Before Mike D’Antoni and George Karl There Was… Paul Westhead

Via Flickr - B Rosen

In the spirit of HP’s own NBA historian, Curtis Harris, today we have a very special guest who takes a look back at an historic time in the NBA: One of the most dynamic offensive battles to have ever taken place in the game of basketball.

Steve Smith is an award-winning Australian basketball writer who recently shared an inside look at this most prolific of battles with me, and asked me to share it with you. What follows is an exclusive inside peek into this, one of the greatest games ever played. We’d like to thank Smitty for taking the time to dig up this bit of previously unpublished history of the game for Hardwood Paroxym, and we encourage you to follow him on Twitter at @smittys07 for more scintillating nuggets and great conversation about the beloved game.

Let ‘Em Loose: The 1990-91 Denver Nuggets

by Steve Smith

Conceding an average of 130.8 points per game, the 1990-91 Denver Nuggets have, over time, been dismissed as a statistical anomaly wrought by an eccentric coach intent on bringing a college fast-break system to the pros. Think you’ve got a good grip on run-and-gun basketball? Think again.

On Saturday, November 10, 1990, the Denver Nuggets made their way to the team’s morning shootaround at Phoenix’s Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Players shuffled on to the floor in dribs and drabs, still weary from the previous night’s 135-129 defeat to Seattle.

Their NBA campaign was just a week old and they were already the talk of the league, for all the wrong reasons.
Having conceded an average of 148 points in their first five games – including 162 to the Run TMC-powered Golden State Warriors in the season opener – NBA analysts from Orlando to Oakland and everywhere in between were wondering just what the hell new coach Paul Westhead was doing.

In his own mind, Westhead was certain he knew what he was doing, saying before the season started, “We’re gonna run, we’re gonna keep on running, if the pace ever slows down, we’ll speed it up and we’re gonna run and run and run some more! … There will be 200-point games. I feel very confident that we will be on the upside of that score but 200 points is gonna happen.”

With a furrowed brow, the 51-year-old coach watched rookie Chris Jackson prepare for his first NBA game, his mind racing as fast as his hyper-kinetic offense …

What followed that evening was an offensive gala for the ages, as the Suns and the Nuggets broke all the borders of the boxscore.

Unfortunately for Denver, Phoenix was a team perfectly built to exploit the idiosyncratic nature of Westhead’s warp-speed tactics, and racked up 50 points in the first 12 minutes.

And they were just getting started.

By half-time, even Phoenix fans were wondering what in the world had just happened as the Suns poured in another 57 points in the second period to take a remarkable 107-67 lead at the main intermission. That’s 107 points. By one team. At half-time.

More than twenty years later, Paul Westhead sits in his office at the University of Oregon – where he is entrenched as the women’s basketball head coach – and, looking back at that game, recalls not being overly concerned at having conceded a century-plus in just 24 minutes of defense-deficient ball.

“I remember one of my assistants, Jim Boyle, said to me, ‘We have a problem here. They’re gonna score 200 points!’ Westhead says. “And I said, ‘Well, I always wanted to be in a 200-point game, just not on the losing end!’

“So I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it, they can’t keep the pace, that’s not the worry’, I knew they couldn’t keep that up.”

And while the white-hot Suns cooled off a little after the break (see, Westhead knew what he was talking about), Denver were left to lick their wounds yet again when the final horn sounded.

At first glance the 30-point margin looks like an ordinary November blowout, except the score was an unfathomable 173-143.

Two decades after the fact, the boxscore still reads like something out of fantasy hoops heaven. Rookie Cedric Ceballos tallied 32 points and backcourt duo Kevin Johnson (23 points, 17 assists) and Dan Majerle (21 points, 13 assists) feasted on the non-existent Denver defense.

For the Nuggets, high-flying forward Orlando Woolridge led all scorers with 40 points, while debutant Jackson had 26 points and six assists but gave up seven turnovers in a first game that probably still has him shaking his head at the sheer absurdity of it all. To this day, the 173 points scored by the Suns is the equal highest in NBA history for non-overtime games; the 107-point outburst stands alone as the greatest scoring splurge for the opening half of any NBA game.

