An In-Depth Study: Don Nelson Doesn't Play Rookies.....
The Warriors have undergone a tremendous amount of transformation the past couple of years. We went from an up and coming playoff team only to return back to the familiar lottery faster than Monta Ellis can go on a moped. Gone is the golden buzz-cut of Mully, whom Nellie helped fight alcoholism as a player. In his place is the salt and pepper doo of Larry Riley, Nellie's drinking buddy. The face of the franchise is no longer the bearded smile of Baron Davis and the scowling face of Cap'n Jack but the baby faced trio of Monta Ellis, Anthony Randolph, and Stephen Curry.
That youth and potential has played a large part in turning the fans against the one man who remains at the center of all the success and madness..... Don Nelson. Nellie was a godsend from Maui when he led the Warriors to the playoffs, but due to a losing record and questionable rotations most Warrior fans are praying that Nellie takes the 5 hour trip to Maui on a one-way ticket.
Last season, many Warrior fans questioned why Wright, Randolph, Belinelli, and Morrow sat on the bench while Jackson, Maggette, and Crawford led the Warriors into the lottery. Detractors proposed that if you are going to lose you might as well lose with young players. This mentality only became stronger once Randolph and Morrow flourished with extended minutes late in the season. Detractors repeat that Nelson's distaste for young players stunted their growth because he was reluctant to give them game time. As the losses mounted and the 1st and 2nd year players continued to ride the pine, Warrior fans began to wish for the firing of Don Nelson. Suddenly, the man who led the team to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years was now the last coach many fans would want guiding the youngest team in the NBA.
Could that statement be true of the coach with the 2nd most wins in the NBA, a 3-time Coach of the Year, who only has 9 losing seasons in 30 years of coaching, and has turned around the Bucks, Mavericks, and Warriors (twice)?
I am a firm believer in looking at the past to learn about the future and to answer that question I went back and looked at EVERY 1st year player Don Nelson has coached dating back to 1976 with the Milwaukee Bucks. That's roughly 80 players over 3 decades! I collected and analyzed the players' minutes per game, games started, and games played for their 1st and 2nd seasons along with career achievements such as All*Star appearances, number of NBA seasons, and career minutes per game. Given the data set the results were strongly conclusive: DON NELSON DOESN'T PLAY ROOKIES.......... ONLY IF THEY SUCK!
***WARNING: THIS IS A LONG READ***
For this study I used basketball-reference.com as a source for all the data. In an effort to show trends in Nelson's usage of young players I collected the 1st and 2nd year minutes per game, games started, and games played of rookies who broke into the NBA under Nelson. This means 2nd year players who played for a different coach their rookie seasons, but joined Nelson in their 2nd season were omitted. I then collected career milestones (All*Star appearances, career, mpg, and NBA seasons played) to use as a comparison and to define the quality of career the players went on to have. After I broke down the data amongst color-coded tiers and averaged out the 1st and 2nd year mpg, games started and games played to see if any trends emerge. This data is shown in the link to the table posted in the next section.
In calculating the averages I omitted the rookies of the 1994 season where Nelson left the team mid-way into the season as it impossible to determine who controlled the players minutes. Also, the Year 2 averages are calculated using only players who played for Nelson in their second seasons so some players such as Chris Webber, John Starks, and Devin Harris 2nd year numbers are not calculated.
NELSON AND PAST ROOKIES
How did I screw this up?
The spreadsheet can be intimidating to look at but the player lists should be clearly labeled and the color coding can be explained by the table on the right. The table on the right compiles all of the averages of Year 1 (blue), Year 1 without players who would only spend their rookie season in the NBA (green), and Year 2 (purple). It is then followed by the career barometers. This table is what the following section will discuss.
The data shows the average Don Nelson rookie is nearly 23 years old and will play 14 minutes per game, start 11 games, and play in 40 games during their rookie season. For those fortunate enough to play their 2nd season under Nelson the average 2nd year player will play 21 mpg, start 26 games, and play in 62 games. For comparison during the 08/09 season the 64 rookies league wide averaged 12 mpg in 38 games, while the 2nd year players averaged 15 mpg in 40 games. I admit the league wide comparison for one season is a small sample set to compare to but it does show that Don Nelson generally uses rookies and 2nd year players at a same rate if not more so than the league average.
