Steve Kerr’s latest challenge: manage a Warriors roster with contract uncertainty

San Francisco Chronicle 11 days ago
Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr and Jordan Poole against Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of NBA Western Conference 1st round playoff series at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif, on Monday, April 18, 2022.

In his eight seasons as the Golden State Warriors’ head coach, Steve Kerr has overseen the winningest team in NBA history, a league-worst team, and a team with enough drama to pack a soap opera.

If Kerr has learned anything during his three-plus decades in and around the NBA, it’s that multimillionaires handle a murky financial future differently. Some use it as motivation. Others let the stress of it hurt their job performance. Perhaps the only certainty is that, for the Warriors to repeat as champions, they must prioritize what’s best for the team over their own contract situations.

This is much trickier than it sounds. The duration of an NBA player’s earning potential is limited. Gaudy stats during a contract year are often the difference between an athlete vaulting from rich to generationally wealthy. Regardless of what Poole, Wiggins, Green and even the mild-mannered Thompson say publicly in coming months, they figure to think — at least in the back of their minds — about what their performance might mean for their next contract.

It is only human, a fact that Kerr understands well. During the 1997-98 season, Kerr — then a reserve guard for the Bulls — witnessed firsthand how contract frustrations can affect an NBA locker room. Scottie Pippen, at $2.8 million, was making 12 times less than teammate Michael Jordan’s $33.1 million salary. Resentful and bitter, Pippen fumed through much of that season.

“Some guys play better when their contract is up, and some guys stress out about it,” Kerr said. “Everybody is different.”

Of the extension-eligible players, Poole’s situation should be the Warriors’ highest priority. If they don’t sign him to a new deal by Oct. 17, they would risk having to match a maximum offer from another team when he hits restricted free agency in the summer.

After Golden State returns in two weeks from its two preseason games in Tokyo, general manager Bob Myers will discuss a new contract with Poole’s agent. It seems increasingly likely, though, that the Warriors wait and see how the season unfolds.

These decisions carry long-term ramifications. If the Warriors bring Poole and Wiggins back at their projected market values while paying Green, Thompson, Stephen Curry and the rest of the players already on their books, they will stare down a total 2023-24 payroll — salaries and luxury taxes — north of $500 million.

Myers has said that majority owner Joe Lacob would fire him if the team had a total payroll of more than $400 million and didn’t win a championship, which means Kerr probably will enter the season with four core players vying for bigger contracts. The good news for the Warriors is that no NBA coach is better equipped for such an assignment.

For the first five years of his Golden State tenure, Kerr’s primary responsibility was managing egos. By fostering a team-oriented culture, he helped the Warriors mostly avoid internal turmoil, win three NBA titles and cement themselves as a dynasty.

But every roster is different, and this season should bring a new set of potential pitfalls. Green has made it clear that he wants a four-year maximum contract extension. Regardless of what happens this season, Poole and Wiggins know that one of them almost certainly must leave next summer.

Even if Green signs a max extension, the Warriors could drop their projected 2023-24 payroll from more than $500 million to well less than $400 million by parting with Poole or Wiggins. This raises some important questions: Will those two feel competitive with each other this season? And what if the Warriors underwhelm? Could Poole, Wiggins and others be angry that they don’t already have long-term assurances?

“We have not had this specific situation,” Myers said, “but that’s the beauty of the NBA, and our job is to try to navigate stuff we haven’t seen. … My experience is that sometimes these things sort themselves out, and sometimes they don’t.

“Right now, it’s hard to say where this unfolds. But we like all those guys. It’s a high-class issue, in my opinion.”

In coming days, Kerr will do what he does best: pull players aside for one-on-ones and learn where they are mentally. This information could be more important to the Warriors’ season outlook than any lineup combination or tactical wrinkle.

Kerr can prevent internal issues only if he knows their possibility exists. By understanding how Poole, Wiggins, Green and Thompson feel about their respective contract situations, Kerr can begin easing their concerns.

“I don’t really worry too much about (contracts) before the season starts,” Kerr said. “I try to get a good feel for what every player is going through and help them through their own set of circumstances.”