BARON DAVIS, the former prince of Oracle Arena, makes his first appearance tonight as a Los Angeles Clipper in the facility where he once raised the Warriors from the dead.
For Warriors fans, the sight of Davis most assuredly will summon memories of the spring of 2007, when their favorite team blasted into the NBA playoffs for the first time since 1994 and, for two brilliant weeks, lit up the landscape.
"It's definitely like a homecoming," Davis said last week, anticipating his return to Oakland. "A lot of memories are there, and the adrenaline is going to be circulating. It'll be good to see a lot of familiar faces in the stands."
Those familiar faces, the high-spirited "We Believe" fans who enthusiastically support their energetic team, now try to cope with the reality of this woebegone season, which, according to numerous sources in NBA circles, can be traced back to coach Don Nelson, team president Robert Rowell (who operates on behalf of owner Chris Cohan) and decisions based less on building the best possible team than on impulse and ego.
Less than two years after an improbable playoff run led to one of the biggest postseason upsets in NBA history — a first-round series win over No. 1 seed Dallas — and one year after boisterous crowds cheered a 48-win team, the Warriors are back to the outskirts of the league. Officially eliminated from the playoffs Sunday, they are 23-43 and likely to lose more than 50 games for the first time since 2002, when Dave Cowens and Brian Winters presided over a 21-61 oil spill.
How did it come to this?
Well, there was the Monta Ellis injury, which not only robbed the team of its most electrifying player for 43 games but created friction between Ellis and ownership. Yet there is so much more.
Interviews with nearly a dozen players, coaches, agents and league executives — all of whom have had contact with the team in the past 12 months — reveal the widespread perception of the Warriors as a dysfunctional organization where personal agendas often trump sound judgment, with subjective moves sabotaging any real vision.
"There is no long-term plan," one NBA executive said.
"There is no plan, period," one agent said. "They act like there is and they say there is, but there isn't."
It's not by coincidence that the blame for this swift and profound decline lands squarely in the laps of Rowell and Nelson. The feeling around the league is that, with executive vice president of basketball operations Chris Mullin marginalized, the Warriors are run by two men who tend to get personal and have difficulty keeping their emotions out of the equation.
For Nelson, this is nothing new. Chris Webber arrived in 1993 with everything Nelson claims to want in a big man, skilled at shooting, passing, rebounding and shot-blocking. But his impetuous presence collided with Nelson's pathological need to exercise power and control. Rather than submerge this for the greater good, Nelson alienated his rookie star and ran him out of town. There were no winners.
History now seems to be repeating itself, with a different cast.
Davis, according to numerous sources, was prepared to sign a three-year contract extension with the Warriors, as negotiated by his agent, Todd Ramasar, and Mullin. Rowell, according to several sources, nixed the deal over the final year of the contract. Davis, feeling slighted, opted out and became a Clipper.
"The final year of a contract is the last thing you worry about," a league executive said. "It's pretty simple: If you're happy with the player, you keep him. If not, his expiring contract makes him easy to trade."
Rowell, according to an agent familiar with the details, "dug in his heels," deciding it would be his way or no way. Some sources believe Rowell's decision was made at Nelson's behest, while others believe Rowell simply wanted to assert himself.
What happened next, though, exposes the Warriors as impulsive, unfocused or nave or all three.
After losing Davis over a deal averaging $13 million, the Warriors quickly turned to Clippers free-agent forward Elton Brand, offering $90 million. Though Davis has a history of injuries, Brand was coming off major surgery. When that offer was declined by agent David Falk, the club set its sights on Wizards free agent Gilbert Arenas, a former Warrior who became an All-Star in Washington. Arenas reportedly was offered $103 million.
Within minutes, Davis and Arenas, buddies from the days when they were teen-agers on the playgrounds of Los Angeles, were on the phone comparing offers and stunned by the Warriors' practices.
"Absolutely true," Davis said. "I talked to Gilbert about it."
Davis was less than thrilled to hear the Warriors suddenly had plenty of money for players not named Baron Davis, when as BD says now, without evident bitterness, "They could have had me for less than half of that."
"It got personal with Baron," one agent said. "That's never good when you're trying to conduct business.''
A request Sunday for comment from Warriors management received no response.
Stories like this get around the league, portraying the Warriors as a team without a coherent vision, prone to knee-jerk reaction.
