A surprise that comes as no surprise

Originally Published: March 19, 2005
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- No one really calls him Genius anymore. It has been years since anyone did.

He's still Nellie, though, and always will be. Quirky, dramatic, shrewd … all the way to the very end of his coaching career.

Nelson
Nelson
In a trademark Nellie surprise, coming with the Dallas Mavericks generally exceeding expectations at 42-22 in spite of their season-long injury hex, the second-winningest coach in league history basically fired himself Saturday morning. Nelson went to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban seeking permission to resign and pass the playbook over to Avery Johnson, after admitting to his boss what has been quietly circulating in some Mavericks circles.

"The team," Nelson conceded at his farewell news conference, "is responding better to Avery at this point."

"I think the team needs a new voice," he added.

That's why Cuban, according to team sources, was preparing to make this switch to Johnson full-time before next season, even though Nelson has one coaching season left on his contract at a healthy $5 million. Nelson knows how highly Cuban regards Johnson and therefore knew the change was inevitable. So, with a nudge from trusty assistant Del Harris, he suggested it now after seeing a series of lifeless performances from the Mavericks since the All-Star break. Dallas is 5-6 in its past 11 games, but only once in that span can it claim to have played well -- last Sunday's ABC-televised victory at Minnesota.

Nellie, approaching 65, had simply lost some of his enthusiasm for the job, and that erosion of energy trickled down to the team too often. Factor in Nelson's personal struggles -- confronting prostate cancer and his wife's breast cancer before both underwent unrelated surgeries this season -- and his icy relationship with Cuban and you can understand why more than one team insider expected Nelson to go after last spring's first-round exit to Sacramento.

He earned a reprieve by promising Cuban in a lengthy offseason meeting that he would put a practice-floor emphasis on defense unseen since Nelson's Milwaukee days. But there was always a sense that Nelson was only retained because of the $10 million left on his contract at the time, and the ice hardened between owner and coach when the Mavericks dropped out of the Steve Nash bidding after Phoenix offered Nash a guaranteed $60 million over six seasons.

Harris helped the parties patch the relationship sufficiently for the season ahead, and the hiring of Johnson as an assistant coach ensured a new defensive emphasis. The Li'l General, as he is known, has been given more leeway than any other assistant in the league, running the bulk of the practices since training camp. In the words of co-captain Michael Finley, Johnson takes "20 to 30 minutes every day just to harp on us about defense."

And it was clearly helping, until center Erick Dampier was lost to a foot injury in mid-February. Although Dampier's individual numbers (9.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg) aren't spectacular, Dallas' defense is undeniably weaker without his presence down low, which enables the Mavericks to defend more aggressively on the perimeter.

With Dampier through 50 games, Dallas allowed 97.1 points per game on 43.7 percent shooting and watched Dirk Nowitzki -- no longer burdened with center duties -- emerge as an MVP candidate by averaging 27.1 points on 45.6 percent shooting, 40.1 percent on three-pointers.

Without Dampier over the past 14 games, Dallas is giving up 101.4 points on average and losing the nightly rebound battle by 4.5 boards per game. And Nowitzki misses Dampier as much as anyone, averaging 24.3 points on 40.8 percent shooting (30.3 percent on threes) in that span.

Yet facts are facts. Dampier didn't have his best three weeks of the season until Johnson was overheard berating the moody center following a Jan. 23 home win over Denver, and Nelson specifically named Dampier as a Maverick who produces more when it's Johnson in charge. Second-year swingmen Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels, meanwhile, had apparently grown weary of Nelson's criticisms. Sources say both prefer playing for Avery, who will continue to be ably assisted by another virtual head coach in Harris.

Even the franchise player, who's usually resistant to change, isn't fighting the move. Although he'll always be indebted to Nelson for controversially drafting a small-town kid from Germany over Paul Pierce, and then developing his game after a rocky rookie season, Nowitzki describes himself as "a huge fan of the General."

Nowitzki can take further solace in the knowledge that he helped Nelson restore his reputation with superstars after high-profile divorces from Chris Webber and Patrick Ewing. Nellie departs without a championship as a coach, and without so much as an NBA Finals appearance, but dismissing Nelson's resume by that measure alone is the shortsighted view.

It's quickly forgotten that his best teams, in Milwaukee, had to get past mighty Boston and Philadelphia just to reach the NBA Finals, where the equally mighty Lakers would be waiting. Nelson's Bucks never managed to beat both East beasts in the same postseason.

None of his Dallas teams was ever a Finals favorite, either, and certainly no one could have expected any of his Golden State clubs to win the Lakers' conference.

Nelson's tumultuous relationship with Webber, followed by his firing in New York barely two-thirds through his first season, cost him that Genius tag … along with a gradual shift from leaguewide admiration to distaste for his centerless, small-ball lineups.

Yet he would rebound with a flourish in Dallas. He brought in son Donnie, who convinced him to draft Nowitzki and trade for Nash, but it looked bleak early -- both Nelsons seemed on the verge of unemployment with the team still floundering when Cuban arrived just after New Year's Day in 2000. Instead, in spite of what their many bashers say, Nellie and Junior and Cuban combined to form an unconventional trio which transformed the Mavericks from a 1990s laughingstock into one of the league's most entertaining and elite franchises.

Which is why, after all the feuding, Cuban was moved to pay tribute at the news conference by saying of Nelson: "He's made the Mavericks what they are today, and I've been blessed to be along for the ride."

Cuban, mind you, intends to make Nelson work to earn the millions left on his contract. He'll have to keep himself in close contact to the organization as a coaching and personnel consultant, moving earlier than scheduled into a role similar to his mentor Red Auerbach's with the Celtics.

"I wanted to call it Godfather of the Mavericks," Cuban joked.

As for the legacy, Nelson once told us that he'll "just be remembered as an old guy who stayed around a long time -- a bleep on the screen."

Yes, he meant blip. And, yes, he had plenty of adversaries who would happily call him a bleep.

Us?

We see him as more than deserving of his status as one of the top-10 coaches of all-time, with or without that championship ring. He might not be leaving as a Genius, but you should consider how many other active coaches have championship rings.

That would be two: San Antonio Gregg Popovich and Detroit's Larry Brown. Only four coaches (Popovich, Brown, Phil Jackson and Rudy Tomjanovich) have won championships over the past 14 seasons.

Don't forget, furthermore, Nelson's five rings as a player. Shaquille O'Neal was way off last month when he dismissed Nellie as "the Jack Haley of his era." Shaq can only wish Miami had a sixth man of Nellie's caliber.

"As a player, he couldn't run and he couldn't jump," said longtime Celtics teammate John Havlicek. "But he's a little more savvy and a little better than people thought."

You can't say any less about Nellie's X-and-O work.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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