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Paul Westphal: the budding Celtic star who got away

After 3 years as a key Boston reserve, Westy blossomed into an NBA superstar when traded to Phoenix - and became one of the best ever not in the Hall of Fame 

Orlando Magic v Sacramento Kings Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

A lot of people know Paul Westphal more as a professional coach, but before that he was very arguably the best all-around guard in the NBA from 1976-81.

After being traded to Phoenix in 1975, the one-time Celtic reserve was voted first team All-NBA in 1977, 1979 and 1980, and was named second team all-league in 1978.

He was a better defender than Pete Maravich, a better defender, passer and ballhandler than George Gervin, and a higher scorer than Doug Collins, the other top big guards of the era.

A slightly less productive version of all-time great Jerry West, Westphal was a classically skilled and smart all-around guard who also wore number 44 in his 12 pro seasons and probably grew up idolizing Mr. Clutch as a southern California native.

Westphal was a very clever player, extremely ambidextrous and a very accurate 14-20 foot shooter. An excellent driver, he was a good leaper who was well-known for his dunking ability, particularly with his off/left hand.

A creative shotmaker with great body control, he won the NBA HORSE competition in 1978 when fellow finalist Maravich suffered a severe knee injury. Westphal was also a smart, tough competitor who was good in the clutch.

Celtic legend Tom Heinsohn, his first NBA head coach from 1972-75, compared Westy to Larry Bird in terms of body control and the ability to make off-balance shots, as well as for scoring with his off hand.

In addition, Paul was a fine passer and ballhandler who could run an offense or be the main scoring guard. He famously called himself "just a guard" when asked if he was a point guard or shooting guard.

Westphal finished among the top 10 in NBA assists twice with the Suns. His season high of 6.5 helpers per outing in 1978-79 came despite playing more off the ball than with it, and teaming with an outstanding playmaker in Don Buse. And Paul was also an above-average defender with his good positioning, quick hands and fine leaping ability.

His career stats from 1972-84 are very solid but don't wow the average fan at first glance - 15.6 points and 4.4 assists per game, just over 14,000 career season and playoff points, 50.4 field goal percentage, 82 percent on free throws - in a mere 25.5 minutes per game.

But those numbers are skewed downward because he spent the first three seasons of his career from 1972-75 as a reserve on great Celtic teams, then suffered a devastating foot injury while still in his prime in 1981 which relegated him to part-time starter status in the next two seasons.

By then he was in his early 30's and the injury robbed of some of the quickness and explosion that enabled him to drive and finish well; thus Paul was only able to show flashes of his all-league form over his final three years.

He returned to Phoenix for one final season as a reserve on the squad that pushed the Lakers to six games in the Western Finals, before LA lost to Boston in an epic seven-game championship series.

Westphal then embarked on a coaching career that saw him win an NAIA national championship in 1988 for Grand Canyon University. After that, he came back to the NBA as a Phoenix assistant for four seasons. By 1992 he ascended to head coach of the Suns, leading them to the league's best record at 62-20 and a 4-2 loss in the 1993 Finals to Chicago in his first season at the helm.

But back to his vastly underrated and largely forgotten playing career. If you project his 13-year numbers over 36 minutes per contest, his stats jump to a very impressive and efficient 22 points and 6.2 assists a game.

And for his five and a half seasons as a top-notch starter from 1975-81 with Phoenix and Seattle, he rates as a true superstar.

Unfortunately for Paul, he was only healthy and a starter for half of his career - and even in his best seasons at Phoenix, coach John MacLeod's egalitarian Sun system kept his minutes down to around 32 per game.

Yet he still managed to average 24.6 ppg over those two peak seasons from 1977-79 in just 31.8 minutes a game, while shooting nearly 53 percent from the field (a great percentage for a guard) and over 82 percent at the foul line. Putting up big numbers with his shooting percentage and low minutes played made him one of the most efficient scoring guards in NBA annals.

In his third and final season as a Celtic Westy shot 51 percent from the field, good for seventh in the NBA that campaign, highly unusual for a guard. Ironically, teammate Don Nelson led the league that 1974-75 season in field goal accuracy at 53.9 percent. Six of the top eight in the category were forwards or centers.

