NBA coaching great Don Nelson: 'I love Minnesota'

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 16, 2011 - 1:21 AM

The coach with the most NBA victories has informed David Kahn he would like to teach the Wolves to run and win. The two plan to talk again.


Don Nelson in 2007

Photo: Jim Bryant, Associated Press - Ap

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Calling from his Maui beach home, the man who has won more NBA games than anyone made his intentions perfectly clear late Friday afternoon:

Don Nelson will gladly trade those breezy Hawaiian trade winds for Minnesota winters and the chance to coach again, this time with the Timberwolves.

"I think it'd be a great fit," he said. "I love Minnesota."

It doesn't hurt that his daughter and grandchildren live in Minnetonka.

But that's not the reason Nelson wants a job that opened when the Wolves finally, officially fired Kurt Rambis on Tuesday, and it's not the reason he already has talked with Wolves boss David Kahn for about 40 minutes by phone and plans to talk with him again sometime this weekend.

"They have an opening," Nelson said, "and I don't have a job."

Even at age 71?

Even with 1,335 career victories behind him?

Even with that beach home beckoning in January, $6 million in the bank for not coaching Golden State last season and recently returned from a month's European vacation?

"I'm a lifer," Nelson said. "I love basketball. I don't know how else to put it."

And there's that "great fit" that he mentioned with a young Wolves roster that includes seven players -- including three former No. 2 overall picks -- selected among the first six picks in their draft classes, but that largely has managed to win only 32 games the past two seasons.

"Really, throughout my career, what I've done is taken teams with bad records and with every situation I've made them better," he said. "I like to be around young players. I've had great success with bad teams, getting them on the right track, getting them to max out. I have a great history there."

He also carried a reputation throughout his career as a coach who is tough on rookies and young players.

"Yeah, I don't like rookies that can't play," he said when asked about that impression. "Rookies that can play, I play 'em a lot. They're not rookies they have there. They're young players. You can bring those guys around and be competitive, be a real good young team.

"There's talent there. Maybe they just need to change the tempo and play a little faster there. There's only one guy who had success with the triple-post offense and he just retired."

Nelson was referring to Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson and his triangle offense, elements of which Rambis brought with him to Minnesota.

In his Tuesday news conference announcing Rambis' firing during the league's lockout, Kahn said he wants a team that played at the NBA's fastest pace last season to play a more entertaining, fast-break style. He said he will search for a coach who can relate to young players and who has that style of play ingrained in his "DNA."

"It's really tough playing against half-court defense all the time," Nelson said. "I think they've got a team that can really go and there's nobody better at that than me. I like to play fast."

He said he likes a Wolves roster that includes Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Wes Johnson, Michael Beasley, two Anthonys -- Randolph and Tolliver -- that he coached at Golden State, along with current No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams, who Nelson called his "favorite" and best player in last month's draft.

With the Warriors, Nelson nurtured Tolliver and clashed with Randolph.

"[Tolliver] had his best year for me," said Nelson, who surpassed Lenny Wilkens to become the NBA's all-time winningest coach in an April 2010 game at Target Center when Tolliver scored 34 points for the Warriors. "He's a good backup player. I know what he can do and what he can't do.

"I drafted Randolph. He didn't play very well for me. He's another guy, like Beasley, who has talent, but he has to reach down and get it. He didn't work that hard for me, but he's 6-11 and he can do things nobody else can do right now with running, jumping and playing around the rim. He's just got to reach down and become a player."

Nelson said the Wolves need to change their tempo and need "defensive structure." The latter isn't a quality you would normally associate with teams Nelson coached later in a career that started when he first coached Milwaukee in 1976.

"Rebounding is part of defense and they're very good at that," Nelson said. "They've got the best [Love] at that. Techniques, toughness and rotations, all that can be learned. A lot of people would love to be able to do what Love can do, but they can't. I'm very excited about that. They've just got to figure out how to play together."

So he really wants to do this again?

"Well, even though I'm a little older now, I don't feel any older than 50," said Nelson, who would likely command a salary between $3 million and $4 million (before bonuses) a year. "I don't feel my age. I may look like it. I may act like it. But I don't feel it. I'd love to strap it on again."

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