Nelson with the Boston Celtics in the 1970s
May 15, 1940|
|Listed height||6 ft 6 in (1.98 m)|
|Listed weight||210 lb (95 kg)|
(Rock Island, Illinois)
|NBA draft||1962 / Round: 3 / Pick: 17th overall|
|Selected by the Chicago Zephyrs|
|Number||44, 20, 19|
|1963–1965||Los Angeles Lakers|
|1988–1995||Golden State Warriors|
|1995–1996||New York Knicks|
|2006–2010||Golden State Warriors|
|Career highlights and awards|
|Points||10,898 (10.3 ppg)|
|Rebounds||5,192 (4.9 rpg)|
|Assists||1,526 (1.4 apg)|
|Stats at Basketball-Reference.com|
|Basketball Hall of Fame as coach|
Donald Arvid Nelson (born May 15, 1940), sometimes known as Nellie, is an American former National Basketball Association (NBA) player and head coach. He coached the Milwaukee Bucks, the New York Knicks, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Golden State Warriors.
An innovator, Nelson is credited with, among other things, pioneering the concept of the point forward, a tactic which is frequently employed by teams at every level today. His unique brand of basketball is often referred to as Nellie Ball. He was named one of the Top 10 coaches in NBA history. On April 7, 2010, he passed Lenny Wilkens for first place on the all-time NBA wins list with 1,333 wins. His all-time record is 1,335–1,063 (.557).
After a very successful high school career at Rock Island High School, Nelson played for the University of Iowa as a two-time All-American averaging 21.1 points and 10.5 rebounds a game. He was drafted 19th overall by the Chicago Zephyrs of the NBA. He played for the Zephyrs one season, and was acquired by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1963. After two years with the Lakers, he was signed by the Boston Celtics.
In his first season with Boston, Nelson averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds, helping the Celtics to the 1966 NBA title as one of their role players. Four more championships with Boston followed in 1968, 1969, 1974, and 1976. In Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals, against his former team, the Lakers, Nelson converted one of the most famous shots in playoff history — a foul-line jumper which dropped through the basket after hitting the back rim and bouncing several feet straight up. The shot, taken with just over a minute to go in the game and the Celtics clinging to a 103–102 lead, helped secure Boston's 11th NBA title in 13 seasons.
A model of consistency, Nelson would average more than 10 points per game every season between 1968–69 and 1974–75 (before the introduction of the three-point shot). He led the NBA in field-goal percentage in 1974–75. Nelson was coined as one of the best "sixth men" ever to play in the NBA. He was also known for his distinctive one-handed style for shooting free throws. He would place the ball in his shooting hand, lean in almost off-balance and toe the free-throw line with his right foot and his left leg trailing. He would then push the ball toward the basket completely with his right hand while springing with his right knee and lifting the trailing foot in a sort of "hop". This technique helped him to a career 76.5% free-throw shooting percentage.
Nelson retired as a player following the 1975–76 season. His number 19 jersey was retired to the Boston Garden rafters in 1978.
Nelson was named the general manager and head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1976, and began to show what would later become his signature style of wheeling and dealing players. He made his first trade of Swen Nater to the Buffalo Braves and turned the draft pick he received into Marques Johnson, who had a solid career with the Bucks. In 1980, he sent off an underachieving Kent Benson to the Detroit Pistons for Bob Lanier. Perhaps his most publicized deal came before the 1984–85 season when he dealt Johnson, Junior Bridgeman, Harvey Catchings, and cash to the San Diego Clippers for Terry Cummings, Craig Hodges, and Ricky Pierce. And, in 1986, he would deal Alton Lister to the Seattle SuperSonics for Jack Sikma.
