Major Nelson: How’d you get in that crazy bottle, anyway?
Jeannie: Oh, a wicked and powerful djinn put me in there…
Well, this is it. Farewell to feltbot. I spoke about my reasons for ending the blog in a post before last year’s championship run, if you’re interested. In a nutshell, everything I’ve yearned for and advocated in Warriors’ basketball has come to pass, and I feel like I have nothing left to say. Well, almost nothing. I have enough left in the tank for one final rant, or appreciation, or whatever it is you want to call what I’ve done here.
But first I’d like to take this opportunity to once again thank the loyal readers and posters I’ve had here, many of whom posted kind words when I first announced my departure. You made this blog a special place for me, something I truly never envisioned when I first began this quixotic endeavor, and you inspired me to keep posting my rants and appreciations, laments and war cries, for far longer than I ever would have believed possible. Thanks for coming along on the ride with me. And what a miraculous ride it was in the end, no?
I will be leaving the blog afloat for awhile, a digital monument to folly. As before, the comments section is scheduled to lock after 30 days, but this time it’s for good. Disappointing to my fellow blog participants, I know, and I regret that, but essential to me as I turn my full attention to my next project.
Ok, let’s do it. As you might have deduced from the first two posts of this three part series, I’m going to end this blog exactly as I began it, writing about an underdog. About someone who has never received the recognition he’s deserved, even though he is now in the NBA Hall of Fame. A true and remarkable genius whose astonishing legacy to the Warriors, to the fans of the Bay Area, and to the game of basketball itself, has gone completely unacknowledged since the Warriors won the championship.
A man whose name was writ in water.
Or should I say He Who Must Not Be Named? Has anyone heard his name spoken since the Warriors won their championship? Anyone? One time?
This is such a ridiculous and grotesque oversight, particularly among Warriors writers, that it literally beggars belief. Other than the players and coaches who actually duked it out on the hardwood, is there a single person alive who was more responsible for the Warriors’ stunning triumph than Don Nelson? I certainly don’t think so.
Crazy talk? The mad rantings of a lifelong fan and partisan? Perhaps. But if you sense there might be a glimmer of truth in what I say, well then read on. I’m about to list for you all the ways in which Nellie contributed to this Warriors championship, and while I’m at it, clear up a few of the egregious misconceptions and fabrications that have been perpetrated by the Warriors media in their own accounts.
Like this one:
The Vindication of Mike D’Antoni: As the Warriors ran off the floor after their Finals victory, Alvin Gentry exulted to anyone who would listen:
Tell Mike D’Antoni he’s vindicated! We just kicked everyone’s ass playing the way everybody complained about!
He later elaborated in an interview:
I would say that this is vindication for Mike D’Antoni, if nothing else. We played like he’s been trying to get this league to play forever. And you can win a championship like that. So for all the people that said you can’t win a championship being a three-point shooting team, and not really a low-post presence or anthing like that, we just did it. So I think it’s great for Mike D’Antoni.
Steve Kerr also weighed in on D’Antoni’s behalf:
I think Steve [Nash] kind of laid out a vision for a whole generation of young point guards. And with the game changing, Mike D’Antoni kind of initiating that style in Phoenix, the floor starting to spread, the whole league kind of playing shooting 4s and 5s and playing a little faster, I think Mike and Steve in many ways set the table for Steph Curry. And I think Steph would tell you that, too.
I read all this with a smile when it was published, and understood exactly where it was coming from. Both Gentry and Kerr are former colleagues and close friends of Mike D’Antoni, both learned at his right hand, both experienced first-hand the doubts and insults thrown his way, and both owe him a big debt of gratitude. They also were employed by an organization in which Don Nelson is persona non grata, and even uttering his name is apparently strictly verboten. So I don’t fault Gentry and Kerr for their rewriting of NBA history.
(I also have a lot of admiration for Mike D’Antoni, and believe he deserves a lot of the credit coming his way. He was a great coach for the Suns, and I don’t wish to denigrate his legacy. By which I mean his real legacy, not the false one invented by his protegés and their willful accomplices in the Warriors press.)
But we as Warriors fans all know that what Gentry and Kerr said is complete and utter bullshit, don’t we? And so does the Warriors media, trust me on that. Anyone who was around for RunTMC must know that. But the Warriors media not only let Gentry and Kerr’s comments stand, but echoed them as gospel. Completely predictable, but still disappointing. Here’s the real truth, with apologies for stating the obvious:
There never would have been a Mike D’Antoni without Don Nelson.
