Nelson leads league in wins, critics (cont.)
For each success, there has been a companion dose of controversy and back-office mayhem that has perhaps shaped Nelson's legacy more than anything.
Embry, a Hall of Famer and the league's first African-American general manager, accused Nelson of calling him a racial epithet not long after Embry hired him in Milwaukee. Nelson strongly denied the claim, including as recently as this season, when the agent for Bobcats swingman Stephen Jackson used the alleged incident as grist to get Jackson traded from Golden State.
Nelson achieved a lot of success in Golden State with the Run TMC core, but it essentially ended when he had a public dispute in 1993 with then-rookie Chris Webber, a strong-willed player and member of Michigan's Fab Five, who felt Nelson disrespected him. Webber was ultimately dealt to Washington for Tom Gugliotta and three first-round picks, the first misstep in owner Chris Cohan's largely unsuccessful ownership stint; Nelson was fired soon thereafter.
Nelson had a mostly unpopular and brief stint in New York, where he openly clashed with players and was probably the wrong coach to take over after Pat Riley had built defensive-oriented teams. In Dallas, he recorded four straight 50-win seasons, but again, it all ended with a feud. (He sued owner Mark Cuban and was awarded $6.3 million in deferred payments by an arbitrator.) And when he returned to Golden State, Nelson stirred controversy as rumors circulated about his role in the firing of then-GM Mullin and the dismantling of the roster that briefly invigorated Warriors fans with Golden State's first-round upset of Dallas.
By most accounts, this season has been a debacle. Nelson feuded with Stephen Jackson, ridiculed Andris Biedrins for his dreadful free-throw shooting and clashed with star guard Monta Ellis, whom many think got worn down after Nelson continued to play him in a string of 48-minute games.
But Nelson's supporters say he has never done a better job. While the Warriors have dealt with more injuries than any other team in the league, Nelson has helped a roster full of D-League players stay competitive in most games. Even when the Warriors are losing by more than 20 points, they almost always seem to make a comeback.
Perhaps it is Nelson's mien and countenance that have polluted public opinion. He knows his lengthy career is over either after this season -- if he is fired -- or next, when his contract runs out. He no longer plays the public relations game with the media, choosing instead to sometimes endure but mostly ignore and dismiss questions he doesn't feel like answering.
Nelson simply appears to not care any longer.
"For those of us who work our butts off every day because we appreciate being in this league, it is an insult the way he acts," said one coach who wished to remain anonymous. "He has no energy for the game."
Yet Nelson disputes that notion, insisting that he approaches the game with the same amount of zeal as he did in those uncertain days in Milwaukee.
"I enjoy every day of it," he said. "Every day. I love to compete."
Those within the Warriors' organization know Nelson will not retire after this season, not with $6 million left on his contract. Whether he gets another chance to be elected to the Hall of Fame as an active coach remains to be seen. He's been nominated three times since 2007, with this year being the latest setback. There are many possible reasons why: his demeanor, voters' knowledge of him, the résumé of other nominees on the ballot, the fact that he's never won a title -- who knows when the process is so secretive?
"I think [winning a title] is important," Nelson said. "But Jerry Sloan got in, so that probably helped my cause, whatever the cause is."
Sloan did not win any championships as a player with the Baltimore Bullets or the Chicago Bulls. He has not won an NBA title as a coach, though he made it to the Finals twice. He has about 250 fewer victories than Nelson (though Sloan's winning percentage is superior). He has no Coach of the Year awards, while Nelson has three. And yet, the Hall of Fame inducted Sloan in 2009.
"I never said I don't care about the Hall of Fame," Nelson said. "I said I'm not worthy of the Hall of Fame, not that it doesn't matter for me. It would be a great honor.
"But I don't have to have any accolades. I have been a good coach. Anybody you talk to will tell you I have been a good coach wherever I have been, and that is what is important to me."
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