Crazy Nellie: Why Don Nelson is the Best Coach for the Warriors

Tim Kawakami has just published a piece in the Merc calling for the firing of Don Nelson.  I disagree essentially with every line of what he has written, and in particular with his conclusion.  I think it would be a huge mistake for the Warriors to fire Nellie.  Here is my rebuttal.

This team was built by Don Nelson, for Don Nelson: From the frontline to the backcourt, this team was built to do one thing, and one thing only: Run, Run, Run.  Biedrins, Randolph and Wright are all at their best when beating their man down court, and at their worst when playing in the half court.  Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry can excel in any system, but may be the best fast break backcourt in the NBA.  Ellis because of his blazing speed, Curry because of his extraordinary downcourt vision and ability to lead the break.

Putting what promises to be the fastest team end-to-end in NBA history — when healthy — in the hands of a conventional coach is a recipe for disaster.  This is a Nellie roster, and Nellie should coach it.

Don Nelson has the ear of this team: Has any team in the NBA played harder than the Warriors this year?  Seriously, in a season completely without hope, has this ridiculously short-handed and undersized team ever dogged it? Ever shown signs of quitting?

This team believes in itself, and takes the court every night looking for a way to win, against all odds.  I don’t pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the locker-room, but that is simply not the behaviour of a team that has quit on its coach.

Don Nelson does not have a preference for small ball: For those of you who have scratched your heads, or raged in your hearts, when you’ve seen Don Nelson play Corey Maggette at power forward ahead of Brandan Wright and Anthony Randolph, this might seem like a curious statement.  It’s not. I stand by it 100%, based on close observation of Nellie’s career since RunTMC.

Don Nelson has had four major coaching gigs: coaching the Bucks, the Warriors, the Mavericks, and again with the Warriors.  The only time Nellie has played small ball is with the Warriors.  While at Milwaukee Nellie traded for Bob Lanier, and drafted Marques Johnson.  In Dallas, once he got his hands on Dirk Nowitzki, Nellie played one of the biggest lineups in the NBA. Every game, all game.

Even with the Warriors, it should be obvious to an objective observer that Don Nelson has always worked determinedly at making his team bigger.  He blew up RunTMC — risking the chemistry of a 50-win ball club — by trading Mitch Richmond for Billy Owens.  Is that the act of a man with a preference for small ball?

Why has Don Nelson so often resorted to small ball with the Warriors?  Two reasons: Talent and Money.  Don Nelson believes in putting his most talented players on the floor.  When those players happen to be big, as in Milwaukee and Dallas, Don Nelson plays big.  When they happen to be small, as in both gigs here at Golden State, Don Nelson plays small.  Why has Don Nelson played Maggette ahead of Randolph and Wright in the past two years?  Quite simply, because Randolph and Wright weren’t ready to shoulder the load.  They were inconsistent, ill-prepared and ineffective.  And then they were injured.

And then there’s the money.  There is little doubt in my mind that if Nellie had the resources of a Mark Cuban or a Paul Allen to work with that he would have long ago gone after and signed a major free-agent big man, or multiple free-agent big men.  He’s already proved that, in Dallas.  Every single year he was there.

Nellie doesn’t have those resources to work with.  He has the resources of Chris Cohan to work with, and an inherited roster that lacked an established power forward.  What he does have right now is this: three assets.  Brandan Wright, Anthony Randolph and a lottery pick.  On the basis of those assets, and my knowledge of Don Nelson, I am very comfortable saying this:

If the Warriors come out of the gate next year playing small, I will eat my shorts.

Don Nelson is a great defensive coach. Gotcha!  I don’t really believe that. But then again I don’t believe that coaching defense wins championships.  What wins championships is coaching point-differential. Point-differential is the stat that is the most predictive of the eventual world champion, with a 50% success rate.

Don Nelson is one of the best coaches in the league at achieving point-differential.  His 2002-3 Dallas Mavericks led the league in point-differential.  And if Dirk Nowitzki hadn’t injured his knee in Game 3 of the Western Conference Championships against the Spurs, Nelson and the Mavs may very well have won the title.

How does Don Nelson achieve point-differential?  Well, that could be the subject of a book.  But here’s a thumbnail sketch: it involves having at least one big wing player who’s capable of shutting down the opposing team’s best player.  Like Richmond,  Elie, Sprewell, Finley, or Stephen Jackson.

Or Kelenna Azubuike and Raja Bell.

It might involve having a couple of other defensive pieces to play matchups with.  Like Josh Howard and Eddie Najera.  Or Matt Barnes. Or Andris Biedrins and Anthony Randolph.

It involves shooting the best percentage, by having the best shooters and by relentlessly running the fast break. It involves winning the turnover battle, by having the best ball-handlers and shooting the first available shot. It involves running the other team into the ground. It involves melting the brain of the guy on the opposite bench, by matching up unexpectedly, and exploiting every edge mercilessly.

