Montgomery, Warriors to 'learn or die'

Updated: October 27, 2004, 1:11 PM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's Note: ESPN.com's 2004-05 NBA Preview continues with a look at the teams that are "In a Rut." Today's spotlight falls on the Golden State Warriors.

Warriors coach Mike Montgomery held an energy bar, unwrapped and primed for that first bite, as he talked to reporters outside the visitor's locker room. It looked as if he couldn't wait for that last question so he could just scarf that sucker. Understandable, considering how he exerted himself in the Warriors' 90-88 overtime win over the Lakers at the Staples Center last Thursday night. He badgered the refs, stalked the sideline and, at one point in the third quarter, threw a foot-stomping, arm-swinging tantrum when one of his big men failed to set a screen.

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One small problem: It was a preseason game.

"I wanted to win this game," he said. "Granted, it is an exhibition. But as a new coach, it validates what we're trying to get these guys to do."

Which goes to the heart of what Montgomery and every coach without a NBA championship to his name faces upon taking over a new team -- he has to show that he knows what it takes to win at the pro level. Calling the right plays or putting in the right system is the easiest part. Most coaches know enough to assess their personnel and apply the proper Xs and Os. Or, if they don't, someone on their staff does.

The real challenge is convincing men with more experience and security than you to believe you know what's best -- night after night, month after month, season after season -- and to act accordingly.

In the big picture, what Montgomery hopes to do is get the Warriors to .500, a place they haven't seen since they dealt Chris Webber for Tom Gugliotta and three first-round picks six games into the 1994-95 season. His immediate predecessor, Eric Musselman, got them as close as they've been, with 38- and 37-win seasons, but he alienated too many players and administrators along the way.

Mike Montgomery
Associated Press/Jeff ChiuLife lessons: Former college coach Mike Montgomery has a lot to learn about losing.
Even Musselman, after having spent his entire career coaching pros, including five as an NBA assistant coach, couldn't find the formula for success and personal survival. So what are the odds that Montgomery, who hadn't spent a day directing a play-for-pay outfit prior to being named the Warriors head coach last May, can?

"Everybody said you have to learn to get off the losses," Montgomery admitted, glancing down at his energy bar, "I can't differentiate yet. I'll learn or die."

A pro coach, as Montgomery discovered, has to get off the wins, too. One night after beating the Lakers, the Warriors were manhandled 105-86 by a Nuggets team that did not dress four of its starters and played Carmelo Anthony 18 minutes. Again, it was only an exhibition, but Montgomery drew a first-quarter technical from 16-year veteran referee Joe Forte for laughing at an offensive charge and was informed, "This isn't college."

"I think Mike will realize pretty soon it's not a 25- to 30-game season," says 15-year vet Cliff Robinson. "He's been willing to listen to the guys who've been around for a bit. People he can come to and ask how things work."

At their best, the Warriors move the ball and themselves in a nonpartisan motion offense and collectively help and recover on defense. "We don't run any quick-hitting plays, but it's working for us," says power forward Troy Murphy.

"We just have to take advantage of our depth," says swingman Calbert Cheaney. "We have to give 100 percent, with no drop-off, every time, and trust each other. We're not the kind of team that can afford bad stretches."

Word is that owner Chris Cohan decided Montgomery should be the Warriors' next head coach, based at least in part on his popularity in the Bay Area after a successful 18-year stint at Stanford. Chris Mullin, named the Warriors' executive VP of basketball operations the day before Montgomery was introduced as head coach, simply gave his blessing. (The Warriors insist that Cohan had nothing to do with Montgomery's selection.)

Since then, Mullin composed a support staff of longtime NBA assistant and former Hawks head coach Terry Stotts, Mario Elie and his three championship rings, Musselman holdover Keith Smart and Montgomery's Stanford sidekick, Russell Turner. If anybody has firsthand experience and a way to relay it to Montgomery, this group does. Mullin also built a team of hardworking, self-disciplined vets to surround three young stars-in-the-making -- Jason Richardson, Murphy and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. -- who are looking to prove their worth. Both JRich and Murphy are eligible for long-term extensions next summer.

"Guys are trying to buy into what the coach is trying to do," Robinson said. "Last year we had so many different agendas it was tough to get any continuity."

The Warriors see themselves as this year's Memphis Grizzlies or Utah Jazz, using a 10-deep rotation and being greater than the sum of their parts. It's actually a scorer's dream group of big men -- Robinson, Eduardo Najera, Dale Davis, Adonal Foyle and Murphy -- because all of them are good about giving up the ball, providing help defense and setting screens.

Mike Dunleavy Jr
As Mike Dunleavy Jr., the former No. 3 pick, enters his third year, he needs to emerge as a triple threat for the Warriors.
What the Warriors don't have is a dream go-to scorer. "We're still searching for who is going to take the last shot," Montgomery said. The search would be over if they could somehow meld Richardson's crazy athleticism with Dunleavy's floor sense. Richardson had 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists against the Lakers, but midway through the fourth quarter, with the Warriors protecting a one-point lead, Kobe Bryant fell underneath the Lakers' basket. Richardson roared the other way until he reached the Warriors' three-point line. There he froze, even though no one was in front of him, ultimately dishing the ball to Dunleavy on the wing for a long jumper that missed.

At 6-9 with a feathery touch and deceptive speed, Dunleavy is quietly emerging as the next Dukie to put the kibosh on the notion that Blue Devils can't cut it in the NBA. He's not overpowering, but something good happens almost every time he touches the ball. His handle is so tight he has the green light to lead the Warriors' fast break. He put together 13 points, 12 rebounds and six assists against the Lakers. Both Lamar Odom and Caron Butler tried to post him up and came up empty.

"He's a lot better than I ever thought he'd be," said one Western Conference GM.

"Mike kind of reminds me of Dirk," says Najera, referring to Nowitzki, his former Mavs' teammate. "I had a chance to see Dirk as he just started to find his way after struggling early, and I think that's where Mike is."

To come anywhere near the Jazz' or Griz' success will require exploiting matchups and keeping everyone happy and committed to the platoon system. Montgomery, in short, is being asked to match management wits with Jerry Sloan and Hubie Brown, who have spent as much time in and around the pro game as Montgomery did on The Farm.

"Things are spread out right now," says point guard Derek Fisher, "but everybody can't average 15. Coach is going to have to be the one who dictates that. His leadership is going to be key."

That's not for one night, or one month, or even one season. It's for however long is necessary. So far, Montgomery doesn't have a handle on the timeline shift or the true nature of his task any better than any other recent college-to-pro coach has had. That doesn't mean he can't get it. But for both his and the Warriors' sake, he'd better hurry.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer

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