The financial world crumbling, the 49ers on pace to become the second NFL squad in the Bay Area to fire their coach during the 2008 season (if Seattle comes to Candlestick and beats the Niners in Week 8 to put the Niners at 2-6, Nolan is surely gone) and the Raiders doing whatever it is the Raiders do, it’s time to look on the brighter side of the sports landscape and do our 2008/09 Golden State Warriors preview.
Exactly one year ago, the Warriors’ future was so bright even Andris Biedrins was putting sunblock on. The amazing first round upset of Dallas led by Don Nelson and Baron Davis, the gift-from-the-heavens trade of Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy and Ike Diogu to the Pacers for Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, and the prospects of watching Biedrins and Monta Ellis mature in Oakland gave the Warriors and their long-suffering fans reason to believe. Even trading fan favorite Jason Richardson for Brandan Wright and a $10 million salary cap exception (that was never used and has since expired) was accepted by the fans, although with a degree of skepticism.
Now the Warriors are again on the outside looking in when it comes to the Western Conference’s top eight teams. Baron has effectively been traded to the Clippers for Corey Maggette. Ellis was going to be a tough fit at point guard anyway, and his infamous moped accident has ruined any chances of an above-.500 first half for the Warriors, who play 24 of their first 38 games on the road. Chris Mullin looks like he’s a short-timer, with Team President Robert Rowell recently usurping his authority on everything from extending Stephen Jackson to not extending Baron Davis. If Mullin isn’t retained after this season, Nelson will probably leave as well, which would derail the upward trend the franchise had shown since Nelson’s re-arrival. And if all that weren’t enough to cause Warrior fans to relive the Mookie Blaylock/Bimbo Coles era, Jackson replaced his gap-toothed smile with new veneers.
Still, the season will go on. There are 82 games to play, and at least that many career-highs in points to be given up to opposing point guards and power forwards. The Warriors’ off-season wasn’t all bad; they let Matt Barnes (inconsistent), Mikhael Pietrus (unstable) and Patrick O’Bryant (intoxicated?) go. They matched the Clippers’ offer to Kelenna Azubuike, the latest “you sunk my battleship” moment in the Warriors/Clippers feud that started when Baron fled to L.A. However, the Warriors’ main/only reason for hope in 2009 is Nelson. If Mike Montgomery were still coaching the Warriors, we’d be talking about 24 wins and whether they should tank the last dozen games to improve their lottery chances. With Nelson, who has a habit of finding diamonds in the rough and tailoring his free-flowing style to the talent around him, giving up on the Warriors doesn’t feel right. Plus, giving up on Bay Area teams has been tiring. The 2008 Giants’ chances of contending were zero before the season started, the A’s were a Triple-A team by the trade deadline, and we already know what’s going on with the local football teams. Do the Warriors have any reason to think this season will be anything other than a return to pick 12-14 in the 2009 NBA Draft? Let’s check it out, position by position.
The Warriors missed the playoffs for over a decade, then they traded for Davis and immediately became a better team, culminating with their upset of the Mavericks in the ’07 playoffs. NBA teams can become title contenders without a dominant point guard, but only if they have players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The Warriors gave Ellis a $66 million contract to at least pretend to be a point guard — at least until they either drafted or traded for another point, preferably one big enough to allow Ellis to shift over to the two eventually.
Now with Captain Vespa left to rehabilitate his ankle and hope his only true advantage in the NBA (speed) isn’t lost forever, the Warriors are left with C.J. Watson and Marcus Williams. Watson is a capable shooter who can get a steal or two. But Watson’s hardly a willing distributor, with less than 4 assists per 40 minutes in 32 games last year after being called up from the NBDL.
The fact the Warriors were willing to give up a future lottery-protected first round draft pick for Williams even before Ellis’ injury shows the lack of confidence they have in Watson. Williams is more of a brand name than Watson after a successful college career at UConn while playing with Rudy Gay. He says he’s worked on his conditioning, which was an issue in his first two years with the Nets, along with a reputation as a selfish gunner who’s also a poor shooter. And according to Chronicle beat writer Janny Hu, after all that conditioning Williams is still slow. If Williams can’t beat Watson out for the starting job in this season’s first half, his future in the NBA will be in serious jeopardy.
