The famed Warriors coach let out a hearty laugh. Just like nearly ever Warriors fan, Don Nelson has watched his beloved team with keen interest lately. And even if he has become familiar with the Warriors’ seemingly annual tradition with competing for an NBA championship, Nelson often has to pinch himself.
After all, Nelson gave an honest answer on if he ever saw this coming during his second stint coaching the Warriors (2006-2010 when he played an influential role in the Warriors selecting Stephen Curry with the No. 7 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
“Of course not,” Nelson said, chuckling. “I just knew I had a really great player.”
Now the Warriors have several really good players. Beyond Curry, the Warriors have one of the NBA’s best scorers (Kevin Durant), one of the best shooters (Klay Thompson) and one of the best defenders (Draymond Green). They also have a collaborative head coach (Steve Kerr) and a collaborative general manager (Bob Myers).
All of which paved the way for the Warriors to make history. They became only the second team in NBA history to make five consecutive NBA Finals appearances. Only the Boston Celtics did that when they won nine NBA championships out of 10 consecutive Finals stints (1959-1969).
Incidentally, Nelson is the bridge between those two franchises. After losing in two NBA Finals to Boston with the Los Angeles Lakers (1963 and 1964), Nelson signed as a free agent with the Celtics for the 1965-66 season and played a key role on that year’s championship team. Decades later, Nelson coached the Warriors (1988-1995) and became one of the leading pioneers of small ball during the “Run TMC” era.
So we caught up with Nelson about both the Celtics and Warriors dynasties.
Q: How do you process the Warriors’ championship run?
Q: Where does it start?
A: “It starts with the best point guard in basketball and some incredible athletes at other positions. They were the only team when they were healthy that really had the best player at every position. But now even when they lose their good players, they keep winning. How do they do that? It’s incredible. You might get lucky once and beat somebody like that. But more than that? Come on.”
Q: How would you compare the Warriors and Celtics eras given how different the game is played and how free agency is so different than it was before?
A: “You have to remember one thing. We didn’t have free agency when Boston had their run. But these guys have done it with free agency there. In Boston, you couldn’t leave. You had to stay with the team forever. So it’s incredible. It’s a great story. I haven’t heard a story like that in forever.”
Q: What do you remember about your time in Boston?
A: “Nothing but good things. I had wonderful teammates and wonderful coaching and a philosophy and history. They had everything going when I was there. They had the most unique player that had ever played at that time with Bill Russell. Nobody knew what to do with him. The No. 1 position those days was probably center. Now it’s at point guard. They had the best center at the most important position in those days. Then they had some really great players that surrounded him. It was really that simple.”
Q: How did you deal with the pressure of being expected to win the NBA title and getting everyone’s best shot?
A: “Red [Auerbach] used to always open the season after the title by saying, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ He’d say ‘That’s over with and in the past. You owe me another one.’ That’s usually not a problem in the playoffs. You may have some lapses in the regular season. Or maybe if you’re Bill Russell and have gone to a Game 7 so many times, you might have a moment that you don’t seize the moment. But usually not. When you’re playing in the playoffs, you play the best you can and as hard as you can and do whatever you can do to win. It’s pretty simple.”
Q: What was key for you to be able to adapt so quickly with Celtics team? [Nelson averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds as a sixth man off the bench]
A: “I knew John Havlicek from college [in Iowa]. We graduated the same year and played every game against each other. He and I had a friendship. That made it easy. Then Larry Siegfried was there. I knew Larry and the first day I got there. The guys that just welcomed me were K.C. Jones, Bill Russell and Sam Jones. They made me feel at home the first day of practice. I was nervous. But they made me feel welcome on the team. If they think you’re going to help them, they’re going to be your friend.”
Q: Did anyone on the Celtics remind you of how the Warriors are as leaders?
A: “It’s a totally different deal now. Leadership changes as the team goes by. But once you have a leader like Bill Russell, he’s going to be your leader for 12 years. You don’t have to look very far. It helps when your best player is your best leader.”
Q: Is Steph that guy for the Warriors?
A: “You’d have to tell me because I’m not there everyday. But he certainly looks like they’re one of them. But all of the core guys are big leaders in their own way. They’re all leaders and nobody is the boss. That’s really the way to do it. If you can have more than one guy as your leader and be as unselfish as those guys are, it makes it really easy.
You have to credit management, too and the general manager [Bob Myers]. What a team he put together. Picking up Durant is one thing. Then they get Cousins for a year. They’re going to need him this year. That’s one year they may not win if they don’t have a big center that can match up against another big. They’re going to need those guys (Durant and Cousins). Milwaukee might win that. They have a big team and they play the same style with bigger players. It’s going to be very interesting.”