New Atlanta Dream head coach, Michael Cooper, is what you would call a blue-blood ex-athlete. He is basketball royalty, one of the major contributors to the legendary and dynastic Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s. The “Showtime”-era greyhound boys streaked their way up and down the courts and into our hearts, and won five championships in eight title appearances in 10 years to boot — something that may never happen again in the NBA.
Cooper also coached the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks to a pair of back-to-back titles just over a decade ago and even went to a third consecutive championship game. Overall the former three-point specialist and renowned defensive stopper has eight championships in his illustrious and enviable sports portfolio. Cooper has undeniable championship DNA.
This is why he was brought to Atlanta as he and the rest of the ATL hopes that his ability to finish seasons with a win will rub off on a championship-caliber Atlanta Dream team that is coming off three consecutive championship series losses.
After leaving the Sparks, Cooper had various coaching stints in the NBA, the D-League and at Southern California, adding to his encyclopedia of basketball knowledge. During the Dream team’s media day, reporters were able to open the vast vault inside Cooper’s mind and see what needs to happen to get the Dream back to the title game … and win it this time. He also harped on the continued rivalry between him and New York Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer — they matched up in back-to-back championships in the late 1980s, splitting the pair — and former teammate and good friend Magic Johnson who recently rescued Cooper’s former team, the Sparks from a certain grave.
On his first impressions after taking over the team this year:
“So far: first of all, there a lot of weaknesses because I think that the players are still trying to learn each other and learn the new offense. I think it’s an offense that they all have done well. Now they just have to recognize shots. They have to recognize when to shoot the ball and when to pass the ball. Those are the two negatives that I saw. And now we have Swinn Cash now bang around underneath because championships are won in the paint. They are not won on the perimeter and they are not won at the three-point line. And you gotta fight fire with fire.”
On getting the Dream to adapt the type of claustrophobic-inducing defense that he employed masterfully against arch rivals Larry Bird, Julius Erving and other elite athletes during his playing days:
“I think you have to have that. Every championship team has that. Maya Moore is a great defensive player and offensive player as well. If I have one, that is great. But if I can find three or four, that’s even better. Our defensive philosophy of we’re going to force the ball and keep everything out of the middle … if we’re all on the same page defensively, then we’re going to be successful. During our scrimmages with the Chinese team and the Australian team, we got about 20 points off our defense. You can’t put all the burden on your offense. You’ve got to create some offense off of your defense and we’ve done that.”
On the importance of surprise addition Swinn Cash, another personality on the team who knows how to win championships as she did at the University of Connecticut, with the USA Olympic Team and with the Detroit Shock under Laimbeer. (In fact, it was Laimbeer and Cash who led the Shock to a title win over Cooper’s Sparks, preventing Coop from a coveted three-peat.)
“For her, she brings experience. She brings the multidimensional player that she used to be. I don’t think that I will use her in the 3-spot. I understand that she’s coming back from a knee injury. I’m looking for her to be that leader, that voice in the locker room, that when I say something on the floor, it goes back to the locker room. If there are some kind of differences in there, I think that she can pull it all together. I like that. Last but not least, she has the respect of the referees. And I think that’s important. In order to be a championship caliber team, you have to have someone on your team that the refs respect and when we throw the ball in there, she’s going to get her calls.”
On draftee, former college star Shoni “Showtime” Shimmel and her “Magic Johnson-like” play-making abilities that will help diversify and fortify the team:
“One thing I told her, at the draft, I know that she was a little down because Seattle would have been a perfect situation from her. But when I called her, I told her is that this team fits you. This is what you need right here. And she has taken it and run with it and has enjoyed herself here. This offense best suits her. I want Shimmel to be the Shimmel, the creative flashy player. I told her, I can take her throwing the ball away making bad passes, because Magic (Johnson) used to do the same thing during showtime. So I can take bad passes, but not bad shots. And as long as she does that, she’ll be okay. She’s a better defensive player than I thought she is. As long she doesn’t get beat quick, she will be successful.”
On the addition of former WNBA star Theresa Edwards to her coaching staff:
“Her expertise, [she’s] a solid figure here in Georgia. That’s why I hired her. She’s been a jewel already in the film room, [and brings experience] being an international player with the Olympics and playing overseas.”
And, of course, superstar and prolific scorer Angel McCoughtry:
“I think Angel’s going to fit in great. I think she’s going to like it even more (as a running team) because … when I first got this job and began looking at the tape, only two people ran or three people ran or Angel [ran]. Now when you flood the floor and flood the lanes, you create more opportunities out there on the floor with the short and intermediate range jump shots. And I think Angel is great at hitting those. I think that the one thing that she is going to find out is the days of shooting it when I want to are gone. I think that championship-caliber teams have to be disciplined in your offense, and you have to work your offense and run your offense. But I don’t think that she’ll have a big problem with that because a lot of what we will do will go through her, plus the running game fits her.”