What the Hell Happened to...Paul Westphal?

By Cort Reynolds

From 1975-81, former Celtic first round pick Paul Westphal was arguably the best all-around guard in the NBA."Westy" was voted first team All-NBA in 1977, 1979 and 1980, and was second team all-league in 1978. From 1977-81 he was an All-Star each year, averaging 19.4 points per game in five mid-season classics while shooting a ridiculous 63.2 percent from the field (63-98) with 24 assists in those games. Yet this clutch performer never won an All-Star MVP award, even though he should have in 1977.

In that contest at Milwaukee, he led the West to a 125-124 win in the first post-NBA/ABA merger All-Star contest. Westphal made a very efficient 10 of 16 shots, and dished out six assists while making three steals and blocking two shots. His breakaway two-handed dunk with 38 seconds left gave the West a 125-122 lead and provided the eventual margin of victory. After two Bob McAdoo foul shots, he made an even bigger play on the last East possession. Westphal was isolated one on one with NBA scoring leader Pete Maravich. Pistol Pete took the in-bounds pass with 16 seconds left from Doug Collins, then dribbled into the frontcourt to his left. Westphal fought over a screen by the 6-9 McAdoo, then stayed with the always dangerous Pistol as he dribbled right into the circle, with no other defender to help out in the area. As Maravich was about to raise up for a potential winning 17-foot jumper with eight seconds to go, Westphal quickly snaked his left hand in and stripped the ball cleanly out of Pistol's grasp. Then Paul quickly beat McAdoo to the loose ball. While falling down he completed the game-saving play by whipping a blind, over the shoulder pass 50 feet downcourt that West teammate Rick Barry chased down to cleverly run out the clock. It was the second time he had undressed the great Pistol Pete, the other time from behind on a wicked shot block. Westphal's great game-ending steal and pass punctuated one of the best and most exciting finishes to an All-Star Game in league history.

Yet somehow Julius Erving of the losing East team was named MVP. True, Dr. J scored 30 points and was more superficially spectacular, but he also took 20 shots and missed several easy ones, as well as playing poor defense. The pro-West crowd (Milwaukee was a Western Conference team then) booed the selection of Erving as MVP and chanted for Westphal to win the award, to no avail. Such was the pattern for much of Westphal's underrated career.

Paul also was in line for the ASG MVP in 1980 when he scored 21 points on eight of 14 shooting (5-6 FTs) and doled out five assists. But the East won in OT behind a spectacular extra session from rookie Larry Bird, spoiling Westy's bid again in favor of George Gervin. In 1978 at Atlanta, he tallied 20 on 9-14 shooting accuracy, yet the East rallied behind unlikely hero Randy Smith to pull off a comeback win and thwart the Sun guard again. In his five All-Star appearances, Westphal scored between 17 and 21 points each time and never shot less than 57 percent (especially impressive for a guard) in any game. Yet no MVP. That lack of respect, bad timing and bad luck could be considered symbolic of Westphal's career.

In college, his USC teams were consistently good and went 24-2 in 1970-71, but both Trojan losses came
to eventual champion UCLA. Back then only the conference champion team from each league could make the NCAA tournament, so USC sat home despite being one of the top five teams in the nation. Four years later when multiple teams belatedly began to be invited to the big dance, USC would have been a strong Final Four threat. Westphal, a native of southern California, was the player legendary Bruin coach John Wooden tried hardest to recruit, even more than Alcindor (Jabbar) or Walton. But the slightly contrarian Westy turned him down, wanting to try and beat the Wizard of Westwood instead of becoming a Bruin and winning a certain three straight national titles.

Then even though he played a dozen seasons in the NBA, only half of his career was spent as a starter. Due to repeated stress fracture foot injuries starting in 1981, and sitting the bench as a backup guard on the great Celtic teams of the 1972-75 era, roughly half of his career was spent in obscurity, lending to his legacy of being under-used and vastly underrated. But at his peak he was as good as anyone in the NBA.

