There has been a growing impatience among the Golden State fan base, grumbling that the Warriors’ new ownership lacks a grander vision, the guts to break up a failing team and the ability to put together a roster that might back up the boasts of coach Mark Jackson. That kind of skepticism comes with grand entrances and big promises, and it grows when you do things like use the amnesty provision on Charlie Bell’s $4 million expiring deal instead of Andris Biedrins’ $9 million annual sunk cost.
But look carefully, and you can see something: Golden State was in on Tyson Chandler until the last moment. They amnestied Bell to chase DeAndre Jordan. When that failed, they used their cap space on Kwame Brown, a solid, if overrated, post defender. The message was clear: We know we need a stud, defense-first center to cover for Stephen Curry and David Lee, and we’re skeptical that Ekpe Udoh, a defense-first lottery pick with an outstanding plus/minus two years running, is going to develop into a 36-minutes-per-game, two-way player fast enough to achieve our goals.
And so on Tuesday, the Warriors acted boldly in trading Udoh, Brown’s expiring deal and Monta Ellis, a beloved player in Golden State, to Milwaukee for Andrew Bogut and the toxic contract of Stephen Jackson. The move creates major 2012-13 cap savings for the Bucks, who save nearly $10 million in 2012-13 salary and could get down to about $45 million on the books for next season, even without using the amnesty provision. It has the potential to help Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference playoff race (thus hurting the Knicks) and torpedo Golden State’s slim playoff chances, making it more likely that the Warriors keep the top-seven protected first-round pick they would otherwise owe Utah. The Warriors weren’t doing any damage in the playoffs this season, and any move that increases their chances of keeping that pick in a loaded draft is a smart one.
This is a fascinating NBA trade, in part because it carries so much uncertainty in both directions — Bogut’s health, Curry’s ankle woes, Udoh’s development and Ellis’ fit with both Brandon Jennings and Scott Skiles. Bogut has suffered two freak injuries in the last two years, and while those injuries are more the product of awful luck than Bogut’s being “injury-prone,” he has never been the same offensive player he was before the gruesome right arm injury he suffered late in the 2009-10 season.
Offense is not Bogut’s strong suit, but in that season, he averaged 16 points per game on 52 percent shooting and emerged as a consistent offensive threat. He could finish with both hands in the pick-and-roll, score with his back to the basket on nifty hooks, draw double-teams in the post and pass at an elite level for his position. He wasn’t an “A” offensive player even then, but a legit 7-foot center who can bring “B”-level offense and stands as one of the half-dozen best defensive players in the league can be a transformational force.
Bogut has never been the same since that injury. He has shot under 50 percent from both the field and the foul line over the last two seasons combined, and was only beginning to look comfortable using his right hand again before breaking his ankle against the Rockets this season. The Bucks’ offense has improved without him, but its defense has fallen apart.
If the Warriors get the Bogut we saw in 2009-10, my gut says they will “win” this trade in the end–especially when you consider so many of Western Conference’s old lions are in a state of flux or decline. But Bogut is the biggest “if” of many in this deal. The trade reminds me in a way of the Mavericks’ play for Tyson Chandler before last season, in that some Warriors fans are probably saying, “That’s it? That’s all we got for Monta Ellis? A slow-footed big man with a scary injury history and a big contract?”
Dallas fans said the same when Mark Cuban turned Erick Dampier’s non-guaranteed deal, thought to be perhaps the most appealing asset on the trade market at the time, into an injury-prone, defense-first center who couldn’t stay healthy. Then they won the championship. That kind of reward is not happening here in the near future, but this is the kind “if all goes right” deal that could improve the Warriors more than expected.
As for Jackson’s contract, the work of the Warriors in 2008, acquiring a disgruntled 33-year-old who reportedly wants a contact extension was the price of doing business with Milwaukee. Jackson’s $10 million deal for next season essentially caps out the Warriors, though it at least gives them the flexibility to wave goodbye to Brandon Rush, a free agent shooting the lights out this season, if they choose to do so. They could still have had cap room, of course, had they used the amnesty provision on Biedrins, but perhaps it’s time to stop bringing that up.
