When the Golden State Warriors decided to have a ceremony to retire Chris Mullin’s No. 17 jersey before a March game against the Timberwolves last season, they surely had no idea what was in store from the crowd at Oracle Arena in Oakland. As the greatest player for the franchise since Rick Barry stood at midcourt with the team’s owner and Barry himself, the raucous fans rained down a chorus of boos.
The moment instantly became polarizing. To outsiders it seemed a slap in the face to a great player and a former Warriors general manager. Looked at another way, a tortured fan base finally had its moment of protest. Like Mookie throwing a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria at the end of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” the Warriors fans chose to make their displeasure heard loud and clear on the night when by far the most people would be watching.
The franchise had given its fans decades of things to boo about. Since 1994, when the team let Chris Webber, the top draft pick of the year before, force his way out of town, the Warriors have made the playoffs just once, in 2006-7, when they went on to upset top-seeded Dallas in the first round. A series of bad trades, terrible draft picks and ill-advised contract extensions crippled their ability to compete.
But on that night in March, the protest was largely inspired by the widespread notion that the team — which had just traded away a fan favorite, Monta Ellis, for Andrew Bogut, who was injured and not likely to play anytime soon — was tanking the season to keep from losing a high draft pick. Mullin, unfortunately, was collateral damage.
The response from Golden State management was that the fans should not worry, that there was an actual plan in place, hard as that might be to believe. The Warriors then proceeded to drop 17 of their final 20 games and finish 23-43. They held on to their draft pick, but just barely, by ending up with the No. 7 selection in the lottery. Had the pick slipped to No. 8, it would have been shipped away to complete a previous trade.
That was good news for the Warriors. Even better has been what has followed. As they travel to Brooklyn to face the Nets on Friday night, they have a surprising 11-7 record this season. Their claim, all along, that they had a plan now seems to actually have some merit.
Friday’s game will resonate in particular for the Warriors’ coach, Mark Jackson, who was born in Brooklyn, played his high school ball there, starred in the backcourt at St. John’s and then played five years for the Knicks at the start of his long N.B.A. career and another year and a half in New York toward the end.
This is his second season calling the shots at Golden State, and he is benefiting from the team’s improvement in the frontcourt, even though Bogut, the villain in last season’s deal and the supposed linchpin of this season’s defense, played just part of four games this season before his chronic ankle problems forced him back to the sideline indefinitely. In Bogut’s absence, David Lee, a former Knicks star known far more for his offense, has helped take up the slack.
Lee left the Knicks for the Warriors in a sign-and-trade in 2010, a victim of the Knicks’ free-agent transformation. Now, he is happy with the changes to his own game.
“We have plenty of firepower offensively,” Lee said in a telephone interview. “Where we’ve changed our mind-set is on the defensive end.”
Lee, who is playing well enough to merit All-Star consideration on a Warriors team that has not had a representative in that game since the 1996-97 season, does not shy away from expectations that he do more on the defensive end. When a fan recently asked him on Twitter why he missed so many defensive rotations, Lee responded, “Gotta get better, I agree!”
“I think the biggest thing is collectively last season we were 30th in the league in rebounding,” Lee said. “We were getting killed on the boards night in and night out. This year we’re top five, and it’s been a huge change.”
Lee, at 29, has eased into his role as a veteran leader. Averaging 17.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists a game, Lee could join Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond, Neil Johnson and Jerry Lucas as the only Warriors to average 17, 10 and 3.
Lee, who has always been a good passer, said the increase in assists was largely a function of the way the team has been defended. “Teams are giving me a lot of attention,” he said. “A lot of times the natural thing is to find the open man. I think we have a very unselfish team over all.”
During the off-season, the Warriors bolstered their lineup by signing Carl Landry, a veteran forward, and trading for the veteran guard Jarrett Jack. Harrison Barnes, drafted with the pick the team nearly lost, has been inconsistent but exciting. Also helping has been the improvement of the second-year guard Klay Thompson, who is averaging 16 points a game.
“It’s been a huge change for us having that depth this year,” Lee said. “That’s something we didn’t have the last couple years. We were always playing six or seven guys.”
The Nets witnessed that depth in a loss to the Warriors in Oakland on Nov. 21. That was one of the Warriors’ six victories this season at home, where no one is currently booing.