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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:

Paul Westhead: Never Slowing Down

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 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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