Doug Moe masters art of laissez faire NBA coaching. Free-spirited Denver Nuggets boss is great believer in free-form offense

Start with the confidence of a standup comedian, add just a pinch of con man, throw in a guy who doesn't mind swimming against the tide, and garnish with the personality of an insurance man whose next sale pushes him over the million-dollar mark. Put all that together, and what you have is coach Doug Moe of the Denver Nuggets - the answer to every newspaperman's dream. You look at him and he starts talking, throwing off one-liners like sparks off a grinder. His eyebrows do the Highland fling. He acts as though he's known you for years.

Here is a guy with the ability to pace up and down in front of his bench before thousands of basketball fans and destroy a $300 suit in under two hours. Well, maybe not destroy, but at least make it look like somebody's unmade bed. Moe, who is in his ninth season with the Nuggets, could put wrinkles in pressed steel. And the knot in his necktie has never made it all the way to the top of his collar, even on Sundays.

Yet Doug is someone you would want at the top of your invitation list for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Arbor Day. Five minutes after he arrived at your house, he'd be down on the floor playing with your kids. He is the kind who wouldn't be able to resist loosening the hostess's apron strings on the way from the kitchen to the dining room. If you found the sports section missing from your newspaper, just look for Doug.

Moe is an interesting person because of how often he says exactly what he is thinking. When Larry Brown was coach of the Carolina Cougars in the old American Basketball Association, and Moe was his assistant, Doug came back from scouting an upcoming opponent and told Brown: ``If we can't beat these guys, we shouldn't be in coaching!''

No notes or other explanation for Brown. No charts and graphs of how the opposition ran its defense and set up its offense, just the unvarnished truth.

Moe has been accused of ignoring so many unwritten basketball rules that hardly anyone knows how to define him.

For starters, critics say Moe runs too loose a ship, criticizes his players in public, spends no time teaching defense, runs a free-lance offense where everybody does what he wants, and has just one rule: Don't shoot without the ball!

The amazing thing is that if you approach Moe with any of the above criticisms, his first reaction is to laugh. Angry? Except when one of his players turns the ball over or an official blows a call, he doesn't know the meaning of the word.

Well, what about it, Doug, do the Denver Nuggets play defense or don't they?

``We probably spend more time on defense than any team in the league,'' Moe told me. ``You think I don't know that defense wins most games? However, we don't always do what we're supposed to do on defense. Sometimes, like tonight [the LA Lakers had just defeated the Nuggets by 18 points], we don't play any defense at all. But last year we won 54 [regular-season] games, the same as Detroit, and all everybody talks about this year is the Pistons winning it all. Hey, nobody even mentions us, and we put up the same numbers!''

Asked about his offense, where players go off on their own like solo jazz musicians, Moe replied:

``I believe in letting guys do whatever they want to do on offense, as long as they don't take bad shots. Look, we're not a big team that can go in and pound our opponents under the boards. We have to create things off our defense that are going to help our offense. On nights when we force a lot of turnovers, we're going to win.''

While Denver's offense has often been described by others as a passing offense, where one player gives up the ball and then runs to a certain spot on the floor, Doug says it isn't so.

``If anybody ought to know what we're running, it's me, and I'm telling you we ain't running anything, we're free-lancing,'' he explained. ``I had some of my players come back to our huddle during a timeout and tell me that the other coach is diagraming our plays. My answer to that is: How could he if we aren't running any?''

When I questioned Moe about his philosophy as a basketball coach, you'd have thought I had asked him about Einstein's theory of relativity.

``I don't have a philosophy,'' Doug said. ``Well, maybe I do. My philosophy is to win every game. If I've got a player on the floor who is shooting well, I'm sure not going to take him out. If one of my starters is tired and we're losing, and I know I've got another game the next night, I'm going to rest him.''

Although Moe has never been one to throw a lot of numbers at you, his .557 winning percentage is the sixth best among active NBA coaches. He surpassed the 500-win milestone last season, and entered the current campaign with 522 victories, including 177 compiled during four years as coach of the San Antonio Spurs.

Doug is awfully good at cutting quickly to the heart of any situation. He says he married his wife (whom he still calls Big Jane) because she was the only woman he ever met who didn't try to reform him!

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