A Study In Glorious Failure Part 1: Don Nelson

There have, in the annals of NBA history, been great players who never won a title. The mere mention of the concept immediately brings to mind a slew of guys who, because they came through the league during the reign of a team they weren’t on, retired without that elusive ring.

Like “every star in the league who wasn’t on the Celtics in the 1960s.” Or “Every star in the league who was in his prime between 1991 and 1998 and wasn’t on the Bulls or Rockets.”

Or the stars of the Dark Ages who weren’t on the Lakers or Spurs—the 2004 Pistons and 2008 Celtics caught lightning in a bottle and kept a few names off the list of the unringed, but everyone who was anyone in the aughts lost to the Hall of Famers on those championship teams.

You know the guys I’m talking about. I don’t even need to clog up Basketball Reference’s player feed with irrelevant content that isn’t about those guys and doesn’t generate return traffic.

What’s more interesting is two coaches whose enduring legacy is exactly the same legacy as those players. Two guys who, by virtue of being just good enough not to be good enough, made plenty of playoff runs and never won a title.

The first of those two guys is Don Nelson—you can guess the second one, and I’ll get to him tomorrow.

Nelson took over one of the most unenviable gigs in basketball when he was elevated to head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks two years after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ditched town. Larry Costello coached the team to a division title in 1975-76 despite a 38-44 record; the Pistons disposed of the Bucks in the first round.

Costello started off 3-15 as a coach in the 1976-77 season, so his newly-minted rookie assistant coach got elevated to the top dog slot.

Nelson went 27-37 the rest of the way, and that was good enough to ensure his secured position patrolling the sideline a year later.

What followed was a resurgence of Bucks basketball behind one heck of a youth movement. Marques Johnson, Ernie Grunfeld, and Kent Benson were all rookies that year as the team improved from 30-52 to 44-38, taking the Denver Nuggets all the way to seven games in the second round of the playoffs.

After a 38-44 campaign in 1977-78, the Bucks made the playoffs in the next eight years under Nelson, winning 50 games in the regular season seven years in a row between 1980 and 1986.

Trouble was, Milwaukee was the perennial playoff underachiever, the basketball answer to Marty Schottenheimer’s tribulations in the NFL, never able to get over the hump as they got pimp slapped by the Sixers in five of those seven seasons after Milwaukee was realigned to the Eastern Conference for the 1979-80 season and the Celtics the other two.

It cost Nelson his job, and Del Harris, while he reached the playoffs at the helm of the Bucks for the next four years, never matched Nelson’s 50 wins in every Eastern Conference season he coached the Bucks in.

Nelson’s next stop was Golden State, where he had the high-flying “Run TMC” combo of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin; even after Mitch Richmond got shipped off to Sacramento, the Warriors still posed a threat in the West; indeed, their best season, in 1991-92, was the year after Richmond left.

Trouble was, they lost in four games in the best-of-five first round against Seattle, and it was all downhill from there. Nelson was fired midway through the 1994-95 season never having taken that talent-laden roster, which also included a young Chris Webber once he came into the league, to even the conference finals.

After a forgettable year coaching the New York Knicks to a 34-25 record in the ’95-96 season and getting replaced midseason by Jeff Van Gundy, Nelson’s next stop was Dallas.

While there, a young entrepreneur named Mark Cuban bought the team, and Cubes let Nelson off the leash to run a high-powered offense with the Mavs’ wealth of young talent.

And besides a Western Conference Finals in 2003 where the Mavs came up short against the eventual champion Spurs, it was more of the same; the Mavs posted great regular seasons and crashed out in the playoffs.

In 2003-04, the Mavs posted the best Offensive Rating relative to league average in the entire history of the NBA. They posted a 112.1 OffRtg in a year when league OffRtg was 102.9; the Mavs were 9.2 points per 100 possessions better than the league and fully 8.9 percent better. Nobody else in the history of the league has come close to that mark.

But their defense was hot garbage—fourth-worst in the league—and Dallas ate it in five games against the Sacramento Kings in the first round of the playoffs.

Nelson got canned midway through the 2004-05 season; Avery Johnson replaced him and took a 42-22 team to a 12-2 record the rest of the way; a year later, Dallas was in the NBA Finals, and Mavs fans to this day still think—and possibly rightly so—that David Stern’s beef against Cuban led to the refereeing being rigged against the Mavs.

Nelson got the last laugh, though—guess who was on the sideline coaching that 8 seed Warriors team that pulled the biggest upset (or were the beneficiary of the biggest colossal choke job) since the first round went to best-of-seven?

That’s right…Don Nelson. The Warriors faceplanted in the second round against the Jazz, missed the playoffs in the next three seasons including a 26-56 record in 2009-10 with a rookie Stephen Curry, and that was that—the 68-year-old Nelson finally called it a career.

Nelson did so much good. Presided over some of the greatest offenses the league has ever known. Pulled a shocking playoff upset in his last-ever playoff appearance as a coach.

But you can’t mention Don Nelson without mentioning his teams’ tendency to underachieve after the leaves were back on the trees. His legacy of playoff failure after regular season brilliance knows only one rival…the other guy who coached Steve Nash and never got the most out of him.

But we’ll talk about that tomorrow. Stay tuned.