But for Westhead, the game remains the prime example of why he always felt – and still feels – that 200 points is not only possible but probable.

“I only say that because we created that run,” Westhead says. “We could sustain it but we weren’t good enough to score well enough and defend well enough but that’s an example where it’s possible. You’ve got a game where it’s 173, well, had we’d been better we’d have been above 173, into the 180s, the 190s or perhaps even 200. So I wouldn’t say it’s as difficult as the four-minute mile that no-one ever thought we could do, it’s like that though, people say, ‘nah that’s crazy, that’s impossible’, but sure you could!”

“Let em loose” was the Nuggets’ pre-season slogan and could not have been more prescient.

Unfortunately, the slogan applied more to the opposition than it did for Denver, as the Nuggets proved in the space of eight days the absolute audacity of their shoot-first-and-ask-questions-much-much-later style.

In the NBA record books, the top-three games for “Most points, both teams, first half” read as follows:174 — Phoenix (107) vs. Denver (67), Nov. 10, 1990; 173 — Denver (90) at San Antonio (83), Nov. 7, 1990; 170 — Golden State (87) at Denver (83), Nov. 2, 1990. Eight days, three records. It’s a record for offensive blitzkriegs and defensive futility all rolled into one crazily endearing up-tempo package.

Giving up 130.8 points per in the pros beggars belief but as Westhead noted at the time, “We want to create a pace in the game that will break anybody – except us.”And remarkably, for Westhead anyway, the squad actually performed better than he expected, despite winning just 20 games all season and never once keeping an opposing team to under 100 points.

“Well, we had an interesting team,” Westhead recalls. “The Nuggets, prior to my arrival, were a good established team but their players got old, they were retired or were traded off so the team we had when I arrived was a couple of young players and some veteran free agents so it was kind of a put-together team.”

Having previously coached the Lakers to a title in 1979-80 before moving on to the pre-Jordan Bulls, Westhead arrived in the Mile High city in 1990 after successfully implementing his turbo-driven offense at Loyola Marymount.

“When I arrived I kind of changed the approach,” Westhead says. “We tried to play breakneck fast-break basketball, you know, try to shoot the ball every four or five seconds, as quickly as we could get down the court. The players did a better than average job in doing that, it’s not an easy thing to do but they picked up the speed game and responded pretty well.”

Westhead swears to this day that the system works – with the right personnel and the right environment.

He knows within himself his plan was sound: get his players ultra-fit in training camp and then leave opponents in their dust in the thin air of the McNichols Sports Arena with a tempo that was supposed to make Showtime look like Slowtime.

In hindsight though, should the fact that some of the key rotation players on his roster included Joe Wolf, Blair Rasmussen and Todd Lichti have sounded a warning bell? Or that his best scoring options were Woolridge (who had a well-earned reputation for a Tarzan-like physique and a Jane-like ability to avoid contact), pint-sized point guard Michael Adams (who had injury problems throughout the season), an out-of-shape Jackson in his rookie season and a 36-year-old Walter Davis, who could be generously described as only just past his prime?

Not according to Westhead.

“I wouldn’t say it didn’t work,” Westhead counters. “I would say if you looked at wins and losses then you’ll say it didn’t work because you didn’t win enough games. My easy answer to that is to say we just didn’t have a top-level player or two to win the game in the last two or three minutes when you needed to close out games. It’s a little bit of both but nonetheless, the players did a good job in running the ball and causing problems with opponents who weren’t accustomed to playing at that fast pace.”

In fact, Westhead maintains his system rejuvenated the careers of veterans like Woolridge and Davis.

“Orlando Woolridge, was an example of a player who was a free agent, he’d left the Lakers because he was too old, he was 33-34 years old and he came to us,” Westhead says. “Because he ran our system, half-way through the year he was leading the NBA in scoring, he was averaging 32 points a game. He then got injured, he had an eye injury and had to sit out a couple of weeks, when he came back he had to wear a mask and his scoring went down. But he was like the perfect example of a player rejuvenated with a speed game that allowed him to score at will.