ETA: This is data comparing Nellie's past 30 years vs the past 4 years of MPG and 5 yrs of GP as tracked by NBA.com for those seeking a longer control. Pretty much the same results showing that Nellie is league average in use of rookies in regard to his peers. If someone wants to do a 30 year comparison be my guest.
- Nelson: 40.27 GP/ 14.11 mpg
- League: 42.85 GP/ 13.84 mpg
-Nelson: 62.75 GP/ 21.11 mpg
-League: 50.67 GP/ 16.99 mpg
When we look at the numbers divided by draft position: Lottery picks, Non-lottery 1st rounders, 2nd rounders or later, and undrafted FA (UDFA) we clearly see that the more "talented" players drafted in the lottery averaged more minutes than the other groups during the rookie seasons and that UDFA average 1 more minute per game than 2nd round or later players. This should be no surprise as lottery picks are considered to be more talented and franchises often play lottery picks more minutes to test out their new toys regardless of performance. However, once a player made it into the 2nd season, Nelson did not hand out playing time based on draft position. The Lottery picks, 1st rounders, and UDFA averaged around 20 mpg and in fact UDFA earned more minutes than 2nd rounders who averaged only 15 mpg in their 2nd seasons. We also see that games played and started are distributed along a downward trend from Lottery picks to UDFA with the exception of 2nd year non-lottery 1st rounders appearing in more games than lottery picks (injuries) and that UDFA had more starts than 2nd rounders or later.
One of the other criticisms of Nelson is that he hates playing young big men and we can see from the data that Nelson did play guards more than forwards and centers. However, this could be correlated to the players' actual talent level as the guards had higher career minutes per game compared to the forwards and centers. It is interesting to note that while the centers averaged less career mpg than the guards or forwards, their careers lasted longer. It just goes to show that you can stick around the NBA for a while just by being tall.
The next 3 levels are where we can see if Nelson truly has a bias against playing rookies and 2nd year players or if use of the rookies reflected their ability to contribute to the team. If Nelson truly has a bias against rookies we should see limited playing time in their 1st and 2nd seasons across the board no matter how the players are sorted.
When looking at the players by dividing up those who ended up appearing in multiple All*Star games, a lone All*Star appearance, and those who were never All*Stars we see that Nelson DOES NOT hate playing rookies. Actually, he has no problem making rookies starters if they had the ability to contribute to the team. Those who ended up playing in multiple All*Star games were instant contributors and starters in their 1st year with averages of 28 mpg, 65 games started, and 72 games played. In the 2nd year Nelson rode these players hard as they averaged 34 mpg and 80 starts in 80 games played. Those who appeared in one All*Star game had to earn Nellie's trust their rookie season in 15 minutes a game, but after one year they became rotation players by averaging about 24 minutes per game, starting 54, and playing in 76. These numbers clearly show that Nelson will play those with the ability to impact the game whether they are a rookie or 2nd year pro.
If you look at a player's career quality based on NBA seasons played we see similar distribution of numbers. Those who ended up having 10 plus seasons in the NBA played more minutes and started and played in more games during their first 2 years compared to those who ended up playing 5-9 years, 2-4 years, and those who were out of the league after their rookie seasons. Those in the 10 year vet tier were almost immediate NBA rotation players with 21 mpg/30gs/64gp Year 1 and a 26 mpg/42gs/74gp in Year 2. Using the third barometer of career quality, career minutes per game, we see that those in the upper tier, 29 mpg or more, were instant starters in their 1st and 2nd years 27mpg/61gs/72gp in Year 1 and 33mpg/72gs/75gp in Year 2.
It is clear that Don Nelson does not play rookies and 2nd year players based on an irrational hatred for them but frankly, because most NBA rookies and 2nd year players are not good enough to help the ballclub. This is evidenced by the fact that no matter what measurement of career quality you choose to use (All*Star appearances, NBA seasons played, and career minutes) the top tier always played more minutes and started more games their 1st and 2nd year compared to those below them.
