Whether you hated him or absolutely despised him, you can’t deny that Don Nelson made an otherwise largely dysfunctional franchise not only bearable, but highly entertaining and even captivating at times. The highs and lows during his final four-year tenure as Warriors head coach were pronounced, but at the end it was the lows that overwhelmingly outweighed the highs as he drunkenly stumbled towards the finish line.
Nellie ball has come to embody what Warriors basketball is all about. There’s nothing like tuning into ‘Warriors Pregame Live’ 30 minutes before tip-off just to get an idea of who Nellie planned to start that particular night... then realizing it was some combination of Vladimir Radmanovic(notes), Anthony Tolliver(notes), and Mikki Moore(notes). He has become a bit of a cult hero/villain within fantasy circles in recent years for his erratic player rotations and inexplicable love-hate relationships with certain players, and by extension, their fantasy owners. Talk all you want about Mike D’Antoni and his SSOL philosophy, but no one did it quite like Nellie did. He is D’Antoni’s crazy uncle that has way too much to drink at family get-togethers, a breath of fresh air to the fantasy game that reeked of cheap wine and Bud Light.
Life has been rough for Warriors fans under the Chris Cohan era, having made the playoffs just one time in the past 16 seasons. Even the Clippers, who went an NBA-worst 443-837 (.346) during that span, made the playoffs twice. The Clippers. So where do the Warriors go from here, now that the wicked witch of the West is gone?
While new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber will be responsible for damage control, it will be up to new head coach Keith Smart to figure out what to do with the remaining (and added) pieces. He’s certainly not the ideal candidate given his previous failed head coaching stint in Cleveland, but he’s as close to a rebound as the Warriors can find given their failed relationship with Nellie.
Smart comes in preaching rebounding and defense, two areas that were never emphasized under the Nelson regime because they didn’t include the words shooting or scoring.
“We have a different basketball team," Smart said. "We're still going to run and play fast but we're going to add another element ... We're going to (rebound and) be physical from the defensive standpoint. That's the direction we're going to try to take.”
While this has caused some to impulsively overreact and start calling Stephen Curry(notes) a second-rounder, a closer examination of the situation reveals that there’s not all that much to be worried about. Given the circumstances and Smart’s track record, I find it hard to really buy what he is selling. Not only did he choose to take Nellie’s small ball madness a step further during his five-game stint as head coach last season, but he’s been considered the “defensive coordinator” of a squad that allowed 112.4 points per game last year, one of the worst totals in the past three decades. Does he even know what he’s doing on the defensive end? Second, what makes you think he isn’t just telling the owners what they want to hear to gain job security (which he has)? Based on the personnel changes alone, Smart has a huge safety net in place that will allow him to improve in these two areas (defense, rebounding) without actually changing much.
Here are the Warriors’ top five-man units from last year (based on minutes played):
I know. How on earth did some of these players get so much run? Now add in Dorell Wright(notes), David Lee(notes), a healthy Andris Biedrins(notes), Louis Amundson(notes), and Dan Gadzuric(notes). It’s impossible for this team not to improve defensively and on the glass.
There’s been talk of Smart installing a 1-4 high post set similar to the one that Jerry Sloan employs in Utah, “usually with Stephen Curry in the Stockton/Williams role, David Lee in the Malone/Boozer role and Monta Ellis(notes) as Hornacek”. We’ll see how long that sticks, especially when players start forgetting cuts and revert back to their natural tendency to jack up shots early in the shot clock.
As much as Smart is hell-bent on instilling change, his players seem to be a bit resistant to a major offensive makeover (especially one so close to the start of the season). “It's going to be no different," Monta Ellis said. "[Smart] has been under Nellie for the last three or four years. Whatever new things he tries to put in, we're going to go with it, but there's not going to be any difference. We're still going to be built in a Don Nelson style.”
This should be music to the ears of those heavily invested in the Warriors this season. For those claiming Curry is now a second-round talent, I ask you this. Yes, you can argue Pau Gasol(notes) and Deron Williams(notes) over Steph, but who else moves ahead of him? Amar’e Stoudemire(notes)? David Lee? Josh Smith(notes)? I think not. There just aren’t any other legitimate options out there to make such an outlandish claim. And who’s to say that Kobe Bryant(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) won’t drop out of the top-10 this year with their early injury woes? I’d range Curry anywhere from fifth-to-10th overall depending on your outlook.
If you were to be worried about anyone, I’d be a bit cautious about David Lee and Monta Ellis. Lee will be playing next to Andris Biedrins this year, rather than a perimeter-bound Al Harrington(notes), and goes from being the go-to scorer in New York to the third option in Golden State. Monta will have a big trade cloud hanging over his head, and all this talk about installing him in a Hornacek-type role can’t be good for his value. Rounding off the rest of the roster, Biedrins is a nice bounceback candidate with Nellie no longer there berating him (and especially if he is 100% healthy like he claims), while Reggie Williams(notes) and Dorell Wright are excellent career-year candidates who will fit seamlessly into Smart’s overall philosophy.
Life after Don Nelson will be a lot less hectic as Smart will add some much-needed stability and structure to an often misguided group, but for fantasy purposes it should remain a highly productive system. Smart will slow down the tempo a few notches, but that should only serve to improve upon a rather pedestrian offense that finished 13th in offensive efficiency last season.
Photos via Getty Images