Mullin' The Future
The real Warriors are back


May 25, 2009

In the least surprising move of the NBA off-season, the Golden State Warriors announced the firing of Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Chris Mullin. Except that the team couldn’t even get that right, instead announcing that Mullin was not being fired but rather that his contract would not be renewed when it expires this summer. This has been widely known since Mullin was unceremoniously castrated of all powers in a basketball coup headed by team President Robert Rowell last summer.


Firing Mullin, the best and most popular player in the last two decades of Warriors basketball, was not something Rowell was prepared to admit to. Rowell is a business man and is concerned about spin over substance, so he had no problem leaving Mullin twisting in the wind all year instead of gracefully firing Mullin once the decision was made that Mullin’s services were no longer wanted and allow Mullin to move on just as the organization had done. Rowell also chose to try humiliating Mullin by firing Mullin’s top lieutenant, admonishing Mullin and his supporters for allegedly leaking private information to the press (leaks that didn’t stop after the admonishment nor after the firing, indicating that the leaks didn’t come from the Mullin camp, an indication confirmed by media members), and hypocritically publicly stating Mullin’s position on Monta Ellis’ punishment and how wrong Rowell felt that Mullin was on the issue. Rowell was eager to behead the popular prince and to kick the corpse, but wasn’t willing to parade into the countryside with his skeletal trophy.


Was the firing of Mullin deserved? Perhaps. Mullin certainly made his share of mistakes, especially early in his tenure. Mullin handed out ridiculous contracts to Adonal Foyle, Derek Fisher, Mike Dunleavy, and Troy Murphy, as well as an oversized contract to Jason Richardson. Mullin seemed to try to build the franchise around his golden boy, Dunleavy, and dumped borderline All Star Antawn Jamison to open playing time for Dunleavy. He handed Dunleavy the aforementioned contract extension – which was at least twice was any other team would have offered had Dunleavy been allowed to go to the open market, and twice fired coaches to try to improve Dunleavy’s chances of success. Mullin also had what appeared to be some major draft failures, using consecutive #9 overall draft picks on busts Patrick O’Bryant and Ike Diogu.


But Mullin had some major successes as well. He was able to make up for most of his early contract negotiation failures via trade, with the piece de resistance pièce de résistance being the Dunleavy, Diogu, Murphy and Keith McLeod for Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Sarunas Jasikevicius, and Josh Powell trade in which the Warriors not only shed salary but came away with much better players. Mullin also managed to trade Speedy Claxton and stale Dale Davis’ contract for Baron Davis, who immediately breathed life into the organization. Mullin drafted Andris Biedrins - now one of the best young centers in the league - 11th overall, Monta Ellis 40th overall, and Anthony Randolph 14th overall. Diogu and O’Bryant are not NBA rotation players but there wasn’t much to pick from in those drafts. The five picks after Diogu were one good player (Andrew Bynum), and four Diogu level busts (Fran Vazquez, Yaroslav Korolev, Sean May, Rashad McCants). The 2006 draft was one of the worst in modern NBA history – the players immediately following O’Bryant were Saer Sene, JJ Redick, and Hilton Armstrong.


Most importantly, Mullin had made the Warriors matter for the first time in over a decade. The Warriors went from laughingstock to dangerous team. Not a championship contender but a team that won more than it lost and wasn’t an easy out if it reached the playoffs (as it gloriously did in 2007 when the Warriors pulled the biggest upset in NBA playoff history).


On the whole, it could be reasonably argued that Mullin should not have been retained. After all, many mistakes were made and the franchise was not contending for championships nor on the doorstep of doing so (though they might have been had Mullin been able to work out the details of a Kevin Garnett trade two summers ago). But it cannot rationally be argued that Rowell, a business man who has no more basketball knowledge than many fans, should be put in charge of the basketball side of the organization.


Rowell cares about winning only to the extent that it impacts the bottom line. This was hammered home in a conference call the Warriors put on for season ticket holders recently. Answering questions were Rowell, newly minted General Manager and Don Nelson sycophant Larry Riley, and team mouthpiece Bob Fitzgerald. Rowell and Riley repeatedly spoke of making the playoffs as the end goal. At no point did the word “championship” spring from either of their mouths. Rowell and Riley repeatedly used making the playoffs as a barometer of success. The Warriors made the playoffs once in Mullin’s 5 years so he failed 4 out of five times. (That the Warriors made the playoffs once in Rowell’s entire decade as a bigwig with the organization is somehow irrelevant.)


The highest Rowell aspired to in the entire hour long spin session was the conference finals when he said, “Our goal is to be in the playoffs in May of 2010, and then our goal is to continue to be in the playoffs and get better while we’re there. And then when you get better while you’re there, our goal is to be in the Western Conference Finals. And then you, obviously, need things to stack up appropriately. But if you can get to that position, then you’ve got something and that is what our goal is.”


In fact, Rowell seemed to not even be aware of the existence of the NBA Finals and the NBA championship. Rowell stated that, “three years ago we had the eighth-best record in the league,” and then, “the next year, we finished with the ninth best record in the league.” It’d be nice if the man in charge of all things Warriors was aware of the existence of the Eastern Conference and how the NBA playoffs functioned.


