Lakers Daily Exclusive: Michael Cooper Talks LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Expectations for This Season

Ryan Ward
29 Min Read

The start of the 2020-21 NBA season is right around the corner with the Los Angeles Lakers determined to defend their title.

In an effort to be the team to beat once again, the Lakers have revamped their roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Both superstars inked lucrative contract extensions and are highly motivated heading into the 2020-21 campaign as the clear favorites to win it all.

With the storied franchise back on top and looking for more titles with two superstars leading the way, Lakers legend and five-time NBA champion Michael Cooper recently spoke with Lakers Daily about his former team and The Showtime Podcast with Coop.

Ryan Ward: You are now part of the podcast universe! Tell us a bit about your podcast and why you chose to go that route?

Michael Cooper: I think when COVID hit, a lot of things got shut down. I was on a TV show and now everything has to be done from home. I was approached by this person to put my thoughts on the computer in the podcast.

That’s how Showtime with Coop started. Insightful B.S. with my Lakers friends and NBA legends.

RW: Who is your dream podcast guest? Who would you love to get on your podcast?

MC: I’ve pretty much had a lot of my dreams come true. Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was one of my first ones, and it’s very hard to get him, but he’s so insightful on the things that we got a chance to talk about.

Isiah Thomas. I really enjoyed our show with him. I had the Iceman George Gervin. The Iceman cometh. He was on, but obviously, there are other people I’d like to get. But those are probably my top three.

I’ve got Magic [Johnson] coming up in the near future. Dr. J (Julius Erving), I’m going to get an opportunity to speak with him. Dominique Wilkins is coming up in the future.

Usually, and you should know this Ryan, it’s not your “dream” people that you want on, it’s that person that you least expected.

For me, that would have to be Bob McAdoo and Mychal Thompson. I’ve had those two on, and those are probably my two most memorable shows.

RW: Your Lakers are world champs once again. What are your thoughts on your team winning it all in such a crazy circumstance in Orlando?

MC: I expected this of the Lakers. Even before COVID hit, the Lakers are a good basketball team, and I think Jeanie Buss, Linda Rambis along with Rob Pelinka definitely finished a tough job, but who doesn’t get enough credit is Magic Johnson.

Magic started the ball rolling, coming in and influencing a legendary player such as LeBron James to come to L.A. and become involved with our organization. Usually, when you get a high-profile player like that, they can attract other high-profile players a la Anthony Davis comes into play.

When this happened back then, I looked at the Lakers as a championship team. My biggest concern with them was how are they going to fit those role players around them. The acquisition of Danny Green, Avery Bradley, unfortunately he couldn’t finish it out because of the COVID restrictions he had put on himself for his family, just was amazing.

KCP (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), [Kyle] Kuzma, [Alex] Caruso — all those players started to get that chemistry and obviously it starts with the coach. Coach [Frank] Vogel gets a lot of credit, too.

Then when the COVID hits, and they go into the bubble, the Lakers became what I called a miniature college team. When you’re a college team, you guys are together and around each other all day long for the whole season, and that builds camaraderie. That builds cohesiveness, and that definitely builds the chemistry of what you are trying to get accomplished as far as being a team.

Now granted when this first hit, LeBron and a couple of other teams like the Los Angeles Clippers didn’t really want to be there, but I guarantee if you were to ask LeBron now about it, he would say it was probably the best thing that ever happened.

When you get quarantined and you have to stick with your team and stick with your teammates, you become true, true brothers, and I think that’s what happened with the Lakers. Once they got rolling, again, they didn’t have to travel, they didn’t have to go to another arena, those types of things when you take them out of the equation, you are just really with the team. You are not all night long with them, but you are with them a lot in film sessions and practices.

I’m pretty the guys did some things behind the scenes when they weren’t on the court by going to the movies, playing cards and things like that. Those things right there are good team builders, so when the Lakers got into that bubble, I didn’t expect anything less. I didn’t know they were going to do it this way, and I would’ve liked to have played the Clippers, but that didn’t happen, and it’s about winning a championship and they did it.

RW: What are your thoughts on the moves the Lakers made after losing half their squad in free agency and trades?