Don Nelson invented Mike D’Antoni’s system. Every last bit of it. The small ball, with a power forward at center, and a small forward at power forward. The spread floor, with three point shooting at the four or five. Throwing the least efficient form of offensive basketball there is and has ever been, the big man post-up, right into the trashcan where it belongs. The uptempo game, with relentless fast breaks, and running after made baskets. Taking the first open shot, and particularly the early offense three. The three-point-bombing, scoring point guard who stretches the defense to the absolute breaking point, because he is just as likely to bury a three-pointer in your mug if you sag off, as he is to beat you off the dribble if you push up. And the point forward who stretches the defense another way, exploiting another mismatch while allowing your point guard to rest and spot up.
Did not Don Nelson pioneer all of those things? Suffer the vicious slings and arrows of an ignorant Warriors press for all of those things? What came first, Seven Seconds or Less or Nellieball? All Warriors writers who were around for RunTMC and yet refuse to acknowledge the truth of this matter should be ashamed of themselves. It would appear that they’ve put the carrot of exclusive access and career advancement ahead of what should be the ideals of their profession.
The Creation of Steve Nash: Steve Kerr mentioned Steve Nash as the model and inspiration, the prototype of Stephen Curry, and I completely agree with that. It was obvious to me from watching his first NBA games that Curry had studied Nash extensively. It was all there from the moment he entered the league. The handle, the refusal to give up the dribble, the ambidexterity, and particularly the one-handed left-hand wrap-around pass that Bob Fitzgerald tortured our eardrums about for so long. The step-back, the quick-release, the in-between game, the clever finishes, the intimate relationship with the backboard. The vision, the unselfishness, the leadership, the fearlessness, the genius. And of course, the walk-up three. It was all there, right from the start. Steve Nash, the MVP and linchpin of Mike D’Antoni’s team, was indisputably the player whom Stephen Curry modeled himself after.
But who was it who transformed Nash into the kind of player who could become D’Antoni’s linchpin, the league MVP, and Stephen Curry’s inspiration?
When Don Nelson traded the 7th pick in the 1998 draft for Nash, nobody even knew who Steve Nash was. He had just spent two anonymous years as the third-string point guard in Phoenix. And Nash’s third season, his first under Nellie, was anything but a success. He butted heads fiercely and continually with Nellie, who took Nash out of his comfort zone by insisting that he start looking for his own shot, and assert himself as a scorer. Nash started poorly, shot horribly, got booed by Mavs fans, lost all confidence, and wound up with a horrific statistical season: 8 pts, 5.5 assists, 36% from the field. That was Nash in his third NBA season. But Nellie had shown him the way and lit a fire under him, and the next season it all clicked. The Steve Nash we all know was born, and the Mavs virtually overnight became a legitimate threat in the post-season. And might very well have won the title in 2003 if Nowitzki hadn’t gotten injured just as the Mavs went up 2-1 against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
That is the Steve Nash who was gift-wrapped to Mike D’Antoni by Mark Cuban’s extraordinary hubris and incompetence.
Now let me ask you a question: Would anyone even know Mike D’Antoni’s name if Steve Nash hadn’t fallen into his lap?
And another: Was it Mike D’Antoni’s system that created Steve Nash, or was it Steve Nash who created Mike D’Antoni’s system?
Still thinking? Don’t hurt yourself, it’s a trick question.
Don Nelson created them both.
The Ur-Prototype: All this talk of Nash and Curry as the vanguard of the new “modern” breed of NBA point guard is well and good, but doesn’t it do a disservice to someone who came before? Someone well-known and beloved by Warriors fans?
I rather think Tim Hardaway came along before Steve Nash, didn’t he? Wasn’t he the original prototype? The prototype of the prototype? A very different player to Nash and Curry both physically and stylistically, of course. But the first point-guard to feature the walk-up three under Don Nelson. The first to lead a small-ball system that ran the floor relentlessly and stretched defenses to the breaking point with early offense and a spread floor. The first to seek to dominate the game with his scoring as much as his floor-generalship. And the first to wrongly suffer the insults of an ignorant and slow-to-learn press for “jacking” selfishly.
Tim Hardaway was the ur-prototype of Stephen Curry. Just as RunTMC was the ur-prototype of the 2015 World Champion Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors Defense: The Warriors defense this season featured long defensive wings switching at every position. In the playoffs they used these wings in a myriad of different gameplans: fronting the post in a zone (Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol), box and one (James Harden), and swarming double-teams out of man-to-man (LeBron James).