“If Orlando (Woolridge) had played in a slow game, at his age, he would’ve struggled to get 10-15 points in a game and now here he is getting 30 points a game, easy. So for a player like that, it was the perfect thing for him.”

As for Davis, Westhead smiles at the thought of putting new life into the old Greyhound.

“I have a fond memory,” Westhead remembers, “of Walter Davis coming to me – his knees were gone – and saying to me he could only play a certain amount of minutes, he could barely practice, in fact one time he came to me and said ‘Do you want me to practice or play games?’ So I said, ‘OK, let’s just play games.’ So he was in one game and he had made six or seven shots in a row and he put his fist up.

“Now, in his world, when you put your fist up – the Dean Smith/North Carolina world – meant he wanted to come out of the game. And I yelled out to him, ‘I’m not Dean Smith, and you’re not coming out until you miss!’ So I think he made about three or four more shots and then he missed and then I took him out. He came out with this big smile on his face but he was exhausted.”

And interestingly, Westhead theorises that any chance of extended success was only stymied by injuries to Adams, his floor general, who was the ignition sequence to his offense.

“Michael Adams was the key player for us,” Westhead says. “When he was fit and played well, he was a great fast-break point guard. But when he had to sit out – he had hamstring problems – our effectiveness went down, oh, maybe 50 per cent, because the point guard is the key to that system.”

But would his system work in today’s NBA, where even the quote-unquote 07 Seconds Or Less Suns could never quite get over the play-off hump?

“I have a couple of reflections,” the ever-Shakespearean Westhead muses. “Yes, it could work with the right group. That pace can be very effective because teams aren’t accustomed to it, teams don’t like to defend against that. The hitch always is, ‘will players agree to do it for the long haul?’ It’s an 82-game season plus playoffs and exhibition games, so a normal NBA team may play 100 games in one year.

“I’m convinced that if they would buy into the speed game, they would be – if they had enough quality – they would be very successful. Will they do it? There’s the rub. And if they back off on it, then it immediately turns south on you and it turns against you.”

And turn against him it did.

Even with the drafting of Dikembe Mutombo and a belated effort at a more conventional offensive system, Westhead was fired at the conclusion of the following season with a two-year record of 44-120.

Following his departure from Denver, Westhead went back to the college ranks at George Mason, rather less successfully than with Loyola, as it turned out. He became something of a coaching nomad after being replaced at Mason in 1997, taking the reins of the LA Stars in the ABA and then heading to Japan’s Pro League.

Westhead made a return to the NBA coaching ranks with Orlando (under Johnny Davis) in 2003 before the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury handed him the top job in 05.With the Mercury’s title run in 2007, Westhead became the first man to coach both a NBA and WNBA team to a championship.Nowadays, the 72-year-old Westhead is still pushing his teams to run – getting his Oregon girls to score 100 points rather than the magical 200-mark is the aim – but the memory of a bold (critics might be less generous) experiment in the Mile High City remains etched in his memory.

“Denver doesn’t seem that long ago,” Westhead laughs. “I don’t know if it’s because you play a fast game everything goes fast, the years go fast. I can clearly picture our attempt to get out and run and some of the fast games we played. And some of the teams we played, see, teams just don’t like to play against you, they ultimately may beat you if they’re better than you but it’s not an easy win for them.”

Even today, deep down, Westhead knows there’s no middle ground with what he runs, that his hyped-up offence will only work if everyone is on board and the talent level matches the intensity.

“There is some truth that it can be doomed to fail,” Westhead admits, somewhat echoing ESPN’s Guru of Go documentary about his coaching career. “This style of play, you either get it or you don’t. You either do it or you don’t, there’s no in-between. So, if you’re gonna try this as a coach and as a team, when it works, you win, you win championships.

“But when it doesn’t work, you’re doomed, there’s no in-between.”

Seth Carstens