A New J.B. and Some D : Add George Karl’s Coaching and You Have the Key Ingredients in Warriors’ Resurgence

Times Staff Writer

It’s not true that defense is as foreign to the Bay Area as Herb Caen says culture is to L.A.

The Bay Area, remember, gave us the famous Twinkie defense in a murder trial. The San Francisco 49ers’ secondary operates there. So does the Giants’ outfield.

Anyone who has seen Ronnie Lott make a tackle, Willie Mays make a catch, or Melvin Belli protect a client can attest to the existence of defense there.

Anyone who has spent the last decade or so watching the Golden State Warriors, however, might have trouble corroborating that view.

It hardly mattered on which side of the Bay they played, in San Francisco’s Cow Palace or Oakland’s Coliseum Arena, the Warriors gave new meaning to the concept of a half-court game. They could score at will--this, after all, is where gunner Lloyd Free legally changed his name to World B. Free--but they also demonstrated monumental indifference to keeping the other team from scoring.


And when the Warriors weren’t giving away points, they were giving away players and draft choices, enough talent to stock an all-star team. Jamaal Wilkes, Bernard King, Gus Williams . . . In one deal alone they traded Robert Parish and a No. 1 draft choice--which became Kevin McHale--to Boston.

Franklin Mieuli, who was described as the last mom-and-pop owner in the NBA, didn’t have the cash to compete with the league’s big-money types, who snatched up his free agents. It was equally clear that Mieuli didn’t have the front office that could compensate for the lack of funds, either.

“You can’t be poor and dumb at the same time,” said one reporter assigned to the team.

But last May, after nine straight seasons of missing the playoffs and five straight seasons of averaging fewer than 10,000 fans a game, Mieuli made a franchise-transforming decision. He completed the sale of the team to James Fitzgerald, former owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that won six straight division titles during his tenure.

Fitzgerald appointed a Milwaukee sidekick, Daniel Finnane, as president and overseer of the club’s finances. Then he went out and hired a new coach, 35-year-old George Karl, who had taken Cleveland from a 2-19 start to its first playoff berth in seven seasons, and a new personnel director, Jack McMahon, who in 14 years in Philadelphia had helped to build the 76ers into a perennial power.

No one really expected an immediate turnaround. The Warriors, after all, lost 52 games last season, and returned essentially the same band of players.

“All the BS that had been going on here for the last few years--the salary problems, the coaching disharmony, the players wanting to be traded, frustration with money problems--all that peripheral stuff did not create a good atmosphere,” Karl said. “But the new ownership, the new organization brought a good spirit, and the players were tremendously receptive.”

Some examples of the new organization’s approach:

--When the Warriors signed No. 1 draft pick Chris Washburn to a four-year, $3-million contract, it was the first time since 1978 that their No. 1 pick was signed before the first day of training camp.

--Free agent guard Eric (Sleepy) Floyd re-signed with the team.

--Under Karl, the Warriors began to play defense, slicing almost half a dozen points off a league-worst average of 116.9 allowed per game. The Warriors, who didn’t win their third road game last season until Feb. 21, already have won eight this season.

--And Joe Barry Carroll, the tall guy who had become a Golden State fall guy, has been playing like an all-star.

You remember J.B. Carroll, don’t you?

The same guy whose initials stand for Just Breathing, according to one critic.

The same Joe Barry Carroll who spent one winter playing in Italy, then came back and signed an offer sheet to play with Milwaukee, and even after the Warriors matched it, held out hope that he would become a Buck until Milwaukee traded for Jack Sikma last summer.

The same Joe Barry Carroll who had a much publicized feud with the previous coach, John Bach, who last winter fined his 7-1 center for missing a plane. Carroll told Bach that if the coach upheld the fine, he wouldn’t speak to him again. The fine stood, and Carroll kept his vow, although he was hardly silent in publicly campaigning for Bach’s dismissal.

The same Joe Barry Carroll who last season committed more turnovers and took more shots than any of the league’s starting centers, and whose shooting percentage of 46.3% surpassed only Moses Malone’s.

The same Joe Barry Carroll who nearly went to New Jersey in a trade for Darryl Dawkins and Mike O’Koren, a deal that fell through when Golden State got a look at Dawkins’ medical records.

What are they saying about Joe Barry Carroll now?

“Any time you take on a losing team, there are things you wonder about,” said Karl on the night that the Warriors beat the Lakers for the second time in three meetings this season.

“There have been a lot of negatives said about J.B., but I’ve found none of them.

“J.B. has been tremendously professional, taking on leadership responsibilities. He’s just been a pleasure.

“I don’t think I had a perception of him that you all did. He’s playing as well as any center in the conference from the standpoint of his value to the team. He definitely should be an all-star.”

Golden State forward Greg Ballard has spent only the last two seasons with the Warriors, which he uses as a qualifier when talking about Joe Barry past vs. Joe Barry present.

“I think he’s more aggressive this year than last,” Ballard said. “His attitude has been more of a leadership attitude. He’s been more vocal this year, he’s called team meetings.

“I think he’s rebounding better and shooting better. He’s been taking the tough shots down the stretch, the team’s been going to him, and he’s been responding. He’s always been a scorer, but it seems like his game is more rounded now.

“I think there were things he was unhappy with in the past, with the old organization. But I think he wants to put the past behind him.”

Carroll may be the last to acknowledge there is a difference in his game. After a 30-point, 7-rebound, and 3-assist performance against the Lakers last Saturday, he was asked if it would be disappointing to be left off the All-Star team.

“I’m disappointed when I don’t make it every year,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been disappointed before. I don’t know how to measure one year against another.”

He could, however, gauge the difference in atmosphere.

“It’s certainly more positive, and I think that’s helped,” said Carroll, who at one stage in his career refused to talk to reporters but now invited one to pull up a chair.

Karl’s defensive orientation has also helped, he said. “When a coach is able to get everyone on the same page, it definitely becomes critical. You can do things individually on the offensive end, but defensively it becomes impossible if everyone goes in different directions. You need some sort of orchestration.”

The Warriors have a winning record even without leading scorer Purvis Short, who has been out with a torn ligament in his left knee since Nov. 21. Carroll is averaging just under 20 points a game, but smiles at the suggestion that the Warriors now rely on him at game’s end.

“It’s out of desperation, often times,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s premeditated or not.”

Point guard Floyd has been scoring almost at the same rate as Carroll while averaging more than 10 assists a game, second in the league only to Magic Johnson.

Chris Mullin, a disappointment as a No. 1 draft choice last season, is combining with Terry Teagle to give the Warriors almost 26 points a game from the small forward position, power forward Larry Smith is still one of the premier offensive rebounders in the game, and Ballard leads a solid corps of reserves.

There are still problems, to be sure--the immaturity of No. 1 pick Washburn so far has made him a Benoit Benjamin North, although Karl said recently he practiced as hard as he has all season.

But with the mobile Carroll in the middle, and the makings of a commitment to play defense all over the court, the Warriors are headed . . . where?

“Right now, other than the Lakers there isn’t a strong dominating team in the conference,” Karl said. “I see a situation where a team could make it to the conference championship, and from there you never know what happens.

“I know I’m dreaming a little, I’m being a little idealistic, but I’ve seen teams win NBA championships that weren’t supposed to be there.”