Archives For September 2008

Training Camp Opens

Kurt —  September 30, 2008

Baseball training camps seem to get all the love, with their ties to spring and a feeling of rebirth.

But for basketball and NBA fans, today is our day of spring, it’s just that the crack of bats is replaced with sneakers squeaking on hardwood. But the underlying tenets are the same:

Today there is hope, there is optimism. Not just for Lakers fans, who see a team that could potentially provide us with a year of thrills culminated in a parade through downtown, but in NBA cities across the land. Today there is a sense of hope in Milwaukee and Atlanta, a sense of optimism in Phoenix and Orlando and Sacramento. There is the hope of youth, the optimism of potential, the excitement of what could be and what is dreamed.

For fans, today, the first day of camp, should be about savoring the feeling and excitement of an oncoming season. It should be about the untainted joy that sport can provide. We’ll spend plenty of time talking about Xs and Os, contracts and injuries, as the season wears on.

But today is none of that. Today is about hope. Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.

Know Your Enemy: The Houston Rockets

Kurt —  September 29, 2008

This is the latest in a series here at FB&G that will run through the start of the season, focusing on some of the top teams in the West and maybe a couple from the East. Today we talk about the Houston Rockets.

Last Season Record: 55-27 (fifth seed, but had the fourth-best record, just two games back of the Lakers)
Last Playoffs: Lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round in six games
Offensive Rating: 106.8 (17th in the league)
Defensive Rating: 101.6 (2nd in the league)

It would be a clash of organizational philosophies if the Lakers and Rockets met deep in the playoffs this year. On one hand you have the Rockets, who have had Yao and McGrady in their fold for years, but it has been GM Daryl Morey who put many of the pieces around those two anchors to make a contender. Morey comes from a statistical analysis background, and the Rockets are the most stat-driven team in the league.

Earlier this summer I called Lakers spokesman John Black and said since basically every team how had an advanced stats guy, I was hoping to interview the Lakers one. Black’s answer: “Phil Jackson doesn’t believe in that.” And in the Laker front office right now, if Phil doesn’t believe in it, nobody does.

The philosophies may be different, but these franchises may have assembled the two best and deepest rosters in the NBA.

The Rockets were a 55-win team last year despite a serious amount of injuries, and in the off-season made maybe the biggest trade among the contenders, picking up Ron Artest from Sacramento. (What, you thought I was going to say Brent Barry?)

What Artest means is that the Rockets come into the season with what should be the best defense in the league. On the wings Artest will probably start but Battier will come off the bench, but both provide a lot of wing defense (and likely will play together in the right matchups). With those good wing defenders comes the ability to funnel penetrating players to a 7-6 player who alters a lot of shots. When you miss, they are one of the better rebounding teams in the league (seventh in defensive rebounding percentage last season). You don’t get a lot of second chances.

The Rockets are going to create matchup problems for a lot of teams. Not so much at the PG spot, where Alston is solid but not spectacular (even if he did drop 31 on the Lakers once last season). But the next guy out on the wing, Tracy McGrady, creates a host more problems. When healthy, he is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. Health will be key for him — last season he shot just 42.9% (eFG%) on jumpers and had a below average true shooting percentage of 48.7%. Bottom line is his outside shot was of and he did not get to the line a lot — he averaged 5.3 free throw attempts per 36 minutes, his lowest rate since his second year in the league. But that is not necessarily the McGrady we will see this year – if he gets his game back (and we saw stretches of it last season) he will be a force.

At the forwards, Ron Artest is not an efficent scorer but he can put up points and provides someone who can shoot the three and play down on the block. Luis Scola averaged 10 points per game and had a very nice true shooting percentage of 54.8%; he has a nice offensive game. Then there is the center — when healthy Yao Ming is one of the two best centers in the game. He had a PER last year of 22.7 and his true shooting percentage of 58.7% is very efficient. The question here again is health — Yao played 55 games last year (57 and 48 the two years before that), and is coming into this season off playing in the Olympics this summer. How many games does he play this year, and can they keep his minutes down?

Off the bench, the Rockets bring some real quality — Shane Battier (who may start at times), Carl Landry, Dekembe and the finger wag, Luther Head. This is a deep and talented team.

