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?
[RELATED: Don Nelson Speaks On Fight With Chris Webber]
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?
Nelson’s next stop in his career was his awkward commingling with an early ’90s Knicks team that played incredible defense (under previous coach, Pat Riley), but couldn’t hit the ocean with a basketball if they fell out of a boat. Perfect combination, right? Nelson would teach them how to score and run with the ball, and their conditioning and defense-first philosophy under Riley would help prevent a repeat of the Golden State gunners. Except, Nelson bristled with the players (something that happened throughout his career) and he had the audacity to tell management they should trade Patrick Ewing in order to free up money for soon-to-be free agent Shaquille O’Neal. Nelson’s up-tempo offense did not sit well with an aging roster that was used to walking the ball up the court and banging the hell out of anyone brave enough to take the ball to the hole. He only lasted from July of 1995 to March of 1996 despite leaving the team to assistant Jeff Van Gundy with a winning record (34-25).
So that experiment didn’t work, and Nelson had some pretty exceptional defensive players under his command. His claim that, if he had a big center he wouldn’t have run so much rings a bit hollow here, too. That’s because Ewing had just barely passed the peak of his career (he was 32 during Nellie’s lone season in New York, which was old at that time, but not ancient), and Patrick still averaged 2.4 blocks a night on a team that ranked sixth in the league in points allowed. Unfortunately, they actually got worse from the year before Nellie’s arrival on offense (ranking 22nd out of 27 teams in points after finishing 20th out of 27 teams under Riley the year before). So even with his patented Nellie Ball offense, he couldn’t get that Knicks team to score (and we’d see afterwards with Van Gundy, nobody really could). I’m sure an argument can, and has been made that the personnel didn’t fit his style, but as he told Stein, he would’ve slowed things down and focused on defense if he had the personnel. He did that season, but was unable to get the job done.
After taking the ’96-97 season off as a coach, he took over for Jim Cleamons in Dallas early during the ’97-98 season. This was the post-Triple-J era in Dallas where it was basically Michael Finley and a cast of D-League scrubs (Shawn Bradley averaged over 11 shot attempts a game). They finished 20-62 in Nelson’s inaugural season, but that summer they drafted a long and lean German with blonde highlights in his hair. Dirk Nowitzki had arrived.
Things improved slowly in Dallas during Nelson’s time as coach. New ownership under Mark Cuban lead to the acquisitions of Dirk and Steve Nash, now paired with the athletic shooter, Finley, finally gave Cuban a young, fast team that could get up and down the court with abandon.
In the 2000-2001 season, Dallas finished 53-29 and lost in the Western Conference Semifinals to the San Antonio Spurs. They were the fourth-best offensive team in the league, and a respectable 16th (out of 29) in points allowed. The next season saw them again winning at a huge clip, finishing 57-25 – good for third in their division – and they again made the Western Conference Semifinals. Unfortunately, as was often the case for Nelson-led squads, they probably couldn’t defend an overweight gunner in a JCC pick-up game, and finished dead last in points allowed. They would lose in the Western Conference Semifinals again, 4-1 against the Sacramento Kings and their similarly brilliant offensive machine.
Over Nelson’s last two full seasons as the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, they’d win 112 regular season games and get to the Western Conference Finals in 2003 before losing to the San Antonio Spurs, 4-2. They would rank first each season in points scored, but never better than 16th in points allowed.
Nelson didn’t finish out his last season in Dallas. Avery Johnson took over the team–after Nelson had led them to a 42-22 record… and they finished 16-2 under Johnson’s tutelage. It was also the first time in three seasons the Mavericks wouldn’t finish as the highest-scoring team in the NBA.
The year after Nelson stepped down, Avery Johnson led a similar team within two wins (and some would say psychotic, Tim Donaghy-influenced refereeing in Games 3 and 5) of an NBA title. Avery Johnson proved more adept with a similar group of players (which included Dirk, Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse and Josh Howard from the year before with Nelson; Michael Finley had already left to win a title in San Antonio and Nash was busy winning MVPs in Phoenix), and he’d figured out a way to get them to play defense. Dallas didn’t finish as the highest-scoring team in the NBA that year, but they were the ninth-best on offense while also allowing the seventh fewest points. Where Nelson failed, Johnson, the pipsqueak-voiced former Spurs point guard, excelled, and he got the team to the one spot Nelson never did: the NBA Finals.
After acting as the GM to finish out his last season in Dallas and naming his son, Donnie Nelson, as successor in the GM role, Nelson took the ’06-07 season off.
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?
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