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Whoa, Nellie!
Phil Taylor
April 26, 1999
For two decades Don Nelson has scoffed at convention, but his wacky coaching tactics and dubious front-office moves have made a mockery of the Mavericks
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April 26, 1999

Whoa, Nellie!

For two decades Don Nelson has scoffed at convention, but his wacky coaching tactics and dubious front-office moves have made a mockery of the Mavericks

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Downsizing
Don Nelson, who has never designed a traditional offense, says he would have installed a low-post-oriented attack if he had had a quality center. But can an established big man have his best years under Nellie? In the last two decades, none have--with the exception of the Mavericks' Shawn Bradley (above), whose productivity is up slightly.

Before Nelson

Under Nelson

SEASONS

FG%

SCORING

SEASONS

FG%

SCORING

Bob Lanier

1973-74 to 79-80

50.8%

22.7

1979-80 to'83-84

54.1%

13.5

Jack Sikma

1977-78 to'85-86

47.1%

16.8

1986-87

46.3%

12.7

Ralph Sampson

1983-84 to'87-88

49.5%

19.3

1988-89

44.9%

6.4

Patrick Ewing

1985-86 to'94-95

52.0%

23.8

1995-96

46.6%

22.3

Shawn Bradley

1993-94 to'96-97

43.9%

10.6

1996-97 to present*

44.5%

11.8

*Statistics through Sunday's games.

A Stiff Texas wind was whistling, bending trees and whipping through Don Nelson's silver hair as he sat outside the Dallas Mavericks' practice facility last week. People walked by, hunched against the cold, but Nelson, the Mavericks' coach and general manager, stared directly into the gusts, oblivious to the chill. Lately, a thick skin has been Nelson's most valuable asset because his bizarre moves on the bench and in the front office have fans, reporters and even some of his colleagues wondering if he has any clue about which way the wind is blowing.

Small ball, stall ball, shaky draft picks, flaky matchups—the 58-year-old Nelson has tried them all since being hired as Dallas's G.M. in February 1997 and ousting Jim Cleamons 10 months later to take over as coach. So far, however, Nelson has succeeded only in making Dallas one of the league's laughingstocks. If the team's marketing department were searching for a slogan, it might have to settle for something like: the Mavericks—we stink, but at least we're quirky. Dallas was 13-27 through Sunday, falling far short of the playoff contention Nelson predicted at the start of the season. Nelson's record as Mavs coach, meanwhile, was 29-77 Cleamons's mark before he was axed: 28-70.

Suddenly the fact that Nelson was voted one of the 10 greatest coaches in league history two years ago seems less pertinent than the fact that he is the only one of those 10 who has never even reached the Finals let alone won a championship. By stretching for the esoteric draft pick, by naming his son, assistant coach Donn Nelson, as his successor on the bench before righting the Mavericks himself and by depending more on wild tactics than on basic defensive principles, Nelson has given abundant ammunition to those of his peers who have long believed him to be self-aggrandizing and overrated. "I don't know if Nellie's working as hard as he did before," says one Western Conference assistant coach. "[The Mavs are] the easiest team for us to beat, even when we play them in Dallas. It's like he's just trying to be creative, imaginative, take the easy way. He's experimenting with somebody's millions of dollars."

That somebody is team owner Ross Perot Jr., who in recent weeks has declined to comment on Nelson's techniques or results. Considering who his father is, Perot might have more tolerance than the next owner for a man of Nelson's idiosyncratic tastes, which have included fish ties, wearing sneakers with suits and acquiring novelty centers such as Ralph Sampson, Manute Bol and Shawn Bradley. Such eccentricities seem endearing when Nelson wins, as he did with the Milwaukee Bucks (seven straight division titles, 1979-86) and the Golden State Warriors (two 50-win seasons, 1991-92 and '93-94). He has amassed most of his 880 victories with small lineups, he brought the point forward into vogue, and he was often called a genius when he pulled off memorable playoff upsets (the Bucks over the Phoenix Suns in round 1 in '78 and the Warriors over the Utah Jazz in round 1 in '89). "At Golden State people were throwing the g word around because we were winning," Donn says. "My dad's the same coach now that he was then."

But since his celebrated clash of wills with center Chris Webber at Golden State in 1994, that genius tag hasn't stuck. Nelson became coach of the Knicks before the 1995-96 season, and even though he started out with a 34-25 record, he was fired before he could finish the season because he refused to run a conventional low-post offense through Patrick Ewing. "What's creative about throwing the ball into some big bruiser and watching him bull his way to the basket?" Nelson asks. He may be right about the game's aesthetics, but is creativity the point of coaching? Or is winning?

When he's not winning, Nelson looks less like a visionary than like a mad scientist. The booms you've been hearing in Dallas lately have been explosions in the lab. With a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 1990, Mavericks fans are used to losing; they're just not accustomed to watching their team fail in such peculiar ways. For instance:

•On March 15 against the Portland Trail Blazers, Nelson used 6'9" power forward A.C. Green, 35, to defend against 6'5" guard J.R. Rider, 28, for part of the game. Green is too tall, too old and too slow to handle the athletic Rider, which was abundantly clear well before the Blazers guard scored the last of his 30 points in a 106-91 Portland win. "It's the weirdest thing I've ever seen against me," Rider said of Nelson's maneuver.

•On Feb. 26 Nelson limited four of his starters to 12 minutes or less, benching them for the entire second half of an 80-65 loss at Utah, throwing in the towel to keep the starters fresh for a game against the Sacramento Kings the following night, which the Mavericks would win 97-90. "We were down 18 points at halftime," Nelson told reporters. "Any of you would have done the same thing."

•Last season Nelson stalled against both the Jazz and the Knicks. With Utah fans booing lustily, the Mavs held the ball until the last few seconds on the shot clock on nearly every possession. They lost 68-66. In New York 10 days later Nelson tried the same tactic, with worse results. The Knicks were playing their first game since losing Ewing to a wrist injury, and they were only too happy to play at a slow pace. The Mavs lost 79-67.

•Against the Orlando Magic last season Nelson had the 7'6" Bradley guard 6'8" forward Bo Outlaw. The move made the usually low-scoring Outlaw look like Karl Malone. He went around Bradley so often in the first half that Nelson scrapped the plan, but Outlaw was well on his way to 29 points in a 100-79 Dallas loss. "That wasn't very fun," Bradley said. "Their small forward did what he's supposed to do when a center is guarding him."

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