It involves genius and the complete and utter fearlessness that has led to glorious playoff upsets – with far inferior talent — of the Robinson Spurs, the Stockton and Malone Jazz, and the Nowitzki Mavs.

Don Nelson is not a defensive coach, he is a basketball coach.  One of the greatest in league history.

I want to see it again: I’ve seen it before.  RunTMC.  The 2002-03 Mavericks. We Believe.  Some of the greatest, most exhilarating basketball ever played in this league.

This team is built in the image of Don Nelson.  It is arguably one big player — and one healthy season — from being able to play like the best of Don Nelson’s teams.

I want to see it again.

19 Responses to Crazy Nellie: Why Don Nelson is the Best Coach for the Warriors

  1. This is the LAMEST BLOG EVER!!

  2. How can you defend anything Don Nelson has done the last to years? You have NO credibility posting this JUNK! I felt sorry for you because you have no responses yet, so I felt like I had to say something. I’m sorry, but you are a Fool! Stick to your day job! PLEASE!!

  3. We saw what a bad coach with a lot of big men is worth last night —

    Chris Bosh on the Warriors:

    “We’re supposed to be gearing up for playoff basketball and this is not playoff basketball,” he said. “Their bench is more active than ours is. They’re players are getting more stops. They’re getting more offensive rebounds. Everybody is doing everything. If you look on the schedule now and see Toronto, I’m sure people are checking the win box. I can understand if we lose a game going down fighting, but we’re not fighting at all.”

    Triano’s sophisticated answer:

    “We can get it turned around by having our guys play better,” he said, offering the simplest solution. “Our best guys have to play better, bottom line.”

    from the Toronto Sun

    This is a basketball coach?

    But Bosh and Kawakami apparently are looking at different teams.

    Nicely done, Feltbot, quite persuasive, and quite possibly so.

    RJ: I read this blog first because it is the only one that explains things and doesn’t fall into knee jerk reactions. Kawakami just makes things up and shows no awareness of what is going on the court.

  4. Trading Richmond, especially for an unproven Owens was a mistake, though.

  5. Bravo, Felty. An important response for irresponsible journalism.

    And I gotta respect you for sticking to your facts and not attacking Tim personally. Now me, on the other hand…well, let’s just say I’m having a hard time not calling his piece STUUUUUUPID…!

    But I’ll resist.

  6. Only a fool would blame Nellie for what happened this season. That’s not what you’re doing, is it JR?

  7. Nivrag, a lot of people took that trade personally, including myself and the young Adam Lauridsen. Richmond, Hardaway and Mullin were extremely close, and the fans were extremely close to them. I have often wondered whether Nelson could have found another way to add a talented big man to the team.

    On the other hand, Nelson immediately replaced Richmond with Latrell Sprewell, a player who was every bit as good, offensively and defensively. So I think you have to admire the trade from an intellectual perspective, regardless of how Owens eventually worked out.

  8. Jet Set Dave

    This team has played incredibly hard this year, and for all the losses, how many teams are going to succeed when their top 5 bigs are almost lost entirely for the season, and then two more starters too.
    Nellie criticism is so easy, but isn’t this the same guy that has built 4 top flight teams? As good a talent evaluator as anyone.
    Last year it was Nellie won’t play rookies. Well look at what he did with Curry, Dirk, Spree, Webber. A little tough love is warranted every now and then.
    I don’t hear players chirping about Nellie at all, and he is the guy I would like to see stay in the front office when his run is done.
    Yes, the roster needs pairing, Yes, I am still not convinced that Monta and Curry can work together defensively.
    All you need to know about this team is they are playing the right way with limited talent up front right now.
    If I’m the Warriors… Nellie stays, and then I’m looking to bring Pop back to the Bay when his SA deal is up after the 11-12 season. Heck…I’d like to see Pop take a year off. The Spurs are done after this season anyway.

  9. If memory serves, the 6’9″ Billy Owens was traded for Ronny Seikali, a decent 7′ center who was to be the missing piece for a championship run. But then Webber started to pout…

  10. Very good post Felt. Guys act like a different coach would have these DLeague all stars competing 4 a championship. The fact that they are even competing with elite teams is simply amazing.

  11. I haven’t been on that hacks site since he predicted Monta wouldn’t wear a Warriors jersey again. Actually, it wasn’t a prediction, it was a promise. I refuse to go back and read his drivel but based on the title its clear. Recycle the old hate for Nellie, right now when he is about to get his wins record coaching a bunch of D leaguers. Zero class. I hope Nellie gets the record this year with Tolliver, Williams, and Hunter. It would be fitting for his contrarian career. All time winningest coach does so with a bunch of losers. Meanwhile, Tim can stew as the Nellie gets some deserved love. Proud of Nellie and his accomplishments. After the Toronto game even Bosh had to comment on how hard our team played and how vocal they were…which, no doubt, is happening in spite of Nellie right?

