OAKLAND — Mike Montgomery couldn't do it. Neither could Eric Musselman before him. Or Brian Winters before him. Or Dave Cowens before him.

Or Garry St. Jean, P.J. Carlesimo, Rick Adelman and Bob Lanier before them.

After Don Nelson last guided the Golden State Warriors in 1995, eight different coaches over 12 seasons had a chance to resurrect the Warriors franchise in their own vision. All of them failed, most of them miserably.

It required Nelson's return finally to get it done, and he did it in a year. Incredible? Absolutely. But also predictable. Nelson has built a formidable legacy rescuing lost franchises, whether it be as general manager or coach or both.

He did it in Milwaukee at the outset of his career, reshaping a team that had finished out of the playoffs for two seasons and promptly guiding the Bucks to postseason appearances nine of the next 10 years.

He did it here, reinventing a 20-62 team and taking it to the playoffs in four of the next six seasons.

He did it in Dallas, which had endured seven straight losing seasons before he arrived. He engineered sixconsecutive years of improvement, the first three out of the playoffs, but starting in 2000, put the Mavericks on a course where they have won a minimum of 52 games and qualified for the postseason every year since.

New York? Ah yes, the aberration. But Nelson took over a team that already had been highly successful, and barely got the chance to work his magic.


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It wasn't as if he flopped. The Knicks were 34-25 when he was fired little more than halfway through his one and only first season in the Big Apple.

Clearly, regardless of his title, the man is a master mechanic. That point should be driven home more dramatically than ever as the Warriors enter their first playoff series in 13 years. For the first time, Nelson's latest repair job is going to be matched up against his last one, the Mavericks.

How does he do it? Warriors GM Chris Mullin, whose very life and career were resurrected by Nelson when he helped him through a bout with alcoholism, says he never had a doubt his coach and mentor was the man to end the long run of futility. It was simply a matter of him being available, and willing.

"Knowing Nellie like I do, that's what he's always done, not just here but at his other stops," Mullin said. "Not to say it still doesn't amaze me, but he's that good.

"To me, he is a Hall of Fame coach. That's obvious. But he's also like a Hall of Fame player, because it's hard to pinpoint just one thing that makes him special, because he does so much. I don't know if there are two or three other guys like him."

Indeed, Nelson is so multifaceted in his approach that no one explanation suffices, just as Nelson's own mentor, Red Auerbach, wasn't an easy peg.

Nelson is a supreme tactician, indubitably. He's great in preparation. He's a wizard in games. He's not only a shrewd talent evaluator, but he also understands how pieces of a team have to fit together to be successful. He knows how to identify a playing style with the pieces he has.

He's bold. He's not afraid to try something that might fail or look goofy, such as positioning someone like Manute Bol at the top of the key or putting four guards and a forward on the floor at the same time, as he did many times during the Warriors' remarkable stretch run.

Perhaps more crucial than anything else, though, Nelson is a virtuoso psychologist. He has an innate ability to motivate and focus players to extract their maximum potential. He has an arsenal of variant methods — cajoling, massaging, barking, joking, encouraging, discrediting, just plain having fun ... whatever makes the connection.

Nelson has said only two players in his many years of coaching confounded him, Chris Webber and John Starks, and he mused that Starks was simply too dumb to figure out. By the same token, he can take misunderstood and scarred talents like Jerry Stackhouse and Stephen Jackson and turn them into team-concept stars.

He can be blunt and caustic and soft and lovable. He runs the bear-lamb spectrum, usually to precise effect for the situation. But he's not just like that with players. He's always working it with the outside world, too — fans, members of the media, dignitaries, women, you name it. One can only imagine how much Nellie's dog loves him.

"The basketball stuff is obvious," Mullin said. "But he has an influence beyond that which influences the team. Even when he's had some struggles, the things he does are so interesting, it almost blocks those things out.

"I just love watching and learning from him, and I can tell the guys are like that, too. He's always in the zone from a coaching standpoint — when to get on a guy, when to back off, all that stuff is so second nature, it's not something he thinks about. He just makes the right decision."

"Best coach I ever had," said Jason Richardson simply, whose had a few from that initial list.

Dissecting the reasons why are many, perhaps more so now than ever.

Carl Steward can be reached at (510) 293-2451 or csteward@angnewspapers.com.