Kawakami: Inside the Warriors’ failed bid for Paul George, and Klay Thompson’s inevitable departure

You don’t have to wait for documentaries and years of context to understand this: Saturday night’s events will go down as the defining moment of a season at the threshold of a rather important part of Golden State Warriors history.

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

Klay Thompson is set for free agency and — barring a dramatic shift in mood — the Warriors and Thompson are more than prepared for his somewhat imminent departure from the Bay Area. Fully prepared, an NBA source noted this weekend, some friendly farewells were shared between Clay and high-ranking members of the Warriors organization.

Paul George, the Warriors’ main acquisition target this offseason, also wiped out the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Clippers and became an unrestricted free agent, cutting off any realistic path for the Warriors because they don’t have the salary cap space to sign him as a free agent.

This came after very serious negotiations between the Warriors, George and the Clippers leading up to Saturday afternoon’s deadline for George’s contract decision and after the Warriors believed — multiple times — that they were close to signing the 34-year-old small forward, according to team sources.

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

That’s a lot to say, all before free agency begins on Sunday. The current tally suggests the Warriors are on the verge of losing one of their three dynasty players and one of the most celebrated athletes in Bay Area history, didn’t get the great two-way wing they were after, got Andrew Wiggins among others stuck in trade talks, and now have to decide whether to guarantee Chris Paul’s $30 million contract for next season and see if they can move him in a trade.

No net gain. One fundamental loss. Too much to do. And all that’s at stake is the final stretch of Carrie’s peak.

The Warriors don’t have enough cap space to sign Paul George, shown here with Luka Doncic, as a free agent. (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY)

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

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• Any potential PG13 deal between the Warriors and Clippers is always going to be complicated, but Warriors executives thought they had solved the puzzle. From what I’ve heard, a combination (but certainly not all) of Wiggins, CP3, Jonathan Kuminga or Moses Moody plus a future first-round pick are in discussions with the Clippers.

There were versions that would limit the Clippers’ long-term financial liability. There were versions that would increase future benefits. I was told the Warriors were unlikely to put Wiggins and Kuminga together in any deal, but it also didn’t get to that point anyway. If that’s what might have sealed the deal … who knows.

I think the financial concerns weighed heavily on the Clippers. If BG13 leaves as a free agent, they won’t get anything in return… but they’ll also get a second-string player out and have more roster maneuverability.

• Had the Warriors traded Kuminga for George, it would have been a risk in itself. The Warriors would have traded their most valuable young player for an older player with injury issues who would have been worth more than $260 million over the next five years, essentially tying the Warriors to a luxury tax.

But PG13 would have been an instant, elite scoring option at first base next to Curry, far better than anyone the Warriors have had in that role in years, and could have pulled off most of the tougher perimeter defensive assignments. Who will replace this shoe for the Warriors now? Maybe Kuminga will get some of that. Maybe Modi. Maybe Brandin Podzemski too. This is all a work in progress. The Boston Celtics have proven once again that playoff series are won by strong two-way wings, and the Warriors are still in dire need of that class. That’s why they tried so hard to get George.

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• There will be time for many more full reflections on Thompson’s incredible legacy with the Warriors later, and he deserves every one of them. Game 6 in Oklahoma City alone was probably worth about 100 of them. Back to shooting free throws – and back to defending! – After injuring his anterior cruciate ligament in the 2019 finals, you should have a thousand more memories.

I’ll just point out that in retrospect, many of his actions and emotions in the final few months of last season were probably signs that he was preparing to move on, from his frequent press conference moments to his struggles to adjust to his reduced importance on the court to that final night after the last regular-season game at Chase Center, when he walked around the locker room and asked his teammates to come ride in his boat with him.

CP3 and Moody took it upon himpartly because it was obviously an honor to be on that boat with Thompson, but also, I thought, because they knew it was important to him that night that they did it.

• Thompson didn’t like his experience last season, and he said so multiple times. He didn’t like being benched for so many games behind Podziemski. He didn’t like the questions we asked him about his future. He didn’t like the national attention he received for his occasional struggles, including, of course, his 0-of-10 shooting night in the Finals loss to the Sacramento Kings. truly I didn’t like that the Warriors put a higher priority on figuring out how to upgrade the roster than bringing him back this season.

By and large, I think Thompson didn’t like being compared to himself in another era, before his two major leg injuries, when he could guard anyone and turn any game into a personal piece of NBA shooting history. He wanted a fresh start. He’ll get one. He’s also coming to Chase Center with his new team and wants to beat the Warriors; Maybe not bitterly, maybe a little bitterly, but it will be fun to watch.

• Thompson likely won’t be a starter if he stays with the Warriors this season. It was supposed to be Podzemsky. Or Modi. Or someone else. I’m not sure Thompson would have wanted to go through that again, and I suspect the Warriors wouldn’t have liked it either. It seems like a cold end to this incredible period, but it was inevitable.

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The Warriors wouldn’t be better off without Thompson. They will miss his shooting, his personality, his sarcastic sense of humor and everything else. A statue of him will be erected outside the stadium. He will always receive a warm reception wherever Warriors fans are. Yes, the Warriors will miss him. But they’ll get something in a trade, with Thompson’s permission, when he’s gone, and they probably won’t be much worse off because of it. They will become younger and perhaps fitter.

We’ll see what they can add in the next week or so.

• The Warriors can use the CP3 contract as a version of the trade exception – they can negotiate with Paul to put the collateral in any amount that both sides agree to and use that to balance the trade, if there is a good deal.

If the Warriors can’t find a trade, they could release CP3, get under the apron and the luxury tax and maybe even under the cap line (depending on what kind of money they get back in a potential Thompson signing and trade). They could see what else they could get in exchange for Wiggins. As it stands, they’d have the $5.2 million taxpayer mid-level exception and could get to the $12.9 million non-taxpayer mid-level if they traded Wiggins and got significantly less money in return.

• I’ll use another quote from Thompson from that important season-ending press conference to close this topic. Thompson was asked for his reaction to Curry, Draymond and Steve Kerr saying how much they wanted him back. Back in April, Thompson said those words, but they seem especially appropriate now.

“It means a lot,” Thompson said. “I mean, we’ve been through the highs and lows. Whether it’s losing a championship, winning a championship, not making the playoffs, we’ve been through it all together, so it means a lot. It makes me feel grateful for the times I got to spend with them. They were really historic moments.”

Yes it was. Past tense now.

(Top image of Klay Thompson: Rocky Widener/NBAE via Getty Images)

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