THERE'S A two-word response that immediately comes to mind when asked the big question on every Warriors fan's mind today: What makes you believe Don Nelson will do any better than Mike Montgomery?

Simply stated: Mike Dunleavy.

Say what you want about Baron Davis or Jason Richardson, the future of the Warriors now resides squarely on the shoulders of one of the NBA's biggest disappointments in recent years.

Nobody was happier to see Montgomery hired two summers ago than Dunleavy. Their games meshed. The player who figured to benefit most from a back-to-the-basics, college-type approach was Dunleavy, the former Duke star who otherwise might have been a poster boy for Stanford-style basketball.

The fact Dunleavy hasn't been even a Top 100 NBA player the past two seasons says as much about Montgomery as it does about the lanky small forward. Neither man ever grasped what it takes to be successful at the game's highest level.

Instead of concentrating on making himself a better shooter, Dunleavy spent the past two years worrying abouthis defense and rebounding. Having improved in those areas, the 25-year-old is now adequate in just about every aspect of the game.

But to be useful in the NBA, you need to be great at something, not merely good at a lot of things. Ask Chris Mullin.

When Nelson first got a hold of Mullin, the St. John's star was in a similar rut as Dunleavy. Couldn't defend anyone. Couldn't rebound. Couldn't beat anyone off the dribble. Couldn't play at that level.

Make no mistake about it: Nelson made Mullin. The forward-thinking coach put a one-dimensional player in a position to succeed — freeing him with screens in the half-court and creating a running game that allowed Mullin to find open space on the run and get his deadly shot off.

Nelson's biggest challenge will be doing the same with Dunleavy. He'll play him at point-forward. Heck, probably point-power forward given the Warriors' limited options up front. He'll get him into the open-court fast lane, allowing an adept ballhandler and clever distributor to do his thing.

And most important, he'll get a pretty smart kid to understand: Being limited isn't a handicap. It can be an advantage, as long as the one thing you do, you do well.

As was the case almost 20 years ago with Mullin, the Warriors will go only as far as Dunleavy can take them. Nelson knows it — and he'll coach accordingly.

Which is something Montgomery never did.

DATELINE: In a time machine. The only puzzling aspect of the Nelson reunion is the timing.

We've known since February that Nelson wanted to coach again. And we've known basically for two years that Montgomery couldn't coach at the NBA level.

So why not make the move in June, allowing Nelson to add octane to his offense with the drafting of a shooter or athlete, rather than wasting the pick on a limited big man?

Or why not at least make the move last week, allowing the former general manager to convince Mullin a perfect fit in the new scheme could be the utterly affordable Al Harrington, an ideal "big man" in the Nelson scheme of things?

Now Nelson's Run TMC-type trio is stuck with an even weaker collection of power forwards and centers than in the Manute Bol era.

Unless, that is, Tom Tolbert comes out of the woodwork, too.

DATELINE: Amid the buzz. There's so much to say about Tuesday's news:

-If this doesn't prompt Davis to run an extra mile today — and every day leading up to the opening of training camp — then I sure hope he enjoys backing up a 20-year-old next season.

-Speaking of which, Monta Ellis and Mickael Pietrus become Nelson's Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels — two critical pieces because of their athleticism. Roll them out there with Davis, Richardson and ... hmm, can Dunleavy play center? Something tells me we're going to find out.

-A player Nelson is going to love: Zarko Cabarkapa. Montgomery just never understood his game.

-A player Nelson is going to hate: Patrick O'Bryant. Can you say Les Jepsen?

-Nelson's greatest lament: If only Victor Alexander had half Adonal Foyle's heart.

-Nelson's second-greatest lament: If only Foyle had half Alexander's ability.

-Where does Montgomery go from here? Probably any of a dozen top-flight college programs by the start of the 2007-08 season. If I'm him, I take the $7.5 million (I'm guessing Chris Cohan threw him $2.5 million to leave) and play a lot of golf. He has nothing more to prove indoors.

-Bottom line: Let's not start printing the playoff tickets just yet. The Warriors are still light years behind the Suns, Spurs, Mavericks, Grizzlies and probably Rockets in the West, having closed the gap somewhat on the Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Kings, Jazz and, yes, even the Hornets. Ah, but that's what's so great about Nelson — even the losing is entertaining. Enjoy, people.

Do you expect the Warriors to make the playoffs next season? E-mail your thoughts (with full name and hometown) to dave@angnewspapers.com.