Warriors' Nelson would welcome Webber back 14 years after feud
Barring an unexpected change of heart, sources said, Webber will accept the invitation from former coach Don Nelson and former teammate Chris Mullin to come back to the team with whom he won NBA Rookie of the Year honors in 1994, only for Webber to force a trade to Washington some six months later when his prickly relationship with Nelson collapsed.
I think if he comes, it can benefit our team, it can benefit his and my relationship, it can benefit players on this team. I think he has a chance to make some of our players better and make our team better.
"I hope that it happens to be quite honest with you," Nelson told Bay Area reporters Sunday before the Warriors hosted the New York Knicks. "I think our team needs it."
Nelson made his own surprising and triumphant return to Oakland last season, guiding the Warriors to their first playoff berth since they went 50-32 in Webber's rookie season in 1993-94. Sources say Nelson and Mullin, now the Warriors' vice president of basketball operations, are confident that the 67-year-old coach and Webber are ready for this seemingly hard-to-fathom reunion after multiple conversations in recent days.
For his part, Nelson has maintained that he and Webber reconciled years ago, when he chose Webber to replace the injured Shaquille O'Neal -- over Dirk Nowitzki from Nelson's Dallas Mavericks -- as the West's starting center for the 2002 All-Star Game in Philadelphia.
Webber could not be immediately reached for comment Sunday, but sources insist that he would be Golden State-bound now even if the Detroit Pistons made an 11th-hour bid to re-sign him. The Warriors have offered to sign him for the rest of the season for a pro-rated share of the league's $1.2 million veteran minimum.
After a second-half stint with his hometown Pistons last season that ended in defeat in the Eastern Conference finals, Webber told ESPN.com in October that he would only play "as a Piston" this season . . . "unless something crazy happens." But he has relaxed that stance in recent weeks.
Webber last week rejected the opportunity to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers after they lost Andrew Bynum to a knee injury in part, sources said, because L.A. wanted Webber to play out two 10-day contracts before it made a decision on keeping him. Conversations with the Warriors developed from Golden State's discussions with fellow veteran Gary Payton, as Payton and Webber are both represented by agent Aaron Goodwin.
Although the Pistons have retained an interest in bringing Webber back all season, they would still need to clear a roster spot to make room for the 34-year-old and have either been unable or unwilling to do so. Pistons president Joe Dumars indicated last week that the club was unlikely to buy out the contract of either Primoz Brezec or Flip Murray just to add Webber.
On the surface, Webber appears to be a questionable fit for the up-and-down Warriors, given the mobility issues that have plagued him since a major knee injury in the 2003 playoffs and subsequent microfracture knee surgery. Golden State, however, lacks veteran know-how and frontcourt depth. The Warriors believe Webber's passing and mid-range shooting can address some of their half-court struggles and give them a new offensive outlet when the game slows down or their 3-pointers aren't falling.
"I would love to have Chris Webber," Stephen Jackson told reporters, according to The Associated Press. "I'm not sure if it will happen or not but if he comes here we'll definitely welcome him with open arms. He's a great player and I'd love to have him. We'll see what happens."
At the very least, Webber's arrival would double the number of true big men Nelson is willing to play. Andris Biedrins is the only current Golden State power player entrusted with meaningful minutes; Al Harrington and Matt Barnes are natural small forwards who operate as power forwards for the smallish Warriors.
Nelson asserted over the weekend that he has little doubt that there's a place for Webber's voice in a locker room that already houses the outspoken duo of Baron Davis and Jackson.
"Our leadership is so strong here I wouldn't worry about that," Nelson said. "I'd say, if anything, we'd be stronger. More veteran leadership is a good thing. I've got enough rookies."
It remains to be seen how Webber will respond if Nelson plays him limited minutes or even sits him some nights, but Golden State figures it's a low-risk, inexpensive gamble that will pay off if Webber can match the production he managed last season in Philadelphia and Detroit, averaging 11.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
Those numbers dropped to 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds in 25.3 minutes per game in the playoffs, but Nelson is undaunted.
"I'm afraid if we don't get him here [that] our team is not strong enough to be a playoff team," Nelson said. "That's my biggest fear. I think if he comes it can benefit our team, it can benefit his and my relationship, it can benefit players on this team. I think he has a chance to make some of our players better and make our team better. Really that's all that's important. I'll get along with anybody who can help our team."
Nelson orchestrated a draft-day trade in Orlando in 1993 to land Webber, who at the time was only the second college sophomore in history to go No. 1 overall. But they barely lasted one season together, with Webber dealt to Washington for Tom Gugliotta and three first-round picks and Nelson losing his dual role of coach-GM shortly thereafter.
"I've learned over the years," Nelson said Sunday night. "I've softened a bit through some of the experiences I've had. I look back at the time when Chris and I were here early in our careers. We were both pretty stubborn and I was maybe too tough and he was too young to see the positives I was trying to bring to the table. I've learned and I think he has, too. Hey, I'm an old man and he's an old player."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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