Before his stress fracture injury in 1981, Westphal was also one of the most durable players in the NBA. Over seven seasons from 1973-80, Westphal missed only four of a possible 574 regular season games. In four of those seasons (three with Boston) he saw action in all 82 games, and never played less than 80 games.

Westphal might have been more of a household name had he not also hurt his knee during his senior season in college. After starring on the 1971 American team that played well in Russia, he was expected to be the top guard on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team along with Doug Collins, but the injury knocked him out of the infamous Munich Games.

Knowing of his multi-faceted talents, Boston still saw fit to pick him with the 10th overall selection in round one of the 1972 draft. Yet he had to sit behind All-Star JoJo White and defensive ace Don Chaney in Heinsohn's hard-running system that didn't use many subs, especially rookies.

During his three Celtic seasons he averaged 4.1, 7.2 and 9.8 points per game as his minutes rose from eight to 14.2 to 19.3 per game. Over 36 minutes per game for Boston, he averaged a fine 18.2 points, 5.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 49.3 percent from the floor and 75.4 at the charity stripe.

And Boston won 68, 56 and 60 games during those regular seasons, easily the most in the league in that span. Ironically, the 68-win campaign is the best in franchise history yet they did not win it all in Westphal's rookie year. But they did capture the crown in 1974 when they won "only" 56 games.

As a Celtic, his shining moment came in the pressure-packed seventh game of the 1974 Finals at Milwaukee. Starting big guard "Duck" Chaney got in foul trouble pressuring retiring Buck star Oscar Robertson, who was playing in his final game.

As the third guard in a short bench rotation, Westphal subbed in and performed admirably. He scored 12 big points, including a beautiful left baseline fadeaway in the fourth period. He hounded all-time great Robertson into making just two of 13 field goal attempts, openly frustrating him.

Paul helped slam the door on any chance of a Buck comeback when he picked up a loose ball in the lane and rose up to shoot late in the fourth quarter.

When 7-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar jumped up to contest his lane leaner, the 6-4 Westy displayed his good hang time and creative flair. He jacknifed his body in midair and improvised a gorgeous alley-oop to Dave Cowens over the outstretched Buck center, and Big Red softly banked in a lefty layup before Kareem could recover.

It was one of the final nails in the Milwauke coffin as Boston went on to post a 102-87 victory and hoist banner number 12, its first without Bill Russell.

Playing an increased role off the bench for Boston in 1974-75, Westphal averaged just under 10 ppg to help the defending champion Celtics post a 60-22 record, tied for best in the NBA with Washington. But Boston lost 4-2 to the Bullets in the conference finals.

Free agent Chaney then jumped to the ABA and the St. Louis Spirits, but instead of handing over the starting job to Westphal after a three-year apprenticeship, they decided to trade him to Phoenix for veteran Chrlie Scott.

Apparently he was deemed a little too flashy for Heinsohn's system, or not quite fast enough to play the Celtic running game, two erroneous conclusions.

For even though Scott helped Boston win title number 13 in 1976, Red Auerbach admitted it was one of, if not his worst-ever trades. Westphal almost led the Suns to an upset of Boston in the 1976 Finals and blossomed into a star when finally given a chance to start.

Underused in Boston, his Celtic single-game scoring high was 28 points. Just six contests into his Suns tenure after the trade, he topped that total and never looked back. His career high of 49 points came at Detroit in February of 1980.

Deeply-tanned and newly confident as a starter back in his native west, Paul averaged 20.5 points and 5.4 assists a game over a career-high 36.1 minutes a game in his first Phoenix season. Along with slick-passing 6-9 Rookie-of-the-Year center Alvan Adams, he led the Suns to the 1976 championship series against his former team, narrowly losing 4-2.

Paul helped lead the near upset of Boston by the "Sun-derella Suns" by averaging 20.8 points and 4.8 assists a game in the title series. In the epic game 5 triple overtime 128-126 loss to Boston in the Garden, Westphal led the Suns with 25 points.

His incredible 360-degree, 14-foot banker in the final minute kept Phoenix close. His steal and assist almost gave the Suns the win late in the second OT. And his heady intentional technical foul moved the ball to halfcourt with a second left in the second OT, paving the way for Garfield Heard to tie it on a rainbow 22-footer at the buzzer.

Westphal had watched USC football coach John McKay take intentional penalties late in games by calling timeouts he did not have. The Trojans were flagged five yards each time under the rules of the time, but they got the clock stopped late, which was far more important than a couple yards.

