OAKLAND (CBS/AP) — This was one shot Keith Smart couldn’t make.
Maybe nobody could.
The Golden State Warriors parted ways with their head coach Wednesday, the first major fallout this offseason from a new ownership group that has promised sweeping changes to the perennial underachieving franchise.
Smart, the Indiana guard best known for hitting “The Shot” against Syracuse that won the Hoosiers the 1987 NCAA title, spent seven years as an assistant with Golden State before he replaced Don Nelson just before training camp. The Warriors went 36-46 under Smart, a 10-game improvement from the previous season but clearly not enough to appease owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber.
Only a rare playoff appearance was likely to save Smart’s job.
“I wouldn’t say it was impossible,” Warriors general manager Larry Riley said of Smart’s challenge. “But it was difficult. We all know that.”
The new brass managed to hastily put Smart in place even before the NBA officially approved the sale of the Warriors last year for a record $450 million from longtime owner Chris Cohan. Smart was only given a one-year contract with a team option for next season, and he was often labeled a fill-in candidate charged with overseeing the transition.
The coach met with Lacob and the basketball operations staff in the morning and was told he wouldn’t be retained.
“It’s a very complex decision and not an easy thing to do. No one likes to make changes that affect someone’s life,” Lacob said a few hours later, speaking before the unveiling of a refurbished court bearing his name at Haight Elementary School in nearby Alameda. “It’s something we felt that we really had to do. We really want to strive to be a great team and we felt that we could improve ourselves.”
The new owners have vowed to restore the franchise to past glory with splashy signings and playoff performances. The Warriors have made the postseason just once since 1994; yet fans in the basketball-crazy Bay Area remain some of the most loyal and vocal in a market saturated with sports teams.
Golden State already had decided to keep Riley as GM. The team also hired longtime NBA agent Bob Myers a few weeks ago to be the assistant general manager and Riley’s eventual successor. The new coach will decide whether to keep the assistants on staff.
Lacob said Riley and his staff will make the choice on a new coach, with his input. While Lacob would prefer someone with previous NBA head coaching experience, that won’t be a requirement. He declined to say whether the Warriors are interested in former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan or NBA analyst and former Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy—two names who have surfaced already.
Others sure to receive attention include former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown and Lawrence Frank, the one-time New Jersey Nets coach who’s now the top assistant with the Boston Celtics—where Lacob previously held a small stake in the team.
Lacob would like to move swiftly in finding a new coach and acknowledged the front office has a short list of potential candidates.
“We’re going to look for someone with, certainly, experience, someone with a lot of great ability to relate to players,” Lacob said. “We’re going to look at a number of people and try to make the best choice we can to be the best we can.”
Smart had little time to deliver them a winner.
He declared from the moment he began that he would put his own stamp on the bench no matter how long his tenure lasted. He walked around the locker room before training camp asking for a handshake from each player, signaling a pact that they would allow Smart to coach them and be involved in their lives.
In the end, all those efforts weren’t enough.
Smart was still left with the same pitfall as so many of his predecessors: working with a flawed roster that, even at its best, was no playoff contender in the deep Western Conference. Smart juggled the undersized guard combo of Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry with mixed results, and the lack of a true inside presence again left the Warriors exposed.
“At some level, and certainly I know some people will say this that he deserved another year, that he didn’t have a full roster, and there’s some truth to that,” Lacob said. “But we felt that we could be better. I think to some extent ownership wanted more so to have their guy in.”
Smart often took a hardline approach with Curry, even benching the second-year starting point guard late in a few games. Their relationship was never perfect, but Smart was still well liked by players—including Curry—and front-office members until the end.
The 46-year-old Smart kept the run-and-fun offense Nelson once perfected, leading to some dazzling outputs and upsets, including a three-game winning streak in April over the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas and Portland. But the defensive effort was never there, and a six-game losing streak in late March that knocked the Warriors out of postseason contention spelled the end of Smart’s tenure.
“It’s difficult because of the personality of a guy like Keith Smart, the quality of the individual that he was and the fact that he’s totally professional,” Riley said. “In that regard, there’s some difficulty associated with it. The other side of it is we’re making a decision to move forward.”
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