The young and the leaderless
Dig through your mental storage bin and you might be able to find a few examples of youngsters' triumphing without grown-up supervision the way the Golden State Warriors are trying to do this season. "The Goonies," for one. "Stand By Me." Or "Ferris Bueller." You just won't find any case studies in the NBA, because the league doesn't work that way. No matter how much talent you've stockpiled, you'd better have an experienced guide to lead the way.
The Warriors had a captain with a championship ring, except the only direction he wants to go is outtahere. They have a coach who has won the second-most games in NBA history, but who is known for putting his own agenda ahead of the team's.
It all makes Golden State the wild card of the Western Conference. There likely won't be a team with a greater discrepancy between its talent and its win total.
The uncertainty starts with Jackson, who a year ago was named team captain and received a three-year contract extension worth $28 million, and now wants to be traded. He was suspended for two preseason games and resigned as captain following a blowup in a timeout during an exhibition game against the Lakers. Jackson was going at it with Kobe Bryant and picked up five fouls in the first quarter. According to a fan sitting near the Warriors' bench, Nelson attempted to settle Jackson down, but Jackson responded, "[Expletive] that, I ain't gonna calm down. I'm [expletive] out of here anyway." And with that he was off to the locker room, where he changed into his street clothes and went to the team bus.
He said that night that his relationship with Nelson wasn't irrevocably broken, because he recognized what Nelson had done in making him a focal point of the team and restoring his reputation after the Indiana Pacers ran out of patience with Jackson's Piston-fan-decking, gun-shooting ways. But apparently the suspension (and the $139,000 it cost him in lost salary) did it, and now Jackson says there's no love for Nellie. And past experience (from Chris Webber to Jamal Crawford) tells us that when things go south with Nelson, they end up in Antarctica.
Even before the suspension Jackson had felt a disconnect with the team.
"I worked too hard to help this organization get out of the losing streak and get back to the playoffs," he said last week. "It seems like we're going back to the old Warriors from the past. I hope we don't accept that identity some more and find a way to get some wins and get back to the playoffs. As of now, you can't really see it."
He got a warped perspective from his early years in the league when he played for the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA's most stable organization. He probably figured every franchise would be like that, when the truth is most are more similar to the Warriors. Well, maybe not quite as messed up as the Warriors.
It takes a special group to squander the good feelings generated by their upset of the Dallas Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs, but a behind-the-scenes battle in the front office split the organization, most significantly when Warriors president Robert Rowell nixed general manager Chris Mullin's attempts to extend or re-sign Baron Davis and he bounced to the Clippers. They clashed over how severely to punish Ellis for injuries suffered in a moped accident that caused him to miss much of the season. Also, Nelson was either not giving minutes to players Mullin drafted or running off players Mullin acquired. Finally, Mullin himself was dispatched.
The result is that only four players remain from the 2006-07 team. (One of them, Ellis, shot 39 percent and had twice as many turnovers as assists in those playoffs).
At least the newcomers can play. Anthony Randolph is one of the most desirable youngsters in the league, and he's only 20. He's like Stacey Augmon, only taller and with more offensive skills. He also has a more severe scowl.
In the first preseason game, Randolph chased down Bryant on a breakaway and blocked his shot out of bounds as they both tumbled to the floor. It was an extraordinary effort for a preseason game, and would have replayed for years if it happened late in a playoff game. Bryant was so impressed he even acknowledged Randolph with a little tap after they got up. But Randolph never accepted the moment, neither taking a moment to bask nor using the play to exhort his teammates. He slapped the floor and looked more angry than pleased. As another Warrior told me, Randolph can get too caught up in what happened two plays ago to keep his mind focused on what's happening now.
"I want to win," he said by way of explaining his joyless style. "Point blank, I want to win. Whether it's preseason, pickup game, during the season, whatever."
So how will he react if the team doesn't win? That's what worries me about a guy who wants it so badly on a team that's set up for a bad season ... because there's no way to fast-forward to knowledge.
For example, Curry is one of the players who will be handling the ball, and he's the first to tell you he's not sure exactly what to do when he has it. The rookie didn't play point guard full time until his last season at Davidson, so he's still learning the position in addition to the league in his first go-round.
"As a point guard in the NBA, it's a lot of thinking going on," Curry said. "Sometimes you come down the court not knowing what to do with it. I know how to make a play, it's what play to make at that particular time. I haven't figured that out yet."
At least he can get advice from his parent, just not the one you think. Even though his father, Dell, played 16 seasons in the NBA, his mom's the one who called Stephen out on his tendency to overwhelmingly drive to his left, and pull up after a couple of dribbles when he goes to his right.
So the Warriors will lurch along, having their moments, some good, some teachable. They still have the option to give the ball to Corey Maggette and let him score. They'll still have problems stopping the big players on the Lakers and Spurs. They could win a dozen more games than last season and still not have a winning record.
"The bar's been set really low," a Warriors insider said. "Nellie likes it that way."
If his unorthodox coaching methods work, he can be regarded as a genius. Actually, if he could get this group to duplicate that 2007 run, he'd be seen as a miracle worker.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.
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