Crazy Nellie: The Ellis/Curry Backcourt

“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.

11 Responses to Crazy Nellie: The Ellis/Curry Backcourt

  1. Feltbot – Brilliant analysis, over the head of most fans, which thus will not attract the readership you deserve. A pity.

  2. Hey, one appreciative reader goes a long way!

  3. feltbot, b.simmons at espn is a big fan of the nelson game. when you over-generalize you only provide your numerous kritiks more fuel. perhaps both you and they relish the conflict, and that’s your intention.

  4. robert bowell

    its nothing new. dallas played 5;8 jose juan barea with jason terry in the playoffs last year and im sure it was done before that

    nellie isnt seen as crazy on the court, its the destruction he brings off the court

  5. moto, I’m a huge fan of bill simmons, but I don’t ever remember him being a fan of Nelson. Lately, he’s taken to quoting Kawakami.

    Can you give me a link, please?

    I’ve been known to exaggerate, but I wouldn’t call it intentional. More like natural :> Comes from telling stories at the poker table. If you catch me at it, go ahead and let me have it.

  6. I couldn’t agree with you more about the how under appreciated the genius of Don Nelson is. The ‘what have you done for me lately’ attitude has really set in with the bay area media and fans. Sure we could have won more games last year had Nellie not gone small as often; however, instead of picking up meaningless wins he decided to build for something better. Once our young players understand the offensive and defensive schemes, this team has the potential to be even more exciting than the ‘we believe’ squad.

    Keep up the good Dubs coverage!

  7. Right.

    The unappreciated genius of breaking up a playoff team by feuding with the star rookie Chris Webber and trading him for Tom Gugliotta.

    The unappreciated genius of trading Mitch Richmond for Billy Owens.

    Breaking up playoff teams along the way…

    Maybe he is a genius coach and strategist, but his ego gets in the way (as is the problem with many other smart people who think they are even smarter than they actually are).

    Also – good point on Bill Simmons – he definitely has championed the small ball (and many times vehemently argued that the Suns would have won the championship if not for that bogus Amare suspension).

    I don’t think Nellie’s strategies are stupid but sometimes he himself is.

  8. Animal, you bring up some of the failures and dysfunctions I alluded to. Although interestingly enough, Webber has voiced his own regrets regarding his actions at the time. It took him many years to “get it.” Regarding Richmond for Owens, this is a trade I hated at the time, and one that apparently broke Lauridsen’s 11 yr. old heart. But retrospectively it doesn’t appear that bad to me, even though Owens ultimately didn’t pan out. Nellie wanted to get bigger, and had to roll the dice in order to do it. He is a master at drafting wing players, and instantly replaced Richmond with Sprewell. Richmond for Sprewell with an Owens topping doesn’t sound that bad, does it? For a brief shining moment, the Warriors looked pretty darn good on paper.

    Do you have a link on Simmons as a fan of Don Nelson? I’d also like to see his defense of D’Antoni’s Suns.

  9. Animal are we re-writing history a little here? If I remember, Webber quit. Webber demanded a trade. Webber was immature. I’m sure it seems in retrospect that more should have been done to prevent the team’s descent into years of irrelevance but who’s to say it was Nelson’s fault? Isn’t it more than coincidental that it all fell apart when Cohan acquired the team?


    Feltbot, btw I noticed in watching the game last night that Curry has 1 or 2 inches of height over G. Hill. Hill may be listed at 6 ft 3 in but he’s shorter. I, too, think Ellis/Curry will be a spectacular combo as Curry develops. Their offensive games are great complements to eachother. Defensively, I was very encouraged by how Ellis played Roy. It will be very interesting to see him defend Kobe this week. Ellis definitely has gotten stronger. I think you are correct that Nellie’s longterm plan is for the quick length of AB, AR and BW (your bff) to help on penetration and when big guards try to post-up Ellis. That plan should work as long as Nellie plays a couple of those tall guys at once.

  11. I’m already excited by that Monta/Kobe matchup COM. Going to be guest-blogging that game at GSoM.