With Don Nelson finally receiving the highest honor within the sport of basketball, I'm republishing an essay I wrote in December 2010 about why he was such a seminal figure.
Don Nelson's basketball philosophy challenged several fundamental assumptions about the game. He didn't just coach the team; he changed the DNA of the entire franchise. He took his unique brand of "Nellie-ball" around the league for over 30 years, with stops in Milwaukee, Golden State (twice), New York and Dallas.
The all-time leader in wins for an NBA coach, he is not in the Basketball Hall of Fame, mainly because he never actually won a championship. But what he understood, and what many of the voters did not, is that he was probably never going to win a championship, no matter what he did.
His formative basketball experience came as a player on the tail-end of the Boston Celtics' dynasty. Nelson won five championships while learning under the feet of legendary coach Red Auerbach, and became one of the first "sixth men", a player with the talent to be a starter who was sent to the bench so that he could generate points against the opponent's reserves. With one minute left in Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals, he hit a jumper from the top of the key which clinched Boston's 11th NBA title in 13 years, and gave Bill Russell one last final win over his long-time nemesis Wilt Chamberlain.
As a coach, Nelson was a true innovator. He understood three basic things:
1) Basketball is just a game of three-dimensional chess. And it's not a very complicated game at that: it's a bunch of guys running around on wood floors in tanktops throwing a ball through a cylinder.
2) Since the closer you get to the cylinder, the easier it is to score, the team that controls the area immediately around the cylinder is in a great position to win. (This would be called "the high ground" in a battle). Whoever has the tallest and most athletic dude will control that area, and that team is going to win nine out of ten times. To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, size isn't everything; it's the only thing.
3) So if your pieces are not as good, if they are not as fast and as tall and as skilled, you will never win by playing by the other guy's game. You have to play a different game, with a different set of assumptions behind it.
NBA coaches can be understood as generals -- deploying personnel in an attempt to control the key strategic territory (the paint) and "win" a contest. As in most wars, one side usually has a personnel advantage over the other. So what should the inferior side do? Sun Tzu's The Art of War sums up "Nellie-ball" in one brilliant phrase:
If he (the enemy) is superior in strength, evade him. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared; appear where you are not expected.
So, if he didn't have that once-in-a-lifetime athletic back-to-the-basket center, what was he going to do? "Nellie-ball" is just a form of asymmetric warfare. When Mao was trying to drive the Japanese out of China in WWII, he knew he didn't have the Army or Navy that could defeat the Japanese empire in head-to-head combat. So he never gave them the chance to fight him conventionally. And when Don Nelson played someone like Shaq, he knew he couldn't defeat him straight up. So he invented "hack-a-Shaq" and he tried to find 6'11+ shooters like Raef LaFrentz and Dirk Nowitzki to force Shaq to run around the perimeter contesting 3's
When Nelson was given the keys to the Dallas Mavericks in the mid-1990's, they were the Clippers South, one of the most hopeless franchises in the NBA. He had Michael Finley, an All-Star caliber shooting guard, but not much else. That all changed in the 1998 NBA Draft, when Nellie found the player he was born to coach -- a gangly seven-foot German developed from the ground-up by a similarly unorthodox basketball mind.
Nellie was never afraid to think for himself. So he didn't just dismiss something he had never seen before. He genuinely thought about it -- this guy is seven feet tall! He has a technically perfect release that he shoots from behind his head! How is anyone supposed to contest his shot?
Dirk Nowitzki is going to go down as one of the top 25 players in the history of the NBA. And no Hall of Famer owes his career to his first coach more then Dirk.
Nelson believed in him when no one else did, declared that he would be the "Rookie of the Year" and then stuck with him after he put up 8/4/2 on 40.5% shooting in his first year. Most importantly, in the 2003 Western Conference Finals, with the best team he had ever coached squared up with the weakest of Tim Duncan's championship squads, he made one of the most unselfish decisions I've ever seen a coach make.
Nowitzki had torn ligaments in his knee in Game 3, and he still wanted to suit up. The fans, the coaches and Mark Cuban were pushing hard. This would be Nelson's last and best chance at winning a title and securing his legacy, but he wouldn't buckle. He was more concerned about Dirk's Nowitzki's long-term health, more worried about fulfilling a promise he made to Dirk's parents when he drafted him, that he would look out for him as if he was own son. He told Dirk: "He must feel he's totally 100 percent for me to play him again this series.''
Cuban, like the fans, was incensed. This was the Mavericks best chance at a title! The Spurs were right there for the taking! Now that I'm older, I can see how right Nelson was, and how hard it must have been for him to make that decision. Even if Dirk hadn't gotten hurt again and the Mavs had won a championship in 2003, it just wasn't worth the risk he would permanently destroy his knee. Dirk is about to pass Larry Bird on the all-time scoring list, and has been the centerpiece of an unheard of 10-straight 50+ win teams in Dallas. None of those things I would give up, not even for a championship.
At the end of the day, Nellie understood that it was just a game. And he wasn't going to risk the career and legacy of his surrogate son for a game, no matter "how important" it might be.