The Webber/Nelson Feud Revisited

James Harden’s recent unhappiness in Houston is likely taking them to the point where they will have to trade their megastar under duress.  This isn’t the first time a big star has held a franchise hostage and forced a trade that would likely get a below market return.  The situation gives me a little déjà vu regarding Chris Webber’s departure from Golden State.  The situations were materially different (Webber was much younger and was coming off of his rookie year) but the broad outlines, namely a big star demanding a deal for quasi-nebulous reasons, fit.  I thought we could do a deep dive into the Webber trade some 26 years later and see what we learn with the benefit of hindsight.

The C-Webb/Nellie Feud Conventional Take

First, let’s start with the nutshell version: Webber was a huge college star at Michigan who was drafted first overall by the Warriors in the 1993 Draft.  GS already had a fun core with Tim Hardaway at the point, Latrell Sprewell at SG, Chris Mullin as the deadeye shooter, and Billy Owens as a young point forward (and some good bench players).  Hardaway got hurt for the 1993-94 season but the Warriors went 50-32 and were very fun to watch offensively. Webber won Rookie of the Year and coach/GM Don Nelson looked like he potentially had a great core for the rest of the 1990s.  Alas, Webber demanded a trade right before the 1994-95 because, it appeared, that he did not like Nellie’s less-than-gentle touch (Nelson was known to bitch out players like his mentor Red Auerbach did in the 1960s).  Management rallied behind Nelson and portrayed Webber as a petulant Generation Xer. 

C-Webb was dealt to Washington for Tom Gugliotta and some first-rounders and Nelson kept his role.  The Warriors ended up stinking and Nellie was fired midway through season anyway.  Webber hurt his shoulder and barely played for Washington.  Nelson’s reputation suffered until he got things together with Dallas in 1999.  Webber was up-and-down in Washington and didn’t have huge success until he was traded to Sacramento in 1998.  It is a remembered as a terrible trade by the Warriors.

So, that’s the story but much of it makes no sense.  Why trade Webber just because his feelings were hurt?  Let’s take a look FAQ style…

How good were the 1993-94 Warriors and how good would they have been in 1994-95 with a full squad?

The 1993-94 team was surely fun to watch.  Sprewell was only 23 and a wrecking ball and Webber was only 20 and looked like he’d be a star (4.0 BPM as a rookie).  Mullin was quite competent but was already 30 and was coming off of his peak. The team went 50-32 but had the expected won-loss of 46-36 and clocked in as a slightly above-average team.  They were swept by the Suns in a fun shootout where Phoenix torched GS 140-133 in the third game (Charles Barkley dropped 56 on Webber).

Still, getting Hardaway back and adding him to the core looked like a team that could win 50-ish games and be a fringe contender.  They might have problems stopping teams because they lacked a true center (Webber was a power forward playing center in 1993-94).  The 1995 Pro Basketball Handbook preview (by Fred Kerber and Scott Howard-Cooper) picked the Warriors as third in the Pacific behind Phoenix and Seattle, writing that: “there’s plenty of scoring, plenty of excitement.  But there’s also the age-old Don Nelson cry: no legit center, despite the presence of…Chris Webber, whose unhappiness with his coach was well-documented.”  GS’s individual team preview noted that Nelson “loved” his squad but had dabbled in taking other jobs in the off-season.  In other words, the full healthy Warriors were fun but not quite a powerhouse with Webber and Nelson was not fully committed either.

NBA Rookie Contracts Pre-Slotting: The Wild West

In the days before NBA rookie contracts were predetermined by draft slot, things got complicated and Webber’s situation with the Warriors is best understood in this context.  Yes, a salary cap existed but there was no determined amount for what rookies got paid.  As NBA revenues grew, this made some negotiations hairier for NBA clubs who were afraid they might risk losing high draft picks because the picks had so much bargaining power.  As a consequence, the rooks were getting bigger deals than established pros.  These high draft picks, like Webber, had tremendous leverage.  In October 1993, Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel wrote about this issue and observed that: “to several NBA coaches, the math behind the recently announced series of can-you-top-this contracts [specifically to Larry Johnson and Webber] has become absurd.” 

