Finally Dunleaving


January 28, 2007

On January 17th, hundreds of thousands of Golden State Warriors fans celebrated in homes, bars, and cubicles the world over. Had the Warriors finally end a historic streak of playoff-less futility? Did they trade for a purported franchise player, perhaps Kevin Garnett or Jermaine O’Neal? Had Chris Cohan finally sold the team to an owner who inspired more (or for that matter, any) confidence? No on all counts. All they had done to cause such reaction from their fan base was trade one bench player, Mike Dunleavy.


Dunleavy had become the symbol of the Warriors’ losing ways, a lightning rod for criticism, and a wedge between management and major American sports’ most loyal fans. He was over-hyped, a draft bust, overpaid, and, worst of all, indifferent. His play and lack of passion frustrated fans to no end, making him the first Warrior in over a decade to get routinely booed at home. Management’s insistence that Dunleavy was to be a key cog in a championship level team confounded fans and left them using logic that would make even the Iraqi Information Minister squirm.


Dunleavy was coddled like no player in franchise history. It started even before he was drafted. In typical Golden State fashion, the Warriors had the NBA’s worst record but managed to drop to the third overall pick in a draft considered by most to have two elite players - Yao Ming, projected as a franchise center and a money making machine in a market heavily populated with Asian Americans, and Jason Williams, thought to be a franchise point guard). Undeterred, the Warriors thought they saw a 6 foot 9 inch do it all sharp shooting point forward in Dunleavy. Dunleavy had just spent his junior year at Duke being overrated like most Duke players and being the 3rd wheel on a team driven by Williams and power forward Carlos Boozer. Dunleavy had a year of eligibility remaining and a father raking in NBA millions as a coach, so he felt the need to be recruited once again. Sadly, this was the shrewdest, boldest, and most aggressive move of Dunleavy’s career. The Warriors sent their General Manager, Assistant General Manager, and franchise player to wine and dine Dunleavy and beg him to enter the draft so they could have the pleasure and privilege of drafting him. Dunleavy knew he would be taken much later in the following year’s draft (featuring LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony) but, like an attractive girl who knows the dorky guy is head over heels for her, milked the situation for all it was worth.


Coming into his rookie season, it was assumed that Dunleavy would start at small forward, bumping Jamison to power forward. The incumbent power forward was so sure of this fate that he publicly threatened to injure Jamison so as not to lose his starting role. New coach Eric Musselman apparently was unaware of the organization’s grand plan for Dunleavy, and actually allowed an open competition. Not only did Dunleavy not win a starting position (which was taken by second year power forward Troy Murphy) but he played a scant few seconds during his NBA debut, with his father watching courtside. The Warriors excelled that season behind the play of Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, improving their win total by 17, and Musselman came in second in the Coach of the Year voting. Dunleavy was a reserve who saw inconsistent playing time and appeared as ready to be an NBA player as Mother Teresa was to be a porn star.


The ensuing summer brought change. Arenas left as a free agent. Chris Mullin unofficially seemed to take charge of player personnel decisions. Jamison was traded for pennies on the dollar to the Dallas Mavericks in order to open playing time for Dunleavy, playing time he had failed miserably to earn on his own. Several key players suffered injuries.


Dunleavy started and played heavy minutes his second season. He no longer played like he wanted his blankey, but was still a liability on defense and inconsistent at best on offense. He was being outplayed by journeyman Brian Cardinal on a regular basis. Musselman squeezed 37 wins out of the piecemeal roster, the second highest win total in a decade for the franchise (the highest being the prior year), but was fired for coddling Dunleavy enough. Musselman had committed the great sin of trying to make a Dunleavy earn playing time and dared to talk to Dunleavy about the golden boy’s proclivity for being a defensive turnstile. Reports of an in-practice confrontation where Musselman berated Dunleavy’s lack of defensive effort and Dunleavy returned fire regarding Musselman’s coaching acumen spread in the local media. In the end, Mullin officially rose to power and, as his first act, fired Musselman.


Mullin did not have to look far to find a coach who would pamper his golden boy. Mike Montgomery had made a career of taking players from affluent backgrounds and molding them into good teams that underachieve in the postseason. As head coach of Stanford, he heavily recruited Dunleavy out of high school and was very familiar with Dunleavy as a player and person. He was not familiar with the NBA to the point where he once lost a game because he didn’t realize that an NBA shot clock had 24 seconds and not 35 as in college, and was admittedly a novice in dealing with players from adverse poverty stricken backgrounds, but knew Dunleavy and that was enough to give him the job along with a 4 year guaranteed contract. Every college coach in recent memory who tried to jump to the NBA had failed badly, but Mullin was undeterred. He saw the path to success running through his prodigy, and would do whatever it took to develop Dunleavy regardless of cost or sanity.


Montgomery and Dunleavy were as bad as most outside observers expected and the team floundered to the trade deadline. At the last second, Mullin was able to pull off a franchise altering trade, packaging underrated and inexpensive point guard Speedy Claxton with the expiring contract of stale Dale Davis for injury prone and unhappy franchise point guard Baron Davis. Davis’ arrival ignited a late season rally, falsely inflating players’ statistics and the team’s win total, though even the late rally failed to garner enough wins to match either of the win totals from the Musselman era. Dunleavy was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the late surge, seeing his statistics skyrocket to the point where his season numbers were respectable. The fact that Dunleavy stepped up his performance in these meaningless games was a microcosm of the entire Dunleavy era.