Another revelation from studying Nelson's history of rookies is how adept a talent evaluator Nelson is. Except for a select few, by a player's second season Nelson was able to determine exactly how useful a player would be to a NBA team. This was shown by the fact that the players' minutes per game tiers matched their career minutes per game tier by their 2nd season. You can verify this by looking at the player list and comparing the colors.
Of all the 70 or so rookies who have retired or played long enough for us to get a firm grasp on their careers Nelson has only over or underplayed (based on mpg tiering) 10 players during their first two seasons in comparison to their career minutes per game tier. They are:
Player - (1st year MPG/2nd year MPG/Career) *- other coach
Underplayed (Players in whose MPG in 1st or 2nd season < tier than career average)
- Alex English - 10.8/18.9/31.9
- Scott Skiles (only rookie year under Nellie) - 15.8/14.9*/28
- John Starks (only rookie year under Nellie) - 8.8/19.2*/27.2
- Larry Robinson - 7.1/6/13.5
- Chris Gatling - 11.3/17.8/19.7
- Devin Harris (only rookie year under Nelson) - 15.4/22.8*/24.4
- Mbenga (only rookie year under Nelson) - 3.9/5.5*/6.1
- Pavel Poedkolzin (only rookie year under Nelson) - 2/18*/4.7
Overplayed (Players in whose MPG in 1st or 2nd season > tier than career average)
- Ernie Grunfeld - 17.3/21.7/18.6
- Andre Spencer - 23.9/12.6/16.1
Upon further inspection of that list you can see that see that even Nelson's "misses" can be cut down. In the underplayed category Harris, Mbenga, and Pavel only had their rookie seasons under Nelson since he stepped away from the sideline. Scott Skiles and John Starks left after one season under Nellie so he was not afforded a second season to see their improvements (you can also argue that Nelson let these talented player get away). Skiles mpg under a different coach in his 2nd year was similar to his rookie season under Nellie, but Starks did settle into his career tier mpg. Larry Robinson was able to improve from the 12th man to garbage time player so I don't really count that as a "miss" and Chris Gatling's 2nd season mpg was actually pretty close to his career average. Looking at the two players Nelson overplayed shows that Grunfeld's career mpg was pretty close to his 1st and 2nd year mpg and that Andre Spencer was overplayed in his rookie season but he fell into his career tier in his second and final season in the NBA.
This leaves out of the 70 or so rookies to play under Nelson only one true "miss" and what a miss it was..... Hall of Famer, Alex English. During his rookie season English was nothing more than a garbage time player. In his second season he was able to work himself into the rotation, but then he bolted to Indiana for his 3rd year until he was traded Denver where he went on to average 25 + ppg until he was 35. So did Nelson hold English back or did something click in English after he left Nelson in Milwaukee? We can't determine that from numbers but in Nelson's defense he has far more hits than this lone strike out.
From the data we see that Nelson does not have a bias when it comes to players and that production is all that matters. If you have talent to help the team win he'll play you whether you are a lottery pick, 1st rounder, 2nd rounder, or UDFA. He also has no problems making a rookie an instant starter as evidenced by Marques Johnson, Mitch Richmond, Tim Hardaway, Billy Owens, Latrell Sprewell, and Chris Webber. Nelson also is a master talent evaluator and can figure out a player's potential by the time they are in their second season in the league. Nelson's value of production regardless of draft position or experience and ability to evaluate NBA talent seems to make Nelson the PERFECT coach for a young team.
NELSON AND THE CURRENT WARRIORS
Nelson's chance to make up for C-Webb.
So what good is all of this info to us Warrior fans? Now that we established that Nelson does not have an irrational hatred/bias for young players we can look at the young players on our roster and put them and their potential in the proper perspective.