The most painful price of doing business, in terms of on-court talent, may well be Udoh. He’s at least two inches shorter than Bogut and thus not a “true center,” but the Warriors have played top-10-level defense with him on the floor in each of the last two seasons, per Basketball Value.
That may not sound like much, but when you consider Golden State ranked among the bottom five in points allowed per possession in both of those seasons, you realize something really interesting might be going on here. Udoh is a willing defender with smart feet and a wingspan longer than those of several taller players, and he has lately flashed an improving offensive game. He’s not an explosive pick-and-roll threat at the rim — not even close — but he has a steady mid-range jumper, and the Warriors have been going to him on the block with solid results. He is a very nice (and cheap) get for the Bucks, who are suffering with the game but overmatched Drew Gooden and Ersan Ilyasova splitting minutes at center.
It is not a stretch to say some in the Warriors organization are probably sadder about surrendering Udoh than they are about Ellis, though that could reverse itself if Curry’s right ankle continues to fail him. The Ellis/Curry experiment simply didn’t work, though it worked much better when Udoh was holding the fort at center instead of Biedrins. The Warriors were a worse team, in terms of scoring margin, with Ellis on the floor in each of the last three seasons, and it will be fascinating to watch if that trend reverses itself in a new setting.
Ellis brings lots of good, useful skills, and his awful on-court/off-court differentials result in part from him playing so many minutes — he’s always among the league’s top five or so in minutes played — for sub-.500 team featuring two other sub-par defenders around him in Curry and Lee. Curry’s defense has been so bad, in fact, that Ellis has usually had the task of defending whichever opposing guard is most threatening, whether it’s a top-level point guard (Chris Paul) or a 6-8 shooting guard, such as Joe Johnson, against whom Ellis has little chance.
The Warriors, for what it’s worth, have taken more shots in the restricted area and earned more free throws with Ellis on the floor this season, per NBA.com‘s stats database. He has been posting up more this season, and has been effective there both one-on-one and running low pick-and-rolls with Lee–who, by the way, gets better and better offensively every season. Ellis remains a chucker addicted to the long two-point jump shot –only five guards take more such shots per minute this season — but he has never played more unselfishly than he has this season, in posting career-best assist numbers. His defensive flaws and bad habits are real, but they have been exacerbated in Golden State, where he must do far too much.
The Bucks, on the other hand, have a wide array of versatile wing players capable of either swinging between the guard spots or wing positions — Beno Udrih, the 6-7 Shaun Livingston, Carlos Delfino, Mike Dunleavy and Tobias Harris. Toss in Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, capable of defending shooting guards and power forwards alike, and you can envision Skiles finding a way to minimize Ellis’ issues on defense. Some teams have weapons at point guard and both wing positions, but many teams play lots of minutes with a limited offensive player somewhere on the perimeter. The Bucks are better-equipped to hide Ellis on such players than the Warriors were, even with Rush on board. The Ellis/Jennings combination is probably not going to help anyone’s defense, but it doesn’t have to be fatal, either.
Few have noticed, but on offense the Bucks have turned into a pretty dynamic passing team this season. They rank sixth in assist rate, up from 23rd last season, and if Ellis can share nicely, the Bucks could have a pretty dynamic drive-and-kick offense with average perimeter shooters holding down every position at times. If Udoh helps the defense, the Bucks will be a tough out every night. Considering Bogut and Jackson were contributing essentially nothing — for very different reasons — it’s hard to imagine this trade does anything but help the Bucks in the short-term. Hear that, Melo?
The long-term is where it gets interesting. You can see the long-term vision in Golden State, tenuous as it is, given the health issues of Curry and Bogut. It’s murkier in Milwaukee, but that’s fine, considering the cap savings it has built up here. The Bucks don’t know if the Jennings/Ellis backcourt can really work in the long run, and they don’t know whether Udoh will ever be skilled enough on offense to justify playing 40 minutes a night in games that matter. Golden State was confident Udoh might eventually develop into that kind of player, and if he does, the Bucks have something. But the upside isn’t quite as high here as it is in Golden State. But where the “upside” lies on the day of a major trade means little. Let’s see how it plays out.