Welcome to the wild and warped world of the Denver Nuggets, where no shot is bad, no motion is slow and no record is safe. The intent of the Nuggets' first-year coach, Paul West-head, who has installed a radical, run-at-all-costs offense and a costs-a-lot-defense, is to render opponents aimless and breathless, but so far his scheme has left Denver going nowhere fast. As of Sunday, the Nuggets had a 1-8 record, had allowed an average of 146.9 points a game and had elicited more sneers than cheers. "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.
Newspapers in other league cities have taken to printing the local team's scoring records in advance of games against the Nuggets for ready reference; at least nine NBA scoring records have fallen in games involving Denver. There is no question that the Nuggets' frenetic, full-court style and the resultant orgy of points have made them the most talked-about curiosity to hit pro ball since Julius Erving began jamming in the pre-cable TV days of the ABA. Here's what some say the Nuggets are like:
•To play against. Phoenix guard Kevin Johnson, who had just shredded the Denver press for 23 points and 17 assists in a 173-143 Sun win on Nov. 10, lay spent before his locker and, gesturing to his rib cage, said: "I got a side cramp, like the kind you get from running when you're a little kid." And when did you get it, KJ? "In the second quarter. You laugh, but that quarter was 16 miles long."
•To watch. Erstwhile San Antonio gunner George (Iceman) Gervin said, after witnessing the Spurs' 161-153 victory over Denver on Nov. 7, "I would have come out of retirement for that one."
November 26, 1990
•Not to watch. In the second quarter of the game with Phoenix, Nugget forward Walter Davis cut his elbow and left the floor with Denver trailing 50-37; eight minutes later, when he returned from the locker room, the Nuggets were down 88-52. This puzzled Davis: "I came back in and said, 'What happened?' "
•To coach against. The Portland Trail Blazers' Rick Adelman said before a Nov. 13 game with the Nuggets, "It scares you because you don't know what to expect." After the Blazers won 155-129, he added, "It's really a hard game to play. It's hard to explain."
•To referee. Hugh Evans, after listening to a cornetist's rendition of the national anthem before the game between Denver and the Suns: "I may need that guy's lungs before the night's over."
•To describe. Jeff Kingery, the Nuggets' radio voice, who uses a glass of water per quarter to cool his pipes: "Basically, you have to keep going until you get a foul and catch your breath."
•And to play for. Davis, who was averaging 25.3 points through Sunday, says: "It's mind-boggling to see the faces of the guys on the other team when they have no idea what to do. In the first half against San Antonio [which ended with Denver leading 90-83], I've never played on a team that played that well." Says guard Todd Lichti (19.3 points a game), "When our offense gets going, it's like playing on a Sunday afternoon. You shoot it when you catch it." Says forward Orlando Woolridge (29.3), "After the game, I'm like, Where's my room? I see my bed and I say, 'Hi, bed. Here I come.' I've found out lying in bed is very underrated."
The Nuggets are using the same catalytic-conversion style that Westhead developed at his last lab, Loyola Marymount. The strategy—use constant backcourt pressure to force the pace, sprint in transition to designated spots on every possession, and throw up shots at a glimpse of the rim, ideally within seven seconds—is not unique, but the lengths to which Westhead carries it are.
With his eyes wide and his brow furrowed, Westhead, a 51-year-old Shakespearean scholar, picks at a bagel in a Portland coffee shop and patiently explains his system. "It's a high-risk deal because I create high-risk problems for the opposition," he says. "The idea is to play ultrafast on offense and ultrafast on defense, so it becomes a double hit. And when it works, it's not like one and one is two. It's like one and one is seven."
That new math will ravage the NBA record book. Denver was scoring 132.2 points a game at week's end (the record of 126.5 points was set by Denver in 1981-82). Meanwhile, the Nuggets were giving up 146.9 points (the record: 126.0, by Denver, also in '81-82) and allowing opponents to shoot 56.4% (the record: 53.6%, by the Golden State Warriors in '84-85). The Nuggets were taking 112.6 shots a game and shooting 47.3%. They have operated reasonably effectively in Westhead's attack, which is highly structured despite its helter-skelter appearance. As Denver bursts into the offensive end of the floor, the off guard goes flying to the right corner, the small forward to the left corner, the power forward to the paint, the center to the left of the free throw line and the point guard to the top of the key.
But the Nuggets' intricate trapping defense, designed to make the opposition turn the ball over or shoot too quickly, has too often failed, resulting in acrobatic stuffs in the Nuggets' nearly vacant defensive end. Former NBA coach Jack Ramsay, who coached Westhead at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia and remains close to him, points out what is perhaps the fundamental flaw in the Denver scheme: "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."
That was evident in that 173-143 Nugget loss to the Suns, in which Phoenix tied the record for points in regulation play. At halftime Denver had scored 67 but trailed by 40, as the Suns had set an NBA record for a half, with 107 points. In only eight minutes of play in the second quarter—roughly the same eight during which Davis was off getting his elbow patched up—Phoenix rookie forward Cedric Ceballos threw down 20 points on a variety of jams. But Phoenix coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, whose team almost cracked 200 points in his 700th NBA win—or was it 700 points in his 200th win?—refused to knock Denver's style. "Do I really like it? No," he said. "Can it work? Why not?"
