Can Montgomery Succeed in the NBA?

A few fans have their blinder on, focused on the immediate and longterm future of Stanford Basketbal. But it is hard to not keep on eye on Mike Montgomery, who turned this program into something special. With the former Cardinal coach close by at Golden State, we will have a front row seat to his successes and failures in the NBA. The question we all ask is whether Monty made the right move. Will this work?

At a time when Cardinalmaniacs are engrossed in speculation over who will step up to the challenge of following in the footsteps of Mike Montgomery as Stanford’s next head basketball coach, an even more difficult challenge may await Montgomery across the Bay with the Golden State Warriors. The lowly Warriors have been spared the laughingstock label only by the fiasco that is the Los Angeles Clippers. This is a team haunted by the curse of Joe Barry Carroll, the ghost of Chris Washburn, and the long shadow of Latrell Sprewell choking P.J. Carlesimo. If anyone had cared, ownership would have been recalled long before Gray Davis.

Pundits have been quick to trot out the litany of recent college coaches who have unsuccessfully attempted to make the jump to the NBA and opine that Montgomery will fail just as the others have. Their arguments sound convincing. Two of those coaches, Rick Pitino and John Calipari, appeared invincible in the college game, yet their styles didn’t translate to success at the next level. The widespread assumption is that Montgomery will be just another victim of a coach’s inability to deal with the large egos and even larger paychecks of the typical NBA player. As is often the case, the reality is much more complicated than this oversimplification. Ultimately, the health of the Golden State organization and Montgomery’s ability to teach and develop younger players will determine how well he fares in the NBA.

Warrior Organizational Failures

The Warriors have not finished over .500 or been in the playoffs for 10 years, the longest such streak in the NBA. This just happens to be the same decade that Chris Cohan has owned the team, with Garry St. Jean along for the ride as GM for the last seven of those disastrous years. St. Jean was displaced last month with the hiring of Chris Mullin as Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations. Mullin, regarded as a straight shooter on the court and in the executive booth, added close friend Rod Higgins as his GM on Thursday. By tapping Montgomery, Mullin has demonstrated that dramatic changes and big risks will be part of the turnaround strategy. He knows something about top flight college coaches too, having been tutored by Louie Carnesecca while at St. John’s, following Carnesecca’s three year stint in the ABA.

The big question is whether this is Mullin’s team or if Chris Cohan will meddle enough to add to a legacy that includes trading first round picks Vince Carter and Joe Smith while sitting pat with first rounder Todd Fuller. Mullin gets the benefit of the doubt for now, but reports that Cohan has been enamored with Montgomery for some time and even offered him the Warriors’ head coaching job last year are cause for concern. The betting money here is that St. Jean and a parade of subpar coaches have been largely responsible for the recent organizational rot, while Mullin, Higgins and Montgomery will have the autonomy and ability to lay the foundation for a more effective revamped Warrior organization.

Building and Coaching

If Mullin and Montgomery sound like an odd pair, recall that Mullin’s pro career demonstrates just how much a gym rat playing team basketball can accomplish in a league filled with quicker, more explosive athletes. These two men share the philosophy that rebuilding the organization and teaching young players team basketball will form the core of future success. This is in sharp contrast to the approach taken by Montgomery’s predecessor, Eric Musselman, who preferred to shuffle grizzled veterans in and out of the lineup, while younger players languished on the bench.

In the Warriors, Mike Montgomery inherits a team in transition. Thanks in part to Mullin’s work as a “special assistant,” they have four solid players under the age of 25 (Michael Pietrus – 22, Jason Richardson – 23, Troy Murphy – 24, and Mike Dunleavy – 24) who have already demonstrated a great deal of potential. Montgomery recruited both Dunleavy and Murphy to come to Stanford, so it is not surprising that their games fit in well with Montgomery’s team first approach. Throw in 26-year-old Speedy Claxton along with the eleventh pick in the forthcoming draft and the nucleus for tomorrow’s success may already be in place.

Even with this young group, the task in front of Montgomery is enormous. In the last couple of years, the Warriors have struggled most with team defense and offensive execution, though the defense improved a little last year under Musselman. Fortunately, these are two of Montgomery’s biggest strengths. Monty’s first challenge will be to create the desire and schemes for a team defense approach that can be successful in the NBA. He will then need to install an offensive system that generates open looks for Dunleavy and Murphy on a regular basis, while taking advantage of the ability of players like Jason Richardson to create and improvise. Finally, he needs to find and develop some young post players who can go toe to toe with the Goliaths that currently dominate the Western Conference.

Roster Challenges

While the youth movement is the future, the veterans hold the key to short-term success. Half of the roster includes older players who are free agents or have player options to return, including their two priciest players, Van Exel and Dampier. The biggest salary belongs to Nick Van Exel, who struggled with injuries this year. He is perhaps the most difficult personality to manage on the current roster and perhaps the most talented. Does the 32-year-old Van Exel have the patience for another rebuilding effort or is he only going to be happy on a title contender?

