Winning Games and Respect, He’s the Best in the NBA : COACHING POLL DON NELSON WINNER

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Who’s the best coach in the National Basketball Assn.?

Round up the usual suspects.

Is it Pat Riley, who has led the Lakers to two NBA titles, or Boston’s K.C. Jones, the coaches in Sunday’s All-Star game at the Kingdome?

How about Atlanta’s Mike Fratello, voted the NBA coach of the year last season by the media?


Or Indiana’s Jack Ramsay, who last month became the second NBA coach to reach 800 career wins?

What about Dick Motta, who has built the Dallas Mavericks into a contender for the Western Conference title?

Or Portland’s Mike Schuler, who has turned around the Trail Blazers in his first season as a head coach?

Utah’s Frank Layden and Denver’s Doug Moe also received strong consideration.


The winner, as selected by a poll of general managers and team executives from all 23 NBA teams prior to Sunday’s All-Star game is Don Nelson of the Milwaukee Bucks with 10 votes. General managers weren’t allowed to vote for their own coaches.

If this had been a national election, the TV networks would have projected Nelson as the winner before the polls closed in California. Even those who didn’t select Nelson praised him.

Nelson, who reached 500 victories faster than any other NBA coach, has led the Bucks to seven consecutive division titles. He has been voted coach of the year twice.

Ex-Milwaukee owner Jim Fitzgerald, who signed Nelson to his first coaching contract in 1976 said, “When I was making the first deal with him the team started 3-16 and Larry Costello quit as coach. I asked Nellie if he wanted to try it (coaching) and he said he wasn’t ready.

“I said that if it worked out he could advance his career 10 years and he wouldn’t have to go through an apprenticeship. At the end of the year he said he loved coaching.”

K.C. Jones was second with three votes. Ramsay and Riley each got two.

Receiving one vote apiece were Schuler and Motta.

Golden State Coach George Karl, who has the Warriors in contention for the playoffs for the first time since 1976-77, was also mentioned.


Seven general managers declined to participate in the poll, including Nelson, who serves as Milwaukee’s coach and general manager.

The others who didn’t vote were: Boston Celtic President Red Auerbach, the all-time winningest coach in the NBA, Laker General Manager Jerry West and Clipper General Manager Elgin Baylor, Chicago Bull General Manager Jerry Krause, Houston General Manager Ray Patterson, and New Jersey’s Bob MacKinnon.

What follows are the comments from all the general managers:

1. Stan Kasten, Atlanta Hawks: “Obviously our guy (Mike Fratello) is near the top and should be included.

“Nellie has done a tremendous job year in and year out. He’s just outstanding.

“And you can’t forget Jack Ramsay.

“The quality is high across the board. No one in the league doesn’t deserve to be there.”

2. Red Auerbach, Boston: “I never do that because for everyone you say is good, there is one that is bad.”


3. Jerry Krause, Chicago Bulls: “I don’t rate coaches. I don’t even think about rating coaches. . . . We’ve got an outstanding young coach. It’s not a fair question to ask someone.”

4. Wayne Embry, Cleveland Cavaliers: “John MacLeod (of the Phoenix Suns) or K.C. Jones. I say K.C. Jones. He wins championships.”

5. Norm Sonju, Dallas Mavericks: “It’s such a tough question. Let me leave our coach out.

“I think one of the really strong coaches I have such respect for is Don Nelson of Milwaukee. I’ve known him for 30 years.

“Another one I have a lot of respect for is Pat Riley. He has thoroughbreds, but you have to blend them. It’s very tough balancing the egos of great talented artists.

“A couple of young coaches I’m really impressed with are Mike Schuler in Portland and George Karl at Golden State. George did a good job in Cleveland and he’s doing it at Golden State.

“K.C. Jones’ record speaks for itself. And he has one of the greatest coaches on the court, and that’s Larry Bird. He’s really made that machine work. His personality is perfect. He’s such a great former player that he has nothing to prove.

“My problem is that I don’t know him that well. Pat, I’ve seen 30 or 40 times. I’ve seen K.C. about four times.”

On Fratello: “When a team plays with enthusiasm, you’ve got to give him a lot of credit.

“We really do have some fine coaches. As a whole, coaches in the NBA are outstanding and I couldn’t say that a few years ago.

“Frank Layden has done a masterful job with (Mark) Eaton. He has the capability to laugh at himself and not at his players.

“Take a guy like Doug Moe, whose style is so different yet you can’t argue with his record. He’s in the playoffs every year.