MC: I like a couple of them. I’m really, really disappointed that we didn’t get to re-sign Avery Bradley. I’m disappointed that Rajon Rondo left. They left for their own reasons. I’m not too much inside with the Lakers. I’m on the outside looking in. That concerns me a little bit.

I like the addition of [Dennis] Schroder. I like the acquisition of Montrezl [Harrell]. I think those are players that are going to come and play with high energy, and sometimes, the Lakers need that, but it concerns me a little because when you win a championship, you almost want to keep 70 percent of the pieces together. At least 70-80 percent of the pieces, but to lose a lot of pieces like that concerns me.

Half the team and a good core of them. But I like the acquisition of [Wesley] Matthews. His dad Wes used to play with me in the ’80s. A high I.Q. basketball player, and for Frank Vogel’s offense, you need to have some basketball I.Q. that goes with athleticism. You pick up both of those qualities in Matthews, but it concerns me because KCP and Matthews are the same player.

You’ve got some shooters that can shoot, their defense is suspect, but they’ll be okay. One thing that Jerry West always used to say back in the ’80s every time we won a championship is that you have to tweak it a little bit more, so sometimes you are going to lose a player or two, but sometimes that’s good.

The only reason that I like the fact that it doesn’t concern me too much is because you’ve got LeBron James and Anthony Davis who are the foundations of the organization and of that team. I think as long as they are there and they’re going to have a voice as well as their play by action, everybody else is going to fall in line and follow suit because if you are not falling in line you got some individual agendas on your mind because teams win championships not individuals. If you have those individual aspirations, then you won’t be on the team, so that’s what makes me feel good about it.

People remember champions they don’t remember someone scoring 55 points in one game. They do, but it doesn’t have that lasting effect.

RW: As one of the best defensive guards ever, you didn’t like the team losing Avery Bradley?

MC: For sure, Bradley had the ability to guards ones, twos and threes. So that would be like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and then taking it to Kawhi Leonard. Not having the bulk that Leonard brings, but having the mindset and mental toughness to at least compete against him, and that’s what you are losing.

KCP really showed me something as far as his ability to defend people. Sometimes you’ve got to be tough-minded, and KCP showed me that. I think Matthews will bring that, too. I like the things he did with Milwaukee last year, and hopefully, he brings that same mindset, but again, I think what the Lakers are getting in the absence in that defensive player that Avery Bradley possessed, you are getting some offensive juggernauts.

Matthews as well as KCP have the ability to hit shots in bunches, and I think the Lakers were kind of missing that a little bit because LeBron and A.D. are going to be double teamed differently this year. So they’re going to have to have perimeter people hitting shots, but in the same respect, your individual defense has to be good, which makes your team defense good.

The Lakers were a good team defense. Maybe not for 48 minutes, but for four or five minutes at certain moments of the game, the Lakers were a very good team defense. I think Matthews as well as KCP hopefully will hold up the fort in the area we are going to miss Avery Bradley.

RW: Does it bother you as someone that prided themselves on defense seeing the lack of defense being played in the NBA today?

MC: [Laughs] Yes it does. That’s the way the NBA has set it up. One, you can’t touch shooters. Guys now come down and fall on the ground and they end up shooting extra free throws. There is a strategy to do that, and you have to play the game the way officiating is making the calls, so it bothers me, but then there are some people that are making that adjustment.

LeBron James. People don’t see him as a defensive player, but LeBron is a very good defensive player. He may not be good as far as the fundamentals of footwork out on the court, but he protects that basket. He sees that he’s always there to help teammates on that weak-side help.

He brings his own defensive prowess about him, but it truly aggravates me a little bit to see guys that should be playing better defense not playing better defense.

The one thing that I wish, I am the only Defensive Player of the Year that the Lakers have ever had, I would like another Laker to achieve that goal.

The one person that I thought could do it but wasn’t quite there was the late Kobe Bryant. I thought he could’ve been the Defensive Player of the Year, but like I said, for great players, and Kobe was one of the best, when you have to tune in on that offensive end, and you split that, you can’t go 50 offense and 50 defense, that’s kind of hard to do to be the best.

So when you are spending 90 percent of your time trying to score and score against double teams and triple teams, it takes a lot of energy out of you. I think LeBron quite possibly could do that this year. I think if he spends a little bit more time thinking seriously about defense, and the league looks at him as a defensive player. That’s another thing. The league has to see you as a defensive player. Hopefully that can happen.

RW: Anthony Davis came pretty close only falling short to Giannis Antetokounmpo for DPOY.

MC: You’re right. AD was mostly shot-blocking. That’s a form of defense, but what I would like AD to do is lock down on some people. Guys scoring like 25 or 30 a game. Shut him down for that series or particular game. Hold them to 16 or 15 points.

Now the defense, as far as coming weak side blocking shots, is definitely a plus. That right there is its own reckoning, but really hone in on defense. You’re right. AD was the closest one, so lets hope that he can pull that off.

RW: You played with Magic and Kareem and against Michael Jordan. So do you think LeBron is the G.O.A.T.?

MC: That is such a loose term for great players: the G.O.A.T. Because you have to realize that everybody played in their own decade and era. If we could go back and had this ability to make everybody 23 or 24 at the same time, then we could say that.

What’s happening in the NBA now? LeBron is probably the greatest player to ever play the game. Put him back in the ’80s with Magic, Michael Jordan, George Gervin, Kareem — he would probably be in the mix with all of them, so the G.O.A.T. for right now is definitely LeBron, but try to put all those guys in a lump and pull out one. You are going to get a different answer from 10 different people.

And it’s hard to ask me. To me, Larry Bird would be considered a G.O.A.T. That guy there was probably the hardest guy I’ve ever had to guard, and I played in an era where it was a tough matchup every night. Dominique one night. Dr. J one night. The forgotten Andrew Toney. This guy could flat out score.

Alvin Robertson, Marques Johnson, Alex English, Kiki VanDeWeghe. There have been so many great players that I had to guard, so the G.O.A.T., that’s hard for me to give you a definitive answer, but if you want me to give you an answer, the greatest all-time basketball player if you put them all in a bowl, I’m picking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The reason for that is because people forget about the fact they outlawed the dunk because of this guy when he was in college. He developed the most unstoppable shot in the game of basketball. When we played the twin towers of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, those two guys couldn’t stop him, and he was on the other side of 30 by then.

You couldn’t foul him. The strongest player in the game Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain were terrible free-throw shooters. Kareem was a high 78-80 percent free-throw shooter, so you couldn’t foul him.

If he didn’t have an outlet, people forget back at Power Memorial Academy, Kareem was a guard [laughs]. He played guard. He could bring the ball up the floor, so there were many sides to his game that a lot of people don’t recognize, and all they remember is the sky hook, but Kareem led the league in blocked shots four or five times in his career in Milwaukee.

For me, he would be the one, but you know what, there are so many. I love Kobe Bryant. I love LeBron. There are many players I could pull out. Michael Jordan. I respected the hell out of Larry Bird. I didn’t like him much, but I respect what he did on the floor. I’d go with Kareem as my G.O.A.T.

RW: Why does Kareem get so overlooked in this conversation?

MC: I would say it’s personality, Ryan. The person he was prior to his house burning down in the late ’80s. Kareem was a young man who came through a racial strife at the time when he was coming up in the ’60s. He was part of the movement of Black athletes standing up for racial justice in the ’60s and ’70s, and I just think it was tough for him as a young man taking on a man’s responsibility in America.

I think that’s what jaded him a little bit, but the one thing I’ll tell you is, and I was probably one of the closest people to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I know him very, very well. My birthday is April 15 and his is April 16. We both love Jazz, so I know Kareem well, and once his house burned down, and he really saw how people appreciated, loved, respected and admired him for his craft.

Kareem was a Jazz collector. In this house fire in the late ’80s, he lost over 55,000 records. People came out of the woodwork from around the world from Italy, Sweden, Amsterdam and was giving him replacement records. Records you could never ever get again, but people were giving out of their collections to supplement his record collection again.

I think Kareem saw that, and I think that’s where the tide in him changed a little bit. He saw that people cared about him as a human being. Not as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the activist, not as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the basketball player, they saw him as a man, and I think that’s what really changed. The person that you are seeing today is who he is today and should have been through his whole career. But again, you have to look at the footsteps they’ve walked, in the path that they’ve traveled, so that’s why I think Kareem gets overlooked so many times.

RW: LeBron James signed a two-year extension this month and will be 38 when his deal expires with the Lakers. What do you think about his longevity?

MC: It shows you a person that takes care of his body and believes in his craft, and the kind of money that LeBron is making he has the ability to do that, but this is why LeBron signed that contract [laughs]. This is just me. This is not the Lakers or anything. This is just my belief.

There are so many things that man has accomplished that I think with the way he takes care of himself, he’s aiming for two things. One, he’s aiming for Kareem’s scoring record, and I think he’s on pace for that, and in today’s game, that’s doable for him because he doesn’t have to play big, big minutes, and all he has to do is average about 20-25 a game, which is doable. Because there will be nights where he’ll get that 40 or 50. He can get those big numbers because he takes good care of himself.

But the most important one, and I really do believe this in my heart, LeBron James wants to be the first father-son duo in the NBA because his son will get into the NBA, and LeBron wants to be around for that.

RW: So do you think that your Showtime Lakers could take down LeBron and Anthony Davis’ Lakers in a seven-game series?

MC: Yup! Hands down. I’m not saying this team is not good. I like LeBron and AD, but we were a powerful running team. We ran. Out of 48 minutes, we probably didn’t run for three minutes. We ran.

I think we had the adaptability to play against any team, which the (LeBron’s) Lakers had. We could play big, we could play small, and we could play intermediate.

Pat Riley labeled us “Riley’s Runts,” and it was [James] Worthy, Magic, A.C. Green, myself and Byron Scott. We’ll get up and down the floor on you. We could score. Defensively we were very good and active, so yes we could play against any of these teams in today’s game and be effective as far as winning.

RW: Your team’s conditioning must’ve been something else.

MC: All we did was run in training camp. Our training camp, Pat Riley used to say, “You don’t come to training camp to get in shape. You come to get your game right.”

We were fit, and we were ready, and I think we could play with anybody in today’s game. I would love to match any of our teams up with today’s game.

RW: What happened during that famous draft workout with Kobe Bryant when Jerry West asked you to guard him?

MC: That was a day that we knew Kobe was going to be a great player. Jerry West, I was with the coaching staff with Del Harris, and Jerry asked me to go against him. Kobe was there with three or four other players.

There were some specific things I was supposed to do. They put some Xs on the floor like at the elbow, down in the low block, and there was some pick-and-roll stuff.

My job was to play him and keep him off of those spots, and that was the one thing that really amazed me, and I was in awe about Kobe. As a 17-year-old kid, this guy could maneuver himself and get to those spots.

There was a couple of times I kept him off of those, and I made him take some tough shots, and he hit some shots, but that’s when you knew because a lot of times young players don’t know how to do that — work their way to get to a spot. I thought that was very unique that Jerry West had that planned out as far as the workout.

Yeah, we could come in there and play one on one. He can come in there, and we watch him go up and down, but there were some specific things that he wanted to see if Kobe was able to do that.

“Coop, just make him use his left. Make him just used his right.” Maneuver your way off a pick-and-roll. He had to dribble down, wait for the screen to come over and then come off the pick. My job was to stop all of that.

RW: So make him adjust as much as possible?

MC: Exactly! That was the fun part about it because I was out of my playing days, but still, I understood this game, and from the defensive perspective, that’s something you never lose.

There was a thing down in the low post where he would get a cross pick. Kobe would be on one side of the block, and the guy would come set a pick on me, and he had to get and stay on that low block in the low post.

I was pushing and banging on him and stuff like that. He was stronger than a normal high school kid at that age. That was the other thing that impressed me. Very, very strong and he always took shots that he wanted to take.

Most of the time it was a shot that he wanted and it was a very, very grueling and physical workout. Some people say he got the best of me. I beg to differ because I was out there [laughs].

The bottom line is after that workout, we knew that Kobe was our pick. They knew that they were going to have to do what they got to do to get him.

I caught a couple elbows in the chest that Larry Bird could’ve given me [laughs].

Kobe was something else!

RW: That’s all I’ve got for you. Would you like to add anything else?

MC: Remember, Showtime with Coop! Wherever you get your podcasts. B.S. with Lakers friends and NBA legends, baby!

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Ryan is a veteran sportswriter who has covered the NBA and NFL for nearly a decade. Along with numerous exclusive interviews with professional athletes, Ryan has been credentialed by the Los Angeles Lakers since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWardLA.