Don Nelson

For the American screenwriter, see Don Nelson (screenwriter). For the former Sears Roebuck President, see Donald M. Nelson.
Don Nelson

Nelson in 2015
Personal information
Born (1940-05-15) May 15, 1940
Muskegon, Michigan
Nationality American
Listed height 6 ft 6 in (1.98 m)
Listed weight 210 lb (95 kg)
Career information
High school Rock Island
(Rock Island, Illinois)
College Iowa (1959–1962)
NBA draft 1962 / Round: 3 / Pick: 17th overall
Selected by the Chicago Zephyrs
Playing career 1962–1976
Position Small forward
Number 44, 20, 19
Coaching career 1976–2010
Career history
As player:
1962–1963 Chicago Zephyrs
19631965 Los Angeles Lakers
19651976 Boston Celtics
As coach:
19761987 Milwaukee Bucks
19881995 Golden State Warriors
1995–1996 New York Knicks
19972005 Dallas Mavericks
20062010 Golden State Warriors
Career highlights and awards

As player:

As coach:

Career statistics
Points 10,898 (10.3 ppg)
Rebounds 5,192 (4.9 rpg)
Assists 1,526 (1.4 apg)
Stats at
Basketball Hall of Fame as coach

Donald Arvid "Don" Nelson (born May 15, 1940) is an American former NBA player and head coach. He coached the Milwaukee Bucks, the New York Knicks, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Golden State Warriors.

An innovator, Nelson is credited with, among other things, pioneering the concept of the point forward, a tactic which is frequently employed by teams at every level today. His unique brand of basketball is often referred to as Nellie Ball. He was named one of the Top 10 coaches in NBA history. On April 7, 2010, he passed Lenny Wilkens for first place on the all-time NBA wins list with 1,333 wins.[1] His all-time record is 1,335–1,063 (.557).

Playing career

Nelson with the Boston Celtics

After a very successful high school career at Rock Island High School, Nelson played for the University of Iowa as a two-time All-American averaging 21.1 points and 10.5 rebounds a game. He was drafted 19th overall by the Chicago Zephyrs of the NBA. He played for the Zephyrs one season, and was acquired by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1963. After two years with the Lakers, he was signed by the Boston Celtics.

In his first season with Boston, Nelson averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds, helping the Celtics to the 1966 NBA title as one of their role players. Four more championships with Boston followed in 1968, 1969, 1974, and 1976. In Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals, against his former team, the Lakers, Nelson converted one of the most famous shots in playoff history — a foul-line jumper which dropped through the basket after hitting the back rim and bouncing several feet straight up. The shot, taken with just over a minute to go in the game and the Celtics clinging to a 103–102 lead, helped secure Boston's 11th NBA title in 13 seasons.

A model of consistency, Nelson would average more than 10 points per game every season between 1968–69 and 1974–75 (before the introduction of the three-point shot). He led the NBA in field-goal percentage in 1974–75. Nelson was coined as one of the best "sixth men" ever to play in the NBA. He was also known for his distinctive one-handed style for shooting free throws. He would place the ball in his shooting hand, lean in almost off-balance and toe the free-throw line with his right foot and his left leg trailing. He would then push the ball toward the basket completely with his right hand while springing with his right knee and lifting the trailing foot in a sort of "hop". This technique helped him to a career 76.5% free-throw shooting percentage.

Nelson retired as a player following the 1975–76 season. His number 19 jersey was retired to the Boston Garden rafters in 1978.

Coaching history

Nelson took over the reins as general manager and head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1976 and began to show what would later become his signature style of wheeling and dealing players. He made his first trade of Swen Nater to the Buffalo Braves and turned the draft pick he received into Marques Johnson, who had a solid career with the Bucks. In 1980, he sent off an underachieving Kent Benson to the Detroit Pistons for Bob Lanier. Perhaps his most publicized deal came before the 1984–85 season when he dealt Johnson, Junior Bridgeman, Harvey Catchings, and cash to the San Diego Clippers for Terry Cummings, Craig Hodges, and Ricky Pierce. And, in 1986, he would deal Alton Lister to the Seattle SuperSonics for Jack Sikma. In the midst of his constant re-toolings, he earned NBA Coach of the Year honors in 1983 and 1985. His Bucks teams in the 1980s were consistently among the NBA's best, but each year they would end up being eliminated in the playoffs by either a Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics team or the Julius Erving-led Philadelphia 76ers.

