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Did Paul Westhead win a championship with the Lakers?

The Los Angeles Lakers have had some of the best coaches in the history of the NBA, with fans thinking of Pat Riley and Phil Jackson when you think of title-winning Lakers coaches. 

Did Paul Westhead win a championship with the Lakers? Paul Westhead coached the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA title in the 1979-80 season, in his first season as the head coach of the Lakers. Pat Riley served as his assistant coach.

When you think of the Showtime Lakers winning championships, you probably think of them being coached by Pat Riley. But actually, the Laker’s first title in the 1980s did not come under the coaching of Riley. Instead, it came under Paul Westhead.

Westhead “The Guru of Go” became coach of the Lakers in 1979, having briefly served as the assistant to Jack McKinney. McKinney was involved in a serious bike accident which hospitalised him and so Westhead took over as coach and remained in the role even when McKinney returned to health. 

McKinney inherited Rookie point guard Magic Johnson who teamed up with former multiple-time MVP Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The two of them led the Lakers to first in the West as Los Angeles won 60 games behind Westheads high tempo offensive style. In the first round of the playoffs, Kareem led the team on court as the Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns in five games. 

Westhead saw his side lose the first game of the Conference Finals to the Seattle SuperSonics. But his Lakers side responded with four straight wins to take them to the NBA Finals. 

In the finals, Westhead saw his rookie point guard produce the best NBA Finals performance we have ever seen from a rookie as the Lakers won the title in six games over the Philadelphia 76ers, with Magic jumping centre in place of the injured Kareem in the close out game.

This would be Westhead’s only title with the Lakers as Los Angeles lost in the first round of the playoffs in the next season and a year later, he was fired after the first eleven games of the season, with rumours of disagreements between Johnson and Westhead. 

Who is Paul Westhead 

Paul Westhead is probably best known to NBA fans for winning a title as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, but Westhead had a much more extensive coaching career than just the title-winning campaign with the Lakers. 

Born in Philadelphia, Westhead did not go straight into working in basketball after college, instead becoming an English teacher. It was only in 1968, seven years after graduating from college that Westhead would begin basketball coaching. His coaching career began at Cheltenham High School, where he coached the team to a loss in the Pennsylvania state championship. 

Westhead went on to become a legend for the La Salle University men’s basketball team, coaching them for nine seasons. In his time as head coach, they appeared in the NCAA tournament twice, something they have only done once in the last 30 years. The Explorers were also two-time East Coast conference champions.

His coaching caught the attention of fellow Philadelphia-born coach Jack McKinney who was head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Westhead had worked under McKinney at Division 1 side Saint Joseph’s. McKinney brought in Westhead as an assistant, but he was quickly pushed into a bigger role. 

McKinney suffered a near-fatal head injury after a bike accident. It meant that Westhead took over and even when McKinney was back, the Lakers stuck with Westhead as they had been incredibly successful in that time. Westhead would lead the Lakers to the title in the 1980 NBA Finals. 

But Westhead only lasted another season and eleven games, after a first-round loss was combined with rumours of arguments between Westhead and Magic Johnson. Understandably, Lakers owner Jerry Buss sided with his star point guard and Westhead was fired during the early part of the NBAs 1981-82 season.

He landed on his feet and was quickly put into the role of Chicago Bulls head coach to start the 1982-83 season. Westhead only lasted one season as the Bulls went 28-54 with no real stars on the roster, he would then spend more than a decade out of the NBA.

Loyola Marymount and the Guru of Go

After his NBA career faltered Westhead found himself taking the reins at Loyola Marymount University in LA. This small school saw unprecedented success under Westhead until tragedy struck, resulting in the death of star player and guaranteed future NBA legend Hank Gathers.

This period of Paul Westheads career  is documented in the brilliant 30 for 30 documentary Guru of Go.

This was a very successful spell for Westhead as he installed the best offence in Division 1 and led the team to the Elite Eight, with the team not making the NCAA tournament since 1990. From 1988 to 1990, Westhead’s teams went 27–3, 20–10 and 23–5 respectively, earning NCAA tournament berths each year.

Westhead returns to the NBA

Westhead was rewarded with another head coaching role in the NBA. He led the league’s best offence with the Denver Nuggets, but they were also the league’s worst defence and despite drafting future four-time defensive player of the year Dikembe Mutombo, Westhead was fired after two seasons. 

Westhead had a few different assistant coach roles in the NBA before becoming the head coach of the Phoenix Mercury. With Westhead’s fast-paced offence, the Mercury won the 2007 WNBA title. It made Westhead the only coach to ever win both an NBA and WNBA title. 

Westhead finished his career as the head coach of the University of Oregon Women’s basketball team, going 65-90 in his four seasons with the team.

Who coached the Lakers after Paul Westhead? 

When Paul Westhead was fired in 1981, he was replaced by Pat Riley. Riley had played for the Lakers from 1970-1975 and became an assistant coach with the team when Westhead took over as coach. 

So when Westhead was fired due to issues with Magic Johnson, Riley was the man to step in and he was quickly helped by Lakers legend Jerry West who became general manager of the team. Riley is known as the man who coached the Showtime Lakers. Riley was certainly innovative and important in the Laker’s four titles while he was head coach. 

Defensively, Riley changed the way that the Lakers played. He installed new philosophies that had not been seen in the NBA before. While the Lakers were known for style and excitement, Riley always knew the importance of defence and rebounds, so made sure his Lakers team got the basics right. 

But on offence, Riley mainly used the same fast-paced offence that had been established by Westhead and former coach Jack McKinney. Riley saw that the system would be a successful one and so instead of implementing a new style, he instead built on what McKinney and Westhead had established.