When the Celtics unwisely dealt him to Phoenix shortly after being knocked out of the 1975 playoffs in the conference finals, the former All-American from Southern Cal set about proving that Boston made a big mistake. Westphal led the upstart Suns into the Finals the next spring against his old team, the Celtics, and almost led the Phoenix to a historic upset. Despite heroics from Westphal (20.8 ppg and 4.8 assists per game), Phoenix came up just short in a memorable six-game series punctuated by the triple overtime game five, a 128-126 epic win by Boston in the Garden. Many observers still believe it to be the greatest game in NBA annals, and Westphal was one of its most pivotal performers.

Westphal led Phoenix to the seventh game of the 1979 Western Conference finals, where the Suns lost a 114-110 thriller to eventual champion Seattle before nearly 40,000 fans in the KingDome. Westphal had stolen the ball and made a layup while being fouled with four seconds left, bringing the late-rallying Suns within 112-110. After a timeout, a strange play ensued. Remember, this was the last year before the three-point line was introduced into NBA play. Westphal had two shots to make one under the rules of the time, but was instructed by coach John MacLeod to intentionally miss. However, when Westphal tossed the first shot hard off the glass, their plan was made too apparent. His second intentional miss bounced high off the rim, but Sonic center Jack Sikma came down with the big rebound amid a crowd, was fouled, and made two foul shots to clinch the series. That was as close as Paul would get to winning another title, and if starting center Alvan Adams not missed much of that Seattle series with a sprained ankle, Phoenix probably would have won the title.

Yet he had played a key role for Boston in capturing the 1974 championship to earn his lone ring, the first for the Celtics in the post-Russell era. In a pressure-packed game seven at Milwaukee, Westphal subbed in for defensive ace Don Chaney. "Duck", like Westy a future NBA coach, got in foul trouble pressuring Buck veteran great Oscar Robertson, who was attempting to go out on top in his final game. The second-year Westphal came into the do-or-die situation and delivered big time. He scored 12 huge points, while also hounding Robertson into a miserable 2-13 shooting night in his swansong. At one point he knocked the ball out of a shooting Oscar's hands, and later drew a foul in transition that prompted a tirade worthy of a technical from the infamous ref-baiting Robertson. Westphal nailed a clutch left baseline fadeaway in the fourth quarter, then improvised perhaps the final nail in the Buck coffin. After corralling a loose ball in the lane he jumped into the air to shoot, only to have the 7-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar quickly loom toward him. Westphal jacknifed his body in midair, double-clutched and then tossed a perfect short lob pass over and behind Jabbar to Dave Cowens, who wisely caught the ball in midair and banked it in softly before Jabbar could recover. Even though Paul averaged just under 10 ppg for the Celtics in 19.3 minutes a game during the ensuing 1974-75 season, he remained a third guard in Tom Heinsohn's short rotation.

Tying with Washington for the league's best record at 60-22, the Celts came up just short in an attempt to repeat. Washington knocked off Boston 4-2 in the Eastern Finals as Westy saw his minutes cut drastically. In the 4-1 win over Houston in the revious series during the eastern semis, Westphal scored 10.6 ppg off the bench. But against the Bullets, with the offensively-challenged Chaney scoring just 7.3 ppg, Boston moved Havlicek to big guard and deployed 13-year vet Don Nelson a lot at small forward instead of playing the talented third-year guard from USC. It was clear that coach Heinsohn felt more comfortable playing his aging veterans over the flashy but young Westphal, but the move didn't work. Paul scored 5.8 ppg in limited action vs. the Bullets, which turned out to be his last in Celtic green. In his final Boston game, he scored six points in the 98-92 game six loss at the Capital Centre.

