Warriors think big, but results lag
It's 3:15 p.m. in Jerry West's Bel Air, Calif., home, and you can tell by the tone in the Logo's voice that he's already itching to grab the remote.
By the time the NBA's schedule tips off at 4, he will have decided on that day's viewing room. The upstairs setup provides more solitude and silence from his three barking dogs, but the downstairs theater comes with the 60-inch television that serves as the window into his world.
He watches as many games as he can absorb, none more closely than Golden State's now that he's paid to analyze the Warriors remotely. There's no hype here -- no screaming owners or playoff predictions to offer a distraction or frame his expectations.
There's the game, a notepad and his 73-year-old mind, which is clearly as sharp as ever. And when West breaks down a Warriors team that is far from reaching the dreams of its ambitious caretakers, the Hall of Famer sees the obvious void of talent just like everybody else.
"It's very evident to me where this team needs help," West said by phone recently. "Going forward, this franchise will have players who are better than what we do have [now], but you just hope they stay as competitive. This is a really competitive group. Sometimes it gets frustrating when you work your fannies off and you lead the whole game and then you lose it in the last part of the game. Well, that's where the deficiencies lie. That's where the right kind of talent won't let you lose those games.
"I'm an optimist, OK? But I'm also a realist, and realistically we need a couple more players and I think everyone in the league knows that."
For all the well-intentioned changes made by one of the NBA's least successful franchises last offseason -- from the hiring of coach Mark Jackson and his coveted lead assistant, Michael Malone, to adding West as a consultant, former agent Bob Myers as an assistant general manager and the respected Rick Welts as president -- it's been more of the same on the court because the talent pool has remained mostly unchanged.
Jackson's often-repeated postseason guarantee is already in serious jeopardy. Golden State is 13th in the Western Conference, 4½ games behind the four teams that are tied for the Nos. 5-8 playoff spots. Its record to this point (8-14) is identical to last season's under then-coach Keith Smart, who finished 36-46. The Warriors have the same starting five now as they did to open last season (Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, Dorell Wright, David Lee and Andris Biedrins). They have the same deficiencies down low, as they're on pace to be the league's worst rebounding team for the third straight season and rank 23rd in points in the paint allowed. They have the same porous defense -- a No. 26 ranking in points allowed per 100 possessions, just like last season -- which has led to an identical point differential (minus-2.3).
All of which makes for a frustrating time for the Warriors, who were bought by Joe Lacob, a venture capitalist, and Peter Guber, an entertainment entrepreneur, for $450 million in July 2010.
"It's a results-driven business, so you're going to be judged by your results and we're aware of that," Myers said. "From that aspect, there's disappointment because we want to be competitive, to be a playoff team, and that's the direction we'd like to go in.
"But it doesn't mean that you change the process that you're employing to get there. ... We believe that over the long haul, if you employ the right process, you'll get the right results."
Yet this is no easy task, because the Warriors' brand remains among the most battered when it comes to league-wide perception. Their fans are as loyal as ever, an average of 18,668 coming out for home games despite the fact that Golden State has made just one playoff appearance since 1994. It's the players who have steered clear of Oakland all these woeful years.
That issue had everything to do with the nature of the Warriors' offseason hires. Lacob aggressively pursued the kind of additions that would help with his franchise's credibility problem among players. West, who had an illustrious front-office career with the Lakers and Grizzlies, could weigh in as needed and set the right tone. In Jackson, Lacob didn't see a rookie coach or former ESPN analyst but a charismatic and confident leader who could be the lead recruiter. In Myers, he had the former right-hand man of super agent Arn Tellem, a 36-year-old ex-UCLA player whom Lacob hoped could use his relationships around the league to share the Warriors' new message.
The old regime was retained as well. General manager Larry Riley -- a likable and respected veteran of the game with more than two decades of experience as an executive, scout or coach -- was extended through 2013, along with assistant general manager Travis Schlenk, a former scout and assistant coach who is seen by West and others as an up-and-comer in the front-office ranks.
"Though the record does not reflect it yet, this organization is a far different place," Lacob said. "We have hired great people and completely changed the culture."
