Golden State giddy with Davis pointing way to playoffs
LAIE, Hawaii -- Chris Mullin won't blame you if your face contorts into a Jim Mora-style smirk of incredulity when hearing the words Warriors and playoffs in the same sentence.
But walking into Golden State Warriors' training camp here in Laie, that's the word on everyone's lips: Playoffs. The emerging swagger and pride are palpable.
After watching the Phoenix Suns become the surprise darlings of the NBA last season by running past opponents, everyone here at the first couple of weeks of training camp is wondering whether the baton could be passed to Golden State this season.
Last season, the addition of savvy veteran point guard Steve Nash transformed the Suns from a lottery team into one of the most exciting teams in NBA history. Along the way, the Suns won more games than any other team in the league, Nash took home the MVP trophy and Mike D'Antoni, in his first full season with the Suns, was named coach of the year.
The similarities between the two teams are more than casual.
Mullin, who traded in his sneakers for a gig as the team's vice president of basketball operations in April 2004, is advocating a run-and-gun approach not seen in Golden State since the glory days of Run-TMC, the thrilling trio of point guard Tim Hardaway, swingman Mullin and shooting guard Mitch Richmond.
Like Hardaway and Nash, point guard Baron Davis -- acquired at the trading deadline in February -- is pushing the ball at a breakneck pace. Backcourt mate Jason Richardson is flying through the air, backing up his two dunk contest titles by jamming home half-court alley-oops from Davis.
During the Warriors' preseason opener in Honolulu, a crowd of Laker-loving Hawaiians oohed and aahed at the Warriors' highlight-reel plays, changing allegiances before the first quarter was half over.
Given their offensive firepower and the up-tempo style Davis likes to play, there's a great chance that the Warriors will lead the league in scoring this year. With that excitement comes hope -- something that hasn't been felt among the Warriors' faithful for a while.
It's been more than a decade since Golden State made the playoffs. Mullin was still firing jump shots back then. Latrell Sprewell hadn't learned the choke hold. Chris Webber was supposed to be the savior of the franchise.
Since then, nothing but disappointment: Failed trades, untimely injuries and roster, coaching and front-office upheaval.
Mullin knows the history -- more intimately than he would like to. That's why, last fall, shortly after being named executive vice president of the team, he decided that enough was enough.
Mullin told his staff that the team needed to find a superstar, a player who could lift the spirits of a cursed franchise and vanquish the culture of losing that had gripped his old team.
"Losing is just sad," Mullin said. "It was gnawing at everyone. Something had to change."
Mullin's first task was to convince their two young, up-and-coming stars, Richardson and Troy Murphy, to stick with the team. To do it, he promised change.
"Chris told me when I signed my contract extension [in October 2004] that he was going to turn this thing around," Richardson said. "That was all I needed to hear. It didn't take him long to back up what he said. When Baron arrived, everything changed."
Mullin's February trade of Speedy Claxton and Dale Davis for Baron Davis will go down as one of the most lopsided deals of the decade if Davis and the Warriors continue to play as well as they did the last two months of last season.
Davis, who struggled with injury and attitude problems for most of the season in New Orleans, came to Golden State and immediately energized the team, helping the Warriors close out the season on a 14-4 run.
For all of the credentials that Davis brought to the Warriors -- the superstar talent, leadership at the point, and playoff experience -- it was Davis' swashbuckling style that turned around one of the league's sorriest franchises in the last decade.
"He came in with a chip on his shoulder," Richardson remembers. "He had something to prove. He was vocal about it. And as soon as we rolled out the ball, he backed it up. It was contagious."
"I'd been on enough teams [as a player] to know that what a young team needs is a little attitude," Mullin said. "When you're trying to rip out that culture of losing, adding some swagger to the mix can change things in a hurry. I knew how good he was as a player, but he wound up being even better as a leader on this team."
Davis averaged 22.5 ppg and 9.4 apg once he took over the starting duties for the Warriors. By all accounts here at Warriors training camp, he should be even better this season.
Last fall, Davis showed up to camp out of shape and upset that the Hornets hadn't traded him over the summer. He missed 32 games with a variety of ailments, including a strained lower back, a bruised right ankle, shoulder and knee tendonitis and a sore Achilles tendon.
This year, Davis looks ready to lead the Warriors to the promised land -- which in Golden State's case, is its first playoff berth in a decade. Davis came into camp at a chiseled 215 pounds, down 20 pounds from last season. He looks hungry, rested and focused.
"It's a clean slate for me," Davis said. "I'm on a team I want to be on. I'm healthy. The back feels great. My knees are rested. This team has a lot of young, fresh talent. They're unselfish. They want to play with each other. We're motivated. You have to have a little swagger, a little chip on your shoulder. We have the talent and the ingredients and now we're ready to prove everyone wrong and make the playoffs."
The Warriors know that the expectations are quickly spiraling out of control for a team that hasn't sniffed the postseason in a decade.
Fans have been buying season tickets in droves. The team sold 3,500 new season tickets this summer and fall, outpacing every other team in the league. Warriors jerseys are flying off the racks. Formerly anonymous players are getting stopped in the streets of San Francisco.
The fans' hunger and last season's taste of success add up to great expectations.
"I'd rather have high expectations than what we've been through the last decade," Mullin says with a grin. "No one starts the season thinking they're going to lose. But it's not a bad thing beginning the season with some expectations for ourselves that we can win."
Still, the Warriors know they have their work cut out for them. The team, despite the strong run at the end of the season, finished 11 games behind Memphis for the eighth and final playoff seed in the West. The Lakers and Timberwolves, among other teams, also have their eyes on a return to the playoffs.
Warriors coach Mike Montgomery is in only his second season as a head coach in the NBA. His team has six players on the roster with three or fewer years of experience in the league, including three rookies. Several of the top players on the roster, including two starters -- Davis and Adonal Foyle -- have a history of injury problems.
Are we expecting too much too fast?
"People can say what they want," Mullin said. "Last season is ancient history. But so are the last 10 seasons. We've got the talent to be a playoff team this year, but we've got to back it up on the court."
Richardson, who has been with the Warriors since the beginning, believes they're up to the challenge.
"I've never felt like this before in my career," Richardson said. "I sense it. It's big. The fans are behind us. The organization is behind us. I just can't wait for the season to begin. We have a lot to prove. And now we have the talent to back it up."
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. Send him an e-mail here.