Matching up with a healthy Rockets in a seven game series will be tough, for the Lakers or anyone else. It will not be easy to score on them. For the Lakers, they need to push the tempo (the Rockets were 20th in the league in pace), get them out of their game by running. The there will not be a lot of easy baskets, but with the quality of the Rocket defense you do not beat them one on one easily — you do it through cuts and passing and off the ball movement. Thee goal is to create open looks before the defense can adjust and rotate.

The Lakers were 1-2 against the Rockets last season, and a healthy Yao Ming put up big points. While Bynum can do some good if he is physical on defense, Yao cannot totally be stopped. Tracy had a huge game against the Lakers at the start of the season. Rafer Alston had one as well.

The real question for the Rockets will be health, particularly when the post season arrives. The Rockets are better prepared to handle an in-season injury — this is a deep team, and they had their best run with an undefeated February last year without Yao. But if they are going to win it all they need all their pieces when it matters. If they have them this is a team that could win a title.

Phil Jackson Speaks

Kurt —  September 27, 2008

Phil Jackson met with the media on Friday in advance of Lakers camp opening next Tuesday, and as you expect from Phil he said a few interesting things. If you want to watch the entire press conference, the always on it guys at have the video up.

What follows are some highlights, followed by a few comments.

Question: “Have seen enough of Trevor to envision a role for him?”
Jackson: “I don’t hesitate to say that if this team doesn’t work out the way I want it to, Trevor may be a starting player. I may just insert him and convince Lamar to come off the bench if I feel it’s better for the team and we don’t feel as comfortable on the floor as I’d like us to feel. That’s a role I see Trevor playing for us. I think he’s going to be a person who does things defensively and offensively for us that are going to be big pluses for us.”

Question: “Would that be Plan B?”
Jackson: “I have to give that an opportunity. They deserve an opportunity.”

….Lamar is going to have to make an adjustment. He’s had an advantage at power forward the last couple of season, especially playing power forward in a guard slot offensively. So he’s going to have to make some adjustments and we’re going to have to see how he does with that.

That answers that question — Lamar Odom is going to get the chance to start at the three. If it doesn’t work, Ariza could step into that role. But Phil is going to give the “start the best five” system a chance, and as an advocate of that I couldn’t be happier. Offensively that five (Fish, Kobe, Odom, Gasol, Bynum) are going to score a lot of points. The question about that group is really tied to my mantra for the season — the Lakers will go as far as their defense takes them. How that group defends will be the key. The best part is, if it doesn’t work out the fallback plan of starting Ariza with Odom off the bench should also be very good.

And, as has been suggested here, it looks like Odom will do plenty of ball handling and playing some point/forward. Again, I’m excited, I would love to see Odom and Pau work the two-man game on the triangle’s weak side, with Pau getting the ball in the high post and Odom cutting past him to the basket. That is going to be very hard to defend.

Question: “Any more specifics?”
Jackson: “I’d like to have Lamar in a role that’s kind of still on the ball. I want him to do some thing in organizing the offense. He’s also going to be played by small forwards instead of power forwards, which takes a little bit of an advantage away from him at some spots. Obviously, a big question is Andrew’s ability to get up and down the floor and have the stamina he needs to have in order to compete. The adjustment of Pau to play defensively away from the basket, which is a role he’s not used to playing. So those are three questions that could be answered, and that’s not even talking about our bench and how the bench is coming along and how they fit.

Phil took a couple of digs at Andrew. Sometimes this stuff gets taken by fans as “Phil is down on Bynum” but really, this is how Phil has motivated players as long as he has coached, with subtle jabs through the media. And it works. By the way, the one dig I found most interesting was when Phil was asked about Bynum keeping a level head while the contract talks are going on — Phil said he’s not worried about Drew but does have concerns about “some of the people around him.” Interesting. Phil doesn’t say things like that on accident.

Question: “How will you fit Gasol and Bynum together?”
Jackson: “I think there’s going to have to be an understanding on this team that there’s going to be personnel that are going to be better off against some opponents and some styles of play. Whether we have a small team like Golden State with a center and four small forwards out there playing, guys are going to have to adjust and sacrifice to meet the demands of it game by game. But we’re going to have the potential for a very tall, lanky, strong front line and if they can learn to play defense together they’re going to be a very formidable opponent to score against. Offensively, how we get those guys together with the size they have and the abilities they have as starters, that’s going to be interesting to see.

