Don Nelson won deserved praise last season for guiding the Golden State Warriors, the smallest team in the NBA, to 44 victories and an upset of the San Antonio Spurs in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.
But Nelson, whose Warriors play the Washington Bullets at the Capital Centre tonight, realized that he could not be a legitimate contender without a gifted big man. The lack of rebounding and interior defense prohibited a serious title run.
His only real option was to break up his dynamic "Run TMC" trio of point guard Tim Hardaway, off guard Mitch Richmond and small forward Chris Mullin, which combined for an average of 72 points a game. Last week, Nelson finally chose Richmond as his bargaining chip to pry rookie forward Billy Owens of Syracuse away from the Sacramento Kings, who could not sign him.
"That was the toughest trade I've ever made," said Nelson, who doubles as Warriors general manager. "Mitch is a special player and I truly loved him as a person."
But the thought of relying another year on Jim Peterson, Tom Tolbert and Alton Lister to provide offense up front convinced Nelson that drastic action was required.
"Basically, we traded a great small player for a big forward in Owens, who I rated the best athlete in the draft. Given the chance, we would have only picked [Georgetown center] Dikembe Mutombo ahead of him. We knew we had to get bigger to improve, and we were doing this for the long term."
At 6 feet 9 and 225 pounds, Owens does not the image of a front-line intimidator. But his all-around court skills and consistent rebounding (11.6 average his last college season) made him a perfect fit for Nelson's free-lance, uptempo offense. And the Warriors have gotten off to a good start, winning their first four games of the season before losing, 126-116, last night in Philadelphia.
"I'm not going to pigeonhole Owens," Nelson said by telephone from Milwaukee the other day. "He can do just about anything he wants. He can bring the ball up against pressure, defend the off guard and fill in at small and power forward. He's also a good enough ball handler to one day even play the point."
Although Owens missed all of training camp, Nelson did not hesitate to play him as soon as the ink dried on his seven-year contract, worth $19.6 million. In his first two off-the-bench appearances, he averaged 11.5 points and 5.5 rebounds.
"I'm not holding any strings on him," Nelson said. "I'm just turning him loose."
NOTES: Top draft pick LaBradford Smith got medical clearance to participate in his first scrimmage with the Bullets yesterday after missing the preseason with a badly sprained left ankle. The 6-3 guard reported slight soreness after the workout. It is unlikely he will come off the injured list tomorrow after sitting out 5 games.
Opponent: Golden State Warriors
Site: Capital Centre, Landover, 7:35
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM) and WTOP (1500 AM)
Tickets: Many seats are available at all prices.
Outlook: Before losing last night in Philadelphia, the Warriors had won their first 4 games of the season, their best start in 30 years. F Chris Mullin scores 29.5 ppg. G Tim Hardaway has averages of 19.3 points and 8.8 assists. Sarunas Marciulionis, replacing traded Mitch Richmond at shooting guard, averages 16.8. The Bullets have lost 2 in a row. F Harvey Grant has a sore toe and F Tom Hammonds a groin pull. G Michael Adams ranks among the NBA's top 3 in scoring (29.8), assists (11.0) and steals (3.75).