Vale Don Nelson. Sanity, for once, has won out as the NBA's winningest coach finally rides off into the sunset followed by a battery of short, athletic ballers.
Nelson was removed recently for the second time as coach of the Golden State Warriors after a crazy year even by his standards. Not long ago, we thought Nelson was zany enough to be one of those rare sporting identities deserving of their own sitcom but now after over 30 years of NBA coaching nearly nonstop he has finally been brought down by the forces of conformity that now run the League.
Don Nelson started NBA life being drafted by the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962. A 6'7 forward from Iowa State, he then moved to the Los Angeles Lakers. Cut in 1966, Tom Heinsohn suggested to Celtic Godfather Red Auerbach to sign him as he'd always found him a difficult proposition – no matter that he sported an unusual tippy-toe jumper and the athleticism you'd expect of a paper bag stuffed with small rocks. Nelson joined Boston and automatically became a rotation player for a squad in the middle of their famed 11-titles-in-13 years. When the older brigade of Cousy, Heinsohn, Sam Jones and Russell retired, Nelson became a starter on the remodelled early-70s Celtics. After winning his fifth title as a player in 1976, he retired having ushered in another decade of Celtic success.
Deciding against a continued career as a referee, Nelson opted to become an assistant coach to Larry Costello at Milwaukee. After 18 games, Costello was dismissed and Nelson found himself in charge of another rebuilding team, this one headed by rookies Kent Benson, Marques Johnson and Ernie Grunfeld alongside vets Bobby Dandridge and Brian Winters. No matter how successful his playing career was, it is as a coach that we'll forever remember Don Nelson – indeed it was on the bench that the ... alternative Nellie was born.
Benson was the Bucks' centre and suddenly Don Nelson was shown a vision of the rest of his life – a team blessed with above-average wings but without the stud big man any team needs to win consistently. This is how we'll remember Nellie – as a coach who ran (and I mean ran) such a varied and spread offense and rarely was an effective big-man coach, mostly because he just didn't have the bigs to coach. In all probability his early-80s Milwaukee teams, replete with Sidney Moncrief, Terry Cummings and Bob Lanier were probably the best teams he had the chance to coach. It's no coincidence that they also made it the farthest into the postseason.
In his thirty-one years helming NBA franchises, the best centre Don Nelson had was Patrick Ewing. For 59 games in 1995-96. That was before he was fired for placing too much offensive emphasis on wings John Starks and Anthony Mason and not on the Knicks' franchise player. Other than Ewing he coached Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Webber in Dallas and Golden State respectively, but neither was at the peak of their careers. Bob Lanier, who Nellie had for five years in Milwaukee was at the end of his rope. He simply never had the quality big guys to play, so he coped without 'em and created a vastly different type of basketball reliant on the strengths of the players he had to work with: athleticism and shooting.
The result: Nellie-Ball, defined by the font of all knowledge (ie. Wikipedia – accurately in this case though) as an unconventional, fast-paced offense designed by coach Don Nelson. Nellie-Ball relied on smaller, athletic players able to create mismatches by their sheer speed. After the three-point revolution in the early '90s, you also knew Nellie's teams would chuck up a remarkable number of three-balls. Fans and casual viewers alike loved Nellie Ball because there was always a show. There'd be points, rebounds, dunks and plenty of triples. If you played Fantasy basketball, Nellie-Ball was a veritable godsend unless of course he decided your fantasy stud had been starting too often recently and needed a good spell on the bench for no apparent reason.
The most fondly-remembered example of Nellie-Ball was Run TMC, which Golden State sprinted in the late 80s/early 90s. The perimeter-based core – SF Chris Mullin, SG Mitch Richmond and PG Tim Hardaway – allowed the Warriors their most success since the glory days of their last title in 1975. The Warriors then messed this up – as is their wont – by trading Richmond to Sacramento for the draft rights to Billy Owens. The beginning of the first end for Nelson in Golden State was when the Dubs traded for for rookie PF Chris Webber, who promptly feuded with his crackpot coach. Both got a ticket out of town and what had been so promising has been a slumped heap ever since with only vestiges of the proud days of Rick Barry and Phil Smith.
You never knew what to expect from a Nelson-coached team, aside from their reluctance to play a plodding, inside-oriented game. He could have 7'6 Manute Bol on the perimeter firing up threes. He could post “B-Diddy” Davis. He could send out 6'11 Brad Lohaus to guard a PG simply in order to disrupt their lines of sight. What you could expect was to be amazed – as the NBA loves to put it – at both his creativity and persistence. In many respects, Nellie the General Manager probably was better than Nellie the Coach. As a personnel boss, he prized cohesiveness, athleticism and shooting ability. As a coach he was able to use these skills, but not the coaches who played under him. This meant you always felt he wasn't done coaching and was preparing a roster he wanted, not one his coach wanted.
Never one to conform for it's own sake, Nelson suffered through an unhappy stint in New York before coming to Dallas in 1997. There he took over a truly horrible team and traded their three best players for bit-part guys, including the deal involving the most players traded in one deal at that time when he shipped out Jim Jackson, Eric Montross and Sam Cassell to New Jersey for what amounted to Shawn Bradley and change. Nelson again was stuck with a donut team – a soft middle – but this one he'd created himself. On leaving Dallas, he orchestrated one last great playoff upset by leading the Warriors over the Mavs in 2007 with a team based around PG Baron Davis and SG Monta Ellis – not a quality big man in sight. In an cutesy but equally disturbing way, he became a parody of himself only increasing during his second Dubs stint.
Nelson finishes (probably) his coaching career with 1335 wins, three more than the previous record-holder, Lenny Wilkens. What's more impressive though is that Nelson was an overachiever. His teams were amongst the most talented teams in the league only during the early 80s and (perhaps) the early 2000s. Indeed, his teams were mostly fatally flawed, often of his own doing. This said though, he managed to produce results almost to spite these shortcomings – they were his men, they were his methods and he was goiong to ride these guys to his success or to his doom. He was Nellie, and this was the way he played.
We'll miss Nellie. As heartless as it sounds, we'll probably miss Nellie-Ball more.