Don Nelson is the winning-est coach in NBA history, but high atop my entitled perch as a Spurs fan, I've always thought of him as a loser.
For years and years I just couldn't understand what the fuss with the man they call "Nellie" was all about. His teams never won anything that mattered. They didn't even get close. In 31 seasons as the head man his teams made just three conference finals (twice with the Bucks, once with the Mavericks), and went a cumulative 3-12 in those series. He was on my Mount Rushmore of overrated coaches, alongside George Karl, Lenny Wilkens and Mike D'Antoni.
Only recently, five years after he retired from coaching, have I come to realize that Nelson was ahead of his time. The NBA championship the Warriors just won is the culmination of all the experimentation and work he put in, the evolution of his theories and beliefs.
Understand, my formative years as a Spurs fan were spent living in the Bay Area, where Nelson was coaching the up-and-coming "Run T-M-C" Warriors squad with young stars in Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin. The trio spent just two seasons together (81-83 in that stretch) and upset the two-seed Spurs in their second year before succumbing quickly to Magic Johnson's Lakers in the second round. Nelson traded Richmond for Billy Owens after that though, and Run T-M-C was dead almost as quickly as it began.
Critics lambasted the trade when it happened and history proved them correct. What was Nelson thinking, giving up on an All-Star shooting guard like Richmond for Owens, an undersized power forward without much of a post game? Owens had a solid decade in the league, especially for the Warriors, averaging 14.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists, but he was never a star and they gave up on him after three years, trading him to the Heat for fellow Orangeman Rony Seikaly.
What we didn't understand at the time, and only makes sense in retrospect, was that in Owens, Nelson was looking for Draymond Green. He was looking for Boris Diaw. 3.3 assists may not seem like much, but Hardaway was a ball-dominant point guard and Mullin was a savvy wing with good floor vision in his own right. As a high post hub, Owens could get the ball to cutters and to shooters on the wings.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to that 1991 season and the upset of the Spurs. David Robinson was already a superstar by his second season and by most objective measures the league's second-best all-around player behind only Michael Jordan. Think Anthony Davis, but with more rebounding and shot-blocking and a better marketing campaign.
The Warriors upset that Spurs team that had not only Robinson but a front line that featured Terry Cummings and Sean Elliott three games to one with a lineup where their top seven guys in minutes played were 6'7 or shorter. Nelson had Tom Tolbert guarding Robinson on one end and drawing him out on the floor on the other, to defend Tolbert's occasional 18-footers. That Warriors squad was fifth in the league with a modest 9.8 threes attempted per game and sixth in accuracy at 33.7 percent, but against the Spurs they attempted 13 per game and made 38.5 percent of them.
The Spurs, by contrast, shot 3-of-26 from downtown.
That's not what won the Warriors the series though. It was the fact that they shot 51.7 percent on twos, despite by-and-large playing without any bigs.
Maybe it wasn't that much of an upset after all. The Warriors were seventh in the league that year in two-point field goal percentage and led the league in free throw attempts, despite not having any significant post-up players. This was in stark contrast to how the NBA had operated from its inception, where first George MIkan and subsequent goliaths such as Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone dominated the game. The common wisdom was that the highest-percentage shot was one as close to the basket as possible, and thus one needs to be seven-foot tall to get there.
Nelson had altogether different vision. Not only was he one of the first coaches to embrace the three-point line, but unlike his contemporaries, he realized that the threat of the three would space out opposing defenders and thus open up the lane for easier twos. If you can't beat a giant inside, then draw him outside.
The NBA was in the midst of a sea change in the early 90's. Michael Jordan led the Bulls to a three-peat playing with journeymen centers who rarely shot and were there just to screen and grab the occasional rebound. After his baseball sojourn in the mid-90's, the Bulls won three more titles, often with 6'8 Dennis Rodman at center and Toni Kukoc as a stretch four.
There were still dominant centers in that stretch. Hakeem Olajuwon won a couple of rings while Jordan was chasing curveballs, and there was Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and of course, Shaquille O'Neal. As the three-pointer's influence grew, they would all go on to thrive in offenses predicated on throwing the ball into them, waiting for the inevitable double-team and then kicking out for the three. Tim Duncan won his first two championships with the Spurs playing that way.
Meanwhile, Nelson had moved on to Dallas, and quickly armed himself with a young, 7-foot tall German toy in wunderkind Dirk Nowitzki. The veteran coach's career had taken some odd twists and turns, from experimenting with 7'7 string bean Manute Bol as a three-point shooter, to using 6'9 rookie Chris Webber as his "point-center" (which Webber balked at so dramatically that he used a little-known opt-out clause in his contract to engineer a trade after one season), to losing a political war in New York with Ewing and not even lasting a year with the Knicks. Nowitzki could bomb from outside better any giant before him or since, and it allowed Nelson to mold a pick-and-pop offense with emerging point guard Steve Nash that stretch the floor in all kinds of new ways to confound defenses.
Eventually Nelson's time with the Mavs ran its course, stemming from a feud with his bratty, petulant owner after the 2003 Western Conference Finals. Nelson shut down Nowitzki after he suffered a sprained knee late in Game 3. The Mavs' doctors cleared Nowitzki to play, but Nelson thought, correctly, that Nowitzki's future was too promising to risk over one series. (Gregg Popovich did something similar with Duncan in 2000, you'll recall.) Mark Cuban accused his coach of coddling his young star and looking for excuses to lose.
In 2006-07 Nelson found himself back with the Warriors and leading an enigmatic crew of castoffs such as Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, alongside youngsters Jason Richardson, Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins. They won 42 games that year, on merit, but Golden State made the playoffs for the first time since Webber bolted in 1994.
Nelson's crowning achievement was upsetting the top-seeded 67-win Mavs in the first round. Biedrins played only 112 minutes over the six games, despite leading the Warriors in win shares during the regular season. Six Warriors played more and Nelson suckered his protege Avery Johnson into matching the Warriors small-ball lineup with his own (a la David Blatt in Game 5 of the Finals). Jackson and Barnes succeeded in getting up under Nowitzki and neutralizing him. For the first time since his early Milwaukee days, Nelson won big games on the defensive end, and he did it in a decided, counter-culture Nellie way, doing it without the classic rim-protecting big man.
Nelson never won a championship. He never found the right mix of players, never had the right injury luck, never had versatile do-everything pieces on both ends of the floor like the Bulls had with Jordan and Scottie Pippen, like the Warriors do with Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala and the Spurs do with Diaw, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
You better believe the man saw something before the rest of us did, however. He saw that the low-post back-to-the-basket game was going the way of the dodo. He saw lane-clogging post offense for the inefficient fool's gold that it is. He saw where the game was evolving, even if he couldn't quite put himself in position to take advantage of it. It doesn't make him any less of a visionary.
Without his contributions to the game and their franchise in particular (including the drafting of a certain combo guard from Davidson) the current Warriors wouldn't have ended their 40-year title drought. He showed us all that David can beat Goliath, and I was just blind to it because I happened to be rooting for a Goliath named David. I hope owner Joe Lacob does the right thing and gives him a ring.