Recently, the internet celebrated the 32nd anniversary of Scott Skiles record 30-assist game for the Orlando Magic. How did Skiles, a very average point guard, end up having a better passing game than greats like Magic or Stockton? That leads us to a more interesting discussion of Skiles’ opponent on December 30, 1990, the 1990-91 Denver Nuggets. That Denver team represented a fascinating but failed experiment in trying to win by playing at an ultra-high pace. Let’s dig in to Denver’s weird attempt at something very fun…
Paul Westhead: Running Before Denver
The architect of this fast paced style was Paul Westhead, a veteran coach (and expert on Shakespeare), who started out coaching LaSalle in 1970-71 and winning with teams designed around Jellybean Bryant and Michael Brooks. While Westhead was later known as a fast break aficionado, his early LaSalle teams were middle of the pack in scoring in the NCAA (we have limited data to calculate pace from back then so we are going strictly by PPG rankings). Then in Westhead’s last two years at LaSalle, the run-and-gun side came out. In 1977-78, LaSalle scored 86.3 ppg, 13th in the nation, powered by Brooks, but gave up 83.0 ppg (241st of 254 in the nation). The next year, LaSalle followed up with 83.7 ppg the next season (20th) and allowed 83.2 ppg (244th of 256). Clearly, they were playing at a fast pace.
In 1979, Westhead was hired to be an assistant coach to Jack McKinney for the Lakers on the team that had a rookie Magic Johnson and end up being the Showtime dynasty. Westhead would end up getting the head coach job when McKinney was seriously hurt in a bicycle accident early in the season. Westhead coached the Lakers to the 1979-80 title before getting fired in the middle of the 1981-82 season, allegedly because Magic wasn’t happy with Westhead’s offense.
The firing has been written about quite a bit with many asserting that Westhead was getting canned for running a boring offense (Magic told the press he wasn’t “having any fun”). In fact, the Lakers had just won five games in a row when Westhead and Magic got into a shouting match and Magic suggested that he might need to be traded. That was a big power play by the star who had a 25-year contract and it worked. Westhead was fired the next day. One of the reasons posited was that Magic didn’t like Westhead directing Magic to dump the ball in to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar too much. This explanation doesn’t ring true. The Lakers played at a pretty good pace (8th in pace Westhead’s first two years in Los Angeles and 4th in 1981-82). Under Westhead’s replacement Pat Riley, the Lakers’ pace was actually slightly slower most of the next few seasons.
Westhead told Roland Lazenby in “The Show” that he was offended about the style-based explanation for his firing: “[t]he only thing I will say, that I want to attempt to clarify, was the explanation was that the team wasn’t running as much. I said, ‘Well, you can fire me for a million things. Take your pick….But every practice of my coaching career has been running. So if that was the reason, that’s not a reason, not an accurate reason….Ultimately, history will look back and see me as the mad scientist who ran more than any other coach, maybe in the history of the game.”
Westhead was hired by the Bulls for the 1982-83 season. The Bulls were 4th in pace but went 28-54 and he was fired after only one season. In 1985-86, Westhead was hired by Loyola Marymount where his extreme running style was perfected. The three-point shot had not yet been adopted by the NCAA but LMU ran, scoring 80.3 ppg (11th in the nation). The three was adopted the next season and LMU did shoot some (14.3 per game) but not a crazy amount (several other teams had players shoot more threes).
In 1987-88, LMU exploded offensively. They led the nation in scoring at 110.2 ppg and gave up the most points in the nation (97.2). They shot 18.7 threes per game versus 9.2 for opponents. The pace worked. LMU went 28-4 and made the second round of the tourney. The trend continued the next two years as well and the delta in threes taken by LMU and its opponents also spiked. Here’s a quick summary:
1986-87: 85.2 ppg (14th), 87.6 op-ppg (285 of 288), 5.6-14.3 from three (.393%), 4.8-10.8 op-threes (.442%)
1987-88: 110.2 ppg (1st), 97.2 op-ppg (289 of 289), 7.8-18.7 from three (.420%), 3.6-9.2 op-threes (.389%)
1988-89: 112.5 ppg (1st), 107.3 op-ppg (293 of 293), 9.3-25.6 from three (.362%), 4.1-10.6 op-threes (.382)
1989-90: 122.4 ppg (1st), 108.1 op-ppg (292 of 292), 9.3-23.0 from three (.404%), 5.3-13.5 op-threes (.388%)
LMU had that famous magical run during the 1990 tournament where they nearly made the Final Four with this helter skelter style. Basically, LMU pressed all game and shot often and quickly. The theory was that by generating tons of possessions they would outlast other teams based on their superior conditioning and ability to be more efficient in that style. To prep his players for the frantic style, UPI reported that Westhead’s “LMU players wore weighted wet suits while doing wind sprints in a deep-water swimming pool.”
