While hesitant to compare, Don Nelson believes Warriors will become all-time best team
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma Former Warriors head coach Don Nelson, who was still on the job at the launch of the Stephen Curry era even though he dates back to the days of Bill Russell and the great Boston Celtics teams, thinks the current Warriors team might be the best ever when all is said and done., (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
To fully grasp how hard it is to put the Warriors in historical NBA perspective, you either have to spend way too much time on YouTube watching old film or be a weathered but wise old cuss who’s pretty much seen and done it all.
Among the latter, there are a diminishing few. That said, there may be no better living authority to compare eras and the greatest-ever teams than Don Nelson. He played for Red Auerbach and with Bill Russell. But he also coached Stephen Curry. In between, over five decades, he saw every magnificent NBA team to come down the tunnel from one of the best seats in the house.
And even though he is 77 now, retired and living the good life in Hawaii, Nelson is still watching intently from his living room.
Nelson thinks the Warriors might be the best of them all, not so much because they might have beaten the Showtime Lakers, the Michael Jordan Bulls, or one of the Russell Celtics teams he played on, but because they have changed pro basketball into something more beautiful than it’s ever been.
“They are hard to compare with any past great team because they’ve revolutionized the game,” said the former Warriors coach. “This is how I envisioned the game would go when the 3-point shot came in, and I thought that someday the big man would be diminished because of it. But I didn’t really know for sure until they did it.”
But could that make them the greatest team of all-time, if not now perhaps with another championship or two?
“I don’t know how you beat ’em now when you look what they’ve done the last couple of years, and they’re still young,” Nelson said. “I think they’re going to be the greatest team ever to go down. I really do. You might beat ’em once on an off night, but I don’t know how you beat ’em four times.”
Beyond mere accomplishments in the form of wins and titles, however, Nelson believes these Warriors will be singled out historically as standard-bearers for a faster, better, more exciting and more creative way to play.
“From this point on, I think this is the trend of our game, and it’s headed there because of the way the Warriors have put it,” he said. “They represent the future, and it’s way better to watch. The most boring thing in the world is to watch a team slow down, walk the ball up, throw it inside, get double-teamed, then kick it out and there’s the end of the 24-second clock.
“You know, speed has always been the most exciting part of the game if you can play it.”
In an insightful article in the Players’ Tribune published last month, Nelson wrote that such a philosophy is hardly a new thought. Legendary Boston coach Red Auerbach always wanted the Celtics to play fast, and often set up scrimmages between the big and small men on his team to illustrate why. Even with the great Bill Russell playing for the big team, it was no contest.
“We would just run Bill and his crew out of the gym,” Nelson wrote. “It didn’t matter that Bill had a bunch of giants on his team. Speed always wins. If we caught one of the bigs on the perimeter, we would zip right past them to the basket for the easy points.
“Those scrimmages were teaching us that you didn’t have to be big to dominate the game. Smaller players can also take charge. The smalls’ dominance on the practice court, premised on the importance of speed, was then something that the whole team would go out and replicate in games. Even the bigs were in on the fun.”
Nelson believes this has come to full fruition with the current Warriors, only with better athletes and rule changes that encourage the style, notably advent of the 3-pointer (instituted in 1979), the elimination of illegal defense guidelines (adopted in 2001) and the crackdown on the defensive hand check (adopted in 2004).
That’s also why he thinks it’s complicated to even hypothetically match up the Warriors with even more recent great teams like the Showtime Lakers or the Jordan Bulls, both of which played before the latter two changes. As for whether the most dominant centers of yesteryear could survive in such a fast-paced game and make things difficult for the Warriors, Nelson said it would depend on the big man.
“I couldn’t see Wilt (Chamberlain) doing it, but Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) was a special player,” he said. “Wilt was more dominant offensively, but Kareem was a basketball player. He could do a lot of different things, and you’d have to change your philosophy if you had a guy like Kareem, for sure. But no one does.”
Maybe that’s why Magic Johnson thinks his Lakers teams would sweep these Warriors. They could play a fast-paced game, but they could also dump it down to an extraordinary, unstoppable 7-foot-2 man in the post. But Nelson thinks the counterbalance would be players like Draymond Green, who can run the offense from a forward spot, and Kevin Durant, a tall, lithe small forward who can shoot the 3 and also be quick enough to switch defensively onto a point guard.
“I was thinking more like a 6-8 player who could do those things, but now here’s a 7-footer who can do them,” he said. “Those are the kind of players I think the league is going to be looking for from this point on.”
With that in mind, Nelson thinks even though the Warriors may not have as many titles as other past teams, they have to be considered among the elite of the elite now, if for no other reason than the incredible success they’ve had with a ground-breaking approach.
“There’s no question,” he said. “Put ’em up there with anybody. They’ve already shown me enough.”