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There are typically two kinds of great coaches in sports: the winners and the innovators — sometimes, as in the cases of Phil Jackson and Bill Walsh, a coach can be both. The winners carve out greatness because they were able to build up their teams, get the most out of their talent, and end the season on top. The innovators typically win lots of games, but they stand out because they change the way their sports are played forever.
Don Nelson was pretty clearly an innovator, not a winner. Although he holds the NBA record for most regular-season wins, his best teams petered out in the playoffs, usually for lacking (or not especially caring about) defense. Yet it's impossible to envision the modern NBA without his brand of mad offensive science, replete with big guys who can shoot and a structure so loose that edicts like "Seven Seconds or Less" seem conservative by comparison.
The modern NBA would look very different without him. Now, after several years of waiting, Don Nelson has been named to the Hall of Fame. From Jeff Caplan of ESPNDallas.com:
Nelson, a three-time coach of the year and the NBA's all-time winningest coach, said he got the call Wednesday morning after being snubbed for several years. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will officially announce the 2012 class on Monday at the NCAA Final Four in New Orleans.
"It's a great honor to cap my career," said Nelson, who is involved in several business ventures and splits his time between Dallas and Maui. "I've had a great time and a great life coaching basketball. I don't actually need to be rewarded for anything, but I am very proud and my family is very proud of this award."
Nelson won five champions as a player with the Boston Celtics, earned three Coach of the Year awards (the last in 1991-92), and coached Dream Team II to a World Championship in 1994. These accomplishments will look good on his plaque in Springfield.
However, everyone familiar with Nelson's coaching career knows that he deserves this honor because of the changes he brought to the sport. With the Milwaukee Bucks in the '80s, he helped popularize the point forward position with his use of Paul Pressey. In the late '80s and early '90s, he oversaw the Golden State Warriors' Run TMC teams, still one of the standards for the fast-paced style in the NBA. He helped turn the Dallas Mavericks from one of the league's perennial losers into a playoff mainstay, finding arguably his ideal player in 7-foot shooter Dirk Nowitzki and helping mold Steve Nash into one of the best offensive point guards in history. In his second stint with the Warriors, he created the beloved 2007 "We Believe" team and engineered the first 8-over-1 upset in a seven-game series. At every spot, he brought a bizarre vision, thinking of the game in a way no one ever had before.
There were catastrophes along the way, of course: leaving the Warriors for the first time after high-profile spats with several key players, standing as an abject failure as Pat Riley's replacement with the Knicks in '95-'96 (in retrospect, too drastic a change to have ever worked), getting in a legal tussle with Mark Cuban after breaking ties with the Mavs, and "resigning" shortly before the 2010-11 season as soon as new owners assumed control of the Warriors. He has a strong personality and a clear way of doing things, and in some cases that made him a bad fit with other talented people. These marks will always be a part of his career, too, and attempting to explain them away can only ever provide an incomplete picture of who he was as a coach.
Yet the Hall of Fame doesn't require a spotless resume for induction, and Nellie's positives will always outweigh his negatives. Without him, it's difficult to imagine the idea of small ball in its modern form. Nor would there be quite so many ways for coaches with versatile players to mix and match lineups. While his teams didn't win championships themselves, his innovations influenced the ideas of many more, either directly or indirectly: Dirk Nowitzki wouldn't exist in his current form without Nellie and, as bizarre as it might seem, his work with former assistant Gregg Popovich helped lay the foundation for the Spurs of the past 15 years. Plus, on a basic level, the simple fact that Nelson was so willing to experiment showed many future basketball thinkers that game plans need not be defined by what already exists. There can always be another way.
The Hall of Fame is for all-time great players, coaches and contributors to the game. But it's also a museum, and as such must reflect the course of basketball history in the people it inducts. By any measure, Don Nelson has greatly affected the course of the NBA since the Chicago Zephyrs drafted him in 1962. The numbers say he belongs, and yet he is so much more than the sum of them.