Also in the mix is Eric Dampier, the 6’11” big man who had a career year and might be looking for a new contract to match. In a conference dominated by big men, it is critically important that the Warriors are able to counter the likes of O’Neal, Duncan, Garnett, Nowitzski, Webber and Yao Ming, because they will be up against all-star seven footers almost every night. Dampier has proven he can hold his own in the middle; his free agent backup, Adonal Foyle, has demonstrated similar talent on the defensive end, albeit with a limited offensive game. Will either player opt to stay with the Warriors? The cerebral Foyle, from basketball powerhouse Colgate, might be just the kind of player who warms to Montgomery.

Some of the others veterans could return to play a significant role the next version of the Warriors and two in particular seen ready-make for Montgomery. The ageless Cliff Robinson is 37, yet his strong defense and unselfish play make him a candidate to lead by example under Montgomery. Brian Cardinal is an excellent example of a player who, like Mark Madsen, has value to his team way above his talents due mainly to his style of play.

Along with Montgomery, Chris Mullin will be instrumental in stocking next year’s roster with fresh talent and the right types of players to make Monty’s system work. Good coaching can draw upon superior intensity and commitment to win games in the NBA, but it takes top talent to be successful over the long haul.

Connecting with the Players

While nobody expects Montgomery to reinvent himself in the NBA, don’t be surprised if you see facets of him that have heretofore remained below the surface. One of his biggest challenges will be relating to NBA players, whose attitudes and mental makeup will bear little resemblance to what he was used to at Stanford.When Montgomery was an assistant under George Karl for the U.S. team in the 2002 World Championships, he was stunned by the relative lack of commitment and capacity to learn new concepts that was demonstrated by some of the players.

Monty will also have to change his reputation for being aloof. The constant travel and grueling 82 game season will necessitate a more intimate interpersonal dynamic with his players. If he thought Casey Jacobsen’s hair was a big deal, he’s in for an even bigger body art shock in the NBA. More importantly, without any playing or coaching experience in the professional ranks, and even less street credibility, the new coach cannot afford to keep his players at arms length and cede control of the team dynamic to the inevitable vocal prima donnas.

If there is any hope of success, veterans and young players alike will have to be receptive to Montgomery’s individual teaching, even if it means being drilled on fundamentals. It remains to be seen if he can implement complex offensive and defensive schemes when many players have a grasp of the game that is more instinctive than cerebral and where the tight spacing between games makes it risky to drill players more than once or twice a week. In a league where many egos are too big to be pruned back, Monty’s make-the-extra-pass approach also requires the right players with the right attitude. The coach needs to nurture the appropriate style of play as well as some of the culture and chemistry off of the court. This will be as much a test of Montgomery the man as Montgomery the coach; how well we weaves those two roles together in his new environment could be the difference between success and failure.

Deciding Factors

While it is hard to tell how well Montgomery’s strengths as a coach will translate to the NBA, it’s clear that the Golden State Warriors and their core of young players is as favorable an environment as Montgomery could have hoped for. Montgomery’s fate will be linked to that of Chris Mullin, but if NBA insiders are to be believed, Mullin is a good horse to bet on.

Like every NBA team, the Warriors have been handicapped in their maneuvering by the salary cap. The good news is that in another year they will likely have some breathing room; the bad news is that they still need to nail down contracts with some strong post players to be competitive. They need better defense and perimeter shooting to have a shot at the playoffs, but their biggest need is the type of leadership that will give them a taste of success.

Monty’s great experiment is doomed to fail if Chris Cohan ties Mullin’s hands and interferes with the coaching role. Monty can create his own problems if he fails to develop the right kind of relationships with his players or if he falls back on his Stanford habit of trying to win all the early games with veterans instead of letting younger players grow into their roles so that they are stronger at the end of the season.

Seemingly against all odds, the Denver Nuggets turned their fortunes around in a hurry. Just down the road, the San Jose Sharks had the type of season that exceeded even the wildest expectations. Can the Warriors be next?

John Calipari once explained the difference between the college and pro coaching in the context of discipline. “When you are coaching in college,” Calipari noted, “you’re teaching life skills. If the guy is late or he doesn’t do what he’s suppose to do, you throw him out of a practice, you suspend him, and you are teaching life skills. In the NBA, you are trying to win ball games and if a guy is a jerk the same way he is in college, in the pros, you start him, you give him 20 shots a game and you promote him in the papers so you can trade him. You can’t discipline him. If you discipline him, no one else wants him.”

Is this the type of world in which Mike Montgomery can thrive? If Chris Mullin and Monty are given a free reign to build the right type of team with the right type of players, then Monty can indeed reverse the fortunes of his recent college predecessors in the NBA. As long as ownership can stay out of the way, I’m not betting against him. If nothing else, at least we will finally get to see what he can do with the quickness and athleticism of a Jason Richardson.

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