Q&A With Ric Bucher of ESPN
Ric Bucher recently spent some time with WarriorsWorld.net sharing his thoughts and opinions on everything going on in Warriors land. Bucher discusses the state of the franchise, the hot topics of today and the outlook on the future.
WarriorsWorld.net: The Warriors front office seems to be a hot topic of discussion among many people nowadays. Some people support the decisions made by management while others have grown frustrated with the lack of success. What is the general perception of the Warriors front office around the league?
What front office? The general consensus is that Larry Riley is a nice guy who works hard, but there’s no way of knowing if he’s any good at the job because he has no authority. That said, I know several GMs or assistant GMs who would love to have this job because they see the market and the young talent and believe it’s all being wasted. Of course, most of them are only looking to take over if the team is under new ownership. In the short term, most teams see the Warriors as a pigeon they hope to fleece in the midst of their leadership crisis.
Oh, there’s one exception: Ron Artest told me the other day this team is right on the cusp of being right back where it was two years ago. Also said Jack is a great leader for this team. This was *after* the game at the Forum. So for those who are convinced the Warriors are still headed in the right direction, you’re as lucid as RonRon. Congratulations.
WarriorsWorld.net: After what transpired during his first go round with the Warriors, how surprised were you to see Nellie come back to coach the Warriors?
I’ve learned to never say never in the NBA, but, no, I couldn’t imagine Nelson coming back to the Warriors after the first go-round. That said, when someone in the organization asked me what I thought before they officially hired him, I said he was the one guy available who could get the Warriors to the playoffs. (The caveat being that there eventually would be a lot of dead bodies lying around, including that of the guy who hired him.) That’s what is so sad about Nelson — he has a tremendous basketball mind. I love his innovativeness and his ability to pick out mismatches and the way he makes the game fun for his players. He understands players pretty damn well, which is why when things go sour, as they always do, I can’t help but think it’s willful. There are few better in-game coaches at making adjustments. I even admire his ruthlessness, in that he will take someone down or throw someone overboard no matter how close they are to him, if they stand between him and something he wants. But he also has this self-destructive element about him, this build-up-tear-down mechanism that is as predictable as the seagulls poaching tailgate remnants in the arena parking lot. And if he merely built up and tore down himself, that would be one thing. But he takes people, and franchises, down with him. Good people. Good franchises. For every player that says he loves playing for Nelly, there’s one who couldn’t wait to get away from him. There are always going to be malcontents, but batting .500 is not a good percentage. Besides, I’ve yet to see what is gained in alienating players. He didn’t make Al Harrington or Jamal Crawford or Chris Webber better players; he just killed their trade value. When all is said and done, he’s not about the slow, patient, arduous process of building a proud, winning organization. It seems to be about winning just enough to get his.
WarriorsWorld.net: Chris Cohan tends to keep to himself and stay out of the spotlight unlike other owners in the NBA. Cohan has a staff in place, headed by Robert Rowell which he entrusts to make the decisions for the betterment of the franchise. Cohan has garnered a lot of the negative reaction from fans through the years as there is a track record of failure during his tenure as owner. If Cohan gave in to his detractors and decided to sell the team, would that be the change the team needs or do the issues with the team run much deeper?
I’ve been told that when Cohan bought the team, he looked at it as a family heirloom, something he hoped to keep in the family forever, passing it down to his kids, a la the Rooney family in football. I don’t know if that has changed. I do know a lot of people are interested in buying the team from him and have made formal or informal inquiries. The problem is, for anyone hoping Cohan will sell, that this is his primary business now, his nest egg. If he’s going to walk away from it, he’s going to want to make a killing and the current economy doesn’t bode well for someone over-paying for anything.
Cohan selling would provide the opportunity for improvement but no guarantee. Part of the problem, quite honestly, is that the Warriors’ fan base has demonstrated a willingness to accept an inferior product or at least a shiny-trinket one. That’s what makes it attractive for a prospective owner because it almost equates to a license to print money without having to put the time and effort into truly building a long-term sustainable winner.