According to the Warriors press, this switching defense was an invention of Ron Adams and Steve Kerr. Yet another egregious fabrication. We know they’d rather be roasted over an open fire than credit Nellie for anything, but one wonders whether they watched the World Champion Miami Heat play? Wasn’t Eric Spoelstra spouting off about “positionless basketball” years before Kerr’s Warriors started playing it?
In fact, all of these defensive ideas were pioneered by Don Nelson long before, as a necessary accompaniment to small-ball. I have been writing about “Nellieball wings” — big defensive wings — ever since I began this blog. If you’re going to play small up front, you have to be big and long and great defensively on the wings. Every single team that Don Nelson ever assembled featured this attribute. RunTMC: Richmond, Elie, Askew, Higgins, Marciulonis, and then Sprewell. The 2003 Mavs: Michael Finley, Adrien Griffin, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Raja Bell, Eduardo Najera. We Believe: Stephen Jackson, Matt Barnes, Azubuike (all brought to the team by Nellie), JRich, Pietrus.
And as for those ingenious and widely lauded defensive adjustments the Warriors made on their march to the championship? Fronting the post was Don Nelson’s preferred method of defending dominant big men, as anyone who watched Chris Mullin play power forward, or Al Harrington guard Yao Ming, or Stephen Jackson guard David West, should know. And the day after Ron Adams sprang this adjustment on the Grizzlies, Greg Papa drew a direct line to Don Nelson for the idea. Ron Adams admitted that he got the idea from Gregg Popovich (who was Steve Kerr’s playoff consultant after the Spurs were eliminated). Pop used it to defeat the Grizz in the playoffs a few years ago. But as Papa noted, “Don Nelson did it first.” Don Nelson, Gregg Popovich’s own mentor and close friend, and as Scott Ostler has informed us, regular playoff consultant going back for years.
Swarming, switching wings? Ask Dirk Nowitzki about them. The league MVP whom Nellie dismembered during We Believe, leading an apoplectic Mark Cuban to sue him in court for having a defensive game plan that was just too damn smart.
Ask any Warriors writer, and he will tell you that Don Nelson didn’t care about defense. That is their mantra, unto death. It’s simply not the truth. That 2003 Mavericks team that nearly won a title was 9th in the league in defensive efficiency at 102.3, with Nash at the point and Nowitzki at the four. (Also first in offensive efficiency of course, which combined to make them first in point differential with an extraordinary +8.4, which is what really matters.) The We Believe Warriors held the #1`seeded Mavs 10 points below their season average in their wins, while playing at the fastest pace imaginable. And left tattered shreds of the MVP littering the Oracle floor.
Didn’t care about defense? Nonsense. Don Nelson pioneered the concepts of successful smallball defense.
And gifted Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Steve Kerr their blueprints to victory.
Nellie’s Defense v. D’Antoni’s Defense: By the way, I can’t help wondering, where are the Warriors writers, sudden celebrators of Mike D’Antoni’s legacy, on the subject of Mike D’Antoni’s defensive prowess?
Here’s a little tidbit for you statphreaks out there: In Nash’s 2005 and 2006 MVP years, the Suns D-Rating was ranked 17th and 16th in the league, at 107.1 and 105.8, respectively.
That’s a long, long way from Nellie’s best Nash team, ranked 9th at 102.3.
Who was it who didn’t care about defense? Do you seriously want me to believe that the 2015 Warriors – who just got done ravaging the league on the defensive end with swarming Nellieball wings — are the avatars of Seven Seconds or Less? That it was Mike D’Antoni whom the Warriors’ title vindicated?
No, don’t think so, sorry. I know better.
The Drafting of Stephen Curry: It is a favorite meme of the Nellie haters in the Warriors press to thank David Kahn and the other GMs who drafted above the Warriors in 2009 for not drafting Stephen Curry. The haters have perpetrated the myth that Curry fell into Nellie’s hands by some sort of miracle. And have thus avoided the need to give Nellie any credit whatsoever for actually making the pick.
This is laughable. These happen to be the same writers who destroyed Nellie for not drafting a big man with the Curry pick. Destroyed him for the inevitable disruption to the Warriors chemistry that resulted. (And destroyed their archives so that you can’t go back to re-read what they wrote at the time. I suppose this is preferable to Chad Ford, who simply goes back and changes what he wrote.)
But more to the point: When the draft took place, it was not obvious to anyone in the league other than Don Nelson that Stephen Curry was a point guard. Nellie was literally the only GM in that draft who knew who Stephen Curry was. The only one. This is what he said about Curry shortly after the draft, when explaining why he had refused to trade Curry to the Phoenix Suns for Amare Stoudemire:
He’s a heck of a player. We drafted him because we think he’s going to be a great point guard…. I always saw Steve Nash in him, and he is the greatest player I’ve ever coached. I’ve been looking for another one for a long time and this is as close as I’ve ever seen in a young player. He has that same ability that Steve had.
