Over three decades as an NBA head coach, Hall of Famer Don Nelson developed a reputation as something of a mad scientist. Whether it involved turning a forward into a point guard or playing five perimeter players at the same time, Nellie was always willing to try something new in the hopes of finding a favorable matchup or unforeseen advantage. Unfortunately, that penchant for experimentation often came across as somewhat impractical or megalomaniacal, with Nelson creating enemies for his methods and judgments. It was somewhat fitting that, when he broke Lenny Wilkens's record for all-time coaching wins record, the moment carried all the grandeur of an Employee of the Month ceremony. It was impossible to deny Nelson's abilities, but there was always something a little frustrating about him.
Apparently that quality has not left Nelson in retirement. In a new Sports Illustrated profile, Chris Ballard checks in with Nellie at the coaching legend's home in Maui. While the bulk of the piece — which hasn't yet been made available online — is apparently fun and positive, the notable quotes invovle Nelson criticizing current Golden State Warriors power forward David Lee and former Warriors star Monta Ellis. From the selections published at The Point Forward:
Later, when Warriors forward David Lee gets the ball on the block, Nelson smirks. “You better go to him,” he says, “because he can’t guard anybody.” [...]
Still, even after they lose, he says only positive things about [Mark] Jackson: “A good guy. I thought it would hurt him when he lost his assistant [Mike Malone, now the Kings’ coach], but he’s doing fine. He’s got enough bulls— that works as a coach.” Nelson chuckles, picks up his Chardonnay. “You got to be a bit of a bulls—ter.” [...]
Unlike many coaches, he loved Stephen Jackson. “That guy’ll give it to you all day,” Nelson says. “He just had some mental issues. He played his ass off for me. You just never knew when he was going to blow his mind.” [...]
As for former Golden State guard Monta Ellis, now with the Mavericks, Nelson calls him “an incredible, gifted athlete” but “a pain in the ass when I had him.” One day, Nellie recalls, “I said, ‘You know, Monta, this is what I want you to do in practice today. I don’t want you to take a shot. I think you have the ability to create and make plays. If you could ever be a point guard, the way you can score, you could really be a special player.’ So he did. He found people in practice. And I said, ‘Monta, why don’t you focus on being a great point guard. They have the most fun of anybody. They’re the man, they control everything.’ ” Nellie pauses. “He said, ‘Coach, I just want to play. I just want to play.’ He wouldn’t consider that. Now, as he’s matured, he’s started making plays. To his credit, he’s a pretty good player right now. When I had him, all he wanted to do, little selfish bastard, was to shoot every time. And never pass.”
The statements on Lee and Ellis are controversial only insofar as the supposed basketball fraternity prohibits coaches and players from criticizing other members of the club. Lee's lackluster defense is a well-known aspect of his game, to the point where he felt the need to respond to detractors last season. Ellis, on the other hand, has a well-earned reputation as a gunner who doesn't look for his teammates often enough, although he has received credit for playing well within the Dallas Mavericks' structures over the early part of this season. In other words, Nelson is really only saying things that most basketball analysts already think.
Nevertheless, the statements are notable because they seem quite hypocritical. While Nelson's best teams were underrated defensive squads, he was always more concerned with the offensive end of the floor. It's an accurate comment, but also a silly one if not followed by the admission that he didn't care much about defense either.
Yet the far more questionable assertion concerns Ellis, because Nelson's handling of those Warriors teams contributed to that lack of structure. After the Warriors' lost Baron Davis in free agency in the summer of 2008, Nelson trotted out lineups with no clear sense of a long-term plan or organizational goals — in essence, various guys "just played" and shot as much as they wished. If Ellis didn't respond to Nelson's guidance, then it's partially because Nelson didn't create a situation in which his player felt the need to play that way. Instruction can often be useless if it doesn't have a clear real-world application.
The issue here isn't that Nelson is wrong, but that his judgments only explain portions of these situations. As ever, Nelson has interesting things to say. But he still might not understand the best way of turning those ideas into a workable, effective reality.
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