Look at what GM Sam Presti is doing in OKC. He’s taking a slow-growth approach, building on solid people and solid principles, and if you ask people around the league, they like their prospects for future success even more than they like the Blazers’. But the Thunder are probably going to be a team that wins or loses 87-84 for a couple of years. Would Bay Area fans take to that? They didn’t under Rick Adelman. By and large, they ran a really good coach out of town because his style was supposedly boring and his personality was painfully flat, not taking into account that it was the only style that would work with the talent he had. If an exciting, high-wire, volatile team is your cup of tea; you have to accept some pretty wild ups and downs because those kinds of teams need constant re-building. I really wonder if a program like the Spurs would work in the Bay Area if they were doing anything short of winning championships. Most teams see the Warriors as the waste of a great location.
WarriorsWorld.net: As with any franchise there are certain moments which stand out more so than others. The “We Believe” playoff team and what they accomplished was the highpoint during Cohan’s tenure as owner. What would you consider some of the moments that were challenging and difficult?
The first has to be the All-Star Game in Oakland, when Cohan walked to center court with his kids and was booed. Can’t blame anyone for booing him, and I would’ve thought he would’ve given up that family-legacy idea right there, but I don’t recall anything that comes close to that. I’m probably forgetting some choice moments.
I’ll say No. 2 was when Chris Webber returned to the Bay Area and the crowd cheered when he dislocated his shoulder. I don’t care what you think about Webber and his part in the Warriors’ last immolation or that you felt deserted, that’s beneath any fan base, particularly one as supposedly intelligent as the Warriors’.
No. 3 is a toss-up of about a hundred incidents — Dave Twardzik liking Todd Fuller more than Kobe, Cohan literally running away from reporters in the midst of the Nelson-Webber blow-up, Latrell Sprewell going after Jerome Kersey with a 2-by-4, Nelson reportedly drinking water glasses of booze during an interview — but I’d include this latest one with Stephen Jackson at the Forum.
That was nothing short of an intentional attempt to get him to go off his rocker. Here they are, preparing for a season, a squad full of young, talented but impressionable players and you antagonize a guy who already doesn’t want to be on your team? Anyone who knows Jack knows if you let him get punked by Kobe and a bunch of replacement refs, make no attempt to argue any of the calls with the refs or call a timeout to settle him down or sub him out to cool off, he’s going to explode. Five fouls and a technical later, he erupts on the bench and we’re surprised? Don’t like the way he’s playing Kobe? OK, pull him before something bad happens. I challenge anyone to give me an example of a coach allowing his team leader to pick up five fouls and a T in the first quarter without moving a muscle. This wasn’t Hack-a-whatever with a scrub. *Any* veteran player would’ve been upset under those circumstances. They might not have gone berserk, but they would’ve felt abandoned, for sure. Nelson isn’t that stupid; quite the contrary, as I said earlier, he has a great grasp on how players think. It’s appalling to me that anyone — I mean, anyone — would suggest that Nelson wasn’t anything short of willfully negligent in allowing that whole episode to happen. Hey, blame Jackson if you’d like, but it’s like whacking a pit bull on the nose and being shocked he bit you. Or blame Rowell for signing him to an extension, which gives Jack a freedom to act out he might not otherwise have. But Jackson’s temperament and his contract are two things that aren’t going to change. Not rattling his cage to get him to blow up and make it even harder to move him, that is something you can avoid. And that’s what makes the whole episode so embarrassing.
WarriorsWorld.net: Stephen Jackson made it known he would like to be traded to a team that has a chance of contending for a championship. The trade request comes a year after the Warriors signed Jackson to a three year contract extension worth an estimated $27 million dollars while he still had two years left on his current deal. The situation puts everyone involved in a tough spot as there seems to be no resolution other than Jackson being traded, what teams have expressed a desire to acquire Jackson?
