When it comes to Don Nelson, the rest of the NBA is forever dubious of his intentions, suggesting he's hatched a passive-aggressive plot to take the money and run to his Hawaiian paradise. They watch him rip the players and turn the defense over to his assistants and, privately, peers believe that Nellie is daring ownership to fire him.
"Why do I need to do any of that?" Nelson wondered this week in a private moment. "All I have to do is retire."
He could retire, but he wouldn't get the $12 million owed him on the two years beyond this lost season. The Warriors have crippled themselves with bad contracts (Corey Maggette), bad behavior (Monta Ellis) and bad management (ownership signing Stephen Jackson to a needless extension), but Nelson insists he's here for the long run.
"I'm coming back," Nelson insisted. "I didn't sign an extension not to finish it. I'm going to finish my three years."
The Warriors find themselves in the clutches of a relentless saga of betrayal and incompetence. Golden State ownership has embarrassed a franchise icon, Chris Mullin – essentially stripping the GM of his responsibilities and authority – as it waits for his contract to run out at season's end. They fired assistant GM Pete D'Alessandro and promoted an old Nellie buddy, Larry Riley, to his job.
Several executives say they no longer discuss potential trades with Mullin, but rather Riley. "Larry is the one making and taking the calls," one Western Conference GM said. "Mully has definitely been isolated."
All along, the question to Nelson has been unmistakable: Why hasn't he done more to fight for Mullin? After all, Mullin had convinced owner Chris Cohan to let Nelson return to the Warriors for a second act. Together, they beat the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs and won 48 games a season ago. Yet, Mullin fell out of favor with Cohan and team president Robert Rowell, lost his power and lost face.
"Everyone knows my feeling," Nelson said. "I want to work with Chris the rest of my career."
That isn't happening. Nellie knows it, too. These Warriors were Nelson's chance to make a final bid to secure his standing in history. After a nasty parting in Dallas with Mark Cuban, Nelson returned to the kind of circumstance that he loved: an underdog with no expectations. Cuban always insisted that Nellie never wanted to coach when the burden changed, but loved it when no one expected much of his teams.
Those go-go Warriors of Baron Davis and Jackson were a cast of misfits and rejects who found a purpose and passion under Nellie. It was a one-hit wonder in '07, an epic upset of the Mavs that turned out to be a vapor. Now, Davis is gone to the Clippers, the Warriors have been decimated with a blend of injuries and youth that have conspired for a 10-26 record. Beyond the money, the biggest reason for Nelson to stay on the job comes next season: He'll pass Lenny Wilkens' 1,332 coaching victories for the most in NBA history.
"It means nothing to me at this point in my life," Nelson said. "It's not something that's a goal of mine at all. I'd rather not have it than have it. … Lenny deserves to have it."
Those surrounding Nelson laugh when they hear him talk that way, because the record does matter to him. He has been passed over several times for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Yes, he's coached 30 seasons to reach those 1,290 victories, but Nelson's innovative mind has left an imprint on the sport. A lot of coaches just coach and leave little mark on the profession.
Nelson has a legacy. He glamorized the small-ball trend popular in the league. He changed the European game when he took a gangly 7-foot German teenager and let him play on the perimeter. Nelson made Dirk Nowitzki's greatness because he was willing to see the possibilities. A generation of young Euros followed the model and it's been beautiful for the game.
"The Hall of Fame means nothing to me at this point," Nelson said. "It meant a lot to me for a lot of years, but it just means less and less. … I'll be the first to say that I don't belong in the Hall of Fame. I don't see myself as a Hall of Fame coach. If you're successful and able to coach good teams like Phil Jackson, you're going to get a lot of wins, a lot faster.
"I've never been able to coach the best team in basketball. I think I've done a good job over my career. I think I'm doing a good job now. But I'm not rewarded with a bunch of wins."
Nevertheless, Chris Mullin is on the way out, and these Warriors belong to Don Nelson now. He says he'll stay and honor his contract. Around the league, they'll believe it when they see it.
- Don Nelson
- Chris Mullin
- The Warriors