If Monta’s able to return by January, the Warriors are obviously stronger at the point, even though Ellis is hardly a true point guard. However, even if Ellis returns at full strength the Warriors will be virtually unable to stop opposing point guards defensively, except for at times when Watson’s on the floor.
Jackson will be asked to do everything: play some point, defend the opposing team’s best perimeter player every night, try against all odds to keep his field goal percentage above 42% and provide leadership for an extremely young team. Oh, and if he can stay healthy for 80 games that would be appreciated as well.
Azubuike will fill in behind Jackson and at small forward behind Maggette, and provides what Pietrus did without the pouting and constant turnovers due to stepping out of bounds. He’s not as consistent a scorer as either Jackson or Maggette, but he’s more athletic and will provide defensive help off the bench along with a little scoring punch. Azubuike can also rebound and block shots, but like most of his teammates is rarely willing to pass (0.9 APG last year).
Behind Jack and Buke are Marco Belinelli (probably about a year away from playing in Europe) and Anthony Morrow, an undrafted rookie from Georgia Tech who actually might be a better outside shooter than the Italian Rapscallion. That’s scary, since Belinelli is an average ball handler, plays selfishly (notice a trend?) and is one of the worst defenders and rebounders in the league — shooting is Belinelli’s only strength! Whether both Belinelli and Morrow make the team remains to be seen, although neither have a chance to see much playing time behind Jackson except in garbage time.
Corey Maggette realistically has the chance to average 26+ points per game, but can he stay healthy? Maggette has averaged only 65 games per season over his nine year career, and has only played in over 70 games three times (including his rookie year in Orlando when he came off the bench and played in 77 games, a number he hasn’t matched since). Maggette gives the Warriors a lot of what they have been known for over the last two years of Nellie Ball: scoring, a willingness to shoot the three, along with below-average rebounding and defense. Maggette will get more shots with the Warriors than he ever has, and gives the Warriors the player who will get to the foul line, which they’ll especially miss without Ellis.
Anthony Randolph’s role is one of the biggest questions for the 2008/09 Warriors. He lit up the Summer League, seems extremely confident and fit’s the Nellie prototype: long, fast with a decent handle. But the ability to dribble without kicking the ball out of bounds doesn’t help if you don’t protect the ball, and Randolph is very turnover-prone. And he might be the worst defensive player on this team, and that’s saying something. Also, will Nellie even play him? The Warriors were dying for interior defensive help, but all it took was one mistake from Brandan Wright and Nelson would yank the rookie for games at a time last season. If Randolph keeps turning the ball over and missing defensive assignments (two things that will almost definitely happen), will Nelson bury him like Wright?
Al Harrington was hardly a power forward last year, and not just because Nelson played him at center and small forward so often. Whether from peer pressure or sheer laziness, Harrington ignored things like rebounding (5.4 per game) and blocking shots (an embarrassing 0.2 per) on a team that needed both of those things more than anything else, and became a 6-9 three-point shooter. Harrington took 5 threes per game last year, especially startling considering he only played 27 minutes per contest. He knows there will be a lot more playing time and shots to go around this year however, and Harrington spent the off-season losing weight and working on post moves with former NBA star Mark Aguirre. However, Harrington was pretty obviously hoping to get traded last season and during most of the off-season. If things don’t look good for the Warriors at the outset, and if Nelson plays Harrington at center and/or doesn’t increase his minutes, will Harrington become a malcontent?
Nelson’s handling of Wright last year was curious. Instead of giving Wright minutes throughout the season, Nelson only gave him extended run after Biedrins had his appendix removed. Warriors fans took to Wright immediately, given that he’s probably the team’s only true shot-blocker and finished some of the sickest alley-oops since J-Rich was at full strength. It was pretty much accepted that this year would be different, that Wright would see at least 20 minutes a game, but that is far from certain. First, Wright has few offensive moves besides crashing the boards, besides a shaky jump-hook. Second, Wright has had several minor injuries since he joined Golden St., and has been dealing with a sore toe lately that is doubtful to garner sympathy from Nellie. Even so, Wright’s stats per 40 minutes were 16 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game, so it would seem that Nelson would have to be insane to leave him on the bench. Of course, Nelson wanted so badly to avoid playing Wright that he decided to bring Chris Webber out of retirement last season, so an increased role for Wright this year is hardly guaranteed.