A couple of teams have expressed interest, Dallas and Cleveland being the primary ones. There’s no doubt he could help a contending team. But thanks to how this has been handled, the Warriors have absolutely no leverage. Can they do it without taking back a bad contract? They’d be fortunate to take back a bad contract and a young player with potential. No one feels compelled to pick up Jackson, not right now, anyway. Both Dallas and Cleveland could find themselves in December or January realizing they’re not as good as they think they are; Jack would solve problems for both of them and they have owners who don’t seem to be fazed by spending money right now. But I don’t know of anyone looking to make a deal before the season starts. Also know this – Jack can still help a quality team. He defends, he’s smart and he’s fearless in taking big shots. If Cleveland had him last spring to defend Turkoglu, the Cavs would’ve been in the Finals.
WarriorsWorld.net: Monta Ellis had a season to forget about last season due to an off-season accident that required surgery on his ankle. As a result, there was some lingering tension between Ellis and the organization which led to GM Larry Riley and Coach Don Nelson making a trip to see Ellis this off-season in hopes of smoothing over residual tension. There’s been rumors about Ellis possibly being traded since Nelson returned to coach the team, is Ellis possibly on the move?
Ellis certainly has value for an up-tempo team, but, again, the Warriors have no leverage to make a good deal. Nelson assured that by making it known that he believes Ellis is a product of his system and that Acie Law can be just as effective. (He said this before acquiring Law, by the way.) In short, teams like Ellis’ talent and some, like Dallas, would take on his contract. But they only want to do so if they’re getting rid of some salary as well.
WarriorsWorld.net: Nellie loves to wheel and deal in hopes of re-shaping the roster to fit his coaching style. Does Nellie need someone to keep him in order to maintain the good of the franchise?
That strikes me as a rhetorical question. Anybody who knows the Warriors’ history – or the Mavs and Knicks’ histories when he was with them – knows the answer to that. Nelson has been willing to move almost every player he’s ever had, particularly those with the potential to overshadow him. The one time I’ve seen him truly co-opt his authority was with Baron Davis, and at first it puzzled me why. For a minute, I thought maybe Nelson had evolved in his older age, or through the benefit of working with Chris Mullin. I have no doubt he knew that the way to get the best out of Baron was to give him clear guidelines and then make it very well known publicly that Baron was in charge. But when all was said and done, it turned out it was only because Nelson had to re-establish that he actually could win and he wasn’t going to do that with this Warriors’ team without Baron’s support. As soon as Nelson was back in the driver’s seat, multiple sources say he told Rowell to call Davis’ bluff and not offer an extension. Whether it’s because he truly believed Baron wouldn’t opt out or because he did know and wanted him gone doesn’t matter. Ultimately, he convinced Rowell to risk losing Baron. Fact is, Nelson wanted to move Dirk Nowitzki his rookie year. He tried to trade Steve Nash as well. He’s not alone in being that way – Larry Brown and a few other coaches are quick to turn over their rosters if they have the authority.
Nelson’s best years have been with an owner or GM who kept him from his worst impulses. In this case, he wasn’t allowed to trade Anthony Randolph. The idea that everything has been smoothed over is fanciful thinking. “Buried” or “paved over” would be more accurate. Randolph realizes he has nothing to gain by fighting Nelson, publicly or privately. I’m all for players earning their minutes and not giving a player more freedom than he can handle. But that only works for a coach who is consistent, who applies that to all his players; Gregg Popovich is an example of one who does. Even the most diehard Nelson supporter would have to admit he has double standards galore. Always has.
WarriorsWorld.net: The Warriors have something they haven’t had in a while, a legitimate big man prospect. Anthony Randolph is a star in the making as he as continued to develop after experiencing some struggles early on in his rookie season. How good of a player can Randolph become as he continues to develop and mature?
I’m on record as saying Randolph has the talent to be one of the 10 best players in the league. He’s Lamar Odom with ferocity and a killer instinct. But every day that goes by with him being part of a screwed-up franchise is one more day spent going in the wrong direction, no matter how much he works on his own game. The difference between being great and being marginal is very fine. Doc Rivers said to me the other day, “Good is the enemy of great.” He was talking about Rondo, but it applies to Randolph. To be one of the true greats, every day has to be pointed in the right direction. Every instinct has to be honed for winning and making winning decisions. Meanwhile, Randolph is surrounded by crazy stuff like the Jackson incident and being told he doesn’t fit in and Al Harrington going off on Nelly. And Randolph is a little off the chain all on his own, so that’s not a good combination.
