Dallas Mavericks

Don Nelson’s small ball strategy comes up big as Warriors win title

DALLAS – Folks used to snicker at Don Nelson behind his back when he would often put five "short’’ players on the court and dare a team to beat his.

Nelson’s quirky style, affectionately known as small ball, finally won big when the Golden State Warriors used that tactic to finish off the Cleveland Cavaliers this past Tuesday and win the NBA title.

Asked Thursday about the Warriors being able to close the series against the Cavs by utilizing a small lineup, Don Nelson said: "You noticed that, huh?

"They really needed to do that to win the thing, and I thought (Warriors coach) Steve (Kerr) did a great job of coming up with something when the team needed it.’’

Putting an unconventional lineup on the floor was always an easy proposition for Nelson, who coached the Warriors from 1988-’95 and again from 2006-’10.

"The best basketball players are the smaller players,’’ Nelson said. "It’s more fun to watch them.

"They can do more things, they can all pass and shoot and run. Big guys just do it differently.’’

During the final three games of their championship series with the Cavs, the Warriors used a starting lineup that consisted of 6-8 Harris Barnes, 6-7 Draymond Green, 6-7 Klay Thompson, 6-6 Andre Iguodala and 6-3 Steph Curry. The Warriors went 3-0 with that small lineup and wound up beating the Cavs in six games.

"Cleveland’s strategy was to take (Curry and Thompson) out of the game by switching, double-teaming and denying and double-teaming the screen-and-rolls,’’ Nelson said. "So the guys that were open were the rollers – the guys that set picks – which were the big guys, and they couldn’t do anything with the ball because that guy needs to be able to catch, dribble and shoot.

"I thought Kerr did a great job of extending the defense and putting those guys in position to do something, but they just didn’t do it. But when he went with the smaller lineup, the smaller players could do that.’’

And that, Nelson surmised, was the difference in the series.

"They could catch and shoot, drive and pass,’’ Nelson said of the small lineup the Warriors employed. "And when they did that Cleveland’s strategy went right out the window.’’

The thought of seeing what his father worked so hard to achieve wasn’t lost on Donnie Nelson, the president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks. When asked if Don Nelson was simply ahead of his time with his small ball strategy, Donnie Nelson laughed and said:

"Nellie’s dream scenario was to have five guys that were 6-7 that could do it all. "Have skills, shoot it, stretch the floor and make decisions.

"And so yeah, with a twinkle in the eye you’ve got to figure that Nellie was out there (at the NBA Finals) in spirit in some form or fashion kind of pushing a few controls.’’

Since the NBA is more or less a copycat league, Don Nelson wasn’t prepared to say that he expects a plethora of NBA teams will start resorting to small ball in order to win a championship.

"It depends on who you’re playing against,’’ he said. "You can’t do that against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

"A lot of those guys are out (of the league) now, so you can get away with it. (Lineups with smaller players) can score a little better down low, they get some offensive rebounds and they can hurt you a little bit.’’

Still, Nelson resisting the notion of saying that his mad scientist of an idea of using a small lineup would one day rule the basketball world.

"I was just a creative coach,’’ Nelson said. "I did creative things when I coached.

"Some of them worked, some of them didn’t. But I tried them.’’