Second round draft choice Richard Hendrix will probably make the team, but will only play if injuries ravage the team’s front line. He seems like the Warriors’ answer to players like Carl Landry, Leon Powe (who the Warriors should have drafted, but nobody asked me) and Paul Millsap — bruising, energetic power forwards who have given the Warriors trouble for years. It remains to be seen whether Hendrix has the offensive skills to break into a Nelson rotation, but when it comes to the Warriors and rebounding, beggars can’t exactly be choosers.
Biedrins improved in every statistical category last season except for shot-blocking, but still played over a minute and a half less per game in 2007/08 than he did the year before. Part of that was due to his emergency appendectomy, but also because Nelson fell in love with playing the smallest lineups possible, which is why Biedrins came off the bench 17 times last year. One of the great things about Biedrins is his consistency. He’s going to get rebounds, he isn’t terrible defending the low block, he’s routinely able to use his excellent hands to score efficiently near the basket (Biedrins shot 62.6% from the field last year), and he’s going to hit up the tanning salon at least three times per week.
Now Biedrins finally has some help other than Kosta Perovic and the Notorious P.O.B., in the form of former Laker Ronny Turiaf. Turiaf’s game seems tailor-made for the Warriors, since he loves to run and his emotionally charged play (and cheering from the bench) will fire up his teammates, the crowd at Oracle Arena and himself. Turiaf’s also an underrated passer, and replaces Pietrus as the team’s best (only) French player. That said, Turiaf’s game is hardly perfect. First, he’s not as good a rebounded or defender as advertised, which is why he saw so little time against the Celtics in the Finals even though the Lakers were crying for any sort of interior toughness. Also, Turiaf is a decent offensive player for a backup PF/C, but too frequently falls in love with his own outside shot, which can be considered streaky at best. With all the gunners the Warriors already have, Turiaf shooting 18-footers is hardly a necessary addition. The best things about the Warriors stealing Turiaf away from the luxury cap-strapped Lakers is Biedrins is no longer alone in the paint, and Harrington won’t have to play center, a position he obviously can’t stand.
Outlook for 2008/09
With a healthy Ellis, the Warriors looked to be one of the most exciting teams in the league, albeit one of the worst defensively. Without Ellis, players like Jackson, Maggette, Harrington and Biedrins will be asked to score more points and play more minutes than ever before, which will probably lead to some career years statistically or some injury-shortened seasons. The Warriors have always been an emotional team, especially at home. The fact they will play twice as many games on the road, without Ellis, could bury this team before the All Star Break. If they can somehow get through that stretch with a record in the 17-21 range, the return of a healthy Ellis and a home-heavy second half schedule could propel this team into playoff contention, especially if teams like the Nuggets, Mavericks, Suns and Spurs falter in the rapidly changing Western Conference.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the Warriors. Even if all four teams mentioned earlier are worse this year than last, at least two of those teams will still be better than the Warriors, if not all four. And the Blazers were right on the Warriors’ heels for most of last year, and now they have a (presumably) healthy Greg Oden. With Mullin and Nelson’s future in doubt, a slow start for the Warriors could lead to chaos in Oakland in November and December, as fans and local media openly wonder who will lead the team during the Ellis/Biedrins era. And that’s if Ellis is even able to hold up his part of the bargain — it’s rare that ankle injuries even require surgery, and nobody really knows the extend of Ellis’ deltoid ligament tear and how the “quick healing” Ellis will respond to rehab. Expecting a full season from Maggette is ridiculously optimistic, and while the Warriors will be athletic and have plenty of scorers, it’s tough to find one Warrior that could be called unselfish. Not to mention Nelson is notoriously hard on younger players, and this team is full of youngsters who will struggle with turnovers and defensively. After Baron became the second-most important sports figure named Davis to leave Oakland for Los Angeles, nobody expected the Warriors to get past the first round of the playoffs, now that Ellis is sidelined for an undetermined period of time, it’s tough to imagine the Warriors will be anything more than a team that boasts four outstanding fantasy players in Jackson, Maggette, Harrington and Biedrins.
Prediction: 38-44, 11th in Western Conference