As Don Nelson enters the Hall of Fame as the coach who has won more games than anyone in NBA history, he is getting praise as an innovator. He went small — played Nellie Ball at a fast tempo — long before other teams. Now you see the Heat, Celtics and others modeling it.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and it was such with Nellie Ball — Nelson said he didn’t want to play it, he had to.
There is a fantastic Q&A with Nelson done by Marc Stein at ESPN, Nelson opens up about how his name became synonymous with a style of play.
I suppose it means small ball, fast and exciting, point forward, players playing out of position … all those kinds of things. It’s kind of funny to me when people talk about stuff like that. I don’t necessarily think it’s accurate. You only play Nellie Ball when you don’t have a very good team, or when you have a bunch of good small players and not many good big players. When you have bad teams, you’ve got to be creative to win games you’re not supposed to win.
I was innovative when I had to be, but I wasn’t innovative when I didn’t have to be. When I had good teams and big teams, I didn’t play small ball. When I was in Milwaukee and we had Bob Lanier, we went inside. What I did really was evaluate the team and play the way that I thought we had to play to be the most competitive. If I had a big center, I wouldn’t have played so fast. I would have waited for Lanier to get down [the court] like I did in Milwaukee. Those teams were defensive-oriented and those were my best teams, too, by the way.
By the way, Stein also asked Nelson who the best players he ever coached were.
Sidney Moncrief. [Dirk] Nowitzki and [Steve] Nash. [Chris] Mullin, [Tim] Hardaway and [Mitch] Richmond. I think those would be the top guys.