Don Nelson has the most wins of any coach in NBA history, but he never won a championship, or even made the NBA Finals. He won Head Coach of the Year three times, but none of his teams left a significant mark on the competitive history of the NBA. A mad scientist, Nellie was always bucking convention, trying out strategies that other coaches wouldn’t dare to do. For the most part, his experiments didn’t allow his teams to approach the elite echelon of basketball dynasties during his time.
Nelson was obsessed with two concepts foremost: the point forward and small-ball. Both strategies put smaller players in positions to score points in a hurry, and use their quickness and shooting ability to overwhelm traditional defenses. The cost was a defensive system that gave up a lot of height, size, and rebounds. Ultimately, Nelson believed, against basketball convention, that the offensive explosion of Nellie Ball would overcome its defensive deficiencies.
When Nelson was coach of the Warriors during the Run TMC era, he would split playmaking responsibilities among Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin, whereas most teams would begin their offensive sets with their point guard almost exclusivey. He also opted for lineups with three guards and two forwards, without a traditional center, to increase the pace and add shooting. When he was the coach of the Mavericks in the early 2000’s, he put Dirk Nowitzki at center alongside Steve Nash and Michael Finley in an effort to have five shooters on the floor at all times.
When Don Nelson became coach of the Warriors again in 2006, the team hadn’t made the playoffs in over a decade. In Baron Davis and Jason Richardson, he had two big guards who could pile on the points. Recent draftees Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins fit Nellie Ball as well: Monta was a small guard with incredible handles and burst, while Andris was one of the quickest centers in the league.
But still, the team wasn’t good. Midway through the season, the team acquired forwards Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, in perhaps the greatest trade in recent Warriors history. Both Jackson and Harrington were physical enough to survive as centers in the small-ball lineups, and Jackson especially could create for his teammates and handle the ball.
This mashup of misfits shouldn’t have worked. They were all too small too defend, and too brazen to come together. But as we all know, they pushed their way into the playoffs, and became the first eighth seed to knock off a one seed in a seven-game series. They confounded MVP Dirk Nowitzki with their physical play, ran circles around the Mavericks’ defense, and shocked the basketball world.
Don Nelson was right about so much. He knew that small-ball could work: the greatest teams of the past couple years have changed the center position forever. The Heat began it by moving Chris Bosh from power forward to center, and the Warriors changed the league forever when they realized Draymond Green, who’s barely six-foot-seven, could stand alone in the paint.
He was also correct about the threat of point forwards. Having multiple playmakers on the floor opens up a whole world of possibilities, such as putting your guards into positions to score in volume. Nowadays, the need for a traditional pass-first point guard is not as important if a team has other passers available.
Nellie didn’t have all the answers: he didn’t quite find out how small-ball could stay on the court defensively. After We Believe, he tried to find a small-ball center who could fly on offense and protect the rim enough defensively, drafting thin but athletic big men in Patrick O’Bryant, Brandan Wright, and Anthony Randolph. None of them panned out for the Warriors, and the We Believe Warriors faded out. Only when the Warriors drafted Draymond Green, a chubby small forward without a reliable shot or decent hops, the new small-ball wave would take off. That Draymond Green would solve the Nellie Ball conundrum is still one of the strangest events in basketball history.
The league has changed completely since We Believe. Teams embrace speed and shooting, and every team is looking for versatile big men who can anchor a small-ball system. Many players who were valuable a few years ago are obsolete now, while fringe guys like Draymond Green and PJ Tucker have found new life as small-ball magicians on elite squads. Don Nelson didn’t find the success his strategies now achieve, but he had the courage to try them in a league so different from his visions. And after all these years, he was right.