Skip to content

Don Nelson says he got small ball idea from Red Auerbach

Aug 30, 2012, 11:41 AM EDT

Golden State Warriors v Minnesota Timberwolves Getty Images

Don Nelson will enter the Basketball Hall of Fame as the coach who has won more games than anyone else in NBA history. He will go in as an innovator, a team builder, a guy who colored outside the lines and that worked for him.

One of the things Nelson liked to do was play small and fast — small ball. Run the other guys out of the gym with your athletes and tempo.

Look around the NBA right now and you see the Heat winning a title once they went small with Chris Bosh at center. You see Boston trying to challenge them by going small with Kevin Garnett at center. You see big men who are a little smaller and a lot more mobile being the guys teams covet.

Don Nelson was at the start of that. But he told he got it from legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach when Nelson was a Celtics player (via TrueHoop).

”It all happened in the Celtic practices. What Auerbach would do when it got to midseason and practices were drudgery, was he would play big guys against the small guys and the smalls would always win. You put Bill Russell on the other team and everybody else big, and put the smalls on the other and it wasn’t a close game as long as it was a full-court game. Now half-court you couldn’t do that. But full-court, the smalls always won, so I’m sure that was the start of it.

“I could never understand why small players could never rebound and big players couldn’t dribble. They can. They just don’t do it. But in practice big guys can dribble and do a lot of things. Guys like Magic Johnson proved that – 6-8 point guard – that it could happen if they believe they can do it. So I always asked my small guys to be rebounders and my big guys to handle the ball and dribble and get into the open court and feel comfortable there.

“I think it all started from those practices. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we had John Havlicek on our side in small ball. But the big guys couldn’t get the ball up the court. It was always like 10-2 – small guys always won.”

The old basketball adage that “tall and good beats small and good” is being challenged. Which is good for us as fans — up tempo, slashing teams are a lot more fun to watch than plodding defensive ones.

And we have Nelson to thank for that. And Auerbach.

  1. kdn4 - Aug 30, 2012 at 11:58 AM

    No shame in learning from the greatest coach of all time. Yes, Phil has more rings, but Red was a completely different cat.

    Though I am a huge Phil Jackson fan and this is a guy who grew up and is still a Seattle Supersonics fan.

  2. LPad - Aug 30, 2012 at 2:32 PM

    What the Celtics and Heat are doing really isn’t “small ball” in terms of Nellie ball. The Celtics are just moving an aging 4 (who is 7-1) to center because he lost a step. The Heat are only going small (with 6-11 center in Bosh) because LeBron is 6-9, 260 athletic wonder. Nellie was willing to play four guards at once or put 6-5 Byron Houston at center, while the C’s have a convential lineup sizewise with the Heat going with a 3 guard lineup assuming Allen starts or an average size lineup assuming Battier starts at the 3.

  3. papichulo55 - Aug 30, 2012 at 5:35 PM

    Dont believe The Hype! Its common sense that your chances to score improve as you get closer to the basket. The League cant sell what it doesnt have: good Bigs. A young Shaq or Dream would average 40 in todays League. Just count the rings of HOF Bigs vs Smalls. BBall was, is and will always be a big mans game. As soon as the League starts getting Bigs who know how to play in the post, high percentage shots will become fashionable again. Bet on it!

Leave Comment

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!

Top 10 NBA Player Searches
  1. D. Rose (3008)
  2. K. Irving (2427)
  3. A. Davis (2058)
  4. K. Bryant (1692)
  5. L. James (1605)
  1. K. Durant (1463)
  2. T. Thompson (1434)
  3. B. Jennings (1356)
  4. A. Aminu (1334)
  5. M. Leonard (1294)