Back in 2016, then-San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami debunked a persistent rumor that the Warriors were once set to trade 23-year-old Stephen Curry for Bucks center Andrew Bogut, before the Bucks pulled the plug over concerns about Curry’s balky ankle. As Kawakami laid out at the time, the eventual trade—featuring Monta Ellis as the centerpiece acquisition for the Bucks—wouldn’t even have worked in its eventual form if Curry had been swapped in for Ellis:
The money in the trade wouldn’t have worked if it was Curry (on his rookie deal) instead of Ellis (making $11M that season).
Bogut was making $12M that season and was owed $13M and $14M the next two. The impetus for Milwaukee was to move Bogut while he retained value before he came close to free agency.
To do the deal the Warriors had to include a salary that was close to Bogut’s but that also had value to Milwaukee.
That pretty much had to be Ellis.
Kawakami’s convincing column didn’t totally kill the legend of the Curry-for-Bogut near-trade, in no small part because Warriors owner Joe Lacob—who has otherwise been all too eager to position his own genius as the basis for this period of Warriors greatness—once said the team was just as prepared to trade Curry as they were to trade Ellis (although a careful and strict reading leaves some question about whether Lacob is saying Curry could’ve been in the Bogut deal):
“I’m getting chills talking about (Ellis) right now,” Lacob said. “He’s one of my favorite players in the NBA. Anyone who thinks otherwise is crazy. I feel very strongly about him. It was incredibly difficult to trade him, but he’s the piece it had to be to get Andrew Bogut. We would have traded either (Curry or Ellis) to take the next step for this franchise.”
Possibly this was just Lacob being generous to Ellis in the aftermath of the organization’s Sophie’s Choice-like decision to keep Curry, but anyway it’s enough to keep the what-if scenario alive, if nowhere else than in the mind of Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry, who bought a share of the team in 2014 and will become controlling owner after this season. In a conversation with The Athletic’s Frank Isola about the Warriors as a model NBA franchise, Lasry took a moment to throw a familiar wet blanket over Lacob’s self-congratulating boasts:
“I don’t know if they can be light years ahead if they traded Steph Curry to the Bucks for Andrew Bogut,” Lasry says of a proposed trade before he purchased the Bucks, which has been reported as both fact and urban legend. “That was the deal. But the Bucks’ medical staff didn’t think Steph’s ankle would hold up. That killed the deal. So, I don’t know if that’s being light years. It’s luck. And that’s fine.”
Fair to say Lasry is privy to all the new shit in his capacity as Bucks co-owner, but it’s certainly also possible he’s going off of the same reading of Lacob’s quotes that Kawakami endeavored to shoot down five years ago. Obviously the choice of Steph over Ellis had profound implications for Golden State’s future (and, while we’re here, Milwaukee’s) and the acknowledgment by Lacob of their then-willingness to choose Ellis over Steph underscores the silliness of ownership assigning too much credit to their own glowing galactic-brain ingenuity.
It’s worth repeating again and again: Not only were the Warriors by their owner’s own admission just as willing to trade the all-time great Curry as they were the decidedly un-great Ellis, but the salary flexibility that enabled them to lavish all of Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant with expensive extensions and free agency contracts is owed more to Steph’s early ankle troubles, and the resulting ridiculous bargain extension he signed before the 2012 season, than it is to any comprehensive roster-building strategy. If Steph hadn’t spent four years as the most underpaid player in basketball, it’s reasonable to suspect the Warriors would have a vastly different history and shape than the one they have today. Hell, while we’re here, had Lacob followed his impulse to low-ball Steph ahead of his 2017 max contract, there’s a fair chance Steph is right now plying his trade in, I dunno, Houston. The Warriors are just as much the beneficiaries of luck as any other great team. That’s always, always a huge and underrated part of the equation.
So it’s good and righteous that Lasry is poking at Golden State’s self-mythologizing. It just so happens that the specific details of his point might be an empty myth. Or maybe not! Maybe the Warriors really were that dumb.