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InsideHoops NBA [Home]

Don Nelson ready to stir Warriors up




| Sept. 26, 2006

Don NelsonThe Golden State Warriors made progress last month, hiring Don Nelson to replace Mike Montgomery as their head coach. Nelson brings with him 27 seasons of NBA coaching experience, winning in all three of his long-term stops. Nelson brings an unconventional style that confuses a lot of teams. Golden State is a team thatís been mired in losing ways for more than a decade. Their last playoff appearance was in 1994, their last series victory coming over the Spurs in 1991, both during Nellie's first reign as head coach.

Chris Mullin and Rod Higgins have made a few good moves over the last couple of years, bringing in Baron Davis from the Hornets for Speedy Claxton and Dale Davis, signing Derek Fisher, and keeping Jason Richardson on the team despite trade rumors. But the Warriors were never able to gel as a team, as Adonal Foyle, Troy Murphy and Ike Diogu were unable to strengthen the Warriors' inside presence. Plus, Mike Dunleavy and Mickael Pietrus haven't been consistent, and Baron Davis hasn't been healthy.

The Warriors came into last year with high expectations, but ended up falling on their faces, and finishing 11th in the Western Conference.

Enter Don Nelson, whose unconventional, sometimes odd coaching strategies have taken mediocre teams and turned them into overachievers. His first stint with the Milwaukee Bucks is a perfect example. He took a struggling 30-win team in 1977 and changed the way they played the game. Starting with the 1980 season, Nelson turned the Bucks squad into a winner, rattling off eight consecutive 49-plus win seasons.

In 1989, Nelson took over a Warriors team that won just 20 games the year before, and took them to the Western Semifinals. He kept the Warriors on the NBA's radar until he left the team during the 1995 season.

Next, Nelson made a pit stop in New York before heading to Dallas in 1998. There, he took the Mavs from a nightmare of a franchise to a title contender, and earned them a Western Conference Finals berth in 2003.

Now Nellie is back in Oakland, and once again he has a young, unproven team with a lot of talent, but no guidance, work ethic or winning history: just the way he likes it. He can mold this team to his liking, inserting his own game plans and tactics without having to compete with the previous coaching regime like Flip Saunders had to do in Detroit. And Nellie is well on his way to putting his stamp on this team, unofficially already naming Troy Murphy their center and Mike Dunleavy their power forward, two players that lack presence in the post.

But while the Warriors took a step forward, they are going to have to take another one before they become serious title contenders. For all the success Nelson has had in the regular season with his overachievement, the playoffs have been disappointing. Nelson has never been to the NBA Finals, and has made only four trips to the Conference Finals in his 27 seasons. Nelson lost all four of those Conference Finals series, with an overall record of 4-16. Much of that has to do with the platform the playoffs are in, as a best-of-seven series doesn't suit teams with quirky styles very well.

Many NBA teams want to play like the Spurs or Heat, with quality defense, a good offensive rhythm, ball movement and fundamental play. But if everybody played like that, the Spurs, Mavs and Heat would win every game, since they are the best at those styles. Since other teams aren't as talented, they need to throw a wrench in the works, and change up the style of play that gives them the best chance to win. Don Nelson is the master of this, as he has turned the Warriors and Mavs into teams that counter the NBA's norm with a run-and-gun style. As a result, those teams were able to surprise some good teams in the flow of the regular season.

When you play in the regular season, you just go with your own simplified style, trying to play every game fairly similarly. But when opponents like the Nellie-coached ones come in, they can beat better teams because they aren't used to Nelson's style of play. However, things get tougher in the playoffs. In a seven game series, teams get a chance to adapt to their opponents, and when they are able to do that, the better team almost always wins. The gimmicky style of play that Nelson uses only gets his teams so far, and it's no coincidence that he's 4-16 in Conference Finals games. The end result: not a single appearance in the NBA Finals. I think it's fair to say that Nellie's style can only go so far.

That means Chris Mullin's job has just begun. These days, Nelson's staying is power not very long, so Mullin will soon have to begin searching for the heir apparent, just like the Mavericks did with Avery Johnson.

Nelson will take this team to a certain point, but it's going to be up to the next coach to get them from that point to being an NBA title contender. In Dallas, it worked out perfectly with Johnson, a tough defensive-minded coach addicted to winning, replacing Nelson. But in Milwaukee (Del Harris) and the first time in Oakland (PJ Carlesimo) the results were dismal, as the teams did not respond to the new style of coaching.

Mullin must begin his search now, and find that perfect candidate to replace Don Nelson, and be the man to take the Warriors to the promised land. If not, Golden State will have three or four years of improvement, and then fall right back down into the doldrums of the NBA.

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