Don Nelson‘s victory tour before being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month left us with myriad soundbites about what it was like playing Nellie-Ball. One in particular caught me off guard.
Nelson called his last team, the 2009-10 team that helped him become the NBA’s winningest coach, the most fun. It’s maybe the first time a team that went 26-56 (31 games out of the Pacific lead) was called “fun” but there’s a reason for it: The team was the NBA’s version of “The Sandlot.” The team whose roster almost no one wanted was led by Monta Ellis, a player whose speed and scoring ability give you the sense he would have been an incredible fit on Nelson’s Run TMC team of the early ’90s.
“We weren’t very good. But I had more fun coaching my last year of coaching, with Steph Curry, Monta (Ellis) and a bunch of guys that weren’t drafted.
“I think of the 12 players, we had six undrafted players on the team or D-League players. And those kids just competed so hard every game and gave me everything I wanted. They wanted me to get the (NBA coaching record for) most wins so bad. It was so much fun coaching those guys and being with them. We only won 28 games or something like that, you’d have to check, but it was just one of the real special years I can remember.”
Nelson’s comment was most telling because of what Ellis did the next season on Opening Night. Playing for a defensive-oriented coach in Keith Smart, Ellis acted like nothing had changed and dropped 46 points, the fourth-highest opening night total since 1985. It trailed only Michael Jordan‘s 54 and 50 nights and Alex English‘s 47 in opening-night output. And yet his was arguably more impressive on purely offense: 75 percent shooting (18-of-24) that included just one three-pointer, while shooting fewer field goal and free throw attempts than Jordan or English did in their games.
The problem in Golden State is that nothing changes on defense: they guard like a matador allows a bull to run by. Defensive coaches like Smart and Mark Jackson haven’t reversed the momentum from the W’s freewheeling fast-break days; in this case in Oct. 27, 2010 — one day after Ellis’ 25th birthday — it was breathtaking that nothing had.
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