Taking over a Bucks team in the aftermath of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's departure to Los Angeles, Nelson was able to improve their win total by 14 games in his first full season as head coach, and established the team as a legitimate championship contender by 1980. It was in Milwaukee where Nelson became known for his unorthodox, innovative basketball philosophy. He pioneered the concept of the point forward – a tactic wherein small forwards are used to direct the offense. In Nelson's tenure with the Bucks, he used 6–5 small forward Paul Pressey for the role. This enabled Nelson to field shooting guards Sidney Moncrief and Craig Hodges or Ricky Pierce at the same time without worrying about who would run the offense. In his offensive half-court sets, he would also put a center who wasn't a threat on offense, like Lister or Randy Breuer, at mid-court instead of near the basket to keep a shot-blocking center like the Utah Jazz's Mark Eaton away from the basket to make him less of a threat on defense.
This system, known as "Nellieball", created a lot of mismatches and enabled Nelson to lead the Bucks to seven straight Central Division championships with over 50 wins in each of those seasons. He earned NBA Coach of the Year honors in 1983 and 1985. However, for seven straight years, despite finishing no worse than second best in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks would end up being eliminated in the playoffs by either the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics or the Julius Erving-led Philadelphia 76ers. After the 1986-87 season, which included some controversy and distraction before Game 4 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics where Nelson told the local sports media that he didn't expect to be back once the season concluded due to a rift with Bucks owner Herb Kohl, Nelson left the Bucks.
Nelson was contacted by the Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, and New York Knicks once he resigned from Milwaukee. Nelson decided to go with Golden State, at first buying a minority stake in the team before being named head coach and vice president after one season away from the NBA. In Golden State, he instilled a run-and-gun style of offense. Again using an unconventional lineup which featured three guards (Mitch Richmond, Tim Hardaway and Sarunas Marciulionis) and two forwards (Chris Mullin and the 6'8" Rod Higgins at center), he coached the Warriors to a 23-game turnaround of their previous season and back into the playoffs with his lineup popularly known as Run TMC. He was named NBA Coach of the Year a third time in the 1991-92 season.
Nelson continued to retool the team, drafting Latrell Sprewell in 1992, and trading for the rights to Chris Webber in the following draft. Despite Webber averaging 17.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game and winning the NBA Rookie of the Year Award, he found himself at odds with Nelson's preference to play him at Center rather than Power Forward. Frequently clashing with one another, Webber threatened to use the out-clause in his contract if he wasn't traded. Nelson reportedly offered to resign rather than let the team trade away their young star, but nonetheless Webber was dealt to the Washington Bullets. Nelson then resigned from the team midway through the 1994–95 season. Nelson had made the playoffs with Golden State in four of his six seasons there; the Warriors did not qualify for the playoffs for the next 12 seasons, until he returned to the team in 2006.
In 1995, Nelson would begin his stint with the Knicks, which lasted from July 1995 until March 1996. He had coached the Knicks to a respectable 34–25 record, but he favored a more up-tempo style of offense, which sharply contrasted the Knicks preferred hard-nosed defensive style of play. Nelson also suggested management try to trade Patrick Ewing in order to be in a position to make an offer to Shaquille O'Neal, who was rumored to be interested in a move to New York. He was replaced as head coach by his assistant, Jeff Van Gundy.
Nelson was named head coach and general manager of the Dallas Mavericks in 1997. Nelson was coming to a team that had been dormant through the 90's and a permanent fixture in the NBA lottery. In 1998, his first full offseason in charge, Nelson worked out draft day deals with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns: essentially trading the draft rights of Robert Traylor and Pat Garrity for Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, whom he wanted to pair with the Mavericks rising star Michael Finley.
The trio of Nash, Finley and Nowitzki became the foundation for the Mavericks dramatic turnaround, as Nelson coached the Mavericks to four consecutive 50-win seasons. The height of their success was a 60-win season in 2002-03, when they reached Western Conference Finals against the Spurs. An injury to Nowitzki in game 3 that kept him out for the rest of the series doomed the Mavericks as they lost in six games.
Lacking an interior presence to combat low-post players such as Shaquille O'Neal, Nelson introduced the "Hack-a-Shaq" defense to the NBA while in Dallas. In the 2004 offseason, Steve Nash was offered a max contract from the Phoenix Suns; despite Nelson's insistence on matching the offer, Mark Cuban declined to and Nash accepted Phoenix's offer. Nash won consecutive MVPs with the Suns.
