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Steve Aschburner

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Don Nelson would bring a wealth of experience in transforming teams to Minnesota.
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

Nellie poised to inject energy into hapless franchise


Posted Jul 22 2011 10:03AM

The reaction of a lot of NBA fans, particularly in Minnesota, to the news that a certain legendary and sometimes cantankerous head coach might be in line to work the Timberwolves sidelines has been "Whoa! Nellie?" Followed in many instances by a swift "No Nellie!"

But not here. My first thought went something like, "Go Nellie? Go, Nellie!"

And before the thought, there was the smile. Triggered by the image of wily, old Don Nelson finagling another pay day, aching to get back in the saddle and, more than that, reinventing himself for the fifth (teams coached) or sixth (total stints, including Golden State twice) time.

How many speculated-upon NBA coaching hires can make you smile?

Look, I'm not going to pretend to be objective on Nelson -- few folks are, anyway. He's been in pro basketball's public eye so long -- it will be 50 years next spring, dating back to his selection by the Chicago Zephyrs in the 1962 NBA Draft -- that he has legions of fans and critics, doubters and boosters. It probably is impossible to stick around any place or do anything for half a century without getting some mud, blood and assorted other smudges on one's permanent record (with the exception of Vin Scully).

In a world -- coaching or managing in the big leagues -- where cronyism, networking and updated resumes rule, Nelson has taken matches and lighter fluid to more than one bridge, sometimes igniting things before he even crossed them. He has bullied subordinates, gone passive-aggressive with his bosses and engaged in mind games with all comers.

Butting heads behind the scenes was as much a part of Nelson's tactics as blocking out on the court. His ego could match and belly-bump even his brightest stars'. Some have seen him be manipulative, while others shrug it off as simply Machia-Nellian. There's a level of drama that has followed Nelson in his coaching travels from Milwaukee to Oakland to New York to Dallas and back to Oakland. But the context is sports, so there has been a measure of comedy to it all too.

Break out the smiling and frowning masks of Greek theatre, then. Nelson wants back and the Timberwolves could use him.

The one ingredient that Nelson brought to the NBA coaching ranks, like no one before or since, has been fun. The ingredient most missing from Target Center for the past seven, playoffs-less seasons? You got it: Fun.

Oh, the Wolves have tried to go about their duties the way grown-up NBA franchises are supposed to, diligently scouting, acquiring and developing talent, finding satisfaction and eventually entertainment in a mounting pile of W's. But it hasn't worked. Pretty much from the moment Latrell Sprewell planted his heels on the 2004-05 season with that "family to feed" remark in the preseason, Minnesota has been in a downward spiral.

Sprewell and Sam Cassell effectively went insubordinate that season. Flip Saunders got fired. The team's all-time best player began grinding his molars right up to his July 2007 trade to Boston. Players and coaches have come and gone, including Kurt Rambis, who apparently went-but-stayed through a three-month termination process. The NBA pulse in the Twin Cities is strong enough, but the patient, the arena bowl, has been stuck in a coma for too long. And not a particularly therapeutic one at that.

Nelson could be its elixir, its adrenaline. The Wolves, as ordained by president of basketball operations David Kahn, want to run before they learn to walk, so Nellie's offensive strategies for the Warriors and the Mavericks can be deployed again. They have a mixed bag of roster pieces, which plays right into the coach's mad-scientest methods with matchups.

Who knows, he might even reach back to his Milwaukee days and dust off a defensive playbook just to cross up his critics at this late date. (The Bucks, in Nelson's tenure, went from 19th and 13th in defensive rating in his first two full seasons to 8th, 3rd, 1st, 6th, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd and 4th in his final eight.)

Sure, in his Milwaukee days, Nelson got a lot of pub for his fish ties, the athletic-tape X's he used on his black sneakers to cover up the logo (NBA rules) and his boisterous antics on the sidelines. But he also averaged 54 victories while winning seven division titles in eight years. He put the ball into Paul Pressey's hands and turned the small forward into a "point-forward."

Nelson often went small against some of the greatest teams in recent NBA history -- the Celtics and the Sixers of the 1980s -- and made them sweat. Hilariously and brilliantly, he would send big men Paul Mokeski and Randy Breuer way out to the wing, requiring them to link arms lest either one be tempted to stray, to exploit isolations and the league's illegal-D regulations at the time.

Later he would dispatch Manute Bol to the 3-point line, where he would unfold like a praying mantis as he launched shots from downtown. He would plumb the depths of up-tempo attacks with "Run TMC" in Golden State (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin) and a similar-style group in Dallas. Then Nelson orchestrated one of the NBA's all-time upsets when the No. 8-seeded Warriors stunned the No. 1 Mavs in 2007.

A glaring Hall of Fame omission, Nelson is both the NBA's winningest coach ever (1,335 victories) and its third-losingest (1,063 defeats). But the man he surpassed in victories, Lenny Wilkens, got six chances as a head coach to Nelson's five. In fact, Wilkens and Larry Brown, with nine NBA stops, both got hired more often but tote lower winning percentages than Nelson (.557).

So, for that matter, do most of the possible alternatives to Nelson in Minnesota. They are either former head coaches who have been fired without achieving a quarter of his success or they're assistant coaches looking to make a career move and a tax-bracket jump while sporting winning percentages of precisely .000.

The biggest hole in Nelson's resume is that he never took a team to The Finals, much less won an NBA championship as a coach. Which applies to the Wolves ... how? They're way back -- again -- to the left on their learning curve. They would be doing well to win 30 of their next 82, after consecutive seasons of 15 and 17 victories. Phil Jackson could sign on to coach them -- after all the wonderful triangle-offense prep work they've done -- and they wouldn't be getting to The Finals anytime soon. Which, of course, is why Jackson never would sign on.

Nelson would, though, because he still has the itch, he likes getting paid and he knows himself. "I'm a lifer. I love basketball. I don't know how else to put it," he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune over the weekend. Sitting out another year in Maui -- Nelson also missed the 1996-97 and 2005-06 seasons -- was enough to remind and refresh him.

"Really, throughout my career, what I've done is taken teams with bad records and with every situation I've made them better," Nelson told the Minneapolis paper. "I like to be around young players. I've had great success with bad teams, getting them on the right track, getting them to max out."

Some coaches are closers, some are builders. Minnesota has young players, like so many that Nelson has worked with, especially at Golden State. He chafed with a few but, seriously, what did the Warriors achieve before, in between and after Nelson's stints with them. With Minnesota, Nelson would have a unique rebounding power forward, assorted challenges at center, a rookie from Spain at point guard -- he always has been partial to Euros -- and a mandate to run.

"There's talent there," Nelson added in obvious job-lobbying mode. "Maybe they just need to change the tempo and play a little faster there. ... It's really tough playing against half-court defense all the time. I think they've got a team that can really go and there's nobody better at that than me. I like to play fast."

And loose, for that matter. But if Nelson were to rankle his bosses a bit in Minnesota -- that's part of his DNA too, just like the up-tempo -- how bad would that be? Kahn and owner Glen Taylor could use a little shaking at this stage.

Nelson's age? True, he is 71 years old. But Jack McKeon is 80. Davey Johnson is 68. A couple of MLB teams, the Marlins and the Nationals, didn't hesitate to reach back in times of need for experience and old-school ways. Ageism is as unfair as any of those other --isms, you know. Rick Adelman is 65 and would be another good choice for Minnesota, but apparently isn't interested.

That's why the Wolves should go with Nelson. Not just because they could do worse than to hire him but because they have done worse, over and over again.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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