This is a three part series. Today I look at the owners and general manager, Wednesday the coach, and on Friday the players.
By: Rick Blaine
For the past sixteen years, Warriors fans have lived lives of quiet desperation. The failures and disappointments of the Cohan years have warped our psyches and jaded our senses. Yes, there was that one fleeting moment that made us believe again and awakened in us a deeply buried ecstasy. But like oases that so often disappear in the desert, “We Believe” vanished and left fans thirsting for more. The tease of “We Believe” roiled the passions of Warriors fans but ultimately served as a stark reminder of the promises Christopher Cohan could not deliver. In the end, “We Believe” was more a curse than a blessing for Cohan as the team quickly reverted to its old ways. Fortunately, last winter the steady drum beat of fan persecution, the deepening recession, and Cohan’s own financial problems converged on him, and under the immense weight of it all he threw up the white flag and sold the team. Fans rejoiced and hope was renewed. Warriorsworld.net encapsulated the feelings of fans with the words “Free at Last” emblazoned across its banner.
And so as we near the beginning of the 2010-2011 Warriors season, a feeling of freshness pervades the air. Incoming owner, Joe Lacob, is ushering in a new era, and the team is already being remodeled to fit his vision.
Though no one is calling the new Warriors contenders, there is a sense that they are a team on the come reversing a negative sixteen year trend. As I present to you what I believe are the essential questions and keys to this season, I will start with the Joe Lacob and work down to the players.
Besides a dominant superstar on the level of a Bryant, James, Howard, or Wade, no person on a professional sports team has as big an impact or wields more influence than the owner. The great teams in sports have owners who are driven, committed to winning, and demand performance and accountability. The Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, and Los Angeles Lakers, to give examples, have established great traditions built upon a stone foundation of strong ownership. Even when down for periods of time, these teams are never out. They re-emerge, restoring in themselves the greatness of their traditions. We are about to learn what kind of leadership and vision we have in Lacob as he will officially become owner of the Golden State Warriors in a few days.
Essential question: Can Joe Lacob build a great tradition at Golden State?
Without the official title of owner, Lacob has already made changes behind the scenes this summer that have altered the image of the team and organization. Since the sale, he has approved the trade to acquire David Lee, sanctioned the signing of Jeremy Lin, empowered Larry Riley, extended Don Nelson a golden handshake, and hired Kieth Smart to replace Nelson. Lacob has been outspoken about building a culture of collaboration and demanding hard work, and accountability. He has emphasized the need for a team that plays defense and incorporates post play. Riley and Smart are working under that directive, and it appears that they are both making changes to achieve it.
There are, of course, some critical questions about Lacob. Some of these questions center around his apparent decision to keep certain holdovers from the Cohan regime on the payroll. Diehard fans and season ticket holders are incredulous that Robert Rowell still has a job. One wonders too if Lacob is aware that there is a referendum on Bob Fitzgerald, whose obsequiousness and condescending personality have chaffed fans for years. Rowell and Fitzgerald are symbols of a passing era that fans would like to bury and forget.
Getting beyond symbolism, what I will be watching for this season is how Lacob puts in place the new culture of discipline, hard work, accountability, and collaboration that he has promised. Will he establish measurable benchmarks for the general manager and coaching staff? Will he hold his management team accountable for meeting those benchmarks? Will he spend money, and go into the luxury tax if there is a chance for the Warriors to acquire another impact player? If Riley or Smart flounder, will he take decisive action? Will he apply a standard of excellence when hiring new personnel? Will he make Oakland a desirable destination for players, coaches, and other personnel prospects by providing first class amenities and perqs? Will he operate under a level of transparency or a cloak of darkness like his predecessor? Will he be open to criticism and scrutiny, or will he try to control the media and make broadcasters and reporters toe the line as we have seen in the recent past? Will he put an end to infiltrating blogs and other media with people from the inside? And most importantly, will the team win more than it loses in his first two seasons at the helm?
THE GENERAL MANAGER
When Larry Riley replaced Pete D’Alessandro as assistant general manager back in November of 2008, he was not well received by fans. They knew that his appointment upstairs undermined general manager Chris Mullin and presaged Mullin’s eventual termination. So when Riley replaced the popular Mullin six months later, fans became even more disgruntled. Riley was regarded by fans as a featherweight and a Nellie puppet. Certainly his mediocre GM track record with the Vancouver Grizzlies did not inspire confidence. And the fact that he was Nellie’s poker buddy and close confidant justifiably undermined any sense that Riley would have autonomy as the Warriors general manager. Nothing that Riley did over the first two years of his tenure did anything to refute that perception.
But something changed this off-season (around the time of the sale of the team): Pinocchio became a boy. Riley began to assert his independence. He began to voice in a way he had not in the past that the team needed post players who could rebound and defend. He didn’t say anything to undermine Nelson’s coaching authority, but he made much bolder statements that he was making decisions independent of Nelson, and he backed those words with actions. Since the beginning of the off-season the roster has had a makeover. Most of the players from last season are gone. Many of the new arrivals—David Lee, Ekpe Udoh, and Lou Amundson—are traditional post players, while undersized “power” forwards such as Corey Maggette and Anthony Tolliver are gone. To the surprise of most fans, Riley has been effective this off-season, getting rid of bad contracts (i.e., Maggette), bringing in an All Star in Lee in exchange for reserves, adding post players to a team that has eschewed a traditional line-up for the past four seasons, and acquiring players with expiring contracts, which will give the Warriors cap space next season or provide an opportunity to trade for impact player this season. It is too early to tell how Riley’s work this summer will pay off, but if the early preseason is any indication, the team looks to have more talent in the starting unit, better chemistry, and much improved rebounding. The bench, however, appears to be an area badly in need of bolstering.
With new owners on board, Larry Riley is on probation this season. But he has a few things going for him. First, he is not an alpha personality. Lacob has made it clear that he is going to be an active owner, and he also said that the wants to build a collaborative culture where many smart people exchange their thoughts and ideas. Riley seems to have the right personality for this organizational model. And his off season success has purchased him both confidence and time. Second, Riley is affable. He’s well liked by his peers, and he seems to be establishing credibility around the league.
Essential question: Can Larry Riley build off of the success he has had this summer and continue to improve the team?
Moving forward, Riley must be able to acquire that “third” impact player that Lacob talked about recently. He needs make the best possible use of the $14 million in expiring contracts of Dan Gadzuric and Vladimir Radmanovic. That will be his single most import task this season.
Secondly, Riley must work in concert with Lacob and Smart and help clarify the organization’s vision. Riley doesn’t have an outstanding track record; he still has a lot to prove. If the new owners walk their talk, they will place high expectations on Riley during his “tryout” year, and he will be held accountable for team success.
Those are the keys to the season for the owner and general manager. Tomorrow, we look at the Coach Keith Smart.