A combination of Westhead's zeal, his players' professionalism and a measure of satisfaction when the system clicks has kept the Nuggets amazingly upbeat despite their setbacks. Says Denver center Blair Rasmussen, whose right arm aches from winging outlet passes after opponents' baskets: "We know people are laughing. But when we develop the instinct to just react, we feel like we're going to get the last laugh." Woolridge, a career 16.3-points-a-game scorer, says, "A lot of people around the league are critical of the system for one basic reason: They don't want it to work. Because they know if it does, they're going to have some tough times."
But Denver's staggering start, however much excitement it may be causing, comes at a difficult time for the franchise, which is attempting to rebuild. In July 1989, Peter Bynoe and Bertram Lee bid to become the first black owners of a major league pro sports franchise by trying to buy the Nuggets from Houston businessman Sidney Shlenker. But when Bynoe and Lee had difficulty arranging the financing for the purchase, Robert Wussler, the president of COMSAT Video Enterprises, in Washington, D.C., rescued the $54 million deal. As a result, he ended up with 62.5% of the club to Bynoe and Lee's 37.5%.
A change in ownership is not the only upheaval the Denver franchise has endured in the past 17 months. The Nuggets had four different presidents before the current one, Carl Scheer, settled in last March, and three acting general managers before Bernie Bickerstaff, the former Seattle SuperSonics coach, was hired in July. Amid this front-office turmoil, Denver quietly signed Rasmussen, a career 9.6 scorer and a career 5.2 rebounder, to a whopping seven-year, $17.5 million contract, a deal the new owners discovered, to their dismay, the day the league approved their purchase. And Alex English and Fat Lever, two of the best players in the franchise's history, departed for Dallas last summer—English as an unrestricted free agent and Lever for a pair of first-round picks.
Then, on Sept. 6, the Nuggets, citing the obligatory philosophical differences, canned popular coach Doug Moe, who was 432-357 in 10 years in Denver. The day after Moe's firing, the Nuggets hired Westhead, who had guided the Lakers to the 1979-80 NBA title in his first year as a pro coach and later led previously dormant Loyola Marymount to 105 wins in five seasons. Bickerstaff has known Westhead since they both coached in the Puerto Rican summer league in the '70s, and he believes Denver will win as its personnel improves. "Whatever you say about Paul, at least he's wearing a championship ring," Bickerstaff says.
But Westhead is clearly a changed man from his Laker days, when he was let go 11 games into the 1981-82 season after Magic Johnson complained that Westhead's offense was—get this—too restrictive. Asked if that cruel blow had spurred him to devise his new system, Westhead says, "It was not post hoc ergo propter hoc—after this, therefore because of this." He has always been fascinated by the speed game, he says, and has experimented with every fuel short of nitroglycerine and flubber to kick-start his teams. In previous coaching stints Westhead asked players to wear vials of mercury—called energy bars—around their necks for increased strength, used psycho-cybernetic instruction to improve free throw shooting and based his trapping techniques on tips from Los Angeles Ram defensive backfield coaches.
Tragedy marked the end of Westhead's stay at Loyola Marymount. Last March 4, Lions star Hank Gathers, who had a heart arrhythmia, collapsed during a league tournament game and was pronounced dead of idiopathic cardiomyopathy. Westhead is being sued by Gathers's family for allegedly asking team doctors to reduce Hank's dosage of Inderal—an anti-arrhythmia drug that can cause sluggishness—to improve his play, a charge Westhead has denied.
"I guess I'm prepared for anything from my experiences in the last 10 years," Westhead says. "I know when you do something difficult, you expose yourself.
"If nobody else does it, that's why you should do it. Everyone sees half-court defense over and over again. But no one sees full-court pressure like ours, and since you don't see it, you don't practice it. What's happening now is our players aren't yet grooved to the system. When they are, we'll find out."
The Nuggets' steadfastness finally paid off last Thursday, in a 121-108 home win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota coach Bill Musselman's brand of basketball, the most methodical in the NBA, almost put Westhead to sleep and even irritated some of the Wolves hungry for a fun run. "I kept saying to Pooh [Timberwolves point guard Pooh Richardson], 'Are you ever going to shoot the ball?' " said Denver playmaker Corey Gaines after the game. "He said, 'Nan, I've got to run this play right here.' "
To a man, the Nuggets say that they are in the best shape of their lives, and that the tempo has taken more of a toll on the opposition. Through last week, teams were 4-3 in games they played the day after facing Denver, and the Nuggets had been outscored only 68.5-67 in the second halves of their games.
Hoping to build stamina for the uphill road ahead, Westhead has come up with another innovation: underwater wind sprints. The Nuggets regularly repair to a pool, where they bob for 30 minutes, furiously churning for aerobics' sake alongside their coach. "Some of the guys didn't want to let go of the ledge at first," Westhead says. "Then they found out if you race real hard, you don't sink." Aye, there's a metaphor. And on it hangs the Nuggets' future.