So Paul knowingly called a timeout the Suns did not have, fully aware that after the free throw which JoJo White sank, Phoenix would gain 47 feet of floor to midcourt due to the rules.

If the Suns had been forced to throw the ball from the far end line with only a second left, their chances of tying the game (this was three years before the three-pointer was in the NBA and 16 years before Christian Laettner's epic shot) would have been nearly non-existent.

Even a basketball savant like Bird has said he would not have thought of the ploy Westphal improvised after John Havlicek hit a leaning banker to give Boston a 111-110 lead and an apparent victory with a second left.

The clever move served as a harbinger of Westphal's coaching aspirations and acumen.

Over his five seasons as a Sun starter, he averaged 22 points and nearly six assists a game while shooting over 52 percent from the field and 83 percent at the charity stripe. He made three All-NBA first teams and one second team over that superb duration.

Westphal was the most ambidextrous scorer in the NBA in the 1970s before Larry Bird arrived. He possessed an assortment of driving southpaw shots and hooks, and loved to dunk left-handed - probably to save wear and tear on his shooting hand.

No player in his era ever had more great All-Star Game showings without winning the MVP award, which he should have received in 1977.

Starring in his first All-Star Game that year, Westphal scored the deciding basket in a 125-124 thriller on a two-handed breakaway stuff. To preserve the win, he stole the ball from Maravich on the last play of the contest, then dove for the loose sphere and threw it downcourt over his head as he was nearly prone to run out the clock.

The partisan Milwaukee crowd - the Bucks were in the West back then - chanted Westphal's name for MVP, even though three years earlier he had helped Boston beat their team in the Finals. They booed when the popular Julius Erving, who scored 30 points for the losing East squad, was named MVP despite taking four more shots than Paul and making several turnovers.

Westphal sank 10 of 16 shots in that game, his first of four All-Star starts, including a gorgeous lefty hook and a pretty crossover driving southpaw layin over Washington standout Phil Chenier in transition. He added six assists, three steals and two impressive blocks of Pistol Pete jumpers in 31 minutes.

In 1978 he probably would have won the MVP after a 20-point, five-assist showing on 9-for-14 shooting helped gun the West to a big lead. But the East rallied late to pull off a 133-125 upset. MVP Randy Smith of Buffalo came off the bench to hit two buzzer-beating bombs and sparked a 41-25 fourth period comeback with a game-high 27 points.

In the 1980 ASG Westphal scored 21 points off the bench on 8-14 field goal accuracy and 5-6 foul shooting. He added five rebounds, two steals and a block in 27 minutes. His 16-foot swisher from the right wing with 17 seconds left tied the classic game to force overtime at 128-128.

Westy's pretty baseline driving left-handed reverse layup later tied it 134-134. But Celtic rookie Larry Bird canned a long left corner deuce. On the next possession Larry buried a left corner triple to put the East in front to stay, 139-136.

"It takes a special kind of player to want to take a shot like that in a game like this," said CBS analyst Bill Russell of the gutsy Bird trey.

Larry Legend then authored arguably the greatest pass in All-Star history to stun the West and seal the verdict with an eight-point lead.

Bird was trailing a fast break after his defensive rebound and long outlet pass led to a Moses Malone miss which caromed out to an airborne Larry in the middle of the lane.

Instinctively, Bird reached back across his body and batted a no-look pass left-handed out of the air past startled West defenders Jack Sikma and Earvin Johnson directly to Gervin, who made a reverse layup to finalize the 144-136 East win, denying Westphal again.

"I don't believe he saw George Gervin," exclaimed CBS announcer Brent Musburger after the incredible pass, which brought the Washington, D.C. crowd to its feet. "What a remarkable display over the last couple of minutes by the rookie," he added.

"That flip pass was phenomenal," observed Hot Rod Hundley. "That was unbelievable," added a stunned Russell. So this time it was Larry Bird who denied Westphal as Gervin was named MVP.

In 1981 at Cleveland, starting the mid-season classic as a representative of Seattle, Westphal tallied a game-high 19 points on 8-12 shooting from the field and 3-3 at the line. He added four rebounds and three assists in just 25 minutes.

