Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 15 coaches in NBA History
Total Seasons: 30
Total Championships: 0
Regular Season Record: 1335-1063
Regular Season Winning Percentage: .557
Playoff Record: 75-91
Playoff Winning Percentage: .452
Why he’s great: Arguably the greatest offensive coach of all time, Nelson coached parts of 31 NBA seasons and his offense finished among the top-5 in points per possession 13 times. He did it with players in Milwaukee you’ve never heard of and he did it with superstars in Dallas and Golden State, but the one thing those teams had in common was pace.
Along with Rick Adelman, Nelson was among the first coaches to embrace pace-and-space offenses. His Warrior teams finished in the top-10 for three point attempts every season he was there and often ended up much further, and he was largely responsible for developing an offense around the greatest shooting big man of all time, Dirk Nowitzki.
Though he never won a championship as a head coach, Nelson did orchestrate one of the greatest upsets in playoff history when his 2007 Warriors beat the 67-win Mavericks in the first round. Though his offense took center stage, Nelson’s strategy to use smaller defenders on Dirk Nowitzki unnerved Dallas, proving his versatility as a coach.
Timing proved to be Nelson’s greatest enemy, as his Mavericks managed to make the Finals the year after he left but did it largely by beating an Amar’e Stoudemire-less Phoenix team in the Western Conference Finals. Had he stuck around, he may have pushed Dallas over the top against Miami. In any case, he laid the groundwork for that finals team and even the 2011 version that won the championship.
Why he’s not higher: Nellie’s stubbornness proved to be his undoing on multiple occasions. Had he been willing to play Chris Webber at power forward instead of center he might have been able to keep him and build the sort of contender Webber eventually found in Sacramento. It’s also fair to wonder why Steve Nash improved so significantly after leaving Nelson for Phoenix. For whatever reason, many players who seemed logical fits in his system ended up thriving without him.
His lineup choices were also often rigid and too focused on star power and offense. Veteran Antoine Walker started all 82 games of the 2003-04 season for Nelson due to his reputation as a scorer, but he posted miserable .428/.269/.554 shooting splits and was among the worst defensive players in basketball. Had he been willing to play youngsters Marquis Daniels and Josh Howard more instead, the Mavericks may have finished higher than 26th in defensive efficiency.
That was Nellie’s fatal flaw. Though he wasn’t necessarily a bad defensive coach, he was so fixated on offense that he made decisions that ultimately caused more harm than good. Had he been more willing to try to coax scoring out of defensive players, his teams might have had more playoff success and he could have a championship ring.