After his third season, Dunleavy was eligible for a contract extension. He was still under contract for another season, and would only be a restricted free agent after that (meaning the Warriors could match any offer and keep him if they so chose), yet Mullin decided to begin negotiations. Logic said to sign Dunleavy if he were willing to agree to a lowball offer, and otherwise wait a year to let the market set his value. Mullin, unable to do anything that might bruise his golden boy’s ego, vastly overpaid Dunleavy a year before anyone else could even try to make a bid. The Detroit Pistons had just given Tayshaun Prince, who had helped lead them to two Finals appearances and an NBA championship, a contract in the $45 to $50 million dollar range, and Mullin gave the vastly inferior Dunleavy the same deal. Once again, the Warriors front office was a league-wide laughingstock. Fans, the media, and NBA executives nearly universally agreed that no one would have come close to making Dunleavy an offer of that magnitude had he been a free agent. There was no good reason for giving a player a contract he had little chance of earning instead of letting the market set his value and deciding whether to match and keep him. Dunleavy was now officially an organizational blind spot, rotting the franchise from within its core.


The Dunleavy virus spread through the front office and coaching staff and on to the television and radio commentators, who appeared to call games wearing Dunleavy superfan goggles. Jim Barnett in particular became known for his repeated verbal felatio of Dunleavy during games. Mickael Pietrus was Dunleavy’s primary competition for playing time at the small forward spot, and the contrast in how Barnett would describe the same play when it was made by one or the other became a running joke in some Warrior fan circles. When Pietrus would have a drive to the basket fail because of a step out of bounds, a charging call, or a miss at the rim, Barnett would chastise Pietrus’ lack of basketball intelligence. When Dunleavy did the same, it was “I like what he was trying to do there.” The aging white former players in the organization appeared to see some of themselves in Dunleavy and were trying to relive their youthful glory days through him. They were trying to will him to succeed, and when he failed to do so they simply created alternate realities where he was doing right and failure was not his fault.


Year four of the Dunleavy era began with much hype. Baron Davis’ addition was to finally take the Warriors to the promised land of the playoffs. The team won some games early in the season, but was not playing well. Davis was out of shape, and Dunleavy’s late season surge the year before proved to be a mirage. As the schedule got tougher, the Warriors collapsed and waded through another lost season. Dunleavy, now highly paid in addition to being highly drafted, was regressing on the court and was being sporadically booed at home games. Fans could not understand what the organization saw in Dunleavy and were not happy with the thought of another half decade of watching him play for their team.


In the following off-season, Mullin fired Montgomery despite repeatedly saying that Montgomery’s job was safe. Don Nelson, Mullin’s old coach, was brought in to bring an up tempo game to the Warriors. A faster tempo seemed to favor Dunleavy, as did Nelson’s love for point forwards and general lack of attention to defense. If Nelson couldn’t get Dunleavy to succeed, no one could. The latter turned out to be true. The Warriors lost their first game of the season in ugly fashion. Nelson publicly proclaimed that Dunleavy’s performance was “a disaster.”


Coming into the season, Nelson had watched film of prior years and thought that Dunleavy was a good player who had been misused. In games following the opening night debacle, Nelson tried putting Dunleavy at all five positions. Dunleavy was used as a spot up shooter and as a scorer, as a ball handler and a distributor. Nelson, who has been in professional basketball for over 40 years and is second in NBA history in career wins, tried to put Dunleavy into every situation imaginable to succeed. Eventually, Nelson realized that Dunleavy’s best position was as an extremely expensive bench warmer.


Dunleavy had lost his starting spot not only to Mickael Pietrus, but also to journeyman Matt Barnes. Nelson preferred playing the 6’6” Pietrus at power forward to having Dunleavy in the starting lineup. As the Warriors injuries mounted, Nelson’s lack of faith in Dunleavy crystallized. At one point the Warriors signed Kelenna Azubuike from the Developmental League, and he immediately moved to the starting lineup while Dunleavy remained on the bench. Nelson was trying to challenge Dunleavy, and Dunleavy backed down. He had been handed everything he wanted his entire life, and had no fighting spirit. His play deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t make open layups, and as the booing grew louder and more frequent, Dunleavy complained to the media about the fans. Nelson referred to Dunleavy as one of the, “dumbest smart players I’ve ever had,” and eventually resigned himself to a simple truth – “the fans were right about him.”


Mullin respected Nelson, his old coach and mentor, and it was Nelson’s honesty that finally shone a light on the Dunleavy virus infecting the organization. By the end, even Barnett was fed up with Dunleavy. Barnett finally refused to be an apologist after one of Dunleavy’s patented blown layups, blurting out, “I’m not going to add any color – he should have made that,” in total frustration. Barnett even began praising Pietrus from time to time. Mullin realized that he had made a grave error in judgment and began shopping Dunleavy to other teams. In the end, Mullin’s old friend Larry Bird stepped in and swapped problems with Mullin. Bird agreed to take on Dunleavy, as well as Troy Murphy’s oversized contract. Mullin took Stephen Jackson, a key participant in the Malice in the Palace who is as noted for his shooting off the court as on it. [At the time of this writing, Jackson is awaiting the outcome of legal proceedings in two states regarding violation of his probation caused by him shooting his gun outside a night club] For their troubles, Mullin received an overpaid (and unhappy with his role in Indiana) Al Harrington, who Mullin wanted to overpay himself the prior off-season, and Bird received promising second year power forward Ike Diogu.


For at least one day, Warriors fans did not care that they had lost a favorite and a 3 point play machine, Ike Diogu. Warriors fans did not care that they had to take on gun totting, bad shot chucking Stephen Jackson (nor did they care to imagine how much trouble he could get into in Oakland). Dunleavy was gone and, at least for one day, sanity reigned in the Golden State Warriors organization. The fans rejoiced, for they were proven right.

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