If You're Going to Write a Comedy Scene, You're Going to Have Some Rat Feces in There

When I first heard about the J-Rich/Brandan Wright deal, my first reaction to it was a loud “Huh.” Even though his name had been bandied about in trade rumors for the better part of the last two years, trading Richardson still didn’t seem quite real; he’s been such a big part of the franchise for the last six years that it’s hard to imagine the team without him. As I actually started to think about the deal, though, I realized that it works on most every basketball-related level. For as much as he brought to the table, J-Rich’s contract was capping this team’s potential, and in trading him Chris Mullin filled a position of need with a supremely talented, albeit young and raw, power forward in Brandan Wright. The karmic retribution could come swiftly and justly, but I’m willing to accept that possibility so long as the team does what it takes to make itself more than an annual fringe playoff team.

Let me start by addressing Jason Richardson, a player beloved by every fan of the team and an accomplished scorer. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much J-Rich brought to the locker room, but no one will argue that he was anything but a good guy to have around, the kind of person who helps create an atmosphere like the one last year, when seemingly everyone on the roster liked everyone else. Baron Davis could revolt in protest (as he’s been known to do before) and things could turn hellish now that J-Rich’s gone, but mayhem is in no way fated. Chemistry is a famously impossible thing to predict, and I don’t want to suggest that losing J-Rich will create a Mad Max locker room landscape, except with shots replacing gas as the most precious commodity around.

Frankly, as much as J-Rich meant to the fanbase—who will ever forget his ad apologizing for not making the playoffs?—the playoff run made it emphatically clear that this is Baron Davis’s team when everyone steps onto the court. Look back to Game 4 of the Mavs series, when he kept the Warriors close with a variety of ass-born plays until several players started to hit clutch shots in the final minutes. In every situation, Baron was there to lead the charge, and it’s certainly arguable that Stephen Jackson was a better indicator of GSW’s intensity throughout the playoff run than Richardson.

Jason’s tertiary position on the team also manifested itself in his reduced role within the offense. When J-Rich was at his best with GSW (generally the Mike Montgomery years), he was the focal point of the offense, curling off of screens and getting the ball in the post regularly to exploit his best attributes. Don Nelson’s free form jazz odyssey offense brought some changes to J-Rich’s game: while the post ups were still there, they were quite uncommon, and the focus on plays starting from the perimeter meant that Richardson had to try to beat people off the dribble to score, which is one of his most glaring weaknesses. I know that he worked hard to improve his game every offseason, but certain things remain weaknesses, and after six years it doesn’t look like J-Rich’s slashing ability will ever get to the point where it can be called a strength.

Despite the giant change in offensive philosophy, Richardson still found ways to score this year, averaging 16.0 per game and 19.7 per game in the team’s last ten contests. I highly doubt that Brandan Wright will match that scoring output next year, but it’s important to remember how J-Rich usually filled the bucket at the end of the season. For the most part, Richardson excelled as an outside shooter during these games; he was uncommonly hot. Few who saw it will forget the lights out performance against Phoenix on March 29, when Jason hit 8/13 from outside for 36 points. For every excellent performance though, it seemed like he’d match it with one terrible game. In the last two games of the Utah series, he went a combined 2/13 from deep for just 20 total points. Looking at Richardson’s game logs after coming back from injury in late February, it becomes quite clear that his point totals strongly depended on the quality of his outside shooting in that game. Given that the man is usually not an excellent shooter, it seems curious that he would turn into an outside shooter in this offense, but the requirements of the system jive poorly with J-Rich’s talents. It’s not surprising that his best scoring seasons (04-05 and 05-06, when he averaged 21.7 and 23.2, respectively) happened when the team had a coach who regularly called plays for him (even if Baron didn’t always run them). It’s also not shocking that those teams were bad. He was clearly a productive player in Oakland and should continue to be in Charlotte, but it’s not as the skills he contributed to the Nellie offense are irreplaceable.

J-Rich obviously brings other things to the table. He is one of the best dunkers in recent NBA history. The knee injury will curtail that ability some, but it’s not as if the guy will ever be unathletic. Despite not being a terrific one-on-one defender, J-Rich is pretty good at the kind of steals-driven help defense that characterized the late-season Warriors. He’s also a terrific rebounder for a shooting guard, although that skill was made somewhat less effective in the late-season small lineup with J-Rich at the three.

