The Warriors woke up Wednesday a half game ahead of the Clippers for the final playoff spot in the West. To some of them, it felt like an opening-game lead in the NBA Finals.
"We're playing for something,'' said swingman Jason Richardson, a sixth-year Warrior hoping to make his postseason debut next week. "It's unbelievable not playing the spoiler anymore. The games actually mean something.''
As much as the Warriors are focusing on the possibility of their first playoff appearance in 13 otherwise barren years, the games next season promise to bear even greater meaning. This is a young, efficient team, loaded with talent, that can make a run at the No. 5 spot in the West in 2007-08.
The Warriors are 38-40 despite Baron Davis and Richardson missing a combined 50 games; coach Don Nelson's first-half frustrations while trying to integrate Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy; and the January trade that sent Dunleavy and Murphy to Indiana and forced Nellie to reinvent the team all over again in midseason.
There have been times this season when Nelson looked so miserable on the sideline that his return to coaching seemed destined to be short-lived.
"We needed to definitely make a trade,'' Nelson said. "I went in thinking that we were going to be able to have both Murphy and Dunleavy step up because of our system and maybe a change of position for Murphy [to center], but it just wasn't working. Some of that had to do with injuries: Murphy had the Achilles tendon and he broke his nose twice. It probably wasn't fair for him, but it didn't look like that was going to work.''
Nelson makes no such excuses for Dunleavy, who averaged 11.4 points in 26.9 minutes as a point forward.
"Mike is a very good basketball player, but to earn the kind of money he was making [$7.4 million this year, plus $38 million over the next four years], he needs to be more than just a blend player," Nelson said. "If you're making $7-8 million a year, you have to have a dominance to your game and not just play along. Guys who play along are seventh and eighth guys, and I think when you're making big money, the onus is on you to step up and be more dominant for your team. I didn't see that that was going to happen.''
Is it possible that Dunleavy has had the confidence knocked out of him over his five NBA seasons?
"I don't believe that either,'' Nelson said. "I think if you can afford to have Mike Dunleavy as your seventh guy, he's a terrific seventh man, but seventh men don't make $8 million a year, you know? I'd love to have him as my seventh or eighth guy. He's just an all-around guy, but you can't afford to have him.''
Now that Davis and Richardson are playing together with Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, who both arrived in the eight-player trade with Indiana, Nellie suddenly has the kind of versatile, explosive lineup that took him years to assemble in his other NBA assignments.
"This team is way better than the Dallas team I took over, or any of my other teams -- Milwaukee and Golden State, when I first went there [to the Warriors in 1988-89], those were bad teams,'' he said. "This one needed a remaking. But right now we're better defensively than people think -- our defense has really come together. And we do have the ability to score and we do play together, and it's a fun unit to coach right now.''
Can the Warriors afford to keep their team together? Though Richardson loudly denounced a recent report that he's hoping to be traded this summer, he acknowledged that his contract ($51 million over the next four years) puts him at risk of being moved.
"I can't really worry about that," Richardson said. "I love it here. But we have guys coming up here -- Monta [Ellis], Andris [Biedrins] -- who probably will face some [contract] decision. We've got a lot of guys with big contracts. But right now as far as I know it, until I'm traded, I'm a Golden State Warrior and that's how I'm going to look at it.''
Next season the Warriors are committed to $62 million for 10 players -- and they still must pay their draft picks while filling out the end of their bench. They must decide whether to re-sign versatile Matt Barnes, who has produced 9.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, two assists and one steal in 23.7 minutes as a surprise free-agent pickup, and as Richardson noted, they'll eventually have to make long-term commitments to Most Improved candidates Ellis and Biedrins. The best scenario would be to unload little-used Adonal Foyle (owed $29 million over the next three years) and Sarunas Jasikevicius (player option for $4 million next season), but who is going to take on those contracts?
After five losing seasons with Golden State, Richardson would like to prove that he can be a winner for the Warriors. He used to wonder if he could produce under the pressure of a playoff run.
"I did always have that question,'' he said. "And in my mind I always felt like I could be big time in there, and it would be a time for everybody to get to see me play. [In the past] I've been scoring, but people don't pay attention to you when you're going good and your team's not winning.''
Since his return after the All-Star break, Richardson has been averaging 18 points, 5.6 rebounds and four assists in 35.6 minutes. Nelson credits his 6-6 shooting guard for shifting to forward and making the Warriors' small lineup work with Harrington at center.
"He had a lot of downs. He couldn't make shots for a long period of time and we didn't see the player they had last year,'' Nelson said of Richardson's long bout with knee and hand injuries. "We hadn't seen him until now. I've never seen him try harder defensively. He's not a great defender, but he's trying. He gets rebounds, which really helps the small lineup, and he's assisting, which I didn't know he had the ability to make as many assists as he has. He definitely wants to win.''
Richardson believes he can fulfill his potential by playing a full season for Nelson next year. Here's why: "As a coach, you don't want to take a dominance away from a player who has a dominance,'' Nelson said. "With Jason's ability to score with range and shoot early, you've got to let him have it there a little bit, just like I have to let Jackson take some shots early. Maybe some coaches wouldn't like that, and I don't like it all the time either -- from either one of them. But to make them be as good as they can be, they have to have that freedom.
"Jason shoots early and out of the offense sometimes, but it's OK because we need him to do that, and as long as he's really working hard on doing the other things, we can afford that. When he's making shots and making plays, then he elevates our team. We occasionally get hurt when he has a 3-for-16 night or something like that. But for the most part when he's had his off nights or moments, he's still come back in the fourth quarter and made shots, and he's helped us win three games that way.''