Westhead and Denver
The Nuggets hired Westhead as coach in 1990. At the time, Westhead told the Orlando Sentinel that “I am a fast paced coach. No, I stand corrected, I am the fastest paced coach. And I will accept any and all criticisms because of that. This is what I do….Everybody in the league runs basically the same stuff, everybody plays the same game of ‘Monopoly.’ Well, I’m going to try to play ‘Parcheesi.’” Westhead did admit that his style “is a very, very special way of playing. When it’s good, it’s very good. When it’s bad, it’s very bad.”
In early November 1990, Ira Berkow of the New York Times described the style: “Westhead had decided that good players in excellent condition can run more and harder and faster than they had ever given themselves the chance to. In the N.B.A., there is a 24-second clock and a team must launch a shot within that time frame, but the Denver players are given an internal clock of about six seconds by their coach, and the shots come off the incessant fast-breaking and are taken by players who go to the ‘spots’ on the court that they practice at and are most adept. But it’s not just shooting, but defense, too, that is a hallmark of Westhead’s theory. You hound the guy with the ball like a wolf to Red Riding Hood.”
Denver was not a stranger to fast pace. Before Westhead, the 1980s Nuggets were built on running most of the time. From 1981 to 1990, Doug Moe coached Denver and leaned on the altitude of the Rockies to try to run fatigued opponents into the ground with great scorers like Alex English and Kiki Vandeweghe. Here’s how Moe’s teams did year-by-year in offense and defense ratings, as well as pace:
1981-82: 114.3 Offense (1st), 113.9 Defense (23rd), Pace 109.8 (1st)
1982-83: 109.7 Offense (3rd), 109.1 Defense (20th), Pace 112.1 (20th)
1983-84: 111.3 Offense (2nd), 112.3 Defense (22nd), Pace 110.5 (1st)
1984-85: 110.7 Offense (5th), 108.4 Defense (15th), Pace 107.6 (1st)
1985-86: 107.1 Offense (12th), 105.9 Defense (9th), Pace 106.7 (1st)
1986-87: 109.3 Offense (8th), 110.2 Defense (15th), Pace 106.2 (1st)
1987-88: 110.1 Offense (8th), 106.3 Defense (6th), Pace 105.5 (1st)
1988-89: 108.6 Offense (13th), 107.1 (8th), Pace 107.5 (1st)
1989-90: 108.0 Offense (14th), 106.7 (7th), Pace 105.4 (2nd)
So, Moe certainly fostered a fast pace but Westhead’s 1990-91 squad was still a whole other world:
1990-91: 105.2 Offense (21st), 114.7 (27), Pace 113.7 (1st)
All that running with no defense translated to a 20-62 record, the worst in the NBA. The Nuggets were really bad beyond the record. Denver had the worst SRS in the NBA of -10.31, much worse than the second worst Sacramento Kings (-6.27). Let’s go back and see how this all happened…
Denver’s Terrible Start
The Nuggets lost a fun opener to the Run TMC 162-158, where Denver hung tough. The wheels came off from there, as the Nuggets continued to lose but more convincingly. By November 24, 1990, the Nuggets were 1-11 and had been mostly uncompetitive. The weirdest game was a 173-143 loss to Phoenix. Denver gave up 50 points in the first quarter and 57 in the second, making the halftime score 107-67(!). Phoenix took a foot off the gas to “only “score 66 points in the second half. No single Phoenix player had a 30-assist game like Skiles did but, clearly, Kevin Johnson could’ve if he was inclined to do so.
On November 26, 1990, Hank Hersch of Sports Illustrated wrote an article called “Fast Break to Nowhere,” where various players and coaches panned Westhead’s style: “’Ugly,’ San Antonio coach Larry Brown has said of Westhead’s system. ‘Monotonous,’ says Phoenix forward Tom Chambers. ‘Crap-a-doodle,’ says former NBA and ABA coach Alex Hannum.”
Jack Ramsay, who coached Westhead in college and was Westhead’s friend noted that the system was less effective against professionals: “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.” Ramsay’s observation was largely true. It was very hard to press great guards like KJ or Tim Hardaway. But there were other issues beyond the weaknesses of the Westhead system.
Lack of Talent
The 1989-90 Nuggets were a .500ish team built around versatile guard Fat Lever (18.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 6.5 apg), speedy small point guard Michael Adams (15.5 ppg, 6.3 apg), and the aging English (17.9 ppg). After the season, Denver traded Lever, by far their best player, to Dallas for two first-rounders (Denver used the first pick to move up to draft Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf with the third overall pick in 1990). English was let go (also to Dallas). This left Denver with the following key players:
-Adams: at age-28, the quick guard would fit well with Westhead.