During that off-season, Chaney jumped to St. Louis of the ABA and it appeared Westphal might finally inherit his starting spot. But the Celtic brass decided the window for winning title #13 was closing fast and they needed a more experienced big guard to get them there. Thus 12 days after being eliminated by the Bullets, they sent Westphal to Phoenix for former All-Star Charlie Scott, who helped the Celtics win the 1976 crown. After Phoenix was eliminated by the champion Lakers in the 1980 western semis, the Suns decided to get bigger and more defensive-oriented in order to compete with the Lakers. So they orchestrated the celebrated "changing of the guards" trade with Seattle, sending Westphal to the rival Sonics for second team all-leaguer Dennis Johnson in a landmark deal involving All-NBA guards in 1980. Put in more recent terms, it would be like trading Kobe Bryant for Steve Nash five years ago.

Westphal started off well for Seattle, but shortly after the All-Star Game in Cleveland, he injured his foot and never was the same. At the time, the injury rage was the stress fracture, caused by repeated over-use and deadly to guards dependent on cutting, maneuverabilty, constant running and moving without the ball. 76er All-Star guard Doug Collins, legendary for cutting hard without the ball so much that he ran through 30 pairs of sneakers a year, suffered the same injury, then blew out in his knee when coming back too soon and had to retire in his prime at 29 in 1980.

After going unsigned for a while as a recovering free agent with a perceived high price tag, Westy moved on to New York, where he started most of his 98 games there. He scored a modest 10.3 ppg for the Knicks, who lost in the 1983 playoffs to the eventual champion 76ers. From there he went back to Phoenix for one last season, where he scored seven ppg in just 14.7 minutes a night off the bench for the Suns - eerily similar numbers to those he put up in Boston. Phoenix upset its way into the 1984 conference finals, where they almost upset the Lakers before falling 4-2, including 99-97 in the final game. Westphal played well, and even bothered Earvin Johnson with his size and smarts on defense, but puzzlingly MacLeod under-used his veteran, as he often did. In fact, during the closing minutes of game six in the 1976 Finals, Westphal was on the bench in a tight 87-80 loss. In his final NBA game, Westphal scored seven points on 2-3 field goal shooting and three of four of foul shots. But a potential tying shot in the final seconds rimmed out and the Lakers dodged overtime, setting up their epic seven-game Finals loss to Boston.

Paul still ranks eighth on the Suns career points list, seventh in assists and sixth in steals dspite only six seasons in the purple, copper and burnt orange. He ranks sixth in ppg average (20.6), a number lessened two ppg by his last season spent as a reserve in Phoenix, and is arguably the best all-around player in franchise history.

Almost immediately number 44 went into coaching, and led Southwestern Baptist Bible College to a 21-9 record in 1985-86. Two years later, he guided Grand Canyon College (Phoenix, Az.) to the 1988 NAIA national title with an 88-86 overtime win over Auburn-Montgomery.

Westphal then became an assistant coach with the Suns under Cotton Fitzsimmons in 1988. In 1992, he was named head coach of the Suns and led Phoenix to just its second Finals in his first season at the helm with a league-best 62-20 record. The Suns fell 4-2 to the Bulls in the championship series, climaxed by another sixth game heartbreaker (99-98) on John Paxson's three-point basket in the final seconds. Ironically, Phoenix lost all three home games in the series but managed to win a triple OT game three classic at Chicago, 129-121. Westphal thus became the only man to be involved in three-OT Finals games as both a player and head coach. Phoenix never got back to the Finals under Westphal, who was replaced in 1996 after posting an impressive 191-88 regular season record (.685 win pct.) and a 25-19 playoff record (.568).

He then moved on to coach another one of his former teams as a player (Seattle) from 1999-2001, where his teams were 78-74 including a short playoff stint.

Westphal returned to his SoCal roots in 2001 as head coach at Pepperdine University, where he led the Waves to a 22-9 record and an NCAA tournament berth in his first season. However after a 7-20 record in 2005-06, he was let go with a 74-72 career record. 

For a season, he hooked on as an assistant for Dallas under Avery Johnson and helped the Mavericks to a league-best 67-15 record. In 2009, he was named head coach of the cellar-dwelling Sacramento Kings. Enduring constant battles with temperamental young big man DeMarcus Cousins, Westphal was fired after going just 51-120 for the rebuilding Kings, who seemed to be angling for a move to Seattle or Anaheim.