“Jack Ramsay has almost single-handedly changed the Indiana franchise around. Look at (Wayman) Tisdale and how he believes in himself now. I have great respect for what he’s done.”

6. Vince Boryla, Denver Nuggets: “The best in the entire league is Don Nelson.

“After that it’s Riley, Moe, and K.C. Jones has done a very good job.

“Nelson is a former player who’s able to relate to players. He has the ability to get an awful lot out of them.”

7. Jack McCloskey, Detroit Pistons: “Don Nelson is a masterful coach. And I think Jack Ramsey is one of the all-time great coaches.”

8. Jim Fitzgerald, Golden State Warriors: “There are a lot of good ones.

“I’d say Don Nelson. We were together for 10 years in Milwaukee. He has the ability to relate to players and he understands them.”

9. Ray Patterson, Houston Rockets: “I don’t think there’s any best coach. I couldn’t narrow it down. I just couldn’t do it.”

10. Donnie Walsh, Indiana Pacers: “I’d say Nelson. I think he’s done a good job motivating. I don’t think they could win without his coaching.”

11. Elgin Baylor, Clippers: “No comment.”

12. Jerry West, Lakers: “I don’t think it’s a fair question.”

13. Don Nelson, Milwaukee Bucks: “I don’t believe it’s a fair question.”

14. Bob MacKinnon, New Jersey Nets: “I don’t think there is one best coach.

“My candidates would be Pat Riley, Jack Ramsay, Nelson, K.C. Jones and Dave Wohl. They’re all very well organized. All their teams attack and play strong defense. I rate Dave in there and we’re not winning.”

15. Scotty Stirling, N.Y. Knicks: “Without ranking them, Nelson, Riley, K.C. Jones and Bill Fitch. And Lenny Wilkins in Cleveland is doing a hell of a job and so is Mike Fratello. I also like Bob Weiss in San Antonio and Schuler.

“It’s hard for me to find a guy who’s not doing a good job. Coaching is one of the league’s strengths and it used to be a weakness.

“This is a league of coaches. At one time the biggest requirement (for a coach) in the league was to be able to do matchups. Now it’s more technical due to the influx of college coaches.

“The best coaches today in basketball are in the NBA.”

16. Bucky Buckwalter, Portland Trail Blazers: “I’m sure you’ve heard Don Nelson a lot. He’s certainly one of the best.

“I don’t know who I’d vote for for coach of the year.

“Our guy (Mike Schuler) has certainly done a good job.

“I like Riley, K.C. Jones. I think Matty Guokas has done a nice job. And I certainly like John MacLeod and last year’s coach of the year, Mike Fratello.”

17. John Nash, Philadelphia 76ers: “I’d say it’s Mike Schuler. Based on marked improvement. He’s dealt with adversity. He’s got his players playing hard every night.”

18. Jerry Collangelo, Phoenix Suns: “I think the people who lead the pack deserve the most credit and are most often overlooked.

“George Karl, Mike Schuler, Dick Motta.

“Nellie always gets a lot of credit and it’s due him.

“Fitch has fought off injuries. Doug Collins is doing an outstanding job and Jack Ramsay is doing a fine job at Indiana.

“My final vote for Dick Motta: His team is coming of age and he’s keeping that team together.”

19. Joe Axelson, Sacramento Kings: “Don Nelson. I don’t know where in the world he learned to coach because he never coached anything in his life before he became the coach at Milwaukee. He’s a great coach. He’s as good as there is.”

20. Bob Bass, San Antonio Spurs: “I put Pat Riley on top. A guy asked me at the beginning of the season and I put Pat Riley on top and I haven’t changed my opinion. He’s really done a good job with the team.”

21. Seattle SuperSonic President Bob Whitsett said: “I think Bernie (Bickerstaff) has done a good job. Most people picked us low in the preseason.

“Don Nelson is certainly a good coach. And Riley, Motta, Layden, Karl and Schuler are doing a good job.

“About half of the coaches are doing a good job and the others are struggling for different reasons.”

22. Frank Layden, Utah Jazz: “That’s a tough question to answer. You really have a lot of quality people in the league.

“I’d say Ramsay and Motta just because they’ve lasted so long and have tremendous staying power.

“And I have a lot of respect for K.C. Jones, Pat Riley and Don Nelson.

“If I were voting for coach of the year I think I’d have to go for K.C. It’s long overdue.

“A good coach can win with good players. Nobody can win with bad players.”

Asked about himself, Layden said: “It just shows if you stick around long enough good things will happen.”

23. Bob Ferry, Washington Bullets: “I would name Don Nelson.”