Pro basketball's Denver Nuggets are golden only on offense

Coach Doug Moe of the Denver Nuggets, as you probably already know, has the highest scoring team in the National Basketball Association.

Most of the players can score from anywhere on the court, fit in well with Moe's running game, and talk confidently of making the playoffs.

What makes the latter quesionable is that the Nuggets have only a satellite relationship with defense. Since the beginning of the season, Denver has been giving up almost 125 points per game.

Players who drive the lane on the Nuggets find only a papier-mache resistance. Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about Doug's players is that they never shoot without the ball.

Asked when he thought Denver might follow the lead of the NBA's more airtight teams, Moe replied:

''Hey, you don't think I know that defense is what wins most games? Of course defense wins most games. It's a proven fact that everybody accepts. I accept it and I try to make it work.

''I would say that Denver is probably the second best defensive team in the NBA. Of course all the other teams in the league may be tied for first! But that doesn't mean we don't play good defense. We practice and talk about making other teams work for what they get all the time.''

Moe says that one of Denver's lingering problems has been a failure to come out and play aggressively early. ''I don't know what the problem is, but we just seem to dig a hole for ourselves by getting behind by a lot of points,'' Doug said. ''But let me tell you something: we've won a lot of those games and you don't come from behind in situations like that unless you play good defense.''

Circus time in the NBA is watching Denver's front line of center Dan Issel and forwards Alex English and Kiki Vandeweghe turn their machine guns on the basket. Together they are averaging better than 68 points a game.

English, who could probably score with his feet encased in cement and who recently had a book of poems published, has improved every year since coming into the NBA with Milwaukee in 1976. Vandeweghe, who some scouts thought a step too slow to play in the NBA, was the No. 1 choice of the expansion Dallas Mavericks in the 1980 college draft, but was never able to reach a financial agreement with the club.

Traded to Denver last season after the Nuggets had already played 31 games, Kiki, without benefit of a training camp, came in and scored in double figures.

Vandeweghe's father, Ernie, played with the New York Knicks; an uncle, Mel Hutchins, also played in the NBA with Milwaukee, Fort Wayne, and New York; and a sister, Tauna, was a member of the US Olympic swim team. We would mention the credits of his mother, Colleen, except what would a former Miss America be doing in a sports story?

Even though you never hear Issel's name linked with all-star centers like Moses Malone and Karem Abdul-Jabbar, Dan is in his 12th pro season. In all but two of those, he has averaged better than 20 points a game.

Basically there are three major things Issel brings to his position: (1) a great sense of team play; (2) the ability to rebound well without being much of a leaper; and (3) the kind of consistency a coach can set his watch by.

Denver's starting guards are T.R. Dunn and Ken Higgs, with a spectacular backup man in David Thompson, whose shift to reserve duty is primarily the result of back problems. Even though Dunn has trouble making 6 ft. 4 in. standing on his wallet, he is third on the Nuggets in rebounds. Higgs, one of the NBA's fastest players at pushing the ball up court, leads the team in assists.

''Despite our record, we're still thinking playoffs because if we get there I think we'll do well,'' Moe explained. ''The way we run all the time scares a lot of teams and gives us an edge. If we got through a couple of rounds, there is no telling what we might accomplish.''

Somewhere, three or four generations back, Doug must have had a relative who sold plastic lightning rods!

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