“There is no great genius without some insanity.” –Seneca
This is the introduction to what will be a recurring feature here. Most of the NBA commentators, journalists and statistics-peddlers around the league think that Don Nelson is batshit crazy. In the Bay Area, you can adjust that number upward, to close to 100%. I will credit Scott Ostler for evincing a hint, or an undertone, or perhaps a suspicion, that Nellie is crazy like a fox, but he stands alone. There is no doubt among the rest of the Bay Area sportswriters that Don Nelson belongs in Maui, under 24 hour lock-down, in the ward for believers in up-tempo basketball (just down the hall from Napolean complexes), in the asylum for the criminally insane.
Small-ball. Mismatches. The point-forward. The 7-foot three-point shooter. The Hack-a-Shaq. The first open shot. The isolation play. The fast break after a made basket. These are but a few of the innovations that sportswriters have attacked Nellie for over the years. Why do sportswriters attack Don Nelson’s innovations? Because they break with convention, and most sportswriters are slaves to conventional thinking. They simply don’t understand what Don Nelson is thinking, and that makes them uncomfortable. And sportswriters, by and large, don’t do their own thinking. They are told what to think by their sources around the league. Do you think coaches and basketball people praise Don Nelson to sportswriters for the numerous and various humiliations he has visited on them over the years? Do you think Mark Cuban and The Squeaky General Avery Johnson sang Don Nelson’s praises after he stripped them of their pants and spanked their little bottoms before millions of national viewers? Hell no. And that’s why not one single sportswriter, not one, here or across the nation, wrote a story trying to analyze what the hell just happened when Nellie’s scrappy band of NBA rejects annihilated the #1 seed in the NBA. They didn’t understand what happened.
Don Nelson’s innovations win basketball games. They win regular season games, and they win playoff games. They win with the better team, and they often win with the worse team as well. By the end of this year, Don Nelson will have won more NBA basketball games than any other coach. That’s quite an achievement for a coach whose every team was in the basement of the league when he took over the reins. Don Nelson is the only GM and coach in league history who has taken four franchises from absolute zero to the playoffs. He has probably engineered more playoff upsets than any other coach in history. And, if you ask me, he came within a Dirk Nowitzki knee injury in Game 3 of the 2003 Western Conference Finals of winning a championship.
You will never read about any of these accomplishments in the press. Never, anywhere. Why? Because Nellie’s great accomplishments have been the product of a very idiosyncratic, unconventional genius. Sportswriters are simply incapable of stretching their minds to comprehend what Nellie is about. They are all far more interested in picking apart his failures, and there have been some of those, and in analyzing his dysfunctions, and there are a myriad of those as well. This is what conventional thinkers do when confronted by genius. They retreat to the safety of their prejudices. They don’t praise genius, they herd together and bay at it.
Not me. When I’m lucky enough to come across genius, I admire it. I root for it. And I champion it. Which brings me to the point of my “Crazy Nellie” feature. I’m going to use these posts to shed some light on Don Nelson’s innovations as we see them occur this season, and as they are inevitably ridiculed and reviled in the press. Beginning with this first installment: the Ellis/Curry backcourt.
One of the big emerging stories of Warriors training camp is Don Nelson’s intention to play Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry in the same backcourt. Both of these players are small by NBA standards, at 6’3″ with slight builds. Monta Ellis was quick to howl in the press about this plan: he flat out didn’t believe it could work. He didn’t believe that either Curry or himself could defend the much bigger two guards in the league. He thought they’d get killed. Bay Area bloggers Marcus Thompson, Tim Kawakami and Adam Lauridsen were quick to add their howls to Monta’s.
Well, what of it, should we join the howling of these conventional thinkers? Or should we put our minds to work, and try to come up with reasons why Don Nelson wants to try this backcourt? We all know Nellie likes to win, and that he wouldn’t be trying this unless he thought it was a winning combination, right? But how can that be possible, when so many conventional thinkers, including Monta Ellis himself, are howling their lungs out?
OK, well, we can all come up with reasons why this might work on offense. Both Ellis and Curry are great shooters. Curry is a great passer as well, which because Ellis isn’t a natural point guard, will come in handy. Both Ellis and Curry are quicker than most 6’6″ guards, which will create matchup problems. And both can beat those larger guards down court, which will help the fast break.
But what about defense? How will these players guard the bigger off-guards of the league? My guess is that Nellie believes they will guard them with the help of one of the tallest, quickest, and best shot-blocking front lines in the league. With Biedrins, Turiaf and Anthony Randolph guarding the rim, opposing offenses will have a difficult time exploiting their size advantage against Ellis and Curry. Also Curry has already displayed a preternatural ball-instinct on defense. He picked up 5 steals in his first NBA preseason game. After watching Curry play, and playing alongside him, Monta Ellis has already softened his stance somewhat in the press.
I wonder what Greg Popovich, a widely revered coach known for his emphasis on defense, would think of this plan? Well, Popovich has been effusive in his praise lately about the progress that his second-year back-up point guard George Hill has shown this year.
“Hill is playing so well, in fact, that Popovich has bigger plans for him than just being Parker’s understudy.
The coach has been tinkering with a smaller lineup that would allow Hill to play shooting guard next to Parker. Even at 6-foot-3, Hill is long enough, so that wouldn’t be a defensive liability against many NBA shooting guards.”
6-foot-2 Tony Parker and 6-foot-3 George Hill in the same backcourt? Why, that’s CRAZY! It appears Greg Popovich has caught some of Don Nelson’s insanity!
Or perhaps, as this student of both Nelson and Popovich suspects, Popovich has been afflicted with this insanity for some time. Since about 1992, perhaps, when he took a job with the Warriors as Don Nelson’s assistant coach.