Most Dime readers can remember the exciting teams Nelson coached in Golden State from 2007-2010 when he again combined excellent guard play – some would say it was the best Baron Davis ever played as a professional – with bizarre point/forward types like Stephen Jackson to upset his former team (Dallas) in the opening round of the 2007 NBA Playoffs. Unfortunately, like before, the team fizzled out and never again reached the playoffs (even though they won 48 games the year after upsetting Dallas – it was a particularly deep Western Conference).
That brings us to Nelson’s first coaching stint in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks. During the 1976-1977 season, Nelson took over coaching duties from Larry Costello after Costello led them to a 3-15 opening. After that embarrassing start, Nelson led them to a respectable 27-37 record the rest of the way. Something else happened when the Bucks made that coaching switch: they started getting a whole helluva lot better scoring the basketball, while also forgetting they had to defend guys. Sound familiar?
The Bucks, who had been fifth (out of 18 teams) in points allowed the season before, with Costello, finished 21st (out of 22 teams) in the year Nelson took over. They also jumped from 16th in scoring under Costello to eighth under Nelson. Nellie’s preference for offense over defense was there from the very beginning of his coaching career.
As was Nelson’s penchant for big scoring guards/forwards like Bob Dandridge, Brian Winters and Junior Bridgeman. But other players, like rookie guard Quinn Buckner, played less than his more offensively-talented teammates. Buckner, a disciple of Bobby Knight’s championship-winning, hard-nosed defensive teams at Indiana, would make the All-Defensive Second Team four times during his time with Nelson and the Bucks, but he only averaged over 30 minutes once, in ’81-82 (to be fair, Nelson spread the rotation around quite a bit, so only a couple guys would ever average more than 30 minutes each year for those Bucks teams).
Nelson’s Bucks teams won, just like every other stop he’s made in the NBA. They just didn’t win it all. In ’77-78, they finished 44-38 and lost in the Western Conference Semifinals; they were also fourth in the league in scoring and second-to-last in points allowed. The next season, ’78-79, was a season of transition for the team, and they failed to make the playoffs, but did still finish fourth in the league in scoring, and moved up a bit to 15th in the league in points allowed.
The 1979-80 season for the Bucks was the first with the aforementioned Bob Lanier, whom Nelson pointed Marc Stein to as a reference point for playing a different, defensive brand of basketball. The facts actually back his claim up. They finished seventh in points allowed that year, and ninth in points scored.
But it was the 1980-81 season where Nellie’s team was at it’s finest from both a scoring and defending perspective. They finished second in points scored, but a staggering sixth in points allowed on the way to a 60-22 record and a No. 2 seed in the playoffs. They would fall in the Western Conference Semifinals to a very tough Sixers team with Dr. J in his lone MVP season, but Nelson wasn’t done with this strategy.
From the ’81-82 season through his last year as the coach in Milwaukee in 1987, the Bucks league-wide defensive ranks in points allowed were, in chronological order: Nos. 4, 4, 1, 1, 5 and 5. That’s a staggeringly level of defensive prowess in a conference that featured Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Dr. J, and a young Isiah Thomas. The offense for those Nellie teams fluctuated from an amazing fifth in the league during the ’85-86 season to a tepid 18th in the league.
During that six-year window of defensive brilliance and mediocre offense, his teams also advanced to the conference finals three times and the conference semifinals three times. Keep in mind, during those same years Larry Bird was doing whatever the hell he wanted to on Eastern Conference opponents; Dr. J, Moses Malone and later, Charles Barkley, were entertaining Philly crowds, and the Detroit Pistons were assembling the Bad Boys. It was not an easy time to win in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, but Nellie’s teams actually played defense and did.
So what have we learned? Don Nelson was right when he said he could coach a different strategy than his famous Nellie Ball. He knew how to coach defense and how to win with defense. It’s also true he never took over a better team than the one he inherited from Larry Costello more than 35 years ago. He knew how to draft and build teams in his image, acquiring bigger guards and versatile forwards that had size and the ability to run the offense and create mismatches.
But we can’t forget that first 11-year stint with Milwaukee. He coached some defensive powerhouses. He even knocked a couple of those Boston and Philly teams out of the playoffs. But, alas, a title eluded him, and not only that, he never even had a chance to coach for a title (don’t feel bad… he won five titles as a player with the Celtics in the ’60s and early ’70s).
He’s the all-time winningest coach in NBA history. He built teams, largely from scratch, and turned them into both defensive and offensive winners. In a lot of ways, he’s the perfect coach for a flawed team. He’s a deserving addition to the 2012 NBA Hall of Fame class.
Now about Ralph…
*All points allowed and points scored stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com
Was Nelson a coach who couldn’t win the big one or a coach that perennially got his teams to overachieve?
Follow Spencer on Twitter at @countcenci.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.