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Don Nelson was at the helm of the Warriors the last time they were in the playoffs in 1994.
OAKLAND — Mirage or Messiah? Don Nelson's surprise return to the Warriors evokes different reactions, but he definitely projects hope.

And with a postseason drought of 12 years, hope is all the Warriors have to cling to, although Nelson truly believes they are playoff-caliber.

Well, he is the last coach to guide the Warriors into the postseason, and he left the beaches of Hawaii to see if he can do it again.

Nelson, in a most candid interview Wednesday, dissected the Warriors and a variety of subjects in between puffs on his cigar.

Q. You're 66, financially secure, and you could find nothing among the swaying island palms to fill the void of basketball?

A. Most of the people I hung out with there were working, so the void was that I didn't know what to do during working hours. But (coaching) is something I do well, and I've done it a long time. I did miss it, I have a passion for it, and — the main thing — I was wanted here. Badly. So I came.

Q. You had prostate surgery five years ago. How is your general health today?

A. Everything is good. I'm cancer-free. My wife has gone through breast cancer, so we're both cancer survivors and just doing well.

Q. What is the best method of rebuilding a franchise?

A. This is the fourth time I've been asked to cure a struggling franchise, and I've done this one before. You have to evaluatethe roster and see how many players are salvageable in the system you want to play. In Dallas, I got rid of the whole team. In Milwaukee, I built from the ground through draft picks, like we did here the first time.

But this particular roster I happen to like, so I'll do this one different from the others. This team is pretty well ready to roll, and if they're not, they've got to prove that to me.

Q. What is it exactly you like about these Warriors?

A. I think their best team is a small team, and I'm good at coaching small teams. They have a lot of natural ability. They have strengths that other players don't have, like (Mike) Dunleavy at 6-11, able to handle the ball and be a point forward. And we have a really good point guard (Baron Davis). The big men aren't star players, but they can fill in at that spot.

If we change the tempo, that should be good for everybody. And then to see if these players will do what I want them to do, and I think they will be able to.

Q. What things are those?

A. There are a hundred things, but, basically, to change their style of play to a faster pace, and a higher scoring game, if you will. And to play an unselfish game always anchored by a good solid defense, in which not everyone can guard successfully, but you get support from other guys — which hasn't been a particularly strong point of this team. But I think we have a chance to make the playoffs. I feel real good about that.

Q. What improvement must you make?

A. Mikael Pietrus is one of my mystery guys. He will play for me, if he does what I want him to do, emphasizing the defensive end and not to worry about the offensive end. He's a great athlete, and he can run. And I'm looking for runners.

There are other mystery guys; I don't know if they'll be able to make the next move I want them to make. I'm going to need (Troy) Murphy to play some center for us. If he can make some adjustments, he'll have his best year. And it will allow me to play Dunleavy at the "4," because he basically struggles at small forward. He can function offensively better against the "4s" in the league.

And (Monta) Ellis is a mystery guy. I'm not sure as a high school player (two years ago) if he's ready to play big minutes. I'd like him to, and I'm going to give him the opportunity.

Q. In your system, do you need one team leader, or is it a composite thing like Run TMC?

A. In Run TMC, (Tim) Hardaway was our leader. It's better if your point guard is the leader. (Davis) is a great player, and he's going to flourish in my system. But he's too heavy to play my style of ball. He's got to get thinner; everybody has to be thinner than they are.

Q. How do you psychologically convince this team it can win?

A. My approach is that they're going to have to show me why they can't win. I don't know why this team doesn't win. They should be a better team than they are, even playing in a tough conference and division.

Q. A familiar pattern: The Warriors unravel in the fourth quarter. How do you cure that?

A. There's some obvious things. They're one of the worst foul-shooting teams in the NBA; we've got to remedy that. Then there's some situations like decisions and spacing. But if you can't make your foul shots, it's going to be hard to play down the stretch for me.

Q. Chris Webber left the Warriors, and they've yet to recover. Looking back, could you have handled that situation differently?

A. Not after I got him here. If I had known more about the person, I wouldn't have taken him. The guy who was going to do all the positive things turned out to be a negative situation. He was young and unwilling to do much of anything, and has had many problems since. I don't think anyone would have succeeded with Chris early in his career. There's only been a couple of great players who haven't enjoyed playing for me, and he's one.

Q. But because it was you or him at the time, do you feel any responsibility for the Warriors' ensuing playoff disappearance?

A. I feel more responsibility in them making the playoffs.

Q. Owner Chris Cohan chose you over Webber, then you left abruptly soon afterward. You're back, but have you and Cohan made up?

A. It wasn't difficult. It wasn't Cohan I had the problem with; it was the owner beforehand, Jim Fitzgerald. Today we're best of friends, but I begged to leave after Chris' rookie year. He was going to hold out, and I had another job lined up with the San Antonio Spurs. My good friend Gregg Popovich was the GM; he wanted me to come if I could get out of my contract. Fitzgerald didn't want me to do that, partly because the team was going to be sold, and I was part of that. That was a huge mistake for the franchise.

Q. You've traditionally been hard on rookies, but have you mellowed generally as a coach?

A. I don't know that I've mellowed with rookies, because rookies make a lot of mistakes, so I don't play them much. But we all mellow with age.

Q. How is the NBA better since you began coaching in the league 30 years ago?

A. We can do more stuff within the illegal defense guidelines. And we got away from a lot of the isolation stuff, which makes our game flow better. And athletes are better and in better condition than the old days.

Q. Where has the NBA fallen off over the last 30 years?

A. Something that needs to be addressed is the charge line near the basket; it's too close and hurts our game. There are seven or eight charges a game, like college ball. Players are getting hurt, and it detracts from the sensational play, like the drive dunk in traffic, which you don't see any more. We need to extend the charge line out another foot or foot and a half.

Q. A general question: Has the rest of the world caught up to America in basketball, based on international results this century?

A. Other countries are different than we are; they play more together in the summer leagues. They're more apt to play better together than we are after being assembled a month before we go (into international competition). But we still have the best basketball players in the world here.

Q. You played in the NBA in the 1960s. If you needed a last-second shot to win an NBA championship, which player would you pick from the last 40 years?

A. There would be two, Kobe (Bryant) and Michael (Jordan). I'd want the ball in their hands because they can throw in a shot any time they want.

Q. But wasn't Jerry West "Mr. Clutch"?

A. He was a great player, but he didn't have the ability to get in creases. He didn't do what those two could do.