The San Francisco Bay Area became the capital of ringless wonders and hollow milestones on Wednesday, when the Golden State Warriors beat the Minnesota Timberwolves, pushing Don Nelson to the top of the all-time wins list for NBA coaches. The region's ascent required a team effort, achieved by a pair of notorious egomaniacs, working not the least bit in concert with each other. In fact, they worked out of two different cities, and three years apart.
|Don Nelson's NBA-record victory total doesn't include any in the Finals. (Getty Images)|
On the other side of the Bay in Oakland, the path to Nelson's 1,333rd win crossed a bridge to nowhere sometime in the summer of 2008. General manager Chris Mullin found himself at odds with the guys who signed his checks, and the team became a Rotisserie plaything for Nelson and his cronies. This season has been hideous, and celebrating the coach's record parodied the state of the franchise.
Nelson's defenders will point out that his roster was gutted by injuries this season and that he orchestrated wins that few other coaches could have elicited from the Warriors' lineup. Plus, he turned the Warriors of the late 1980s and early '90s into the Run T-M-C phenomenon, turned Dallas into an offensive terror, then came back to the Warriors three years ago and briefly transformed the sorry club into the most exciting team in the NBA.
But much like Bonds, he has never coached a team to a championship. Bonds played in one World Series; Nelson never coached an NBA Finals team.
There are all sorts of mitigating factors, but the championship tally is a pretty critical line on any athletic résumé. Their predecessors in the record book, Aaron and Lenny Wilkens, were considered beneficiaries of longevity more than towering achievement, but each of them won one title.
Two days before he broke the record, Nelson was again snubbed by Hall of Fame voters. The six coaches below him on the wins list have all been inducted. His stubbornly unorthodox methods, including the cultivation of the point forward, the attempt to dump Patrick Ewing and disdain for defense might be weighing against him.
Suspected of employing methods that became too orthodox in baseball during his era, Bonds might also face rejection when his name appears on the Hall ballot in two years. There's not much similarity here. Whatever Nelson's shortcomings and Machiavellian inclinations, he didn't spend his record-setting season under the threat of a federal indictment for allegedly lying to a grand jury about performance-enhancing drug use.
Wed. recap: Warriors 116, Timberwolves 107
Graphic of the Day: Nelson reaches milestone
Also, Nelson favored small ball, while Bonds thrived on the long variety.
One could argue that the emphasis on their records yielded some long-term benefits for their teams. The Warriors needed Monta Ellis to stow his "can't play with Stephen Curry" position, if only so they can find takers for him in the offseason. The obsession with Nelson's record provided some cover for Ellis' brattiness, and he rang up some great numbers (which, for anyone watching him regularly, appear considerably less substantive than 1,333 coaching wins without a title).
As Bonds swung for the fences in the summer of '07, a skinny right-handed pitcher known as the Freak and the Franchise got to enter the majors with a fraction of the hype that might have greeted him otherwise. Serious Giants fans knew that Tim Lincecum was the future, but the circus around Bonds insulated him from some of the pressure. It didn't protect Barry Zito all that much from the fallout of a new $126 million contract and the abysmal performance that accompanied it.
But Zito was signed in part to distract from the Bonds record chase and to prove that the Giants hadn't forsaken a commitment to other aspects of the game or devoted so much payroll to their slugger that they couldn't afford some shiny object in the free-agent market.
The managing owner in charge of that decision and Bonds' place with the club, Peter Magowan, stepped aside after the '07 season, making way for a fresh vision for the team. Chris Cohan, Nelson's patron, has signaled that he will sell the Warriors after this year. You would think record-breaking feats would encourage owners to hold on, but not here in the capital of farcical numbers.
Gwen Knapp is a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.