Don Nelson and black big men

The Mavericks coach doesn't ever seem to click with them. Plus: The NBA doesn't call them play-OFFS for nothing.


King Kaufman
April 25, 2002 11:36PM (UTC)

I've had this theory about Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson ever since he coached the Golden State Warriors a decade ago. I don't know Nelson personally, have never met him, don't know anything about what the guy does away from basketball. But I've been waiting for years to see evidence that this theory is wrong, and I haven't seen it. The theory is: Don Nelson can't deal with talented black players who are notably bigger than he is.

When he was with the Warriors, Nelson, who is 6-foot-6, famously and ridiculously feuded with Chris Webber, then a rookie, who is 6-10. The front office sided with Nelson, Webber was traded and the franchise has never been the same, though that bad choice was more a symptom than a cause of the Warriors' management problems. Nelson was soon gone too, off briefly to New York, where he feuded with 7-footer Patrick Ewing.

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Now it must be said that Nelson, who wanted the selfish Ewing to pass more, was right in that particular feud. But that doesn't disprove my theory.

Nelson's teams are notorious for playing well in the regular season and foundering in the playoffs. The justification is always that his team lacks a dominant center. Well, dominant centers tend to be black, and Nelson, widely praised for his skills as a general manager as well as for his coaching ability, never seems able to draft or trade for one. He has coached one dominant center in his career, Bob Lanier, with the Milwaukee Bucks in the early '80s. But Lanier was past his prime then, no longer the force he'd been with the Pistons in the '70s.

The Mavs' tallest black player is Michael Finley. He's a good player, a 20-point scorer. And he's 6-7.

Do I think Don Nelson is a racist? I don't. After all, he seems to have no particular problem with black players his size and smaller. Maybe it's some sort of subconscious thing. Maybe it's my imagination getting the better of me. I don't know. But I didn't notice the Mavericks going after Dikembe Mutombo when he was available last year, and while I'd love to see Dallas get a great black big man someday and prove my theory wrong, I'm not holding my breath.

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I was going to say something really interesting about the first-round playoff series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Seattle Sonics, but I've forgotten what it was. We're now in the middle of a four-day pause in that contest, Tuesday through Friday, part of an eight-day stretch in which the Spurs and Sonics will lace 'em up exactly once.

The NBA: We put the "off" in playoff.

The first round of the NBA Playoffs is an almost complete waste of time because the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds almost never win. Since the NBA went to the current eight-teams-per-conference format in 1984, sixth seeds are 10-26 in first-round series against third seeds, seventh seeds are 4-32 against second seeds, and eighth seeds are 2-34 against top seeds. That's an overall record of 16-92 (.148 winning percentage) for the bottom three playoff teams in each conference, which is to say one of the teams in three-fourths of the first-round series. You have a better chance of seeing the Warriors or the Chicago Bulls win a game on the road -- they both went 7-34, .170, this year -- than you do of seeing a No. 6, 7 or 8 team win a series.

Only the No. 4 vs. 5 series is historically competitive. This year that's the Charlotte Hornets vs. the Orlando Magic in the East and the Mavericks vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves in the West. But we have to sit through two weeks of this nonsense before the playoffs get started in earnest. The Sonics-Spurs series will take 14 days to play, as will the Hornets-Magic tilt. Most of the series will take 13 days, though Dallas-Minnesota and Detroit-Toronto will get it done in 12. And this is all a slight improvement over last year, when first-round series took between 13 and 16 -- 16! -- days.

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Meanwhile, over in the NHL, where first-round series are historically much more competitive, they pretty much play every other day, a perfect pace. It allows the excitement to build and climax, build and climax. You get a game, then a day to talk about it, then another game, and so on.

Since the NBA isn't going to do anything about the lack of excitement in the first round of the playoffs -- not to mention the end of the regular season, which comes down to seeing which mediocre teams will wheeze into those last few spots -- by shrinking them, the least it can do is pick up the pace and get the curtain-raiser over with. Nine days is plenty to get five games in. I know the games are spaced out to ensure that as many people as possible can watch each of them, but the increased pace would lessen that feeling that the playoffs ... are ... dragging ... on, and would, I think, help ratings in the later rounds. And if not? So what. The nickel-and-dime difference in viewership isn't worth making a pointless round of playoffs last so long.

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All of this waiting makes me cranky, so without further ado, here's the first in a continuing series called Things I'm Tired of. Today's entry: Dumb stats used as TV graphics.

You know how you'll be watching a game, and say it's 85-82 for the home team. The TV folks will put up a graphic that says, "Frontcourt scoring: Home 71, Away 38." You're supposed to say, "Wow, look at that. The home team is really dominating in the front court!" But they never put up the other half of that stat. "Backcourt scoring: Away 44, Home 14." Wow! The visiting team's guards are dominating! And by the way: So what!

Rarely is any extrapolation made off of these numbers, as in: The home team's frontcourt is doing all the work, but they're all in foul trouble, so if they foul out, bye-bye home team. Usually, they're just random numbers, presented not for your edification, but to justify some stat guy's job and make it look like the network is really analyzing the game for you.

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In case you're wondering: I obviously think the top three seeds in each conference -- New Jersey, Detroit and Boston in the East, and Sacramento, San Antonio and Los Angeles in the West -- will win their opening-round series, even though the Nets, Kings and Spurs have each lost a home game and are preparing for two games on the road. I also think the two fourth seeds, Charlotte (tied 1-1 with Orlando) and Dallas (up 2-0 on Minnesota) will prevail. The Mavs, who don't play defense very well, will fall later. Fifth seeds, by the way, are 22-14 against fourth seeds in the first round since '84.

Wouldn't it be fun if the Hornets, ignored by Charlotte fans and slated to move to New Orleans, made a run deep into the playoffs? Shades of the Minnesota North Stars -- now the Dallas Stars -- going to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1991, though the Hornets are closer to moving than the North Stars were at the time, and I wouldn't expect fans to rally behind the team the way Stars fans did that year. Nor should they. The only proper response to team owners who threaten to move if taxpayers won't build them a new arena is the one Charlotte voters gave the Hornets' owners last year: Sayonara.


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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