Paul Westhead: Never slowing down
No professional basketball coach is a bigger believer in fast break basketball than Paul Westhead. “I know what all the pundits say: everyone says that you can run for a while but when you get to the playoffs that you have to slow down and that strong, beat ‘em up defensive teams always win,” Westhead says. “I never believed that and I still don’t. My only advice is if you are a speed team that gets into the playoffs, play faster—that’s what you do, so crank it up another notch, rather than leveling it off and playing the way that everyone else thinks that you are supposed to play.”
Westhead is known for his out of the box thinking but that was not his mindset at the start of his coaching career. “I came in as a 30 year old Division I head coach at LaSalle. I played for Jack Ramsay at St. Joe’s,” Westhead recalls. “We were all taught to be fundamentally sound and I probably was more of a defensive minded guy than an offensive minded one. In the early 1970s, two things happened. One, I went to Puerto Rico and coached. I would pick up a team and I observed that they were going up and down the court and making on the fly 22 foot jump shots. I said to myself that it takes my guys six passes and five good screens to shoot that open 22 foot shot—and then my guys miss! These guys are running down the court, catching the ball and shooting an open 22 foot shot without any problem."
"That said to me that if they can play fast and score, why do we have to do all this hard work on offensive schemes? Within a year, I met up with Sonny Allen, who had won a Division II championship at Old Dominion University, and he showed me his fast break system. I put that together with what I had seen in Puerto Rico. When I was leaving, he said, ‘Coach, you have to be a little bit crazy to do this’ and I said, ‘I don’t have any problem with that.’”
Westhead led the LaSalle Explorers to a 142-105 record in nine seasons, including two trips to the NCAA tournament and one NIT berth. He became an assistant to LA Lakers Coach Jack McKinney in 1979 but was named the head coach just 14 games into the 1979-80 season after McKinney suffered a serious head injury as a result of a bicycle accident.
The Lakers went 60-22—including 50-18 with Westhead at the helm—and then they won the 1980 NBA Finals four games to two over Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers. Game six of that series will always be remembered for the heroics of Magic Johnson, who jumped center for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, played guard, forward and center and had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in a 123-107 victory.
Johnson suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss 45 games in the 1980-81 season. The Lakers still finished second in the Pacific Division but they lost two games to one to Houston in a first round mini-series, suffering both defeats at home. The Lakers started out 7-4 in 1981-82 but owner Jerry Buss fired Westhead and replaced him with assistant coach Pat Riley, who guided the team to a championship that season and three more titles over the next six years.
“Yeah, that was difficult,” Westhead says of his sudden dismissal. “I don’t think that was so much about pace or style of play. Even though I was an experienced basketball coach—I had been in college for a dozen years, nine as a head coach—and I knew the game, I knew how to coach basketball, I didn’t understand the professional game. I didn’t understand the intricacies of not just how professional athletes like to be treated but how you have to project to them and the only way that you find that out is by experience."
"I don’t think it was necessarily my fault or their fault but that I just didn’t understand it that well. It involved players being paid, players and their agents, owners and general managers and how they want to deal with players because of trade possibilities—that is a whole new world to a college coach who recruits and brings in new players and then the others graduate. I learned a lot from looking back at that experience so that when I went back into the NBA I was more prepared to deal with those issues.”
Johnson publicly expressed displeasure with the team and had asked to be traded just prior to Westhead’s firing, so it is commonly assumed that Johnson orchestrated Westhead’s ouster.
“I think that was an easy one for one (connection to make) when that happened,” Westhead says. “I don’t think that Magic was responsible for that. I think that there were a bunch of other things that were spinning around.” Westhead speaks without rancor about his brief time as Lakers coach: “I will say about my Lakers experience that up until a few months ago it was my one and only championship, so I am happy for the Lakers experience.”
Westhead’s next stint as a NBA coach was even briefer, as he guided the Chicago Bulls to a 28-54 record in 1982-83. After that, he returned to the college game, coaching at Loyola-Marymount from 1985-90. He quickly turned the team into a powerhouse by employing a non-stop fast break offense combined with a relentless full court pressing defense. From 1988-1990, Westhead’s LMU teams went 27-3, 20-10 and 23-5 respectively, earning NCAA tournament berths each year.
