Posted Nov 16 2009 12:59PM
Don Nelson has taken us down this road before. It usually doesn't end well.
The embattled Golden State coach is navigating through another minefield, with perhaps his career and the future of the Warriors hanging in the balance. Two of Golden State's stars -- Stephen Jackson and Monta Ellis -- wanted out, and Jack finally got his wish with Monday's trade to Charlotte.
For his part, Nelson said he should be retired right now, but only returned to the bench out of loyalty to the franchise. And as much as the coach affectionately known as Nellie maintains he isn't planning to walk away from the nearly $12 million left on a contract that runs through next season -- he reiterated that stance again Saturday in Milwaukee -- history suggests that maneuvering behind the scenes isn't inconceivable.
"Our attention is totally on our personnel," Golden State general manager Larry Riley told NBA.com on Sunday. "And as far as Nellie is concerned, we expect him to continue to be the coach of the Warriors."
Those close to Nelson insist he isn't looking for a way out. One confidant said, "It wears on you. You'd have to be un-human for it not to." But they also insist it isn't anything he hasn't been through before and it's been worse along some stops in an NBA life spanning five decades. Sadly, that's true.
For every franchise resurrection Nelson has led -- Milwaukee, Golden State (first stint) and Dallas -- there's a smoldering bridge left in his wake. His short 59-game tenure with New York ended, in part, because of disputes with his players.
The walls seem to be crashing in on Nellie again. Jackson's agent fired off a scolding attack on Nelson last week, referencing troubles throughout his coaching career. Nelson reportedly stormed out of practice last week after words with Ellis. Nellie has called coaching this team "difficult."
On top of the money, Nelson has the record book as motivation. Going into Tuesday's game at Cleveland (NBA TV, 7 p.m.) Nelson is just 21 wins shy of passing Lenny Wilkins as the NBA's all-time leader. Nelson currently has 1,312 victories in 31 seasons.
The Warriors are off to the 3-6 start and, despite a collection of young talent that Nelson has praised, another lottery trip seems likely. It wasn't that long ago when Nellie Part II was the toast of the Bay Area. The Warriors upset the top-seeded and 67-win Mavericks in the 2007 first round and followed that up with 48 wins, the most ever by a team to miss the playoffs under the current 16-team format.
The circumstances in Golden State don't quite match up to Nelson's Dallas divorce nearly five years ago. Nelson stepped down as coach as top assistant Del Harris brokered a deal with Mark Cuban at the team's charity gala in March. Players weren't looking to be traded and the team was still a playoff contender, but Nelson had a contentious relationship with Cuban.
Nelson never got over losing Steve Nash the previous summer. Once it was agreed that Nelson would get all the money left on his contract -- which still had another full season as coach plus five more as a team consultant -- he turned the team over to Avery Johnson. (Cuban and Nelson have since been embroiled in a bitter lawsuit over deferred salary, one of several legal battles Nellie has fought with former employers.)
Nelson has been on the verge of leaving the NBA several times this decade, going so far as to have a retirement party in Dallas celebrating his 44 years in coaching. That was in 2005. He's said time and again that his latest contract would be his last. But with each successful turnaround project -- there's no questioning his track record there -- extensions keep landing on his doorstep.
Nelson keeps signing. He once said that he didn't start making "real" money as a coach until he hit his 50s and coming from a modest Midwest background, he can't justify turning down those extra millions . It's also been said by those who know Nellie well: How much is enough?
Nelson publicly groomed Johnson to take over in Dallas, much as he's done in Golden State with Keith Smart. At 69 years old and in the midst of a complete mess in Golden State, many figure it's finally time for him to hang up the whistle. He obviously isn't enjoying this.
Nelson tried the olive-branch approach with Jackson earlier this season, maintaining he still loves the fiery swingman who's been the soul of the team the last few years. Jackson didn't take the branch. His agent burned it.
Dealing Jackson was Golden State's focus much more than Ellis, namely due to the latter's prohibitive contract. Riley found willing trading partners in Michael Jordan and Larry Brown, getting back Raja Bell and Vladimir Radmanovic. The Warriors also parted with Acie Law. Bell previously played for Nelson in Dallas.
"Well, when you have a guy that doesn't want to be with your team, it's a problem because it's very difficult for him to give you what he needs, to give you extra because he's unhappy," Nelson said recently of Jackson. "He wants to move on."
Does Nellie? Retirement plans never seem to stick, but if Golden State's ownership guaranteed to fulfill Nelson's contract even if he doesn't fulfill, can he turn it down? Again, he said that's not what he's looking for and team sources said that hasn't been discussed.
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