In a long-awaited changing of the guard, the Warriors are prepared to oust coach Don Nelson and replace him with assistant coach Keith Smart, a person with knowledge of the situation confirmed to CBSSports.com. The plan is to have Smart installed as the new coach in time for the Warriors' media day Monday.
The move has been contemplated within the organization since at least last November, when Nelson started what ended up being the season that saw him become the NBA's winningest coach with something that has become commonplace for him: feuds with two of his best players. Stephen Jackson eventually was traded, Monta Ellis was not, but Nellie stuck around long enough to eclipse Lenny Wilkens' record for wins. But his reign in Golden State appears to be over.
It took an ownership change -- from Chris Cohan to Joe Lacob and Peter Guber -- to finally persuade Nelson to step aside and let Smart, a respected assistant with a promising future as a head coach, take over. According to a person familiar with the team's plans, the new owners did not want to enter the season with Nelson again on the verge of retiring, re-signing or being fired. The details of Smart's contract are yet to be worked out, which is why no formal announcement is expected to come from the Warriors until they convene for media day Monday.
It is not clear whether Nelson, 70, will remain with the Warriors in an advisory capacity; he has one year and $6 million remaining on his contract. It was that remaining money, more so than Nellie's pursuit of Wilkens' record, that kept him from stepping down last season and letting Smart take over. In fact, one person familiar with the awkward unwinding of Nelson's Golden State tenure joked Thursday night, "I wonder if Nellie knows?" It wasn't necessarily a joke.
Nelson will long be remembered for bringing Nellieball to Golden State, the zenith of which was a stirring upset of a 67-win Dallas team -- Nelson's former employer -- as the eighth seed in the 2007 playoffs. But that was followed by three seasons in the lottery, the constant distractions and speculation over how long Nelson would hang around.
At least it appears that Nelson's departure from Golden State won't end with the same acrimony that marred his removal as Mavericks coach in 2005 -- but never say never. Until the details of the transfer of power from Nelson to Smart are finalized, it would be wise to withhold judgment on how amicably this will end. As of now, reports such as this one from Marcus Thompson of the Contra Costa Times indicate that Nellie will be getting is full $6 million even though he's resigning.
Smart, who turned 46 this week, will always be remembered for his heroic, game-winning shot for Indiana against Syracuse in the 1987 NCAA championship game. In Golden State, he'll quickly become known as a coach who runs a structured offense -- something Nelson long eschewed -- and also believes in defense. What's that? Huh? Defense?
Smart's resume bears all the markings of a coach who has worked his way up through the ranks the hard way. From the Fort Wayne Fury to the Dominican Republic to the Latvian National team, Smart has earned this. And he'll have the respect of the locker room -- a locker room populated by some fairly talented players, such as Ellis, Stephen Curry, Andris Biedrins and David Lee -- from day one. And day one will be Monday.