Not So Golden State
Despite suffering through what seems to be their annual rash of injuries—the worst of which was the loss of guards Tim Hardaway and Sarunas Marciulionis, both of whom had season-ending knee operations—the Warriors were a surprising 37-27 through Sunday. But lately coach Don Nelson hasn't been able to enjoy being a Coach pf the Year candidate. He has been too busy fighting the growing perception that his players are on the verge of mutiny.
The team's problems came to light last month when the San Jose Mercury News reported that 6'10" rookie Chris Webber, a natural power forward who was upset over having to play center, had had shouting matches with Nelson and was considering exercising the clause in his contract that allows him to become a restricted free agent after this season. And last week 6'9" Billy Owens, who wants to play small forward, told reporters that he didn't like being used at power forward and center. Nelson was so irritated that he took Owens out of the starting lineup for four games, making him back up small forward Chris Mullin.
Nelson insists that the only real problem is in the minds of reporters, who, he believes, have made too much of the sort of routine run-ins that occur on every team. "All of a sudden I can't coach anymore, I'm going to be fired, or whatever the rumors are, when all I've done is reprimand a couple of young players who challenged my authority," Nelson says. "I haven't lost this team. I'm really proud of the year we're having."
But there are plenty of signs that the Warriors' internal conflicts are more serious than Nelson admits. Webber, for instance, denies that he wants out of Golden State but says ominously that "things are definitely going to happen in the off-season. Something has to happen."
What seems to anger Nelson most is that one of his players apparently has leaked some of the information about team conflicts to reporters. Nelson has referred to this unnamed source as a Judas. Last week the coach closed practices to reporters for the rest of the season, and lie has restricted media access to players before and after practice.
Nelson is known for his low tolerance for challenges to his authority and public airings of team grievances. In short, he's a coach from the old school. However, today's young stars know that the heavy investments their teams have made in them give them a measure of power, and they aren't afraid to complain to the press. It's apparent that coaches—even the best coaches, such as Nelson—who refuse to adjust to the new facts of NBA life are fighting a losing battle.
When the Knicks found out last week that guard John Starks's torn left knee ligament will keep him out for the rest of the regular season, his backup, 23-year-old Hubert Davis, suddenly became very important to New York's championship plans. Will he be up to the challenge? Pacer guard Reggie Miller seems to think so. "It's a lot tougher for me to cover Hubert, because he's more fundamentally sound and more under control than John," says Miller. But then Miller has never been one of Starks's greatest admirers—remember the head butt Starks gave him in the playoffs last season?—so perhaps some opinions from more impartial observers are called for.
"Losing Starks hurts the Knicks' depth, obviously, but people around the league think an awful lot of Davis, especially for a second-year guy who really hasn't had consistent playing time," says a Western Conference coach. "Everybody who talked to New York about deals last summer wanted him in any package. Davis came into the league as just a shooter, but now he can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket pretty well too. He's a better outside shooter than Starks in terms of consistency. This might be the opening he needs to establish himself."