On March 19, 2005, Nelson stepped down as Dallas' Head Coach, naming Avery Johnson as his successor. Nelson retained his job as Dallas' GM until after the season, when he named his son, Assistant GM Donnie Nelson, as his replacement. The Mavericks reached the NBA Finals the following season, though they would lose to Miami in six games. Nelson has spoke fondly of his time in Dallas, but admitted he lost in interest in remaining with the team when they did not re-sign Nash.
On August 29, 2006, the Warriors hired Nelson to return to the team for a second stint as coach. Chris Mullin, a longtime favorite of Nelson's from his first stint as Warriors head coach, was the team's general manager. Nelson's style of coaching favored the play of Baron Davis, Monta Ellis, Matt Barnes, Jason Richardson, and Andris Biedriņš. Midway through the season, Mullin (at behest of Nelson) orchestrated a trade for Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson of the Pacers.
The new lineup thrived under Nelson; Davis, Biedriņš and Jackson saw an increase in scoring and efficiency, Barnes went from a virtual unknown to a solid rotation contributor, and Ellis was named the NBA's Most Improved Player after averaging 16.5 points per game, a substantial increase from his average of 6.8 points per game the prior season. The Warriors closed out the season strong and just managed to qualify for the 2007 playoffs.
Nelson faced his old team, the Mavericks, in the first round of the playoffs. The Mavs had the NBA's best record, and were a trendy pick to win the NBA championship that year. However, in one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history, Nelson coached the 8th-seeded Warriors to victory over the top-seeded Mavericks in six games. It was numerically the largest upset in the history of the NBA playoffs, with the 67–15 Mavericks' regular-season win-loss record 25 games better than the 42–40 Warriors'. The Warriors went on to lose to the Utah Jazz in the second round of the playoffs.
On January 29, 2008, Chris Webber signed with the Warriors, reuniting with Nelson and returning to the team that had drafted him 15 years earlier. His return lasted only nine games as he was forced to retire due to injuries, but his return signaled closure to arguably the biggest blemish on Nelson's otherwise impressive resume as a player's coach. The Warriors finished 48–34 that season-their most wins since 1993–94 (during his first stint as coach). However, in a Western Conference where all eight playoff teams won at least 50 games, they missed the playoffs by two games.
The next two seasons saw the Warriors plunge back into mediocrity, losing most of the players from their 2007 playoff run to either trades or free agency. One bright spot was created in the 2009 NBA draft, when Nelson agreed with Larry Riley to draft Stephen Curry with their seventh overall pick, despite skepticism from critics. Curry went on to win back-to-back MVP awards and helped lead Golden State to championships in 2015, 2017, and 2018, along with Kevin Durant.
On September 23, Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, Nelson announced he would resign as head coach. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber wanted "a young, up-and-coming coach" to help revive the Warriors' fortunes. Longtime assistant Keith Smart succeeded Nelson as coach. Nelson in February 2011 said on Bay Area radio station KNBR that he was fired: "I talked to (Lacob) on the phone before I got fired, and I was really impressed. I was a little surprised with the way things happened, but I think it is for the best for everybody."
On December 29, 2001, Don Nelson became the third coach in NBA history to win 1,000 games, behind Lenny Wilkens and Pat Riley. Nelson won his 1,300th career game on February 21, 2009, joining Wilkens as the only coach to pass this milestone. Don Nelson defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves on April 7, 2010, achieving his 1,333rd career win. He passed Lenny Wilkens for first all-time on the list of the NBA's winningest coaches.