What I’m going to ask Andrew to do in this offense is to rebound offensively and to set picks and to be a pivotal point in our offense. I’m not asking him to be a one-on-one scoring. He’s going to be a guy who’s going to shore up the defense, which I think is a pivotal aspect. Rebound, which I think is the second-most important thing in our offense. … Now we know Pau is a different animal on the post. He’s more of a polished scorer down there. To adjust the two of them on the floor at the same time and Lamar (Odom) at a wing spot is going to be our goal this year at training camp, to figure out to do that.”

I don’t think there are any surprises there, Phil at points talked about Pau needing his face-up and 15-foot jumper this season, again things that have been talked about here. I like that Phil is tightly defining Bynum’s role — defend and rebound, then the points will come. That is exactly what the Lakers were missing and need.

Question: “Will you have to monitor Kobe’s minutes more this season?”
Jackson: “Without a doubt. Pivotal players, I think anything under 35 minutes makes it tough for them to stay involved in the game, to play with the kind of energy to carry it back on the floor. So you can’t let a player sit too long. I think 38 to 40 is too much at this time.”

I’m less worried about the ultra-conditioned Kobe than I am Pau, who also played a lot of hoops this summer. The more they can keep the minutes down for both, the better.

Three Pre-Camp Topics

Kurt —  September 25, 2008

Training camp is just days away for the Lakers, and with that guys are rolling into town, final signings are taking place and there is almost some basketball to be talked about. But there are a few newsworthy areas to cover.

• First, DJ Mbenga is back for camp. As I said in the comments, I think this is really “Chris Mihm Insurance.” If Mihm is back to being close to his old self, DJ doesn’t make the roster, but if Mihm is not back, you need that other big body on the bench.

UPDATE: Eric Pincus had more details, and DJ Mbenga’s contract for this season is guaranteed,

Additionally, the Lakers re-signed center DJ Mbenga. He’ll make $880,658 this season, fully guaranteed. He’s also under contract for next season although his $959,111 is either partially or non-guaranteed.

Based on that news, I’m re-writing the next paragraph.

Apparently the Lakers wanted a little insurance along the front line, as Mihm has not played in a couple of years. With that, via Eric Pincus, here is the roster for the Lakers for camp. There are 19 players, the Lakers can carry a max of 15. Of that, 14 have guaranteed deals. So, Karl (maybe Crawford) can get the 15th spot on the roster, but that is about the only drama heading into camp.

PG Derek Fisher/Jordan Farmar/Sun Yue/Brandon Heath
SG Kobe Bryant/Sasha Vujacic/Coby Karl/Joe Crawford/Dwayne Mitchell
SF Lamar Odom/Trevor Ariza/Vladimir Radmanovic/Luke Walton
PF Pau Gasol/Josh Powell/CJ Giles
C Andrew Bynum/Chris Mihm/DJ Mbenga

• If you read just one thing today, make it the Slam interview with Andrew Bynum. Some of this was discussed in the comments of the last post, but I think a couple things are worth breaking out and discussing:

Basically, this off-season I’ve been focusing on dribbling skills and developing a 15-20 foot shot, which should be able to free me up a bit more so I’ll be able to face up against defenders and be able to make moves against them. cause it kind of got to a point where people were trying to take the middle away from me. So now if I open up, and I see that they’re sagging off, I can pop a little J and they’ll have to play me honestly. And it’s just easier.

I think the strongest part is probably sprinting down the court early and getting deep post position. I think if I get deep post position, there’s really nothing anybody can do. I can finish right, left, and just have a variety of different moves I make thanks to Brian Shaw, Gerald Wilkins, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, also Kurt Rambis, just teaching me every day, working out.

Frankly, the first answer scares me but the second answer is a little balm on that. Every time Kareem gets interviewed about Bynum, he gets asked about the skyhook, and every time Kareem says that Bynum was more interested in developing a face-up game ala KG than learning a hook shot. I think if Bynum added a little 12-foot jumper to his game, it would be a big help. But, as Brandon Hoffman said in the comments, if Bynum falls in love with that jumper like Patrick Ewing, he diminishes his effectiveness. He needs to get deep as often as he can, which is why the second statement makes me feel good. It shows the Lakers want to run, and Bynum knows he can get easy baskets that way.

