Do You Still Believe?

Warriors Hope for Another Magical Season


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    Charles Barkley, the basketball analyst for TNT, had a hard time getting on the Golden State Warriors bandwagon during the playoffs last season.
He constantly doubted the Warriors’ chances of beating Dallas in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, first predicting the Mavericks would sweep, then trumpeting the Mavericks would eventually prevail. Barkley traded banter with Golden State forward Stephen Jackson through the media and became the object of Warriors fans’ wrath.

Unlike the rest of the Bay Area, Barkley didn’t believe.

    Eventually, he succumbed. After the Warriors finished the upset of the Dallas Mavericks, Barkley even wore a “We Believe” shirt on television. Those were the days.

    With the 2007-08 season under way, faith in the Warriors isn’t as strong anymore. Coach Don Nelson’s talk of retirement immediately after season’s end—which turned out to be a standoff with team management for more money—was an instant buzz kill. Franchise-favorite, shooting guard Jason Richardson, was sent to Charlotte in a stunning draft-day trade. And the difference-maker Golden State was hoping to acquire still hasn’t arrived.
 
    The Warriors enter the new season with more questions and concerns than when the season ended in May. But they still have a thrilling team with some exciting players and the potential to make some noise.

So, the question is: Do you still believe?

Do you believe in “We Believe”?

    The grassroots campaign, started by super fan Paul Wong, was designed to bring hope and excitement back into Oracle Arena. It was a statement to the team that the fans had its back.
   
    It caught fire, along with the Warriors, and produced one of the most memorable seasons in Warriors history. People are still pining for the yellow T-shirts with “We Believe” plastered across the front.
   
    It’s highly unlikely “We Believe” will continue its momentum into this season, or that the relationship between fans and the team can manifest itself in such an enchanting way again. Last spring was marked with eerie coincidences that made for a truly unique ride: one inspired fan; the almost-simultaneous returns of guards Baron Davis and Jason Richardson from injury; the collapse of the Warriors’ competition—the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Hornets—down the stretch; the chance to end the longest playoff drought in the NBA; the seeds falling such that the Warriors faced Dallas and not Phoenix; the bad blood and numerous storylines in the match-up with the Mavericks.
 
    While another such grassroots campaign of “We Believe” magnitude is improbable, fans can still galvanize the team. One thing the “We Believe” movement did was put Warriors’ fans on the map as perhaps the league’s best.
 
    Despite the Warriors’ recent history of losing, the team has set attendance records in four of the last five seasons. The Warriors had the second-most new-season ticket sales this offseason and were ranked in the top five NBA teams in season-ticket holders, with 90 percent of season-ticket holders renewing. So, slogan or no, Oracle Arena figures to be rocking.
  
    “Last season was nothing short of magical,” says Shailo Rao, 27, who as cofounder of the Warriors online community GoldenStateofMind has his finger on the pulse of Warriors fans. “Honestly, we’ll probably never see anything like that again. But, in terms of fan support, it was by no means a fluke. This season might not have the same storybook feel to it, and the Warriors probably won’t be the same darlings of the national sports scene like they were last spring, but Warriors fans are going to be in full out ‘We Believe 2.0’ mode. We’re talking about the most loyal, passionate and intelligent hoops fans on the planet. We don’t stop believing!”

Do you believe “Nellie Ball” is the answer?

Warriors coach Don Nelson transformed the doormat franchise into an exciting, successful team. Using the same organized chaos philosophy he used as coach of the Warriors in the late ’80s and early ’90s—lots of 3-pointers and fast breaks, smaller lineups, big men shooting from the perimeter—Nelson led the Warriors into the playoffs for the first time since 1994. The Warriors averaged 106.5 points per game, second most in the NBA, and pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in history by knocking off the top-seeded Mavericks.
   
    But the Utah Jazz exposed the flaws of Nellie ball, handily eliminating the Warriors in the second round. Nelson’s small lineups proved feeble against Utah’s size and strength. His focus on offense left his defense vulnerable.

    The Warriors were hoping to solve their defensive issues, rebounding shortcomings and inside scoring problems by trading for Hall of Fame–bound power forward Kevin Garnett. But with Garnett going to Boston, the Warriors haven’t significantly addressed those holes—meaning they’ll have to lean more on Nelson’s innovation.

