Defense-minded coach singles out 'Melo

Updated: December 28, 2004, 8:17 PM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- Not surprisingly, new Nuggets coach Michael Cooper will emphasize defense.

One of the best defenders ever to play in the NBA took over for fired Jeff Bzdelik on Tuesday and said everything Denver does -- running, scoring, winning -- has to come from playing better defense.

"Defense, to me, wins championships. Offense wins games," Cooper said, sounding a theme he repeated often during his introductory news conference.

The Nuggets allow 97.42 points per game, 17th in the league. And while the new interim coach wants to tighten things up everywhere on defense, he singled out Denver's star, Carmelo Anthony, as one who might need the biggest lesson.

"Carmelo is a gifted athlete, but it's getting him to play on both ends of the floor," Cooper said. "I keep telling him that there are other things than just shooting the basketball. I told him Michael Jordan didn't really become Michael Jordan until he started making all those first-team, all-defense teams."

In his 12 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, Cooper made eight NBA all-defensive teams. Five times, he made the first team and once he was named Defensive Player of the Year.

Anthony said Cooper told him this year's Nuggets remind him of the 1980 Lakers who won the first of five championships during their "Showtime" era in the 1980s.

"We know what kind of person he is," Anthony said. "Coach Coop has the swagger. He walks with swagger."

Cooper began coaching in 1994, serving as a Lakers assistant for Magic Johnson, then for Del Harris.

Hoping to become familiar with every facet of the game, he took a variety of jobs after that: assistant to Lakers general manager Jerry West, color commentator for high school and college basketball, and head coach for the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks.

Cooper was coaching the Sparks (he went 116-31 and won two league championships) when the Nuggets started looking for an assistant after last season. General manager Kiki Vandeweghe offered Cooper a three-year contract to come to Denver. The contract raised eyebrows because it was two years longer than Bzdelik's.

Vandeweghe said he had to give Cooper a long-term deal to lure him, and he didn't hire the former Lakers star with intentions of making him head coach.

"I made it very clear to everyone on the inside, the coaching staff, management, and everyone understood the exact situation," he said.

Vandeweghe said a big reason for making the change was that the team needed to hear a new voice. Bzdelik never played in the NBA. That, plus his contract situation and tenuous relationship with Vandeweghe likely put him at a disadvantage in the locker room.

Cooper thinks players would naturally lend more weight to coaching served up by former players.

"That's just the nature of the beast," he said. "When I was a player, I always wanted to listen to Dr. J, and Wilt and Jerry West to get any little piece that will help you."

Both Anthony and Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin agreed that Cooper commands respect.

"We'll see how Coop goes about it, if he changes some things," Martin said. "But we've just got to go out and play."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press