Timing right for Warriors to replace Nelson and start over with Smart
SI.com confirmed the Warriors will replace Don Nelson with Keith Smart
Nelson, the NBA's all-time wins leader, will be paid his scheduled $6 million
Smart will bring a new passion for the job that Nelson was lacking
As a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, Joe Lacob amassed a fortune making shrewd decisions based on keen foresight and a healthy does of common sense. As the incoming owner of the Warriors, it appears Lacob is poised to use those same skills: A league source confirmed to SI.com on Thursday that Lacob is planning to replace head coach Don Nelson with assistant Keith Smart.
Simply put, forcing out Nelson -- who according to the Contra Costa Times will receive the entire $6 million he is owed in the final year of his contract -- is the right move. After 15 years of futility under former owner Chris Cohan, Lacob, who paid an NBA-record $450 million for the franchise, represented a chance for the Warriors to start over. The team had grown stale under Nelson, transforming from the young, upstart group that stunned the top-seeded Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs in 2007, to a floundering bunch that went 55-109 in Nelson's last two years and often displayed an indifference to winning.
It would have been easy for Lacob to keep Nelson; he had plenty of cover. Lacob and co-owner Peter Guber are not scheduled to be approved by the NBA's Board of Governors until next month. They could have easily made Nelson earn his $6 million and started from scratch next season.
Waiting, however, could have had disastrous results. The 70-year-old Nelson knew he was on borrowed time in Oakland, telling FanHouse in August that he wouldn't come back to the Warriors "until I get a call to come home." Three of his assistant coaches jumped ship over the summer and those that stayed did it with the understanding that they were only delaying the job search by a year. Nelson's pursuit of the NBA's all-time wins mark ended in April, when he backed into the record at the tail end of a 26-win season. Nelson's motivation, at this point, was strictly financial. He wanted that $6 million and was going to get it, one way or another.
Thursday's resolution makes everybody happy. Nellie gets paid and he can go back to enjoying retirement on the sandy Hawaiian beaches. The Warriors avoid the distractions that come with a lame duck coach and can begin the rebuilding process a year early.
"I respect Don a lot," Lacob told the San Jose Mercury News. "We just need to go in a different direction at this time."
Of course, Smart may not be the answer. A basketball vagabond as a player, Smart has been a fixture on the Warriors bench for the last six seasons and before that posted a 9-31 record as interim coach with the pre-LeBron Cavaliers in 2002-03. His coaching philosophies are largely unknown and there is no telling how the players will respond to an inexperienced head coach with such close ties to the former regime.
Still, Smart will bring an enthusiasm to the job that Nelson lacked during his final days. Smart has made no secret of his desire to be a head coach and passionately filled the role when Nelson missed time last season while battling pneumonia.
"I've been very fortunate that when Nellie came, he said I want to put you in a position to be a head coach in the NBA again," Smart said last November. "He's given me a lot of freedom as far as running practices, running timeouts, running games. The players understand my voice. They know what I want, what I want to do and how I want to do it."
It's not like Lacob had many alternatives, either. Jeff Van Gundy isn't leaving the ABC booth for the Warriors and it's a little late in the game to be dialing up Lawrence Frank and Sam Mitchell too. Plus Smart, who Lacob told Bay Area reporters will receive a multi-year contract, comes cheap. If it doesn't work out this year the team can always cut ties after the season.
But with Nelson gone, the Warriors can finally look towards the future without being encompassed by the shadow of the past. A new era has begun in Golden State and let's face it, it can't be much worse than the last.