“Who tests God and does not wager their life? A price will be paid.” – Galactus, Devourer of Worlds
If a team has a winning season, give credit to the players and the coach. If a team has twelve winning seasons, give credit to the general manager. Since 1998, when Donnie Nelson first joined the organization, the Mavericks have been one of the most consistently successful franchises in the NBA—eight 50-win seasons, three 60-win seasons (included the franchise record 67 wins in 2007), 12 consecutive playoff appearances, three trips to the conference finals, two trips to the finals, and of course an NBA Finals victory in 2011.
And yet, Donnie Nelson’s contribution is sometimes overlooked. Other names stand out.
Mark Cuban, who purchased the team in 2000, is acknowledged for changing the culture of the franchise. And even though Mark Cuban is a very involved owner, he’s wasn’t the one who brought Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki to Dallas. It was Donnie Nelson who played an instrumental role in rebuilding the team.
Dirk Nowitzki tirelessly carried his Mavs through each season and every playoff. But one all-star, even a truly great one like Nowitzki, can’t play every position on the court. There have been many great players whose talents were wasted on mediocre franchises—Kevin Garnett with the Timberwolves, Ray Allen with the Bucks, and even arguably LeBron James with the Cavaliers. We point to Nowitzki, because we see him on the court, or to Cuban, because he spends so much time in front of the cameras. But Donnie Nelson put together the teams that made the Mavericks an elite franchise. Credit where credit is due.
Donnie Nelson is sometimes seen as a product of nepotism. His father was the great Coach Don Nelson, the grand tinkerer and life giver to run-and-gun “Nellie ball.” It’s too easy to default to idioms such as Donnie being “in the shadow” of his father. A kinder perspective would be that Donnie Nelson operated “under his wing.” There’s no doubt that Nelson the Younger learned a lot from Nelson the Elder, but it’d be wrong to say Donnie Nelson hasn’t earned his place as a general manager. And possibly, he’s worked harder than most to distinguish himself from the other Don Nelson.
Donnie Nelson knows basketball. He played at Wheaton College, where he led his team in scoring and was an NABC All-Midwest selection. He was an assistant coach for Golden State and Phoenix. He was a regional scout for the Milwaukee Bucks. He briefly acted as head coach for the Mavericks while his father was recovering from cancer surgery. They were 15-8 during that time. Donnie Nelson has worked internationally as an assistant coach for the National Lithuanian team, a scout for the US Olympic team, and a chief advisor for the National Chinese team. He also became co-owner of the Texas Legends. Nelson started with the Mavericks as an assistant coach and director of player personnel, moving to president of basketball operations, then finally to becoming the GM. Enough with referencing the 2013 media guide, you get it: Donnie Nelson has a big basketball brain.
I’ve read some complaints—and please feel free to post your own comments below, I’m just offering the conversation starter here—that Donnie Nelson has failed to score the Mavericks good draft players over the past few years and therefore he’s overrated as a GM. See this chart on Basketball-Reference.com for the Dallas Mavericks draft picks. In response, I want to point out that the last time the Mavericks had a top ten pick was in 1998 when they used that no. 6 pick to draft Robert Traylor and trade him for Dirk Nowitzki, who Donnie Nelson had been eyeing. It’s easier to look like a genius when you have the no. 2 pick and you draft Kevin Durant, even though it’s a no-brainer. It’s harder to make something out of the 23rd pick, which has been the average first round pick for the Mavs since 1998. For instance, some people view Josh Howard as a “bust.” But with the 29th pick in 2003, the Mavs found a promising rookie and all-star who helped lead them to the Finals. It’s hard to do much better than that with the 29th pick. And who knows what would’ve been if Howard hadn’t struggled with chronic ankle and wrist issues? Donnie Nelson also traded to get the Wizard’s no. 5 pick in 2004, which brought Devin Harris to the Mavs. Once again, I defer to the Mavs first Finals appearance. Harris wasn’t as ideal as Steve Nash, but I would say it worked out better than some point guards they could’ve found.
Being a general manager isn’t only about draft picks. A good general manager assesses the value of a player for the franchise. He is the golden scale to determine the weight of a choice. Sometimes value is found in players who have been around for quite some time. In this regard, Donnie Nelson has done a good job in acquiring veteran players who exceeded their expectations—Jerry Stackhouse, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic, Elton Brand, and Vince Carter.
One of the greatest advantages to being the Mavericks GM is the ability to hide behind the Mark Cuban smoke screen. Since Cuban plays such a direct role in the daily operation of the team, he often gets the blame for moves made. People think of Cuban as a GM/owner like Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys—but that’s not the case. It has probably shielded Donnie Nelson from a lot of the criticism, allowing him to operate more freely.
Donnie Nelson is at the top of my list of people I’d like to sit down and interview for the Two Man Game (besides Derek Harper), because management is so much harder to grasp. I can watch a game and try my best to explain the existence of Mike James. It’s impossible to know what private conversations between Cuban and Nelson delivered Brandan Wright to the Mavericks. And maybe that’s the point. The general manager is best when he is invisible and not subjected to the scrutiny of writers with deadlines.
As fans worry about the future of the franchise, I hope they will show Donnie Nelson a little more trust and patience. As a person cast “in the shadow” of his hall of fame father and “behind the smoke screen” of the boisterous enigmatic owner, his resume should be good enough to have a little hope.