In 10 full or partial seasons as an NBA head coach, Westphal's teams were a more than solid 318-279 (.533) in the regular season and 27-22 (.551) in the playoffs. Minus his stint as coach of the moribund Kings, his season record was 267-159 (.627). In 12 seasons as an NBA player, he averaged 15.6 ppg and 4.4 assists a game. The accurate Westphal shot 50.4 percent from the field and 82 percent from the foul line as one of the best mid-range shooters in the league. However, his stats do not do his career justice at all. In the six seasons of his career when he was a healthy starter, he averaged 22 points and five assists a game while shooting over 50 percent from the floor and nearly 85 percent at the charity stripe. Per 36 minutes, Westphal averaged just over 18 ppg in his three Celtic seasons and also shot over 50 percent in his last two campaigns, impressive numbers for a 6-4 guard. In 14.4 minutes a game, he scored 7.3 ppg, or just over a point every two minutes. Not bad at all.

Over his career extrapolated to 36 minutes a game, Westphal averaged 22 points and 6.2 assists a game. In perhaps his best season at age 27 in 1977-78 for Phoenix, he scored 25.2 ppg and doled out 5.5 assists a night while shooting 51.6 percent from the field. All in just 31 minutes per contest! Projected over 36 minutes per game, he averaged 29.2 ppg. The next season, he averaged 24 points and 6.5 assists on 53.5 field goal shooting and 83.7 percent foul line accuracy. One of the most efficient offensive seasons arguably in NBA history by a guard. In the playoffs from 1976-80, he averaged 22 ppg but the Suns came up just short to the eventual champions in 1976, 1979 and 1980.

Paul was perhaps the most ambidextrous player in the NBA before the arrival of Larry Bird, and won the CBS H-O-R-S-E contest one year, showing off his creativity and dexterity, as well as shotmaking skills. A fine leaper, he loved to dunk with his left hand. In perhaps his best move of the HORSE event, he jumped up, grabbed the post attached to the back of the backboard, swung to the other side and made a southpaw reverse.
All in all, because of the injuries and time spent on the bench, Westphal has become one of the best, most underrated or forgotten players in NBA history. In an era featuring many great big guards (Maravich, DJ, Collins, George Gervin), Westphal distinguished himself as perhaps the best all-around player of them all in the late 1970s and early '80s before the foot injuries prematurely curtailed his career. His fine coaching career also has tended to obscure his considerable playing accomplishments. Even an All-American career at USC was overlooked by the greatness of UCLA in his own backyard, and injury limite dhim to 14 games as a senior. The Trojans went 58-28 in his three seasons, including 24-2 in his second team AA season of 1970-71. But both SC losses came to Pac 8 and NCAA champion UCLA, and thus the fifth-ranked men of Troy did not get a chance to play in the big dance.

Wespthal is probably one of the best players never to play in the NCAA tourney or win an NBA title as a starter, or as a head coach. His career might be considered the consummate "close but no cigar" (no pun intended, Red), but those who saw him play know he was one of the best guards ever in the NBA at his peak. Few if any guards combined his shooting, passing, ballhandling skills, as well as his improvisation, shotmaking and ambidexterity. A very heady player, he also was a solid defender who ranked among the top 10 in assists per game multiple times as well in an era when assists were not as easily awarded as they are now.

He was a versatile guard who defied labels: he was not a point guard or a two guard, instead he was a complete guard in an era before the positions were so clearly delineated. He once famously said he was (paraphrasing here) "a guard, like West or Robertson - they were not points or shooting guards, and neither am I." Westy was not just a shooter, typecast like many white big guards. Instead he was a good shooter who also was a fine driver with good hang time, hops, creativity and body control. At one time he was rated one of the best "white guards who play black" by Sport magazine due to his improvisational style of play in a circa 1980 article. The 360-degree, 15 foot shot he made from the left elbow late in the third OT of game five in the 1976 Finals at Boston spoke volumes about his ability and creativity, as well as body control. And his competitive desire.