In the early 1990s, the teams, without much cap room, would attempt to satiate the high draft picks with limited money available.  The teams could not go over the salary cap to sign the rookies (except that the rookie could be paid the salary of a slot vacated by a recently departed player) and, from there, the player could only get a limited raise from the first contractual year.  Winderman gave the example of Penny Hardaway (another big 1993 rookie).  Penny made $1.2 million as a rookie and, from there, Orlando was permitted to add “30 percent of that figure, $372,900, to each ensuing year’s salary. In other words, he will receive $1,615,900 in his second season, $1,988,800 in his third season and so on, with that $372,900 added to each previous year’s salary.”

There were two ways to pay the rookies: (a) give the rookies super long deals that ensured financial security and/or (b) give the rookie opt outs or short deals that allowed him an opportunity to enter the open market (once the player was a deemed sufficiently a veteran, he could be paid over the salary slot by his current team under The Larry Bird Rule).  In that environment, Webber negotiated a 15-year $74.4 million deal starting at $1.6 million (the amount paid to recently departed Tyrone Hill) and permitting escalations of $480,000 per season.  Winderman quoted Webber as saying “I’d like to have the reputation of earning what I get rather than being an overpaid player.”

It’s not clear exactly what Webber meant but the deal wasn’t so simple.  It permitted Webber to exercise an opt out to become a restricted free agent after his first season.  According to Andrew Serwer’s November 8, 1993 Sports Illustrated article, the opt out was vitally important: “Webber’s agent, Bill Strickland, wanted more [than the $74 million deal]. He insisted on a one-year termination clause so that Webber could elect to become a restricted free agent at the end of this season, much as Chris Dudley can under his controversial contract with the Portland Trail Blazers [which Dudley tried to use to get paid more under the Bird Rule].  Webber could then either seek bigger bucks or try to increase the present value of his contract by asking for a greater chunk of his dollars to be paid during this decade.  Of course, if Webber’s a bust this season, he’ll keep his mouth shut and just go raking in his $74.4 million.”

Nelson noted that the opt out wasn’t a big deal: “it’s not tough on the club because you have to have confidence in your franchise that you’re going to keep your players happy.”  Assuming the deal was a legitimate arm’s length transaction, the Webber opt out made little sense.  Why give C-Webb a contract through 2009 with all that security AND give him the early opt out after year one?  The most reasonable explanation is that the Warriors wanted to pay him more and had, possibly, an implied agreement to up the contract when the rules permitted.  This is precisely the sort arrangement that Dudley had in Portland that was later unsuccessfully challenged by the NBA.  We will never be totally privy to the negotiations but giving even a restricted opt out was a critical concession that weakened Golden State’s hand.

In October 1994, while the Webber free agency was still pending, the 1994 first pick, Glenn Robinson, upped the ante by demanding a 13-year $109 million deal from the Bucks.  Owner Herb Kohl joked “I was thinking of saying to Mr. Robinson, `I’ll tell you what. I’ll take your contract and you can have my franchise.’“  Robinson ultimately took $68 million for ten years, which lasted the exact duration of Big Dog’s career. 

Had C-Webb not opted out of the contract, the 15-year deal would have lasted longer than Webber’s career, which ended in 2008.  Webber ended up earning $178 million over that time period (or $104 more than Golden State had locked in for him) and having opt outs was a big deal to him.  It’s pretty clear that Webber didn’t want to give up his ability to test the free agent market and the 15-year deal was only a protection in case he was a bust.  The NBA (and some vets who were paid under more depressed market conditions) hated the leverage that the rookie stars had and the CBA was renegotiated to slot rookies to three-year deals.  This had other unintended consequences (see Garnett, Kevin) and the rookie contracts have been tweaked since to lower rookie leverage even further.

Nellie v. Webber

During the relatively successful 1993-94 season, the Warriors did show some hints of dissension between Nelson and Webber.  I recall (but can’t find) a report from Peter Vescey at the New York Post about Nellie screaming at the young Webber (at 20, Webber was the youngest player in the NBA at the time).  A 1994 playoff preview from the Hartford Courant references this generally and reported that things were okay in Golden State: “despite reported spats with forwards Chris Webber and Billy Owens. Nelson said all was calm in Oakland. However, he remains linked to rumors in Charlotte and Los Angeles (Lakers), where there are coaching vacancies.”  In addition, an L.A. Times story indicated that Webber told Nelson that C-Webb did not want to play center.  So, the contemporaneous reporting definitely shows that Webber did not love playing center or the concept of Nelson, generally, and that Nellie was already considering leaving town any way.

