OAKLAND, Calif. – The Golden State Warriors’ much-needed new ownership group is just weeks from officially taking over. Already, the Warriors have a new logo and uniforms. And their roster has been overhauled to include eight new players for training camp, headlined by All-Star forward David Lee(notes).
But of all the changes that the Warriors have made since last season, none has breathed more life into the sagging franchise than the departure of coach Don Nelson. Golden State made Nelson’s exit official on Monday by announcing the promotion of assistant Keith Smart to head coach.
“It was obvious we needed a change,” Warriors general manager Larry Riley said.
Smart and the Warriors players were respectful in their comments about the NBA’s all-time winningest coach, but no one expressed a hint of anger over Nelson’s departure.
From Chris Webber(notes) in 1993 to Andris Biedrins(notes) last season, Nelson often didn’t see eye to eye with his younger players. One former Warrior, who played under Nelson in recent years, said Nelson didn’t communicate much with his players. Once you were in his doghouse, it was difficult to find the exit. Nelson’s work ethic also left a lot to be desired, with one Warriors source rating the coach’s effort in games and practices at “60 percent.” Within the team, there was the sense Nelson was just there to collect his paycheck.
“He knows basketball, no question about that,” one former Warrior said. “But if there is something he doesn’t like or understand, it’s going to be a tough situation for you. Whenever he makes up his mind about something, that’s it.
“You couldn’t communicate with him on what needs to be done. I tried to. It was awkward. But if you were cool, you could do nothing wrong.”
Nelson was also hard on the injury-plagued Biedrins, saying he “didn’t see any life” in the young center’s play and suggesting he shoot free throws underhanded.
“We needed a change because after the last two years, it’s been really bad for us,” Biedrins said of the team. “That’s the obvious thing we needed to do, change.”
Riley said he realized after the All-Star break he needed to veer away from acquiring “Nellie-type” players and add more size to the roster. In addition to adding Lee, the Warriors signed Louis Amundson(notes), Rodney Carney(notes), Dorell Wright(notes) and Jeremy Lin(notes) in the offseason, none of whom fits the shooter profile Nelson prefers.
New Warriors owner Joe Lacob described Nelson's $6 million salary as a “sunk cost” to the San Jose Mercury News in August, but Nelson showed up at the Warriors’ informal workouts early last week, and the players began to believe he would start the season as coach. In the end, Nelson and the Warriors parted amicably, and the team’s ownership had actually hoped to complete the coach’s buyout much earlier.
“It was a shock,” Curry said. “I didn’t see it coming past a certain period. I knew there were talks all summer about that possibly being the case, but it was so close to training camp.”
Nelson’s detractors were numerous, certainly among his players. But there were also some people in the organization – namely Riley and Smart – who thought he was misunderstood. Nelson pushed for Smart to replace him.
“He made no mistake he wanted this to happen,” Smart said.
Smart isn’t lacking in experience. He coached the Warriors last season while Nelson was ill, and often led them in practices and timeouts. The Warriors gave up a league-worst 112.4 points per game last season, but Smart thinks the team’s added size and rebounding will allow it to be much improved defensively. Just as important: Smart plans to communicate with his players.
“I never wanted to have to talk to my coach,” Smart said. “I didn’t care if he didn’t talk to me for a week. That’s just how it was. But players today are different. And my style of coaching is different because I know you have to keep a dialogue with these guys all the time.”