Commentary

Kreidler: 48 wins not enough for Warriors

Originally Published: April 17, 2008
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Baron Davis and Don NelsonGlenn James/Getty ImagesDavis and Nelson didn't see eye to eye in the most crucial game of the season.

OAKLAND -- Over here in the Nose-Pressed-Against-the-Window Division, we give you Don Nelson, who will jet off to Maui to mull his career options from one of his multiple properties there, where he'll debate about two nanoseconds before he'll return to the Warriors next season and collect more than $5 million to coach.

On the other side of the locker room, Baron Davis is left to ponder the cosmic meaning of his being benched for the entire second half of the Phoenix game, No. 81 on the schedule. No big deal, really; the ensuing defeat only choked the last life out of Golden State's playoff hopes, while its point guard/leading scorer sat idling at courtside.

And the Warriors themselves? They achieved the finest record of any team that has failed to reach the postseason since the NBA adopted the current playoff format, oh, 24 years ago. Forty-eight victories, and lottery-bound.

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"We deserve to be a playoff team," Nelson said, using history and not current events as his guide. "We're not. And so here we sit."

And sit. (Baron Davis.) And sit. (Baron Davis.) Nelson is already on record with one of his classic Nellie opaqueries on the subject of Baron's benching, explaining with that sort of by-gosh-by-golly voice of his that the guard went 2-for-13 in the first half against Phoenix, and, gee whiz, you can't beat the Suns shooting like that. Hearing Nellie careen off in that oratorical direction, one could be forgiven for assuming that the coach must bench his best guys all the time when they go cold for a half.

Well, no. Seldom, in fact, does Nelson hew to the credo that teams can succeed by sitting their talent. We can safely assume two things: There's more to the story than Nelson or Davis is saying (and certainly more to it than the mere fact of Davis celebrating his birthday with friends the night before in Phoenix -- as if he were the first NBA player to, you know, stay up late); and whatever that story is, Nelson won't tell it.

So let's push on to what we're fairly certain of. First, Nelson, who turns 68 this month, will be back coaching the Warriors next season. He has never left money on the table -- in fact, he'll be back in Dallas this summer, in arbitration, to attempt to wrench from Mavs owner Mark Cuban the $6.5 million Nellie says he's owed in deferred compensation -- and he won't start now.

Second, Davis, who said after Wednesday night's season-ending loss to Seattle that he has no problem with Nelson despite the benching ("We've got each other's backs," the guard intoned), will be right there with him. Davis will exercise his option on a $17 million-plus salary for 2008-09, effectively tethering him to the Warriors, because almost nobody could pick up that kind of contract without all sorts of movement and trouble.

And third, 48-34 just doesn't buy what it used to out West -- and it won't next season, either.

"We still had a great season," said guard Monta Ellis. "We can hold our heads up. Forty-eight wins and still didn't make the playoffs -- it just shows you how tough the West is. We tried. That's all we can say."

Aside from the obvious, which is that Jason Richardson (traded for payroll reasons) might have been worth a few crucial victories to the Warriors down the stretch. Nelson knows that his team is too shallow and too young off the bench to run with the big dogs in the Western Conference. In the always-popular dream sequence, the Warriors would be the No. 4 seed in the East, with home-court advantage against Cleveland in the first round, but in the real world, it may well take 50 wins again next season to guarantee a spot in the playoffs in the West.

Warriors GM Chris Mullin has to be nimble. He needs a real backup for Davis at the point, and he could use a shot-blocking presence anywhere on the floor. But with Nelson reiterating Wednesday how important it is for Golden State's ownership to remain under the luxury-tax threshold, Mullin is going to have to fill those needs either through outright luck (an outrageous good spin of the NBA lottery wheel) or a crafty -- read "cheap" -- free-agent signing.

Lost amid the shouting is the fact that the Warriors staged a six-game improvement over their regular season a year ago. Of course, that season peaked with the team's stunning first-round playoff dispatch of Dallas. This year, not so much.

Mullin already has said that he expects Nelson and Davis back, and that restricted free agents Andris Biedrins and Ellis will return. Nelson thus will again coach a team that features three 20-point scorers -- Davis, Ellis and Stephen Jackson -- and not much defense. Nellie thinks highly of two of this season's rookies, Italian guard Marco Belinelli and former North Carolina forward Brandan Wright.

Is it enough? It is not enough by half. After a dozen-year dry spell, the Warriors returned to the playoffs in 2007, only to be confronted in the spring of '08 by the realities of lousy timing. The West, collectively, got terrific. "We deserve to be a playoff team" didn't quite keep pace.

Mark Kreidler's book "Six Good Innings", about the curious ability of one American town to consistently win Little League championships, will be released on July 1 and can be pre-ordered now. His book "Four Days to Glory" has been optioned for film/TV development by ESPN Original Entertainment. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.