Full Nelson

Can pro basketball's second-winningest coach put the Warriors back on the warpath? Don't count him out too quick.

So far, anyway, the change has failed to spawn the second coming of Run TMC, the nickname of the quick-draw offense that defined Nelson's first Warriors reign. The team began the week with a 10-16 record since the trade, and through 65 games had posted 29 wins, just one ahead of last year's pace.

The virtually identical victory totals prompt some to assert that, compared to Montgomery, Nelson brings scarcely more to the sidelines besides a wider waistline. Yet if still slim in the win column — even as their coach has started chugging diet shakes in recent weeks — the Warriors appear a team reborn. Indeed, for the first time in at least two years, the word team applies to Golden State beyond the loose concept of 14 guys showering together.

The Warriors hired Montgomery in 2004, handing him his first NBA job. The former longtime Stanford coach, struggling to adapt to the pro game and its egos, climbed a steep learning curve that lead to a cliff. He relied heavily on veterans, convinced he needed to gain their loyalty to cure the franchise's addiction to losing. Neither happened as Golden State endured two straight 34-48 seasons.

"He was trying to build relationships with the team," says Warriors assistant coach Keith Smart, a holdover from the Montgomery years. "But guys don't do that unless they know who you are."

Nelson carried Oprahlike name recognition into the locker room. In 1997, during the NBA's 50th anniversary season, a panel of former coaches and players named him one of the 10 greatest coaches in league history. And that was before he rehabbed a derelict Dallas franchise into a perennial playoff team, replicating his prior success in Golden State and Milwaukee. "He's a legend," Warriors guard Monta Ellis says. "Players want to work hard for him." Ellis embodies the type of athlete who thrives in Nelson's meritocracy, where playing time depends on sweat equity, not merely experience or salary size. The rabbit-fast guard, drafted out of high school in 2005, seldom saw action during the first half of his rookie season, trapped on the far end of Montgomery's bench. Without injuries to guards Baron Davis and Jason Richardson, he may have remained there, watching old hand Derek Fisher perfect the art of never driving the lane. This year, with Ellis averaging 17 points and four assists as a top reserve and frequent starter, Sports Illustrated dubbed him "the NBA's most surprising player." Nelson one-ups that praise by calling the 21-year-old guard "a great player," and the rapport between the coach and his budding star shows during games. Against the Grizzlies, while a Memphis player shot free throws, the coach waved Ellis to the sideline to discuss strategy. Striding a few steps up the court together, each slipped his arm around the other's back, an embrace between mentor and pupil.

"He's given me the opportunity to go out there and perform," says Ellis, who steadied the team when injuries idled Davis and Richardson earlier in the season. "He's a very forgiving coach. He's tough on you, but he lets you learn as you go."

Nelson's belief that unheralded players can blossom in his system derives in large part from proving his theory with three franchises. Before reuniting with the Warriors, he reached the playoffs 16 times with Milwaukee, Golden State, and Dallas, along the way upending various tenets of NBA popular wisdom: The team with more All-Stars will win; height always beats speed; a 7-foot-7 bamboo shoot named Manute Bol must not hoist three-pointers.

But the origins of Nelson's habit of trolling for hidden talent dates to his own playing career. In summer 1965, on the heels of a season in which he averaged 2 1/2 points and two rebounds for the Los Angeles Lakers, the team released him. The 6-foot-6 forward fretted that his humble stats would snuff his three-year NBA career.

Instead, Red Auerbach, stogie-loving coach and general manager of the Boston Celtics, sensed buried potential in the mop-topped backup. Auerbach's hunch hit nothing but net: Nelson averaged 10 points and almost five rebounds as a reserve during 11 years with Boston, playing on five title teams. In 1978, two years after his playing days ended, the Celtics retired his No. 19 jersey.

His years spent in Auerbach's orbit instilled in Nelson the need for 180-proof honesty, without regard for a player's status as star or scrub. "If I took anything from Red," he says, "it was the ability to deal with men at the professional level. He just said it the way it was."

Nelson uncorked his straight talk after the Warriors' season-opening loss to the Lakers, labeling Dunleavy "a disaster" and Murphy "just terrible." Nor did the coach spare Davis, the mercurial point guard he views as the team's best player, grading his performance as "negative." For good measure, he knocked the entire squad, telling reporters, "Maybe I got a false impression of the team in camp ... I hope it doesn't get any worse than this."

Such directness would strike most coaches as anathema. Nelson calls it the privilege of age. "I'm 66, I'm gonna say what I want. If somebody doesn't like it," the coach says with a raspy laugh, "I don't really give a shit."

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