Webber’s performance was great and, as he should have, he exercised the option to become a restricted free agent.  There was no evidence, though, that Webber intended to go anywhere.  His agent told reporters in June 1994 that: “it was ‘highly probable’ that Webber would re-sign with the Warriors, who now have more money available under the salary cap.”

Then things got sticky.  Webber allegedly refused to negotiate with the Warriors.  In November 1994, Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated reported that “[b]ecause he was unhappy playing for Golden State coach Don Nelson, Webber in effect used his leverage to force the Warriors to choose between him and Nelson.”  While Webber denied that he demanded that Nelson be fired, it was clear he had a problem with Nelson.  Taylor wrote about what specifically pissed off Webber as follows: “Webber remains vague about the specific causes of his rift with Nelson, but it wasn’t just the occasional tongue-lashing a coach gives a player that he objected to. Webber and his advisers believe that Nelson, not wanting Webber to have too much success too fast, tried to sabotage him. They point to the 32 minutes per game Webber averaged and claim it was unusually low for a player of his caliber. And they note the vigorous campaign the Orlando Magic put on to boost Anfernee Hardaway’s Rookie of the Year chances and wonder, even though Webber ultimately won the award, why the Warriors didn’t do something similar for their rookie star.”  Webber also told Mitch Albom about the following incident: “Listen, I’ve had coaches that were absolute jerks. I mean, they screamed at us all the time. But you still have to respect people. You don’t yell at them, ‘Why did we draft you?’ in front of little kids in the stands.”

If those complaints are real then….oy.  The complaints completely lack substance.  Pretty sure Nelson did not want to “sabotage” his best player and did really want to draft him (they traded up for that honor actually). There is evidence of Nelson pettiness over the years (see Starks, John) but he never publicly went after the horses he really wanted to ride.  It is more likely that Webber just didn’t like Nelson and any other complaints were pre-textual and the “spoiled athlete” aura wasn’t unfounded.

On the Golden State side, things were handled even worse.  Nellie did not try to assuage Webber.  Taylor wrote that: “[o]ne thing Nelson didn’t try to do was seek Webber out to settle their differences. He maintains that he was advised by the Golden State front office to stay out of the negotiations, but it should have taken a SWAT team to keep him from showing up at Webber’s front door and confronting him about their problems.”  Instead, Nellie offered to quit as coach, which was clearly designed to make Webber look bad to the public. 

Nelson also didn’t directly bad mouth Webber but definitely tossed out passive aggressive gems to Taylor like: “I don’t know what I’ve done in the past that made Chris so angry at me that he would not want to play for me.  I thought I was soft on Chris. I tried to love him.”  In a similar vein, Clifton Brown of the New York Times quoted Nellie as saying: “[t]he only thing wrong with Chris Webber is that he came out of college early, and he’s young. We had a couple of incidents early in the season and he told me that he would prefer I not handle him that way. I thought I was very soft with him.”  Translation: Nellie thought Webber was a big whiny baby.

At that point, Webber’s contractual leverage was enough to create a bit of a mess but really only from a public relations standpoint.  He could refuse to sign and not be fined for a hold out because of his contract status but, ultimately, if the Warriors had refused to trade him, Webber would’ve had to sign some sort of deal or sit out indefinitely.  Webber’s only recourse was to give the Warriors bad press.  The Warriors, rather than de-escalate the situation, told their best player to piss off.  Unless they could’ve gotten near equal value in a trade for Webber, Nellie and ownership should’ve had the meeting where they placated Webber and got him back.  Yes, Webber’s personal attacks were irksome but Golden State was much better off keeping him if they could.

Enter newly minted Warriors Chris Cohan a/k/a Proto-Dolan, who ended up having a long history of crappy decisions as owner.  Cohan determined that it was a binary decision between Webber and Nelson.  Phil Taylor wrote that “Cohan met with Webber and came away with the impression that his problems were ‘mostly about Don,’ as Cohan put it. ‘The coach was going to have to leave. That’s the bottom line. [Webber was] concrete on this issue.’” 

