High-tech, run-and-gun offense is running amok for Nuggets

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Denver Nuggets' offense, so high-tech it is nearly futuristic, is so sophisticated that you would almost expect coach Paul Westhead to hand out the scouting report on a microchip.

What better method of delivery for a Shakespeare-loving coach who has been called an offensive genius?

These days, Westhead, 51, in his first season at Denver, may need the soothing comfort of English literature to offset the anguish he feels as his players struggle to put up a shot every six seconds. The team that Nuggets followers boldly predicted would be the first National Basketball Association team to score 200 points in a game is back to normalcy, hit by injuries to starters Orlando Woolridge, Jerome Lane and Todd Lichti.

The warp-speed, run-and-gun offense that Westhead perfected on the college level at Loyola Marymount gives every player a license to shoot, and the sooner the better. Although the Nuggets' offense includes endless variations, its theme is simple: one pass and a shot. A player needn't give up a 25-foot jumper to pass closer in to an open teammate.

Shoot. Shoot. Shoot. That could be the Nuggets' motto. It's drilled into the players' heads that every shot is a good one. Once they advance the ball past halfcourt, players can fire away.

Imagine a football team throwing the bomb on every play. That's Denver. "It's a lot of fun," said Michael Adams, a 5-foot-7 point guard. "You just run, run, run and look for your shot."

There is one problem with so much running and gunning. The Nuggets lead the league in points scored, but they also lead in points allowed.

"Probably the toughest part is adjusting on defense," Woolridge said. "You go from one concept to another in a flash. There isn't any time to think. You have to learn to react instinctively."

The Nuggets are at their best when it seems they are at a blur. Even after the other team scores, the Nuggets look to fast break, with the players racing along predetermined routes that resemble pass patterns. The Nuggets don't care how many points they give up. They would be perfectly happy to win every game, 185-184.

Is this new strategy, never before tried in the NBA, genius or

mayhem? No one can say for sure. It's too early to make a judgment. But even the Nuggets admit they have far from perfected Westhead's masterpiece. The tinkering could take years. Westhead is figuring he will have the last laugh.

"This offense will work. I know it will," he said. "Nothing comes together overnight. There isn't any such thing as instant success. We are going to stay with it, and we are going to make it work."

At least for now, Westhead's creation has short-circuited. The Nuggets' cannons are more like pop guns. The players aren't very talented. They don't fully understand what Westhead wants. It will take time, Westhead tells them again and again.

Denver, which was scoring 140, 150 points per game during the preseason, is troubled by the injuries. Woolridge, a muscular forward and the club's top gun, was averaging nearly 30 points and having the best season of his career. He will be out for two months with a detached retina.

Lichti, a shooting guard, is out with a sprained ankle. Lane, a forward, has the same injury. The points that were so easy to come by in exhibition games are more difficult to register.

Westhead wasn't hired until September, long after the Nuggets had spent the third pick in the draft to take guard Chris Jackson, 6 feet 1, of LSU. Jackson, averaging 14.2 points and 21 minutes, is a crowd favorite, but he is a liability, too. He must play point guard because of his size, but seems to lack the natural instincts for that position. His natural position? Shooting guard.

Jackson would face long odds at the off-guard spot, because no player his size has ever excelled at the position. Opposing shooting guards, such as Michael Jordan, 6-6, and Clyde Drexler, 6-7, would relish the chance to post up against Jackson.

Possible mismatches such as those, and Jackson's inability to excel at point guard have limited his playing time. But the Nuggets maintain Jackson will carve out his niche and are eager for him to progress.

Less than two weeks ago, general manager Bernie Bickerstaff lashed out at Jackson. He told reporters: "Chris Jackson is in the big leagues now. The decision was made to go pro, so that means you are a man.

"We understand that he's going to have some problems, like every rookie. But in the interim, some people are filling his head with garbage that he's the greatest player on earth.

"The bottom line is, 'Let's stop bitching and work and play basketball.' "

Jackson, 20, suffers from Tourette's syndrome, a disorder that causes involuntary movements and speech. Although the Nuggets put him on the injured list this season when he had adverse reactions to medication, Bickerstaff insists the illness hasn't caused other problems.

Even when they were at full strength, the Nuggets had a collection of mostly non-descript performers. That is especially true since Jackson's minutes have been limited. Now that the injuries have set in, the Nuggets aren't any better than the expansion teams.

But rest assured the Nuggets' problems have not led to a cease-fire. Denver still leads the league in scoring. but it isn't the wild offense that was in place at the start of the season.

Lately, the Nuggets have had to work hard just to get past 100 points. In late December, Denver scored 101 points against Portland, 110 against Dallas, 128 against Sacramento and 114 at home against Miami.

Denver's recent struggles show that in the NBA, the players are more important than the system. With so many players hurt, the Nuggets are having to hustle just to give teams a battle.

Times may be hard, but Westhead maintains he isn't discouraged. He is a field general determined to push on against the odds. He plans to keep telling his players to fire at will, critics be damned. Westhead is sticking with his beliefs that he can devise an offense that can outgun and outrun every team in the league.

"I am more convinced today than I was in the exhibition period that teams, NBA teams, do not like full-court pressure and do not like the relentless push of the ball on offense," Westhead told the Denver Post. "Our team is still evolving through physical conditioning and mental conditioning.

"Many times we reach the point [of clinching the game] with the other team, and we kind of take a breather, a mental breather if nothing else. It's like we're getting them tired, and not finishing. So we're not there yet, but we are sure not going the other way."

To turn the other way would be to corral the Nuggets' offense and bring it into the mainstream. But that isn't Westhead's way. After all, he is the only coach in the league to conduct training camp conditioning workouts in a swimming pool. He said he favored water aerobics over more conventional methods, such as wind sprints.

Many NBA insiders wonder if Westhead is living a dream. They say he embraces this fantasy of making a college offense work in the NBA. At Loyola, Westhead's offense was truly radical. Generally, college players are taught to work the 45-second clock and take as much time as they need to set up a good shot. But Westhead, who had a 139-104 coaching record with the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls before coming to Denver, has other ideas.

He decided to exploit the lack of raw athletic talent on some college teams. He would assemble the fastest, quickest, most athletic college players he could find and then turn them loose. He would allow them, in effect, to play street ball.

With the late Hank Gathers and shooting guard Bo Kimble as his stars, Westhead drew national attention at Loyola. On most nights, his offense was unbeatable. The other college teams simply could not keep up with Loyola's breakneck pace. But the NBA is a different venue.

Again and again, the other NBA clubs have proven they can beat the Nuggets at their own game.

"They create a lot of offensive possessions for themselves, but that creates a lot for the other team, too," Orlando Magic coach Matt Guokas said.

"It's an interesting offense that Paul has," Philadelphia coach Jim Lynam said. "But he might not have the talent he needs right now."

The casual fan may not notice much difference in the Nuggets' offense, except they shoot quicker than any team in the league. Westhead said the system is designed to increase the Nuggets' number of possessions. He wants his players to shoot within six seconds, then immediately turn to full-court pressure on defense in hopes of forcing a turnover or forcing the other team to shoot right away.

Detractors cried out that the Nuggets could not continue at such a pace, especially on defense. Imagine racing down the court at full speed to get off a shot, and then madly double-teaming on defense. That is what Westhead asked of his players early, but now, grudgingly, he has made some concessions. The tempo is at a slower pace now, and the Nuggets aren't quite as frenetic on defense.

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