Every other GM in the league believed Curry was an undersized two-guard. Including Curry’s current coach, Steve Kerr, who was then the GM of the Phoenix Suns. Kerr has frequently told the story of how much he coveted Curry in that draft, and how devastated he was when Nellie turned down the Amare Stoudemire trade. But what Kerr neglects to mention is that he already had Steve Nash, and had no plans to trade him. The truth of the matter is that Kerr wanted Curry for the TWO-GUARD.
That’s how obvious it was to others around the league that Curry would become one of the greatest point guards in the history of the NBA. David Kahn missed on Stephen Curry for the same two reasons that every other NBA GM drafting above the Warriors missed on him:
- He drafted for need, as have over 90% of the GMs in the history of the league, and what he needed was a point guard; and
- He drafted by consensus, as have over 90% of the GMs in the history of the league, and the overwhelming consensus was that Stephen Curry was not a point guard.
David Kahn, in fact, made the exact same two mistakes that Joe Lacob made when he drafted Harrison Barnes. The same two mistakes that have been made repeatedly throughout the history of the league, and the same two mistakes that will continue to be made throughout eternity.
The same two mistakes that Don Nelson, the greatest GM in the history of the game as well as one of its greatest coaches, literally never made. Was it Stephen Curry whom the Warriors needed in that draft? Or was every writer in the Bay Area and beyond clamoring for a big man, and specifically Jordan Hill? Was it Stephen Curry whom the Warriors players thought they needed, or did they explode in rage and open revolt the instant the pick was made?
Lest you’ve forgotten, this is what I wrote after my first look at Curry in the pre-season of his rookie year:
If Don Nelson, as has been rumored, sacrificed the Biedrins for Stoudemire trade — and if he sacrificed the continued commitment to the Warriors of Stephen Jackson — and if he risked the disgruntlement of Monta Ellis — all in order to draft Stephen Curry…
IT WAS STILL WORTH IT.
There, in a nutshell, is a description of the climate in Warriors-land at the time. And my own opinion was like a whisper on the wind, drowned out by the bellowing of the stampeding herd out for Nellie’s blood.
Understanding this situation, let me toss a couple more questions at you: Would any other GM in the league, concerned for his job and standing in Don Nelson’s beleaguered shoes, have risked drafting Curry for the Warriors? Or when offered the great Amare Stoudemire for him, have refused?
I think you know the answer.
Yes, it was indeed a miracle that Stephen Curry wound up in the Warriors’ hands.
A miracle by the name of Don Nelson.
Curry’s First Season and MVP Rebirth: Something the press has never considered: What might Stephen Curry have become if Nellie hadn’t gotten ahold of him first? If he’d been drafted by one of the GMs like Steve Kerr who thought he was an undersized two-guard or sixth man, the next Mahmoud Abdul Rauf? If you think this is a silly question, consider the fact that there were prominent members of the Warriors media who didn’t think Stephen Curry was a “true” point guard all the way up until this MVP season. And Joe Lacob’s first rookie coach, Keith Smart, nearly strangled the life out of Curry trying to change him. Would Stephen Curry even be a point guard today if he hadn’t been drafted by Nellie, and then shocked the world in his rookie season?
Did it make a difference to Stephen Curry’s development that his first coach was not only the inventor of the system that Curry was born to play in, but also the greatest point-guard whisperer in league history?
The coach who insisted on having a great three point shooter at the point to bend the defense? Insisted on the walk-up three as one of the best shots in basketball? Insisted on the fast-break? Insisted that the first open shot be taken? The coach who taught him the NBA pick and roll?
The coach who invented the “modern” point guard in Tim Hardaway before Mike D’Antoni even entered the league, and developed D’Antoni’s own gift-wrapped “modern” point guard before Steve Kerr even realized that there was such a thing?
Towards the end of his second season, chafing horribly under Keith Smart’s restrictions and mismanagement, I saw Curry begin again to jack up the walk-up threes that Smart had forbidden him, and then celebrate with his teammates on the bench right in Smart’s face. Would Curry have had the confidence in himself to stand up to Smart like this, if Don Nelson hadn’t already shown him the way? Would the Warriors have been forced, after four long years in the wilderness, to finally hire another Nellieball coach (Alvin Gentry) and return Curry into the system he was born for, if Curry hadn’t already learned what he and his team were capable of in that system?
