Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Defending Paul Westphal

I'm a huge fan of Henry Abbott's blog over at ESPN, but since I started my new job, I haven't been able to read it as often (let alone blog, obviously). I usually wind up taking in large chunks at a time, while drinking the morning coffee or before I go to bed.

Which is how I came across a post from yesterday about Paul Westphal.

You can read the post for yourself, but it basically amounts to a True Hoop reader positively killing Westphal. This, in response to a Marc Stein column over on ESPN about the best moves in the Western Conference.

And while Henry himself casts no judgment on Coach Westphal, and while a few other readers come to his defense in the comments section, I felt motivated to post something here as well.

For starters, I should note that I came to know Coach Westphal well during his time at Pepperdine. His son-in-law is one of my best friends and after getting to know him, Coach Westphal allowed me to basically become part of the team for the 2003-2004 season. The reason? I was a young writer looking for an opportunity and we decided that following a mid-major team around and writing a book about it might be a good idea (the book never came to be, for reasons that will be discussed below). He took the time to meet with me on a regular basis, allowed me full access to the team and the players, and even gave me the opportunity to meet one of my heroes, John Wooden.

So understand that I am hardly objective.

However, understand also that all of that access gave me a different perspective than that of the guys sitting in the stands. I don't fault these guys for caring, because as a Pepperdine alum myself, I care just as much. However, there is a difference between bashing someone from a bird's eye view and without all the information, and making the same claims when you've seen behind the curtain. (And I'm sure this is true of all coaches and players in all sports; it is always easier to criticize when there is no personal connection.)

There is no denying that Pepperdine's basketball program has trended downward over the past several years, going from one of the elite mid-major programs in the country to a team that struggles mightily to win WCC games. And because that dip largely occurred on Coach Westphal's watch, it is easy to see why people would automatically connect the dots and assume he was responsible.

However, as is always the case, there is more to the story. In Coach Westphal's first season at Pepperdine, he managed to bring in (largely through the recruiting efforts of former assistant Gib Arnold) a couple of transfers (Jimmy Miggins and Devin Montgomery) on the fly to team with a lot of young talent that remained from the Jan Van Breda Kolff era. That season he inserted redshirt freshman guard Terrance Johnson into the starting lineup, got senior Craig Lewis to buy into a sixth man roll that literally saved that team, and turned longtime stiff Cedric Suitt into a shot-blocking stud at center. That squad reached the 2002 NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid and gave a very good Wake Forest team (led by Josh Howard) all it could handle in a first round game in Sacramento.

Expectations for the next season were naturally very high. Many of the team's star players were returning and young center Will Kimble was being groomed to take over for Suitt. Then, tragedy struck when Kimble was diagnosed with a heart condition that ended his playing career at Pepperdine (although he would later play again, at UTEP). That team was never the same, as it basically amounted to a lost season, particularly when Montgomery went down with a thumb injury for an extended period of time.

The 2003-2004 campaign should have been one for the books. Literally, my book. However, once again, the Waves were thwarted at every turn. Star transfer - and current member of the Denver Nuggets - Yakhouba Diawara (who has been featured many times on this blog in The Khoub Report) was forced to miss over half the season for some ridiculous eligibility issue that took the NCAA forever to resolve and subsequently robbed him of the entire (and critical) non-conference schedule. Top recruit Shaun Davis got off to a great start and then completely melted down, to the point where he was an ongoing distraction and was eventually asked to leave the team. Plus, Kimble was on the bench all season (another case of Westphal being a stand-up guy, as he honored the scholarship), which wound up being more haunting and sad than inspiring. Yes, there was a lot of talent on that team, but they never had a shot. There were just too many problems to deal with.

What people don't realize about success at the mid-major level is that everything has to go perfectly. You can't afford a single major injury or suspension or borderline insane recruit. And when all of them happen in unison and the guy forced to quit basketball because of a heart condition is sitting on the bench next to you, it is hard to maintain excellence. It just is.

And as for the diminution of talent in the program, I'm sure the recruiting wasn't flawless, but people need to understand that Coach Westphal and his staff were trying to recruit to a school with inadequate facilities (Pepperdine is a breathtakingly beautiful campus with first rate facilities ... except for basketball) and high academic standards. Additionally, he is a guy that actually values excellence of character and tried to hold players up to moral standards as well as those of an academic or athletic nature. Not only that, but Coach Westphal was forced to recruit and build a program amid constant rumors about his next move. He was rumored to be angling for the head coaching of the Boston Celtics (a rumor that Marc Stein himself inaccurately spread) and rumored to be heading to the Knicks as an assistant, neither of which were true, but both of which did damage to the work he was trying to do in Malibu.

I'm not making excuses for the results, because I'm sure everyone involved in the process of building those teams would admit to some mistakes and regrets, but I am interested in pointing out the other side of the argument.

Of course, all of this is sort of moot when it comes to Coach Westphal's ability as an NBA coach, which is what Stein's column discussed. If anything, my time with Coach Westphal only proved what a great basketball mind he has. He is always thinking outside the box and coming up with innovative ideas. The problem with that kind of high level thinking in college basketball is that the players are often not advanced enough to apply some of those ideas. Coach Westphal's greatest sin as the head coach at Pepperdine was probably that he trusted the players too much as athletes, treating them like pros rather than college kids. That obviously isn't an issue when he will be coaching, you know, pros. He doesn't have to teach Jason Terry how to shield a defender from stealing his dribble, so he can spend all the time he wants showing JT a few tricks for drawing fouls off the ball. There is no need to instruct Jerry Stackhouse on the principals of a high-low offense, so he can skip right to the good stuff. And he doesn't have to show Erick Dampier what a pivot foot is, so he can move on to a nifty double move. Okay, maybe that last example wasn't the best.

But the point is that Paul Westphal is perfect for the Dallas Mavericks. He can deploy the mounds and mounds of strategy that he has about basketball, while working for a standup guy (Avery Johnson) that shares his emphasis on character, and probably reinvent a few things along the way.

I watched Coach Westphal succeed tremendously at Pepperdine and I watched him fail and I learned a lot about what a quality person and basketball coach he is along the way. Things may not have worked out perfectly in Malibu, and I suppose that students and alums have a right to be as angry as they want to be about how things turned out, but I can say with 100% certainty that the Dallas Mavericks are very lucky to have Coach Westphal on their staff.