The past 25 seasons for the Golden State Warriors have been excruciating at best. And it’s been a merry-go-round of head coaches supervising the perpetually downtrodden franchise: 13 different men have helmed the sidelines for the Warriors. Thirteen brave and tortured men.
It’s no coincidence that in the past 20 years of Golden State Warriors basketball, there is one man responsible for the team’s limited and abbreviated successes: Don Nelson.
Yes, in two separate stints—13 years apart, mind you—as head coach of the Warriors, Nelson is the sole engineer of the team’s lonely playoff appearances. He is the last reminder for how to lead this Golden State organization to victory. From the glory days of the upstart “Run TMC” era to the overachieving playoff run of the “We Believe” team in 2007, Nelson was the captain guiding the ship in the East Bay.
But Nelson’s legacy shines brighter than just his shiny Golden State days. If you were to pigeonhole Nelson for those brief moments with the Warriors, you wouldn’t be doing justice to a man who has changed the game of basketball in many ways. Enough to warrant consideration among the greatest basketball coaches of all time.
Last month, the 12 finalists were announced for potential enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Nelson is among the candidates eligible for induction. A candidate must receive at least 75 percent of the votes among the 24 members of the Honors Committee. The 2012 class will be announced on Monday, during the NCAA Final Four.
Though he did not win an NBA championship while on the sidelines as a head coach, his greatness should not be measured by titles alone. Truly a revolutionary as a head coach, Nelson adopted his own brand of basketball—Nellie Ball—which seemed like a blend of the West Coast offense, Billy Ball and Moneyball.
He took the talents of lesser-known—and typically undersized—players and molded his system around their strengths. The run-and-gun philosophy he brought to his rosters was both exciting and successful. His unorthodox rosters and lineups played an unorthodox style of basketball, often outwitting and out-thinking opponents despite being outsized and outnumbered. And it was his imagination, ingenuity and in-game strategy that went often unmatched throughout his stellar career on the bench.
Beginning back with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1977, Nelson began concocting his against-the-grain style. He is often credited with introducing the point forward (the use of a small forward to run the offense). And during an era of strong center play, Nelson would have his team’s own center stand at the top of the key in order to draw the opposition away from the basket. Nelson would employ such tactics to create mismatches that the opposition would not be able to defend efficiently.
It was his mad genius that was so outrageous yet successful that earned him NBA Coach of the Year honors three times—twice with the Bucks and once with the Warriors.
His teams were never the most talented, but they were the most innovative and fun to watch. The up-and-down style of play, with athletic centers and frontcourt players, is currently adopted by many teams today. The use of three-guard sets that would often distract opponents have been utilized by teams with undersized rosters for the past couple of decades.
If Nelson had won at least one NBA championship, then there really wouldn’t be an argument about whether he should be enshrined. But his 1,335 career wins as a coach is an NBA record, and he deserves recognition for doing more with less.
Certainly, Warriors fans can relate, and some of them even wish that he was still stomping on the sidelines calling out plays for the Dubs.
In the meantime, though an NBA title is the missing piece on his resume, Nelson should be honored this weekend with the next best thing: Hall of Fame immortality.
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