All those things are counter-productive. All those things make a young player unsure about exactly what it takes to be a success, what a winning program looks like. And that uncertainty tears at their commitment to the right things, because they’re not sure what the right things are. Truth is, Randolph doesn’t look to me like a player getting a whole lot of coaching. Nelson wasn’t allowed to trade him, so now he appears to be washing his hands of him; I don’t know this, I’m only going by their level of interaction during games, and has been widely reported, Nelson isn’t doing a whole lot of coaching in practice. Of course, the Nelson apologists will say, “Well, it’s the kid’s fault; he should be listening to Nelly. Or he should be going to Nelly asking for direction.” First of all, it doesn’t work that way; head coaches don’t make time for individual players, they decide who they’re going to invest their time in. Popovich, when he saw the star potential of Tim Duncan, made a point of building a relationship with him, taking that extra time. That, I would hope, is what the Warriors’ coach would do with Randolph and Ellis if they truly are your building blocks for the future, instead of making it known you’d trade them in a heartbeat. Besides, as a young kid, would you listen to a boss who let your leading veteran co-worker pour gasoline over himself and light a match? Or might you be thinking, what happens when I have the tank of gas and the match?
WarriorsWorld.net: Stephen Curry has had a decent beginning to his NBA career although he’s struggled mightily with his shot. What can Warrior fans expect out of their high profile rookie?
What hurts me the most about what is going on with the Warriors right now is that this is Curry’s introduction to the NBA. It’s fortunate he has an NBA father who can tell him it’s not this way with every team, but the bottom line is that his growth is being stunted as you read this. I admire everything about the kid and I have no problem saying he’s better than I thought he would be right off the bat. He’s a skinny Brandon Roy, as a 2 with point-guard skills who is going to need defensive cover. The problem is, he has to be way more efficient because he’s not going to get the minutes or unlimited touches that he got in college. The Warriors are not the best place to learn efficiency. What’s going to potentially hurt him down the line is thinking that the Warriors’ free-wheeling offense is the way the game is played, or that effort on defense is optional. I know, I know, the Warriors have been focusing on defense in training camp. The hard truth is that unless a player’s minutes depend on his consistent defensive effort – not ability, just effort – all the drills in the world are going to have minimal impact. For Curry, after being in a college program where no shot he took was a bad shot and he didn’t have to guard anybody, and now playing in this system, it’s hard to see how he’s going to refine his decision-making and learn how to channel his energy. Bad habits creep in easily and, like a golf swing, once they’re ingrained, it’s hard to get rid of them.
WarriorsWorld.net: Do you visit Warriorsworld.net?
I do from time to time. I’m always interested in what fans are thinking and saying and living in the Bay Area and having covered the Warriors as a beat writer, I have as much of a soft spot for this franchise as I do for any in the league. It gets hard sometimes reading the same arguments or defenses over and over again when someone is “strong and wrong,” as NBA coaches like to say, in that they have their view and they’ll be damned if anybody is going to change their minds, particularly when they’re spouting nothing more than opinion without having shared a single private word with Nelson, Randolph, Ellis or any of the people they’re convinced they know so well. As if being intractable is something to be proud of. That, to me, is the height of arrogance and stupidity, particularly when someone doesn’t have any direct knowledge. Let me put a plug in here for the Mercury News guys who cover the team, Tim Kawakami and Marcus Thompson. They’re good. They work hard, they know the team, they understand its dynamics and they try to be fair, which is all you can ask of a beat writer or columnist. They also care, which is why I have to laugh when anybody suggests either of them has a personal agenda. Their agenda is that you, the public, know how your team is being cared for and the fact is, the stewardship of the Warriors has not been very good. (This is no knock on Rusty Simmons of the SF Chronicle – I just don’t know him and he’s new to the beat.) None of us get any satisfaction in covering a screwed-up team or organization; it takes infinitely more work and is far less enjoyable to be around a toxic atmosphere. We all got into this business because we love sports and appreciate what can be accomplished by people working together for a greater, common goal. Shedding light on how that’s done — or not done — is really the heart of what we do.