Don Nelson, the innovative coach who forced more people to rethink the game than any coach in the last four decades — yes, you read that correctly — has officially decided he is finished coaching after 36 years on the sideline, according to a report.
If fans remember Nelson, 72, for his inability to win a championship as a coach, they miss the point. Nelson won loads of games — the most of any coach in NBA history — but most of all, he changed the game. Many aspects of basketball strategy that are now common knowledge were radical innovations when Nelson conceived them. Without Nelson, there might not have been anything special about point forwards like Grant Hill or Scottie Pippen, and there might never have been reason to grant a cool nickname to Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin. Dirk Nowitzki would almost certainly be remembered as just another failed European big man who could not play defense or score in the low post.
Due to the nature and speed of the game, innovations in basketball are often not as obvious as in a sport like football or baseball. The regular stoppages in play make it easier to notice how a Don Coryell offense lined up before the snap and how the players operated during a play, or to examine the subtleties in Ted Williams' stance right before he swung. Most of the time, basketball players look like they simply are running around, hoping somebody gets open so he can put the ball in the hoop.
When Nelson became head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1976, the same year he retired as a player after spending 11 seasons under the NBA's most influential coach, Red Auerbach, he soon instituted changes that were striking even to the relatively untrained eye. Nelson assigned ballhandling duties to 6-foot-5 forward Paul Pressey, creating the "point forward" position, which allowed him to start two strong scorers in Rickey Pierce and Sidney Moncrief in the backcourt. That small lineup might have won its share of Eastern Conference titles had it not operated simultaneous to the powerhouse Celtics and Sixers of that era.
Nelson continued the small-ball approach in Golden State (twice), and the philosophy got him run out of town with the Knicks, who had a pretty good center in Patrick Ewing. By his second run with the Warriors, nearly every team without a dominant center employed the fairly obvious strategy that Nelson more or less invented 30 years earlier.
It all started because the Bucks of the 1980s lacked an imposing inside force. Kent Benson was a solid 6-foot-10 center who failed to live up to the spectacular expectations of being a No. 1 overall pick. Bob Lanier was no longer the shot-blocker and rebounder he had once been, although he still possessed a consistent outside shot. Alton Lister could protect the paint but was not much of an offensive threat. Pat Cummings would not break double digits in scoring average or reach four rebounds per game until he left the Bucks for Dallas. There was even a brief Len Elmore sighting.
Those Bucks teams got most of their offensive oomph from their backcourt and the wings. Moncrief, Pierce, Marques Johnson and Junior Bridgeman ran the show until 6-foot-9 forward Terry Cummings, himself hardly a low-post bruiser, arrived in 1984. (Jack Sikma did not join the Bucks until 1986, Nelson's last year in Milwaukee.) Since none of his big men could keep a good defensive center occupied on their own, Nelson needed to get the opposing shot-blocker away from the hoop, where he could not bother Moncrief or Johnson's drives. Nelson did the seemingly obvious thing and positioned his center on the perimeter, moving the opponent's big man well out of position to help on defense. It was patently absurd, putting a 7-footer 20 feet from the basket, if not for the tiny detail that it worked. Few guards were as exciting to watch in '80s as Moncrief.
This move was the precursor to the "stretch four" position that exists now, when Nelson — who else? — figured out how dangerous it could be if his big guy not only could draw his man out to the perimeter but also drain a long-distance shot if the defender did not respect it. When Nowitzki appeared in 1998, it was as though the perfect player had found his perfect coach. Nelson was gone from Dallas by the time Nowitzki and the Mavericks, coached by Avery Johnson, made it to the NBA Finals in 2006, but the following year Nelson recorded his most famous achievement when his eighth-seeded Warriors upset the top-seeded Mavericks in six games.
Oddly, the series served as a repudiation of Nelson's tactics. Since Nowitzki and the Mavs' style of play were his creation, the fact that Dallas loss to a less-talented team was perceived by some as evidence that there had been some flaw in the way Nelson developed the roster.
The thing with innovation is that smart ideas get copied quickly and built upon constantly, until the original idea is just another one of the fundamentals. Every freshman quarterback now learns the forward passing principles that were outlandish when Coryell put them into practice with the St. Louis Cardinals. All the jokes in Mel Brooks movies seem stale to anyone who has seen the Scary Movie parodies, except Brooks made those same jokes 20 to 30 years earlier. A light bulb is probably the simplest use of electricity in most of our homes, whereas it was pretty much the most groundbreakingly amazing thing ever when Thomas Edison patented a commercial light bulb in 1879.
The ideas Nelson brought to basketball are now just something people take for granted, like walking into a room and flipping a light switch without giving a single thought to Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse and Edison. The things that seem obvious now are only obvious to a select few in the beginning, and while Nelson's contributions to society may not be as significant as the world's greatest inventers in the field of science, Nelson's field was basketball.
If Nelson is remembered solely for winning more games than any coach in NBA history, and not for the wild ideas that became mainstream, it is because Nelson achieved what few could. He changed the game by redefining what was normal.