a below-market contract. Good thing Myers talked him out of it.
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