"They have a good shot," Nelson said. "It really depends on how they mature together through the year."
Now, ending the NBA's longest postseason drought will depend on how those same players respond to Nelson's leadership.
More than a decade after departing the Bay Area at the end of 61/2 seasons as the Warriors' head coach, Nelson will return to Golden State's bench with a three-year deal worth between $15 million and $18 million, depending on incentives. At the age of 66, the second-winningest coach in NBA history and architect of Golden State's early 1990s "Run TMC" renaissance replaces Mike Montgomery, whose acclaimed work at Stanford did not translate during back-to-back 34-48 seasons with the Warriors.
Golden State executive vice president Chris Mullin, who earned five All-Star berthsunder Nelson's guidance, announced Tuesday morning that Montgomery and the club were parting ways. Nelson, one of only three men to have won the NBA's Coach of the Year award three times and owner of 1,190 career victories, will be introduced tonight at 7 at an open-to-the-public press conference in the Arena.
"I'm happy for Nellie," said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who saw Nelson turn his team around from an also-ran to a perennial contender. "I think this means that the Warriors will finally make the playoffs. Nellie is that good a coach."
Such an outcome would bring the Warriors full circle; Nelson was the last coach to lead Golden State into the postseason, doing so four times in six full seasons while compiling a 277-260 record.
The last playoff trip came in 1994, when Nelson led a team anchored by Mullin, Latrell Sprewell and Rookie of the Year big man Chris Webber to 50 wins. But Nelson and Webber clashed repeatedly, with the latter being dealt over the summer and the former stepping down on Feb. 13, 1995, after a 14-31 start to the next season.
"It's time for me to change and time for the Warriors to change," Nelson said at the time. "I don't blame anybody but myself."
Nelson went on to the New York Knicks for a brief stint and then to the Mavericks for the better part of eight seasons. He handed over the reins in Dallas to Avery Johnson late in the 2004-05 season. This year, he served as a consultant to the team, which is run by his son, former Warriors assistant Donnie Nelson.
Nelson's quick move to New York in the summer of 1995 sparked a legal battle with Warriors owner Chris Cohan which grew so heated that some observers thought it would preclude any reconciliation. The tussle was finally settled nearly four years later, when an arbitrator ruled that Golden State was in the wrong for ordering Nelson to pay back $1.56 million in severance money.
The base salary on Nelson's new deal is $15 million, and according to SFGate.com, it features incentives that include a $1 million bonus for getting the team into the playoffs this season.
Nelson's ability to get the most out of his players appears to have outweighed any hard feelings on the part of Cohan, who has watched his club remain mired in mediocrity or worse for a dozen years. Eight Golden State coaches, none of whom have lasted more than two seasons, have posted a 318-589 mark since Nelson stepped down.
Montgomery, who took 16 of his 18 Stanford teams to postseason tournaments, was unable to stem that tide. His departure had been in the works for some time as the sides crafted a buyout for the final two years of the $10 million, four-year deal he inked in May 2004. The details were finalized on Monday.
"This is a very difficult day for me," Mullin said in a statement released by the team. "Based on this agreement, we will now focus our efforts in a different direction and do what we think is best for this team."
Coming in with no NBA background whatsoever, Montgomery never truly won over the Golden State locker room. Players privately questioned why some members of the team weren't taken to task more strenuously for blowing assignments and other miscues.
Although Mullin stated unequivocally in mid-April that Montgomery would return and reiterated that point when Larry Brown, a friend of Cohan, became available after being fired by the Knicks in June the VP and the coach at times didn't seem to be on the same page last season. The rift was perhaps best illustrated by the battle at point guard, where the coach favored veteran Derek Fisher over emerging young talent Monta Ellis.
Fisher was dealt to Utah last month in a move that not only saved the team more than $20 million in the long term, but also made clear that Mullin would not sit by and let one of his picks stagnate.
"I'm very appreciative of the opportunity that I was presented two years ago," Montgomery said in the team's statement. "This was a new challenge that I was eager to embrace and glad that I had a chance to pursue and experience."
Ellis would thrive in the up-tempo, smallball style that Nelson helped to pioneer. The Warriors ranked among the NBA's top four in scoring for all six of Nelson's full seasons with Golden State, and led the league twice. Additionally, Nelson is considered a top-notch game tactician, something the Warriors desperately lacked last season as they went an abysmal 7-14 in games decided by three points or less.