Warriors feeling golden with Nellie at the helm

Originally Published: October 13, 2006
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

OAKLAND -- The body language is loud and clear, even from the vantage of the second-floor observation balcony and to the Warriors on the farthest of their three practice courts. Just as loud and clear as it was last year.

It's the message that is starkly different.

Baron Davis and Don Nelson
Sam Forencich/Getty ImagesThis may be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Then, coach Mike Montgomery had the demeanor of a captain nervously peering through the fog, one eye searching for a landmark to steer by, the other on his crew, checking for signs of a possible mutiny.

Now, Don Nelson watches from the sideline as if there's a blueprint overlay on the floor and a mere glance tells him who among the 10 players scrimmaging is in the right place and who isn't. And rest assured, whoever isn't will be put in his place.

"It couldn't be more different," says forward Mike Dunleavy. "The main thing is, there is no BS. If he sees something, he's going to tell you. Everything is put out on the table."

As with most players desperate to prove they're better than years of failed expectations, the Warriors are eating it up and asking for more.

"A person in my position," says point guard Baron Davis, "just wants to be coached and pushed to a higher level. Coach Nelson, one of the sharpest X-and-O's minds with 1,100 victories, a Hall of Famer, you don't even question that he can do that."

The Warriors, collectively, questioned Montgomery's capability of doing that from the day he arrived. For good reason. The belief that a life-long college coach can step into the NBA and push all the right buttons is so na´ve that it's still hard to fathom VP Chris Mullin, not owner Chris Cohan, made the choice, as Mullin insists was the case.

That said, there isn't anyone more suited for the task at hand than Nelson. He's never been able to push a team to the highest level, but that's not the challenge with the league's longest-reigning bottom feeders -- 12 years and counting of lottery trips to Secaucus being their postseason highlight. So what if his last turn at Golden State, as coach and GM, laid the groundwork for that stretch of futility? This is the NBA, where memories are short and who you know is as important as what you know.

And while Nelson's coaching style is as direct as ever, watching neophyte coach Avery Johnson do what Nelson has never done (take a team to the Finals), waiting a year for an offer and being under a former player has tempered some of the megalomania that has led to his downfall everywhere he's been. No one's catching him on the team bus poring over the blueprints for his house in Maui, as the Knicks did, or abusing his owner's largesse by hiring a hundred assistant coaches, as he did in Dallas. Now he can be found hunched, all alone, in front of a big screen with a remote control, as he was before Tuesday's overtime exhibition win against the Blazers, freeze-framing and studying Portland's offensive sets.

"He's more into it and sharper than he was when I was last around him," says Mullin. "Getting away is always healthy. Coming to the right place helps, too."

Right place, right time. For whatever reason, Nelson never had much interest in stressing the hard-nosed defense or mundane post-up offense that won championships in the '80s and '90s. With the defensive rule changes and the crackdown on hand checking, that no longer matters. Offense sells and the league office, noticing an uptick in interest after years of decline, has taken note, so expect more of the same. Small ball, Nelson's forte, is all the rage.

"What the league is going to now, he's been doing for years," Mullin says.

The players know it. When a set goes awry, Nelson doesn't even blow his whistle half the time. He just walks onto the court, explaining who needed to go where and when. Every player turns to watch and listen.

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T," says one team official. "It's so nice to see it around here again."

He also knows how to get the most bang for his bark.

When Troy Murphy is late closing out on Matt Barnes' 3-point attempt from the left corner, Nelson doesn't focus on the slow rotation. Instead, he tells Murphy that if he's going to lunge at Barnes, he should at least keep going toward midcourt, so that the Warriors can snatch the rebound or immediately throw a three-quarter pass and hit him for a breakaway layup.

Or when young forward/center Andris Biedrins lobs an ill-advised pass for second-year guard Monta Ellis and Keith McLeod picks it off and starts a fast break the other way, Nelson doesn't say a word to Biedrins. Instead, he gets after Ellis for not slapping the ball away immediately from McLeod to stop the counterattack. Biedrins knows he screwed up and is doubly chagrined that a teammate is being chastised for not cleaning up his mess. Nothing being said, in this case, is both better and worse than being chewed out. Better because Biedrins' focus is on making up for the error instead of bumming out about the tongue-lashing. Worse because he got someone else in trouble.

Ellis, meanwhile, learns not to give up and the importance of covering for a teammate.

"I learned stuff here and there over the last four years," says Dunleavy. "But it doesn't compare to what I've learned in the last two weeks."

Nelson, also having played in the league, understands what makes an NBA player tick. Asking Murphy to play center and Dunleavy to play power forward means taking a lot of physical punishment under the boards. The tradeoff Nelson offers is that bigs are free to put the ball on the floor and dribble up the court if they're not under pressure -- and there isn't a player in the league who doesn't relish the chance to lead a break or at least show he has a handle.

"Letting Murphy handle the ball has him going to chase down rebounds, rather than just rebounding his area," says Mullin.

In other words, guys will do more of what he wants because he lets them do more of what they want. Conversely, if they don't do what he wants, however subtle, he'll let them know.

"He doesn't miss anything," Dunleavy says.

No doubt. As reporters gathered for a post-practice chat on Monday, Nelson gave the once-over to a certain ESPN The Magazine senior writer with whom he hasn't always had the best of relationships.

"Your fly's open," he said.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer