The Golden State Warriors are the third-worst and worst-coached team in the NBA -- our reality is achingly, hauntingly terrible. As such, the time has come to return to the soothing pastures of make-believe, where we Worriers have taken the front office reins. And it's a pleasure to recall that, in this relative utopia, we fired Don Nelson over two months ago.
To progress as a franchise, however, we will need to replace him with someone good this summer. Keith Smart has been our interim coach in WorrierWorld, and it's possible that he's shown enough there to earn the '10-'11 job, but we just can't be sure; the gauzy membrane between the dream world and ours does not allow us to see how our previous moves have been working. If it turns out that Keith Smart fits our criteria, he could well be our guy. If he doesn't, we will be forced to wish him well in his future endeavors.
So. Here are the characteristics we should look for in our next head coach.
1) Our new head coach should know what he's doing. For most franchises, it wouldn't be necessary to list basic competency as a must. For a team as assheaded as these Warriors, it's worth mentioning explicitly. We need a guy who is capable of being a decent head coach in some circumstance or another.
2) Our new head coach should be very different from Don Nelson. In his Guide To Baseball Managers, Bill James pointed out the utility of the Yankees' managerial flip-flops between Billy Martin and Bob Lemon in the '70s and '80s. Martin, a notorious hardass, would whip the players into shape for a couple years. When they got sick of his taskmastering, he'd be replaced with Lemon, an easygoing presence who got the players loose again. When they got too loose and lost their edge, Martin came back in; rinse and repeat. What looked like organizational chaos was actually tremendously effective, as it accounted for the fact that a coach's message often loses its force over time. The same holds true here: it's not even clear what Nellie's message currently is, but it's more than clear that the players are sick of it. The next guy needs to strike them as a real, meaningful change of pace.
3) More specifically, our new head coach should be patient, and willing to teach and work through the growing pains of younger players. We mustn't fool ourselves... even in WorrierWorld, the Warriors' talent base is too raw and flawed for a "win now" hire to make sense. These kids are going to need some time, and they're going to need a coach that understands that. A head coach that executes endgames savvily would be great, but it's more important that we get a guy who's willing to work through Anthony Randolph's occasional brain farts, through Andris Biedrins's limitations, through Anthony Morrow's inability to get himself open, etc. You can't get 50 wins out of these guys as they stand, no matter how hard you scream at them. But if you're willing to teach them defensive fundamentals, basic post moves and better discipline on both ends, you'll make it more likely that these guys could win some games down the road.
4) Our new head coach should be willing to play at a fairly fast pace. This is not because a fast pace makes for winning basketball, or even because the Oracle fans like it so much... it's just an acknowledgement of the facts on the ground. This team doesn't have an offensive wunderkind that can really open things up in the halfcourt, and it doesn't have the aggregate ability or bulk you need to defend effectively in the halfcourt. What this team has is speed, and plenty of it. This team was built to run. And as long as the talent tilts that way, the coach has to be willing to go along; it's not a must that the Warriors continue to play at the fastest pace of any NBA team, but for the immediate future, its pace should remain well above the league average.
5) Our new head coach should be a skilled diplomat. A franchise this dysfunctional (even in WorrierWorld, Larry Ellison isn't stupid enough to pay Chris Cohan's asking price) is a hard sell, to players, to the fanbase and to the media at large. We'd profit from a guy who can put a good face on this mess... a guy that players like to play for, a guy who says the things that the fans want to hear, a guy who can get Bay Area and national pundits to treat the team with a bit less scorn. This criteria is nowhere near as important as the three that preceded it -- we're not just going to hire any glad-hander that comes along, regardless of his ability to actually coach a basketball team. But this is a struggling business we Worriers are running. And a struggling business can always use a talented salesman.
6) Our new head coach has to be willing to take the job. An obvious but important point... the really big names will find better owners to work for than Chris Cohan. We should be willing to hire a guy who's never been an NBA head coach before, as that's one of the few carrots we're able to offer.
Many of the best candidates for the job may, indeed, be assistants who are currently flying below the radar; in most cases, we can't really know which of these guys would be effective as a top dog. But of the higher-profile possibilities, whose personalities and styles are better-known, does anyone stand out as a good possible fit?
Keith Smart himself actually fares pretty well by this analysis. His personality differs significantly from Nellie's, he seems like a patient and willing teacher, he's open to playing fast, he's a skilled people person who has already established healthy relationships with the Dubs' players and media, and he's clearly willing to work for the team. The real question mark here is the most important one: does he have the core coaching ability you need to make an NBA team competitive? His preference for Mikki Moore over Anthony Randolph was a troubling sign, and in his cameos, he made many of the same basic mistakes -- overplaying guys, overusing smallball -- that Nellie's been making. It may be that his gaffes were politically expedient, that he was just employing Nellieball to avoid ruffling the big man's feathers. Still, he hasn't shown enough affirmatively good coaching skill to make it clear that he's our guy. A possibility, but until we learn more about him, no slam-dunk.
The cool kids like throwing around the name Tom Thibodeau, the Celtics' ace defensive assistant. It seems pretty clear that he's smart enough to be a viable head coach in some situation or another, and that he could help young players improve their defense. He'd probably be willing to take the job if offered enough. But, as with Smart, there are many things about him that we just don't know. The Celts have played at a very slow pace throughout his tenure there... while that's clearly the right decision for their talent base (and a decision that's out of his hands, to boot), would he be flexible enough to employ the run-and-gun style the Warriors' roster dictates? Does the fact that he has yet to become a head guy, despite interviews with a host of teams last summer, suggest that he's not good with people? There's no question that the Warriors would be well-served to interview him themselves, at the very least -- Thibodeau's an intriguing guy. But fit matters, and as things stand, we can't be sure he's a fit.
Byron Scott and Avery Johnson, two of the biggest names currently available, just aren't fits here. Scott's too much of a disciplinarian for an affable, sloppy team like this one, and his underplaying of Collision and Thornton in New Orleans showed how unwilling he is to give inexperienced players a chance... the last thing we need is another coach who prioritizes our crappy fungible vets over our young talent. Avery, meanwhile, took Nellie's sprinting Mavs team and ground them to a halt, dropping the team's pace from 9th-best to 28th-best in two seasons... that was a defensible move, but not one that suggests that he'd be well-suited to the Warriors' roster. Neither of these guys would be likely to take the job, anyway.
But Scott's successor in New Jersey might. Of the ex-head coaches that the Warriors could consider, Lawrence Frank may be the best fit. Let's go through our criteria in order:
1) Does he know what he's doing? Yes... not a resounding yes, but yes. The Nets were 225-241 in his tenure there, and an even 225-225 before their infamous thud to start this season. A .483 winning percentage is nothing to write home about, but in looking at the talent the Nets had at hand, you'd be hard-pressed to say any of his teams significantly underachieved... the current Nets' 4-29 record since he left suggests his 0-16 start wasn't solely his fault. The Nets made the playoffs in each of Frank's first four seasons at the helm, and impressively, won their first-round series in three of those four seasons. And he was the lone Nets figure who wasn't starry-eyed about Yi Jianlian, which speaks well of his sanity. He seems like a fully capable NBA coach.
2) Does he differ from Don Nelson? Frank is 39 years old; Nellie is 69 years old. Frank failed to make his high school's basketball team; Nellie had his jersey retired by the Celtics. Frank, by all accounts, only managed to snag a head coaching job by being one of the hardest-working assistants in the NBA; Nellie is, by all accounts, the laziest head coach in the league. Frank is known for his passion for drawing up plays during timeouts; of late, Nellie has been wandering around with a blank look on his face during timeouts while Keith Smart talks to the team. It seems safe to say that Lawrence Frank would not remind anyone of Don Nelson.
3) Is he patient, and willing to teach and work through the growing pains of younger players? Frank had been doing exactly that for the last several years, as the Nets shipped star after star out of town to save money. He has shown a distinct willingness to stick with young players, even warty ones. In particular, several young bigs -- Jason Collins, Nenad Krstic, Brook Lopez -- have enjoyed unusually long leashes under Frank. That isn't necessarily a positive in a vacuum, but for a Warriors team featuring Biedrins, Randolph and Wright, it certainly would be.
4) Is he willing to play at a fairly fast pace? This is the biggest question mark... the Nets played at a slightly faster-than-normal pace under Byron Scott, but at a slightly slower-than-normal pace under Frank. However, it may well be that this was a rational response to the talent he had on hand. Vince Carter has tended to flourish in slower environments, and Jason Kidd's playmaking brilliance has never been slowed in the halfcourt. Frank slowed the Nets down considerably when Brook Lopez came aboard, clearly the right move when you add a quintessential halfcourt center. In general, Frank has seemed responsive to the strengths of the rosters he's coached. So while one can't be sure that he'd be willing to let the young Warriors run, it seems like a pretty fair bet.
5) Is he a skilled diplomat? Frank, a guy with zero background as a player, managed to become his hometown franchise's winningest NBA coach before the age of forty. He was generally well-liked amongst Nets followers even during his 0-16 start -- a struggle he handled with admirable grace -- and kept up appearances pretty impressively, considering Bruce Ratner's extended fire sale and the Nets' presence in the vicious New York media market. Most importantly, he's known as a players' coach. We can safely file this guy under "P" for "people person".
6) Would he be willing to take the job? Thanks mainly to his 0-16 start, Frank has almost no career momentum; he's currently spending his time giving Vince Carter pep talks in an unofficial capacity for the Magic, and even Isiah Thomas gets more mention in hiring rumors than Frank. His stock is extremely low... given that, he'd have to at least consider taking a job here.
Lawrence Frank would be no panacea, and there may well be some unknowns who'd do a better job than he would. But of the known quantities, he is perhaps the most realistic and sensible choice. He's patient, he works hard, he knows the league, and he knows how to deal with spazzy young players and stupidly unprofessional front offices. At this point, Warriors can't be choosers. And while Lawrence Frank isn't likely to get anyone to the promised land, two years of his bright-eyed tutelage could help get this team headed in the right direction again.