-Abdul-Rauf: only 21, a great scorer but young and undersized and blocked by Adams.
-Orlando Woolridge: Formerly a good scorer, was 31 and only a bench guy with the Lakers the prior seasons.
-36-year old Walter Davis: Way past his prime but could score off the bench.
-Filler players like Blair Rasmussen and Reggie Williams. Decent players on a good team but not stars.
-Fringe guys like Jerome Lane, Joe Wolf, Anthony Cook, and Todd Lichti.
Westhead didn’t really have the personnel to win much. Lever would’ve been fun to watch in the Westhead system but the trade was clearly a good idea because Lever’s knees went four games into the 1990-91 season (English was also on his last legs). This was a tear down from the start and Westhead had no shot of winning. Of course, Westhead’s system didn’t make these players better than their talent but they wouldn’t have won even in a Mike Fratello stalling style either.
In the wreckage of the weird season, here are a few stat tidbits:
-The running system did some funny things to the featured scorers’ raw numbers. Adams took 21.5 shots per game and 8.5 threes per game, which was a ton for 1990-91. He ended up with 26.5 ppg and 10.5 apg but shot .296% from three (he had shot .366% from three the prior season). His 564 attempts from three was an NBA record. His 1988-89 season (466 attempts) was the prior record. Adams .296% from three in 1990-91 remains the worst three-point shooting season for a player with a minimum of 564 attempts (Baron Davis in 2003-04 is second with a relatively balmy .321%).
-Orlando Woolridge had averaged 12.7 ppg the prior year and used the system to his full advantage. He jumped up to a career high 25.1 ppg even though his usage was not ridiculous (25.7%). He rated as terrible defensively making his BPM barely positive (0.3). He missed time with an eye injury but Denver actually played better when he was injured. Denver went 9-38 with Woolridge and 11-24 without him. Teams weren’t particularly fooled by his raw numbers as he was sent to Detroit after the season for Scott Hastings and a second rounder. Woolridge scored 14 ppg for Detroit (and annoyed the Bad Boys with his lack of defense).
-As noted above, Denver ran a lot. To give a little context, Moe’s 1982-83 Nuggets were previously the highest paced NBA team since turnovers and other stats were first kept in 1973-74. Westhead’s squad was an order higher than that. The 1990-91 team remains the fastest paced NBA team since 1973-74. Alas, the pace did not yield the results that were intended.
-The Nuggets system sort of worked at home. They were a respectable 17-24 at home but a miserable 3-38 on the road. Remarkably, that wasn’t the worst road record that year. Sacramento somehow went 1-40 away from home.
-A few players who would later have good careers cycled through the roster without actually playing much. Anthony Mason played three games and fouled a lot. Avery Johnson was a deep backup point guard and Tim Legler was also brought in for 10 games.
-As bad as Adams’ three shooting was, the rest of the team was worse. Denver led the NBA in threes attempted but shot a gross .283% (300-1,059). The best three shooter with any volume was Reggie Williams at .328% on 43-131 from downtown, which was still well-below the breakeven rate. Westhead had the right instinct to use the three but his team just didn’t shoot them at a percentage that would make the tactic an asset.
-Denver shot a lot of threes but its three rate didn’t actually lead the NBA (Houston took more on a per possession basis thanks to Vernon Maxwell). Denver had the lowest free throw rate and assist rate in the NBA, which makes sense if your plan is to shoot immediately after getting the ball. On the bright side, they did have the best turnover rate and didn’t actually foul that much. Ultimately, though, they just were too bad defensively. Opponents shot a .524% effective-field goal percentage against a league average of .487%. This crazy style didn’t interest fans either. Denver had the lowest attendance in the NBA.
Could the Westhead System Work in the NBA?
I guess if he had the right personnel but this system was particularly out of place in the 1990s, where slow pace and physical defense were tactics that the rules seemed to most reward (most of the slowest paced teams of the modern era came from the mid-1990s). Certainly, the modern NBA had adopted some of his ideas today but the pure Westhead system seems just too extreme to work in the NBA. I’m sure he would have fun coaching Stephen Curry and some players who could really execute his offense.
Westhead was not fired after the season and was given one more season. He took some of the air out of the system (likely at the behest of management). In 1991-92, the Nuggets drafted Dikembe Mutombo and played at a pace of 98.6 (7th in the NBA) and they stopped shooting threes (only 5 per game). The offense was the worst in the league but the defense was actually average. They still went 24-58 and Westhead was fired. It must’ve been torture for Westhead to have a bad team that was also boring offensively. He went on to coach in college, the WNBA, and an NBA assistant before retiring and writing his own memoirs.