Paul Westhead is not necessarily as known as he should be, despite being part of the creation of the Showtime Lakers and winning the title as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Was Paul Westhead a good coach? Paul Westhead was certainly a good coach, he still remains the only basketball head coach to win a title while in charge of both an NBA and WNBA team, in addition to his success as a coach in the NCAA.
Paul Westhead does not always get enough credit in the history of the NBA. His career coaching basketball started off when he was coaching the La Salle University Men’s basketball team. He ended his coaching career in 2014 and Westhead should get a lot of credit for a brilliant career.
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Why was Paul Westhead a good basketball coach?
1. Overachieving with La Salle
The La Salle university men’s basketball team is certainly not known as a particularly successful program, despite being the NCAA tournament champions in 1954 and runners-up the next year.
Westhead took over the team as head coach in 1970, while also teaching as a professor in the English department. Despite being originally brought to the university as an English teacher, Westhead coached the team to two East Coast Conference champions.
It was in the NCAA tournament that the team really overachieved, featuring in the tournament twice. This may not sound like a big achievement, but the team has only made the NCAA tournament once in the last 30 years, making it twice in Westhead’s nine years as head coach.
Westhead finished his time with La Salle with a record of 142-105 and only left the team because he joined the Los Angeles Lakers as an assistant.
2. Winning a title with the Lakers despite taking over unexpectedly.
After a very short stint as Lakers assistant, Westhead was pushed into a role as the interim head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers after head coach Jack McKinney was involved in a cycling crash that put him into a short coma.
It was a huge step up for Westhead as he had never been head coach of an NBA team before and had only been an assistant in the league for a couple of months. It was a role that the majority of people would have really struggled with.
But Westhead continued to institute the fast-paced offence that had first been shown to the Lakers by McKinney. Westhead did so well as interim head coach that he was installed as full-time head coach and McKinney was the head coach when the Lakers won the 1980 NBA Finals.
Westhead may have left the team in 1982, but he had a huge impact on the Showtime Lakers. Many people may believe that Pat Riley was the coach for all of the Showtime Lakers titles, but Westhead was the coach for the team’s first title of the 1980s.
As well as helping to create the Laker’s fast-paced offence centred around Magic Johnson, Westhead was the coach who hired Pat Riley as an assistant, with Riley becoming the iconic coach of the Showtime Lakers.
3. Producing record-breaking offensive teams
Particularly after leaving the Los Angeles Lakers, Westhead moved around a few different teams. It started with Westhead making a brilliant Loyola Marymount team, creating a famous, up-tempo style of basketball.
Westhead’s teams continuously led the NCAA in scoring as well as taking the team to the NCAA Elite Eight, despite their leading scorer that season Hank Gather passing away after collapsing during the conference tournament. Their tournament run included an offensive masterclass against reigning champions Michigan.
Westhead’s time with Loyola Marymount was one of the best offences we have seen in NCAA basketball and it earned Westhead two WCC Coach of the Year awards.
Westhead would get another chance in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets. For Nuggets fans
Around that time, they may remember this time as being pretty bad for Denver. Having finished his time in Denver with a record of 44-120, Westhead’s coaching prowess is often overlooked.
Denver led the league in offensive scoring in the 1990-91 season, when the team averaged a league-best 119.9 points per game. The issue for the Nuggets was that they also surrendered the most points per game, with opponents averaging 130.8 points per game against them.
His time with the Nuggets should also be remembered as another example of Westhead being good at identifying talent. In the 1991 NBA draft, Westhead selected Dikembe Mutombo fourth overall. Mutombo would become one of the best defensive players in the history of the NBA, retiring as a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
4. The only coach to win an NBA and WNBA title
While Westhead’s coaching style produced some truly awful teams, he also still holds an incredible record as being the only coach to win an NBA and WNBA title. Westhead was hired as the head coach of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury in 2005. In 2007, the Mercury won the WNBA title which made him the only coach to ever win both titles.
This was despite the Mercury winning three deciding games. It should be a pretty good indicator of his coaching abilities that the Mercury won the title running the same fast-paced offensive style that had led the Lakers to the title all the way back in 1980.
Why was Paul Westhead fired by the Lakers
There were two main reasons why Westhead was fired by the Lakers. It begins with a disappointing title defence in 1981 when the Houston Rockets defeated the Lakers 2-1 in the first round of the playoffs, losing by three points in the deciding game three.
The other reason Westhead was fired was because he had serious disagreements with Magic Johnson. Westhead wanted to centre his offence around Kareem Abdul Jabbar, with Johnson wanting more of a fast-paced offence than involving all five players.
It caused the two to have a serious argument in the first couple of weeks of the 1981-82 season, with Magic asking for a trade in the post-game interview. The owner of the Lakers Jerry Buss wanted Magic to be with the team long-term so he decided to fire Westhead and promote his assistant Pat Riley.