The James Wiseman Era ended with a whimper on Thursday as the Golden State Warriors unexpectedly came alive and did a damn thing before the end of an already wild trade deadline to ship out their most contractually and metaphorically significant albatross. Engaging with Detroit, Atlanta and Portland, the Warriors wheeled and dealed until James Wiseman was bound for Detroit and Gary Payton II was en route back to the Bay Area, where he belongs. But much more than swapping a benchwarmer and five recently purloined second-round picks (via Detroit) for the joyous return of both Payton II and his joie de vivre, this was a move that revealed quite a lot about the current state of Golden State’s back-of-house factionalism and the tug of war between lofty dreams of the future and the cold hard, mediocre reality of the present day. It was the first necessary fracture in the unified front of one the league’s most disciplined organizations, a tacit admission that something had to give, even if it was the most obvious something.
We’re officially in a new phase of the holding pattern that has held Golden State semi-hostage for three seasons now, three seasons in which the team has oscillated between barely mediocre and NBA champion. The oft-referenced “Two Timelines” gambit — the ambitiously VC brain spin on the old adage of “have your angel investors and eat them too” — was until yesterday a stubbornly sacrosanct tenet. It turns out there was a good reason no one had ever thought of “Why can’t half our players be good enough to win a title now and the other half be good enough to win a title the moment the old guys retire?” as a team-building strategy. Steph Curry is going to retire at some point, and there’s no “one weird trick” to defeat that. Sorry.
Wiseman’s eviction feels like an almost unbelievable turn of events. This is a franchise that typically operates as if it doesn’t make mistakes, especially franchise-altering ones. Light-years and all that. Trading Wiseman — famously selected just before LaMelo Ball, but that’s a counterfactual fraught with other potential landmines — was the smart thing to do; it was even incidentally noble for Wiseman’s career and development as a player. For infamous (according to me) Golden State majority owner Joe Lacob, saving money on the luxury tax will likely ameliorate the sting a bit. But above all, it feels like a shocking philosophical concession, given the repeated insistence on Wiseman’s value to the future of the team as a building block, not to mention his talent, his character, his aptitude for Mandarin …
What was the tipping point that made this somewhat jarring about-face a reality? Obviously, it’s impossible to disprove that Joe Lacob read my fair and balanced, objective analysis of the two-timeline strategy on Tuesday and, being deeply moved, decided he couldn’t handle the realization that he was on a collision course with ultimate dishonor (being clowned for life without parole) should he stick with his unorthodox multigenerational master plan of everlasting NBA dominance. You know, the same plan hated by pretty much the entire fan base — and also likely every player on the team old enough to remember 9/11. Among an owner dead-set on implementing his NBA Children’s Crusade, an uncooperative coach who refused to cater to that particular vision and a potential lame-duck general manager, it was all but inevitable that the most admired brain trust in the league would begin to eat itself at some point. Whether this delays the reckoning (Steve Kerr and Bob Myers replaced and the start of Kirk Lacob’s reign of terror) or hastens it remains to be seen.
Let’s not get too excited about killing off one of the timelines. This feels more like a tactical retreat from Lacob rather than a wholesale refutation of the strategy. In the parlance of my favorite show about a magical island that redeems various damaged souls, James Wiseman was “the sacrifice the Island demanded.” The center was the giant apple of the owner’s eye, but even the stubbornly optimistic Lacob couldn’t miss his glaringly bad fit with the team. (I implore you, DO NOT look up those +/- numbers!) Though it might have pained Lacob to pull the trigger on this humbling transaction, the Warriors’ youth brigade still very much exists. Jonathan Kuminga is putting it together in exciting, sometimes bombastic ways, but the positive news tapers off sharply after that. Patrick Baldwin Jr. has shown quick flashes of intrigue, but he’s another long-term project. Moses Moody looks to be a problem for another trade deadline — did he lose his spot in the rotation because of defensive lapses and a lack of confidence, or did he take Kerr to task for his support of the Lincoln Project? And Ryan Rollins, well, as the old saying goes: Ryan Rollins is also a young guy on the team who exists.
This wasn’t a fire sale or a restructuring of the business model as much as a subtle tweak that came with more sentimental heft than usual. Picking second in the draft can be something of a riddle even the strongest GMs fail to solve. An unenviable spot. Evidently, the tantalizing potential of raw big men persists even in the pace-and-space era! For reasons that we’ll surely learn more about in Draymond Green’s 2027 autobiography, things with Wiseman had become untenable — untenable enough that Lacob had deemed a little egg on his face worth it to just change the conversation that was uncomfortably festering.
It does feel like a significant moment, if not as significant as it should be. Beyond all the egos and ids and superegos dueling for supremacy of the franchise, jettisoning Wiseman can still easily be spun as nothing more than a cold hard monetary matter. The Warriors and their apparatchiks, from Lacob to play-by-play propagandist Bob Fitzgerald to hype man Franco Finn, still want you to know this is not a franchise that bows to peer pressure! And that’s true, sort of. All the key players — the dynasty vets, Kerr, Lacob — suffer from and are fueled by their own versions of Warriors exceptionalism. They are proud of having made the league dance to the tune they called, of refusing to zig when the others zagged.
James “Nice Guy, Lobster Hands” Wiseman is gone, but the wars over the future will continue along the same path they were on yesterday. They’ll just be more subtle without seven lanky feet visibly despairing at the end of the bench. This move was necessary; it bought the team time to come together again. Maybe that’ll even happen? Again, I recommend Draymond Green’s autobiography, available in just a few short years.
All this to say, as disorienting as it was to read Woj’s bomb yesterday, it ultimately feels less like the first domino to fall and more like a backroom compromise among a splintered inner circle that needed to inch back from an impasse that was threatening to boil over. The two timelines will likely remain a priority, but a quieter one. As noted above, Wiseman wasn’t nearly the only piece of Lacob’s bridge to the future, but he was the centerpiece (that very good pun was not intended, but I’ll allow it), and without his long shadow draped over the locker room, it already feels like there’s more room to breathe. To add insult to injury, getting Gary Payton II back as the end result of deadline-day maneuvering is an almost comical example of fan service, but his defensive ferocity and infectious vibes will go a long way toward brightening up the gloomy conditions the two timelines have left the Warriors in this season. Addition by subtraction, but also by addition.
Hey, that’s two things at once. The Joe Lacob special.