Moreover, the Davis scenario crushed the credibility of Mullin, who had spent months in negotiations. How can you trust Mully if he has no juice? And if Mully has no juice, who does? Rowell, preparing to offer Nelson a contract extension, bypassed Mullin and went straight to the coach. Swingman Stephen Jackson, seeking his own contract extension, bypassed Mullin and went straight to Rowell.
Davis' departure set the stage for what has followed.
There was Ellis' off-court ankle injury and subsequent punishment — including, according to sources, a contentious meeting between Cohan, Rowell, Ellis and agent Jeff Fried. There also was Nelson's campaign to dump forward Al Harrington (a Mullin favorite), the coach's total icing of point guard Marcus Williams (a Mullin trade acquisition) and occasional icing of rookie forward Anthony Randolph (a Mullin draft pick).
"It seemed personal," said Williams' agent, Calvin Andrews. "We feel it's really unfortunate that he was caught up in an internal battle beyond his control."
Then there is the story still raising eyebrows around the league: Nelson informing guard Jamal Crawford, acquired for Harrington, that he should opt out of his contract or expect to be traded.
When asked about personnel, Nelson consistently and disingenuously directs inquiries to Mullin — despite acknowledging last week that he indeed approached Crawford with unsolicited career advice, to the surprise of Crawford and the displeasure of his agent, Aaron Goodwin.
"He's a great coach," Goodwin said. "And in a coaching capacity, he'll continue to deliver a great product for people to watch. But there needs to be clarification on whether he's management or not. I'm told he's not, but he acts as if he is."
Nelson's rise to power, according to those close to the situation, is a result of ingratiating himself with Rowell, whose executive savvy and political wits are no match for a cunning 68-year-old coach who projects folksy wisdom and might someday enter the Hall of Fame.
"I've never seen this kind of divide — and no one from management or ownership steps in to tell this guy he's killing the team," one agent said. "At least one player wonders if it has a reached a point where Rowell is intimidated by the coach he has come to value so highly."
Mullin, the popular former player, generally has escaped blame because his lack of influence has become abundantly clear ever since Rowell levied punishment on Ellis.
Rowell and Nelson each received contract extensions before the season; Mullin did not. Mullin's chief aide, assistant general manager Pete D'Alessandro, was fired in the first week of the season and replaced by Larry Riley, a Nelson confidant promoted from assistant coach. Riley was replaced on the bench by Larry Harris, the former general manager in Milwaukee and son of Del Harris, a longtime friend of Nelson's.
Mullin made the three key moves that put the team into the playoffs: orchestrating one of the most fruitful trades in team history, acquiring Davis from New Orleans in exchange for Speedy Claxton and Dale Davis; summoning his former coach, Nelson, out of semi-retirement; and acquiring Jackson and Harrington from Indiana in January 2007. This likely resulted in Mullin's growing confidence, which, according to team sources, likely contributed to a rift with Rowell and Cohan.
"Since last summer, it has become increasingly obvious that they've lost the human approach to interaction and relationships," said one representative.
"When it comes to people skills, Bobby and Chris (Cohan) don't have much," said another. "That's kind of where Mullin fit in."
Mullin's conspicuous silence these days would be a lot more troubling if his lame-duck status weren't so evident. Nelson, emboldened by his contract extension, has filled the authority void.
This is not what Mullin had in mind four years ago when he said his major goals were to assemble a team that could develop together and make the franchise more desirable to free agents. It worked for a while.
"All my NBA friends were talking about trying to come over," Davis recalled. "Everybody wanted to come. It was the new look, kind of like Phoenix, except we were younger. We were up-and-coming. We were potent. Then ... I don't know ... it just came apart."
Said Goodwin: "Golden State is still an attractive place to play. Being a resident (of Oakland), I'd love to see my free agents and other free agents come here. It's an exciting style and an opportunity to win. But with the experience I've had with Matt Barnes and Jamal, I'd have to think twice about a free agent coming here."
What nobody seems to have an opinion on is where the Warriors go from here. Rowell doesn't seem to be able to manage Nelson, and the coach has lost much of his locker room.
Not exactly the way it was two years ago when Baron and Nellie owned the town.
Contact Monte Poole at firstname.lastname@example.org.