It was also in Milwaukee where Nelson became known for his unorthodox, innovative basketball philosophy. He pioneered the concept of the point forward – a tactic wherein small forwards are used to direct the offense. In Nelson's tenure with the Bucks, he used 6–5 small forward Paul Pressey for the role.[2] This enabled Nelson to field shooting guards Sidney Moncrief and Craig Hodges or Ricky Pierce at the same time without worrying about who would run the offense. In his offensive half-court sets, he would also put a center who wasn't a threat on offense, like Lister or Randy Breuer, at mid-court instead of near the basket to keep a shot-blocking center like the Utah Jazz's Mark Eaton away from the basket to make him less of a threat on defense. This system created a lot of mismatches and enabled Nelson to lead the Bucks to Central Division championships and playoff berths for most of the 1980s. He would leave Milwaukee after ten seasons, seven with over 50 wins.

After a year's hiatus, Nelson then became coach and vice president of the Golden State Warriors, and was named NBA Coach of the Year a third time. In Golden State, he instilled a run-and-gun style of offense. Again using an unconventional lineup which featured three guards (Mitch Richmond, Tim Hardaway and Sarunas Marciulionis) and two forwards (Chris Mullin and the 6–8 Rod Higgins at center), Nelson led the Warriors to many winning seasons and playoff berths despite an undersized lineup. He continued to retool his lineup and drafted talent such as Chris Webber and Latrell Sprewell. It was during this time that he reached the peak of his fame, due to his style of offense enabling Hardaway, Richmond, and Mullin (also known as Run TMC) to emerge as premier players. After four winning seasons, he left Golden State following a prolonged public dispute with Webber and a 14–31 start.

He was invited to coach the Dream Team II at the 1994 FIBA World Championship in Toronto. He accepted and led them to the Gold Medal.

In 1995, Nelson would begin his stint with the Knicks, which lasted from July 1995 until March 1996. Despite coaching the Knicks to a respectable 34–25 record, Nelson had many personal problems with the players: e.g., he tried to convince management to trade Patrick Ewing in order to be in a position to make an offer to rising free agent Shaquille O'Neal.[3] He also favored a more up-tempo style of offense, sharply contrasting the hard-nosed defensive style of play that the Knicks had employed under Pat Riley.[3]

Nelson was named head coach and general manager of the Dallas Mavericks in 1997, and led them to four consecutive 50-win seasons. The trio of Steve Nash, Michael Finley, and Dirk Nowitzki became the foundation for their dramatic turnaround. In Dallas, Nelson created an offensive powerhouse in which every player could score at any time. However, lacking interior defense – as the front court with Raef LaFrentz, Shawn Bradley and Nowitzki was weak in the paint – they never reached the NBA Finals.

One notable result of Nelson's tenure at the helm of the Mavericks was the introduction of the "Hack-a-Shaq" defense to the NBA.

On March 19, 2005, Nelson stepped down as Dallas' Head Coach, naming Avery Johnson as his successor. Nelson retained his job as Dallas' GM until after the season, when he named his son, Assistant GM Donnie Nelson, as his replacement. The Mavericks reached the NBA Finals in 2006.

Nelson as Golden State Warriors' head coach on March 15, 2009 to play the Phoenix Suns.

On August 29, 2006, the Warriors bought out Mike Montgomery's contract and hired Nelson to take over the team again. By this time, Mullin, a longtime favorite of Nelson's, was the team's general manager. Nelson's Warriors won their final five regular season games and qualified for the 2006–07 playoffs.

Nelson faced his old team, the Mavericks, in the first round of the playoffs. The Mavs had the NBA's best record, and were a trendy pick to win their first NBA title. However, in one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history, Nelson coached the 8th-seeded Warriors to victory over the top-seeded Mavericks in six games. The Warriors went on to lose to the Utah Jazz.

A season later, Nelson led the Warriors to their most wins since 1993–94. However, in a Western Conference where all eight playoff teams won 50 games, they missed the playoffs by two games. The next two seasons saw the Warriors plunge back into mediocrity.

On September 23, Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, citing numerous sources close to the Warriors, reported that Nelson had decided to resign as head coach.[4] This was later confirmed by the San Francisco Chronicle, which reported that new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber wanted "a young, up-and-coming coach" to help revive the Warriors' fortunes. Longtime assistant Keith Smart succeeded Nelson as coach.[5] Nelson in February 2011 said on Bay Area radio station KNBR that he was fired. "I talked to (Lacob) on the phone before I got fired, and I was really impressed. I was a little surprised with the way things happened, but I think it is for the best for everybody."[6]

On September 7, 2012, Nelson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.[7]


On December 29, 2001, Don Nelson became the third coach in NBA history to win 1,000 games, behind Lenny Wilkens and Pat Riley. Nelson won his 1,300th career game on February 21, 2009, joining Wilkens as the only coach to pass this milestone. Don Nelson defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves on April 7, 2010, achieving his 1,333rd career win. He passed Lenny Wilkens for first all-time on the list of the NBA's winningest coaches.

