Don Nelson was in the NBA long enough to be considered in about a hundred ways over the span of his most-winning career. Longevity comes with peaks and valleys, and Nelson had tons. From his prolific Bucks teams to the start of the Mavericks’ surge with Nowitzki, Finley, and Nash, to the 2007 We Believe Warriors, Nelson had more than his fair share of moments. Not bad for a guy who defied the very core of traditional basketball paradigms: slow it down, defend, trust the big men. Nelson did none of that, and managed to slide away with wins left and right like Puck from Midsummer’s tossing dust while the other teams were sleeping.
As Nelson prepares to enter the Hall of Fame Friday, there will be talk of all his accomplishments. Many weren’t around for his run in the 80’s with the Bucks, including seven of ten seasons with over 50 wins. And there will be criticism of his failures, such as those last few years in Golden State, running a system dependent on athleticism and yet benching the young guys, and how lost they seemed at times.
But if we look around the league, Nelson’s innovation has had its effect. Just look at the lineups for the best teams.
Much of the smallball movement that’s prevalent in the league is a result of the dearth of legitimate big men. Great big men just aren’t out there. It’s Howard, Bynum, Bogut, Hibbert, Marc Gasol and that’s about it. But there’s also an adjustment that’s a product of what Nelson showed, that if you can spread the floor and get your opponent out of their rhythm, you can win with speed.
Take the Heat. After a year of trying to find anything close to a traditional center, they finally just said “Screw it” and eliminated the center position all together. Chris Bosh kept playing power forward. LeBron James played point-forward-center. But they also used the fast break to a high degree and head coach Erik Spoelstra is already beating the “faster, better, stronger” drum for next season, advocating more speed. The Heat are not playing NellieBall, at all. They’re far too dependent on defense. They’re not trying to simply outrun and outscore the opponent. They’re focused first and foremost on defense. Once they stop you, though, the objective is to create those fast-break opportunities. It’s a simple change of utility in player abilities. See, a lot of the time coaches try and harness athleticism to improve skills. You have speed, so you can run the point to set up the offense and get the defense off-kilter. You’re tall, so you can score next to the basket. But the Heat are using athleticism for athleticism. They’re creating dunks by being bigger, stronger, faster.
How about the Thunder? Similarly fast, similarly fast-break-oriented, and they throw in another core tenet of Nelson’s impact, the willingness to put up those threes at a moment’s notice. If you’ve ever seen hesitation in transition from Westbrook, Durant, or Harden, you’ve seen it for the first time.
The Nuggets, constantly running and creating offensive opportunities, constantly spreading the floor. Even the Spurs, and if there’s a less Nelson coach out there than Popovich I ask you to let me know.
In some ways, the Bulls’ defense is even a reflection of this. Driven off of wave after wave of player, creating havoc, just using the opposite end and reacting with both instinct and resolution.
This isn’t to attribute any and all of this to Nelson. There have been smallball advocates before and will be after. George Karl’s a mad genius of his own creation, same for Popovich, same for Thibs. But we see reflections of the success Nelson brought, we see the remainder of what he accomplished. Nelson was an innovator in a game that too often falls back on familiarity. Even his approach, like taking his players to a bar (when some of them aren’t even old enough to drink) both hearkens back to an older time and goes against convention. Nelson made the game more fun. He wasn’t always successful, he wasn’t always right, but the league was a more fun place with him roaming the sidelines.
His style of play remains in vogue, only translated, his ideas still banging around. Countless beat writers have stories about him. Seriously, walk into a media room anywhere in the country and ask for Don Nelson stories. You’ll be there for hours. What says Hall of Fame more than that? So he goes off, having made the game more interesting, having left a legacy, and an enduring image that was never perfect, and not always good, but always worthy of the discussion.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
– William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”