I can hear it now.
The Warriors are playing the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2023 NBA Playoffs and Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is giving them fits.
“Man, what the Warriors wouldn’t give for a great perimeter defender right now,” some talking head will say.
And I will gladly point that talking head to the night of June 30, when the Warriors let Gary Payton II leave town and sign a reported three-year, $28 million contract with the Portland Trail Blazers.
The most important thing in the NBA today is shooting. The second most important thing is perimeter defense.
The Warriors have good perimeter defenders, with Andrew Wiggins standing out following his outstanding postseason. But Payton II was the best of them all.
The Warriors might have signed Donte DiVincenzo on Friday — he’s a nice two-guard with some serious defensive upside — but they have no obvious replacement for Payton II, who could defend the quick first step of Morant or give 6-foot-10 wing Jayson Tatum fits. That’s because Payton II, himself, was not an obvious player for the Warriors to have.
Good on the 29-year-old guard for getting paid. Remember, this was a player who was cut by the Warriors before the season started so he could be re-signed as the team’s 15th man. So little was expected from him, but so much was given.
He deserves every cent of that new contract he has in Portland.
But the Warriors should have been smart enough to give him the same deal (or better) to stay in San Francisco.
Not only is Payton II one of the few players in the NBA who can reasonably defend Morant — who appears poised to become the Warriors’ biggest rival, if he isn’t already — but he was also a linchpin for the Warriors on offense.
His reinsertion into the lineup in the NBA Finals was critical in the Warriors winning their fourth championship in eight years. He affected winning in a big way on both sides of the court. It didn’t matter that he, at 6-foot-2, was playing power forward. It worked. The Warriors won.
And here I thought that was the priority.
The Warriors will save as much as nine figures in luxury tax because they did not re-sign Payton II. That’s why he’s leaving. Don’t let it be spun.
Unless the Warriors can find another diamond-in-the-rough this offseason, they will be relying on Moses Moody, one of their first-round draft picks from 2021, to take on Payton’s role.
Moody is an outstanding prospect and a fine player at a young age, but he is not the player you want on Morant late in a game. I don’t think DiVincenzo is that guy, either.
Team-building is so often viewed as a holistic process, especially for the Warriors. The results hang in the rafters of Chase Center. But sometimes, a team needs to be direct.
The Warriors did that in 2016, when they brought in Kevin Durant. Chemistry (or whatever else was credited for 73 regular-season wins that prior campaign) be damned, the Warriors were going to add the NBA’s best shot-maker because that’s what they needed in the playoffs.
That same mentality should have been applied to Payton.
Is it a lot of money to pay a depth player? Absolutely. But that’s the player the Warriors will need if they play Morant and the Grizzlies in the playoffs again.
The Warriors can absolutely win a title without Payton, but his impact on this latest title run will be plainly evident come next spring. The Dubs just made repeating harder on themselves.
Yes, the Warriors can throw Wiggins — one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders — out there on Morant, should the two teams play again in the postseason, but don’t forget that Wiggins was cooked by the Memphis guard last season. It’s Morant’s explosive first step that sent Wiggins spinning — few players have that kind of burst off the line.
Fewer can defend it.
But Payton II is one of those players. It took a long while for the NBA to figure that out, but the truth was unmistakable this past year, all the way into the NBA Finals.
Once again, good on Payton for getting paid. But the Warriors had him, and then they just let him go right past them. No resistance.
I have a feeling that could be a trend for next season.