by Irv Soonachan
When a team with Playoff aspirations goes through a losing streak, they inevitably face the creeping spread of a certain malaise: Self-doubt, interpersonal tensions, and people refocusing on their own careers, both on the court and in the coaches’ offices. And in most cases, regardless of the reasons for the losing streak—injuries or otherwise—how the team fights this malaise will determine, to paraphrase Michael Ray Richardson, whether their ship be sinking.
For a team like the Golden State Warriors, who were cultivating a delicate confidence in their attempt to expunge decades of futility, the losing streak that occurred in the wake of David Lee’s bizarre injury threatened to throw the franchise into purgatory once again.
After Lee took home Wilson Chandler’s tooth in his arm, which subsequently became infected, the team went into a freefall. Lee’s gutsy but foolhardy return a few games later—while his arm continued to bleed—didn’t help much. There were 14 losses in 16 games, and they were coming in every way imaginable.
“A lot of things can happen in a stretch like that,” says Rockets assistant coach Jack Sikma. In the ’70s and ’80s Sikma played for two of the NBA’s memorable coaches: Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, with whom he won a Championship, and the mercurial Don Nelson, whose recently ended tenure with the Warriors still hangs heavy over the franchise. “You’re pressing, you’re at risk of surrendering, you start to fracture, and all those things can keep you from getting turned around.”
Current Warriors coach Keith Smart, who took over for Nelson, waited a long time for a chance to lead an NBA team. He was once an interim coach Cleveland, but it was the year before LeBron James showed up, and there was little talent to work with. Granted his first real opportunity in Golden State after years of rolling out the ball as an assistant, he would have to make some hard, humbling decisions.
In front of the media, Smart’s mantra throughout the losing streak was that he was staying positive with his players, which he repeated so often that some reporters began to doubt his sincerity. He also said at times that the team would stick to its game plan, but had to improve its execution. Most people following the team didn’t realize that the part of that statement they believed to be true deserved a heavy asterisk, and the part that seemed dubious was in fact true. Behind the scenes Smart was contemplating a restructure of the team’s playbook, but there were a lot of factors to consider.
“I think it’s always a challenge for the coach,” said Jerry Sichting, Smart’s lead assistant. “Do I change? Will it look like we panicked and we’re changing our offense? Will it look like we panicked when we change our player rotation?’ You’ve got to balance that against ‘nothing’s going to change unless we change something.’ That’s the big dilemma in coaching: when you’re going bad, how do you turn it over?”
At the beginning of the season, Smart tried to install an offense similar to Jerry Sloan’s in Utah, a John Wooden-style scheme that relies on precision, timing, and discipline—not staple characteristics of the shoot-first, ask-questions-later attack preferred by Nelson. Smart had hoped that the Warriors’ bevy of new players would speed the team’s adjustment, but in truth many of Nelson’s players remained, including regulars Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry, Reggie Williams, and Andris Biedrins, and to varying degrees they were all struggling to learn new skills. Over the course of the season Smart had already had to simplify his schemes. So in the end, he went back to a familiar look, but with a twist.
“They’re running Nellie’s offense, lock, stock and barrel,” said an opposing scout. “There’s only one difference: Smart keeps two bigs on the floor at all times.”
With two big men on the floor—instead of Nelson’s patented “small ball”—the Warriors were able improve the flow of their offense, while still protecting the rim. Some around the League think Smart’s use of his big men may also have the fringe benefit of keeping the team’s perimeter players—who this year are spending more time guarding players close to their size—fresher at the end of games and at the end of the season.
But that was not Smart’s only adjustment. When he first took over the team, Smart decided to run short, tightly scheduled practices, like his college coach at Indiana, Bobby Knight. Privately, some of his players, especially those joining from other teams, questioned whether Smart was being too easy on them, and whether the team would have the same endurance as certain opponents. In mid-December, the team’s practices changed.
“It’s a little more energetic,” Sichting noted on Christmas Eve, right as the team was about to rescue its season. “We’re practicing a little bit longer, a little bit harder.”
