Programming note: Warriors-Pistons coverage starts Sunday at 12 p.m. with Warriors Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area (territory restrictions apply)
It wasn't long ago that the Warriors visualized at least one easy path to salary-cap relief next summer. By dumping the backup big man who was arrested for DUI in August, they could trim $3.8 million from the 2015-16 payroll.
Simply decline the option on Marreese Speights and let him walk.
Speights, however, is refusing to cooperate. He's making himself too valuable.
After rededicating himself to conditioning and his team, Speights has spent the first month of the season issuing a powerful statement on his behalf. He has become, almost out of nowhere, an integral part of a Warriors team off to its best start ever.
Speights' latest argument, a 27-point masterpiece in a 106-101 win over the Hornets on Friday in Charlotte, may be his most compelling to date.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Speights rallies Warriors to comeback win over Hornets]
"Without him, we don't even come close to winning this game," Stephen Curry said.
With the Warriors dragging as if they'd each swallowed whole turkeys on Thanksgiving, Speights pulled them from the doorstep of defeat. With the Warriors down 82-74 and 11:19 remaining, he turned Time Warner Cable Arena into his own personal playpen.
Speights scored the Warriors' next 16 points on a variety of jump shots and layups. Meanwhile, the Warriors cranked up the defense and limited the Hornets to 6 points over six-plus minutes. By personally outscoring Charlotte 16-6, Speights gave the Warriors a lead (90-88, 4:54 remaining) they never lost.
"Mo Buckets, man. The guy saved us again," coach Steve Kerr said. "It's like the fourth time he's saved us. He's just having a terrific season. He's focused. He's a lot better defensively than people give him credit for. He did a good job on Big Al (Jefferson) down the stretch and, obviously, just carried us offensively when we were in a funk."
Coming off the bench all season, Speights has scored in double figures eight times. In three of those games, he was essential to victory. His 60-percent shooting (12-of-20) on Friday was in sharp contrast to his teammates, who shot 38 percent (30-of-79). Curry (9 for 20) and Thompson (7 for 22) combined to make 16 of 42 shots.
That's not to say Curry wasn't good. Though his shot was off, particularly from deep (1 for 10 beyond the arc), he delivered a strong closing burst. He made everything in the fourth quarter, three field goals and six free throws.
Yet this was another night on which Speights made a pitch for himself. Kerr is surprised. He also is being sold.
"I kind of figured he's a guy who could give us a spark off the bench now and then," Kerr said. "I didn’t see him as our full-time backup center.
"I like to stay big defensively, in general, defensively to protect the rim. But Mo's just been way better than I expected – at both ends."
Speights, of course, and Curry in the late going. They combined for 28 of the team's 32 points in the fourth quarter. The Hornets had 21 points.
The Warriors' fourth-quarter defense, which held Charlotte to 28.6 percent, was spectacular.
Draymond Green (10) and Harrison Barnes (nine) were rebounding demons.
The Warriors missed one free throw, shooting 15-of-16 from the line.
In a sign of wonderful ball movement, all nine Warriors who played rang up at least one assist.
Brandon Rush, finally, drained a 3-pointer. The man who shot 45.2 percent on treys with the Warriors in 2011-12 missed his first seven of the season. If he finds his stroke, the second unit gets a huge boost.
The early defense was, well, absent. The Hornets, shooting 43.5 percent this season (25th in the NBA), shot 50.8 through three quarters.
Thompson struggled mightily with his shot, going 4-for-17 inside the arc
After making his first trey of the season, Rush missed his next three.
The Warriors will have a decision to make in the coming months. With Thompson's new contract going into effect next season, they're looking squarely at the luxury tax. They've long known they want to keep Green. Can they? They've long figured they could live without Speights. Can they?
They couldn't on Friday, one of numerous games in which Speights has carried them to victory this season.