So far, though, the process -- that collaborative effort of getting "a seat at the table" of opportunity that Myers speaks of -- hasn't paid off. Jackson thought his relationship with Tyson Chandler could lead to acquiring the sort of defensive-minded big man the coach had dreamed of, but the Knicks swooped in for the free-agent center late in what was a brutal reminder that the Warriors couldn't contend with the big boys just yet. Myers hoped to have an edge in the DeAndre Jordan sweepstakes because the 23-year-old center is a Tellem client, and while the Warriors did sign the restricted free agent to a four-year, $43 million offer sheet, the Clippers matched it.
Golden State also has failed in its attempts to land stars. The Warriors had trade conversations about Chris Paul before New Orleans dealt him to the Clippers. They tried to send word to Orlando's Dwight Howard through the media that he should add Golden State to his wish list of destinations, but a source close to the situation said the Warriors have been informed by Howard's representation that he is not interested.
Big things might be coming, as the NBA slogan that's prominently featured at Oracle Arena goes, but they're not coming yet. Still, Myers contends that all the unfruitful activity is a step in the right direction.
"We didn't acquire our primary targets in the offseason, but we had a great chance to do it," he said. "And second place might as well be last place in free agency, but it's an improvement for us to finish second. We're not going to accept second place. It's certainly not OK, but it's better than it has been.
"We now, at least, have a seat at that table, and eventually I think we're going to attract and sign players and change the culture, where players want to come here."
The challenge from within, of course, is persuading the eternally energetic Lacob to be patient. He is as involved, opinionated and excitable as any owner in the league, buoyed by his experience as a minority owner of the championship-winning Celtics and supported by his Stanford-product son, Kirk, who is Golden State's director of basketball operations and general manager of its Development League affiliate in Bismarck. N.D. And while a possible move to San Francisco after the 2016-17 season is being explored and could eventually help in the recruiting game, Lacob isn't looking to wait until then to become a contender.
"I have no doubt that we will turn things around on the court eventually, following an already-huge organizational turnaround," he said. "Yes, we are impatient, but we are completely confident it will happen. We have all the right ingredients for success. So, I am not down at all. I am incredibly excited about our future. ... We are very much on the way."
Riley said Lacob has been "very enthusiastic" about pursuing big personnel moves and that "his desire to do something is off the charts, but he's been able to look at it and evaluate things and not do something crazy."
The season itself has been enough to drive them all mad. Their consolation prize in free agency, center Kwame Brown, had played well and helped shore up the interior defense before suffering a fluky, season-ending pectoral injury against Miami on Jan. 10. Ironically, that was the high point of the season, an overtime victory against the Heat in which Lacob's courtside "freakout," as it
"Clearly, it's been tough to lose so many close games," Lacob said. "We have been in almost every game and managed to find a way to lose a bunch. We could easily be 14-8, not 8-14."
Curry's right-ankle troubles haven't made matters any easier, either. He missed nine games after turning the same ankle he had surgically repaired last May two games into the season. Add the fact that the lockout-shortened season is proving toughest on new coaches because of the lack of an extended training camp and just two preseason games, and the expectations are quickly seeming out of reach.
"Our coaches won't say it, but they've been at a disadvantage because they're new and they didn't get much time to get everything going," Riley said.
The change, it's clear, will come much more slowly than they'd hoped. The Warriors will continue to work the phones leading up to the March 15 trade deadline, but they're also mindful of having the potential for about $10 million in salary-cap space this summer.
"You want to be careful to not make a bad deal or to not do something that is going to restrict you in the future," Riley said. "It's one thing to do a calculated risk, and another thing to do a gamble. I'm all about a calculated risk. We can do that and we pretty much see that the same way. To take a big gamble would be difficult for us at this time."
If the playoff push doesn't happen, West will pay even more attention to non-Warriors games in the coming weeks. He'll take notes on players who might look good in a Warriors uniform, the type of talent that could finally help turn around the franchise.
"This is hard work, OK?" West said. "It's mental. It's like a puzzle. And sometimes puzzles can get hard and frustrating, particularly when you don't have all the pieces there. We need to get this puzzle to be a complete puzzle, and everyone involved feels the same way.
"I want people to come to a Warriors game and say, 'Hey, look, we're going to go out and win tonight. We're not going to hope we win, but we're going to win.' I think when you get to that point, it tells you that you have assets, you have people working collectively together to acquire those assets, and once you do that I expect you'll see a big turnaround. Effort is great, but talent is a must. And collecting the talent is a real premium for this franchise."