Also, remember my mantra — the Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them this season. Apparently the team gets that:

The biggest change for the Lakers this season I think will be our defensive mentality. That’s gonna be the biggest change this season, to the fact that we got beat the way we did last year, nobody is happy about that. Second, I think the coaching staff has a whole new defensive scheme for us. Also, I think that guys know now that it requires defense to win championships. I think defense is gonna be the biggest change.

• Finally, Sun Yue had maybe the biggest press conference ever by a player who will be seeing a lot of D-League time this season. But, read the interview and he seems to get it. He understands what he needs to do:

Question: “What adjustments will you need to make?”
Sun: “I think it is my body, because my body is too skinny for the NBA.”

I hope in a couple of years he can really contribute.

This is the first in a series here at FB&G that will run through the start of the season, focusing on some of the top teams in the West and maybe a couple from the East. We start with a team that many think will take a step forward next year, the New Orleans Hornets.

Last Season Record: 56-26 (second seed, one game back of the Lakers)
Last Playoffs: Beat Dallas in the first round (4-1), lost to San Antonio in the next round in seven games
Offensive Rating: 111.5 (5th in league)
Defensive Rating: 105.7 (7th in league)

Last year, the Hornets emerged as a power, improving by 26 wins and rather than challenging for the eight seed they were challenging for the top seed (and the MVP). They did it with Chris Paul running the high pick-and-roll better than anyone in the league, Peja spreading the floor and people in the mainstream finally figuring out that David West is really, really good. Don’t forget that Tyson Chandler is a beast on the boards, pulling down 19.5% of the available rebounds, and that leads to a fair amount of offense as he gets some easy put backs.

The young Hornets were somewhat unexpected and fun to watch (even though they played at one of the slowest paces in the league, nearly six fewer trips up and down the court a game than the Lakers), but their youth caught up with them. They learned some lessons from the veteran Spurs in the playoffs. The question now is, can this team mature, take the confidence of last season and those lessons and turn them into a possible title?

Maturity and improvement of existing players will be key — starting with Chris Paul, who enters just his fourth year in the season. He is the unquestioned leader and force behind the team, and his time (and impressive showing) in Beijing likely will lead to an even faster maturation process. That is good for the Hornets and bad for the rest of the West.

One big knock on the Hornets last year was depth — they had a great starting five but off the bench came Jannero Pargo, Rasual Butler and others of such quality. If you look at the numbers, the starting five regularly outplayed their opponents (60% of the time or more) but the bench was in the 40% range or lower.

This season, the first guy off the bench (and maybe starting at times) will be James Posey, a very good pick up for the Hornets. First, he can shoot and stretch the floor. Second, he plays good defense. And finally, he brings a winning attitude to a young locker room. He has rings, he knows how to win.

Just how big an upgrade Posey is was the first question I asked of Ryan from the fantastic blog Hornets 24/7.

Laker fans are plenty familiar with James Posey. Just how big is the Posey signing for the Hornets? What does he bring that New Orleans needed? Depth and outside shooting?

Posey adding depth and outside shooting is the easy answer. That’s a given, considering The Hornets had no proven back up at the forward spots with Julian Wright being only spottily utilized/trustworthy, Rasual Butler being Rasual Butler and Bonzi Wells being Bonzi Wells.

Posey brings a grit and desire that isn’t that prevalent on the Hornets. The Hornets aren’t a soft team, but they aren’t a tough team either, if that makes sense. Their players won’t let someone push them around (except Peja), but neither are they going to make them pay for doing so (except Paul). Posey brings that willingness to get into it. That’ll be important for the Hornets as they go deeper into the playoffs.

What else will help improve this team and move it forward next season? How important is the maturity factor, having players a year older and having gained good playoff experience?

The Hornets are an odd bunch. Typically a few years in the playoffs tempers a team, forcing them to recognize their mistakes and compensate – or fail. The Hornets, however are wise beyond their age. Despite the relative youth of their core trio, they are a tightly disciplined crew, and are already a team that rarely makes mistakes. Last year they played at a deliberate pace (5th slowest in the league), committed few turnovers (3rd least in the league), and played solid, basic defense without much risk taking. (lowest number of fouls in the league)

That sort of discipline is typically forged in the playoffs. I’m not sure the Hornet’s starting five will become noticeably more effective given that exposure.

