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FAST BREAK TO NOWHERE
Hank Hersch
November 26, 1990
Denver's hurry-up offense and pressure defense have set the Nuggets to running—and their foes to romping
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November 26, 1990

Fast Break To Nowhere

Denver's hurry-up offense and pressure defense have set the Nuggets to running—and their foes to romping

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With his eyes wide and his brow furrowed, Westhead, a 51-year-old Shakespearean scholar, picks at a bagel in a Portland coffee shop and patiently explains his system. "It's a high-risk deal because I create high-risk problems for the opposition," he says. "The idea is to play ultrafast on offense and ultrafast on defense, so it becomes a double hit. And when it works, it's not like one and one is two. It's like one and one is seven."

That new math will ravage the NBA record book. Denver was scoring 132.2 points a game at week's end (the record of 126.5 points was set by Denver in 1981-82). Meanwhile, the Nuggets were giving up 146.9 points (the record: 126.0, by Denver, also in '81-82) and allowing opponents to shoot 56.4% (the record: 53.6%, by the Golden State Warriors in '84-85). The Nuggets were taking 112.6 shots a game and shooting 47.3%. They have operated reasonably effectively in Westhead's attack, which is highly structured despite its helter-skelter appearance. As Denver bursts into the offensive end of the floor, the off guard goes flying to the right corner, the small forward to the left corner, the power forward to the paint, the center to the left of the free throw line and the point guard to the top of the key.

But the Nuggets' intricate trapping defense, designed to make the opposition turn the ball over or shoot too quickly, has too often failed, resulting in acrobatic stuffs in the Nuggets' nearly vacant defensive end. Former NBA coach Jack Ramsay, who coached Westhead at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia and remains close to him, points out what is perhaps the fundamental flaw in the Denver scheme: "At Loyola, Paul's system was so radical, most teams had no clue how to play it. In the NBA it's a different style, but still within the framework of what most teams do—pushing the ball up the floor and taking advantage of opportunities. In college, maybe teams get confused, slow the ball down, back it out. In the NBA they take it to the basket and dunk it."

That was evident in that 173-143 Nugget loss to the Suns, in which Phoenix tied the record for points in regulation play. At halftime Denver had scored 67 but trailed by 40, as the Suns had set an NBA record for a half, with 107 points. In only eight minutes of play in the second quarter—roughly the same eight during which Davis was off getting his elbow patched up—Phoenix rookie forward Cedric Ceballos threw down 20 points on a variety of jams. But Phoenix coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, whose team almost cracked 200 points in his 700th NBA win—or was it 700 points in his 200th win?—refused to knock Denver's style. "Do I really like it? No," he said. "Can it work? Why not?"

A combination of Westhead's zeal, his players' professionalism and a measure of satisfaction when the system clicks has kept the Nuggets amazingly upbeat despite their setbacks. Says Denver center Blair Rasmussen, whose right arm aches from winging outlet passes after opponents' baskets: "We know people are laughing. But when we develop the instinct to just react, we feel like we're going to get the last laugh." Woolridge, a career 16.3-points-a-game scorer, says, "A lot of people around the league are critical of the system for one basic reason: They don't want it to work. Because they know if it does, they're going to have some tough times."

But Denver's staggering start, however much excitement it may be causing, comes at a difficult time for the franchise, which is attempting to rebuild. In July 1989, Peter Bynoe and Bertram Lee bid to become the first black owners of a major league pro sports franchise by trying to buy the Nuggets from Houston businessman Sidney Shlenker. But when Bynoe and Lee had difficulty arranging the financing for the purchase, Robert Wussler, the president of COMSAT Video Enterprises, in Washington, D.C., rescued the $54 million deal. As a result, he ended up with 62.5% of the club to Bynoe and Lee's 37.5%.

A change in ownership is not the only upheaval the Denver franchise has endured in the past 17 months. The Nuggets had four different presidents before the current one, Carl Scheer, settled in last March, and three acting general managers before Bernie Bickerstaff, the former Seattle SuperSonics coach, was hired in July. Amid this front-office turmoil, Denver quietly signed Rasmussen, a career 9.6 scorer and a career 5.2 rebounder, to a whopping seven-year, $17.5 million contract, a deal the new owners discovered, to their dismay, the day the league approved their purchase. And Alex English and Fat Lever, two of the best players in the franchise's history, departed for Dallas last summer—English as an unrestricted free agent and Lever for a pair of first-round picks.

Then, on Sept. 6, the Nuggets, citing the obligatory philosophical differences, canned popular coach Doug Moe, who was 432-357 in 10 years in Denver. The day after Moe's firing, the Nuggets hired Westhead, who had guided the Lakers to the 1979-80 NBA title in his first year as a pro coach and later led previously dormant Loyola Marymount to 105 wins in five seasons. Bickerstaff has known Westhead since they both coached in the Puerto Rican summer league in the '70s, and he believes Denver will win as its personnel improves. "Whatever you say about Paul, at least he's wearing a championship ring," Bickerstaff says.

But Westhead is clearly a changed man from his Laker days, when he was let go 11 games into the 1981-82 season after Magic Johnson complained that Westhead's offense was—get this—too restrictive. Asked if that cruel blow had spurred him to devise his new system, Westhead says, "It was not post hoc ergo propter hoc—after this, therefore because of this." He has always been fascinated by the speed game, he says, and has experimented with every fuel short of nitroglycerine and flubber to kick-start his teams. In previous coaching stints Westhead asked players to wear vials of mercury—called energy bars—around their necks for increased strength, used psycho-cybernetic instruction to improve free throw shooting and based his trapping techniques on tips from Los Angeles Ram defensive backfield coaches.

Tragedy marked the end of Westhead's stay at Loyola Marymount. Last March 4, Lions star Hank Gathers, who had a heart arrhythmia, collapsed during a league tournament game and was pronounced dead of idiopathic cardiomyopathy. Westhead is being sued by Gathers's family for allegedly asking team doctors to reduce Hank's dosage of Inderal—an anti-arrhythmia drug that can cause sluggishness—to improve his play, a charge Westhead has denied.

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