April 27, 2011
The news broke a few hours ago, and it is not terribly surprising: Keith Smart has been dismissed as head coach of the Golden State Warriors after just one season at the helm, as first reported by Matt Steinmetz of CSNBayArea.com, confirmed by Yahoo!'s own Marc Spears, and announced by the franchise itself. Smart got the job just before training camp this fall after new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber deposed the increasingly erratic Don Nelson, and he had a season to prove to his new bosses that he was the man for the long-term job. As these developments indicate, he did not do enough to please them.
The question is whether or not he got a fair shake, or if Lacob and Guber just considered him a convenient stopgap after Nellie and before their own handpicked successor. While Smart almost certainly would have received consideration in a full coaching search, he was given this job in the fall because he was already on the coaching staff, was generally well-liked, and had head-coaching experience from an interim stint with Cleveland in 2002. The new owners wanted no part of Nelson and had another option close. It was a no-brainer move, but Smart could hardly be called the perfect choice for the job.
On the other hand, he was far from incompetent. Faced with a very thin bench (especially in the backcourt) and several question marks in the frontcourt, Smart guided the Warriors to 36 wins, a 10-game improvement over 2009-10. Some of that improvement can be chalked up to better injury luck, but the Warriors also began to resemble a real basketball team for the first time in two seasons. Stephen Curry(notes) and Monta Ellis(notes) appeared to reach an understanding with each other at the offensive end of the court, even if their defense still leaves a metric ton to be desired. After the barely organized mess of the last two Nellie seasons, having any sort of organization was the greatest improvement of all. It was possible to envision this squad improving and growing together instead of festering in an incoherent approximation of the NBA game. Perhaps that would have happened under any coach not named "Don Nelson." But Smart made it happen, and he deserves credit for it.
Still, he was not without fault. Andris Biedrins(notes) had another terrible season at center and looks like he hates basketball. His regression can be explained in part by Nelson's extreme mishandling, but it's still Smart's job to get the players interested. Additionally, while the Warriors looked more like a real basketball unit this season, they remain fundamentally averse to defense and working to get good shots. Again, the roster can be blamed for those issues. But if the new higher-ups are looking to change the identity of the team, it stands to reason that a man who spent eight years in the organization wouldn't be the best man for the job. The fact that Smart was rumored to have a testy relationship with Curry, a near-universally loved young player, only made the choice easier.
The Warriors have had a horrible history over the last 20 years of keeping coaches -- as Tom Ziller notes at SB Nation, only Don Nelson (on two occasions) has spent more than three years in the job since the late '80s. However, Lacob and Guber didn't consider that history when they made this choice. Their interest lies in molding the franchise as they see fit, not making decisions based on recent examples. Smart was never their guy; he was just an available replacement.
Ultimately, we won't know if letting Smart go was a good decision until we find out who will take his job. Several high profile candidates could be interviewed -- including Jerry Sloan, apparently -- but it's unclear whom Lacob and Guber will pick. Whoever it is, though, will be their choice. He will have no ties to the old regime.
So, depending on how you view the circumstances, Smart either had a fair chance to prove himself or no chance at all. Many assistants would kill to get a season to show they can be capable head coaches. Smart got that shot, and his career will be better for it in the long run. His dismissal was always a strong possibility, and it should come as no shock.