“It’s the smart move….” — Michael Corleone, on being betrayed.
I. Joe Lacob
We’ve heard a lot of different explanations and insinuations why Don Nelson is no longer coaching the Warriors. I’ve sifted through the lot of it — “pitchforked” would probably be a better word — and think in the end it really comes down to this:
There can be only one Godfather.
Don Nelson had a pipe-dream, of coaching the new and improved Warriors he helped build back to respectability this season, and then retiring into the role of franchise Godfather. The kind of role that his mentor, Red Auerbach, filled for so many years with the Celtics. I and many other fans shared that dream. How sweet would it have been to see Nellie march the Warriors into the playoffs one last time? How poetic a vindication? And how nice would it have been to have Nellie continue to shape the Warriors roster, as only he could, after his retirement?
Unfortunately for Nellie and for us, that dream disappeared in a puff the moment the Warriors were sold. Because the role of Godfather to the Warriors franchise was something that new owner Joe Lacob coveted for himself.
From the very first moment Lacob opened his mouth after the sale, it was made clear that he intended to be an NBA owner in the Mark Cuban mold: in other words, not just the owner but also the de facto GM of the Golden State Warriors. I noted it in my analysis of his first interviews. He offered some strong basketball opinions in those interviews: to wit, that running teams can’t win in the playoffs, and that the “architecture” of the Warriors needs fixing. And oh yes, that Stephen Curry and David Lee were the core of the Warriors, and Monta Ellis something else.
Other sources provided additional, if indirect, confirmation that Joe Lacob is the new Warriors’ GM. Nellie’s agent John O’Connor had this to say about him: “He’s got — how should I say this? — el cojones grande.” Larry Riley put it this way: “He’s full of energy and got his own thoughts.” My translation: Joe Lacob is comfortable substituting his own judgement for that of his basketball people.
And then of course there is the direct confirmation: the signing of Jeremy Lin. I offer no basketball opinion of Mr. Lin, other than that I was somewhat impressed by his summer league showing against John Wall. I’m rooting for his success. But I think it’s universally acknowledged that Lin was signed to the Warriors personally by Joe Lacob, and that if it weren’t for Lacob’s mandate, he would not be on the roster. The NBA-ready Jannero Pargo would be on the roster.
The Lin signing was followed by the decision to let Anthony Tolliver go, and sign Lou Amundson in his stead. This might seem like a rather insignificant decision, involving low-salaried bench players. But replacing the undersized but tremendously gifted and versatile Tolliver with the larger but seriously underskilled Amundson was an obvious cannonshot across Nellie’s bows, a clear signal that his was no longer the controlling vision of the franchise. Lou Amundson is the type of player that Nellie has always wanted the other team to put on the floor. The kind of player Nellie made a career out of destroying, by forcing him to guard quicker players, and pulling him out of the lane, and beating him down the court. The kind of player that Nellie would ruthlessly foul on the offensive end, to send his 48% free throw shooting butt to the line. The kind of player that would hand Nellie wins.
I think that was probably enough for Nellie. Nellie had his fill in Dallas when Mark Cuban decided he wanted to become the GM, and let Nellie protege and soon-to-be two-time MVP Steve Nash walk, and replaced him on the payroll with Eric Dampier. Amundson for Tolliver is nowhere near that class of blunder, but I’m sure it, on top of the Lin signing, was enough for Nellie to realize that his pipe-dream was dead.
With Nellie still holed up in Maui like disgraced caporegime Frankie Five Angels in the federal pen, and Larry Riley playing the Tom Hagen role of mouthpiece, the new Godfather of the Warriors delivered his message. Nellie was brought to Oakland one final time to discuss terms, and then fell on his six million dollar sword.
Joe Lacob, for all his many business achievements and great wealth, has spent his career in relative obscurity. Certainly compared to the many famous businessmen of his era. The name over the door of his venture capital firm doesn’t say Joe Lacob, it says Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. I’m sure that anonymity has eaten at him over the years.
Well, that’s all changed now. Now Joe Lacob is the Godfather of an NBA franchise.
And he just made his bones, on a Hall of Famer.