LMU’s Hank Gathers led the NCAA in scoring and rebounding (32.7 ppg, 13.7 rpg) in 1989 and Bo Kimble led the NCAA in scoring in 1990 (35.3 ppg). Tragically, Gathers collapsed and died during a game near the end of the 1990 season. LMU dedicated the rest of that season to his memory, and Kimble shot the first free throw of each NCAA tournament game left handed to honor Gathers. LMU defeated defending champion Michigan and made it to the Elite Eight before falling to UNLV, who went on to win the 1990 national title.
The LMU years provided some of Westhead’s fondest basketball memories, foremost among them being what he calls “the overall thrill of watching a team that knew that they could play as fast as the wind and defend full court for 40-plus minutes—they would show up in the toughest situations and have smiles on their faces because they could look at the other team and say, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to win tonight, but you’re going to be tired.’ They knew that the pace was dictated by them—by our team. Any time that you can coach a team that you know—not that you’re hoping but you know—that the game is going to be played your way, win or lose, that is fun.”
Westhead says that those LMU teams completely bought into his system more than any other team he has ever coached: “No question. They bought in and then what happens once you get it is the next season with the new players that you bring in is that they buy in or they’re pushed aside: ‘This is the way we play. When you come here, you play this way.’ I never had to say a word. You need players to buy in, whether you are talking about guards, forwards or centers. For me, I need midrange players who can run and who can shoot—a player who can play the forward position, who can play inside or outside. You need players who are committed to run. I have always had players—when I have had good fast break teams—who on other teams would be outside perimeter players but when playing for me they thrived going inside. Because of the speed of the game, they can get inside before defenses lock down. If you go slowly then you need a terrific 6-10 post player because he is going to be double teamed and triple teamed. If you go fast, you can have a 6-3 player playing inside because he will beat the thrust of the defense.”
Speaking of defense, critics snipe that Westhead’s system ignores that part of the game, citing what happened after Westhead’s success at LMU paved the way for him to return to the NBA as a head coach, this time in Denver. His 1990-91 Nuggets averaged 119.9 ppg, the most points an NBA team scored since Doug Moe’s run and gun 1984-85 Denver team put up 120.0 ppg—but while Moe’s Nuggets gave up 117.6 ppg, Westhead’s squad surrendered 130.8 ppg, shattering the all-time record, and they won just 20 games.
“The team that I had, the guys played about as hard and well as they could,” Westhead says. “It was one of those transition teams where all of the established great players had just left or retired—Alex English, Fat Lever, they all left prior to my arrival. We had a young nucleus on the team that really probably wasn’t experienced enough to win at any pace. If we would have played at a slow pace, the differential probably would have been that we scored 70 and gave up 80.”
The results of Westhead’s second season in Denver support that analysis. The Nuggets drafted defensive stopper Dikembe Mutombo, who made the All-Star team and finished fifth in the league in blocked shots. Westhead pulled back the reins and Denver scored just 99.7 ppg but the Nuggets only improved to 24 wins and Westhead was fired. “Ultimately, to win—fast or slow—you need to have a talent level on your roster that is a cut above at least half of the teams,” Westhead concludes. “You have to give yourself a chance. Ultimately, there is no disputing talent.”
In the past decade and a half, Westhead has literally traveled around the coaching world, working as a head coach in Japan, in the new ABA and also for four years at George Mason University. He also was an assistant coach for Golden State and Orlando. Westhead took his fast break style to the WNBA in 2006 when the Phoenix Mercury hired him. Perhaps for the first time since his LMU days, Westhead had a team that really bought in to what he was teaching. The 2006 Mercury smashed the WNBA single-season scoring record by averaging 87.1 ppg. In 2007, they broke the record again by scoring 89.0 ppg. True to his philosophy, rather than slowing the game down in the postseason the Mercury sped things up, scoring 95.8 ppg in the playoffs en route to the franchise’s first championship.
Westhead very much enjoyed coaching in the WNBA and would have continued doing it if not for the fact that his friend P.J. Carlesimo became Seattle’s head coach and offered him a job as an assistant coach, which Westhead accepted. Carlesimo has called Westhead the best assistant coach in the NBA and he believes that Westhead deserves another shot at being an NBA head coach.
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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