Paul Westphal could have been the next Sam Jones or John Havlicek. Jones and Hondo began their careers as backups and bench players, but worked their way into star status with the Boston Celtics. Westphal began along the same track of patiently waiting on the bench for a time to shine in Beantown.
From 1972 to 1975, Westphal sat in the wings and backed up Don Chaney and Jo Jo White. Team success for Boston stunted Westphal’s cravings for a starter’s gig. The Celtics lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1973 and 1975, and won the title in 1974. Still, Westphal knew he was too good to languish in the shadows for much longer. After Boston’s loss to the Washington Bullets in 1975, Westphal was traded to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for guard Charlie Scott.
His chance for success arrived and Red Auerbach knew he had traded away a gem:
“… this is a fine opportunity for Westphal. He’s played in the shadow of (Jo Jo) White and (Don) Chaney for three years and now he’ll get his opportunity to shine.”
Westphal got the opportunity and ran with it for the next five stunning seasons.
While with the Celtics Westy had averaged 7.3 PPG, 2.1 APG, 1.7 RPG, and 0.7 SPG. Over the next five years with the Suns, Westphal delivered 22.5 PPG, 5.6 APG, 2.4 RPG, and 1.8 SPG. He was an All-Star selection every year and three times was named a member of the All-NBA 1st Team.
The man was an athletic freak and an exemplar of what you wish all shooting guards could be. He was a hustling, determined defender who went the extra mile to snag a steal or recover for a block. His jump shot was pure as the driven snow. He nailed his free throws (82% career shooter). He was a fantastic driver who could make it to the rim for limber layups. And on the break he was good for gliding slams.
And in a quirky twist of fate, he led his new club against his old one in the 1976 NBA Finals. In a hard-fought six game series, the Celtics prevailed, but Westphal’s Suns continued to be a perennial contender while the aging Celtics quickly faded thereafter. The Suns won 49, 50, and 55 games in 1978, 1979, and 1980, respectively. They appeared in the 1979 Western Conference Finals and were defeated by the eventual champion Sonics in 7 games, losing the last two games by just 5 combined points.
In June of 1980, Westphal was again traded. After negotiations for a contract extension failed, the Suns dealt him to the Sonics for Dennis Johnson. Westphal, who’d grown unhappy under Phoenix’s “stale” offense, welcomed the trade. However, his time in Seattle was extremely brief.
A stress fracture in his right foot that initially was said to sideline him for approximately two weeks, ultimately limited him to 36 games with the Sonics that season and hobbled his effectiveness for the rest of his career. Playing two seasons with the Knicks and one final year with Phoenix before retiring in 1984, the post-injury Westphal was certainly no slouch but was not be feared as he once was. He averaged just 10.5 points and 4.3 assists after the fracture.
Westphal’s absolute peak was a five-year window of brlliance in which he was most likely the best two-guard in the NBA. Before the peak, he was one of the NBA’s best role players on a title contender and winner. On top of that his style of play was joyous to watch and enjoy. These are the things that make Westphal an all-time great, even if his own brilliant time was brief.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQf6h8LL_vw]
For a greater look at how impactful Westphal could be, check out his demolition derby at the 1977 All-Star Game.
Years Played: 1972 – 1984
3x All-NBA 1st Team (1977, 1979-’80)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1978)
5x All-Star (1977-’81)
NBA Career (1972-73 through 1983-84)
Peak Career Production (1975-76 through 1979-80)
Average and Advanced Stats