The Inbounds: The NBA’s unintentional tribute to Don Nelson

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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”

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.