Steve Kerr knows what the end of a dynasty looks like. He saw it up close in 1998, when the Chicago Bulls went through their infamous "last dance" season. Scottie Pippen wanted out. Dennis Rodman disappeared. Michael Jordan and Jerry Krause despised one another.
But according to Kerr, Chicago's demise boiled down to something much simpler. "I think ultimately the reason the Bulls were broken apart was that everyone's contract ended in 1998," Kerr said in a 2005 episode of ESPN Classic's Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame... which centered around the end of Chicago's dynasty. "I think it was unrealistic to expect the team to all of a sudden just say, 'sure, we'll put together a $100 million payroll and try to win one more championship.'"
A similar scenario is playing out for the Golden State Warriors right now. The season began with Draymond Green punching Jordan Poole. Stephen Curry got himself ejected from a game in January out of frustration with Poole. Andrew Wiggins left the team for almost two months to attend to a personal matter. General manager Bob Myers may or may not be back, and the heir apparent is assistant GM Kirk Lacob, who is the son of owner Joe Lacob. All of the same turmoil that was present in the last dance season exists for the Warriors, but all of it pales in comparison to the financial realities that are about to slap them in the face.
The Warriors are well beyond $100 million. Last season, they made NBA history by accumulating an overall payroll, including luxury taxes, of roughly $346 million. They're going to exceed that figure this season. Spotrac estimates a $360 million combined salary and tax figure for this season. Needless to say, no team in the history of North American professional sports has spent $700 million on players across two seasons.
It was worthwhile last season, when the Warriors won their fourth championship. It was the most significant of their dynasty. Their first came against a severely injured Cleveland Cavaliers team kept afloat by the brilliance of LeBron James and little else. The next two were attributed less to their own skill than the flukey 2016 cap spike that gave them Kevin Durant on a silver platter.
But the 2022 title? That one is bulletproof. It's the one that gave Curry his first Finals MVP award, and it lifted him into rarefied historic air. He now has the same number of championships as James. Only three other teams have won four titles in eight years: Michael Jordan's Bulls, Bill Russell's Celtics and Magic Johnson's Lakers. Getting into that club was worth the price of admission. The Warriors were even willing to double it to take a run at No. 5.
They came up well short. For the first time during the Kerr era, Golden State has lost a Western Conference playoff series. The Warriors won't get a refund on that enormous tax bill. They won't rake in the tens of millions of dollars in gate revenue that come with a deep playoff run either. Only championships justify the most expensive payroll in NBA history. The Warriors didn't come close.
Maybe they could next season, but the price of trying is going to rise dramatically. Unlike the Bulls, the Warriors aren't facing a rash of free agent exits. Quite the contrary: if Green picks up his player-option, their eight most expensive players will be under contract for next season. The Warriors might ironically prefer to lose one or two of their players to free agency. Keeping their roster together would cost Golden State nearly a half-billion dollars.
The Warriors currently have 12 players signed for next season, assuming all options are picked up. Those players will cost nearly $212 million with Jordan Poole's $140 million deal set to kick in. Toss in the No. 19 overall pick at roughly $3 million and one more player making the veteran's minimum and we'll call their projected team salary an even $216 million. The projected tax line for next season is $162 million. Under current rules, the Warriors would pay $276 million in luxury taxes as a repeat offender for an estimated $492 million in overall salary payment.
That's only for next season. The new collective bargaining agreement altered the tax structure to make life even harder for teams like the Warriors. The NBA's luxury tax model works in increments. The deeper into the tax you go, the higher the tax you pay on each dollar you've spent above the line. Starting in the 2025-26 season, which is coincidentally when Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody would begin theoretical rookie extensions, the price of each repeater increment is going to jump significantly.
Incremental salary above tax level
2023-24 repeater tax rate
2025-26 repeater tax rate
Tier 1: (currently $0-$4,999,999)
Tier 2: (currently $5,000,000-$9,999,999)
Tier 3: (currently $10,000,000-$14,999,999)
Tier 4: (currently $15,000,000-$19,999,999)
Tier 5: (currently $20,000,000 and above)
Tax rates increase by $0.50 for each additional $5 million tier
Tax rates increase by $0.50 for each additional undetermined tier
We can't calculate an exact tax estimated tax bill for a team in Golden State's position in the 2025-26 season because the size of each tax tier will now rise each year by the same percentage as the salary cap. However, if we use the NBA's current estimates, a repeater tax team $54 million above the tax line during the 2025-26 season would pay roughly $370 million in taxes alone. That might not even be tenable for a guaranteed championship team.
The Warriors, right now, are a 44-38 team that lost in the second round. Curry is 35. Green and Klay Thompson are 33. Neither of them got contract extensions last offseason. Poole ($140 million over four years) and Wiggins ($109 million over four years) both did. If Green picks up his option, the five of them alone will make more next year than every team in the NBA as a whole this season aside from the Clippers, Bucks and Warriors themselves. Someone's gotta go.
There's not an easy answer for who that's going to be. Wiggins is probably safe. He bridges the generational gap as a 28-year-old that was arguably the second-best player on the 2022 championship team. He also left money on the table to stay with the Warriors and has an extremely rare skill set as a viable 3-and-D wing that also creates his own shot. Giving him away would be irresponsible. For obvious reasons, Curry will be staying as well.
That leaves Green, Thompson and Poole. There are reasonable arguments for moving all three:
- Green is the most volatile. Thompson has never punched a teammate, and odds are Poole never will. Neither has ever been suspended for a playoff game. Green's defense is likelier to deteriorate with age than Thompson's shooting. The Warriors even moved him to the bench for Games 4, 5 and 6 of the Kings series to maximize their spacing. They could easily go into next season with all three of their guards starting and openly try to win through offense alone. Of course, as we saw during his absence last season, Green is nearly as important offensively as he was defensively. His playmaking is irreplaceable. Curry is Golden State's best player, but Green might be their most ideologically important. Their entire scheme on both ends of the court revolves around his unique gifts. The Warriors could be a great team without him, but they wouldn't be the Warriors without him.
- Thompson is the most replaceable. He is no longer an elite or even good defender, and if Poole is a $140 million offensive player, he should be able to slide comfortably into a full-time starting role. But trading him doesn't come with the built-in excuses Green provides. Thompson is a model citizen. He has a 100% approval rating among Warriors fans, and likely Warriors staffers as well. Would the Spurs have traded Manu Ginobili for anything? How about the Lakers and James Worthy? Giving away a home-grown player like Thompson changes something fundamental about the relationships a team can build with its own players. It breaks a layer of trust. Any new Warrior would think, in the back of their mind, "if this team will trade Klay Thompson, why wouldn't they trade me?" That's not a step to be taken lightly.
- Poole is the worst of the three. At least the Warriors seem to think so. He plays the fewest minutes. The Warriors barely used him in crunch time against the Kings. They started seven different players against the Lakers and Poole wasn't one of them. He didn't deserve to be after averaging under six points per game in the last five against Los Angeles. That $140 million contract was based on potential he flashed last season. He largely hasn't lived up to it this season. Of course, one might argue that nobody could live up to a deal of that size as a part-time starter. Maybe Poole needs clarity to grow into the player the Warriors hope he can become. As unlikely as it feels as the moment, he's their best chance at a Spurs-like transition to the post-Curry era. Golden State whiffed on James Wiseman, and while Jonathan Kuminga certainly has an NBA future, the decision to take him over Franz Wagner looks like a mistake now as well. Poole is their home run swing. If Golden State believes this era is over, Poole is staying put as the centerpiece of the next one.
Green might make this easy for them by opting out of his deal and becoming a free agent. He wouldn't lack for sign-and-trade suitors, and this might be Golden State's last chance to move him for value before a multi-year contract makes him an iffy long-term bet. Thompson won't agitate for a new team, but he could easily force Golden State's hand through his unrealistic contract demands. A report fromin April suggested that Thompson is seeking a max-extension this summer. Such a deal would pay him over $270 million and carry him through his age-38 season.
And then there's the nuclear option: move both. There's no immediate path below the luxury tax line for Golden State even if Green walks for nothing, but avoiding long-term commitments to the both of them could help the Warriors avert another half-decade of hefty tax payments for diminishing returns. This was part of the logic that went into breaking up the Bulls. "We could've kept all of them by signing them to multi-year contracts, but we would then have been locked into mediocrity because of the NBA's salary cap," Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf said in that same ESPN Classic video. The Warriors already hit mediocrity this season. Who knows how much further they have to fall.
Kerr didn't stick around to find out in Chicago. He signed with the Spurs after the 1998 championship. Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, Jud Buechler and, of course, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman all followed him out the door. Michael Jordan retired. That's how dynasties tend to end. They're broken up in the boardroom as much as the locker room, and after a disappointing second-round exit, keeping the Golden State Warriors together no longer appears financially viable.