II. Larry Riley
If there was anything amusing about Warrior’s media day, it was watching Larry Riley and Keith Smart go from paying Don Nelson his due, to climbing over each others’ backs trying to distance themselves from him. Riley spent a lot of time during his interviews trying to convince his listeners that he arrived independently at the conclusion that Nellie had to go, and that all of his roster moves this off-season, starting with the Lee signing, represented a conscious departure from Nellie’s vision for the team.
Riley admitted in his interview with Ralph and Tom that he had been trying to trade for Lee for over a year. In other words, beginning around the time that the Warriors’ draft-day deal for Amare Stoudemire collapsed after Stephen Curry miraculously fell into their lap. Was Riley operating independently of Don Nelson back then? Of course he wasn’t.
The feeling that the Warriors were not big enough or tough enough or veteran enough on the front line was Don Nelson’s feeling — as anyone who heard or read his comments in the press on Brandan Wright and Anthony Randolph knows — and it was a feeling he had well before last year’s injury disasters. It is self-evident that Don Nelson was intimately involved in the decisions to pursue Stoudemire and Lee, and in all likelihood the primary instigator. Both Stoudemire and Lee are perfect Nellie big men. And when those moves were initiated, Larry Riley was still his boy.
Nor was there anything in the signings of Dorell Wright and Rodney Carney that signaled a move away from Don Nelson. As I’ve noted several times recently, both Dorell Wright and Rodney Carney are quintessential defensively-oriented Nellieball wing players, on a roster devastatingly devoid of them. So much so that I predicted in advance that the Warriors would be making a move for a player of their kind. And on the very day that the Warriors declined to match New Jersey’s offer to Anthony Morrow, which opened the door to the signing of Dorell Wright, I watched from courtside as Don Nelson and Larry Riley huddled together in the bleachers at the Las Vegas Summer League. Quite obviously, they were still working closely together at that moment, and indeed Nellie’s very presence at the summer league indicated that both men believed at that time that Nellie would be returning this season.
The move away from Don Nelson came after Joe Lacob took charge. It came when Lacob left Nellie without a back-up point guard by nixing Jannero Pargo and dictating the Lin signing, and when Tolliver was mysteriously rejected in favor of Amundson. In other words, it came after Larry Riley discovered with certainty the side on which his bread was being buttered.
I’m sure Larry Riley is a very competent basketball man. His resume as a coach and personnel man is extensive. He is certainly a very congenial man, a great communicator, and possessed of a large rolodex. And of course Nellie himself liked and trusted him. But I simply don’t believe that Larry Riley had the power to operate independently of Nellie prior to the sale of the Warriors, and I don’t believe he has the power to operate independently of Joe Lacob now. All evidence is to the contrary.
What I believe is that if Riley is still around next season as the nominal GM of the Warriors, it will be as the Little Donnie Nelson to Joe Lacob’s Mark Cuban. I think Riley understands that, and his furious spinning to the media simply shows that he is trying very hard to keep his job.
III. Keith Smart
Expectations are high in the media that Smart will lead the Warriors in a very different way than Don Nelson. Specifically, it is expected that the Warriors will play with bigger lineups; that the Warriors will focus more on the defensive end; that the starters will play fewer minutes; and that the chemistry of the team will improve under Smart’s kinder, gentler guidance. Naturally, these expectations are highly annoying to me, not so much because they imply criticism of Nellie, but because they are completely bogus. I’ve already covered a lot of this territory, but I can’t resist commenting:
If the Warriors play bigger this season it will simply be because 1) They have better big men, and now can play big and win; and 2) Their big men stay healthy. Don Nelson proved throughout his career that he preferred playing big to playing small. But above all, he preferred winning.
I should also throw out a third possibility: or 3) Because Keith Smart wants to keep his job. But I don’t want to consider this possibility yet. It is insulting to Smart, and I have high hopes for him.
If the Warriors play better defensively this season, it will largely be because they now have the personnel to play better defensively. As Keith Smart himself graciously pointed out in his interviews. Nellie was a pretty darn good defensive coach with the right personnel, as the We Believe team (that held the Mavs 10 points below their scoring average in the four Warriors wins, while running the ball down their throats), and the 2002-3 Mavs (that lead the league in point-differential), should have proved to everyone. The media simply have never gotten that, because the idea that a coach could emphasize defense within the framework of a high-octane offense is simply too advanced a concept for them. Don Nelson was not after defensive statistics, he was after point-differential and wins. And he got them.
