Eric Musselman’s meteoric rise as head coach of the Golden State Warriors came to a quiet and inauspicious end last week when he was fired by incoming vice president of basket ball operations Chris Mullin and owner Chris Cohan. Just a year ago Musselman was being hailed as a savior of the franchise. But Cohan, who seems to harbor an unusual obsession with hiring and firing coaches, showed him the door and the Warriors must rebuild once again.
Mullin cited a need to depart from the ‘chaos of the past’ as a chief reason for the change. Apparently, departing from the chaos of the past means continuing on Cohan’s frenzied coaching merry-go-round that has brought the Warriors nine head coaches in the nine years that he has owned the team.
In reality Musselman was a remarkable departure from the past. In the 5 seasons prior to his arrival, the Warriors average record was 19 wins and 63 losses. Then Musselman came in and turned the perennial dormats into one of the leagues biggest surprises. In his first year the team won 38 games and contended for the playoffs for much of the year. The effort nearly earned Musselman the coach of the year honor (he came in second in the voting) and with a solid young core Warriors fans suddenly had reason for hope.
The ’03-’04 season should have been a disaster from the start. Gone were Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, the two top players from the surprising ’02-’03 season. Promising young power forward Troy Murphy and back-up center Foyle were injured for most of the year. Newly acquired guards Nick Van Excel and Speedy Claxton also missed significant numbers of games with injuries. Yet Musselman was able to coax 37 wins out of the rag-tag squad.
Musselman’s firey style and intense demeanor didn’t make him the most popular guy in the franchise, but he has an uncanny ability to get maximum effort out of his players. One reason for his success is that he ran his team as a meritocracy where contributions were rewarded with more playing time and where contract level or draft position didn’t necessarily guarantee a top spot in the rotation. Thus, players like Earl Boykins, and Brian Cardinal, (castaways on other teams) and Gilbert Arenas (passed up by every other team in the league on draft day) were able to flourish and set the tone, pushing everyone else to a higher level. This method led to the inevitable clashes with the players, but in the end Musselman showed that in time he could earn their respect and get them to play a team game.
All the while Cohan continued to erode any chance that Musselman’s Warriors had at building toward success. Drafting overrated Mike Dunleavy number three soon after signing Antawn Jamison to a maximum value, long-term contract was questionable, but trading Jamison for perennial complainer Nick Van Excel was ludicrous. Muddling things up with Arenas can also mostly be attributed to Cohan. Furthermore, pushing Musselman to give more playing time to rookie Mikael Pietrus and disappointing second-year Dunleavy eroded Musselman’s control and probably cost the Warriors a few wins this year.
A successful team will never materialize overnight and it will not come at all if Cohan continues to slash and burn at the rate of a new coach every year. Eric Musselman will be a successful coach in the NBA, just as soon as an owner who will respect his style and abilities gives him an opportunity. Meanwhile, we Warriors fans will apparently have to keep enduring losing seasons until Cohan decides to get out of the mix.