Don Nelson will enter the Basketball Hall of Fame as the coach who has won more games than anyone else in NBA history. He will go in as an innovator, a team builder, a guy who colored outside the lines and that worked for him.
One of the things Nelson liked to do was play small and fast — small ball. Run the other guys out of the gym with your athletes and tempo.
Look around the NBA right now and you see the Heat winning a title once they went small with Chris Bosh at center. You see Boston trying to challenge them by going small with Kevin Garnett at center. You see big men who are a little smaller and a lot more mobile being the guys teams covet.
”It all happened in the Celtic practices. What Auerbach would do when it got to midseason and practices were drudgery, was he would play big guys against the small guys and the smalls would always win. You put Bill Russell on the other team and everybody else big, and put the smalls on the other and it wasn’t a close game as long as it was a full-court game. Now half-court you couldn’t do that. But full-court, the smalls always won, so I’m sure that was the start of it.
“I could never understand why small players could never rebound and big players couldn’t dribble. They can. They just don’t do it. But in practice big guys can dribble and do a lot of things. Guys like Magic Johnson proved that – 6-8 point guard – that it could happen if they believe they can do it. So I always asked my small guys to be rebounders and my big guys to handle the ball and dribble and get into the open court and feel comfortable there.
“I think it all started from those practices. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we had John Havlicek on our side in small ball. But the big guys couldn’t get the ball up the court. It was always like 10-2 – small guys always won.”
The old basketball adage that “tall and good beats small and good” is being challenged. Which is good for us as fans — up tempo, slashing teams are a lot more fun to watch than plodding defensive ones.
And we have Nelson to thank for that. And Auerbach.