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Hope for the Hopeless

In the summer of 2004, Chris Mullin went on a spending spree as the new General Manager of the Golden State Warriors.  Between July 14th and November 1st, he laid out an astounding $207M in Warrior treasure for Adonal Foyle, Derek Fisher, Troy Murphy and Jason Richardson, signing all four of them to 6 year deals.  (To be fair, the final year of Foyle's deal was a team option.)  In that same summer, he exercised an option on Mike Dunleavy Jr. and signed him for 5/$45M a year later, bringing the new contract tab for those 5 players to $252M.

For the record, that makes:

Adonal Foyle, 7/14/04, 6/$42M
Derek Fisher, 7/16/04, 6/$37M
Troy Murphy, 11/1/04, 6/$58M
Jason Richardson, 11/1/04, 6/$70M
Mike Dunleavy Jr, 10/31/05, 5/$45M

Mullin now had 5 players, a point guard, a shooting guard, a small forward, a power forward and a center, locked into big money contracts through the summer of 2010.  The Warriors could start this team together for six seasons.  There was only one problem.  Only one of these guys (Jason Richardson) was a legitimate NBA starter.

Mullin had managed to commit almost $9M in salary per player-year in these 5 contracts.  The fact that four of the five players were NBA backups ON THEIR BEST DAYS (I'm looking at you Adonal) did not seem to faze him.  At the time, I remember thinking that he had doomed the team to mediocrity for the remainder of a decade if not beyond.  

In the summer of '06, Fisher was dealt to the Jazz.  In January of '07, Murphy and Junior were shipped off to Indiana.  This June, Richardson was traded to Charlotte.  And a few days ago Foyle's contract was bought out.  Three years into the six year plan, none of these players are left.  The Warriors managed to get rid of each and every one of them, both the stars and the (Jessica) albatrosses.  (Although of course they didn't really get rid of Foyle - they just paid him to go away.)

And yet somehow, expectations are high in Oaktown.  It's quite a tale of redemption, to be able to make the playoffs in the third season after so disastrous a set of moves, and to be poised on the brink of the most anticipated season in 20 years after giving up on five cornerstones (I guess there were building a Pentagon).  How did they do it?  What did they get for these overpaid assets?

In the case of Fisher, they simply found a team that was willing to pay him what they signed him for.  He was traded for two players the Warriors waived, and a third they used as filler in the Indiana trade.  Essentially, they paid Fish for two seasons with no further damage done.

Trading Murphy and Junior was of course the coup.  Exchanging the 'gritty' and 'cerebral' (code for white) pair for the 'volatile' and 'free-wheeling' (code for black) Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson transformed the Dubs into the surprise team of the 2007 playoffs - a team that knocked off the number 1 seed in the West in 6 games, an unprecedented feat.  Of course, they also had to give up a talented prospect in Ike Diogu, but unless and until Jackson melts down and (a) gets thrown in jail, (b) gets suspended indefinitely or (c) simply runs far enough afoul of Don Nelson that he is no longer welcome, this trade ranks as the most lopsided deal since Elton Brand swapped places with Tyson Chandler.  The Warriors got rid of horrific contracts AND got good players in return.  It hardly seems possible.

Trading Richardson is the fly in the ointment of course.  The irony is that the one contract out of the five that wasn't flat ludicrous is the one they had to reluctantly trade for some salary relief.  Exchanging Richardson's $11M this season for Brandan Wright's $2M will keep the Warriors from paying the luxury tax, and that is why they did it, plain and simple.  Sure, Brandan Wright is a nice prospect.  But ask Warriors fans what they think about trading the heart and soul of the team for six seasons after a magical playoff run that was ignited when JRich came back early from knee surgery.  Keeping Richardson would have allowed the Warriors to begin the season with a starting lineup that went 16-4 to end the season and won the first playoff series for the franchise since 1991.  Who wouldn't want to keep that going?  Yes, the Warriors prospects look better now than they did in 2004.  But Richardson is definitely a casualty of the mistakes that were made that summer.

Still, it's an interesting case study, proving that bad front office moves (even stupendously bad ones like Mullin made in 2004) don't have to be fatal.  Interestingly, the Warriors have managed to change their fortunes significantly without high draft picks.  Ike Diogu (gone) and Patrick O'Bryant (a non-factor thus far) were both drafted 9th.  Monta Ellis was a steal in the second round, and Marco Bellinelli looks like a steal at 18 based on summer league, but they certainly haven't gotten any love in the lottery to enable a turnaround.  More than anything, it has been their willingness to take chances that has paid off so far.  Baron Davis looked overpaid and Reidel-Crystal-fragile when they acquired him in 2005.  And let's face it, there's a reason the Pacers were willing to take on the obviously bloated contracts of Murphy and Dunleavy.  Stephen Jackson's trade value was, to state the obvious, depressed.  But both acquisitions have paid huge dividends so far.  

So I guess there's reason for hope, even for fans of seemingly moribund NBA teams.  Actually, this season is one of the most interesting in recent memory from the standpoint of team outlooks.  With teams like the Celtics, Suns, Heat and Pistons loaded with aging superstars and bloated payrolls, they are all in the position where they have to win NOW or risk starting over completely.  Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, a team like the Sonics has little hope of winning even 30 games this season, but with young signed talent and lots of cap space on the horizon, they can hope that the future is significantly brighter.  Even Minnesota can at least hope.  (I just looked at Minnesota's roster again.  I take it back.  They can't even hope.  Unless the Warriors will trade them Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson for Marko Jaric and Mark Blount.)