Michael Cooper knows a thing or two about winning championships. As a player, he hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy in five of his 12 seasons (all with the Los Angeles Lakers). As a coach, he won back-to-back titles with the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA and an additional championship with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds of the NBA G League. Cooper was a dominant defender, winning the 1986-87 Defensive Player of the Year award and earning eight All-Defensive Team selections.
He has also coached in the NBA (with the Denver Nuggets) and college (at USC). Now, as he’s coaching in the Big3, HoopsHype caught up with him to discuss his experience in the three-on-three league, today’s NBA, the direction of the Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers’ huge summer and more.
You’re coaching the team 3’s Company in the Big3. What made you want to join the league and what has that experience been like so far?
Michael Cooper: My experience has been awesome. The idea was first brought to me when I talked to Clyde Drexler during the first year that the league started. I was wondering to myself, “How are they going to make this work?” The next year, I get a call from my agent and he said that Clyde expressed interest in me joining the league. From there, I got a chance to talk to [Clyde] about it and I thought it would be a great opportunity in men’s basketball with a lot of former NBA players. I liked that I was getting a chance to do something that was totally different.
I have coached and won at almost every level, and this another level I’d like to entertain. Half-court basketball takes you back to your school-ground days, playing three-on-three and the idea is to stay on the court all day. You had to figure out which two guys to pick depending on what your strengths are – maybe you need a big guy who can rebound or you need a guard who can score. Thinking about that and then putting it on this big stage, like Ice Cube and Jeff Kwatinetz have done, it has been a great experience! People may think it just turns into one-on-one, but that’s not the case. There really is a tactical approach to this. I love coaching. I love trying to put a team together and trying to figure it all out. Overall, the experience has been great.
As you mentioned, you’ve had success coaching men and women prior to the Big3. What are some of the biggest adjustments that you have to make when you’re coaching or playing three-on-three?
MC: I think the biggest difference is motivation and getting them to buy into team play. In three-on-three, there can be some one-on-one basketball to a certain degree, but that’s not what is going to win games. When [a former NBA] player sees someone who played a step below them or someone who didn’t quite get there [to their level], they still have that competitive nature and they want to try to get it done by themselves. You have to get them to buy into the system and to ball movement. Even though you only have three players, you still need bodies moving and the ball moving.
The biggest thing has been motivating them to play hard every single point of every single game. That’s been the biggest adjustment; in the NBA, you don’t necessarily have to do that. In the NBA, there are five players out there and if three of them are buying in, sometimes one or two players don’t need to buy in as much and that’s a bit easier for guys. But here? They have to buy in and you need to get them to understand that’s what it takes to win. Yes, it’s about scoring 50 points and you have to put points on the board, but you really need to play good defense if you want to win.
You had a fantastic career, winning five championships as a player and several more as a coach. What are your interactions with today’s players like? Do you feel like today’s players respect their predecessors?
MC: Even if the players haven’t seen my career or heard about it, they know that I’ve won championships and I think that alone brings me some respect. Among the peers I’m coaching against – Dr. J and Rick Mahorn to name just a few – they understand and are telling their players about that. I think we all talk to our players about who we are and what we’d like our team to be. For me, they understand that’s more of a defensive-minded approach with my background. The players we’re coaching in the Big3 have respect. But they’re only going to respect you if they feel you’re committed and putting your all into the game. If you’re just there for a paycheck and just sitting there, letting them do their thing, they won’t respect you as much. I’m not that type of coach, and I don’t think any of the coaches in our league are that way. The respect factor is already there.
It can be tougher to get that respect at the NBA level because the guys make so much money, and money is the biggest thing. Sometimes, they won’t listen to coaches that they deem “losers.” But that’s why it’s so special when you get a team like Golden State or Toronto who buy into their coaches and what they’re saying. That’s how those teams become champions.
The style of play in the NBA has changed so much in recent years, with teams shooting a lot of three-pointers, putting less emphasis on positions, switching a ton on defense and things like that. What do you make of today’s style of play and how it’s evolving?
MC: Well, I was just talking about this with a good friend of mine and my former teammate, Norm Nixon. We do a show together and he said something that I really agree with. He said, “The NBA has always been the center of attention and everybody always tried to play the game like us. Now that the game is everywhere and you’re seeing many more European players, now European basketball is sort of taking over the NBA and we’re starting to play the game like them.” To me, that’s a bad thing. Now, it’s all about three-point shots. It’s all about point forwards. It’s about players moving out of positions. There’s no true point guard, no true two-guard, no true three, no true four.
