We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, so rarely do we bumble into best case scenarios. Things don’t just work out for us and faith in the wisdom of an overarching plan has burned us more than once before. Even Candide, having suffered a series of calamities eventually abandoned his sanguine philosophy and gave in to cynicism, so it should come as no surprise that Timberwolves fans, the veritable Candides of basketball, have not approached the latest coaching search with cheery optimism and childlike wonder. Our spirits having been crushed into pumice some time ago, we’ve failed to realize that our natural skepticism may have blinded us to a best case scenario staring us right in the face. I’m speaking of course of Don Nelson, who may just be the best possible person to coach the Timberwolves next season.
Admittedly he is no spring chicken, but he brings a lot of things to the table that a younger coach would not. As controversial as he is the main demands respect, not only as an innovator but also as a coach and a player who has been a fixture in winning basketball for last half a century. And he is no Kurt Rambis, flush with experiences as a bit player on successful teams and as a bit coach on the sidelines. Don Nelson has been his own man throughout his entire career for better or worse. He's been a head coach on winning teams everywhere he's been, and he's built programs into winners time and again. It's an identity he prides himself on and one that doesn't take a lot of prying to bring forth. When asked to reflect on his coaching career on the cusp of setting the career record for all time victories he had this to say,
"We've had a lot of good teams. We've had success in the playoffs. I've been in it a long time; I've fought the fight and done the best I could do. [And even though I have no championship] I've been able to build teams. I've been fortunate enough to turn things around quickly in most places and that doesn't happen every day, either."
Since his retirement last year there have been eight coaching vacancies into which he could have stepped, or at least attempted to had he been interested. Why didn't he? Cynics claim that he's running out of money and that he sees David Kahn as a gullible and desperate target, ripe for the pickings. I would say that makes no sense. The man is extremely wealthy; with extensive real estate holdings in Hawaii where he lives quite comfortably (he even owns half of a biodiesel plant along with his friend and poker buddy Willie Nelson). In his mid-seventies, no one would begrudge him the opportunity to live out his life in well-deserved retirement. But if we choose to take him at his word, he wants to come here because he is a basketball lifer and he sees an opportunity to develop a young team with tremendous potential. The man has been a part of basketball his entire adult life, and was exiled from a team in Golden State that he coached to its greatest successes after taking it on as a favor to a friend. When basketball is everything I imagine giving it up is easier said than done, and leaving on a sour note must be especially hard. With the end of his life staring him in the face it’s not hard to see why legacy becomes a motivator in search of an opportunity. But what is it about Minnesota that's appealing?
I think it has everything to do with the way he wants his teams to play basketball. More than any other he's coached, this is a team purpose built to play his style. Critics contend that Don Nelson loves to play small ball, but that's simply not the case. He relied on guards in Golden State because guards were the most talented players on their roster. They were their best offensive players and their most versatile assets. We're talking about the same Don Nelson who invented the concept of a point forward, who coached the likes of Chris Webber and Dirk Nowitzki; he has no problem with large players. Nor does he have a problem with rookies or young players for that matter. He played Chris Webber and Mitch Richmond into rookies of the year and later coached Stephen Curry into runner up. He developed players like Dirk, Sprewell, and Ellis giving them big minutes despite their age. Hell, he even played flaky guys like Biedrins, Randolph, and Brandan Wright to the extent that he could and it made sense for the team. But if you really want to know what he thinks about young players, it might just make sense to ask him, "Yeah, I don't like rookies that can't play…rookies that can play, I play 'em a lot."
Don Nelson fields the team he thinks has best chance to win, sometimes to a fault. But on a team that's won 32 games over its past two seasons isn't an emphasis on the value of winning really what's needed? We haven't enjoyed a winning season in nearly a decade, and we're in danger of entrenching a culture of losing among the many bright and talented players that we've collected to right the ship. There’s no question that the ship needs to be righted, the question is, is Don Nelson the right person to right it?
I think that he is, largely because his record speaks for itself. He turned around the Bucks in his first coaching stint, turning them into perennial bridesmaids to the Championship Celtics teams of the era. Later, he went to Golden State and turned a team that had never won anything into a playoff contender with a high octane offense. He went on to Dallas and built one of the most pitiful franchises of the time into a team that I personally watched dismantle the Wolves in the first round in 2001-02. That team had a window that lasted the better part of a decade, and had it not been for the NBA’s unique penchant for officiating playoff series into the most compelling story lines they would have had several championships well before this last season. But the evidence I find most compelling for his chance to turn this team around comes courtesy of an interview he did years ago. When asked to reflect on his legacy as an innovator:
"I did look at the game differently. It was unconventional to some people, but a lot of it worked, [we] won a lot of games. I've only had one team that was already set [and] was already a good team and I screwed that team up and that was New York. Most of the times I've been hired, that team had won 20 games. Where I've been successful is building good teams. I think if you're going to write my M.O., it's going to be that I've taken bad teams and made good ones out of them."