We have been treated to endless articles in the Warriors’ press about Stephen Curry’s “emergence” in his sixth year. Article after article about how much Stephen Curry grew under Mark Jackson and Steve Kerr. But not one single article about what he might have learned from his first year under Don Nelson.
Is this the truth of the matter? The real truth?
Here are Stephen Curry’s MVP-year stats:
23.8 pts 7.7 ast 4.3 rb 2 stl FG 48.7% 3PT 44.3% FT 91.4%
And here are his post-All-Star-game rookie stats under Don Nelson:
22.1 pts 7.7 ast 5.5 rb 2 stl FG 46.8% 3PT 44.0% FT 90.6%
Is “emergence” really the word? I think I prefer “rebirth”, thank you.
Welcome back, Stephen Curry. We missed you.
I Dream of Genie: This past season the great Nellieball genie that is Stephen Curry was finally let out of the conventional, old-school bottle in which he had been imprisoned for the previous four years. And now that he’s once again got a good long sniff of that rarified Nellieball air, and collected his MVP trophy and his ring as a direct result, there is simply no way ever that Joe Lacob can stuff him back in that bottle. No way. Ever.
No. Thanks to Alvin Gentry and Steve Kerr’s subversive infiltration of Nellieball back into the Warriors organization, Stephen Curry is finally free to fulfill his true destiny, which is to surpass in every way the last great Nellieball genie, Steve Nash. Also discovered by Don Nelson, washed up on a beach. Also released from the bottle by Don Nelson. And also cruelly snatched away from Don Nelson by a wicked and powerful djinn.
Actually, Curry is not yet completely free. A final step remains for him to reach his full potential as one of the greatest point guards in NBA history: the installation of high-paced high pick and roll as the Warriors’ staple offense. Losing Alvin Gentry was a blow to those like myself who have wanted to see that happen for years. But it looks like Steve Kerr might nevertheless still intend to head in that direction. Kerr has just hired the guru of high pick and roll himself, Steve Nash, as a Warriors consultant.
But… it’s not enough. While hiring Nash is a very exciting sign, it’s still not enough. High pick and roll cannot truly become a Warriors staple until Andrew Bogut is either moved or forced to take a seat. Pick and roll requires a scoring center who is not afraid to roll, who is willing to attack the rim and finish strong and swagger to the line. A scoring center who can blow to pieces the Curry blitz, and facilitate the full blossoming of one of the greatest talents in league history.
I’m not suggesting that the Warriors risk disrupting their championship chemistry before this run is done. I’m simply dreaming of the future.
I dream of Genie.
The Analytics Movement: With apologies for what is already the longest post I’ve ever written, it just wouldn’t feel right to wrap up this blog without one final jab at the Statphreaks. Deconstructing their fallacies and myths has been one of my greatest pleasures.
The biggest myth of all concerning NBA analytics right now is that it has revolutionized and transformed the league. That it was the new efficiency stats and studies that led the league towards emphasizing the open floor and the three-ball, playing smaller with stretch-fours and “modern” scoring point guards, and de-emphasing the use of bigs and low-efficiency low-post basketball.
Nope. Not accurate. Revisionist history, redux.
While I recognize the worth of analytics in educating the old-school and ignorant NBA hierarchy about Nellieball, and making it easier for Nellieball coaches and GMs to retain their jobs while re-shaping their teams, the truth of the matter is that analytics did not lead this revolution. It followed. It did not invent this revolution. It validated it. What is being called the Analytics Movement is in actuality a baggage train.
Statphreaks, I hate to break it to you, but while you were still pimply-faced kids banging away at your laptops in math camp, Don Nelson was inventing the modern NBA on the backs of cocktail napkins.
And paving the way for the 2015 World Champion Golden State Warriors.
A Toast: I know neither this post, nor indeed this blog, will have any lasting impact on Don Nelson’s legacy. I’ve simply been howling in the wind, writing in water. For whatever reason, because he was too far ahead of his time, or for more personal reasons, Nellie will never get the full credit he deserves for his role in Warriors and NBA history. He is the Edward de Vere of NBA basketball.
Doesn’t really matter to me. That was never really the point. The point of this blog was Nellie’s legacy to me, the lasting joy of awakening to the full possibilities of my favorite sport, of watching his discoveries and protegés blossom into greatness, of seeing his revolutionary and beautiful vision of winning basketball transform his teams, and ultimately the league itself.
And of watching a championship being won, his way, with his guy.
I simply wanted to share that joy, and pay homage to genius. And I have.
As I write these final words, I have a freshly cracked bottle of scotch and a frosted tumbler of ice by my keyboard. Not my usual drink, but this is a special occasion.
Here’s looking at you.