by Irv Soonachan
The talk this week about new head coach Keith Smart has been that the Warriors promoted a Don Nelson “disciple.” They didn’t, and there are major changes afoot in Oakland.
Smart directly implied when he interviewed SLAMonline a few months ago — when he was still Nelson’s lead assistant — and openly stated this week that his job was to support Nelson’s agenda, not push alternatives to Nelson’s coaching style.
People rip Smart for having been an unsuccessful “defensive coordinator” for Nelson, but how would you like to be a defensive coordinator for a coach who plays three point guards and two forwards for long stretches?
Though he’ll undoubtedly borrow some things from Nelson, the Warriors have already reshaped their roster (and their coaching staff) for someone who claims to be influenced by Bob Knight (Smart’s college coach); Larry Brown; Hubie Brown; and the Musselmans.
They’ve added bigs who do the grunt work, perimeter players who defend, and a few more guys with high basketball IQs.
David Lee anchors a revamped group of big men that includes Louis Amundson, Dan Gadzuric, and the returning Andris Biedrins. With Lee the Warriors finally have an All-Star caliber presence in the paint, but it won’t be nearly enough unless Biedrins returns to form and improves on last year’s 16 percent horror show at the free-throw line.
Center Ekpe Udoh, the team’s first-round pick, is injured to start the season and is likely to join the Reno Bighorns when he’s ready to return.
But at the end of the day, this is Stephen Curry’s team. Regardless of who is coaching or what style of play they prefer, Curry is now The Man in Golden State, and has leadership skills and a telegenic smile as golden as his jumper.
Monta Ellis is back, too – unless the Warriors finally find someone willing to take on his contract. Curry and Ellis made an effort to patch up their relationship this summer, but the writing on Ellis’ Warriors career may already be on the wall.
The rest of the roster is mostly hard-working stunt doubles or a search for diamonds in the rough (such as Reggie Williams, Jeremy Lin, and Brandan Wright).
Big picture, this is a franchise seeking an identity, and the new owners don’t know much more than that they want to build around Curry and Lee, and refurbish the team’s image, roster and cap flexibility so they can add a top-tier star.
Smart is nothing if not thorough and will make sure the Warriors never lose a game for lack of preparation. If he turns out to be a good coach (and here’s predicting he will be), everyone stays healthy and Curry keeps progressing, this could, at best, be a .500 team. Curry is still far – very far – from being capable of pushing the club further than that. And even if he was, there isn’t nearly enough depth on the roster to do so, either.
But in a Western Conference where Phoenix and potentially Denver are about to fall on hard times, a .500 finish might earn the Warriors the right to get swept by the Lakers in late April — and make Smart, Curry and Lee legends in the minds of the very unconditionally loyal fans of Clippers North.
It didn’t get published in the feature last spring, but when I asked Smart about his role with Nelson, he said: “As an assistant, you’re supposed to be a facilitator of what the head coach wants.” Smart seemed to genuinely appreciate Nelson’s support, but made it clear even then he was his own man and wouldn’t be a Nellie clone if he got his shot.
Dorell Wright is likely to earn a starting nod at small forward, but keep an eye on Williams. The Warriors will need points off their bench, and Williams, who as a collegian at VMI twice led the nation in scoring, proved he can get it done at the NBA level during a 24-game run with the Warriors last season.
Previous Season Previews can be found in the archive.