Nelson freewheels his way into Hall

Published Apr. 2, 2012 2:53 p.m. ET

Don Nelson never won a title as an NBA coach.

His rosters never consisted of a Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson or Shaquille O'Neal.

His teams were almost always pretty good -- but never quite good enough to win it all. Still, they were almost always in the conversation.

And that pretty much explains Monday's news that Nelson's among the latest class of inductees into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Nelson's head coaching career began in Milwaukee in 1976. Until he took over, the Bucks were mostly known as The Team That Traded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Nelson turned them into The Most Relevant Team You Barely Knew.

His tenure as Bucks coach defined his entire career. His philosophy was pegged as a bit unusual, but fairly pioneering.

He often orchestrated trades, wheeling and dealing until he built a roster filled with guys who fit his style. In Milwaukee, that included the likes of Sidney Moncrief, Ricky Pierce and Craig Hodges -- all underrated shooting guards, but none capable of running the point.

So Nelson turned small forward Paul Pressey into the man who would orchestrate the majority of the offense. It was a first in basketball, leading to today's popular phrase that classifies such players as "point forwards."

Those Bucks teams typically won 50 or more games. Problem was, they kept running into Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Moses Malone and Philadelphia; or Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson and Boston.

Nelson's teams were good, overachieving. But they weren't Larry Bird good.

Later, he gave the world the fast-breaking, fire-it-up Golden State offense of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin. Those Warriors were known as Run TMC. They shot first then maybe asked questions later. Unlike his Bucks teams, Nelson's first batch of Warriors rarely worried about defense. They were determined to just outscore you.

It was an unorthodox and exciting brand of basketball that the NBA had never really seen, nor expected. Like his time in Milwaukee, Nelson reinvigorated a Golden State franchise most casual fans barely knew existed.

After that, Nelson coached New York for 59 games (1995-96), then spent close to a decade in Dallas.

Perhaps his most shining moment came during his second stint with the Warriors -- when they snuck in the playoffs, then eliminated a top-seeded Mavericks team that was coming off a Finals appearance in the first round.

Interestingly, while everyone talks about Nelson's high-powered offenses, it was his defense that pulled off the most magical season in recent Warriors history. Nelson knew how the Mavs liked to run their offense, how they were uncomfortable in a helter-skelter-paced game, and from where Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki liked to shoot.

Nelson took away Nowitzki's sweet spots and dared the Mavs to keep up.

For one year, Nelson turned Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and others into a cohesive unit. For one year, fans held signs claiming "We Believe," and really did. And for one year, the Warriors were the talk of late April and early May.

Now, Nelson's career didn't come without his share of controversy. He was never a Bobby Knight-like dictator, but he was never overly pleasant among the lines of Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks, either.

Nelson was old-school and you knew it. He vented about players to the press. He had well-documented run-ins with then-Warriors rookie Chris Webber. He wanted to trade Patrick Ewing while with the Knicks.

When Nelson coached, he was in charge and never caved to players or their longings for things unrelated to his philosophy. That led to a few lousy seasons here or there, but you get the impression that Nelson was OK with those. Especially if they were necessary to prove that things would always be done his way.

Today, Nelson is 71 years old. A lot of teams would love to have him managing their team. They would almost certainly be assured of a winning season. If not a winning season, a season that would involve excitement, competing and bringing fans to their feet -- regardless of who's on the team.

Those things and more were Don Nelson's specialty, and why he belongs in the Hall of Fame. Even without a championship ring.