That assumption, however, didn’t have to be correct.  Mark Heisler reported on November 18, 1994 that Webber’s demands were materially different: “Webber asked for a new contract with another ‘out’ in two seasons, which would have made him an unrestricted free agent by the summer of 1997, free to leave Nelson if he so desired.”  Webber didn’t love Nellie but the plan was clear: keep getting higher long term deals to deal with the escalating revenues but also include opt outs every few years to be able to bolt town if things go south.  It is a bit rough to demand long term security and the ability to bolt at any time but the Warriors gave it to him after year-1 of the contract so why is it so crazy that Webber wouldn’t get that flexibility again?  It was only when the Warriors balked at the ability to opt out that Webber threw his fits about Nelson. 

Cohan and Nelson could’ve patched this up by either giving into the new opt out-based contract or countered with an opt out slightly later than two years.  But, for some reason, Cohan was not able to see such nuance.  Why?  We don’t know for sure but it seems that the Warriors got cocky.  They started off the season without Webber and went 6-1, with quality wins too (five of the wins were against playoff teams, including impressive road wins against the really good Spurs and Jazz).  Cohan and Nelson figured they would be fine without Webber and were probably annoyed at the public drama.  At that point, Nelson traded Webber to the Bullets for Tom Gugliotta and three future first-rounders. 

Webber for Googs

At the time that trade seemed not great and was panned because GS got back the solid and unexciting pro Gugliotta, who was pretty good but not quite Webber.  Getting the three first-rounders was also great, if the Bullets were not good those seasons (the Bullets were usually terrible but there was an outside risk that Webber would bring them back to respectability).  Let’s run the numbers on Webber and Googs from 1993-94:

-Webber, age-20:  32.1 mpg, 17.5 ppg, .552 FG%, 9.1 rpg, 3.6 apg, 2.2 bpg, 21.7 PER, .154 WS/48, 4.0 BPM, 3.6 VORP

-Gugliotta, age-24: 35.8 mpg, 17.1 ppg, .466 FG%, 9.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 17.9 PER, .066 WS/48, 1.4 BPM, 2.4 VORP

Webber was much better and younger but, if you had to trade Webber, a 24-year old Googs plus three picks is a pretty good return.  Still, the 20-year old with Hall of Fame potential was the better value.  Indeed, other stars usually returned more current value (i.e. another decent young player as well).  The Bullets didn’t have too many good young pros but adding Calbert Cheaney, Brent Price, or Don MacLean would’ve made the deal slightly more palatable.

To make matters worse, the trade created a revolt within the Warriors. After the Webber trade, the Warriors went 7-31 and the locker room was not happy.  Leigh Montville of Sports Illustrated wrote about the rebellion, particularly from star Latrell Sprewell, in a January 16, 1995 article that talked about Sprewell missing practices and wearing “sneakers with the uniform numbers of the departed Webber and Owens written on the back in protest of the moves that were made.”

The Gugliotta deal wasn’t totally awful on paper but Googs played really poorly in this toxic environment (12.2 PER, .034 WS/48, -0.5 BPM, 0.5 VORP in 40 games), which made things even worse.  At midseason, the Warriors fired Nelson and then flipped Gugliotta to Minnesota for disappointing rookie Donyell Marshall.  The trade prompted Rony Seikaly to comment: “[y]ou could have gotten a lot more for Webber. But what do I know? I’m not a general manager. I’m nobody.”  But Seikaly had a point.  In three months, Cohan had allowed himself to choose Nelson over Webber (unnecessarily), turn Webber into Marshall (who was worse than Googs), and fire Nelson months after betting the franchise on him.

Marshall slowly developed into a useful player but was not as good as Gugliotta (who blossomed in Minnesota), let alone Webber.  The other aspect of the trade, the draft picks could’ve worked out really well but were mostly disappointment.  Here’s how the picks played out:

-1996: The Warriors had the 11th pick and took Todd Fuller, who was a backup center for five years.  GS missed the following later picks: Kobe Bryant (13th), Peja Stojakovic (14th), Steve Nash (15th), and Jermaine O’Neal (17th).  Even the non-stars form that range turned out much better than Fuller: Vitaly Potapenko (12th) had an 11-year career and Tony Delk (16th) was a good shooter for ten years. 

