Nelson doesn't back away from his reputation as an experimenter, but he insists that his tactics aren't as unorthodox as they sometimes appear. Take his decision earlier this season to have 7-foot forward Dirk Nowitzki guard the Warriors' 5'3" Muggsy Bogues. While admitting it sounds bizarre, he says he did it because he wanted to use Nowitzki to double-team other players, and he felt that Nowitzki could do that and still, with his long reach, contest Bogues's shots.
Attempting to figure out what Nelson will do next is trickier than trying to solve a Rubik's Cube, with which he has something in common: They were both hot in the '70s and '80s but seem dated in the '90s. Even Miami Heat point guard Tim Hardaway, who was one of Nelson's stars at Golden State and says his former coach "still has a great mind for the game," thinks Nelson has lost a bit of his edge. "I think he's still living back when he was trying to innovate, trying to cause mismatches and chaos on the floor."
Nelson treats such criticism the way he deals with a biting wind: He refuses to be swayed by it. "I try a lot of different techniques that are unorthodox," he says. "They don't always work, but very often they do. There are a lot of times when something we do might look strange at first glance, but there's a well-thought-out reason behind it. I'm not going to stop doing things that I think can help us win just because they seem unusual or just because I get lambasted for it from time to time."
As general manager Nelson hasn't made his job as coach any easier. Last year he swapped draft picks with Milwaukee to obtain Nowitzki, a 20-year-old forward from Würzburg, Germany, who was taken ninth, just ahead of Kansas forward Paul Pierce. Before this season started Nelson proclaimed Nowitzki the likely Rookie of the Year, but the young German quickly played himself out of the starting lineup and has only lately begun to show flashes of the talent Nelson saw in him. The 6'7" Pierce, meanwhile, is a Rookie of the Year candidate for the Boston Celtics, a fact that Nelson has been reminded of daily.
There will be no first-round choice to second-guess this year because Nelson traded the Mavs' pick along with three players to the Phoenix Suns for point guard Steve Nash last June. Nash has shot 36.3% from the floor this season, and with each Dallas loss it becomes more apparent that the choice Nelson traded away will be a lottery pick. "Nellie always goes for the home run," says Magic senior executive vice president Pat Williams. "Many times when you don't hit the home run, you swing and miss."
But Nelson's front-office moves haven't been nearly as strange as the ones he has made on the bench—or the ones Donn will make when his dad moves back to the executive suite and he takes over after next season. "If he's a mad scientist," says Donn, "then I'm Young Frankenstein." They are bonded by their belief that the NBA game has degenerated from a fluid passing-and-cutting thing of beauty into a stagnant eyesore. That may be true. But in 20 years Nelson has yet to show that he can assemble or coach a more elegant team that can contend for the title.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Nelson is that his troops still seem to have faith in him. "Playing for Nellie is fun at times and hard at times," says forward Michael Finley, the Mavs' leading scorer. "It's fun in the sense that he puts certain lineups on the floor to run and gun. But it's difficult, too, because you try to get a chemistry going with a certain starting five, and then it changes. You have to just adjust to that, but as the season goes on, you kind of get used to Nellie's way of coaching."
"My dad is like an Impressionist painter," the younger Nelson says. "It's not going to be black and white with him. It's not going to be pat and predictable."
The older Nelson says he has gotten calls from league officials asking him for suggestions on how to increase scoring and generally improve the product. But if he is to resurrect the Mavericks, Nelson will have to worry less about changing the NBA's style of play and more about adapting to it. It doesn't take a genius to realize that it's hard to get anywhere walking into the wind.
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