Forget Warrior warts -- Nelson can deliver playoff berth

Updated: September 1, 2006, 12:46 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

The Golden State Warriors, at last, are a playoff team again.

Mark it down.

Nothing's official, of course. Not yet, some 30 days before camps open.

But that's how you have to see the Warriors now that Don Nelson is back to coach them. That's how I'm seeing them even though the Warriors haven't played an actual playoff game for a dozen years ... and even though I haven't exactly figured out who Golden State bumps in a Western Conference that didn't have room for Utah, New Orleans/Oklahoma City, Houston or Minnesota in last spring's playoffs.

I'm betting that Nellie has the Warriors back in the postseason at the first attempt. I'm even more convinced that there isn't a single free agent or trade target they realistically could have landed who makes the Warriors up to 10 wins better than they were, as Nellie does.

The stars Golden State dreams of swooping for -- Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal -- were never in reach because they never made it to the trading block. Al Harrington, meanwhile, proved beyond the Warriors' free-agent means. So instead of forcing trades for the sake of new blood, and giving away an asset or two that could bring back something better at the February trade deadline, Warriors vice president Chris Mullin finally convinced his bosses that the most prudent way to make an immediate culture change was buying out the remaining two seasons of Mike Montgomery's contract and resurrecting Nellieball.

You can safely surmise that Warriors owner Chris Cohan wanted to do neither. Montgomery had $5 million left on his contract. If paying him off wasn't sufficiently unappealing, reupping Nelson meant burying a nasty history that landed owner and coach in a legal wrangle for nearly five years, haggling over $1.6 million (which Nellie eventually got to keep) after Cohan blamed Nelson for blowing up the way-too-short Chris Webber era.

But credit to Cohan for getting past all that and finally empowering Mullin to end the Montgomery experiment and hire the most decorated coach available, even if it comes pretty late in the offseason. The Warriors have a bright future, with several interesting (and tradeable) young pieces to keep shaping their roster, but they've run out of grace period waiting for that future. They need a playoff berth ASAP and needed to do something big in the offseason to suggest they'll get there.

This is the bold move the Warriors' ridiculously loyal fans have been calling for. Better yet, bold and smart.

Twelve seasons without a playoff berth, in the NBA, is as ridiculous as it gets, but Mullin has made a meaningful splash here. The Warriors already have some depth, talent and versatility. Nellie will take what they have and get a lot more out of it, with an up-tempo philosophy and creative playbook that should be even more potent now given the NBA's increasing reliance on smaller lineups and pushing the pace.

Nelson will scare the young, lost Warriors into following his directions and, most of all, teach them how to win. His new group has undeniable deficiencies -- defense and low-post scoring, for starters -- but knowing how to close out games might be the biggest. Golden State lost a whopping 17 times last season by three points or less, or in overtime. These players desperately need some been-there, done-that guidance.

For two seasons, they struggled to mask the sense that they never believed Montgomery could provide those things. Montgomery, furthermore, never gave you the feeling of total command or confidence that oozed from him at Stanford. None of that figures to be an issue with Nelson, who will be stern and fun.

Troy Murphy at center? Mike Dunleavy as a playmaker? Nelson is bound to try out lots of things with wild cards like Monta Ellis, Ike Diogu and Mickael Pietrus.

Jason Richardson? Nellie's new (and more athletic) Mitch Richmond.

Baron Davis? Questions will be asked about Baron buying in no matter who's coaching, but I don't buy it here. Davis knows what sort of freedom Nelson gave Tim Hardaway and, later, Steve Nash. I'm guessing Baron, after the Montgomery experience, will volunteer to pick up Nelson at the airport before Wednesday night's unveiling.

From the moment word started circulating in Dallas last winter that Nelson was interested in coaching in 2006-07, Golden State was an obvious option because of Mullin's presence ... if Cohan and Nelson could reconcile. The bigger mystery, now that coach and owner apparently have, is why Nelson, after nearly three decades on NBA benches, is so eager to come back.

The only thing missing from his coaching legacy -- a championship -- won't be forthcoming in the next two or three seasons. Nelson's son, Donnie, told me himself back in February: "I would just ask him, 'How many more mountains can you climb?' He's the second-winningest coach of all-time. He's achieved pretty much everything there is to achieve as a player, coach and executive. If he asks me, for health reasons and everything else, I'd tell him, 'You don't need it.' "

Nellie apparently didn't ask Lil' Nellie. He showed interest in the Sacramento job that opened in May, which also set up the chance to work with friends -- Kings co-owners Joe and Gavin Maloof -- and couldn't resist Mullin's offer to go back to the Bay Area as a savior. Especially not after being drummed out of town as the villain more than decade ago.

Throw in an annual salary of roughly $4 million, according to team sources, and, well, mystery solved.

You certainly have to wonder whether Nelson, at 66, really has three seasons' worth of steam left, and whether the unhappy ending can be avoided this time, but I'll be shocked if the Warriors' playoff problems aren't solved next.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics