After spending nine years with the Houston Rockets, Dean Cooper came to Minnesota this summer as an assistant coach on Randy Wittman's staff.
Cooper spent some time with us discussing his path to the Wolves, to describe workouts with his new players over the past few weeks, to give us some insight into what looks like a very dangerous Rockets squad and to talk some Yao Ming
MT: Originally from Michigan, you spent your last nine years with the Houston Rockets after stops in Buffalo, N.Y. and some other places. It's clear that you came to Minnesota for the November-March weather, right coach?
Dean Cooper: Absolutely. I was just missing the snow way too much, I guess. In and out of it wasn't enough - I felt like I had to live in it.
MT: While this is a return to the Midwest, I'd guess this was a professional, not a geographical move?
Cooper: Yes. In our business you don't really have the luxury of moving geographically unless you've been a really successful head coach - then you may have some choices. But I'm (excited to) get back on the coaching side in a place where I felt comfortable with the people and the organization, and where the team is headed ... A young team on it's way up. If you're going to leave a place you've been for nine years, and you're winning, you better go some place where you're comfortable.
MT: You've done it all in hoops: coaching, scouting, personnel work. Is coaching where your heart is?
Cooper: If you took all my years of coaching high school, small college, Division 1 and the NBA ... I was a coach pretty much until 2003, when I went to the personnel side with the Rockets. It was a good opportunity after having worked (on the staff of) Rudy Tomjanovich. It gave me a different perspective and I think that hopefully is going to make me a better coach. You look at the game differently, and understand the business side of the NBA - the salary cap, the contracts and things of that nature. Hopefully it just makes me more well-rounded at the end of the day.
MT: Why Minnesota? Did you have any pre-existing relationships with the Wolves' front office or coaching staff?
Cooper: I knew coach (Randy) Wittman a little bit, since he was an assistant coach (in the NBA) when I was an assistant with the Rockets. We didn't have a real detailed relationship, but over the last couple of years I've gotten to know Kevin McHale and Fred Hoiberg well, and I knew Rob Babcock as well. We did some shared draft workouts this spring, so I spent some time with (Wittman) and the (organization), and running the workouts was my deal so I was out there coaching. One day we were talking about coaching, and Bobby O (former Wolves assistant Bob Ociepka) happened to take a job with the Bulls. Also, Pat Knight is my best friend, so I know about (Wittman) because he played for Bob Knight. I had familiarity with him and know he has a good reputation in the league as a coach. The comfort level was there.
MT: How does the process go when an assistant is hired? How close is it to the "real world?"
Cooper: I've never worked in the "real world," so to speak, or in the public sector. But sometimes they just have a guy in mind, and boom - it's done. Previous relationships are (very important). Scott Skiles (new head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks) hired the guys he worked for him in Phoenix and Chicago. Coach Wittman talked to other guys, but it was a pretty normal deal. We spoke on the phone several times, he did his background checks on me, and talked to guys I worked for or didn't work for. We sat down in his suite in Vegas and had what I'd consider a pretty normal job interview.
MT: All right. Now that you've been here for a few weeks you've spent plenty of time working with the young Wolves. How do things compare to what you're used to in Houston?
Cooper: I think it's real similar, actually, because in Houston we had a lot of young players in the last couple of years. Some of the veterans we had - David Wesley, Bob Sura, John Barry - were gone, and vets don't work out a lot in the summer (generally). Here in Minnesota, we have very young guys. Al Jefferson and Sebastian (Telfair) have been in the league for four, five years but they're still young. I tell you what - of all the good things here like the people, what's been really refreshing is the way the players work and want to learn. Very similar to Houston in the last couple of years.
MT: Speaking of Telfair, he said some of the drills you've been putting the players through have been pretty tough.
Cooper: One of the things that I'm a big believer in is that you can make guys slightly better shooters through repetition and mechanics, but I think you can make them considerably better finishers. So we do a thing we call "Finishing School," which I just got done doing with Ryan Gomes. It's just a whole series of drills - too many to list - that deal with finishing around the basket. How to put spin on the ball, which angles to take, what way you turn your hand, where to put it on the glass and things like that. When you go in there, you need a plan.
MT: Like Tony Parker.
Cooper: Yes. He has a plan. When you get close to the rim, that's (very important). We spend a lot of time doing that with Sebastian, with Randy (Foye) and the perimeter guys. The big guys have something different.