The one great hope I have for internal improvement is with Julian Wright. His brand of energetic, brilliant basketball could turn into something special. I’m still somewhat convinced his ceiling is a Scottie Pippen-style all-around force. Posey’s presence complicates that some, as it may stunt his minutes some, but I still would love to see Julian emerge this season.

And of course, Chris Paul is still only 23. He can still improve as well, as scary as that thought is.

Both the offense and defense were good last season (fifth and seventh in the league in points per possession, respectively). Still, based on opponent PER the Hornets has some trouble defending good two guards and some centers. What are the areas that the Hornets need to improve to take the next step?

Honestly – one of those things will not improve. The Hornets purposely leave Chandler on an island against big scoring centers, and concentrate on jamming the perimeter. He does a solid job, but the offensive talent of some of those players is nearly impossible to stop without assistance and the average NBA center outweighs Tyson by a good fifty pounds. You also won’t find many bigger drops off in talent in the league than when the Hornets go from Chandler to Hilton Armstrong or Melvin Ely.

As for defensive improvement this season, I have my greatest hopes pinned on two things:

A. Julian becoming more disciplined, effective, and gaining Byron Scott’s trust.
B. Improvement from the shooting guard position. Morris Peterson is a solid player, and his ability to hit the corner three is valuable with a penetrator like Paul. However, his limitations kept him in the lineup only for 24 minutes a game, and frequently the Hornets were running with Pargo at the 2. Replacing Pargo as the primary backup shooting guard will help both the defense and offense. I liked Pargo, and I think Byron used him appropriately, but I also think it is not difficult to replace his highly inconsistent and inefficient offensive output, and his pressure defense was only effective when used against point guards – which frequently forced Paul to play much bigger 2 guards. I have a hard time imagining the trio of Peterson, Julian Wright and Devin Brown not improving that position.

Like every team in the West, health will be key. While the Hornets have improved their depth, they cannot handle many injuries, and certainly not any lightly ones to CP3.

At the end of the season, when (knocking on wood) the Lakers are fighting for a top seed, and they will be fighting the Hornets for those spots. There is a very good chance that in the second round or Western Conference Finals, the Lakers will face the Hornets in the playoffs. And if Wright and Posey add depth, if this team continues to mature, the outcomes of those games will will be anything but certain to Lakers fan.

Talking Roster

Kurt —  September 19, 2008

Apparently the Lakers coaching staff is thinking like some commenters on this blog have been — they want to consider Lamar Odom coming off the bench this year. And apparently Odom is game for the idea, making a sort of Manu-like role for himself.

While I’ve been in the “let’s start the big five and see how they mesh before we decide it won’t work camp,” I’ll admit that Odom coming off the bench has what Ziller aptly described as “delightful possibilities.” Odom is the key to the Lakers versatility this year, and the fact that he could come off the bench and play the two, three or four gives Phil Jackson a host of match up possibilities.

But all of those possibilities hinge on one idea — Trevor Ariza has to earn that starting spot.

The question is not at the defensive end of the floor, where he will guard the best opposing two or three (or, at least switch off with Kobe on that task). To have two good wing defenders with Bynum as a backstop would make for a potentially very good defense.

I’ll say this now and it will become my mantra for this season — the Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them.

The question about Ariza is on offense — can he develop a jumper to help spread the floor? He shot just 33% eFG% on jumpers last year, and 27% from three for the season (although, when he got open threes with the Lakers, that improved to the Mendoza-line number of 33.3%). Ariza is explosive, he can run with the break an in the half court he gets to the hole (he had a very good true shooting percentage last season of 59.4% with the Lakers, think of that stat like points per shot attempt, and know Kobe was at 57.6%).

But teams are going to play off him on that weak side, they are going to try to take away the two man game, they will double Pau and Kobe off of him until he makes them pay with consistency from the outside. Rumor is he spent a lot of time this summer shooting jump shots, working on that part of his game. We will see.

