Last Friday morning the Denver Nuggets—like their NBA playoff hopes—were up in the air and headed for rough weather. The Nuggets had crushed Houston 141-122 two nights earlier in Denver and were flying to Kansas City, where a victory over the Kings would all but assure Denver a Western Conference playoff berth for the first time since 1978-79. Somewhere over Kansas, the pilot announced that heavy thunderstorms had been sighted and warned his passengers to strap themselves in. David Thompson, the fabled Skywalker—and no stranger to turbulence—continued talking to a teammate while gazing serenely out the window.
Denver Coach Doug Moe, the not-so-fabled Skychicken, leaned back and began to multiply. Moe had wanted to go forth and multiply, but the seat-belt sign was on and the stewardesses would warn him about strolling the aisles, which Moe does ceaselessly because of a fear of flying. A couple of Denver newspaper reporters had challenged Moe to make good an old boast that he could multiply two six-digit numbers in his head, and as the aircraft dipped into a layer of clouds above the fruited plain, the Skychicken finished clucking silently to himself as the numbers whirred through his head. It was a half hour before he announced that 635,794 X 821,653 = 522,402,047,482.
"When everybody thinks you're a dummy," says Brooklyn-born Moe, who has never been taken seriously as an NBA coach, "it's kind of nice to be able to do something surprising and blow them away."
Despite being brought rudely to earth by the Kings, 123-121, that night, the Nuggets made the playoffs by defeating the Dallas Mavericks 130-124 in Denver the next night. Even if Denver goes no further than its first-round mini-series this week against the Phoenix Suns, however, the Nuggets' offense will have left its mark.
The Nuggets' offensive statistical eminence is unequaled. This season Denver became the first team in league history ever to score at least 100 points a game over the entire 82-game schedule; the Nuggets also became only the second team to lead the NBA in scoring (126.5 points per game), field-goal percentage (.520) and free-throw percentage (.796). When the Boston Celtics achieved the last such triple, during the 1954-55 season, they averaged 101.4 points, shot .399 from the field and .776 from the free-throw line. Denver's team scoring average broke the record of 125.4 set by the Philadelphia Warriors in 1961-62, but the Nuggets' defensive average of 126.0 this season was the highest—meaning worst—ever in the NBA.
Denver was the only team to finish the regular season with three players among the league's Top 20 scorers, and not one of them was Thompson, who entered this season with a lifetime 25.4 points-per-game average. Alex English averaged 25.4 (fourth-best in the league) on Denver's remarkable front line with Center Dan Issel (22.9, 10th-best) and Kiki Vandeweghe (21.5, 14th-best).
This season the Nuggets have often been laughed at for their lack of offensive discipline and their lack of anything at all on defense—especially after they lost 13 of their first 22 games. Twelve times this year they have given up 140 points or more, and yet Moe rises for the defense. "What does the amount of points you give up have to do with how you play defense?" he asks. "We gave up 145 points to Boston and 139 to Los Angeles, and I thought we played good defense in both games." Moe points out that Denver scored 144 points at Boston and lost the game on a shot with two seconds left, and beat the Lakers 140-139. "If Boston and L.A. are such good defensive teams," he says, "why are we scoring so many points against them? It's all relative."
If ever a team reflected the personality of its coach, the Nuggets are it. "Any team is more disciplined offensively than we are," Moe says, "because our players can do anything they want to if they get open." Getting open is one of the things Moe and his teams do best. During his 3½ seasons at San Antonio, the Spurs were regularly atop the league in scoring and having their defense ridiculed by opposing coaches. To say nothing of their practices. Coby Dietrick used to bring his dog to shootarounds to play Frisbee with. In fact, there used to be dogs running all over the place. "Doug liked to have dogs there," says Jeff Cohen of the San Antonio Light, "so when they'd pee on the floor he'd have an excuse to go play golf."
Moe was hired by Denver two summers ago to be Donnie Walsh's assistant, but when Walsh was fired just before midseason, Moe became the head coach. After the season ended, Moe hired Walsh as his assistant. Even Walsh was somewhat skeptical of his successor's methods until the Nuggets finished 26-25. This season Denver went 46-36, the team's best record in three years, and despite some talk at the All-Star break about merging with the Utah Jazz to become the league's first ski resort, the Nuggets' 17-7 surge over the last part of the season brought the fans back to McNichols Arena.
"A lot of teams believe in running on missed shots and steals," Walsh says. "Some teams even run on made shots, but they run into set plays so they're not going to run as hard. Doug's philosophy is to beat the other team down the floor every time. I think the evolution of basketball will take us where Doug already is."
Another example of Moe's coaching tactics is his approach to free throws—the Nuggets don't practice them. "We don't even talk about it," Moe says. "Hey, why mess up a good thing?" Not only did the Nuggets lead the league in foul shooting, but they also attempted a staggering 624 more free throws than did their opponents. They shot 45 free throws or more in 17 games this year. In late February, Issel sank 63 straight free throws, the second-longest streak ever.
In his 12th pro season, the 6'9", 240-pound Issel is still outworking everybody, running tirelessly on offense while trying to contend with centers almost a head taller than he. Being outweighed and outmuscled is a common problem for the Nuggets, so much so that 6'4" Guard T.R. Dunn leads the team in offensive rebounds. Despite his slight build (6'7", 190 pounds), English has been a giant. "He's really amazing because there are so many things he can't do," Moe says. "He doesn't have great quickness, he can't handle the ball, and when it gets physical, who's Alex going to push?"
Vandeweghe's emergence has been the big surprise. "I didn't expect Kiki to be such a good scorer," says Moe, "and if David had been playing, he probably wouldn't have been." Thompson missed 21 games this season because of an assortment of injuries and a two-game suspension that followed a clash with Moe when David showed up late for practice on Christmas Day. "If David had just worked his way back in," Moe says, "he would have gotten his minutes. For two years this team has been losing, then it just so happens that we start winning while David's out. You always have a tendency to go with a superstar, but there comes a time when you have to judge it on merit. I think if everyone had just given David a little time without all the controversy he would have been fine."
Instead, Thompson's confidence—always shaky at best—fluttered away from him. The Denver fans took Thompson's side, often calling for him from the stands. Last week as the Nuggets routed Houston, Thompson hit 10 of 14 from the field for 26 points. But it was a shot he blocked, against Allen Leavell—his body knifing out of nowhere to save a sure basket, though he picked up a foul—that won him a standing ovation. For the first time this season, the Skywalker was once again aloft, and the Nuggets were winging toward the playoffs. Up on the flight deck, the Skychicken had his eyes closed and his hand on the throttle, giving it full speed ahead.