    Shine the light on that cockroach Felty. I am sure he reads all this and obsesses at night.

  12. When Curry made that behind the back save OB, there were three Warriors running down court, looking for the ball. The Raptors weren’t looking.

    And how did we out-rebound the Raptors? This, too, was a plan, for defense, and it seems to me Nelson’s biggest complaint with players this year is that they aren’t following it.

    This is a system, a coach’s plan, and, as you say, it would be a disaster to ditch this now and bring in someone else to coach the team, especially given the FO’s track record in hiring coaches. Even worse, have the new coach trade away the players who make the system work for godknowswhat. Yes, keep Nelson, and develop the assistant coaches and system, and line up a successor for the following year.

    None of the Nelson detractors give him any credit or even consider what he is actually doing or why and then critique his plan. We can’t listen to demonizers, and doing so doesn’t exorcise the real demons.

    There should be a long review of what Nelson has done right–quite a bit–if only so we can better understand his mistakes. I still wonder if he doesn’t sometimes force a plan without full regard for the players or understanding of their personalties. Richmond was a consistent performer and a solid citizen. Personality-wise, it’s hard for me to believe he wouldn’t have been a stabilizing force on the team for several years (cf. Sprewell, but I kind of liked him and he was a serious player). And playing players out of position — or the position they think they should play — just hasn’t worked. Webber and Jackson come to mind, and there’s no point taking sides here — both left, and that was that. But if I’m right anywhere here, these are only criticisms, not indictments.

    I hated that period this season where Ellis and Maggette ran isos most of the time — and what did it get us? I’m just guessing, but I’m wondering if this isn’t what Ellis wanted, and Nelson relented, and that doing this was the only way for both to learn they can’t do it all.

    Even more casually, I wonder if it isn’t a mistake to gamble at trying to become a top tier team. That was my take on the TMC years. We DID have a playoff team, but took them for granted. And this was the talk then: they’re fun to watch but won’t beat the Lakers. Go for broke, and broke is what you usually get.

  13. Hold the violin music felt, if you were coaching the Dubs they’d be playing hard!

    Guys playing for jobs, contracts & professional pride…yeah they’re playing hard for the coach?

  14. Critical Fan

    It’s about accountability and no one in a leadership position with the Golden State Warriors has stepped up to the plate.

    There are plenty of reasons why this franchise is so bad. If you notice, I did not say team. Calling the team bad would be too convenient and lets those in charge off the hook. Management can say we have injuries; our players are underperforming and so-in-so is a cancer in the locker room. Have those things happened this year and the previous 15? Sure, but that’s not why the franchise has been adrift for so long. It is because the leaders of the organization makes excuses wipe their hands and say “Not my fault”.

    We can debate endlessly about how to improve the franchise (internal development, coaching change, draft, trades, free agency, ect). However, the most effective transaction the Warriors can make is a change in ownership.

    I have been a Warriors fan for as long as I can remember. But I am absolutely sickened with what the franchise has become under its current leadership. I am critical of my favorite team and call it what it is. If that does not make me a loyal fan so be it. However, I can never be a Warriors sycophant.

  15. Lakers:

    Nelson gave especially high praise to Ellis after the game for his defense and shrugged off his off-night in shooting, which tells us all we need to know about Nelson and defense.

    This burned-out coach got 49 points from two D-leaguers and a throwaway player (George): they are at last figuring out the plan.

    Monta just needed to be convinced, and it’s happening. Who knows what he can do once he sets his mind to make it work?

    And all the guys on the bench have to be thinking: How do I fit into this? And have to be eager to get back in.

    Just getting started. . . .

  16. Nice take Nivrag. It’s pretty astonishing how much improvement the Warriors players have shown this season. Not just the D-leaguers, not just our fabulous rookie, but also Monta Ellis. Ellis played an incredible game last night, poor shooting notwithstanding. Some nights your shot just doesn’t fall.

    I think the theme of the rest of the season will be the meshing of Ellis and Curry into the premier backcourt in the NBA.

  17. I don’t mean to slight Tolliver, Hunter, or George, btw. All have played their hearts out and contributed. George is showing some tricks I didn’t know he had.

  18. Felty,
    You’ve forgotten that Nelson is nearly 70, overweight and almost certainly an alcoholic. Yes, his offensive mind is incredible, but his grouchy disposition has caused many Warriors to skip town. Also, why haven’t the Warriors been able to build Biedrins into a starting NBA center? Nelson has not taken him under his wing. Nelson is done teaching – he only coaches at this point – and the Warriors are a young team, they could use some teaching. Nelson also made a huge mistake naming Monta his starting point guard when it was plain as day that Monta is a natural 2. We are soooo lucky that Curry fell into our lap. He is a natural in every sense of the word.

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