Hubbard: Don Nelson should head this year’s Hall of Fame class

Don NelsonFar be it for me to criticize the selection process for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. I was once one of the 24 voters. I served a three-year term and kept my mouth shut. I know people on various committees right now and they keep their mouths shut. That’s the way the Hall of Fame wants it.

If given the chance, perhaps I would change the voting procedure. Maybe make the panel more than 24 people. Make sure it was a diverse group, including younger members as long as they could name a player from the 1950s not named Russell or Chamberlain.

To vote for the Hall of Fame, you have to have a grasp of history.

While not particularly upset with the process, if voters screw up and don’t elect Don Nelson to the Hall of Fame this year, then I’d like to know who they are.

Nellie, very simply, has won more games than any coach in NBA history and should have been in long before now. Nearly 15 years ago, when the NBA was celebrating its 50th anniversary and well before some of Nelson’s greatest achievements, a blue ribbon panel already had selected him as one of the top 10 coaches of all time. The only other coach on that  list yet to make the Hall of Fame is Bill Fitch.

The negative applied to his HOF worthiness is that he never coached a championship team. But that excuse was eliminated three years ago when Jerry Sloan was enshrined in the Hall. There was no doubt that Sloan – who ranks third in all-time victories – was deserving. But, like Nellie, he never coached an NBA champion.

That set a standard that must be applied evenly. And please don’t tell me that Sloan made it to the Finals twice and that is a make-or-break difference. Winning a conference championship has never been the key criteria to be selected to the Hall. So don’t make excuses.

Besides something obvious – like victories – other factors should be considered. From a championship standpoint, there is a simple one: Name one time when Don Nelson had the best talent in the league or had a team favored to win the title.

In Milwaukee, Nelson guided the Bucks to the East finals three times. They lost twice to Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and the Celtics and once to Julius Erving, Moses Malone and the 76ers.

Nelson got the Mavericks to the conference finals once. They lost to Tim Duncan, David Robinson and the Spurs, who went on to win the title.

But the most important point in this argument is always overlooked. Although Nellie never had a team with the best talent nor one that was favored to win a championship, he did build such a team.

Nelson played a monumental role in assembling and preparing the Mavericks for a run at the title. When the Mavericks not only blew a 2-0 lead to the Heat in the 2006 Finals, but also lost a big lead late in Game 3 to lose the game, the popular opinion was that an inexperienced Avery Johnson had been outcoached by Pat Riley.

Perhaps the difference was not having Nellie on the sideline.

The next year, the Mavericks were the consensus preseason pick to win the title. One reason was that Nellie had left them with the strongest foundation in the league.

But Nellie created history when he returned to coach Golden State and led the 2007 Warriors to a shocking first-round victory over the Mavericks — the first time an eighth seed had defeated a top seed in a seven-game playoff series.

The Hall of Fame is supposed to be about making history. And Nellie did exactly that.

But there is more. Nellie was an innovator who had a permanent impact on the game. Ever hear of the “point forward”? Before Nellie created it, no one had.

What about a 6-foot guard (Tim Hardaway) regularly setting up in the low post? Or a 7-6 center (Manute Bol) slinging wild-looking but effective shots from 3-point range?

Nellie gave us a whole new way to look at basketball and gave great coaches fits in preparing for his teams.

That Nellie is not already in the HOF, however, does say something about his image in the NBA. For whatever reason, he is a man who causes extreme feelings – love or hate, but nothing in between.

Perhaps it is the result of competition. Nellie certainly has been guilty of the cut-throat variety. But presumably, he learned that while part of five championship teams guided by Red Auerbach.

“He never has kissed anyone’s a–,” a long-time friend said. “He won’t admit it, but it really bothers him that he’s not been recognized. But he’s not going to campaign or beg anybody for anything. He’s proud of what he has done and if that’s not enough, he’ll live with it.”

There are many worthy candidates in the Hall of Fame class that was announced over the weekend. It’s hard to believe Reggie Miller didn’t make it on his first ballot last year, but that should be corrected this year.

There is much to be said for other players nominated – Bernard King, Maurice Cheeks, Ralph Sampson and Jamaal Wilkes.

Coaching nominees include Dick Motta, Rick Pitino and Bill Fitch. The Women’s Screening Committee nominated Katrina McClain and the All American Red Heads.

But this class should be headed by Nelson. And if you’re on the committee and you don’t vote for him, stopping hiding and tell us why.

Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.



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