Mullin has credibility, confidence in Golden State

Updated: March 24, 2005, 9:38 AM ET
By Scott Howard-cooper | Special to ESPN.com

It's late March, Warriors fans. Do you know where your legend is?

Not that they have many to choose from in the Oakland era, but in the case of Chris Mullin, he's living life as the genius executive vice president of basketball operations. Not only have the Golden State Warriors won three of their last four, but the three came against the Kings, at Phoenix on the second night of a back-to-back and at Sacramento before a 107-97 setback at home Wednesday against the Mavericks.

Troy Murphy is gobbling up rebounds. Jason Richardson is posting double-doubles. Baron Davis is doing it all.

On the other hand:

It's still Golden State.

The Warriors are 23-45 and suffering in the standings through the latest New Beginning. Breaking in another coach, Mike Montgomery. Breaking in more fresh players.

Mullin is at the forefront, responsible for most being in Golden State or, in the case of contract extensions, securing their continued presence. The difference has been his authority, his decision to look at potential, his guts to trade for Davis despite a big contract and injuries.

His name, too. So much of it is about his name, of course.

Mullin has unparalleled basketball star power in the Bay Area. He lives in the same East Bay city as when he was a forward for the Warriors, with whom he played 13 seasons, the ever-popular gym rat with the crew cut and Brooklyn accent.

He needed a new challenge, they needed to use his name as collateral, and so it was settled. Mullin took over as personnel boss three years after his last game as a player, and Golden State would get to trade on his name, not even bothering to deny it was a consideration.

"Ten percent," president Robert Rowell said. "It's about his ability and who he is and what he was as a player. How he prepared himself."

This is not unheard of in the NBA. Kevin McHale, a Minnesota high school and college star, was hired to run the Timberwolves after two seasons in a lesser role. Joe Dumars, popular as a Bad Boy Piston, took over in Detroit after a one-year apprenticeship. Larry Bird, on any Mount Rushmore of Indiana hoops, became the No. 1 man for the Pacers without previous personnel experience, though he had at least been a head coach for three seasons.

Mullin had always been a tireless worker and been respected for his basketball intelligence, never having been gifted with the athleticism to beat people purely on physical dominance, but this was also the Warriors in typical wobble and needing a credibility boost. Others were building résumés as top assistants through years in front offices and candidacies for various GM jobs. Mullin's executive experience, meanwhile, was two seasons as Golden State special assistant.

Even that was little more than a placeholder title. Inevitable Replacement When Garry St. Jean Gets Fired wouldn't fit on the business card, and it was all a matter of timing and maneuvering the uncomfortable moments when Golden State would make a personnel move and everyone speculated who actually called the shots. The truth is that by then, St. Jean was through the last of his major moves, the August 2003 package highlighted by Antawn Jamison's going to Dallas for Nick Van Exel.

It was only a matter of time before Mullin would succeed St. Jean. The Warriors waited for Mullin to decide he was comfortable enough with working the salary cap and the huge time requirements that would follow the change. When he was, Saint was officially done.

When Mullin's moment came, he acted quickly, not just firing Eric Musselman as coach, as expected, but hiring Montgomery, a college coach with no NBA experience.

That turned out to be just the first of the bold moves. Testing the limits of the honeymoon, Mullin committed $41 million over six years, including a team option for the final season, to re-sign Adonal Foyle and $37 million over six years to lure free agent Derek Fisher. Not long after that, Richardson got an extension worth six years and $70 million and Murphy got one for six years and $58 million.

The Warriors, with Mullin as the decision maker, had potentially invested $206 million to keep three pieces and add another – and none was a franchise player. (The same moves might have gotten St. Jean hanged in effigy.) Mullin gambled big, constricting a salary cap that once had the potential for flexibility, and gets to play it out.

Months of losing followed, then came the trades. Zarko Cabarkapa was low risk with high upside. Nikoloz Tskitishvili was a one-time top prospect taken as a flier. Davis gives them an elite point guard, health willing, and that's worth more for the potential than for any three-game winning streak in March.

But the short-term wins help Mullin's credibility, and his good name, after putting it on the line and all. It also helps that he isn't concerned about the credibility game.

"To me, that runs out quick," he said of the suggestion that he was hired to trade on his name. "I was here three years prior to taking the job, to say, 'You know what, this is probably not going to work, one way or the other.' But it worked out the way it did. In player evaluation, I feel like I'm very confident in that area."

Confidence never has been a Mullin problem. Good thing. He's running the Warriors now, and no one's a genius forever.

Scott Howard-Cooper, who covers the NBA for the Sacramento Bee, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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