Sichting, however, saw the change to longer practices differently: “We had a great training camp, but then you get to a stretch where you’re playing a lot of games, so maybe you back off a little bit too much in practice and you get bad habits. Coaches refer to that as game slippage. You’re playing well, then you don’t get the practice time and all of a sudden the habits you built up in training camp or in practice that led you to play well start going out the window little-by-little. Things that you might not notice for a game or two, then all of a sudden you’re looking at the film and go, ‘When did we ever start doing that? That’s not how we were playing two weeks ago.’ You fight that on a continual basis in an 82-game schedule.”
Either way, it worked, and Smart added one important twist: Players were given the opportunity to win playing time in practice. No less than the team’s owner has publicly chided Smart for not locking in the team’s rotation and for not automatically granting playing time to talented first-round pick Ekpe Udoh, but Smart’s flexibility with the last couple of spots in his rotation—and willingness to let players work their way out of his doghouse—helped the team recover.
No player benefited more from this than Reggie Williams. Expected to be a key player off the team’s bench, Williams instead found his young career floundering as he struggled with the team’s offense. Smart’s adjustments to the playbook helped, but so did his willingness to give second chances.
“When Reggie got here, he didn’t realize how hard he was going to have to work to be successful,” said a Warriors official. “But he’s figured it out and he’s putting in the time and effort.”
Also benefiting was Vladimir Radmanovic. Buried on the bench and with an expiring contract, on many teams he would have been an afterthought. But he was on the floor December 21 against Sacramento, and his game-tying three pointer at the end of regulation in that game began the Warriors’ turnaround.
Though it all, Smart remained almost unfailingly positive. It’s a trait he was known for before taking over the Warriors, but nobody except those who knew the coach well expected him to stay that way during such a brutal stretch. According to Sikma, who can safely be described as old school, that’s a good thing.
“You try to correct mistakes, but I think it’s important from a coaching standpoint to keep it in as positive a light as possible,” said the seven-time All-Star. “You have to step on somebody once in a while if the same mistake happens over and over, but at the same time, in the long run, you’ve got to pat them on the back and push them out there. Overall, the atmosphere has to be positive.”
The players were trying to stay positive as well. In the locker room self-reflection was encouraged, finger pointing was not. On a team without many veteran leaders and even fewer with contracts guaranteed past this season, seventh-year forward Dorell Wright, barely 25 years old, emerged as one of the key voices.
“We’re staying together and not giving up,” he said in the middle of the losing streak, using similar coach-speak to Sikma.”And we’re not splintering.”
But when a team is on a losing streak, the tightness isn’t limited to the locker room. The players might be young and rich, but many start curtailing their social lives and attending fewer parties when things aren’t going well.
“A lot of people try not to let it, but it feeds into your lifestyle,” said point guard Acie Law. “You can get depressed when you’re not successful but you know you’re capable of being successful.”
The Warriors’ depression was not destined to last. With Lee back, Williams and Radmanovic producing off the bench, and potential All-Star Monta Ellis playing freer in a familiar system, the Warriors got rolling again, winning nearly two-thirds of their games since Radmanovic’s clutch three.
To make sure everybody knew it was okay to party again, Ellis dusted off the long-dormant locker room stereo system, blasting out songs by Young Jeezy and Rick Ross before every game. Nearly every player knows the words, and several have been seen lip syncing in near unison from their lockers as they get dressed.
Lee didn’t listen to much rap music before joining the NBA, but sees the purpose. “It gets everybody pumped up, and after all these years I like it, too,” he said—even while admitting that if he chose the music, the Warriors would be soft-rocking out to the Dave Matthews Band and U2.
Latvia native Biedrins is open about not being a rap fan, but knows the words to the team’s favorite jam by Ross. “We all hear that song like 20 times before each game,” he said, and in his Eastern Bloc accent proceeded to demonstrate.
Everyone within ear shot cracked up, and nobody considered that Biedrins might be mocking their music. When a team is winning, such minor slights fall quickly by the wayside.
We can’t mention Jerry Sichting without linking to a video of him as a player: One of the best is the 6-1 guard brawling with 7-4 Ralph Sampson in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Be sure to watch through to Sampson’s classic interview in the tunnel after the second melee.