In addition, a clever move by Westphal stamped him as a potential future coach. At the end of the second overtime in that epic fifth game, John Havlicek banked in a left-side runner to give Boston a one-point lead with just two seconds to go. The clock actually ran out erroneously and the fans charged the court, celebrating the apparent classic win. But amid all the din, including referee Richie Powers being punched, Westphal and the Suns kept their head and got a second put back on the clock. With no timeouts left to advance the ball upcourt, Westphal proposed the Suns intentionally call for an extra timeout, knowing it would incur a one-shot tehcnical. JoJo White canned the foul shot to give Boston a two-point lead, but now Phoenix got the ball at halfcourt instead of at the far end, almost 94 feet from the hoop. Garfield Heard then took an in-bounds pass, turned and nailed the high-arching shot over Nelson from the top of the key that tied it AGAIN and sent the epic to an improbable third overtime. It is highly unlikely the Suns would have been able to tie it had Westphal not come up with the ploy, inspired by his days at USC watching Trojan football coach John MacKay take intentional penalties at the end of games to stop the clock when they had no timeouts left.  No less a basketball savant than Lary Bird admitted to NBA TV reporter Peter Vecsey in a piece on the triple OT fifth game that even he would not have been able to come up with such an ingenious move, especially at such a crucial juncture.

Years later as a CBS analyst, Heinsohn compared Bird to only Westphal as a shotmaker who possessed the body control, ambidexterity and skill to make creative, off-balance shots routinely. Boston saw enough in him to make Westy the 10th overall pick in the 1972 NBA draft, but lacked the patience to wait for him to blossom into the superstar he quickly became in Phoenix once he was given a starting spot.

As a Celtic rookie, he was a backup on the team which posted the greatest record in franchise history (68-14); ironically one of the few great, non-title teams in club annals. When Havlicek was sidelined by a severe shoulder injury early in the 1973 eastern finals vs. arch-rival New York, Boston came up just short in a classic seven-game showdown. The Celtics rallied valiantly from a 1-3 deficit to win game five at home and game six in New York. But with their superstar playing hurt, they had little left to win the seventh game. Westphal did not play in the last two games and went scoreless except for the epic fourth game in Madison Square Garden on Easter Sunday. With Hondo out hurt (and receiving a rare ovation in pre-game intros from the partisan Knick crowd at MSG), and the marathon going double overtime, short-handed and tiring Boston blew a 16-point fourth period lead. Westphal did score six of his series total of 15 points in relief during the pivotal game four, but was whistled for a questionable charging call driving to the hoop drawn by future coaching nemesis Phil Jackson late in the second OT. New York went on to win one of the greatest games in NBA playoff history 117-110 and took a 3-1 lead as an irate Heinsohn chased the refs off the court screaming about questionable calls. Ironically, the man who made two more of the game's biggest plays was Knick reserve forward Jackson. His two clutch foul shots at the very end of regulation forced OT. And in the second extra session he stole the ball from a tiring JoJo White at the top of the key, then sailed coast to coast for an uncontested backbreaking layin. The win deprived Boston of an almost certain banner win over the aging Lakers in the championship series: the Celtics had swept LA 4-0 that year as young and agile league MVP Dave Cowens totally dominated an immobile, 36-year old Wilt Chamberlain in his final season, while Jerry West was also in his penultimate campaign.

Twenty years later, Jackson would again catch the breaks when his Bulls team outlasted Westphal's Suns in a well-played six-game Finals. Close again, but no cigar.

Yet if one silver lining came out of trading Westphal for the Celtics, it is this - had they kept Paul Boston likely would not have become bad enough by 1978 to draft then little-known Larry Bird as a junior eligible with the sixth overall pick, thus setting up the third Celtic dynasty.

Will Westphal coach again in the NBA? Probably not as a head man, but don't be surprised if he surfaces again as an assistant or college coach, or behind the microphone as a TV analyst. In 2007, he served as a TV analyst for the Lakers, Clippers and his alma mater of USC. Let's hope he comes back in some capacity; the game is better off and more creative with underrated great Paul Westphal in it.

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