The Bard of Souped-Up Basketball
Denver Nuggets coach Paul Westhead employs a daring rapid-shot strategy, but results lag
CLEVELAND — WHEN all else fails - and all else has lately been failing with disconcerting regularity - Paul Westhead turns to his traveling companion, the Bard. The two of them have been close ever since the scholarly young Philadelphian got to know Shakespeare at St. Joseph's College and then introduced him to undergraduates in the literature classes Westhead taught at LaSalle, where he also coached the basketball team.
Over the years, the ancient Englishman has counseled Westhead with enlightened verse. Timeless sage that he was, Shakespeare remains fluent in many modern concerns, the only problem being that he preceded Dr. James Naismith, basketball's founding father, by about three centuries and Michael Jordan by four. For all of the Bard's poetic wisdom, he has very little to offer when Philadelphia 76er forward Charles Barkley gets the ball inside the free-throw lane.
That is the very sort of thing that has challenged the judgment and resolve of the maverick coach in his first season with the Denver Nuggets of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Westhead came to Denver with an innovative, madcap offense that served him swimmingly in five heady seasons at little Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles.
But the professional game is played on another level, and skeptics immediately lined up to say that Westhead's breakneck basketball, which calls for a shot every seven seconds, would never fly in the rarefied NBA. They called him The Nutty Professor.
A month into the season, Westhead is still convinced that his detractors are but the roundball descendents of those who insisted the Earth was flat. He will remain steadfast no matter how many games the Nuggets lose this year - a number that will be considerable. Despite scoring points at a record clip (and before the score of this week's games were known), Denver has come up short in 15 of its first 20 games.
Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.
-Lucio, in ``Measure for Measure''
But while the mounting defeats supply data for the doubters, they are neither unexpected nor conclusive. From a team that last year finished with a record of 43-39, the Nuggets lost their top two scorers (Lafayette [Fat] Lever and Alex English) and an important reserve (Danny Schayes). New general manager Bernie Bickerstaff likened Denver's remaining talent to that of an expansion team. And even with first-rate players, it would have taken time for the Nuggets to learn and be comfortable with Westhead's uncommon system.
``This isn't the sort of thing you pick up in a few weeks of training camp,'' says Westhead. ``You have to believe in it. It's like Zen. You have to live it.''
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well It were done quickly.
Westhead's is a demanding but not a complicated system. On defense, the object is to apply pressure all over the court to speed up the action and force turnovers. On offense, the idea is to shoot the ball as quickly as possible, long before the 24-second shooting clock expires.
``Why not?'' answers Westhead. ``The availability of a good shot should come within three or four seconds. The key is to get the ball into the hands of our point guard within half a second after we take possession. The point guard leads a sprint attack to the basket and the other players run to spots on the floor.
``If a player receives the ball at his spot on the floor, that's a good shot. The directive for our players is, `If the ball comes, shoot it.'
``One of the main purposes is to beat the other team down the floor,'' Westhead explains. ``But a lot of it is also based on the second shot. You're there before the other team can get back and establish block-out rebounding position.''
A few of the Nuggets - notably, veterans Orlando Woolridge and Walter Davis - have prospered under Westhead's strategy. Woolridge, an itinerant forward who has averaged 16 points per game over a nine-year career, is suddenly leading the league with an average close to 30. As a team, the Nuggets are scoring 129 points a game, a pace that would eclipse the record of 126.5 set by Denver in 1981-82 under coach Doug Moe.
But Denver's pressing defense has too frequently allowed opponents to breeze past for unchallenged baskets. In the first game of the season, the Nuggets lost 162-158 to the Golden State Warriors in the highest-scoring regulation game in NBA history. A week later, Phoenix blitzed the Nuggets with a league-record 107 points in the first half. Denver is surrendering a startling average of more than 140 points a game, a pace that would leave tire marks on the previous high of 126 allowed by the '81-82 Nuggets.
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes. -Gaunt, in ``Richard II''
While the Nuggets have shown noticeable improvement in recent games - two of their three victories came consecutively - the skeptics submit that the players will be unable to hold up to the physical demands of playing 82 games at warp speed. To counter this, the venturesome coach puts his troops through rigorous conditioning, including simulated sprints in the deep end of swimming pools. (``Readiness is everything,'' says Westhead, quoting from ``King Lear.'')
Westhead has trafficked in odd methods for most of his 19-year coaching career. He even tried placing vials of mercury around the necks of his players, ``for energy.'' At LaSalle, he once became so bored with Temple's pokey playmaking that he instructed three of his players to stay at the scoring end of the floor and abstain completely from defense. Using conventional methods, he won the NBA championship in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers (1980), but was fired less than two years later when Magic Johnson complained that Westhead's game plan was too confining.
At Loyola Marymount, Westhead put dynamite to the charge that he lacked imagination and daring. Now, critics say that his revolutionary scheme is ``ugly'' (coach Larry Brown of the San Antonio Spurs); that it is ``garbage'' (the Cleveland Plain Dealer); and that it is generally ``the worst thing I've seen in 40 years of basketball'' (Boston announcer Bob Cousy).
And yet, it has its moments. Against the Cleveland Cavaliers last week, the Nuggets broke through for a barrage of dunks and led by 20 points in the first half. Center Blair Rasmussen was throwing outlet passes before his feet hit the floor, point guard Michael Adams was moving faster than oil prices, and Woolridge was shooting with his wrist on the rim. Eventually, the Cavaliers gained their equilibrium and evened the game, but it took all they had. When the ball rolled to Cleveland's Larry Nance with two minutes left to play, he picked it up, put it on his hip, took a deep breath, and called timeout.
Cleveland prevailed, and in the morning papers the writers had occasion once again to question the methods of the Denver coach. But Westhead, undeterred, could appeal to the greatest scribe of them all:
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need! -King Lear