Riley, whose main qualifications for the GM role appear to be being Nelson’s friend (confirmed as a qualification by Rowell) and a front office stint with the Grizzlies so disastrous that the franchise had to move 3000 miles in the aftermath, was no better. Riley stated, “And believe me, we are very close to being able to be that team that gets back in the playoffs. … And that’s our objective. That’s where we’re going with this thing. It is a situation where it’s difficult to sit and watch a team lose. I’ve been here three years now, so I guess you can say I’m 1-for-3.”


Off course, Riley wasn’t too involved in the 1 for 3. He was an assistant coach for the first two years and an officially powerless puppet of the anti-Mullin coup for part of the third. How much power does Riley hold? If salaries and organizational charts mean anything, then the answer is not much. He is the lowest paid General Manager in the league (the entire league, Rowell, including the Eastern Conference). He is not only lower on the org charts than Rowell but also Travis Stanley, the head of marketing. If the organizational charts have any merit, when there is a disagreement on a potential player personnel decision the guy with the least say will be the one in charge of putting a winning team on the floor. But at least the hot dog vendors and the radio advertising guys will be happy with the trades, draft picks, and free agent signings!


So what does the future hold? If the past is prologue then the future holds more years of misery and losing. During the conference call the Warriors’ three spin amigos harped on how many close losses the team had, growing the young core, and chasing the 8 seed that they view as the magic elixir. I felt like I had traveled back in time a decade and was listening to then General Manager Gary St Jean or Dave Twardzik or PJ Carlesimo talk about young “stars” like Adonal Foyle, Larry Hughes, and Antawn Jamison; the importance of (washed up) veterans like John Starks, Mark Price, and Mookie Blaylock to bringing home that elusive 8 seed; and how if the Warriors just win a few more close games (while still winning all the close games they won, though this part is never stated) we’re almost at that 8 seed goal. It’s as if owner and source of all Warriors evil Chris Cohan had someone develop front office talking points in 1995 and they’ve never been deviated from nor altered.


The young core argument gets old when you’ve been a fan through a half dozen different young cores. Sure, I’m a big Biedrins fan, and thus fully expect him to get traded in a losing move soon. Sure, Randolph shows a lot of promise, but since when do the Warriors develop that promise into production? The organizational culture is one of selfishness and losing, and it’ll take a special young player to overcome that and develop into a stud that brings winning back to the Bay. Mullin was building a cocoon of winning (not high level winning, but winning nonetheless) where players like Ellis and Biedrins could develop and learn what it takes to at least make the playoffs and perhaps win some games while there. They got to play in games that mattered. Randolph and whoever the Warriors draft 7th overall this year may not get that chance.


The points about winning close games are a blatant spin of statistics. The Warriors did lose a lot of close games, but they lost a lot of all types of games. They were a bad team. One of the best predictors of team record in sports is based off points scored and allowed. The Pythagorean Method in sports (the formula being expected win% = points scored ^ 16.5 / [points scored ^ 16.5 + points allowed ^ 16.5]) equates points to wins. Some teams win more than their share of close games and exceed their expected win totals. Some lose more than their share of close games and don’t match their expected win totals. The Warriors were expected to win 30 games and won 29, meaning they underperformed by 1 game due to close game failures (for comparison, Portland underachieved by 4 games). That still leaves the team about 15 wins short of the playoffs and 25-35 wins short of being in a position to contend for a championship. The front office is either delusional or lying when they tell fans that the team simply needs to get better in close games. They need to get better in all types of games.


The front office also showed its lack of insight by talking about needing a bruising rebounder, needing less improvement defensively than most think, and wanting to continue Don Nelson’s style of play even after Nellie is gone. While the team does need to improve rebounding and defense, the offense needs to improve as well. The Warriors won 35% of their games last year. When playing against the top 10 rebounding teams in the league, that number only dipped to 32%. The elite rebounding teams didn’t beat the Warriors much more often than everyone else did. The type of elite teams that the Warriors struggled against the most? The elite effective field goal percentage defense teams. The Warriors won only thrice in 28 games against the top 10 defensive teams (by this measure) in the league, a putrid 11% winning percentage, and lost by nearly 12 points per game. The Warriors were about a .500 team against the rest of the league. As strange as it is, Don Nelson’s team needs to improve offensively if they want to be a playoff team. They need to improve defensively and on the boards if they want to go anywhere in the playoffs, but that’s not Don’s style. The fact that Rowell wants to maintain a style of play for the long term that he admits has never won anything shows that Rowell is about the money (it is an entertaining style that brings people to the arena) and not about the championships. And no, I don’t just mean Western Conference championships, though Nelson hasn’t even won one of those in his decades in coaching.


Two short years ago We Believed. Now, we bereave. Sadly, the Warriors are back where Cohan and Rowell usually have them. Mullin officially exits the building in June. Hope beat him out the door. Until the Warriors luck into a superstar or Cohan sells the team to an owner with a clue, it will be difficult to Believe again.


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