Don Nelson

Why Keith Smart gave the Warriors to Monta Ellis

It may have been a conscious decision, perhaps it happened due to a series of moves that all added up to a distinct, season-long theme which could not be escaped. For the Warriors this season, this was the year where the team was put in the hands of Monta Ellis, for better or for worse.

Keith Smart probably believes he had no choice but to give the team to its most accomplished player. Ellis’ identity going into this year was that of a volume scorer who could shoulder multiple 40+ minute games without complaint — not much else. The conventional wisdom at the end of last season was, from that point on, the Warriors were to be led by Stephen Curry until either his skills diminished or he left for another team. Then the Warriors were purchased by a new ownership group, and suddenly everything was new — new coach, new uniforms, new Monta, complete with human-interest angles like a new kid, new wife, even a new friendship with Curry.

Ellis also came into this year at the peak of his career (although even though his most efficient year was and probably always will be 2007-08, when he left the 3-point shooting to others and made 53.1% of his field goals), while Curry seemed like he has room to grow. Perhaps Smart has been harder on Curry than any other player on the team for that reason — he saw the potential for improvement in Curry’s game.

Perhaps Smart didn’t want to offend Ellis, who in the past few years has become upset over:

— The $3 million fine and 30-game “suspension” after the moped accident and subsequent ankle injury.

— The Warriors drafting Curry after supposedly assuring him they wouldn’t draft a guard (imagine where the Warriors would be this year if they HADN’T taken Curry in the ’09 Draft).

— Ellis’ feeling that Nelson blamed him for everything, which boiled over famously in a practice tiff with Nellie in front of beat writers.

— Stephen Jackson getting shipped to Charlotte.

And Ellis isn’t exactly fond of speaking with the media after losses, but that’s usually okay since David Lee can talk enough for the two of them.

Here’s where Smart’s one-year contract comes into play. Very few successful head coaches in the NBA can last an entire season once they’ve lost the team’s best player. Unless you’re Phil Jackson (or MAYBE Pat Riley and/or Gregg Popovich), you can’t even challenge your best player publicly or threaten his so-called alpha dog status without running the risk of losing that player forever. Even the most strident Curry supporter would have a hard time convincing anyone that going into the 2010-11 season, the best player on the squad was Ellis, simply because of Ellis’ experience and the fact that he’s for all intents and purposes a finished product.

Would that mean that if Smart was working under a 2-3 year deal, he might have focused on making Curry happy over Ellis? You’d have to know exactly what Smart thinks of Curry’s game, and unless you’re closer to him than anyone who writes or talks about this stuff, or can translate press conference quotes a lot better than me, that’s impossible to ascertain. But with limited time, Smart had to formulate a plan and stick to it, and his plan was to install Monta as the team leader and see where it took them. And predictably, this version of the Warriors led unambiguously by Ellis is going to win somewhere around 33-35 games.

Ellis has had some incredible games and moments this season, and if he were forced into a secondary role, the Warriors may not have won as many games as they have … this season. Whether Smart’s decision to give Ellis so much more freedom on the court will help the Warriors in future years, that’s questionable. So is saddling a lame duck coach with a one-year contract.

Smart ran the risk of losing Curry as he benched him all season long for defensive mistakes, wayward passes and excessive fouling, all while allowing Ellis to dominate the ball, leap toward every passing lane imaginable, play 40+ minutes most nights and take every last second shot. Ellis has been pretty good in late-game situations this season. However, if there was any time for Smart to let Curry win a game for the Warriors in overtime, it was on Tuesday when Curry was 13-for-25 from the field and Ellis 9-for-29 before missing that long jumper from the top of the key over Thabo Sefolosha. Losing minutes to Acie Law all season has to upset Curry more, but if Curry didn’t feel at least a little disappointment in Oklahoma City that Smart didn’t give him a shot to win the game when he was on fire, he sure has changed since he played at Davidson.

So Curry’s the guy who pops up in every other NCAA Tournament highlight, the guy with his own TV commercial pitching the NBA to the Nickelodeon generation, the guy who played for Team USA in the FIBA Tournament, and the guy with the shortest leash on the team. All while the other combo guard who plays below average defense is nearly anonymous nationally by comparison, but still leads the Warriors in every way. After Nellie let Curry freelance and talked of his skills as a rookie point guard, Smart’s treatment has to be a tough blow. In future years, Curry may come to blame Smart less for being so hard on him this season. Smart only had one shot to continue living his dream of being an NBA head coach, and he put all his chips on Ellis.

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