We'll start with the lone survivor of the 2006 rookie class, UDFA Kelenna Azubuike. A great indicator of Bukie's potential as an NBA player is that he improved his minutes per game from his rookie year in his second year in regards to tiers. He jumped into the orange tier (19-28.99 mpg) so he likely solidified himself as legit NBA rotation player who will spend 5-9 years in the league. His lack of starts in his 2nd season probably means he'll never sniff an All*Star game but for an UDFA you'd be thrilled just to get a NBA rotation player/spot starter, asking for an All*Star is just getting greedy.
As a rookie Brandan Wright played significantly less then the rookie averages of past Nelson lottery picks and forwards. He actually averaged minutes usually afforded to 2nd rounders or UDFA which is not a good sign. In his second season he improved enough to play 17.6 minutes per game but then was hampered by injuries. Despite the injuries, the lack of minutes that Wright did play in the games he was healthy for should be a red flag, especially on a team in need of a power forward. Just based on the numbers of Nelson's past rookies, Wright maybe out of the league after his rookie contract runs out. However, Wright is too skilled at scoring inside for that to actually happen but those expecting an All*Star or a potential starter should temper your expectations for Wright as it looks like he will be a career back up/spot starter. People like to point to Wright's youth, but do you know who were the last two PFs drafted in the lottery that Nelson had on his team for a full season? Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Webber. Both entered the league as 20 year old rookies like Wright, but Webber was an instant starter and Dirk made the leap in his 2nd year. What did Wright manage to do? Nothing. So age should not be used as an excuse for Wright. Who knows, Wright could be Alex English 2.0 but I wouldn't hold my breath.
Who knew the best player from this crop would be an UDFA? Watson parlayed a 10 day contract into spot on the team for his 2nd season where he, like Bukie, jumped into the orange tier. He should stick around the league as a back-up PG. The question is will he be in the Bay for a while or will he be re-uniting with Pietrus and Barnes in Orlando?
While Belinelli is no longer on the team, I'd like to go over his numbers since he was recently traded and due to his summer league performances and Nelson's comments, he gave some Warrior fans misguided hope of greater things to come. Marco had a dramatic improvement in minutes jumping into orange tier and like Bukie and Watson before him Marco looks to be a solid NBA rotation player but he's a long shot to be an All*Star given the lack of starts in his second year. Marco will likely be a rotation player, but he has upside to be an S-Jax like starter. As you can see the Warriors have enough "starters/NBA rotation players" at the wing spots so trading the one you would use the least for a practice body and cash is not a big deal especially considering the potential distractions a la Pietrus in 07-08. Nelson gave Marco a look and saw he didn't have "it."
This brings us to Anthony Randolph and Anthony Morrow aka the only reason I watched the 08-09 Warriors. While we can't plan their exact career arc right now since they're heading into their 2nd season the one thing we'll be able to do after this season is get a firm grasp of their true potential as NBA players as the 2nd year is pretty much the make or break year for Nelson rookies.
As an UDFA Anthony Morrow received playing time Nelson usually grants to 1st round draft picks. This is a testament to the ability of Morrow and Nelson's indifference to draft slot. Aside from Andre Spencer and Renaldo Major every player who played rotation minutes in their rookie year (8) went on to stay in the same tier in their 2nd season (6) or jump into the green tier and became All*Stars (2). So using strictly numbers from this limited sample Morrow has a 20% chance to be bust, a 60% chance to remain a solid rotation player, or a 20% chance to become an All*Star like Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard, players who started in the orange tier and jumped into the green tier in their 2nd years. I'm not saying those are hard cold truths, but at least you can see why the Warriors traded Belinelli and declared it was to clear room for Morrow, because Morrow has the potential to be an All*Star player unlike Belinelli.