But the East won a close 123-120 battle, and Celtic playmaker Nate Archibald was voted MVP despite scoring just nine points with nine assists off the bench.

In five consecutive All-Star Games from 1977-81, Westphal scored 19.4 points a game and added 4.8 assists while shooting an astounding 63.2 percent from the floor on 43 for 68 accuracy.

Remember he was a guard, not a seven-footer shooting dunks and layups close to the hoop, so that sort of accuracy at a time when the ASG was still a hard-fought contest is awfully impressive and indicative of Westy's smart shot selection and skill.

So consistent was Paul that, in order, he scored 20, 20, 17, 21 and 19 points in his five ASG appearances - despite playing just over 25 minutes a game.

In 1979, hoops heartbreak hit him again. Westphal and Phoenix led defending Western champion Seattle 3-2 in the conference finals and were one win away from a second championship series showing in four years despite standout center Adams missing three games with a sprained ankle.

But the SuperSonics rallied to win game six in Phoenix 106-105 point when a Sun teammate missed a last-second jumper. Back home for game seven, Seattle pulled out a 114-110 victory before 37,552 frenzied fans in the KingDome to advance to their second consecutive Finals vs. Washington.

Westphal scored over 24 ppg in the memorable series, which saw the Sonics score one more total point in the seven-game thriller than the Suns. At the very end, Phoenix rallied and pulled within two on a Westphal steal and layup while being fouled with four seconds left.

This was the final season before the three-point rule was in effect in the NBA, so during a timeout Suns coach John MacLeod instructed Westphal to miss the free throw on purpose.

He tossed up a good high-bouncing miss, but Seattle center Jack Sikma grabbed the rebound in a crowd and was fouled. Sikma then canned two clutch foul shots to give him 33 points and clinch the hard-fought series.

Seattle went on to beat Washington in five games to win their lone title, something the Suns probably would have done as well over the aging Bullets, who were without injured standout sixth man Mitch Kupchak for the Finals.

Phoenix is still without an NBA title, and 1979 might have been their best chance, even though in 1976 and 1993 they fell in the championship series.

After losing to eventual champion Los Angeles in the 1980 playoffs despite a 55-27 record, the Suns decided they needed to revamp their roster with more defense and size to combat Laker rookie Earvin Johnson and Jabbar.

In the Pacific northwest, the Sonics wanted more backcourt offense. Future Celtic Dennis Johnson had also worn out his welcome in Seattle with coach Lenny Wilkens, who called him a selfish "cancer" after 1979 Finals MVP DJ starting shooting far too much in 1980.

Plus, Westphal was reportedly prepared to play out his option in 1981 and become a free agent, so Phoenix decided to trade its most popular star when they could still get a big return for him. Thus the two western rivals engaged in a blockbuster "changing of the guards" deal on June 4, 1980.

It is probably the only time that a first team all-league guard (Westphal) was traded for a second teamer (DJ) from the just-completed season - not to mention between two division rivals.

It would have been like the Lakers dealing Kobe Bryant for Sun Steve Nash circa 2009, but back then the NBA was struggling with image and ratings problems, so the major trade did not receive the kind of exposure and analysis it would today.

The blockbuster deal worked out better for the Suns than the Sonics as Westphal got hurt just after the All-Star break, and Phoenix posted the best record in the West in 1980-81. But the Suns were upset in the conference semifinals by a 40-42 Kansas City team led by future Celtic Scott Wedman.

Two years later, DJ was sent to Boston in a lopsided deal for backup center Rick Robey and two draft picks. His seven-season Celtic tenure resulted in two rings and four Finals showings.

Westphal, who was six years older than Dennis, left Seattle as a free agent after an injury-shortened 1980-81 campaign, his last as an All-Star. But he found few teams willing to spend big for a 31-year old guard coming off the suddenly rampant, dreaded stress fracture injury that had recently ruined the careers of Bill Walton, Collins and Bob Gross.

Any possible return to Boston and the loaded defending champions was quashed when the Celtics acquired rookie guard Danny Ainge, who assumed Westphal's number 44 for the 1981-82 season and wore it well until 1989.

The Knicks finally took a flyer on him late in 1982 and he helped them get to the second round of the 1983 playoffs, averaging 10.3 points and 5.5 assists in just under 25 minutes a game for New York. In 1983 he quietly returned to Phoenix to close out a 13-year career in near anonymity.