If the starters play fewer minutes, it will be because the team can win with them on the bench. (And given the thinness of the Warriors bench at point guard and center, I’m skeptical that it can even happen.)
If the chemistry of the team improves, it will improve with winning. Winning is what builds chemistry. How was the chemistry of the We Believe team?
The Warriors’ players all love Keith Smart. He’s their friend, protector, mentor. That was the role he played as the intermediary between the players and grumpy old Nellie. It is not an easy role to maintain as a head coach.
The players all loved Avery Johnson when he took over in Dallas. Right up until he drove them over the cliff and they threw him under the remains of the bus.
Getting knuckleheads to play decent basketball, or good players to play championship basketball is not always about being liked. Just crack open David Halberstam to the chapter on how Phil Jackson treated Horace Grant.
I’m looking forward to watching Keith Smart coach. I’m going into it with an open mind. I’m not going to judge him on the basis of what I saw him do last year. I don’t think that would be fair, both because of the limited personnel he was given to work with, and the difficult situation he was in as Nellie’s proxy. The book on Keith Smart starts now. I’m rooting for him.
I will say this, though: the bar I’m setting for Keith Smart this season is quite high. If Andris Biedrins is healthy, and stays healthy, then Smart is taking over a very talented roster. It’s a roster that I believe Don Nelson could have taken to the playoffs, with a very few slight tweaks (Pargo and Tolliver).
But the bar I’m setting for Smart is also a very simple bar. Whether or not he plays bigger, whether or not he increases the defensive focus, gets the starters more rest, gets the players to sing Kumbaya in the huddles, or renounces Don Nelson in the press and declares himself reborn — I will attempt to judge Keith Smart by a very simple standard that I learned from Nellie:
How good is he at winning?
Good luck, Coach Smart. Let’s kick some arrogant Western Conference ass.
Regular followers of this blog are probably asking themselves whether I’m suffering an existential breakdown now that Nellie is gone. It’s a valid question, at least with respect to this blog: this blog was inspired by my joy in watching a Nellie-coached team through thick and thin, and my desire to counter what passed for analysis of Nellieball on other blogs.
The truthful answer is I don’t know. For now, while I remain hopeful about Keith Smart, and I have Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis and David Lee to watch play beautiful uptempo basketball, this will remain a Warriors blog. But if something should change — if, for instance, Joe Lacob decides to draft the next Greg Oden or Hasheem Thabeet, or decides to trade Monta Ellis for the next Eric Dampier, as I fear he yearns to in his heart — then the direction of this blog will change in a hurry. I have a very low tolerance for mediocrity, that outweighs any sort of allegiance I might have to the Warriors. In the long years that the Warriors wandered in the desert between Nelson stints, I simply turned them off. I preferred watching Nellie create the Dallas Mavericks out of thin air.
While I have some curiosity myself as to the direction this blog will take, one thing I can promise is that I will be spending very little time going forward defending Nellie’s record. When I bring Nellie up, it will be to use him as a familiar reference point in order to draw a comparison, or to make a basketball point. It seems rather pointless to me to go on defending him in the abstract, now that it’s useless to do so. That game is over. I’m moving on.
Now that Nellie’s gone, it’s enough for me to simply remember the enjoyment I got from watching him work. I enjoyed struggling from afar to divine the secrets of his labrynthine mind and his champion’s heart. I enjoyed trying to learn from him the game within the game of basketball. As a professional competitor myself, I learned from him the importance of defying conventional wisdom and being utterly fearless to try new things in seeking the path to victory. And I learned the importance of never giving in: believing you can win no matter what the odds, game-planning to win, and on the day, doing whatever it takes to get that win. Like Larry Riley, I will forever believe that “If you had one game to play in your life, you’d want Don Nelson to coach that game.”
I’m filing Nellie’s work on my bookshelf of modern American masters, next to Thelonious Monk, Elmore Leonard and David Simon.
That’s the shelf I return to.