|GP||Games played||GS||Games started||MPG||Minutes per game|
|FG%||Field goal percentage||3P%||3-point field goal percentage||FT%||Free throw percentage|
|RPG||Rebounds per game||APG||Assists per game||SPG||Steals per game|
|BPG||Blocks per game||PPG||Points per game||Bold||Career high|
|†||Denotes seasons in which Nelson won an NBA championship|
|*||Led the league|
|Regular season||G||Games coached||W||Games won||L||Games lost||W–L %||Win–loss %|
|Post season||PG||Playoff games||PW||Playoff wins||PL||Playoff losses||PW–L %||Playoff win–loss %|
|Milwaukee||1976–77||64||27||37||.422||6th in Midwest||—||—||—||—||Missed Playoffs|
|Milwaukee||1977–78||82||44||38||.537||2nd in Midwest||9||5||4||.556||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Milwaukee||1978–79||82||38||44||.463||4th in Midwest||—||—||—||—||Missed Playoffs|
|Milwaukee||1979–80||82||49||33||.598||1st in Midwest||7||3||4||.429||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Milwaukee||1980–81||82||60||22||.732||1st in Central||7||3||4||.429||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Milwaukee||1981–82||82||55||27||.671||1st in Central||6||2||4||.333||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Milwaukee||1982–83||82||51||31||.622||1st in Central||9||5||4||.556||Lost in Conf. Finals|
|Milwaukee||1983–84||82||50||32||.610||1st in Central||16||8||8||.500||Lost in Conf. Finals|
|Milwaukee||1984–85||82||59||23||.720||1st in Central||8||3||5||.375||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Milwaukee||1985–86||82||57||25||.695||1st in Central||14||7||7||.500||Lost in Conf. Finals|
|Milwaukee||1986–87||82||50||32||.610||3rd in Central||12||6||6||.500||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Golden State||1988–89||82||43||39||.524||4th in Pacific||8||4||4||.500||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Golden State||1989–90||82||37||45||.451||5th in Pacific||—||—||—||—||Missed Playoffs|
|Golden State||1990–91||82||44||38||.537||4th in Pacific||9||4||5||.444||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Golden State||1991–92||82||55||27||.671||2nd in Pacific||4||1||3||.250||Lost in First Round|
|Golden State||1992–93||82||34||48||.415||6th in Pacific||—||—||—||—||Missed Playoffs|
|Golden State||1993–94||82||50||32||.610||3rd in Pacific||3||0||3||.000||Lost in First Round|
|Dallas||1997–98||66||16||50||.242||5th in Midwest||—||—||—||—||Missed Playoffs|
|Dallas||1998–99||50||19||31||.380||5th in Midwest||—||—||—||—||Missed Playoffs|
|Dallas||1999–00||82||40||42||.488||4th in Midwest||—||—||—||—||Missed Playoffs|
|Dallas||2000–01||82||53||29||.646||2nd in Midwest||10||4||6||.400||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Dallas||2001–02||82||57||25||.695||2nd in Midwest||8||4||4||.500||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Dallas||2002–03||82||60||22||.732||1st in Midwest||20||10||10||.500||Lost in Conf. Finals|
|Dallas||2003–04||82||52||30||.634||3rd in Midwest||5||1||4||.200||Lost in First Round|
|Golden State||2006–07||82||42||40||.512||3rd in Pacific||11||5||6||.455||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Golden State||2007–08||82||48||34||.585||3rd in Pacific||—||—||—||—||Missed Playoffs|
|Golden State||2008–09||82||29||53||.354||3rd in Pacific||—||—||—||—||Missed Playoffs|
|Golden State||2009–10||82||26||56||.317||4th in Pacific||—||—||—||—||Missed Playoffs|
Nelson married Joy Wolfgram at the Oakland Coliseum in June 1991. Nelson and his wife have a total of six children from prior marriages. He has another daughter born out of wedlock, whom he did not know about for 29 years. He has thirteen grandchildren, and his son Donnie Nelson is the general manager of the Dallas Mavericks.
Nelson graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in physical education in 2012. He had left the school in 1962 with most of his coursework completed, and later took Spanish classes to make up for some of his missing credit hours. He still lacked student-teaching hours until 2012, when the school decided that his NBA coaching experience would fulfill that requirement.
As of April 2018, Nelson lives in Maui, where he has a farm to grow flowers, coffee, and cannabis. He hosts local poker games with celebrities such as Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson, and Owen Wilson.
It was done really professionally", Nelson said. "I talked to (Lacob) on the phone before I got fired, and I was really impressed. I was a little surprised with the way things happened, but I think it is for the best for everybody.
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