Is this a good thing? I think, eventually, it could be. But we have to get back to understanding that championships are won in the paint and by playing a certain way. When you get a team like Golden State that shoots a ton of threes and has 6-foot-8 Draymond Green at the center and they win multiple championships, [teams are going follow that model]. Draymond can play all five positions and that’s great! But someone like Draymond can’t defend a center; at least, he couldn’t in our era. I would love to see Draymond try to guard Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain or Bob Lanier or Jack Sikma. But the league has changed and everyone tries to go with that same format. What it’s doing is making the league more like European basketball.
With the Clippers landing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, there’s been talk about how the Clippers may be the best team in Los Angeles right now. How great is it for Los Angeles to have this much talent and what are your thoughts on the Clippers challenging the Lakers?
MC: The Clippers will never be better than the Lakers until they win a championship. They put that team together so there’s going to be all of that hoopla, all of that talk, but until they win the Western Conference and win a championship, L.A. is still the Lakers’ town. Now, they’re making some great moves. But why are they making those great moves? Because they got a former Laker doing it in Jerry West! In the years since Jerry joined the Clippers, I’ve always said, “You guys better watch out because he’s putting something together over there…” Then, he made two huge moves – being able to sell Kawhi Leonard on coming to the Clippers and the monster trade with OKC for Paul George – that have set the stage for them to possibly win a championship and start being talked about as the best team in L.A. But, again, until that happens – and we have a whole eight or nine months before that can happen – I’m still saying it’s a Lakers town and L.A. will always be about the Lakers.
What do you think about the Lakers’ current direction?
MC: Well, I think they’re making some great moves. I think the addition of Anthony Davis is going to be huge. Gregg Popovich from the San Antonio Spurs started this trend of resting players during the season. In basketball, you play 82 games. Fans pay to see 82 games. You’re being paid to play 82 games. Getting paid to sit out and rest five, six, seven games? What’s that? That’s your job! San Antonio started that, but I think we’re going to see that become the norm in the NBA. Anthony Davis will allow LeBron James to rest for a game here and a game there, so he’ll have that energy for when they really need him down the stretch and in the playoffs. They should still be a top team and they should be healthy and ready to go when the playoffs start.
The Lakers are doing a good job. They made a lot of drastic moves, which I think is good, but all of that doesn’t matter if they don’t have chemistry. They need their guys to be on the same page. The thing I love about the people they got, they seem like they’re fine being complementary players. It doesn’t seem like they all need to be the star. When that happens and everyone wants to be the star, it’s not going to work. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. I think they got a great coach in Frank Vogel. I think he’ll come in and do a good job of getting everybody on the same page. I still think the Lakers are going to be the team to beat. It’s going to be fun to see the Lakers and Clippers face off. Staples Center will be happy because they’re going to have a whole lot of sold-out games every night!
Who are some of today’s NBA players that you respect and like to watch?
MC: Paul George. I love the way he plays and how he gives it his all. He gives true, 100-percent effort on defense. The NBA is all about offense, but there are certain players who are too concerned with their offense and they take [defensive] reps off. Paul George comes to play and shows up on both ends of the floor. I love his game. I love Kawhi Leonard. He’s a young man who seems to take great personal pride in his defense and, again, he plays on both ends of the floor, which I love to see. Those two are the main ones who I see right now that I love to watch play, since I’m always looking at things from a defensive aspect. With Draymond Green, I love him and his work ethic, but I think his mouth and his antics really take away from what he does well – all of that yelling at the officials and all of that. But, again, he’s a great defensive player too.
How do you think you’d fare in today’s NBA?
MC: In today’s NBA? (Laughs) I’d almost be a billionaire! I can play great defense and shoot it a little bit, which is how you get paid now! Just by being a good guy, you can sit at the end of a team’s bench and make a lot of money! I think I would fare well in today’s NBA. It’s not as physical as when I played, which would suit me well. It’s about protecting the shooters. Anytime you shoot the ball and fall to the ground, you’re going to be shooting free throws (laughs). I’m long, lean and I was pretty fast back then, so I could defend these guys without too much physicality. I think I’d be able to handle most scorers. I think the only player I’d have trouble with is Kevin Durant. You can try to get a hand in his face, but that doesn’t faze him. You need to get a hand up by the ball, but he’s so big and long that I don’t think anyone can lock him down completely.