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

January 06, 1991|By Barry Cooper | Barry Cooper,Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO — 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.

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