As it relates to Mike Dunleavy, the return of Don Nelson could end up being the greatest thing in the world for Warriors fans.
It also could end up being the worst thing in the world.
The Nellie Era II finds Dunleavy at a career crossroads, and it will end one of two ways — with Dunleavy either having finally validated the Warriors’ decision to make him the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2002, or with him having made Chris Mullin look like a fool for giving him a five-year, $44 million contract extension last fall.
And no matter how long Nellie Era II lasts, we’ll probably have our answer by the end of February.
Dunleavy, despite a combination of size and all-court skills that seem to scream NBA success, did very little in his first four seasons in the league. In fact, his greatest contribution to the basketball world over that time was in adding fuel to the fire of every Duke hater who likes to point out — with plenty of supporting evidence — that Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski runs a system that almost never produces a four-year player who can thrive at the next level.
(There’s Grant Hill, Shane Battier and … NOBODY!)
But there’s no coach in the history of basketball better equipped to make good use out of Dunleavy’s combination of size and all-court skills than good ol’ Nellie. So these next three months are make-or-break for the willowy forward-guard-whipping boy.
So far, we’ve seen from Dunleavy under Nellie what we’ve seen from Dunleavy under all 12 or so of the Warriors coaches for whom he’s already played: Flashes.
Flashes of brilliance, yes. But also flashes of bust.
The talent, at times, is obvious. A thread-the-needle bounce pass in traffic here, a feathery 3-pointer there. Yet there’s also the shy-from-contact here, the beaten-like-a-seal-pup off the dribble there. You can’t help but wonder if Dunleavy has the toughness to succeed in the NBA, mainly because you haven’t seen any real toughness to this point.
Nellie’s run-run-run system, designed to create and exploit mismatches all over the floor, is built for multi-dimensional players like Dunleavy. So it’s possible that, with time, Dunleavy will flourish in this system and develop into a star worthy of his lofty draft status.
If that happens, he’ll either be a valued contributor here for a long time, or he’ll be shipped out at the February trade deadline while his value is high enough for a one-complementary-piece-away contender to willingly take on his salary.
If it doesn’t happen, Dunleavy will be here a long time — or at least until the Nellie Era II ends — without contributing, because (a) Nellie doesn’t dole out playing time based on cap figures (right, Adonal Foyle?) and (b) no team will want a seemingly prototypical “Nellie player” who can’t actually play for Nellie.
It’s sink or swim time, Mike, and you’ve got three months in the pool.
Mychael Urban is the author of “Aces: The Last Season On The Mound With The Oakland A’s Big Three — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito” and a writer for MLB.com.