In a moment of self-reflection, even when baited, he sees himself not as an innovator but as a builder of teams. And he didn’t say this while angling for a job, though his recent comments to Jerry Zgoda sound remarkably similar. Instead he said it in the midst of his last coaching job well before the writing was on the wall. But what of the players he is set to build? In taking a closer look, perhaps we can see their appeal.
It should strike even the casual observer that we have tremendous overlap in talent at 3 to 5 slots. As much as it pains us to admit it, most teams would see Anthony Randolph, Michael Beasley, and Derrick Williams as largely redundant pieces, relegated to play separately. Few people would trot out a lineup that includes more than one of those players. Fewer still would have the courage to move an All-Star Power forward to the center position to make room for them. I believe Don Nelson would, and I believe moves like that will benefit this team tremendously. These are just the type of moves he makes for the sake of maximizing his roster and if you say nothing else about Nelson you must admit that he is an innovator, willing to try unorthodox things in order to be successful. He himself is more modest,
"Some people like to paint me as a positive influence on the game. Some people like to paint me the other way. To me, I just did things that made sense to me to try to put the opposition in a bind. [I] never understood why a point guard couldn't post somebody up and why a 7-footer couldn't dribble and why a 6-8 guy couldn't run your team and make the passes. I wondered why nobody tried those kinds of things. So when I had those kinds of players, I put them in those situations."
Our team is full of "those kinds of players". Sure, we could hire conventional coach, a good one even and he could motivate the team to grind it out in the half-court and play stingy defense. But how far do you really think that will get us in the end? Maybe to the playoffs eventually, out of the first round even, but I can't see it going much further than that. We have no true center, few playmakers, a rookie point guard who can't shoot, and an unbalanced roster uncommitted to defense. Fixing these types of problems is easier said than done, but let’s assume that we do. What if the stars align and three seasons from now we've assembled the type of team many here are pining for? What is there to differentiate us from the Oklahoma Cities and the Chicagos of the world?
We're not likely to be more talented and we couldn't be much better coached, so while I'm sure we would be competitive I doubt we'd be great. And in settling for good I think we would be throwing away the chance to be special. We have an interesting group of players with a unique mix of talents and gifts. Making players sublimate those gifts in order to play a conventional brand of "winning basketball" is an exercise in constrained thinking. If every team is striving toward the same ideal play style it will be the team that innovates that is truly successful. It's a page right out of evolutionary game theory. If you have a population full of one species that is dominant, conformity will only get you so far. There'll always be bigger stronger animals, and even if you get to the top you won't be there for long. If on the other hand you evolve and become the animal with the opposable thumb or the camouflage coat you've got a lasting evolutionary advantage that competitors will have a hard time replicating.
As I said we're special. Ricky Rubio is a ball hawk and a monster in the open court. Kevin Love's rebounding, three point shooting and outlet passing make him the gorilla glue of glue guys. Anthony Randolph is a human pogo stick and can handle the ball like a point guard. Beasley can score from anywhere but the bench, the list goes on and on. There’s never been a team built like ours and while I don't pretend to be such a tremendous basketball mind that I can see a way for these players to fit seamlessly together I believe that if anyone can it's Don Nelson. He could design an offense to fit these players' unique strengths, and allow them do what they do best. Their maximum potential is in running and playing opportunistic defense, things his teams have always done. And who’s to say that in maximizing their talents we wouldn't stumble onto the next great innovation? He's done it before, and if that happens with the talent on this roster the sky's the limit. For my part I'd rather see our team fail in trying to innovate than have limited success emulating others. At the very least it will be interesting and at the most we could be one of those teams that defines an era. People remember the Showtime Lakers, the 80s Nuggets, and the Webber era Kings long after most of their contemporaries have faded from our collective memory because they innovated and played beautiful brands of basketball. And in thinking about legacy, whether Don Nelson's or the Timberwolves’ isn't that just the kind of one you'd like them to leave?
During this coaching search I ask David Kahn and Wolves fans everywhere not to overthink it just as I’d ask them not to let years of hardship blind them to what I believe is an intriguing opportunity. The truth is there is no perfect coach just as we don’t inhabit a perfect world so in searching for either we are destined for disappointment. In his own words, "I don't think I'm a great coach. I'm a good coach…the way I look at the Hall of Fame, it's for greatness and that ain't me." But in the end just as Candide did we may come to find the greatest happiness in settling for what's in front of us. As he so simply put it, "We must all cultivate our [own] garden."
Candide- by Voltaire