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Friend called me a grasshopper person
NBA titles, however, aren't won with a frontcourt anchored by a bard from the yard. Enter Natt, who's more Kurtrambic than iambic. He shoots 55% from the field, goes to the free-throw line more often than anyone on the team and approaches rebounding and defense with a Calvinist attitude. "Calvin," Moe says, "is a bitch."
Lever, meanwhile, has been the surprise of the trade—penetrating, popping and, like his accomplices in the backcourt, pilfering. As a group, the Nuggets' guards—Lever, T.R. Dunn, Mike (Newt) Evans, Elston (E.T.) Turner and rookie Willie White—made 508 steals and only 499 turnovers, the league's only backcourt with a positive steal/turnover ratio. Dunn had a remarkable 140 steals to 65 muffs. The Nuggets also took 7.3 shots a game more than their opponents, primarily by forcing 4.4 more turnovers a game. "That's an unheard of figure," Moe says. The next best turnover differential this season was Washington's 2.3.
If that makes sense, another aspect of Denver's success doesn't. With all their new players, the Nuggets figured to start slowly, especially because the three ex-Blazers were coming from Portland coach Jack Ramsay's rigid system. Still, Denver got off to a 13-3 start and never looked back. "Here you're asked to use the instincts you're raised with," Natt says. "It's easier to go from a pattern game to a free-lance one than vice versa."
The Nuggets must have known that when Trail Blazer G.M. Stu Inman first phoned to inquire about Vandeweghe's availability. "I told him we weren't trading Kiki," Moe says. But Inman named five players Portland would deal and told Moe, "Just keep these names in mind."
The Nuggets did, and soon another factor figured in their thinking: creeping no-hopeism. "I wouldn't have minded having the same team back," Moe says. "But the team knew it could only go so far. We had too many weaknesses, and I couldn't imagine getting a deal this good." Adds Boryla, who took time from his furniture and real estate businesses to tend to the Nuggets, "If I'd have gone into this trying to make my career, I never would have done it. But at my age, I'm in a hurry to build a winner. I'm on a six-month plan."
In fact, Boryla's impatience was one of the reasons Moe, whose idea of the urgent is the next shot and who's going to take it, was thought to be on his way out. Another was that since he became a head coach in San Antonio in 1976, many people have taken Moe's insouciance for indifference.
"Smitty used to subscribe to the Denver papers and underline things I'd say and send them to me with 'Don't say this' written in the margin," Moe says. "People always tell me I have to change my image. But there's no one here who wants to win more than I do."
No one, perhaps, except Issel. He struggled with his new role as a reserve, even grousing about it early on, but eventually came to see he was ending his 15th pro season as part of something special. "Dan's scored as many or more big buckets for us this year as in any other year," Moe says. Adds Issel, who'll retire as No. 4 on pro basketball's alltime scoring list with 27,482 points: "It's been extra satisfying because we'd struggled so much in recent years. We'd make the playoffs and know that in one or two rounds we'd be history."
This season the Lakers will probably once again win the West, but at least there are some nuggets of hope in Denver.