by Irv Soonachan
An hour before the 65th game of the season, Warriors GM Larry Riley was willing to admit what many of the fans filling Oracle Arena that night still refused to accept.
“We’re not mathematically eliminated (from the Playoffs), but it’s so tough,” he said. “We’d probably have to go 17-1.”
Away from the noise of the Arena in an otherwise vacant meeting room, the 65-year-old basketball lifer was in a reflective mood.
“When this is over, whether it’s one year from now, five years from now, or ten years from now, I want to look back on it and say the decisions I made were solid ones,” he said. “I want to besatisfied that I would do the same things over again. I’d like to be a part of this organization being a playoff team, year after year.
Whether Riley ever gets the chance to take the Warriors that far is one of many open questions heading into the offseason. But so far so good on his decision-making.
Riley overhauled a team that had no direction and little hope for the future, drafting Stephen Curry and Ekpe Udoh, bringing in free agents David Lee and Dorell Wright, and promoting coach Keith Smart. But Riley also knows he is far from done, and this summer will be important.
“I feel we’ve got a core of guys who are pretty good and that we need to add one more (high caliber) player,” he said. “And we need to strengthen our bench. We’re not deep enough. We have to draft the right guy— a guy who is going to stay with us and be a contributor. And we’re going to have to sign another guy (for the bench).”
Riley places blame for the short bench on the doorstep of his predecessors, without naming Chris Mullin or anyone else by name.
Under Mullin, the team had three consecutive top-10 draft choices and didn’t find success with any of them. In 2005 they selected Ike Diogu one spot ahead of Andrew Bynum, in 2006 they drafted current Reno Bighorns center Patrick O’Bryant, and in 2007 they traded Jason Richardson for the No. 7 pick and took Brandan Wright one spot ahead of Joakim Noah.
“We were 0 for 3 on those, and your depth should be increased by at least going 2 for 3,” he said. “If you’ve got guys who are picked in the top 10… we ought to have two of them who can at least be role players.
“The draft is never an exact science. You can miss on a guy, but we’ve missed on too many.”
Though few blame Riley for the lack of bench strength, many fans hold him accountable for the team’s failure to land a quality player at the trade deadline.
Without a lot of depth and missing future draft picks, the team’s main asset was expiring contracts.
“It just came down to the fact that expiring contracts did not have the kind of value they’ve had in years gone by,” Riley said. “I don’t feel there was a trade out there that would have helped us that much to change what our team is right now.”
What he couldn’t say — but has been reported elsewhere — was that Carmelo Anthony didn’t want to come to Golden State and Utah wasn’t eager to trade Deron Williams within the Western Conference, whether or not the Warriors had the goods to acquire him.
The Warriors did make a move that would have been unlikely in years past. They took on the expiring contract of Troy Murphy for two other players with expiring deals, Brandan Wright and Dan Gadzuric, but owed Murphy more salary than they were giving away.
“We basically bought a second round pick for a year in which we were void of one,” Riley explained.
The trade indicated the willingness of new owner Joe Lacob to spend money.
“It’s not like we are going throw money around and be foolish, but money is not something that stands in the way of getting something done,” Riley says. “In the past we would have had to calculate that very closely and calculate the value of that pick. Which we did this time anyway, but it didn’t get in the way as it would have in the past.”
The pick is for 2012, a year in which the Warriors also lack a first round selection — Mullin sent it to New Jersey for current Russian League standout Marcus Williams. (That pick was part of the package sent to Utah for Williams.)
Riley is also responsible for signing David Lee, the power forward with a body that seems poorly built for one-on-one defense but who also scores and rebounds consistently. Some think Lee is overpriced, while others say his contract is right-sized for his production.
As if on cue, Lee surprised everyone shortly after Riley arrived in his suite that night to watch his team’s game against Orlando. Without the body to match up with Dwight Howard, the lefty used his guile to throw Howard off his game.
Late in the first quarter, Howard swung an elbow just past Lee’s head. Not a lunge, but a warning shot. At that point, the Warriors knew Lee had Howard where he wanted him, and Howard’s poor shooting night — coupled with amazing shooting by the Warriors — fueled an upset win.
His body visibly bruised up after the game, Lee said it all came down to using is head — or in this case, risking it — against Howard.
“He gets frustrated easily,” Lee said.
A couple nights later, Lee would use his feet to frustrate Kevin Love, breaking the Minnesota star’s string of consecutive double-doubles by denying him his favorite spots on the floor.
Even as Lee develops, Riley said the team still needs more talent in the paint.
“It would help us to add a big man,” Riley said bluntly. “It just depends on what will be available this summer. We can’t orchestrate something that isn’t there. I am looking for someone to help us up front with rebounding , and some shot blocking would be helpful . We’re not as bad a rebounding team as we were last year, but it’s just not good enough.”
Riley’s comments were like a Howard elbow thrown at center Andris Biedrins, whose inconsistency offensively and difficulty defending the post recently led the team to try rookie Udoh as a starter. Signed by Mullin to a six-year deal, the Warriors owe Biedrins $27 million over the next three seasons. The team has worked hard to help him improve, but sources say they’ve also worked hard to try to trade him.
It remains to be seen whether Riley actually gets to follow through on any of his offseason plans. He and Smart have made visible improvements to the team, but Lacob has expressed a willingness to make splashy moves on and off the court and says he will not consider any personnel matters until after the end of his first season as owner. Riley and Smart may be old-fashioned basketball men, but they are not big names.
Riley’s contract extends past this season; Smart’s does not.
“There can be a decision made on me at the end of the year, just like with Keith,” Riley said. “I’m under contract, but they can change you at any time. There isn’t anything for me to do other than work.”
— Late in the Magic game, Stephen Curry was called for a phantom foul on the 3-point attempt by Jason Richardson. Owner Lacob, sitting in the front row, was seen animatedly addressing Curry moments later. Asked by SLAMonline what he was telling Curry, Lacob responded that he was talking to him about what a bad call it was.
— Riley said that first-round pick Ekpe Udoh will receive more playing time in the season’s final stages.
–Riley also said that barring a lockout, the team will go to a few of its players in the offseason and “challenge them to do even more and to be totally ready for next season.”
— Lacob recently said that Mullin was to blame for signing forward Stephen Jackson to a contract extension that quickly went sour. This was not among Mullin’s errors as a GM — Team President Robert Rowell had briefly wrested control of basketball operations and was publicly credited by Jackson for getting the contract done. It was immediately speculated that Rowell, the former right-hand man of deeply unpopular owner Chris Cohan (but who remains with the team), was working a Rasputin-like spell on Lacob.
— At practice the day after the team’s overtime win against Orlando, a few of the starters — including Monta Ellis, who played all 53 minutes — were only put through a brief on-court workout. Those who played fewer minutes were worked much harder. This included a group of players who participated in an intense 3-on-3 game.
— The Warriors are taking a serious look at former Clippers draft pick Al Thornton. They think the forward has the athleticism to succeed as a reserve, but not the consistency on his jumper or on defense. He is working with assistant Calbert Cheaney on the finer points of playing forward and with shooting coach Mark Price. The team feels the problem with Thornton’s shot is his footwork, not his shooting motion.