Milton pitching in to cover the Warriors and the crew Don Nelson left them with.
For the roughly 20 years I’ve been a basketball fan with any level of cognitive awareness, the Golden State Warriors have been an intriguing franchise. From Run TMC, to the infancy of Chris Webber’s career to Sprewell vs. Carlisemo there has been no shortage of topics to dissect and debate. For 11 of the last 23 years Don Nelson coached this franchise. Those 11 years were not in succession – Nelson’s tours with GSW were from 88-95 and 06-10 – but the influence of his alchemy appears to have been so prevalent that no other coach could find success. As if Nellie poisoned the East Bay waters, the 12 other seasons GSW was coached by another man were all sub .500 finishes. Nellie wasn’t without his own poor seasons (34-48 in 93, 26-56 in 2010) but he led GSW to .500 or better in 6 of 11 years at the helm.
In 2007 the 8th seeded Warriors pulled off the improbable by knocking off MVP Dirk Nowitzki and his vaunted, 67-15 Mavericks. That GSW group was full of perimeter players who created mismatches on offense and utilized toughness to bang with bigger guys defensively. The outcome was viewed by some as affirmation that Nellie’s mad scientist approach can bring to life a contender. The reality is they got hot at the right time and Stephen Jackson scared the crap out of Dirk.
Since then GSW has tried desperately to get that swagger back. Cap’n Jack, Jason Richardson and Baron Davis are long gone. In their place, Nellie acquired the likes of Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Corey Maggette and things haven’t been the same since. Monta Ellis might be the fastest player in the NBA but he gives up so much defensively that the overall impact of his speed is negligible. Stephen Curry’s playmaking and defensive abilities have surprised me; however he appears better suited to play the two. His best skill is his jumper and his instinct tells him to shoot first and ask questions later. Andris Biedrins had one solid year and has since been injured or disengaged. How can you blame him for losing focus when Nellie didn’t even suit the same players up on a nightly basis from 08-10?
Near the end of Nellie’s second tenure with GSW, stories began to emerge about his affinity for liquor. Whether true or not, things had gone so awry in GSW that I often pictured Nellie wobbling drunkenly into the locker room on game nights like Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own. The end was near and everyone knew it. But after a long night of drinking comes the inevitable hangover.
Keith Smart coached the Warriors last year and the results were mixed, but mostly disappointing. The final tally was 36 wins and 46 losses but what do we really know about Smart as a coach? Not much. How can we judge him? He tried to play a more conventional style with a team of Nellie ballers.
Two key additions to last year’s squad who didn’t endure the bizarre Nellie experience, David Lee and Dorell Wright, provided solid production. Wright contended for Most Improved Player and Lee bounced back from a freakish tooth-in-the-elbow injury to average nearly a double-double (16.8, 9.8 reb). Lee and Wright are above average players but it’s hard to fit in with a Nellie roster if you’re not a Nellie player. Klay Thompson was selected with a lottery pick and is expected to contribute immediately. He’s got the pedigree (former Laker Mychal Thompson is his father) and can shoot the ball. Ekpe Udohis long and has potential but looks more like Thabeet than Mutombo.
Smart didn’t make it to a second year. An ownership change may have necessitated a move at head coach but the hire is still perplexing. Mark Jacksonhas never coached in the NBA as an assistant or a head coach. He was one of the finer players at his position in his era (and a mediocre announcer). The challenge for Jackson will be to combine the Nellie players (Monta, Biedrins, Udoh and to a lesser extent Steph Curry) with non-Nellie players (Lee, Wright, Thompson, Brandon Rush) to find a suitable team identity. It won’t be easy … certainly not for a coach with no experience. And word is he wants this team to focus on defense.
Nellie hosted an enjoyable party with booze aplenty, but for Golden State’s loyal and basketball wise fans, the hangover still lingers. The challenge for this great fan base is to keep downing the Advil and Gatorade and hope the headache slowly goes away. Another trip to the lottery is likely in the works.
As we were discussing earlier, this post makes me think coaches with extreme or particular styles that require a specific group of players leave teams in a bind when they eventually depart. Nelson’s a good example. When D’Antoni left Phoenix and Terry Porter took over, it was impossible to just transition into a new style and Porter was the fall guy. GSW tried to do it with a Nellie assistant in Smart and 36-46 isn’t a bad record in the west, but at the end of the day, they had to go a different direction. Phil’s triangle is another example of a style that requires a unique group of players. We’ll see how well Mike Brown does with Fish/Blake playing point.
Would be interesting to come up with a definition of a “unique” approach or style to coaching, then look at the records of the coaches who followed these “unique” coaches and see if they fall off. Avery Johnson sure didn’t have a problem following Nelson in Dallas.
Crossing over into the NFL, Mike Martz comes to mind when I think of “unique” coaching. He’s the NFL version of Mike D’Antoni. He’s all about getting up and down on offense, and thinks that “good defense” is out-scoring your opponent. Since Martz left St. Louis at the end of 2005, they are 23-71 (still haven’t recovered). He also brought in a bunch of “his guys” into Detroit in 2007 as a O-Cord, but he only lasted a year. The next season, the Lions went 0-16.