Denver's Portland Cement

Solidified by three ex-Trail Blazers, the Nuggets headed into the playoffs after their most successful NBA season ever
April 22, 1985

To Big Jane's old man, the guy who gets the credit for taking the Enver Nuggets and restoring their D, the absolutely worst thing you can be on this planet is a no-hoper. Hanz isn't one. Neither are T.R. or E.T. or Newt or The Grasshopper Person. If Horse were one, he'd have retired long ago. And when Fat and Natt and Coop arrived last summer they brought hope in buckets, not to mention some of the orneriest defensive skills ever to hit the Rockies.

Doug Moe calls his wife Big Jane and his Nuggets "a good, solid team." Nothing more. Never mind that Denver won the Midwest Division title with 52 victories, the best season it has had since joining the NBA in 1976-77. "S—, what are we, Boston or Philly?" Moe says.

What Moe's team is, in a word, is Portland. Ever since the Trail Blazers sent 25% of their roster and two future draft picks to Denver for 6'8" forward Kiki Vandeweghe last June 7, the Nuggets have been golden. All three erstwhile Blazers—Lafayette (Fat) Lever, Calvin Natt and Wayne Cooper—start for Denver. Natt, a 6'6" forward who averaged 23.3 points per game this season, out-scored Portland's Vandeweghe (22.4) all by himself. Lever, a 6'3" point guard, outrebounded Vandeweghe all by himself. And the 6'10" Cooper became a force in the middle, finishing fourth in the league in blocked shots. "Last year we might have played nine guys," says forward Bill (Hanz) Hanzlik, "but we didn't have nine guys who could play."

After clinching their division crown on April 7, the Nuggets muddled through the remainder of the regular season, convalescing—Natt and Dan (Horse) Issel took it easy, nursing bad knees—contemplating the San Antonio Spurs, their opponent in this week's best-of-five first-round playoff series, and celebrating. They lost twice in L.A., 148-119 to the Lakers and 129-127 to the Clippers, won at Golden State, 127-120, then lost at Portland 117-112, for the only time in five meetings this season. "That Laker game was a lock," Moe says. "No-hoper of the year. You need a game to celebrate." But three?

If Moe sounds like a no-hoper, consider this: He could have walked into Nugget owner Red McCombs' office after last season and asked for the routine contract extension he'd been granted after each of his previous four years as the club's coach. But Denver went 38-48 during 1983-84, and Moe would do no such thing—even though the team's new president, Vince Boryla, gave him something approaching a vote of confidence. Some NBA soothsayers had Moe pegged as first-to-be-fired, but he has never been much of a worrier. "Like I tell 'em," he says, "who they gonna get that's better? I win more than any of these guys, and they know that. Otherwise they wouldn't have kept me around. What, you think Red's a pauper and can't pay off my contract if he wants to?"

So Moe bet on himself. Instead of begging for the extension, he coolly installed a pressure defense while weaving the three newcomers from Portland and three rookies into the equation. The defense is a stockpot of concepts, some of which Moe picked up from North Carolina coach Dean Smith. Moe may be the only Tar Heel alumnus extant who refers to the great man as "Smitty."

Moe's offense has a simple mandate: Take any shot. So he asked his defense to deny any pass. Denver finished the season averaging a league-leading 120.0 points per game, down from last season's 123.7. But this year the Nuggets yielded 7.2 points per game fewer than in '83-84. "If we make everything an opponent does a little more difficult," says Hanzlik, "it'll make the difference in one or two baskets, which will make the difference in the game."

Boryla, 58, the one-time New York Knick player and coach, and McCombs have been impressed enough to grant Moe a new three-year contract. "The pressure defense surprised me because I'd never seen it before in Denver," Boryla says. "But in all fairness to Doug, he didn't have the right people for it before."

Certainly the Nuggets never had a shot blocker like Cooper, who swatted away 2.46 a game. His play consigned the 36-year-old Issel to a final season of coming off the bench before he retires to his horse farm in Kentucky. Indeed Issel's left knee is in such bad shape, he may not be a factor in the playoffs.