The question becomes whether he was the best guy to trade for a lottery pick. For sake of comparison, let’s look at J-Rich vs. Monta Ellis, the other player named regularly in trade rumors, in terms of their levels of importance to the team. Before I start, I should make it clear that Monta is my favorite player on the team, so I’m more attuned to discussing his strengths than his weaknesses.

To reiterate quickly, Richardson is a very good scorer who mostly does his damage from outside in the Nellie offense. He’s a good rebounder and a solid defender. He's also a pillar of the locker room.

Monta finishes everything inside, drives whenever possible (a necessity on a team that was at its best when everyone attacked the paint), outruns everyone in the league with the possible exceptions of Devin Harris and Tony Parker, picks up a fair share of steals, can’t rebound anything, needs to add some strength (but not too much), doesn’t have a natural position, and really needs a better jump shot (I think it’s only a matter of time). Maturity is somewhat of a question mark due to his performance and emotional state in the 2007 playoffs, but I maintain that Nellie mishandled that situation by giving Monta a short leash that applied to no one else. To put things in perspective, he’s 20 and averaged 16.5 ppg for a playoff team. This guy is Tony Parker before he developed a jumper—if he’d played for a fast-paced team. It should be clear that Monta has more potential than J-Rich at this point, if only because of the difference in ages.

Perhaps most importantly, Monta is the secondary point guard (I hesitate to say backup given that he usually starts) on a team with a brittle point guard who doubles as best player. Quite simply, the Warriors go as Baron Davis goes, which means that having a quality guy who can steal minutes at the point and carry the team for stretches of a game is very important. Monta developed into that kind of player last year. He won’t ever be a natural point guard, but in the NBA it’s usually enough for a guy just to bring the ball up and initiate the offense.

With all those factors in mind, I’ll take Monta Ellis every time.

Stepping away from the court, the Richardson contract put a virtual cap on the Warriors’ potential. As productive as he can be on the court, he is not worth fifty million dollars over the next four years, and keeping that contract on the books would have severely limited Mullin’s ability to get other players. Given that the team had a clear hole at the four-spot, there was no way the front office could have signed anyone to fill that position. Without trading Richardson, the only way to fix that hole would have been to trade Monta and/or Andris Biedrins, who become free agents after next season and will command the kind of money that would certainly put the team over the cap.

I respect the argument that cap space doesn’t win games, but what it does win is financial flexibility, which is a hallmark of a well-run team. At its best, basketball is a game of general philosophies defining structure, with individuals improvising to achieve the goals of those structures, and a good executive should work along the same lines.

Without J-Rich on the books, the Warriors have the chance to resign Monta and Andris, perhaps resign Matt Barnes (I assume they’d let Pietrus walk either way), and get another shooter or big. Mullin also now has a ten-million dollar trade exception to use within the next year. These are all good things.

With all that said, it still hurts to see Jason go, and I understand why a lot of fans are upset by this deal (even if some have taken it to ridiculous extremes). The guy works so hard and seems like such a nice guy, making it really hard to think that the basketball gods will approve of this trade. After breaking one thirteen-year streak of missing out on the playoffs, it’s possible that another drought will start next year just because of this deal.

But, strangely, I’m okay with that possibility right now. (Of course, ask me how I feel if it actually happens.) The Powers That Be are clearly committed to making this team better; Mullin has said many times this offseason that he does not want to struggle to make the playoffs every year. As fun as it was to escape mediocrity, making the playoffs for several years with no real chance at the title is a different kind of disappointment, and it’s not a road I want to see this team take.

If trading Jason Richardson gives the Warriors their best chance to get this team to the next level, then I’m perfectly willing to take that risk.

This post got really long, so I’ll provide my opinions on Brandan Wright in my next one. Before I go, though, here's the most cathartic sequence I've seen as a Warriors fan:

Thank you, J-Rich.

1 comment:

Carter Blanchard said...

Hate to break it you, but Mullin highlights feel like WNBA highlights without the falling down constantly.

And no offense, but that shit was long-winded as fuck.