Johnson to replace Nelson immediately

Updated: March 21, 2005, 7:57 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

DALLAS -- Don Nelson called the Dallas Mavericks into a group after their morning shootaround like he had so many times. Then he told them he was done coaching, and handed his whistle to Avery Johnson.

Nelson
Nelson

Another one of Nelson's tricks, some of his players figured.

"I thought it was a joke, really, how everything was said and how it all transpired," guard Jason Terry said.

"It pretty much came out of nowhere," four-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki said. "I thought for sure he was going to finish the season with us."

Nope.

Nelson, the second-winningest coach in NBA history, resigned as coach Saturday, and turned the team over to his protege.

Johnson coaching the Mavericks isn't anything new this season. But this time, it's for good.

"I see a little slippage as a team," Nelson said. "The team is just responding better to Avery at this point."

The 64-year-old Nelson also had the title of general manager, but most of those duties were done by his son, Donnie, the team's president of basketball operations. The elder Nelson will stay with the team as a consultant.

"Nellie has earned the right to approach this any way he wants," team owner Mark Cuban said. "I just wanted to be supportive of any direction he wants to go."

Cuban told ESPN.com's Marc Stein that Nelson resigned Saturday "for family and other reasons."

Nelson leaves with a career record of 1,190-880 over 27 seasons, including stints with Milwaukee, Golden State and the New York Knicks. Only Lenny Wilkens has won more games as a coach -- 1,332. Wilkens stepped down as coach of the New York Knicks earlier this season.

On Saturday night, Nelson watched the first quarter of the Mavs' 104-93 win over the Bobcats from a tunnel just behind midcourt, seemingly trying to out of view. But he later moved to an empty seat on press row to get a closer look.

Although he never won a championship, or even made it to the NBA Finals, Nelson was considered a master of mismatches who won games early in his career by stressing defense, then later made a mark with clubs that tried outscoring everyone.

"I've worked as hard as anyone, and it hasn't happened," Nelson said of never winning a title. "That's just the way it is."

Nelson went 339-251 in Dallas, tops in franchise history both in wins and winning percentage. It's even more impressive considering he started 35-81 before going 40-42 in 2000.

"I just think it's time," Nelson said, showing little emotion. "We want to win games and we want to get better, and I didn't see us doing either of the above since the All-Star game."

After winning Saturday night, the Mavericks are 43-22, 8-6 since the All-Star break. The Mavericks are in good position to get the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoffs, which gets home-court advantage in the first round.

The Mavs are 10-4 under Johnson. His first stint came when Nelson had shoulder surgery. He recently took over when Nelson took time off to be with his wife after she had an operation. Johnson has also run practices since training camp and had some test runs as the coach with Nelson serving as his assistant.

When Johnson coached the Mavs, he stressed defense. Nelson's emphasis was offense. The mixed message could be part of the reason Dallas has struggled recently, especially at home.

"We're going to keep moving forward," Johnson said. "We're not trying to abandon the things that Coach has implemented here, but there are some things that I feel a little stronger about."

Johnson, the starting point guard on San Antonio's 1999 title team, first joined Nelson's staff during the team's run to the Western Conference finals in 2002, when he was left off the playoff roster.

Nelson wanted him back last season, even though Johnson was playing for Golden State. The league didn't allow it, so Johnson signed with Dallas this summer to be a player-coach. He wound up retiring in training camp to focus strictly on coaching.

Nelson isn't the only one who thought highly of Johnson's coaching ability. League general managers voted him the player most likely to become a coach each of the last two years.

"As the season unfolded, it became pretty clear to us how special he was," Donnie Nelson said. "My feeling is that because Avery has really just grown leaps and bounds and put himself in this position where he's ready."

The elder Nelson, a former Boston Celtics star, came to the club as general manager in 1997 hoping to salvage a lost franchise that had just traded Jason Kidd. Within months he traded every player he inherited except Michael Finley, fired coach Jim Cleamons and took over himself, then eventually added Nowitzki and Steve Nash. All told, his moves turned Dallas from lottery regulars to a consistent 50-win team.

"We had a really great run. He always gave me confidence, even early in my career," said Nowitzki, who's spent his entire six-year career with Nelson.

"I believed in Nellie," said Cuban, who learned of Nelson's intentions Friday night. "Nellie rewarded me for that belief."

Dallas is the eighth team to make a coaching change this season, following Memphis, New York, Denver, the Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota, Portland and Orlando.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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