Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 9/7/12
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The Miami Heat won the NBA title last season often not using a point guard, instead having LeBron James be a point forward. Where did that come from? Don Nelson. He popularized the term by using Paul Pressey as a point forward for Milwaukee in the 1980s. The Heat this season are talking about often playing small ball and being "position-less." Where did that first really blossom? Try Nellie again. With Golden State in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he played without a tradition center, using a flurry of perimeter guys. Nelson is one of the great innovators the NBA has seen. Oh, by the way, Nelson, who coached his first game in 1976 and last in 2010, also is the winningest coach in league history with 1,335 victories. For those reasons alone, Nelson's induction Friday into the Hall of Fame is overdue. No, he never won a championship, and never even took a team to the Finals. But he did enough of everything else, including being named three times NBA Coach of the Year. "It's about time he got recognized for being the winningest coach in the history of the NBA," said longtime NBA coach Del Harris, who served as an assistant under Nelson with the Bucks and under him at a later stop in Dallas. "It's not important how many championships you win or not. Not everybody has that opportunity just as not every player has that opportunity. But, if you do Hall of Fame type of work over a long period of time, you're a Hall of Fame person. Nellie is obviously that." Harris will be in Springfield, Mass., when Nelson, 72, is enshrined. Perhaps it would be appropriate if Nelson, who also was a Hall of Famer when it came to dressing badly, dons one of his famous fish ties. With Nelson about to be inducted, stories are flowing about his many innovations. Some worked well and some not as well. Paul Mokeski, coach of the D-League's Reno Bighorns, played for Nelson in the 1980s with Milwaukee, in the 1990s with Golden State and was an assistant under him in the past decade with the Mavericks. He recalled when the Bucks once faced the Washington Bullets and 7-foot-7 center Manute Bol. "Manute was a great shot blocker but wasn't much of an offensive player, so (Nelson) put Craig Hodges, who was 6-foot-1, on him," Mokeski said. "So they tried posting up Manute and he made a shot or two, but they went away from their regular offense, which was getting the ball to Jeff Malone and Jeff Ruland. Eventually, they took Manute out of the game, so it worked." That wasn't the only Bol story surrounding Nelson. When he was with the Warriors in 1988-89, he picked up Bol, who had shot 0-of-3 on three-pointers with Washington in his first three seasons. What did Nellie do? He turned Bol into a three-point shooter, and he made 20-of-91 that season with the Warriors, nearly all of his attempts coming in the second half of the season. The sight of Bol hurling threes was comical. He looked like a bar patron throwing a dart. "That was an ugly shot," said Mokeski, a center who didn't join the Warriors until after Bol had departed in 1990 but had played against him. "A lot of people thought (Nelson) was crazy (for having Bol shoot three-pointers) but I didn't. What it did, if you let him take those shots, it motivated him and he was going to do a better job blocking shots and playing defense for you." Bol, though, hit just 9-of-48 from three-point range the next season, and that experiment eventually was abandoned. Nelson soon mostly was playing the likes of 6-7 Rod Higgins and 6-7 Tom Tolbert at center while going with his "Run T.M.C." attack of perimeter guys Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin and trying to outscore teams. That represented a change for Nelson. When he was with Milwaukee from 1976-87, he actually was known for defense. "He was an underrated NBA defensive coach," Harris said of Nelson, who had been a rugged defensive player with Boston in the 1960s and 70s, which included winning five titles. "The last 10 to 15 years, he liked to emphasize more the flow of the game and tempo of the game. But earlier in his coaching career, he focused on defense and in those years the Bucks had as good of a defensive team as there was in the league." While with the Bucks, Nelson played a more traditional offensive style. That's because the Bucks for much of that time had a center bound for the Hall of Fame in Bob Lanier. But Milwaukee, despite Nelson winning 50 games in each of his last seven seasons there, had the misfortune of playing in a loaded Eastern Conference. Boston and Philadelphia were simply better, and the Bucks couldn't even make the Finals. Nelson eventually moved out West to woeful Golden State, which had a dearth of big men. So Nelson ended up often playing without one during much of his 1988-95 stint there. "Some coaches get stubborn and say, We're going to do it this way' even if they don't have the right type of roster to play that way," Mokeski said. "Nellie was able to adapt to the roster he had He wanted you to match up with him. If you had to match up to what he did, he felt he had you." That continued when Nelson, after an unsuccessful 1995-96 season in New York, moved on to Dallas for a 1997-2005 run. Teams had a nearly impossible time checking 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki, utilized by Nelson as a deadly jump shooter. Then again, Nelson found a way to match up with him. In his final hurrah as an NBA coach, he returned to Golden State for a 2006-10 run. He reinstituted small ball, the highlight being the No. 8 Warriors stunning the top-seeded Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 playoffs while actually playing some defense. Nelson spent his later years in coaching running up gaudy scoring totals while seemingly neglecting defense. Then again, he did have one defensive innovation left in him. That would be Hack-a-Shaq, the tactic of fouling shaky shooter Shaquille O'Neal and sending him to the line. That evolved into Hack-a-Howard, a similar strategy used on Dwight Howard. And if the Heat meet Howard's Lakers in the NBA Finals next June, perhaps they will borrow something else from Nelson. Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter @christomasson
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