Sunday, October 7, 2007 Updated: October 10, 2:28 PM ET
After a wild ride, Warriors trying to sustain big gains
By Ric Bucher ESPN The Magazine
LAIE, Hawaii -- Skepticism that the Golden State Warriors can sustain the crazy ride they took us all on last spring is natural. Can a single human being, much less an entire team, survive that many emotional jags over seven months? It would defy conventional NBA thinking, which is that high emotions are the shoals upon which seasons are dashed. After all, they barely survived three weeks of it, considering the broken bodies and ejection-earning outbursts produced in mad-dogging Dallas before fitfully succumbing to Utah's pounding.
Then there's the franchise history. It's not the Warriors' nature to have a great season and build on it. Their successes have been little buoys in an otherwise vast sea of disappointment.
Dangerous as it might be to ignore so much precedent and volatility, the mood and attitude of this year's training camp at Brigham Young University-Hawaii suggests that a break in the cycle might just be possible. Or, at least, that the current ride is not yet over.
Stephen Jackson was named a tri-captain for the coming season.
While they sacrificed a vital cog in Jason Richardson to improve their salary-cap situation and are still missing a bona fide low-post offensive threat, they can make a decent case that sharp-shooting draft pick Marco Belinelli and free-agent vets Austin Croshere and Troy Hudson improved what was already one of the league's most potent offenses. Can anyone else in last year's Western Conference playoff picture -- other than maybe Houston -- say that?
The other hitch, of course, is that Warriors VP Chris Mullin took a hard fiscal line this summer, saying no to coach Don Nelson's desire for a raise, Baron Davis' request for an extension and both Matt Barnes' and Mickael Pietrus' hopes for something more than the one-year deals they got. If Andris Biedrins settles for a qualifying offer -- his agent, Bill Duffy, will be in Hawaii this week hoping to get more than that -- no one will have been immediately rewarded for last year's electric transformation.
But rather than create dissension, the financial stiff arm from the front office seems to have deepened the team solidarity. And why not? Has there ever been a bigger collection of renegades used to playing with chips on their shoulders?
"All you can say is that the Warriors' future is unpredictable," said point guard Baron Davis, who wanted an extension in exchange for not opting out of his current deal, which would pay him $16.4 million and $17.8 million over the next two seasons. "But we're all here and that's what we wanted."
The strongest indication of their improved depth is the fact that Friday when reserve guard Monta Ellis' season appeared to be in jeopardy after lying motionless on the floor for nearly 30 minutes, the concern was far more for Ellis than the Warriors. Richardson's starting spot is up for grabs between Kelenna Azubuike, a D-League refugee who averaged 16.5 points and 4.4 rebounds when he played 20-plus minutes last season, and Belinelli. Ellis is slated strictly to be Davis' backup, although Belinelli actually appears to see the floor better.
Nothing, of course, is assured. Richardson was willing to play lock-down D and yet could come up with some big scoring nights. He played through injuries and was relatively low maintenance when it came to shots, touches or publicity. Now Nelson will have to use Azubuike when he needs a defensive stopper and Belinelli when he's looking to stretch the floor.
"He brought it every day," said Davis. "That's going to be missed."
Belinelli, for all his basketball acumen and strong showing in the Las Vegas Summer League, is also going to need time to adjust to how fast the Warriors play.
"In Italy, we don't run like this," he said. "I have to improve. I have to work harder. I just want to stay in the group, be part of the team."
But the more unconventional, the happier Nelson seems to be. Making Davis, Barnes and Stephen Jackson the tri-captains might seem like an odd choice until you consider the alternatives. Biedrins? Too young. Pietrus, who now has the longest team tenure? Not when he hoped the Warriors would sign-and-trade him elsewhere. Al Harrington? Not after he came up so small in the postseason, albeit for reasons he explains in the Insider section. Besides, Big Al is almost too big-puppyish to be taken seriously by this bunch. If you're going to play frenzied basketball with a band of wild-eyed lunatics, go all the way with it. Have the most googly-eyed marauders leading the charge. Under that theory, Nelson got it exactly right.
Their irreverence even extends to their own. When the Monta-Ellis-is-Paralyzed Scare went down Friday night, his coaches and teammates were naturally concerned and at one point Jackson gathered them to say a team prayer.
But their dismay wasn't of the oh-my-God-that-could-be-me variety even as Ellis remained lying face down for nearly 30 minutes. Or even a oh-my-God-our-season-just-took-a-turn tone as he failed to respond to requests from athletic trainer Tom Abdenour to clench his fist or indicate he could feel Abdenour's fingers scratching his forearms. At first, Davis casually sprawled on the floor next to Ellis, legs crossed and leaning on one elbow, to get a closer look. Nelson directed the players to shoot their normal practice-ending free throws, but you got the sense he did so only because scrimmaging wasn't possible with Ellis sprawled in the middle of the court. As Ellis was immobilized and loaded onto a gurney, Davis and Jackson actually made some wisecracks, at least one of which Ellis tried to snap back on.
The levity wasn't misplaced, since Ellis walked out of Castle Medical Center under his own power four hours later. Who knows, maybe, Ellis' history of having initially reacted to an injury as being far worse than it would prove to be had an influence in how the team responded. The bottom line is, there doesn't seem to be anything that can faze this particular group of Warriors. A new season confronts them and this time they won't be sneaking up on anybody. But quite clearly their mantra last spring, "We Believe," is alive and well. It's a blind, no-matter-what-happens sort of faith.
Damn near bordering on, "We Know."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.