Why is Don Nelson in the Hall of Fame if he never even coached a team to the NBA Finals?
Donald Arvid Nelson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. this past Friday. As with all inductions over the last few years, there’s a surrounding debate (ameliorated by the communal effect of technology) about the legitimacy of an inductee’s inclusion. Since Nellie is the all-time winningest basketball coach in NBA history, his addition hasn’t spawned much of a debate, certainly not as much as Ralph Sampson, who has been the corpus of the “he doesn’t deserve it” discussion for this incoming class. But if you look at Nelson’s career as a coach, there are arguments to be made against his acceptance. As someone that’s won more games as a basketball coach than anyone else, ever, he should definitely be in the Hall.
But there’s a reason it took this long for him to get in: he never won a title as a coach. In fact, he never even got one of his teams to the NBA Finals, let alone won the thing.
That blemish alone isn’t enough to keep him from the Hall after Jerry Sloan (No. 4 on the all-time list for coaches) was inducted in 2009. Nellie admitted as much when he sat down with Marc Stein to talk about his career and the inaccurate – according to him – style of play eponymously named “Nellie Ball.”
“I didn’t think this was going to happen. I think I got rejected four times, so I had pretty well dismissed it from my mind. But I think Jerry Sloan helped me. He got in a couple years ago without winning a championship and I think that might have helped open the door for me.”
Like Nelson, Jerry Sloan hasn’t won a title either, but he did stay with the same team for 23 years and he twice led his Jazz to the NBA Finals (losing both times to MJ‘s Bulls). Nellie has coached four different teams over his 31-year career on the sidelines. With all those wins, he was unable to get one of his teams out of their conference finals and into the pressure cooker that is the NBA Finals. How does a coach win all those games for the Bucks, Knicks, Mavericks and Warriors, but fail to get his team to the penultimate stage, where both players and coaches become legends?
According to Nelson, the answer has to do with the Nellie Ball style he’s so well-known for. If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase or what it’s meant to convey when writers and announcers use it, here’s Nelson’s explanation:
“I suppose it means small ball, fast and exciting, point forward, players playing out of position … all those kinds of things.”
Except, there was a reason Nelson played small ball, and it goes a long way towards explaining why he never seemed able to jump over that last hurdle: playing for a championship.
“It’s kind of funny to me when people talk about stuff like that. I don’t necessarily think it’s accurate. You only play Nellie Ball when you don’t have a very good team, or when you have a bunch of good small players and not many good big players. When you have bad teams, you’ve got to be creative to win games you’re not supposed to win.
I was innovative when I had to be, but I wasn’t innovative when I didn’t have to be. When I had good teams and big teams, I didn’t play small ball. When I was in Milwaukee and we had Bob Lanier, we went inside. What I did really was evaluate the team and play the way that I thought we had to play to be the most competitive. If I had a big center, I wouldn’t have played so fast. I would have waited for Lanier to get down [the court] like I did in Milwaukee. Those teams were defensive-oriented and those were my best teams, too, by the way.”
This braggadocio with regards to defense is hard to fathom since he was such a disciple of pushing the ball on offense and going small, but it’s important within the larger narrative context of Nelson’s coaching career since it’s unlikely he’ll return to the sidelines. Let’s start with Golden State, the second team Nelson coached, and we’ll come back to the Milwaukee Bucks, whom he already mentioned in his interview with Stein.
Nelson took over the Warriors before the start of the 1988-89 season. The season before, they’d gone 20-62 and finished second-to-last in their division under George Karl (the only team worse than Karl’s Warriors that year was, of course, the Clippers). Nelson came in that first year, and they finished 43-39, good for fourth in their division (this was before the NBA expanded to six divisions) and a No. 7 seed in the playoffs. Following a pattern in Nelson’s career, his overachieving Warriors swept the favored Utah Jazz in the opening round, 3-0 (it was a Jazz team, it should be noted, that Jerry Sloan took over from Frank Layden 17 games into the season). So Nellie led a really quick turnaround and the Nuggets, led by Chris Mullin, upset a favored team in the playoffs. Pretty good for Nelson so far, right?
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Nelson also had some help for that quick turnaround. His rookie year with Golden State was the rookie year of a newly-acquired Kansas State guard named Mitch Richmond. Richmond averaged 22 points a night on almost 47 percent shooting, plus over four assists and almost six rebounds per game on his way to Rookie of the Year honors. So that helped produce some of Nelson’s quick surge, offensively. The Nuggets averaged the fourth-most points as a team that season, but they were dead last in points given up. If you didn’t already know, this gap between offensive brilliance and the sieve-like defense is Nelson’s contemporary modus operandi.
In Nelson’s sophomore season in the Bay Area, the Warriors picked up another guy in the draft: Tim Hardaway. Hardaway would average 14 points and 8.7 assists a night in his rookie year on the way to helping the high-octane Nellie Ball Warriors score the most points in the league. Unfortunately, they gave up more than they scored, finishing 26th out of 27 teams in points allowed. Nelson’s team failed to make the playoffs that year.
Nelson’s third year in Golden State was almost identical to his first. The Nuggets finished seventh in the Western Conference, but upset the favored San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Magic‘s Lakers in the conference semifinals. This model of finishing with one of the league’s best offenses – but also the worst defense – continued through the ’94-95 season, which proved to be Nelson’s last with Golden State. While it’s true Nelson never had a top flight interior presence with those teams (Ralph Sampson doesn’t count, since he was a shell of his former self with broken knees and a shattered psyche), he did have some incredible guard and small forward play with Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond, Tim Hardaway and the Lithuanian import, Sarunas Marciulionis. However, he never convinced them to cover anyone on the other side of the court. That’s why they never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Whether that was because of talent or because Nelson couldn’t be bothered to teach defense, is what we’re trying to figure out: was Nelson inept at coaching strong defensive teams? Or did he truly try to devise the best way for a team to succeed, and for most of his career that involved pushing the ball in an attempt to get as many looks at the rim as possible?