- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Don Nelson was enjoying a pretty sweet retirement last season — living on the Pacific Ocean in Maui, playing poker and golf with Willie Nelson, checking in with wife Joy when necessary.

But it didn’t take much to bring him back to coaching — just a call from Chris Mullin, who played under Nelson for seven seasons with the Golden State Warriors in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Chris asked me if I would come back and help get some of the magic back we once had here, and I still have the passion to do it,” the 66-year-old Nelson said.

Mullin, now the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Warriors, reached out to Nelson after Golden State missed the playoffs for a 12th consecutive season.

“When I called Nellie, it wasn’t to see if he wanted to coach or to prove he could coach but to come here to win,” Mullin said.

Nelson, the last coach to lead the Warriors to the playoffs, begins his second stint with the team tomorrow night against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Expect a different Golden State from the team that won 34 games in each of the last two seasons.

“There’s nobody better at playing small ball than me,” said Nelson, second in NBA history with 1,190 wins. “I know how to do that. I think for the most part you’re going to see a smaller, faster team. I think we’ll score more, and we’ll be competitive that way.”

The Warriors are scheduled to start the same backcourt as last season — Baron Davis and Jason Richardson — but with Troy Murphy at center, Mike Dunleavy at power forward and Mickael Pietrus at small forward.

“I like this team, and I’m not afraid to say that I like it,” Nelson said.

The defining characteristic of Nelson’s success has been creating matchup problems. He doesn’t care how his players match up with the other team. He lets the other team worry.

In his first NBA coaching job with the Milwaukee Bucks, Nelson made Paul Pressey the first point forward. With the Warriors, he invented small ball as Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin formed “Run TMC.”

Also in Golden State, Nelson drafted Sarunas Marciulionis, the first foreign player who developed his game overseas to play in the NBA. Then with the Dallas Mavericks, Nelson developed the talents of Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, further popularizing the use of foreign players. And in Nowitzki, Nelson found the ultimate matchup problem — a 7-foot 3-point shooter.

But Dunleavy, the No. 3 pick in the 2002 draft, may be Nelson’s most interesting experiment yet.

“He has the unique ability to play point guard at a power forward position,” Nelson said of the 26-year-old. “I don’t know who’s ever done that. I’ve never had a guy that can do that.”

At 6-9 and 230 pounds, Dunleavy is a skinny but skilled player who hasn’t reached his potential in four NBA seasons, averaging a career-high 13.4 points two seasons ago.

“I’ve learned stuff here and there over the last for years, but it doesn’t compare to what I’ve learned the past two weeks,” Dunleavy said of Nelson’s training camp. “[Nelson] sees the type of player I am and the way I play, the way I think.”

Dunleavy and his teammates have only nice things to say about Nelson.

But Nelson left Golden State in 1995 because of disputes with a player (with Chris Webber) and with the owner (Chris Cohan, who still owns the team). Cohan blamed Nelson for the Webber dispute and sued him for $1.6 million.

“It was never bitter,” Nelson said. “I had some of Chris’ money, and he wanted it. We had an arbitrator decide, and he decided in my behalf. There was never any name-calling. I think we went out and had a beer afterwards.”

Nelson is enjoying a pretty sweet return by the Bay Area. The only thing missing is Willie Nelson.

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