SAN FRANCISCO -- The thought of what Gary Payton II does for the Warriors never left Chase Center, even when Payton left in free agency for the Portland Trail Blazers and a three-year contract worth over $26 million this past offseason. If there were a way to bring him back, the Warriors were going to do so.
That was the case in the Warriors acquiring Payton from the Blazers before Thursday's NBA trade deadline, as part of a complicated four-player, four-team deal that hit more roadblocks than anyone could have anticipated. The trade wasn't fully completed until Sunday night once the 6:30 p.m. PT deadline passed, making Payton a Warrior again.
With quite the caveat, though.
Payton will miss at least the next month with a core muscle issue. His official diagnosis on the Warriors' injury report is right adductor soreness. The Warriors' hope is that Payton will be able to play again before the playoffs begin, and that he once again will be a seamless fit as a win-now move for a team that enters Monday with a 28-28 record.
"When you trade for a player that's been here, especially with our system, our system is not simple," Warriors general manager Bob Myers said Monday after Warriors shootaround. "So to get somebody that knows our system, and that's our hope when Gary comes back, whenever that is, that there's a familiarity with a lot of the same players he played with last year.
"We play him a little bit differently. We do play him differently than other teams. I think that's why he did so well with us, our system is unique. So part of the reason we did it was that familiarity. We've seen how much he helps us."
Adding Payton also meant losing James Wiseman, the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Myers praised Wiseman for his work ethic and coachability and says he'd still bet on the person as much as the player to carve out a positive NBA career. With the Detroit Pistons, Wiseman should be able to see plenty of playing time and learn from mistakes at 21 years old for a team at the bottom of the standings.
But the path simply wasn't there for him to see the court consistently for the Warriors. The thought of rescinding the trade didn't last long, partly because of where Wiseman fit (he didn't) in the pecking order. Moving on from Myers' highest draft pick as Warriors GM wasn't easy. Despite the difficulty, it became a necessity.
And what Payton brings to the Warriors, when healthy, is exactly what they feel they've missed most. Point-of-attack defense has lacked all season for the defending NBA champions, who rank 16th in defensive rating and 26th in opponent points per game.
Donte DiVincenzo, often seen as a Payton replacement, has been given a crack at the task. His two-year, $9.3 million contract has proven to be a steal of the offseason, but he isn't Payton on that side of the ball. Jonathan Kuminga has shown flashes, improvements and a desire to guard the other team's top scorer. He also is only 20 years old, and still is learning the ins and outs of the league. Andrew Wiggins hasn't been the same player as his All-Star showing a season ago, and he has been hampered by injuries and illnesses.
Turning to a fan favorite was the Warriors' solution, and it was a move that made plenty of people within the building more than happy -- even with the curveball of Payton not being available right away following his surprising failed physical.
"Thinking that we probably had a good top seven or eight guys, with Steph [Curry] back, adding another guy into the mix defensively, pick-and-roll defense specificially, is an area that we wanted to improve on and targeted with the defense not being quite as a good as it has been in the past," Myers said.
Or as recently as last season, when the Warriors with a healthy Payton went 56-27 between regular season and playoffs in games he appeared in, finishing with the best defensive rating in the league and allowing the third-fewest points per game.
On top of that, Payton wasn't a rental. He's someone the Warriors have won a championship with before and fits the timeline of continuing to try and lift more Larry O'Brien trophies in the present and near future with veteran stars such as Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
"The idea was, let's find someone we like for the next 26 games, and in the playoffs hopefully, as well as into next season and the season after that," Myers said.
Myers also stated the trade saves the Warriors $6 million or $7 million this season, along with $30 million next season. That certainly was a major factor for a franchise with a huge payroll in unloading Wiseman and now getting Payton in a Golden State jersey again, seven months after seeing him go.
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This year's NBA trade deadline had everyone's head going full Exorcist, trying to figure out who plays for which team now. The Western Conference has been a battle in the past, and now is loaded with star power. It's not like Myers and the rest of the front office didn't notice.
Do they think a healthy Payton fixes all their problems? No. They do believe he helps a team that needs a lot of it. Payton enters a locker room that loves him, and any kind of awkwardness of Wiseman questions finally can be put to rest. There are no guarantees, but once Payton is ready for game action, the Warriors expect to insert him back into the rotation and let him showcase why San Francisco should have always stayed home.
All of that is moot if the Warriors don't improve their current on-court product in the meantime.
"We also have to be a better team," Myers said. "We've got to play better. We're .500, and it's our job in the front office to evaluate if this team needs help and that's the determination we made."