Warriors' biggest offseason move wasn't adding player to roster

September 21, 2021

When the Warriors open training camp next week, there will be no newly acquired star raining 3-pointers or swatting shots or dodging easy dunks, serving as ownership’s proof it is fully dedicated to maximizing the prime of Stephen Curry.

Rather than add a big name, the Warriors invested in an area that won’t bloat their luxury-tax bill.

They went all-in on player development, expanding and improving the staff to address an underlying weakness obscured by five seasons of historical success. I don’t know the salaries, but none of the incoming coaches came cheap.

“We had to upgrade there because we need to do a better job of developing players,” CEO Joe Lacob said the day after the draft. “We just have to get better at it, and I believe we will.”

The Warriors approached the draft holding two lottery picks and were open to two options. If there was a deal they loved, they were willing to trade. If not, they would bolster the roster with those two picks while awaiting the return of Klay Thompson.

The latter option prevailed rather easily. Though 18-year-old forward Jonathan Kuminga and 19-year-old wing Moses Moody cannot be expected to push Curry & Co. to the top of the championship race, they will have an opportunity to contribute as rookies.

How much they provide will be determined by playing time allotted by head coach Steve Kerr but earned through the progress the teenagers make under the remade PD staff, led by Director Jama Mahlalela.

The common thread among the three new additions – Kenny Atkinson, Dejan Milojević and Mahlalela – is their reputation for developing young talent. Mahlalela was the first to arrive in the Bay Area, but all three have been on the job since June.

Prior to last season, when he was an assistant to Los Angeles Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue, Atkinson spent three-plus years as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, where he was hired to guide a rebuild. His PD chops range far and wide. After a 14-year career playing overseas, that was his role with several European teams before returning to the United States in 2007 as Director of Player Development for the Houston Rockets. From there, he went to the New York Knicks and then the Atlanta Hawks. Atkinson, 54, focused on development at every NBA stop prior to becoming head coach of the Nets. He essentially replaces Jarron Collins on the front bench.

Milojević, 43, was a star power forward in Eastern European basketball leagues – the Adriatic version of Charles Barkley – before retiring in 2009 and becoming a coach three years later. His only NBA coaching experience came with the Rockets in the 2018 Las Vegas Summer League. His ticket to the NBA was punched mostly off his work with Nikola Jokić, the reigning NBA MVP who spent three seasons being mentored by Milojević. He’ll spend a lot of time with James Wiseman, who the Warriors insist is locked into their future.

Make no mistake, though: Mahlalela, 41, runs the development staff and is the primary caretaker of the Golden State’s basketball future. Formerly in a similar role with the Toronto Raptors, he was crucial to the growth of several players in Toronto, including Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby.

Of interest to Dub Nation, Mahlalela was essential to the progress of Chris Boucher, who has evolved from a two-way contract with the Warriors to a valuable NBA player in Toronto. The Warriors released Boucher in 2018, opting to keep his University of Oregon teammate Jordan Bell.

RELATED: Wiseman to miss full practices at Warriors training camp

Given Mahlalela’s history, he might be most immediately impactful of all the new faces, players and coaches.

“They’ve given me lots of latitude to do whatever is needed to bring out the best from these guys,” Mahlalela told NBC Sports Bay Area a few weeks ago. “This is a great opportunity to work with some very talented guys, on and off the court.” 

Though the Warriors did not announce the coaching hires until mid-August and another -- the promotion of G-League coach Kris Weems to the Golden State PD staff -- Mahlalela wasted no time diving into the job. As his family settles into a home on the peninsula, he has been a regular presence at Chase Center, conducting meetings with other staffers and also meeting with players.

Young players, in particular.

Despite the familiar NBA names tossed about in recent months -- Bradley Beal, Ben Simmons and Myles Turner, to name three -- the Warriors’ most significant offseason moves were made behind the scenes, away from the headlines.

The goal is for it to be enough to accelerate the future to such a degree that it arrives quickly enough that Curry & Co. still have plenty of prime left.

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