Print and Go Back ESPN.com: TrueHoop [Print without images]

Thursday, September 6, 2012
Don Nelson defines Nellie Ball

By Henry Abbott

He's the pioneering king of the unconventional small ball lineup, so you might Don Nelson to have some dogma about the power of three-guard lineups and the like.

But in a Q&A with ESPN's Marc Stein, the almost-Hall-of-Famer explains that he has no special attachment to point forwards, small lineups or anything else like it. He just did all that stuff, he explains, as a workaround:
What's your reaction when you hear people talking about Nellie Ball? How would you define it?

I suppose it means small ball, fast and exciting, point forward, players playing out of position ... all those kinds of things. It's kind of funny to me when people talk about stuff like that. I don't necessarily think it's accurate. You only play Nellie Ball when you don't have a very good team, or when you have a bunch of good small players and not many good big players. When you have bad teams, you've got to be creative to win games you're not supposed to win.

I was innovative when I had to be, but I wasn't innovative when I didn't have to be. When I had good teams and big teams, I didn't play small ball. When I was in Milwaukee and we had Bob Lanier, we went inside. What I did really was evaluate the team and play the way that I thought we had to play to be the most competitive. If I had a big center, I wouldn't have played so fast. I would have waited for Lanier to get down [the court] like I did in Milwaukee. Those teams were defensive-oriented and those were my best teams, too, by the way.

Nelson also tells the tale of how he almost became the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs in 1994, when he was feuding with Chris Webber in Golden State. Nelson says San Antonio's then-GM, Gregg Popovich, was holding the coaching job open for him, but the Warriors wouldn't let him go. The Spurs ended up hiring Bob Hill that summer instead, Nelson was fired a few months into the season and ended up coaching the Knicks, and Popovich took over on the San Antonio bench in 1996.