The bottom line is that apparently the starting spot is there for the taking. I don’t think Walton or Radman can fill the role the Lakers want (remember the mantra about defense). Ariza can, if he has worked on his game, maybe he can grab that brass ring — and as this is a contract year for him it’s a good time to grab it.

If he does, the Lakers are better and deeper and the possibilities are delightful. If not, if Odom starts, the Lakers are still very, very good. Not a bad problem to have.


There were questions about some of the Lakers signings of the last couple weeks — CJ Giles, Dwayne Mitchell, Brandon Heath and Jelani McCoy. While I’ll give a brief bit of background, know that these guys are there to fill out the camp roster. They are looking to get noticed, maybe get a D-League spot or a good international gig. They will not end up on the roster, although they can fight for the last spot. By my count, the Lakers have 13 guys under guaranteed deals (counting Sun Yue) and want to carry 14 this season. That means these guys need to beat out Coby Karl and Joe Crawford to get that spot at the end of the bench, a very tough task. Because the Lakers are loaded with vets, they are likely to take a first or second-year player for that spot, someone who can split time with the D-Fenders and be called up in case of injury.

And, after watching Karl this summer, I think it will be hard to wrest that spot away from him.

Dwayne Mitchell is the one guy who, with a spectacular camp, maybe could get that spot. He is a very quick guard who last season averaged 20 ppg in the D-League for Iowa. He showed he can shoot in the Summer League, shooting 61.9% for the Lakers. He worked hard on defense, but I thought made a lot of mental mistakes to go with his good plays. If he can eliminate the mistakes, maybe he can fit as a PG. But, he’s 26 years old, how much will he really improve at this point?

CJ Giles is a big body —6-10, 220 — out of Oregon State. He had enough talent to be recruited to Kansas and enough problems to be kicked out of that school. So he went to Oregon State, and they kicked him off the team mid-season, in part for consistently showing up late to practice. He averaged 6.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 18.1 minutes this season for the Beavs. Maybe some of the other Pac-10 honks out there have a better memory of him than I do, what I remember is that he really didn’t stand out.

Brandon Heath essentially carried San Diego State two seasons ago. His shooting percentage of 50.6% (eFG%) his senior year is not bad considering the volume he had to shoot. Last season he played in France for Entente Orlean, where I imagine he ate well, at least. This summer he played for the Clips.

Jelani McCoy is a 31-year-old, 6-11 center formerly of UCLA and the Lakers. He spent some time with the D-Fenders last season. He has an NBA championship ring from the 01-02 Lakers, when he played in 21 games averaging 5 minutes per. He looked like a guy with a lot of potential as a rookie for Seattle many years ago, but that never panned out.

Fast Break Thoughts

Kurt —  September 17, 2008

Just a few thoughts that came to me while I was field dressing a moose.

• If you haven’t seen this, the Lakers are now going to charging higher ticket prices for “premium” games. As a guy who used to have a part of season tickets (friends and I went in together, before we had to put that money toward kids), I saw this coming. Other teams and other sports were doing it, and in a revenue-mad world it was just a matter of time. I know this policy bothers some who see it as another thing keeping the “real fans” out of Staples Center. Personally, it doesn’t bother me as long as there are discounts for having to watch Memphis or other bottom dweller teams as well. I think this is just the way the market is moving, not just in the NBA but in sports across the board.

• Andrew Bynum, tech nerd.

• As a general rule of thumb, trade rumors at this time of the year are less reliable than the ones you hear even in February. And those are usually, um, fertilizer.

• A little Kobe/MJ talk.

• We spend a lot of time here talking about the Western Conference, for obvious reasons, but as I’m starting to really look at the season up ahead I think the East could be just as entertaining this year.

Boston obviously will be good again, but they will be a year older and they lost some depth with Posey gone. How healthy will they be this season? How hungry? You know KG will be but what about Pierce and some of the role players? Can Detroit really improve and if so how — more minutes for Stuckey, Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson? Can they get Kwame Brown to accept a role and fill it? I like what Cleveland did this off-season, it may not be as much as LeBron wanted but it was an improvement. I think come April and May they could be the biggest challenge to Boston. Then there is Toronto, if JO is right and meshes well with Bosh, there is a very good sleeper team. They could be a team that starts iffy but is rolling when it matters. Orlando is going to be good as well, mixing in with that group.

