Don Nelson will guide the Warriors past the Utah Jazz because he has his team playing at a high level. That’s no coincidence. “Players like to play for me because I let them play,” Nelson said in a matter-of-fact tone Friday.
“With the really good players, I let them play their game. They might take shots the fans don’t think they should and maybe the coach doesn’t, either, but that’s their game.”
With players who aren’t that good, Nelson is “more restrictive,” he continued, “but I never rein in the top players.”
The best examples on this team are Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson. Davis has had problems with other coaches, including Mike Montgomery when he coached the Warriors, but the point guard has played his heart out for Nelson, even when hobbled by injury, as he was in the closing game against Dallas.
Jackson has had his problems, too, but if he hadn’t had them, he wouldn’t be in a Warriors uniform today.
The midseason trade between the Warriors and Indiana Pacers was made possible because both coaches had players they wanted to get rid of.
Pacers coach Rick Carlisle wanted to trade Jackson and Al Harrington, partly because of Jackson’s emotional problems but also because both players did too much freelancing for Carlisle, who wanted to run a structured system. Nelson’s goal was simple: He wanted better players and he wanted to trade Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy, who weren’t very good.
Now, the Warriors are in the playoffs; the Pacers collapsed and Carlisle was fired. There’s a lesson there.
Chris Mullin had been trying to get Harrington for some time, but when I talked to Nelson right after the trade, he made a point of saying how pleased he was to get Jackson.
“I like him a lot,” he said.
Down the stretch, including the first round of the playoffs, Jackson has been a huge factor.
“He’s really a terrific player,” Nelson said. “The only one who can stop Jackson is Jackson, when he loses control. When he keeps his emotions under control, nobody can stop him.”
Nelson hasn’t babied either Davis or Jackson — he fined both players when they were ejected because of double technicals in the second game against Dallas and fined Jackson again after his outburst in the fifth game — but he doesn’t try to restrict them on the floor, as Carlisledid and as Montgomery would have certainly done if he were still coaching the team.
As a college coach with scholarship players who did what he wanted, Montgomery ranked with Pete Newell as the best I’ve seen on a regular basis.
But like many top college coaches, he couldn’t adjust to the pro game.
Successful NBA coaches are usually former players who understand how different the pro game is. Because there are so many games and so little practice time, highly structured systems aren’t practical.
Nobody knows this better than Nelson, who played on some great Boston Celtics teams.
Legendary coach Red Auerbach ran so few plays that, when he coached All-Star teams, players from other teams already knew them.
In this series, there will be a sharp contrast in coaching styles because Utah’s Jerry Sloan runs a much more structured system. I’m betting that Nelson’s style will be successful. Warriors in seven.