Judging from the hype Randolph has been garnering this off-season most would be surprised to find out that using Nelson's history of rookies Randolph's chances of becoming the All*Star, franchise altering starter we've been hoping for is actually less than Morrow's. In his rookie season, Randolph averaged 17.9 minutes which puts him in the blue tier. Of all the Nelson rookies ZERO have gone from blue tier into the green tier in minutes per game which correlated with becoming a legit NBA starter and potential All*Star. There were 22 other rookies who started in the blue tier, 7 played with another coach in their 2nd season and 1 was out of the league after his rookie year. So out of the 14 players who played their rookie and 2nd years under Nelson: 5 remained in the blue tier and 9 improved enough to play in the orange tier (19 mpg - 28.99 mpg). So are our eyes fooling us and are we expecting too much from this young man? Maybe, but there is a glimmer of hope! Aside from the 18 year old Bruno Sundov, Randolph was the youngest rookie at 19 that Nelson has EVER coached. In fact there have been no other 19 year olds under Nelson's watch. That Randolph was able to earn the playing time that he did bodes well for Randolph and the Warriors. Nelson is treading new ground here with the young Randolph, but what better time for Nelson to have a young, All-World talented forward then a time in his career when people think Nelson hates playing young guys? Nelson has already declared Randolph the starter at PF so it's all up to Anthony now.
Now we come to the most recent potential "savior" for the Dubs. While, Stephen Curry has yet to play a minute in the NBA by the time his rookie season is over we should get a good grasp of his talent as he enters the league as a 21 year old rookie. He has the pedigree, experience, and skills that Nelson covets and it's now up to him to put the work into becoming an NBA player. He won't have the excuse of youth that Randolph has or the UDFA expectations of Morrow. He was a lottery pick and the road block to a deal that would have sent Amare to the Bay - so the expectations are great. If Curry averages less than 19 minutes per game this season (orange tier) you can pretty much consider him a long shot to become an All*Star caliber player because as I went over in the paragraph above if you start out in the blue tier your All*Star chances are slim to none. However, Nelson only played Devin Harris 15 mpg as a 21 year old rookie and whiffed on Alex English so he's not infallible. If he is able to average 19-28 mpg then he's on track to be a solid NBA player or potential All*Star. The best thing with Nellie's "tough love" on rookies is it really isolates the stud players. If Curry plays at least 29 minutes per game as a rookie you can pretty much pencil him into multiple NBA All*Star teams as 5 out of the 6 rookies who Nelson made instant starters went on to multiple All*Star games (Webber, Sprewell, Owens - played 10 years but not an All*Star, Hardaway, Richmond, and Marques Johnson). So while Curry's rookie year has yet to begun by the end of it we'll find out whether he's the PG of the future or just a pretender.
How long will we have to wait this time? Not long, I hope.
Hopefully after reading this we can put the Nelson "doesn't play rookies" myth to rest. I know after a tough season like last year, people begin to question the coach but as I stated before this is a 3 time coach of the year, who has only had 9 losing seasons in 30 years, and has turned around the post-Kareem Bucks, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Warriors twice. He is the perfect candidate to guide this young team because Nelson does not see draft positions or rookies/veterans, all Nellie sees is production. He runs his franchises under meritocracy. Those who produce, play, simple enough. Coaching a young team this way lets young players know that they have to work to earn their minutes and that nothing will be handed to them. While many see Nelson irrationally keeping rookies to the bench, now that you've read this hopefully you realize that the limited minutes is Nelson teaching these young men what it takes to be an NBA player. In the process only the strong will survive and those who flourish after their rookie seasons under Nellie seem to do so BECAUSE of him and not in spite of him.
So Warrior fans there are plenty of reasons to criticize Nellie (defense, small ball, etc) but he's honestly one of the best coaches to nurture a young team. The jury is still out on Wright, but I'd side with Nellie rather than the court of public opinion. Luckily for us he has already cultivated 2 solid NBA players in Bukie and Watson and has potential All*Stars in Morrow and Randolph. This season is an important one for the Dubs and will speak a lot about the future with so many young players in their formative years. Don't be surprised to hear at the end of next season how great Nellie is again after he gets a fully healthy squad fighting for the playoffs featuring Randolph, Morrow, Bukie, and Watson (?) as key contributors. I won't be and I'm sure Nellie won't either as he spent last year weeding out the weak and laying the foundation for Randolph and Morrow's 2nd year success. Let's go Warriors!
Thanks for sticking with me this long. Hopefully you read this and take a second of your life to "rec" this post. It would be much appreciated! Peace out.