MT: Is it fair to say that with Parker playing against men in France while Telfair went against boys in high school affected how they finish near the rim?
Cooper: Yes, you're right. Tony played against older guys, but I will say this about him: he's elite. At the rim, he's always one of the best three or four point guards in the league. He understands all those angles, and probably from playing against old guys from a young age where Sebastian may have just blown by guys. Some of it is just technique, and having a plan.
MT: But Telfair can improve...
Cooper: Oh he's already gotten much better this summer. I mean, markedly better. I just talked to him when I was walking up here about some of the things we've been working on. You first need a plan and second need to develop a skill set to do it, and then have confidence that you can (execute it) in the game. It's like being a golfer: you go work on your swing on the range, but once you walk to the first tee you can't keep working, you have to trust that what you already did works.
MT: Who wins a coaching shootout between you, J.B. Bickerstaff, Jerry Sichting, Ed Pinckney and Randy Wittman?
Cooper: Well, I'm not going to try and go into the post against Ed Pinckney, I'm sure he's going to win that battle against all of us. But I don't know, we haven't shot yet. I'll say this: everyone on our staff can shoot. The difference probably between J.B. and the rest of us is that he can run up and down the floor and do it, but we have to stay in the half court. But I'm sure when we get to training camp and get on the floor, just like any other staff, we'll have our shooting games. I fortunately shoot along with the players when we go through drills. Even though my legs aren't what they used to be, I can still execute the skill if no one's guarding me and we're playing in the half court.
MT: So ... You can't guarantee victory?
Cooper: I'm not guaranteeing victory. Coach Sichting was a heck of a player and so was coach Wittman.
MT: Back to coaching work. With all the personnel work you've done, scouting reports should be right up your ally?
Cooper: Yeah. I know that's one thing (advance scout and assistant coach) Brent Haskins gets ready for us. But I've fortunately studied the players from that side of it, although a little bit less in the last couple of years in the NBA because we've had first-round picks. But when we just had second round picks I spent a lot of time studying NBA players.
MT: I have to ask you about the Rockets. Does Ron Artest immediately make Houston a championship contender?
Cooper: No question about it. Our staff was just talking about it the other day - If they can stay healthy, and now adding (Artest), I might be a little bit biased, but if they're not there with San Antonio and the Lakers, I'd be shocked. I'm not going to say they're the favorite, but with those three teams, it's going to be hard to get out of the West and not go through those teams.
MT: Of course last year the Rockets win 14 straight, lose Yao Ming, but win eight more in a row. That's OK.
Cooper: It really said something about our coaches and the players commitment to staying the course. We won so many games by a large margin that we had a lot of confidence going, and if Rafer (Alston) doesn't go down in the Utah series - he missed two and a half games - I think our guys had enough confidence to get out of that series, even though Utah's good. Aaron Brooks is going to be a good player but that's a big stage.
MT: It's a nice basketball model, with Shane Battier and Artest locking down defensively, good bigs off the bench like Luis Scola, Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes, and we haven't even mentioned T-Mac yet.
Cooper: They're going to be versatile. They can play "small ball" and not be small, with Rafer, Ron, Tracy, Shane and Yao and spread the floor. I don't know how you guard that. You just contain and hope they miss shots. When Ron wants to, he can be an elite defender. I know Tracy's glad Ron's wearing a red shirt because they had their battles.
MT: All right coach, last Houston question. I have to say Yao was my favorite interview of any player last year. What can you say about him?
Cooper: Let me say this. I've spent a lot of time with Yao - I was there for his rookie year, and I spent a full month in Beijing and Shanghai with him last summer, and we have a very close relationship. I can say this in all honesty: There are a lot of good guys in our league, but Yao is not only the nicest player I've ever met, but he might be the nicest human being. Especially to shoulder the weight of the East, he is basically bridging the gap between the East and the West as far as basketball and just what he carries for his country in general. Really, I mean it in all sincerity; I've never met a better human being. His ability to be funny ... He's the biggest wisecracker on the whole team and has an ability to use humor. And his work ethic is second to none. I can't say enough about him.
MT: Wow. It's always good to hear those kinds of stories. Thanks for the time coach.
Cooper: No problem, talk to you later.