Building Steam with a Grain of Salt

The Warriors have resigned Kelenna Azubuike to a two-year deal worth approximately $1.5 million, a move I expected them to make and one that you can’t really argue with. He was a particularly good garbage time contributor last season, and when he got the chance to play meaningful minutes he had a few stellar games. While Azubuike has the chance to take on a bigger role this season, this signing also has implications for the rest of the Warriors’ summer, most notably in the cases of resigning Mickael Pietrus and Matt Barnes, as likely now only one of the two will be back.

The D-League’s leading scorer when he was called up in January, Azubuike immediately showed that he could score at the NBA level. He hit double figures in four of his first six games, proving that he can hit threes and also drive rather effectively. All four of those games were Warriors losses, though, and three weren’t very close at all, suggesting that Kelenna was better suited for mop-up duty at that early stage. Things stayed that way for most of the season, although he did log some significant minutes in games against the Clippers (28 in 48 minutes), Nuggets (23 in 38 minutes), and Bulls (23 in 30 minutes). At the very least, Azubuike is an exceptional garbage time player, and those guys are necessary over the course of an 82-game season.

This summer league, Azubuike looked like he’d taken it upon himself to show everyone that he belongs on an NBA roster for a long time. He forced the issue throughout each game, attacking players he knew he was better than and scoring regularly. Now, these opponents didn’t play much defense and the refs were calling things that don’t get whistled in normal NBA games, but the simple fact that Azubuike wanted to show people he was a real NBA player says something about him. He looks ready to step up from garbage time player to real contributor, and at that salary I think he’s a real bargain.

Assuming that the front office thinks he’s ready to make that leap as well, it seems like either Mickael Pietrus or Matt Barnes will not be back. The team doesn’t seem to have much interest in resigning Pietrus, who was given a qualifying offer and not much else. MP can does some things well on the court, like defending and finishing, but his weaknesses make him a bad fit for Nellieball. Simply put, the man can’t take anyone off the dribble and he isn’t a particularly good outside shooter, meaning that he cannot actively participate in the team-wide one-on-one and drive-and-kick clinics that typified the Warriors in the last few months of the season. He can help someone, but he’s not worth anything close to the mid-level exception for Golden State given their impending cap problems.

Barnes presents a trickier case. No one expected him to contribute like he did when he came to camp last fall, but his season really had two clear peaks: the December/January scoring explosion when people figured out he learned how to hit threes and the late-season/playoffs exhibition of a well-rounded game. Barnes gave Warriors fans many things to be happy about last year, but I wonder how his dry spells would have been received had he been making money close to the mid-level exception.

The MLE is the big question regarding Barnes this offseason. If he can regularly play like he did throughout the playoffs, he’s probably worth something close to it; his play in those games made him a great fit for Nelson’s style and he obviously has the balls necessary to step up in the clutch. If Barnes continues playing like he did for the entirety of last season, though, the MLE is too much. The fact that he hasn’t signed a contract yet suggests that no one has offered him that kind of money, likely due to other teams not being sure if he’s a great fit for their more conventional systems.

But who else can the Warriors hope to pick up in this offseason? The free agent market has dried up, with Gerald Wallace and Darko Milicic, the two best fits on the market for Golden State, signing contracts last week. KG rumors continue to swirl, although it’s hard to tell how close both sides are to a deal that works for both parties. It’s possible there’s a stealth trade lurking somewhere (or even a readymade Garnett deal that can't yet be announced), but that’s just wishful thinking until something tangible pops up.

That leaves Barnes as the best option on the table, and at this point I can’t really blame Mullin for pulling the trigger soon. The length of the contract probably shouldn’t exceed two years (maybe three if it involves a discount) due to the questions surrounding Barnes’s ability to replicate his success, but after the J-Rich trade this team needs guys who can hit shots. With no other talent readily available, Barnes looks like the best fit.

That move wouldn’t be quite the splash I hoped to see shortly after the Richardson trade, but the KG possibility still remains. I just hope this long period of radio silence isn’t evidence of Mullin and Nelson focusing solely on Garnett when there were other options worth exploring.

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