-1998: The Warriors took Vince Carter with the 5th pick and promptly traded him to the Raptors for 4th pick Antawn Jamison.  This was a prearranged deal and the Raptors could’ve just taken VC with the 4th pick but flipped the picks for cash considerations.  Assuming the Warriors were never going to take the vastly better Carter, Jamison was still a pretty good pick at the slot (they could’ve taken Dirk Nowitzki or Paul Pierce but several other teams passed on them as well, which sort of softens the blow).  Had the Warriors drafted Carter, though, it would’ve redeemed the entire Webber debacle. 

-2000:  The Warriors would’ve been entitled to the 7th pick in this draft, which ended up being Chris Mihm (another backup-type big man).  The Warriors actually dealt the pick for Larry Hughes (and Owens, who was on his last legs at that point and was only a salary slot).  It was a good move because Hughes was useful and most of the 2000 draft prospects were not.

In summary, the Webber trade would’ve looked better in retrospect if they had taken one of several stars available in 1996 or Carter in 1998.  Instead, Webber was turned into one pretty good player (Jamison), one pretty good player (Hughes), one okay player (Marshall), and bench fodder (Fuller). 

Wrap Up

The Warriors handled the Webber free agency epically poorly.  On the other hand, the trade was not really great for the Bullets.  Webber missed nearly all of 1994-95 with a shoulder injury, which he aggravated halfway through 1995-96.  The Bullets missed the playoffs both seasons.  Webber was healthy in 1996-97 and the team was pretty good (an eight seed that was swept by the Bulls in the playoffs).  But 1997-98 was a disappointment and Washington grew tired of Webber (he had some continued maturity baggage) and they traded him in frustration to the Kings for an aging Mitch Richmond, which was a much worse trade than the one that Nellie made for Webber, who played his best ball for Sacramento.

While the trade is remembered as bad for the Warriors because of how the franchise fell apart in all respects, this was a lose-lose deal.  The fact is, if you remove context (i.e. the Warriors’ crappy handling of the free agency negotiations) and you were to conceive a return for Webber in a forced trade, Gugliotta and three unprotected picks is not an awful return.  Alas, context made this much worse.  GS totally collapsed and the poor handling of Webber epitomized a lack of organizational planning.  The right move was to wait Webber out or give him the short-term opt out he wanted.  And, if you were going to choose Nelson over Webber, why the hell would you fire Nelson a few months later anyway?

The bottom line:

-Webber was a bit whiny, which is not shocking for a 20-year old.  Nothing Webber did, though, necessitated the awful nuclear decisions by the Warriors to divorce from one of the best young players in the NBA.

-Nellie had his limitations.  A good coach and innovative finder of talent, he could never adjust to difficult situations.  All he had to do was assuage Webber in a meeting and get Webber the new contract terms that Webber wanted.  Instead, Nellie got pissed that some kid would whine and made things worse with public statements that were designed to make things worse.  In a way, Nelson, at age-54, was less mature and more whiny than Webber.  In addition, Nelson agreed to the concept of opt outs to get Webber signed in 1993.  He had little leg to stand on to complain if Webber wanted the same right again in 1994.  The unique era of rookies not being slotted ended up with Nelson getting outplayed by Webber’s reps who got everything they wanted in the end (though there was some reputation cost to the plan).

-Ultimately, this is the story of Cohan and his inability to manage.  Cohan’s decision making was beyond horrid.  All he had to do was tell Nelson to chill out and get a deal done with Webber.  Instead, he aligned with Nelson in a fight that didn’t need to happen.  To underscore that point, the Warriors rehired Nelson 2006 (after 14 years of futility since his firing).  In 2007, Nelson then signed Webber, who was on his last legs as a player.  Both Nellie and Webber said there were no hard feelings from years ago which suggests that the relationship might’ve been repairable in 1994 if Cohan had taken the time to do that.  Webber suffered a serious injury nine games into 2007-08 season and retired rather than go through another grueling rehab.  So, yeah, Cohan is the main culprit here.