But first, on what Don Nelson has given basketball and the Warriors.
Most sad about the end of the Don Nelson era in Oakland, as reported by FanHouse's Sam Amick last night, is that Nellie had become a parody of himself over the last two years. This final campaign, in which Corey Maggette played most of his minutes as a power forward -- Corey Maggette! -- wasn't even Nellieball. It was the version of Nellieball a sentient blender would come up with. Just an absolute mess.
That's not Nellie. Well, OK, he's a mess. He wears stretch turtlenecks, walks his dog on the roof of Warriors' headquarters and drinks cheap beer the second he leaves the floor, without fail. He's a mess. But for so long Nellieball was a beautiful mess, a chaotic order that left conservative viewers shaking their heads and bleating about the fundamentals, while fans of a more aesthetic basketball gaped in awe.
Man, Nellie had some really weird ideas. He didn't invent the idea of the giant shooter. Well, he kind-of did: in Nellie's virgin year at Golden State, in 1988-89, he had a fourth-year 7'6 Sudanese center named Manute Bol take 91 3-point attempts. Bol became the first 7-footer in the three-point era to take so many as 25 threes in a season. In Dallas, with Dirk Nowitzki and then Raef LaFrentz and Wang Zhizhi, Nelson became addicted to the idea. And while it worked for Dirk and created a new strain of the "perimeter big man" genome (word to Andrea Bargnani), it's an idea that hasn't been widely adopted.
Sadly, the Nelson tenet that has taken off results in little credit for Nelson. Smallball in this era is more a product of the success of Mike D'Antoni's Suns, even if it's Nellie who really has carried the banner. In 2007, Nelson's playoff starting five was Baron Davis and Monta Ellis in the backcourt, shooting guard Jason Richardson at small forward, shooting guard/small forward Stephen Jackson at power forward, and non-powerful power forward Al Harrington at center. At just one position (point guard) were the Warriors not undersized.
Nelson didn't always rely on undersized players, though. His 1994 playoff starting five had zero point guards: it was Latrell Sprewell (a two-guard), Chris Mullin (a swingman), Billy Owens (a swingman), Chris Webber (a true power forward) and Chris Gatling (a garbage man big). That is pretty much the opposite of smallball.
You'll notice I mentioned the playoffs, which brings up another point in the remembrance of Nelson: he was pretty damn good at coaching basketball. These past few seasons have made a lot of folks forget that. Lest Warriors fans get too overjoyed at the end of the Nellie era ...
In the last 22 seasons, the Warriors have been above .500 six times. All six of those winning seasons have come under Nelson. Those 11-1/2 seasons without Nellie saw the Dubs go 318-589, a winning percentage of .350. The 10-1/2 seasons with Nellie saw a 422-443 record, a .487 winning percentage. That's six winning seasons, two below-average seasons and 2-1/2 really bad seasons under Nelson. That's six below-average seasons and 6-1/2 really bad seasons without Nellie. It's a bleak history without that messy bro in a stretch turtleneck.
Of course, at this point, the Warriors aren't losing Nellie; they are losing the sad thing Nellie has become, and in a pragmatic, think-of-tomorrow sense, it's a relief. But watching such a legend limp out to the sound of tubas instead of trumpets is sad all the same, and we can only hope Nellie's legacy catches back up with popular perception so that the man can take his rightful place in the NBA coaching pantheon. (TZ)
How Donnie Walsh Shot Himself in Both Feet
Raise your hand if you remember Paul Bremmer. He was a brave man, a bold man, brought in to run Iraq after America's forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. As the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Bremmer -- who before all this happened, liked to practice French cooking at home -- was responsible for the transition, or reconstruction, or whatever it was that was supposed to happen to immediately bring about a healthy, democratic Iraq.
Why bring up Bremmer? That's the first name that came to mind when I read, in the Daily News, that Donnie Walsh regrets trading the Knicks' 2012 first-rounder to the Rockets. That was, as you may recall, the sweetener that allowed New York to acquire Tracy McGrady's expiring contract; now, it could be the straw that makes a Houston deal for Carmelo Anthony go 'round. Bremmer, who really botched his job, was nevertheless expected only to oversee one phase of Iraq's recovery. Walsh was hired as the first building block of the new regime in New York, except now, rumors persist that he's bringing in an honest-to-god General Manager to take over. Isiah surfaced as a candidate, which overshadowed the larger implications of the story.
If Walsh (right) indeed planned all along to bring in someone else to help with, or take the lead on, basketball operations after this summer's free agency resolved itself, that makes him basketball's Paul Bremmer. It also makes the Knicks into professional sports' version of the invasion of Iraq, a joke that makes itself and probably shouldn't be pursued any further. Like Bremmer, though, Walsh saw himself as having a discrete, if massive, part to play in the rebuilding effort of the century. And boy, has he gone astray -- again, like the Kurtz-in-khakis figure Bremmer had become.