In the muscular Natt, Denver acquired the perfect complement to forward Alex English, the sometime poet with the lissome turnaround jump shot that accounts for most of his 27.9 points per game. In Let's Share, English's latest volume of poetry, he likens himself to a garden insect:

Friend called me a grasshopper person
said grasshoppers
have mystical auras
that they are special
made me smile
Friend said hop on hopper.

NBA titles, however, aren't won with a frontcourt anchored by a bard from the yard. Enter Natt, who's more Kurtrambic than iambic. He shoots 55% from the field, goes to the free-throw line more often than anyone on the team and approaches rebounding and defense with a Calvinist attitude. "Calvin," Moe says, "is a bitch."

Lever, meanwhile, has been the surprise of the trade—penetrating, popping and, like his accomplices in the backcourt, pilfering. As a group, the Nuggets' guards—Lever, T.R. Dunn, Mike (Newt) Evans, Elston (E.T.) Turner and rookie Willie White—made 508 steals and only 499 turnovers, the league's only backcourt with a positive steal/turnover ratio. Dunn had a remarkable 140 steals to 65 muffs. The Nuggets also took 7.3 shots a game more than their opponents, primarily by forcing 4.4 more turnovers a game. "That's an unheard of figure," Moe says. The next best turnover differential this season was Washington's 2.3.

If that makes sense, another aspect of Denver's success doesn't. With all their new players, the Nuggets figured to start slowly, especially because the three ex-Blazers were coming from Portland coach Jack Ramsay's rigid system. Still, Denver got off to a 13-3 start and never looked back. "Here you're asked to use the instincts you're raised with," Natt says. "It's easier to go from a pattern game to a free-lance one than vice versa."

The Nuggets must have known that when Trail Blazer G.M. Stu Inman first phoned to inquire about Vandeweghe's availability. "I told him we weren't trading Kiki," Moe says. But Inman named five players Portland would deal and told Moe, "Just keep these names in mind."

The Nuggets did, and soon another factor figured in their thinking: creeping no-hopeism. "I wouldn't have minded having the same team back," Moe says. "But the team knew it could only go so far. We had too many weaknesses, and I couldn't imagine getting a deal this good." Adds Boryla, who took time from his furniture and real estate businesses to tend to the Nuggets, "If I'd have gone into this trying to make my career, I never would have done it. But at my age, I'm in a hurry to build a winner. I'm on a six-month plan."

In fact, Boryla's impatience was one of the reasons Moe, whose idea of the urgent is the next shot and who's going to take it, was thought to be on his way out. Another was that since he became a head coach in San Antonio in 1976, many people have taken Moe's insouciance for indifference.

"Smitty used to subscribe to the Denver papers and underline things I'd say and send them to me with 'Don't say this' written in the margin," Moe says. "People always tell me I have to change my image. But there's no one here who wants to win more than I do."

No one, perhaps, except Issel. He struggled with his new role as a reserve, even grousing about it early on, but eventually came to see he was ending his 15th pro season as part of something special. "Dan's scored as many or more big buckets for us this year as in any other year," Moe says. Adds Issel, who'll retire as No. 4 on pro basketball's alltime scoring list with 27,482 points: "It's been extra satisfying because we'd struggled so much in recent years. We'd make the playoffs and know that in one or two rounds we'd be history."

This season the Lakers will probably once again win the West, but at least there are some nuggets of hope in Denver.

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONThe shot-blocking ex-Blazer Cooper is central to the Nuggets' new pressure defense. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONNatt (33) and Fat Lever (12) became Denver favorites in about the time it takes to spell Vandeweghe. PHOTOANDY HAYT[See caption above.] PHOTORICHARD MACKSONIssel is having a ball in his farewell season. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe easygoing Moe thinks that coaches who worry about their images are all wet.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)