December 13, 2009

Franchise Fix #4: Select A Core

Okay. So in this alternate universe where we, the Golden State Worriers braintrust (i.e. two layabout dudes), have taken control of the team, we've been moving quickly. We officially sent Nellie packing. We made a tactical decision to take more three-pointers. Most recently, we made a broader strategic decision to target 2011-2012 as the year for which we will assemble a truly viable team.

The next step? Figuring out which guys to bring along with us. This is Franchise Fix #4: choosing a nucleus of young players to prioritize. That doesn't mean we'll stick with these guys no matter what happens; it doesn't mean that other guys can't supplant them by outplaying them for significant stretches; it doesn't even mean that we won't trade them if the right deal comes along. But it does mean that, as long as they're Warriors, these guys come first. Whether it's the playing time (or lack thereof) they need to develop, or strategic alignments that simplify their tasks and emphasize their strengths, everything we do in the next sixteen months should be with an eye towards evaluating and enhancing the abilities of our core.

So, who makes the cut? Let's start out all friendly-like, by giving everybody a look. Our current injury-expanded roster: Kelenna Azubuike, Raja Bell, Andris Biedrins, Speedy Claxton, Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, Devean George, Chris Hunter, Corey Maggette, Mikki Moore, Anthony Morrow, Vladimir Radmanovic, Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf, C.J. Watson, and Brandan Wright. We'll weed out as we go, using rock-solid, objective rules that I just devised.

1) The core must not include anyone who can't reasonably be expected to play good basketball in the future. That crosses out Speedy, George, Mikki and Vlad... I don't think any of those choices should prove controversial. Hunter may qualify here too, but he's cheap and untradeable this year (due to signing so late), so there's no real reason to cut him just yet. We're down to twelve: 'Buike, Raja, Biedrins, Curry, Monta, Hunter, Maggette, Morrow, Randolph, Turiaf, CJ and Wright.

2) The core must not include anyone on the downside of their careers. That removes Raja and Maggette. I enjoyed Raja's 23 minutes against the Celtics as much as the next guy -- he's not a guy we should put into any plans. We've Derek Fishered ourselves enough lately. Maggette is playing as well as ever, but relying on him as a big contributor in two years, when he's 32 and even more banged-up, is a dicey proposition. Corey, I luv ya... you're not part of our core. (We'll talk about what to do with him in a future Fix.) The core shrinks to ten: 'Buike, Biedrins, Curry, Monta, Hunter, Morrow, Randolph, Turiaf, CJ and Wright.

3) The core must not include anyone who has sent multiple angsty Tweets begging the team to let him leave.

Indeed, CJ. You have been an excellent and undervalued Warrior, but you will, and should, leave us. Vaya con Dios, friend.

I, um... okay. Anyway, the next


So we're down to nine: 'Buike, Biedrins, Curry, Monta, Hunter, Morrow, Randolph, Turiaf and Wright.

4) The core should not include any player who's clearly inferior to a core member at the same position. This is where it starts to get tricky, as we don't have many players with obvious, natural positions, and it's pretty hard to rank some of these guys in terms of potential. But I think this filter pretty clearly removes Hunter and Turiaf. I love Ronny. Love Ronny. But he's not as useful as Biedrins or Randolph, and lacks the upside of a healthy Wright. We don't have to trade Ronny -- his contract's small, and he's a nice complementary piece if we happen to get decent -- but he's not in our real core. And really, Brandan Wright gets axed here, too. Nobody has sung his praises online more endlessly than me, and I am by no means advocating that we dump him. He has the potential to be really, really good with better health luck, and ideally, we'll be able to convince him to stick around when the time comes. But if it comes down to Randolph vs. Wright -- and on a sheer minutes level, it does -- the choice is Randolph, risks and all.

So we're down to six players -- Azubuike, Biedrins, Curry, Monta, Morrow, and Randolph. Six players. They're all young -- 'Buike turns 26 this week, the others are all 24 or younger. They all do several things well; they all could at least plausibly improve from here. It's a damn nice nucleus for a team. But as Blazers and Bulls teams of recent years have shown, it's actually pretty hard to develop this many guys at once... minutes you give Morrow, for instance, are necessarily taken from Azubuike or Curry or Monta. We need to know, in our heart of hearts, when push comes to shove, when the chips are down and the cliches run hot and heavy, which of these guys we care about most. We need to get down to a core of four or five. To do that, we'll use the final filter:

5) The core would ideally include players over whom we have significant leverage. This point has gone underdiscussed in projections of our future: we can not rest our destiny on the shoulders of guys who are free to leave. If you have a guy locked up for a long time (Monta, Biedrins), beautiful -- you can count him as part of your core. If he's going to hit restricted free agency (Randolph, Curry), there's a little more risk, but really you should be able to keep him around. But you're really rolling the dice if you build around guys on the verge of unrestricted free agency. And of these six, two fit that description: Azubuike and Morrow are both unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2011. ('Buike could actually opt out this summer, but his knee injury probably makes that a longshot.)

Having said that, if you really focus on one impending UFA, and shower him with minutes and love and attention, you may be able to keep him around. The Warriors have been pretty transparent about wanting to keep Morrow here, and it's possible that he's receptive to that. Similarly, 'Buike could enjoy the style and the balmy Oakland weather and want to re-up. It may be possible to include one of these guys in our plans, but not both... they'll inevitably compete for minutes, and relying on two UFAs is too risky.

Which guy is more worth including? Morrow's certainly in the lead. He's the younger and healthier guy, and more plausibly loyal to the organization -- 'Buike did sign with the Clippers two summers ago (not that I begrudge it, given the draconian rules for RFAs). And while both players are likeable and popular, Morrow seems to have a strong connection with both his teammates and the Oracle crowd... that is, while not a huge variable, a variable. But I see no reason to call this case settled yet. 'Buike was playing the best basketball of his life when he went down, and, critically, was our best defender; it's also not like he's a slouch at shooting threes. There is no rush on choosing one or the other of these guys... barring a surprise decision from 'Buike, both will be here through the spring of '11, giving us plenty of time to evaluate their abilities and likelihood of extending.

So that settles it. Our core is Andris Biedrins, Monta Ellis, Anthony Randolph and Stephen Curry, plus possibly either Anthony Morrow or Kelenna Azubuike, depending on how those two develop from here. Starting today in SchlubsInChargeLand, we are focused more on developing their skills than on winning games or keeping people happy. If things get hinky -- Biedrins can't stay healthy, the Curry/Monta backcourt proves unworkable, Randolph's brain explodes -- we can re-jigger. But we will not re-jigger casually... a week of poor play doesn't just force any of these guys out, and a week of good play doesn't just get anyone else in. Patience is the order of the day here.

So we have a new coach, a new offensive strategy, a timeline, and a nucleus. Next, we'll tweak things around that nucleus.

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