Don Nelson is officially retiring after nearly 50 years in the NBA, according to Yahoo! Sports.
The news strikes a strange chord in that Nelson, 72 and out of basketball since 2010, felt a need to say he’s retiring. After all, he’s going to be inducted in the Hall of Fame next month and hasn’t seriously entertained a return to the bench—although he was linked to the Minnesota Timberwolves last season as they sought to fill their coaching vacancy. Nobody really expected him to come back.
But really, the announcement is vintage Nelson—always interested in a little attention.
That’s an unfortunate part of his legacy, which will go down in NBA history as one of coaching’s biggest mixed bags.
His coaching career was marked by three things, all of which have a sort of good news/bad news duality.
First, Nelson showed a knack for bursting onto the scene when he joined a team, almost always improving its quality in the early stages of his tenure. That’s a testament to his ability to motivate. But the second thing Nelson’s known for is souring on his players and leaving teams under bad terms after a few years. It’s notable that he managed to do this twice with the Golden State Warriors.
Thirdly, Nelson will be remembered as an innovator who was infatuated with ball-handling big men and small lineups. Continuing the mixed-bag nature of Nellie’s career, the aforementioned strategic predilection was always exciting, but never ultimately successful. Nelson could take his teams a long way with small-ball, but never all the way.
Don Nelson’s legacy as a coach is, then, appropriately mixed. He was a sharp mind with good motivational skills, but couldn’t consistently employ either of those attributes to achieve ultimate success. He was a bit of an egomaniac, but was somewhat justified in his high opinion of himself. Every statement about him seems to include a positive and a negative quality, separated by a “but.”
Most of all, Nelson proved himself capable of winning against superior talent by purely out-scheming the opposition, which he famously did by engineering the upset of the Dallas Mavericks (his former team) by the much smaller, less experienced “We Believe” Warriors. But even that genuine praise has to be considered along with the feeling that Nelson preferred things that way. He almost seemed to want to make his team’s wins a reflection of his own intelligence. That mindset led Nellie to over 1,300 wins as a coach.
You just have to wonder how many more he could have had if he’d managed to curb the negative aspects of his coaching personality.