    One can’t help but wonder if “Nellie Ball” can get it done. The Jazz broadcast nationally the blueprint for beating the Warriors, and run-and-gun teams (such as Phoenix and Denver) have historically come up short in the postseason.

    Nelson’s style of play was exciting and good enough to get the Warriors into the playoffs. Topping last season’s results will be a much tougher task.

Do you believe in Baron Davis?

He certainly was amazing down the stretch last season after coming back from a knee injury. He re-established himself as one of the NBA’s elite point guards by serving as the catalyst for the Warriors’ jaw-dropping push for the playoffs, which saw Golden State win 16 of its final 21 games. Davis was even better in the postseason, carrying the team on his back in both series, averaging 25.3 points, 6.5 assists and 2.9 steals in Golden State’s 11 playoff games.

    But can Davis, who has missed an average of 28 games over the last five seasons, keep it up for most of 2007-08? Injuries aside, Davis has had trouble dominating consistently. He’s also made a habit of losing control of his emotions (his six technical fouls in the playoffs were second only to the seven by Detroit’s hothead forward Rasheed Wallace), which set the tone for a mentally fragile squad.

    What’s more, the departure of Richardson, the Warriors’ second-best scorer, leaves Davis with less proven help and, thus, more responsibility.

    There have always been questions about his health, motivation and temper. But Davis’ ability is unquestionable. If he can indeed take his game to another level, the Warriors will be in good hands. If not, logic says they don’t stand a chance.

Do you believe Monta Ellis is a star in the making?

    After a breakout sophomore season in the NBA, capturing the 2006-07 NBA Most Improved Player Award, many are expecting Ellis to emerge as a star guard. The Warriors let go of Richardson in part because of their faith in Ellis. But he struggled mightily in the postseason as opponents’ focused on his weaknesses (inexperience at point guard, lack of strength), forcing Nelson to keep him on the bench.

    Ellis figures to draw even more attention this season, after averaging 16.4 points and 4.1 assists last season. Whether he continues his rapid growth as an explosive scorer or the league figures him out will go a long way in determining the Warriors’ success.
  
    Working in Golden State’s favor is that Ellis is in a contract year. He will be a free agent at the end of this season and stands to get a huge raise if he continues his ascent. That’s certainly motivation for Ellis, who will make just shy of $800,000 this season, to put in the work and play like a man on a mission.

Do you believe Marco Belinelli is the real deal?

    The rookie shooting guard shocked Warriors followers with his impressive play during summer league action in Las Vegas, so much so that there is talk of him starting in the position vacated by Richardson. Belinelli, an Italian drafted No. 18 overall by the Warriors in the 2007 NBA Draft, fits Golden State’s style of play. He is the pure shooter they needed, and he’s skilled enough to contribute in other ways.

    But is he ready to produce at the NBA level?

    Though he has plenty of experience playing professionally in Europe, Belinelli is still just 21 years old and—at 6-foot-5, 192 pounds—can hide behind a broom handle. He did dominate summer league, but that was against rookies and NBA hopefuls. As of Oct. 30, he will experience a brand of basketball that’s more physical and cutthroat and deep in talent than he’s ever known.

    Others in his shoes have risen to the occasion, such as San Antonio Spurs guard/forward Manu Ginobili. Belinelli has the fortune of playing alongside a great point guard and in a free-flowing system. And good shooters always have a better chance of succeeding in the NBA.

Do you believe the Warriors are among the best in the West?

    It took a 9-1 record over the last 10 games for Golden State to sneak into the postseason. The Western Conference appears to be even stronger this season. Portland, despite the loss of heralded rookie center Greg Oden (the first overall pick of the 2007 NBA draft) to knee surgery, is expected to be markedly better. Memphis, owners of the Conference’s worst record in 2006-07, is much improved, and New Orleans, who fought tooth and nail with the Warriors for the eighth and final playoff spot, has recovered from the injury bug that plagued them last season.

    All of these teams missed the postseason and will be gunning for the Warriors. Does Golden State have enough to fight them off?
   
Certainly, there is much anticipation for this season. Golden State has become relevant on a national scale and, for the first time in a long time, Bay Area fans have sincere hope. They’ve tasted success and are hungry for more.

    But was last year a fluke, or a preview of what’s to come? Are the Warriors a Cinderella story, or on the verge of becoming a serious contender?
Guess it all depends on what you believe.