Head coaching record

Regular season G Games coached W Games won L Games lost W–L % Win-loss %
Post season PG Playoff games PW Playoff wins PL Playoff losses PW–L % Playoff win-loss %
Team Year G W L WL% Finish PG PW PL PWL% Result
Milwaukee 1976–77 642737.4226th in Midwest Missed Playoffs
Milwaukee 1977–78 824438.5372nd in Midwest954.556 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Milwaukee 1978–79 823844.4634th in Midwest Missed Playoffs
Milwaukee 1979–80 824933.5981st in Midwest734.429 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Milwaukee 1980–81 826022.7321st in Central734.429 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Milwaukee 1981–82 825527.6711st in Central624.333 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Milwaukee 1982–83 825131.6221st in Central954.556 Lost in Conf. Finals
Milwaukee 1983–84 825032.6101st in Central1688.500 Lost in Conf. Finals
Milwaukee 1984–85 825923.7201st in Central835.375 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Milwaukee 1985–86 825725.6951st in Central1477.500 Lost in Conf. Finals
Milwaukee 1986–87 825032.6103rd in Central1266.500 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Golden State 1988–89 824339.5244th in Pacific844.500 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Golden State 1989–90 823745.4515th in Pacific Missed Playoffs
Golden State 1990–91 824438.5374th in Pacific945.444 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Golden State 1991–92 825527.6712nd in Pacific413.250 Lost in First Round
Golden State 1992–93 823448.4156th in Pacific Missed Playoffs
Golden State 1993–94 825032.6103rd in Pacific303.000 Lost in First Round
Golden State 1994–95 451431.311(fired)
New York 1995–96 593425.576(resigned)
Dallas 1997–98 661650.2425th in Midwest Missed Playoffs
Dallas 1998–99 501931.3805th in Midwest Missed Playoffs
Dallas 1999–00 824042.4884th in Midwest Missed Playoffs
Dallas 2000–01 825329.6462nd in Midwest1046.400 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Dallas 2001–02 825725.6952nd in Midwest844.500 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Dallas 2002–03 826022.7321st in Midwest201010.500 Lost in Conf. Finals
Dallas 2003–04 825230.6343rd in Midwest514.200 Lost in First Round
Dallas 2004–05 644222.656(resigned)
Golden State 2006–07 824240.5123rd in Pacific1156.455 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Golden State 2007–08 824834.5853rd in Pacific Missed Playoffs
Golden State 2008–09 822953.3543rd in Pacific Missed Playoffs
Golden State 2009–10 822656.3174th in Pacific Missed Playoffs
Career 2,3981,3351,063.557 1667591.452

Personal life

Nelson married Joy Wolfgram at the Oakland Coliseum in 1991. Nelson has five grown children, one of whom, Donnie Nelson, is the general manager of the Dallas Mavericks. Nelson also has thirteen grandchildren.

Nelson graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in physical education in 2012. He had left the school in 1962 with most of his coursework completed, and later took Spanish classes to make up for some of his missing credit hours. He still lacked student-teaching hours until 2012, when the school decided that his NBA coaching experience would fulfill that requirement.[8][9]

On June 4, 2015, Nelson announced that he will build the first house in Hawai'i made of hemp.[10]


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Don Nelson.
  1. "Nelson sets NBA career victories mark in Warriors' defeat of Wolves'". Associated Press. April 7, 2010.
  2. Aschburner, Steve (December 21, 2010). "LeBron a point forward? Well, he wouldn't be the first". Archived from the original on June 1, 2012.
  3. 1 2 Hindsight, The Knicks And Nelson's Foresight NYT 2 March 2007
  4. Steinmetz, Matt. Don Nelson to resign as Warriors coach. Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, 2010-09-23.
  5. Simmons, Rusty. No more Nellieball for the Warriors. San Francisco Chronicle, 2010-09-24.
  6. Simmons, Rusty (February 4, 2011). "Nelson cites Warriors' effort, calls roster flawed". San Francisco Chronicle. p. B-1. Archived from the original on February 6, 2011. It was done really professionally", Nelson said. "I talked to (Lacob) on the phone before I got fired, and I was really impressed. I was a little surprised with the way things happened, but I think it is for the best for everybody.
  7. Basketball Hall of Fame: Don Nelson inducted
  8. Hall of Fame? Don Nelson prefers graduating
  9. Ex-Mavs coach Don Nelson set to graduate 50 years after leaving Iowa
  10. Building with Hemp
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