Moe’s passing game holds up two decades later
DENVER (AP) – Marcus Camby chases down the rebound, fires a football pass to DerMarr Johnson, who one-touches it to Carmelo Anthony for a layup.
Flash back two decades and it’s the same sequence, only the combination is Dan Issel to Kiki Vandeweghe to Alex English.
The Denver Nuggets have put together one of the best runs in team history, using an updated version of Doug Moe’s run-at-all-costs passing game to make the playoffs after a dismal start to the season.
“When it’s going well, it’s powerful,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “There’s a weight, its heaviness that the other team doesn’t know how to slow down. We get so many layups, we’re getting lobs and dunks, the most I’ve ever coached on any team. The object is getting the easiest shot in basketball, and we’re getting a lot of them.”
When Karl became coach, he knew what had to be done. He always liked a quick tempo as a player and had some success with it as a coach, particularly in the CBA in 1990-91 when the Albany Patroons went 50-6.
The Nuggets clearly have taken to the breakneck pace. Denver has won 31 of 37 games since Karl replaced interim coach Michael Cooper on Jan. 28, moving from 11th in the Western Conference to seventh. During that span, the Nuggets’ scoring average rose from 94 points to 103.
Denver has scored at least 110 points in 11 of its past 18 games and has eclipsed 120 four times, with a high of 127 against Washington on March 22 – its most in five years.
“We love it because everybody gets involved,” Camby said. “It’s not just walk the ball up the court and pound it, which I saw a lot of with the Knicks in the Eastern Conference. It’s definitely a fun way to play and everyone gets involved.”
Moe combined the freelancing of schoolyard basketball with the structured passing game of North Carolina coach Dean Smith, creating a system that left opponents ragged in Denver’s high altitude. Moe’s passing game had two principles: shoot before the defense could set up, or work the ball around so quickly there was no time to react.
In Moe’s 10 seasons in Denver, the Nuggets led the NBA in scoring six times, setting a league record with 126.5 points a game in 1981-82. Though the Moe-led Nuggets were short on defense, they still reached the playoffs nine straight years and the Western Conference finals in 1985.
“I always liked that style,” Vandeweghe said. “I thought it was exciting for the fans, fun for the players.”
Vandeweghe targeted the passing game when he took over as Denver’s general manager and has spent the past four years retooling the roster with that style in mind. It took an overhaul – no one from Vandeweghe’s first season is left – but the Nuggets finally have the speed to succeed.
The front line features players like Camby, Kenyon Martin and Nene, who ignite the break with rebounds and outlet passes, and are just as eager to finish at the other end.
Swingmen Anthony, Johnson and Wesley Person thrive in the open court, shaking the rim with dunks or pulling up for a 3-pointers. Point guards Andre Miller and Earl Boykins make everything click, pushing the pace, eyes ahead to find open teammates.
“Quick shots are very good if they’re good shots,” Moe said. “The good part about it, if you don’t get a quick shot and you move and look for the open man, it continues to put pressure on the defense. The whole thing is putting pressure on the defense.”
But this isn’t a replica of Moe’s system. Sure, he’s back on the bench as an assistant coach to help teach the nuances of the open court, but the new Nuggets are more like an upgrade package – Passing Game 2000, as Karl calls it.
Moe’s offense was based on constant motion. While this year’s Nuggets have plenty of flow, breaking out for layups and dunks at least a dozen times every game, they also look to get quick shots in transition and in two-man games. The biggest difference comes in halfcourt sets.
Moe’s teams relied on perimeter passing to keep the defense off balance and create open shots. These Nuggets are more effective in a traditional halfcourt offense because they have players who can set up in the high and low posts (Camby, Martin, Nene) or on clear-outs (Anthony).
And if the set plays break down, the freewheeling passing game allows Denver to create something out of nothing.
“It really doesn’t matter who shoots because we feel everybody on the court can shoot,” Camby said. “Even our bigs can shoot it and it makes everybody feel involved.”
So how good is the new version of Moe’s offenseâ¢ Even he likes it better.
“I loved my teams, and I thought they did fantastic given the competition they were playing against,” he said. “But I think this team is maybe at another level.”