My opinions are not fully formed yet on the East (or the West or the Lakers) but there are some good and well-matched teams to follow in that conference.

Growing up and watching the Lakers, Magic Johnson was my favorite player.  His artistry and creativity generated at least one play a game that just amazed me.  And every time the Captain, Kareem, swung left and shot right and drained that beautiful sky hook my eyes would light up.  And when the team was out on the fast break, nothing thrilled me more than to see Big Game James filling the lane and soaring to the basket with his legs spread eagle for one of his patented one handed jams.  But there was one player that I always wanted to come into the game.  One player that, when he came in, I just knew something good was going to happen.  One player that I rooted for on both ends of the floor, knowing that he was going to make a difference.  And to this day, when I play pick up ball on the blacktop, the local gym, or in my mens league, I wear my tube socks pulled up to my knees in a tribute to that one player:  Michael Cooper.

Every time he would go to the scorers table to check in, COOOOOOOOOOP!!!! was the chant.  And on every perfectly executed alley-oop (as Chick would classicly call it, the Coop-a-loop), on every blocked shot (where he set up the offensive player and baited him into trying that lay up that got thrown back), on every nail-in-the-coffin 3 pointer he buried in the clutch, and on every strip of the ball on even the most perfectly executed crossover dribble, I (along with everyone else in the Fabulous Forum) chanted.  We cheered on the skinny guy with the whispy mustache and the legs that started at his armpits, #21, Michael Cooper.

Michael Cooper was the 60th pick of the 1978 NBA Draft out of the University of New Mexico.  He would join a Lakers team that had won 45 games the prior season and been to the playoffs.  A team that had established players with recognizable names like Jabbar, Wilkes, Dantley, and Nixon.  And even though he was a First Team All-Conference performer his senior season in the WAC, he joined a competitive Lakers team and his rookie season in the NBA would be an afterthought.  He would play in only 3 games and basically be a bystander to a 47 win season and a Conference Semifinals playoff exit.  But the next season, that would change.  In his second season, he would be a major contributor to the team.  He would be a key player off the bench with an established role as a defensive player and help the team to the NBA Championship where he would watch his backcourt mate put on one of the best performances in NBA history in the clinching Game 6 against the Philadelphia 76ers. 

By his third season, he would further cement himself as one the NBA’s premier defenders by making his first of 8 straight  (first or second) All-Defensive teams.  His reign as one of the leagues best shut down defenders was highlighted by his Defensive Player of the Year award in the 1986-87 season, an incredible feat considering that he was primarily used as a sixth man off of the bench.  And not only was he recognized by the media and opposing coaches, Coop was respected by every opponent that he guarded.  Maybe the best compliment that a defender could receive while playing in that era is one that was issued by Larry Bird.  When asked who was the toughest defender that he faced in his career, Larry Legend would simply say:

“Michael Cooper was the best defender.”

But Coop wasn’t about awards or recognition or any statistics.  His career averages in almost every statistical category (except for the 1.2 steals per game) are average at best.  Coop was about winning.  And the proof of that commitment was in the many hats he wore and how he tailored his game to help the team.  Play back up Point Guard?  Sure.  It didn’t matter that he came into the league as a combo Guard/Forward out of college.  Defend the other teams best offensive wing player?  No problem.  The fact that he was his college teams best offensive player didn’t deter him from becoming a stopper on the other end.  Develop a reliable outside shot to provide spacing for Kareem and Worthy’s low post games?  Can do.  He didn’t care that his primary strengths were running the floor and slashing to the basket or that he was less than a 30% three point shooter for the first 5 years of his career.  Cooper would do anything it took to improve his game and help the team win.  And his 5 championship rings are a testament to that mindset of just getting the job done and helping his team.

I miss Coop for all these reasons and more.  His steadiness.  His leadership.  His willingness to get dunked on, not hang his head, and come right back working even harder on the next possesion to get that key stop.  That perseverence that all champions have.  This past June, when we saw a parade of Celtics wing players driving to the basket, I really missed him, that’s for sure.  Like I said earlier, there were a plethora of players that were more famous and had more illustrious careers, whose highlights you’ll find all over YouTube, and whose jerseys hang in the rafters of the Staples Center.  But there’s one Laker that I truly miss:  Michael Cooper.