Don Nelson’s tenure as the Knicks’ coach was short. It lasted nine months. He took over for Pat Riley at the end of the 1994-95 season, coached the team to a 34-25 record, and was given the boot mid-season for Jeff Van Gundy.
Why? Nelson says it’s because he told owner James Dolan and the rest of management to trade Knicks’ icon Patrick Ewing for Shaquille O’Neal.
Nelson, now living happily in Hawaii, was on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” this week and talked about what went down.
Gumbel: “Did you really suggest trading Patrick Ewing?”
Nelson: “Yes. It cost me my job … I said, ‘You need to trade Patrick Ewing. And you need to trade him right away. There’s a guy by the name of Shaquille O’Neal that’s available, would love to come to New York. And we can jump in there and beat the Lakers out and get this guy. And we should do it.” And of course it got back to Ewing, and I was done. I was toast (laughing).”
Gumbel: “Why’d you wanna trade him?”
Nelson: “I didn’t think he had very much left in the tank. And he was one-dimensional. He was, you know, he was interested in rebounds and points. And that was it. And I thought that we could do better.”
Gumbel: “What’d Dolan think when you said that?”
Nelson: “He listened. But I got fired about a month later. So somebody didn’t like it.”
By the 1995-96 season, Ewing was 33 years old but averaged 22.5 points and 10.6 rebounds a game, and while his efficiency was starting to slip he was still an All-Star with a PER of 20.1. He would play five more seasons in New York and helped the Knicks reach the 1999 NBA Finals.
Shaq, however, was a 23-year-old dominant force just coming into his prime. In the summer of 1996 he left Orlando and signed with the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent, where he and Kobe Bryant would eventually go on to rack up three rings together.
What would have happened if Nelson got his way? That’s for the writers of fan fiction, but it would have been a very different NBA. And Nelson would have stuck around in New York longer than nine months.