Worry not, stragglers: Don Nelson isn't yet the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. And he may never be: all we know is that ol' Nellie has some level of interest in the position, and that he and Wolves maestro David Kahn have spoken about opening. Don't expect affirmative resolution any time soon: Kahn took until July to fire the coach of a team eliminated in, oh, December. Kahn also dragged his feet in hiring Kurt Rambis in 2009, to the point where another team considering the coach -- the Sacramento Kings -- got angry at the delays and essentially eliminated Rambis from their race because they were tired of waiting to see if he'd join the Wolves.
So again, fret not: nothing has happened, and if Kahn's M.O. holds, nothing will happen for quite a while. But what a tantalizing nothing it is.
The centerpiece of the mutual attraction, if it can be called that, is that Kahn wants his team to be dedicated to the fast break going forward. Mind you, the Wolves led the NBA in pace this season, with 96 possessions per game. The NBA average for possessions in a game was 92. Rambis was billed (or reviled) as a coach of the Triangle, but the Wolves frequently shapeshifted into an opportunistic fast-break team, usually when Luke Ridnour was healthy and on the court. This is a fast-break team. Kahn wants it to be more of a fast-break team.
When you have a lot of speed and little conscience, and you want more speed and even less conscience, there's only one man for the job, and now, I'm not talking about Paul Westhead. It's Don Nelson. That's what makes this improbable pairing so appealing. Nelson is literally the only available guy who can give Kahn what we wants.
George Karl and Mike D'Antoni could do it; in fact, you could say Karl perfected the up-tempo, no-conscience system pioneered by Doug Moe, exploited by Nelson and taken to its limits by D'Antoni. The Denver Nuggets are now regularly among the league's best on the defensive end ... despite rating in the top five in pace. That's weird and amazing. Nelson did something similar with the Dallas Mavericks -- in 2003, the Mavericks finished seventh in pace and ninth in defense -- but this is at a different level completely. The Wolves want to go fast, remember? Don Nelson in Dallas was fast, but not that fast. Don Nelson in Golden State? In Nelson's final season, the Warriors averaged 100 possessions per game. Now we're talking.
The Timberwolves aren't going to win a thing under Nellieball. But that's fine, because the Timberwolves aren't going to win a thing for the next couple years no matter what. The concern and balance has to be between earning some wins -- like more than 20 for the first time in a couple years -- to build some confidence and cooperation between the team's young stars and keeping these young players accountable and on the path to future success. You could argue that Monta Ellis learned how to play with Stephen Curry because Nellieball forced the tandem into constant adaptation and education. But you could also argue that Nelson's lack of commitment to defense took a steady defender like Andris Biedrins and turned him into a veritable headcase who isn't worth half of his salary.
The Wolves do have the talent to succeed in a Nellieball system, as Sebastian Pruiti laid out in detail, but that success is relative only to the astonishing lack of success the team has had under Kahn's tenure specifically and in the post-Garnett era generally. That means that, no, Don Nelson is not going to turn this team into the Nash-Nowitzki-Finley Mavericks over the course of a couple years. Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Derrick Williams are promising. But they are not Nash-Nowitzki-Finley.
But here's the thing GMs and fans of bad teams seem to ignore: no one is a salve. There's no coach available who could turn the Wolves around without a deep roster overhaul. Even the great Phil Jackson would laugh if you gave him the reins and told him to suck out 30 wins. The team has no center, defensive issues at both forward spots and a rookie point guard without a jumper. This roster has three strong pieces in Love, Rubio and Williams, and a prospect you can at least call intriguing in Wes Johnson. But beyond that? Holes, holes, holes. Mess, mess, mess.
That's why Nelson works. Because the other options are not going to do a whole lot better. It's sad and a bit dystopic, but completely realistic. This team isn't going anywhere until the roster improves markedly or Rubio and Williams (two 20-year-old rookies) catch up to Love. Keep in mind that Kahn is running the controls, which severely limits the likelihood of a massive roster upgrade.
(And now for the "why it probably won't happen" portion of the column: Nelson is expensive, and I'm not sure Glen Taylor is willing to shell out big bucks for the coach of a team destined to win no more than 25 games. Also, at some point Kahn has to realize that Nelson chews up and spits out GMs for sport, right? A GM with a tenuous grip on NBA employment ought to exercise caution when hiring a wild card like Nellie or Larry Brown.)