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

April 25, 1999

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."

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 Wurzburg, 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.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO COLOR PHOTO: GLENN JAMES/NBA PHOTOS

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.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)