But even in a reserve role as he approached age 34, Westphal averaged seven ppg in just 14.7 minutes (17.1 points and 6.2 assists pro-rated over 36 minutes a game) for the 1983-84 Suns.

Westphal was a winning player throughout his career. In his two full college seasons, he led the Trojans to a 42-10 record. As a junior in 1970-71, USC went 24-2 (12-2 in Pac-8) and finished fifth in the final AP rankings. With Paul hurt and his 20.5 ppg missing for half of his senior season, USC slumped to 16-10.

In his 10 full pro seasons, Paul's teams missed the playoffs only once, in 1977 with the Suns. Six times he played on clubs that made it to the conference finals (with Boston 1973-75, Phoenix 1976/79/84), advancing to the championship series twice and winning it all once in 1974 with the Celtics.

As a head coach in the NBA over 10 seasons with Phoenix, Seattle and Sacramento, he posted a 318-279 regular season record and a 27-22 playoff mark. As Suns head coach his teams went 191-88 in three-plus regular seasons, a gaudy .685 win clip.

If you subtract his two-plus seasons coaching the rebuilding Kings where he was ousted for clashing with temperamental youngster DeMarcus Cousins, his overall regular season record is an even more impressive 267-159 (.627).

Paul is currently an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets, and he may yet get another head coaching job. He knows how to play and coach the game the right way, and the league is better off with him as a head coach.

An interesting piece of trivia is that Westphal is the only man to play in and serve as head coach in an NBA Finals triple overtime game.

Seventeen years after starring in the 1976 triple-OT epic at Boston, in his first season as an NBA head coach Paul's Phoenix club beat Chicago in a three-OT classic third game.

But both times Westphal's Sun squad lost the Finals in six games, keeping to his career tradition of usually just missing out on the proverbial cigar and mainstream notoriety - the 1972 Olympics, then being an underused reserve, injured at his peak, and narrowly missing out on titles as player twice in Boston and twice more with the Suns.

In college his USC teams were ranked in the top five nationally but could not go to the NCAA tournament because back then only conference champs could qualify - and the Trojans came up just short to eventual champion and arch-rival UCLA every year.

Legendary Bruin mentor John Wooden tried harder to recruit Westphal than any player in his coaching career (including Lew Alcindor/Kareem), but the southern California native spurned the Wizard of Westwood to play for cross-town league foe USC.

It says something about Paul's competitive nature that he decided he would rather try and topple the UCLA dynasty instead of joining it. Had he become a Bruin, it is arguable that their 1972 team which went undefeated without him and won the NCAA title would have been the greatest college team ever.

He would have started alongside senior guard Henry Bibby in the backcourt with sophomore standouts Bill Walton and Keith (later Jamaal) Wilkes on the frontline.

Had Boston kept Westphal, who was several years younger than Charlie Scott, and moved him into the starting lineup in 1975, they probably would have won the 1976 crown anyway. Maybe they return to the Finals in 1977 instead of losing in seven during the eastern semis to the rival 76ers, the eventual conference champion.

Instead of sinking to 32-50 in 1977-78, Havlicek's last season, and then to 29-53 in 1978-79, Boston would have been better with Paul but would probably not have declined badly enough to get Larry Bird as a junior eligible with the sixth pick in the 1978 draft.

Then again, maybe they still are able to draft the unknown (at that time) Bird later in the first round, and the two most ambidextrous players in the NBA may well have teamed up to win league titles in 1980, 1981 and 1982. Maybe Paul goes out with a final crown in 1984 and makes the Hall of Fame.

Other deserving greats from the 1970s and '80s besides Westphal not in the Hall of Fame but deserving of, at the very least, very serious consideration include Sidney Moncrief, Jack Sikma, Bobby Jones and Marques Johnson.

Mark Price is another forgotten great who starred in the 1980s and '90s. His father was an assistant with the Suns when Westphal played there, and Mark's idol growing up was none other than Paul Westphal.

We will never know for sure what would have happened had Westy remained in Boston throughout his fine yet overlooked career. But it sure would have been fun to watch the uber-skilled and smart Westphal stay in Celtic green long enough to combine forces with Bird and company, and hang a few more banners.

To contact author Cort Reynolds directly, you can email him at

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