On This Date: Don Nelson wins his first game as the coach of the Knicks

November 3rd 1995: Knicks win Don Nelson’s first game 106-100 in Detroit against the Pistons

Nelson employed a quirky and an extremely short rotation in the season opener. Hubert Davis, starting for the suspended Charles Oakley, surprisingly played the entire game, while leading the team with 21 points and made 5 three pointers. Both Derek Harper and newly-minted starter Anthony Mason played 42 and 44 minutes, respectively. Harper scored 20 points on 9-15 from the field and 2-5 from three. In the new role of point forward, Mason scored 18 points on 7-13 from the field and grabbed 13 rebounds and 5 assists. Continue reading →

On This Date: The New York Knicks hire Don Nelson

July 6th 1995: The New York Knicks hire Don Nelson as their next head coach

Weeks after Pat Riley abruptly resigned, the Knicks went ahead to hire Don Nelson as their next head coach. Nelson came off a campaign where he resigned from the Warriors mid-season after starting the year 14-31. He spent much of the 1993-94 season embroiled in a conflict with their #1 pick Chris Webber.

Nelson sought to bring an uptempo pace to a Knick roster largely built in their halfcourt motions. The match was basically doomed from the start. Although starting the season on a high note, the Knicks hit a rough patch after the New Year. Tensions arose between Nelson, Patrick Ewing & John Starks.

Nelson de-emphasized Ewing’s role in the offense and made Anthony Mason the focal point. Although Mason had a then-career year with the Knicks showcasing his point forward abilities, Ewing was frustrated with his role on offense. Additionally, Nelson reduced Starks’ playing time for Hubert Davis.

The climax occurred when word got out that Nelson wanted the Knicks to trade Ewing in order to pursue Shaquille O’Neal in free agency. This point marked the beginning of the end of his coaching tenure with the organization.

The Knicks fired Nelson midseason after posting a 34-25 record. The conflicts proved to be too much to overcome. The Knicks appointed Jeff Van Gundy as the interim head coach. Van Gundy remained the head coach through the 2001-02 season. Additionally, Van Gundy retained Don Chaney, an original Nelson assistant, as his main assistant coach. Chaney took over as head coach in 2001 after Van Gundy abruptly resigned.

In hindsight, Nelson sought to implement a modern offense that teams would eventually replicate. However, the older personnel on the roster were not equipped to run his offense at the time.

On This Date: Knicks fire Don Nelson and promote Jeff Van Gundy to head coach

March 8th 1996:  The New York Knicks fire Don Nelson and appoint Jeff Van Gundy as the new head coach

In one of the shortest head coaching tenures in modern NBA history, the Knicks fired Don Nelson after only 59 games despite a 34-25 record with the team. Unlike the Golden State Warriors, where Nelson feuded with Chris Webber, the entire team had issues with Nelson. Nelson favored a modern up-tempo style of basketball while the players wanted more of the same under the Pat Riley era. He centered the offense around Anthony Mason and unleashed his skills as a point-forward to the disdain of Patrick Ewing. Ewing obviously favored centering the offense from the low post. In the weeks leading up to his firing, Nelson benched John Starks and had Hubert Davis replace him in the 4th quarters of games.

The final straw was when Nelson stated – off the record with people in Madison Square Garden – that the Knicks had to move on from Patrick Ewing and try to trade him to Orlando for Shaquille O’Neal. The word caught back to Ewing and the relationship was toast. The core Knicks – led by Ewing – sparked a mini-insurrection until Ernie Grunfeld fired Nelson.

In reality, the Knicks roster were insistent on maintaining the status quo and the style of offense and defense that thrived under Pat Riley. Nelson wanted to implement a modern, but eccentric approach to basketball that an old veteran team was not willing to accept. Some of his initial philosophies, including using Anthony Mason as a point forward, have been incorporated in today’s modern NBA.

Jeff Van Gundy replaced Nelson as the interim head coach. Van Gundy, then 34, stuck around as an assistant coach dating back to the Stu Jackson era. His offensive and defensive philosophies were largely influenced from the Riley era. He centered the offense back around Ewing and re-emphasized defense. The Jeff Van Gundy Knicks personified tough defense while often sacrificing high scoring outputs on offense.

Furthermore, Van Gundy inherited assistant coach Don Chaney from Nelson’s coaching staff to be his full-time assistant coach until his resignation in 2001. During his tenure with the Knicks, he played a role in developing 3 assistant coaches that eventually became NBA head coaches in Tom Thibodeau, Steve Clifford, and Mike Malone.