Surveying the NBA landscape, Michael Cooper laid out a bold prediction that will both please Lakers fans and raise the seemingly infinite amount of expectations surrounding this team.
“The Lakers are about to win the championship four years in a row,” Cooper said in a phone interview with this newspaper.
Cooper, who played for the Lakers from 1978-90, let out a hearty laugh when reminded that former Lakers Coach Pat Riley guaranteed a Lakers’ three-peat during the 1987 NBA championship parade. One year later, Riley appeared clairvoyant.
Cooper, currently USC’s women’s basketball coach and a Lakers analyst for Channel 7, recalled Riley’s message also helped set a tone for the 1997-88 season.
“We knew what Riles was trying to do, but we didn’t think he was bold enough to say it,” Cooper said. “We talked about it in our personal and private meetings. But for him to go out there and say it, it showed our coach had a lot of faith in us and knew we could get it done. That statement started us working that next day. Usually after winning a championship, guys take two or three weeks off and lay up somewhere in Hawaii and don’t do anything. I went away for eight days and came back and started work. That enabled us to turn it on that following season.”
No pressure, but it seems like Cooper expects the same thing out of the current Lakers as they begin the season tonight against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center.
They have mostly shied away from such talk, though Metta World Peace predicted in the offseason that the Lakers would break the NBA’s regular-season win record (72) set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team. Instead, everyone ranging from Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Coach Mike Brown have described in some form how the road to an NBA title will entail a prolonged process that won’t happen immediately.
Cooper shares that same mindset. In fact, he said he “wouldn’t be surprised if the Lakers lost the first two or three games.” Cooper also predicted the Lakers wouldn’t fully hit their stride until Jan, 2013. That’s because the Lakers have a new starting lineup (Dwight Howard, Steve Nash), a new bench (Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks), a new offense (includes elements of the Princeton system), health concerns (Howard and Nash’s back, Kobe Bryant’s right foot) and formidable contenders (Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Clippers).
Still, it was hard for Cooper not to express giddiness about the Lakers’ fortunes, saying they “will be steamrolling” during the postseason.
“Howard is big. I don’t think [Serge] Ibaka or [Kendrick] Perkins can deal with him,” Cooper said of the Thunder’s frontline. “He has a different look than [Andrew] Bynum. This guy will run the floor a lot harder than Bynum both offensively and defensively. Then when he gets in the paint, he won’t settle for fallaways or jump hooks. He turns strong and goes to the basket.”
Cooper seemed to have particular interest to Howard considering the former Laker cemented his reputation as a strong defensive player.
“The Lakers will really be able to get in the passing lanes,” said Cooper, who won the 1987 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. “Dwight Howard has the ability to block shots. But the biggest weapon he brings for the Lakers is he alters shots. He can cover a lot of large areas. If somebody gets beat, he will get there fast enough at least to make them arc the ball up higher and hopefully change the shot. With him doing that though, other people will have to rebound and will have to play good defense.”
Cooper took particular aim at Metta World Peace, who reported to training camp 17 pounds lighter than last season.
“You’ll really see him turn into a big defensive presence,” Cooper said. “He’ll be able to take more chances and more risks. When Ron’s in the passing lanes, he has really good hands and can knock players off balance. His game will go up a notch, especially knowing Dwight Howard is behind him. If he does get beat, it won’t be an easy basket.”
But Cooper argued the Lakers’ championship prospects will mostly hinge on a variable outside of the starting lineup.
That included the coaching staff: “Coach Brown’s offense will have to pay off,” Cooper said. “He’ll have to be able to coach this team through some rough periods and make sure they get the right type of shots that’s best for our offense.
It included Antawn Jamison improving his poor preseason numbers (4.4 points on 28.9 percent shooting): “He does everything well. He doesn’t require the ball to score. He’s a great rebounder offensively. He runs the floor well … He reminds me of a more mobile Jamaal Wilkes. Jamaal is what Chick Hearn used to call the silent assassin. That’s what this kid is.
And it included whether the Lakers’ bench could replicate Cooper’s effort in his NBA career by providing consistent energy: “Your mindset is when I leave the court and go back the bench, the score needs to be either the same or we’re up. If all the guys on the Laker bench keep that in mind and don’t worry about being a star, that will happen if you do your job. Then the Lakers will be really successful this year.”
Cooper believes that process will take time. But that hardly dissuading him from raising the Lakers’ expectations even more.
“If they’re really listenting to me, they’re crazy,” Cooper said, laughing. “I’m a Laker, always will be and think the Lakers always have a chance to win a championship. They got a really good chance this year.”
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