Don Nelson, Hall of Famer
In late March, when the news first broke that Don Nelson had been named to the Basketball Hall of Fame, I wrote a fairly long piece about his innovations, accomplishments, and problematic tendencies. That article remains the Cliff's Notes to my opinion on Nelson, a massively important coach in the history of professional basketball. At every stop of his career, Nellie has searched for new ways to win. While many of them were not particularly successful, they have often led to greater successes down the road — Gregg Popovich credits the basis of the San Antonio Spurs' offense to Nelson, and Dirk Nowitzki would not have developed into the uniquely great player he is today if he hadn't been coached by him — or indirectly inspired similar forms of outside-the-box thinking.
Yet, for all that Nellie has meant, my initial assessment was arguably a little too positive. As a Warriors fan, I am very familiar with the frustrations inherent in a Don Nelson-coached team. In addition to the oft-peddled and not wholly accurate wisdom that his teams didn't play defense — the best ones were at least functional at that end of the floor — critics had plenty of reasons to distrust Nelson as a top-flight NBA coach.
For one thing, his success was typically inconsistent, temporary, and capped, if not absent altogether. Nelson ended his 11-season tenure with the Milwaukee Bucks with seven-straight 50-win campaigns, those teams were ousted by the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers every time they made the postseason. And though there's no great shame in losing to two of the best teams of the era, that lack of playoff triumphs became a knock on Nelson for his entire coaching career. The Run-TMC Warriors teams were exciting, but they also never made it to the West finals; the Dirk and Steve Nash-led Dallas Mavericks teams were great, but they weren't at the level of the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings; the We Believe Warriors pulled off a huge upset over Dallas in 2007, but they largely fell apart in the next round against the Utah Jazz. Every Nellie success was tempered by some sort of disappointment, and every team he coached seemed to have one major flaw. Arbitrary metrics of single-season success can often be misleading, but there is something to the fact that Nelson never made the NBA Finals as a coach.
On top of that, Nelson's best relationships were often short-lived and ended very badly. The Bucks period aside — and that one just might not have been publicized — every employer and many players tired of Nellie's ways. During his first go-round with the Warriors, Nelson broke up the Run-TMC triumvirate in 1991 by trading future perennial All-Star Mitch Richmond for the rights to quasi-bust Billy Owens. Three years later, Nelson failed to get along with Rookie of the Year Chris Webber, a player who seemed to be a perfect fit for his style, and ended up trading him to the Washington Bullets for a less-than-stellar haul. Then, shortly after, he switched jobs to coach the New York Knicks, which ended up as one of the most disastrous coaching hires in the history of a team that's made some massively controversial coaching hires over the past decade. Nelson never got along with Patrick Ewing and other entrenched Knicks stars and lasted only 59 games. The entire ordeal got so awful so fast that it only registers as a footnote in Nelson's career — many fans might not even remember it.
Somehow, that disaster ended better than Nelson's time with the Mavericks, where he butted heads with owner Mark Cuban and eventually sued him for his compensation money. Although an arbitrator eventually ruled that Nelson was owed $6.3 million, ostensibly validating his claims, the character of the dispute was so nasty that it could only have been the product of a contentious working relationship. Nelson wasn't the first person not to get along with Cuban, but there's no question that he didn't especially help form a friendly relationship. Nellie was a difficult coach, the sort of guy with a clear vision for his team. Like many innovators, he had a touch of megalomania to everything he did.
It's fitting, then, that his coaching career ended with a simultaneously inconsequential and important milestone. In the 2009-10 season, the Warriors were well on their way to another lottery appearance. Nelson, for his part, did little to improve the team, throwing out increasingly confusing lineups, running his best players into the ground with draconian minutes allocations, and generally looking like he had no plan whatsoever. It was effectively as close as we'll ever get to a dadaist version of basketball — no context, no goals, and occasional laughs.
Yet, by the simple fact that Nelson had coached so many years, he was also on the brink of breaking Lenny Wilkens's all-time record for coaching wins. No one outside of Warriors announcers Bob Fitzgerald and Jim Barnett seemed to care. That includes Nelson, who had assistant Keith Smart coach several road games during the season (including several wins that were assigned to Nelson's mark).
When Nellie and the Warriors broke the record in Minnesota on April 7, the team huddled around him and cheered his accomplishment. But the scene itself helped communicate just how far Nellie had fallen in the eyes of NBA observers. The Target Center was almost entirely empty, the remaining crowd barely acknowledged the record, and fans in the Bay Area wondered if Nelson might finally retire and give the franchise some semblance of hope for the future. It was a historic moment that virtually no one will remember fondly, the last gasp of a once-relevant mad genius who had seemingly run out of the energy necessary to change the sport. Naturally, with little disagreement from fans, new Warriors owner forced Nelson to resign shortly before the 2010-11 season.
It is impossible to consider Nelson's career without acknowledging these serious issues. His stats and milestones are notable in a broad sense, to be sure, but it's also apparent that he's not at the level of many of his contemporaries, coaches like Phil Jackson and Pat Riley who managed to win across different eras and styles of the NBA.
Yet, despite being a deeply flawed figure, there is no doubt in my mind that Nelson deserves the honor he will receive this weekend in Springfield. As I wrote in March, some careers cannot be expressed entirely by a list of postseason finishes and Coach of Year trophies (Nelson has three, incidentally). If the Hall of Fame exists to explain the history of the game, and not just those who came out on top, then it must have room for people like Nellie. Like all great innovators, the influence of his successes will outlast the specific accomplishments of the teams he coached. Put simply, the NBA would be a very different place without him. And though he only made that possible by being a massive pain in the butt, it is simply impossible to dismiss what he has meant to the NBA over the past 40 years. Even if he doesn't receive the recognition in public, he'll continue to mean a lot to the league for the foreseeable future, as well.