My advice to Paul Westhead's assistants in Denver is: Do not unpack. Soon, maybe as soon as the end of the month, Westhead will be fired.
Westhead's experiment is doomed.
So is he.
And here's why: Last Saturday night, the Phoenix Suns scored 173 points against Denver. Twenty-one of their baskets were outright dunks! Denver played so little defense that Phoenix Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons was yelling at players who pulled up for jumpers. And a Suns rookie named Cedric Z. Ceballos -- who may as well be the prime minister of Paraguay for all any of us have heard of him -- went for 22 points in seven minutes of the second quarter. Paul Westhead will be fired, because if Cedric Z. Ceballos can light him up like that, imagine what The Airman can do.
Even if Westhead's dreamy theories about Warp-Speed Basketball were sound, Denver has only the altitude, not the personnel, to implement them. The Nuggets are missing three key players from last year's team -- Danny Schayes, Alex English and Fat Lever. A fourth, Michael Adams, played in the opener and not since because of injury. "He's more or less coaching an expansion team," Phoenix assistant coach Paul Westphal said sympathetically. "You can't judge him until he has some players."
The Nuggets are 0-7 and lost their last two games by a total of 56 points. They catch a big break tonight, hosting the gruesome Minnesota Timberwolves, a team they should beat. But in rapid order comes Portland, the Lakers twice and the Chicago Bulls, high-octane teams that can embarrass you. One of the Denver owners, Peter Bynoe, has repeatedly declared management's commitment to Westhead, but if the Nuggets continue to lose by wide margins, and the players sense they've become laughingstocks, Westhead's position will be untenable.
Westhead's goal is to force teams into suicidal fast-break basketball for 48 minutes and beat them because his team is better conditioned. He wants as many possessions as possible, so he shoots quickly, and he tries to influence his opponents to shoot quickly; he willingly gives them three-on-two and two-on-one situations. He wants his team to be cagier and take smarter shots than the opponents. All this will happen, he believes, because he's smarter than everyone else.
Westhead's ideology sounds great in a lecture hall, but it doesn't work in the NBA, because the other players are too good. If you don't guard them, it's not that they won't miss many shots -- they won't miss any shots.
Here's Trail Blazer Clyde Drexler's line from Tuesday's game: 35 minutes, 18 of 22 from the field, 39 points. What's the point of scoring 145 points if you give up 170?
Denver is no stranger to thin air and matador defense. The worst defensive team in NBA history, the 1981-82 Nuggets, gave up an average of 126 points per game. Westhead's Nuggets are giving up 153! People who are afraid that some of these huge NBA players might get heart attacks playing this kind of track-meet basketball are missing the point -- it's the statisticians who are going to keel over. (Memo to Marty Aronoff: The Nuggets come in Dec. 29. Get plenty of rest, and whip that pencil hand into shape.)
Early in the exhibition season, my colleague, Chicago's own Michael Wilbon, was gushing about how The Airman would go for 100 on Denver. I told him he was crazy. The next night Atlanta went for 194. I'm now solidly in the Wilbon camp. Not only will Jordan get 100, so will Tom Chambers and/or Kevin Johnson and/or Tim Hardaway. Heaven help us, Charles Jones may even get 25!
Westhead is so preoccupied with offense that the Nuggets play virtually no defense. They'll try to steal the inbounds pass and trap in the backcourt. And after that, theoretically, they rely on the center, hanging back in the paint, to intimidate the onrushing offense. Someone like Patrick Ewing might make the system work. Unfortunately, Denver has Blair Rasmussen and Joe Wolf at center, which is why Phoenix got 21 dunks. It's like going to war with a cap gun. A Shakespearean scholar like Westhead should know: The fault, dear Paul, lies not in your stars but in your style.
Westhead's system was successful at Loyola Marymount, a nice program, but hardly a powerhouse. Beating scatterbrained Michigan did wonders for Westhead's credibility, but being thumped, 131-101, by UNLV in the West Regional was more instructive, as Vegas's style closely approximates the NBA's. If they'd played 100 times, Vegas would have won them all; better, faster players.
You truly can't win without defense in the NBA. Can't. Can't. Can't. Where is the defense supposed to come from? The pacific Rasmussen? The midget guards Adams and Chris Jackson? Orlando Woolridge and Walter Davis, who've spent their entire careers looking to shoot? The Nuggets will score in bushels; Woolridge, who averaged 12.7 a game for the Lakers last year, is the second-leading scorer in the league now. But who'll stop anybody? NBA guards aren't intimidated by backcourt traps. In the NBA, traps only work in the frontcourt, where there's congestion. Against Denver, if you beat your man on the dribble, it's a basket because nobody helps out in the frontcourt. They want you to shoot.
In college, Westhead was successful trading two-pointers for threes. That's a lot harder in the pros, where the three-point line is as much as four feet farther out. Jackson and Adams have long range, but 25 feet long? Westhead's best friend might be the mile high setting. "It's hard to come into Denver and play 48 minutes of fast break," said a veteran NBA personnel man. "Eventually, Westhead might wear you down -- if he lasts long enough."