The Denver Nuggets made their much-anticipated visit to the Salt Palace last night. There hadn't been this much of a need to see speed since the pro track circuit came and went in the '70s. People wanted to get a good look at the only professional basketball team in captivity that shoots more than 100 shots a game, and at the only coach in cpativity who watches his players take off-balance, in-midair, falling-out-of-bounds 35-foot castaways and doesn't scream at them.
A curious spectacle, these Nuggets. They need the 24-second clock like Tyson needs the second round. Their motto is "Have Gunners, Will Battle." The only requirement to go ahead and shoot is that the basket be in the same building.As Paul Westhead, their new coach, likes to say, "Everyone in the league runs basically the same stuff. Everybody plays the same game of Monoply. Well, I'm going to try to play Parcheesi."
Westhead and far-out fastbreak basketball go back a long way. He used it for years in college, at La Salle, and he once used it in the NBA with the Lakers, where, curiously, he was fired for being too controlled.
But it was at Loyola-Marymount--the college that hired him after the Lakers let him go--that Westhead turned into the mad scientist of the break. His LMU teams became both famous and popular, and quite successful, as he refined the art of the collegiate fastbreak to the point that everything was predicated on dong things in a jurry, on both ends of the court.
In a state of disarrray after last season, the Nuggets hired Westhead away from LMU and gave him the green light, as they say.
As was obvious again last night in the Salt Palace, the Nuggets are experiencing growing pains with the new system. The Jazz won 141-126 and were in command throughout the contest. They shot 60.4 percent from the field, compared to 45.5 percent for Denver, and outrebounded the Nuggets by 10, 53-43 Karl Malone, Jeff Malone and John Stockton scored 86 points between the three of them, and in 49 shots, missed just 17. Track meets like this, they wouldn't mind seeing more of.
"The Jazz played very well," said Westhead. "They made a lot of good baskets."
But he didn't express even a hint of concern that his system won't yet prevail--even if the Nuggets, at 5-16, own the worst record in the league if you don't count the Sacramento Kings.
"I'm confident it's going to work," he said outside the visitors' dressing room. "I think we're playing significantly better than we were at the start of the year."
"We're still in process of getting ready to explode," Westhead continued. "It's like running a marathon. You have to run all the way to the end of the 26 miles. We're getting to about 21 miles, and then we're backing off. We're not going through the wall. We're not cracking people. But we're coming close didn't think we kept the pressure on the Jazzs tonight enough to crack them at the end. We need to go that one extra step.
"But nobody's complaining," he said. "And the reason is because they (the players) know it's going to work. I'm not having to sell them every day. They're hooked."
When Westhead speaks, he speaks pasionately and persuasively. He is an intelligent, innovative, and articulate coach/philosopher. It isn't hard to wonder how he turns his players into disciples.
Still, the season is a quarter finished, and not only are the Nuggets already virtually assured of finishing below .500 and out of the playoffs, there have been enough games including last night's--to point out what appears to be a serious flaw in the system:
The shots the Nuggets take all night long are worse than those taken by the opposition. Much worse.
If you didn't know better you'd think they had a death wish. Time after time last night, the Nuggets would run down the court, fire off a long-range, low-percentage bomb of a shot, and then try to hurry and drop back to defend the Jazz, who would set up their offense and take a high-percentage shot.
For every 10 shots the Jazz took, they made six. For every 10 shots the Nuggets took, they made four and a half. the Jazz made 55 field goals in 91 shots, the Nuggets 50 field goals in 110 shots.
You could argue that the Jazz have better players, and better shooters, and that's the reason. But the fact is, the Jazz came into the game shooting a mere 47.5 percent overall from the field this season.
For the season, the Nuggets have taken 220 more shots than the teams they have played--and made 50 fewer field goals.
"There are a lot of different ways to play this game," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan after last night's win. "I've got no problems with what Denver is doing."
Small wonder. The Nuggets aren't going to make a lot of enemies as they blaze through the league, shooting on the run and then putting a bulls-eye on the basket for the other guys. Until Denver comes up with the greatest shooters on earth, Parcheesi doesn't figure to be threatening for any championships.