Watching Don Nelson inch his way toward the all-time record for NBA coaching wins is as agonizing as it was to watch Willie Mays in the twilight of his career, misjudging a fly ball in the 1973 World Series.
Probably, Nelson thought he would have the record well in hand by now, but it has been an awful season for the Warriors. They never looked like a playoff team, but injuries have reduced a team which might have won 35-40 games to one which has only 21 going into tonight’s game against the New York Knicks. So Nelson is still two wins away from tying Lenny Wilkens record, three from breaking it.
The strain on Nelson has been apparent. He had pneumonia earlier this year, forcing him to miss a road trip. He should have retired at that point, turning the team over to Keith Smart, but that record has been his goal for some time, though he sometimes denies that. I don’t know why he bothers. He’s not fooling anybody.
A word about that record: It’s not that important. In fact, until it became obvious that it was the reason Nelson was sticking around, I didn’t know who held it.
Records for most career wins are often more of a tribute to longevity than excellence. Baseball is the extreme example: Connie Mack holds the record because he owned the Philadelphia A’s and didn’t fire himself, even when it was obvious he had totally lost it. His name doesn’t even get into the discussion about the best manager of all time.
Similarly, neither Wilkens nor Nelson will ever be in a discussion about the best NBA coach of all time. That’s pretty much between Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson. Auerbach had the career wins record of 938 when he retired and Jackson has 1,095 and counting, but that’s not what people remember. Jackson has won 10 NBA titles, six with the Chicago Bulls and four with the Lakers, passing Auerbach, who had nine with the Boston Celtics. That’s why they’re considered the best.
Nelson has won no titles. If he gets the career wins total, he still won’t get in the “best coach ever” discussion.
I hate to see this because I’ve always liked Nelson, particularly in his first coaching stint with the Warriors. He’s a colorful character and his teams — until this year’s — have reflected his personality. They’ve been unorthodox, as Nelson pursued unusual matchups, capable of big upsets though not the sustained excellence needed for championships.
But he’s stayed on stage too long. Always critical of young players, he’s lost touch with them this year. The team is on auto pilot.
This is his last hurrah. The Warriors are for sale and the new ownership will make a clean sweep in the front office and coaching.
I hope Nelson has the record he’s sought by then — the remaining schedule gives him a good shot — and he can retire to Maui with the satisfaction of a goal reached. Perhaps that will give him bragging rights with his golfing partners, but it’s definitely time for him and the Warriors to move on.