Don Nelson, Ben Braun, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens
by Glenn Dickey
Jan 23, 2008

DON NELSON was forever spoiled by playing with Bill Russell. Every big man he’s coached has fallen short of the Russell model, which would also be true if he were coaching almost any other team in the NBA.

I love Nelson dearly as a coach – and for his cooperation with the media – but he has two basic flaws in his approach

--He rides young players too hard, which again is a reflection of his own playing career. Red Auerbach used to pick out one player who would be the chief target of his abuse, and Nelson was usually that player. Auerbach, a superb psychologist, never criticized the sensitive Russell.

It’s no coincidence that Nelson works best with veteran players. Players like Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson are not bothered either by direct criticism from Nelson or what they might read in the papers or hear on TV.

Younger players are usually more sensitive to criticism, and that’s especially true now that players are coming into the league so young. The age limit is 19 now in the NBA, which usually prevents players from coming directly from high school, but that’s still much younger than in Nelson’s playing days, when players didn’t come to the NBA until their college classes had graduated, even if they hadn’t. When Wilt Chamberlain left Kansas after his junior year, for instance, he had to play with the Harlem Globetrotters for a year before he was eligible to come to the NBA.

--He expects bigger players to develop fast, when the norm for the bigger players is that they will take longer to develop their skills. Andrew Bynum, for instance, was just starting to justify the Lakers’ faith in him in his third year, before he was injured.

Both of these negative traits surfaced in his last coaching stint with the Warriors. He made a draft day trade to take Chris Webber, but he and Webber were like oil and water. The fault was not all Nelson’s, as Webber’s subsequent career showed, but Nelson’s failure to get through to Webber was ruinous to both him and the Warriors. Webber was traded, Nelson eventually resigned and the Warriors went into a funk which didn’t end until Nelson returned last season.

Nothing that damaging is on the horizon now, thankfully, but Nelson’s uneasy relationship with the bigs on his roster continues.

The only big man getting substantial playing time is Andris Biedrins. You have to love Biedrens, a throwback to a much earlier time with his attitude and work ethic. He came to the Warriors with almost no basketball skills. He was a horrendously poor shooter. But, he had good hands and good feet and he just kept working, working, working.

Now, he’s become a good rebounder and shot-blocker. He still isn’t a good shooter and probably never will be, but he’s vastly improved his free throw shooting and is able to put back missed shots or take passes inside for layups so he can score 10-16 points if he plays enough. He’s certainly not Bill Russell, but he gives the Warriors a good effort.

When he’s on the floor, that is. Nelson often takes him off the floor when he wants to go to a small lineup. Sometimes that’s a good move, sometimes not. When he’s replaced by Al Harrington, who has been a serious disappointment for the most part, I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Biedrens is the only Warriors big man who gets substantial playing time. Patrick O’Bryant, the Warriors No. 1 pick in 2006, plays only when there’s little choice, as he did when Biedrins got into early foul trouble against Minnesota in Monday’s game. Nelson has often been publicly critical of O’Bryant for not working hard enough in practice.

The 2007 No. 1 pick, Brandan Wright, has seldom been seen, which is also true of Kosta Perovic, the second-round pick in 2006. Because clerical errors had left the Warriors with a short roster, Petrovic played for the first time this season in Milwaukee and held his own against the Bucks’ Andrew Bogut. But, that may be the last we see of him this season.

Of course, we shouldn’t expect Nelson to be interested in a longterm solution for the Warriors. At 67, he’s not looking beyond the third year of his contract, for the 2008-2009 season, and may not even be back for that season. He’s openly campaigned for assistant Keith Smart to succeed him.

So, we have to be content with what we’ve seen in the 1 ˝ seasons that Nelson has been back: A very exciting team which plays an unusual game that will get it into the playoffs, but probably no further than the second round.

But then, that was Nelson’s pattern in his earlier stint with the Warriors. I’m not complaining. There’s been real excitement at the arena since his return, and we all know what it was like when he was gone.

NEXT CAL COACH? As I wrote in my Tuesday column in the Examiner, Ben Braun is a disaster as Cal men’s basketball coach. If this is his last year, as we can all hope, who would replace him? Rich Lieberman has a good candidate: St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett.

“He’s everything Braun is not,” writes Lieberman, “He can coach (beat a talented Oregon team), has legitimate offensive/defensive schemes and has the respect of his players. He’s also a great recruiter. St. Mary’s is rarely is on TV, yet Bennett somehow was able to land two stud freshmen. Pat Mills is going to be a star.”

I concur; I’ve been following Bennett’s career for some time. I think Braun knows he’s on borrowed time; his calling out of players has the smell of panic. Hopefully, Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour will realize that he has to go after this season.

STEROIDS QUESTIONS:

I’m frequently asked by readers what I would tell parents of high school athletes who are tempted to take steroids because of the example of major league players. Here’s what I would tell them, from what we’ve learned so far:

--Steroids are primarily useful for older players who are trying to extend their careers. They appear to have helped Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens to extend their productive years well into their 40s, which athletes have rarely done in the past.

They do not seem to work as well for younger athletes. I suspect Mark McGwire’s injury problems in his early career stemmed from steroid use, as his body couldn’t support the extra weight/muscle. In recent years, we’ve noticed two trends with young pitchers: There are many more throwing fast balls in the high 90s – and there are many more breaking down. Though nobody has any proof, the feeling among baseball people is that both trends have come because of steroids use. Knowing that, steroids are not worth the risk for a high school athlete.

--Steroids are not a magic pill. Bonds and Clemens had both been on a Hall of Fame path before they took anything. On the other hand, the list of known steroids users includes players like Marvin Benard, Nefti Perez and F. P. Santangelo, all of them mediocre players who remained mediocre players after their steroids use. The likelihood that a high school athlete could benefit from them is so slim that, again, it’s not worth the risk.

Finally, a parent should also emphasize the danger of following another common path of athletes: alcohol abuse. That is still a greater danger for baseball players than steroids use, and the likelihood that your son is going to get behind the wheel of a car after drinking too much is also far likelier than that he will be taking steroids. It’s also a far greater danger.

PAST RE-VISITED: The 49ers and Raiders aren’t the only ones with serious management problems. Surfing the net, an unhappy Redskins fan found a column I had written for Pro Football Weekly in 2000, predicting that the Redskins were doomed with owner Dan Snyder and general manager Vince Cerrotta making the decisions.

Nice to know I’m not always wrong. That column was right then – and it could have been written yesterday as well.

NO WORRIES:A Giants season ticket holder forwarded me part of a message from the Giants about a special opportunity: Seats in the new luxury suite section on top of the right field wall.

Apparently, with Barry Bonds gone, they’re not worried that those suites will be peppered by long drives from Giants hitters. I wouldn’t be, either.:

LETTERS: I plan to update this on Saturday and to make updates regular Saturday features.

SUPER BOWL tickets are available through the TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS! link at the bottom of my Home Page.There are several big college basketball matchups available, including UCLA-USC on Feb. 17, Duke-North Carolina, Feb. 6 and March 8, and Michigan State at Indiana, Feb. 16. In the NBA, the Boston Celtics have big matchups with the Dallas Mavericks, Jan. 31, and the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, Feb. 10. In the entertainment field, Hannah Montana is still the hottest attraction, and shows with Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks, Bon Jovie and Eric Clapton are also big. Just click on either the Bay Area or national link for these and other shows or sports events in which you’re interested.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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