The Knicks wanted LeBron. It's as simple as that. To get there, someone had to scrub the roster clean, pushing the team well below the salary cap and, as a byproduct, scrubbing it clean of undesirable and overpaid bums. It would help to have an upstanding man, a man known about the league for his rectitude and paternalistic warmth, do the job. That way, everyone would forget that James Dolan still owned this team, even if Isiah and Stephon Marbury had gone away. Part the second involved getting LeBron, and other amazing players, to join the Knicks.
Walsh did succeed in, as they say, "clearing the deck", though he didn't manage the Heat's near-historic purge. And although Amar'e Stoudemire now dons the orange and blue, the summer's other big pick-up was Raymond Felton. The Heat ran away with all the marbles, and the dish, and the spoon, and a team like the Bulls -- who had more to begin with -- came away stronger than New York even if Boozer ain't no Stoudemire. In tabloid-like flirtations with Chris Paul, then Anthony, and maybe even both, the Knicks made it seem like 2010 wasn't over yet, and they would yet rise as the One of Two Teams That Mattered. Increasingly, though, this dream depends on engineering a trade for Melo. And this week, Walsh has realized that he may have blown that option in the rush to achieve objective number one.
We need not get into Bremmer and his many missteps, misdeeds, and just plain boorish miscalculations. When he left the Green Zone, he did so showering crowds of young staffers with Monopoly money, or so I've read. Suffice it to say that dude had an assignment, and he blew it. Walsh now not only sort of failed at free agency, but the trade that helped get him there may well have undermined any hopes of regrouping and saving face.
It's worth stepping back and acknowledging that Walsh has never directly said he would step aside after this summer of passion. There were rumors, before and after things shook out, that a separate GM would come on board. Walsh continues to insist, on and off, that there is no vacancy. Who knows, if a new executive materializes, whether we're to see him as an admission of failure; evidence of interest lost; triumphalism that didn't quite turn out that way; or a timeline that must march on, despite the facts on the ground. Regardless, even if Walsh stands alone, the Knicks remain suspended in 2010 until Melo is traded. Then, and only then, will we know how badly he failed at the task he was handed -- and how much Walsh may have only himself to blame. (BS)
Variable ticket pricing has entered the NBA lexicon over the past few seasons, with more attention being heaped on the system this week as the Orlando Sentinel revealed some surprising new prices for select Magic games. The cheapest tickets available for visits from the Heat and Lakers will be $110 a pop; a pass for the same seat against the Pistons or Wolves costs just $10. The Kings also announced a variable pricing mechanism this week, with slightly lower top-level prices: the cheapest seats for Miami's visit will set you back $45. Against most teams, fans in these seats will pay $22.50. And note that those are current prices -- seeing a good team could become even more expensive once the season begins.
If the NBA's foray into wide-scale variable ticket pricing is anything like that of Major League Baseball, day-to-day prices could depend on a whole lot more than opponent quality. The New York Times reported in June that the San Francisco Giants noticed a weird uptick in ticket sales for a Memorial Day game against the Colorado Rockies a few weeks in advance. So they raised the ticket prices for the game across the board, and had a great turn-out nonetheless. Why the uptick? Smart fans realized ace pitchers Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jimenez would likely be facing off.
There's nothing quite like pitching matchups in the NBA, but subplots do become apparent during a season that no one would ever guess in advance. Essentially, teams are becoming ticket brokers, like StubHub or the random dudes standing outside the arena murmuring "got extras?" or "lower level, below face." Before, box offices just passed paper; there was little art to the transaction. Now, with a demand market in place, teams will be trying to maximize their take based on conditions ... just like a ticket broker would.
That, of course, blurs the lines of how teams ought to operate. Sports at the local level is all about loyalty and trust. Dealing with a ticket broker? That often elicits feelings other than loyalty or trust. Fans aren't naive; we know our favorite teams are business enterprises seeking profit, first and foremost. But a lot of the most insulting commerce regarding fandom -- overpriced tickets for big games -- typically happen outside the purview of the franchise. That's changing, and there's danger involved. (TZ)
Love and Basketball: A Musical Selection
We have postponed the mailbag due to unforeseen events beyond our control. Keep the letters coming, this setback will only make it stronger. In its place, here's my most favorite basketball-themed love jam. Prince Phillip Mitchell's "One on One" is kind of silly, but it's also gorgeous. You should consider acquiring Make It Good, the 1978 album it calls home.
Put that in your weekend and smoke it! (BS)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.