Don Nelson isn’t in the Hall of Fame. He isn’t even in the discussion. This is probably because he has coached 10 teams that finished with fewer than 40 wins. His current squad won’t even win 30.
So who is this guy? When you Google “Don Nelson” the search engine suggests the following terms:
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That’s a pretty hilarious list, and one that accurately represents the complicated legacy of Don Nelson. What else do you expect from a guy who had to be told not to drink beer during postgame press conferences?
Compare him to his longtime peer, Jerry Sloan, a far more respected (and certainly more conventional) member of the NBA community as evidenced by his 2009 induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Both men grew up in the Midwest. Both became known for their toughness and efficiency as rotational players in the NBA. Sloan had a couple of All-Star appearances, while Nelson won five championships with the Boston Celtics (where his number is retired).
After solid playing careers, both coaches have gone on to win over 1100 games and are the only two coaches who have won 1000 games without winning a championship. Today, both coach in front of the two most rabid and contrasting fan bases in the NBA.
Despite their similarities in background, these two coaches have led careers as divergent as the Salt Lake and Oakland crowds that cheer on their teams.
While Sloan has been a model of coaching consistency (20 winning seasons in his 21 straight seasons with the Jazz) Nelson has been far more enigmatic. Four times in his career, Nelson’s team has failed to win 30 games. Thirteen times, his squad has won 50 or more.
Jerry Sloan has coached the pick-and-roll better than any other coach in history. Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be the iconic pairing of superstar teammates in our collective memory: first Stockton-Malone and now Williams-Boozer.
Nelson redefined offense in the NBA, and his distinctive style of play has been dubbed Nellie Ball.
Don Nelson’s impact on the game of basketball is undeniable. Innovations like the “point forward” are emblematic of Nelson’s experimental ethos. Rarely has Nelson had the best players, but h knows great talents when he sees it. As general manager of the Mavericks, he traded for two future MVPs in Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki.
What’s even more impressive is that Nelson got these franchise cornerstones for a song. Dallas traded Robert “Tractor” Traylor (bust) for Dirk and the rights to Pat Garrity. Then Nelson flipped Garrity’s rights along with Martin Muursepp and Bubba Wells (who?!) to Pheonix for the unheralded Nash. In one fell swoop, Nellie made Dallas relevant and combined the talents of two of the league’s most exciting and skilled players.
He and his son, Donnie, are some of the original high-level executives to really scout globally. Needless to say, that’s a trend that has more than caught on in the NBA.
Often, it has been this innovative instinct that has landed him in hot water. He was fired in New York after only half a season for trying to shake up the faltering franchise by trading Patrick Chewing. Ewing was an aging superstar who couldn’t get it done even in his prime, and Nelson thought he could get Shaquille O’Neal, who he had coached in the 1994 World Championships.
Said Nelson in a 2007 New York Times interview, ”I knew he [Shaq] wanted to go elsewhere and so I brought this up a meeting with the Garden people. I said: ‘He would come to New York. It’s going to be Los Angeles or us. And if we give ‘em Ewing, it would be the best deal Orlando could make.’ Well, somehow that got back to Ewing and after that, I was toast.”
It’s easy to look back and see who was on the right side of that argument. O’Neal went on to win three straight rings with LA from 1999-2002 and establish himself as the most dominant center in the modern era, while Ewing’s body and game steadily declined. By the time O’Neal was winning titles with the Lakers, Ewing couldn’t muster more than 14 points per game in the playoffs.
Besides being a sage evaluator of talent, Nelson has earned a reputation for helping erratic, and sometimes just plain bad, teams to become successful. He does this by manipulating match ups with opposing players to put his hoopers in the best situation to be successful.
NBA players are supremely talented, but Nellie is one of the best ever at matching his team’s strengths to his oppositions weakness. Dirk Nowitzki has called him “the master of the matchup,” and Dirk should know.
Nelson helped unite the unruly talents of Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, Monta Ellis, and Al Harrington for the Golden States’ historic playoff run in 2007. The explosive Warriors out shot and beat down the 67 win, top-seeded Mavericks in six games. Nelson schooled the Dallas franchise he helped to build by brutalizing Dirk Nowitzki (Nelson helped invent hack-a-Shaq, after all) and imposing unconventional lineups on the Mavs.
It was one of the all time examples of superior coaching. His-hand picked protégé, Avery Johnson (2006 Coach of the Year), was utterly unable to cope with Nelson’s strategic maneuvering.
The Warriors won by doing what Nelson has been forcing the NBA to do since he became a coach in the 1970s: adjust to his inventive style.
Sometimes it doesn’t work. This year s Warriors have lost twice as many games as they’ve won.
They play as close to no defense as possible in a five-on-five game. Monta Ellis looks incapable of playing nicely with others.
Nellie bafflingly won't play Anthony Randolph, one of the most exciting players in the whole league, favoring a guy named Mikki.
Due to an East Bay injury plague, he’s had to coach a team that has used seven D-league players.
But true to Nellie’s form, he has developed these promoted D-Leaguers into viable NBA players. Two of them, 6’8’’ “center” Anthony Tolliver and Reggie Williams logged 40+ minutes in their win last night over the 50 win Thunder. Nelson’s diverse offense shot 50 percent against a defense ranked in the top 5 in the NBA.
Is there another coach on the planet with Nelson’s unique gifts for spotting and developing players? For giving them a (sometimes second) chance to succeed against all the odds? Maybe this is why the gritty Bay Area has embraced Nelson’s guerrilla brand of basketball, constantly selling out Oracle Arena even through the economic recession.
It’s hard to predict Nelson’s future with the up-and-down franchise. He has drafted and helped develop their best player, but with new ownership soon to arrive, will Nellie be bounced again?
Meanwhile, Jerry Sloan’s Jazz have been white hot in the second half of the season, and may be the most dangerous team in the Western Conference team when the playoffs begin. The precision and passing of the Jazz, along with the spectacular play of Deron Williams, has the Utah faithful thinking Finals.
In fact, Sloan’s Jazz have overachieved so dramatically that many think Sloan may finally win his first Coach of the Year award. Sloan certainly deserves the Hall of Fame induction and the praise he has received in the media.
But as long as we’re counting, Nelson has already earned three Coach of the Year awards (1983, ’85, ’92).
If I were starting a franchise, I would hire Sloan over Nellie to coach my team. But is Nelson more deserving of Hall of Fame enshrinement than “coach” Dick Vitale, who was inducted in 2008?
The answer, as obvious as his impact on the sport, is a Marv Albert “Yes!”
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