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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Paul Westhead: Never Slowing Down

Paul Westhead, sometimes called the "guru of go" because of his love for fast break basketball, is the only person who has coached a championship team in the NBA (1980 Lakers) and the WNBA (2007 Mercury). I spoke with Westhead, who is currently an assistant coach with the Seattle Supersonics, prior to Seattle's 95-79 loss at Cleveland, after which I posted some of his thoughts about the WNBA and the development of Seattle rookie Kevin Durant.

Westhead coached for nine years at LaSalle before becoming an assistant coach with the L.A. Lakers. After Coach Jack McKinney suffered a serious head injury, Westhead took over and guided the team to the 1980 title. Later, Westhead turned Loyola Marymount into a national power and made a brief return to the NBA in Denver before turning his fast break attack loose in the WNBA as his Phoenix Mercury set scoring records and won the 2007 championship. You can read all about Coach Westhead's career in my HoopsHype.com article about him (10/12/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

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."

Westhead adds, "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.


Here are some "DVD Extras" from Coach Westhead that do not appear in either the earlier post or the HoopsHype.com article:

Who better to ask about Golden State's upset victory over Dallas in last year's playoffs than a staunch believer that a fast breaking team can win an NBA title? I posed this question to Coach Westhead: "When I watched the Dallas-Golden State series, I felt that Dallas made a mistake by initially changing their starting lineup and trying to prove that they could win a slow down game. I thought that it backfired. The two games that they won, if you look at the scores, they won the faster paced games and Golden State actually won the games when Dallas tried to slow it down. Golden State was playing close to the way that you talk about, trying to run all the time. Dallas, I thought, had a lot of grind it out, 23.5 second possessions in which they didn't accomplish anything--they'd miss a shot or turn it over--and then Golden State would get the rebound, push it up the floor and Baron Davis or Stephen Jackson could get in the paint and score before the defense set up. Did you pay attention to that series and do you agree with what I am saying?"

Coach Westhead sidestepped the issue of whether Dallas made strategic errors but offered this reply: "I saw that series more as a fan. I say 'fan' because I enjoyed watching that series. I thought that it was good for basketball. I didn't really sit down and evaluate the chess game in terms of who outwitted whom or who outplayed whom. I just thought that it was a great series for the game of basketball because I like that kind of pace. Other than that, I would compliment both teams. I thought that they played a great series."


In almost any form of endeavor--from sports to business to war--it is a big advantage to dictate to one's opponent the way that a battle will be fought: in boxing, it is said that "styles make fights," meaning that when two fighters have contrasting styles it is interesting--and decisive to the outcome--to see which fighter imposes his style on the match; a similar confrontation happens in chess when an attacking, middlegame virtuoso faces a player who prefers to trade pieces and steer toward an endgame struggle. Controlling the pace of the game is a very important tool in basketball, as Coach Westhead explains:

Friedman: "Do you think that as a coach that pace is one of the most important tools that you have to dictate to the other team and kind of control how the game is going to go?"

Westhead: "I think that pace is essential--let me back up a second: I think that being able to play the way that you want is the most important thing that a coach needs to bring to a game and to have his team bring. So, for me, pace is what I want, so therefore being able to create and control the pace is essential for my team."

Friedman: "What are some other factors that coaches might seek to control?"

Westhead: "Well, other coaches would say the opposite, that they want a lack of pace."

Friedman: "Oh, when you say 'pace' you always mean 'speed.'"

Westhead: "Yes, I mean the speed game. Other coaches would say that they want their teams to be under control, they want to take perfect shots, they want to get good balance, they want to make sure that after they take a shot that everyone gets back on defense. So they have a whole other set of criteria which would create a slower pace."

Friedman: "If a team like Phoenix or Golden State breaks through and wins a championship do you think that we will then see a copycat situation in which other teams try to play that way or do you think that the fast style is considered so out of the box that even if a team wins by playing that way that people will consider that to be an aberration?"

Westhead: "Well, let's talk about that after a team wins by playing that way. I would say that until somebody wins by playing that way it will be considered a boutique way of playing. There is a reason that this will have trouble catching on even if a team wins by playing this way. Playing at a breakneck, fast paced speed is harder to do than playing at a controlled pace. That's your sell; there's the rub. If you're a player and you're in a habit of playing at, call it 50 miles per hour, and all of a sudden someone says that the way we play is 95 miles per hour, that's not easy to swallow."

Friedman: "Even if you can get up to 95 miles per hour, you have to stay there."

Westhead: "That's what I mean--95 and then staying there."

Friedman: "Is that easier to do in college because there is more time off between games and a shorter schedule?"

Westhead: "No. I've never believed that. I disagree with that."

Friedman: "So many people talk about how tough the NBA schedule is, with four games in five nights sometimes, so why do you disagree with that?"

Westhead: "My comment about that is that if you can get your team to play at 95 miles per hour and your team is playing three or four nights a week then your team is in the habit of this. What about the teams you are playing against that are in game 37 and they can't wait for a nice, controlled slow game like they have been accustomed to and instead, all of a sudden, boom, here comes a team running their socks off?"

Friedman: "So it all comes down to your mentality and using this to your advantage?"

Westhead: "Mental training."

In order to run his system successfully, Westhead needs players who are fully committed to its principles. "It's not a pick and choose running game; it's a non-stop running game," Westhead says. "Sometimes players pick that up in a couple of days. Someone asked me how long it takes to learn the fast break and I said, 'A day, a week, a lifetime.' It depends how receptive you are and how willing you are to expose yourself to a new way of playing. Basketball, in the modern era, is--as far as pace--a pick and choose game. Occasionally you will see some fast breaks but you will just as easily see teams walk it down and set up a play, change the offense, use the clock. I'm not saying that is bad basketball; I'm just simply saying that is the state of the game. So, to ask players to play at a non-stop, full speed game without those slow down intervals is really challenging to them because it is not in their minds and it is certainly not in their arms, legs and bodies. Talking doesn't get it out of them. It's like, this is how we're going to play and when things don't go well we're going to play faster."

Westhead rejects the idea that he ignores the importance of defense. "Basketball--unlike any other sport--involves both ends of the game: you have to be defensive minded and offensive minded," he says. "But in order to be good, you have to be really good at something. The ultimate criteria for what you are doing is the differential. If you are giving up 100 points a game, someone can say that automatically shows that you don't play any defense--but you have to look at the other part: if you are scoring 105 points a game then you have a positive differential of five points; it doesn't matter what your defense is: on average, you are winning by five points. That being said, I think that with some of my better teams--like my WNBA team in Phoenix--I think that our players played very hard, we played a lot of zone defense, we played hard zones. Some of my Loyola Marymount teams full court pressed, which is harder defense than any kind of halfcourt defense you can set up. So, I think that it's a mixed bag. When I didn't have good teams, we probably played poor defense and poor offense."

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:48 AM


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