Eye for detail unearths a little gold in Nuggets

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DENVER - Denver forward Ryan Bowen said the attention to detail that has helped Jeff Bzdelik turn around the Nuggets was apparent even before the former UMBC coach was formally put in charge.

"His coaching style is that he comes prepared," said Bowen, who has been with the Nuggets for five seasons.

"I'm sure he's the first one here in the morning and he's the last to leave. He breaks down so much tape and he's prepared. Every practice is written down to the last minute," said Bowen. " ... I think he's doing a great job."

As a result of Bzdelik's exacting leadership, the Nuggets, at 29-21 after last night's win, are vastly improved from last season's 17-65 record, and he is a midseason favorite to earn NBA Coach of the Year honors.

"It's [coaching] in my personality," said Bzdelik, 51. "It's an interesting profession and a very difficult one. Each game is so meaningful and you put so much emotion and time into your job. I care, and I know a great majority of my colleagues care about our teams' performances. It's the human nature of how, I know, I feel.'

So far, the Nuggets have taken Bzdelik's passion and preparation to heart, holding their own in the Midwest Division, the only one in the NBA where all the teams have .500 or better records. Last night's 116-97 romp over Portland kept the Nuggets safely in fourth place.

That's not bad for a team that not only shared the worst record in the league last season, but also was last in four offensive categories -scoring, shooting percentage, three-point shooting and free-throw shooting.

Despite that, Miami Heat president Pat Riley called the Nuggets "one of the most competitive teams in the league" last season. "Every night, they were prepared, and [Bzdelik] emphasized the effort and hard work and team play. He's just done an extraordinary job with that franchise."

Bzdelik was introduced to the NBA when Wes Unseld got wind of the job he was doing at UMBC, where he ushered the Retrievers into Division I play in the 1986-87 season.

Unseld, the Hall of Fame center, hired Bzdelik as an assistant when he took over as head coach a third of the way into the 1987-88 season when the Bullets made the playoffs.

Bzdelik stayed with the Bullets through the 1993-94 season, earning Unseld's trust admiration for his work ethic.

"That's the one thing that people, especially from the college ranks, don't understand, how much you have to do," said Unseld. "Jeff was ... interested in doing whatever extra he had to do to get the job done. Whether it was his scouting reports or working with guys extra after practice and after hours, he was always willing to do that."

Said Bzdelik: "I took a lot from Wes Unseld. Probably the biggest thing I took from Wes is professionalism, the handling of players. ... We didn't win a lot of games when I was with Wes, but our teams always played hard."

Bzdelik joined Riley, first with the New York Knicks in 1994-95, then with the Miami Heat, as an assistant for six years but also head of scouting for the last two seasons he was there.

Riley, who resigned as Miami's coach before this season, describes Bzdelik as "a detail-oriented person."

"His scouting reports were pieces of art. He developed a lot of our computer stuff. He just did a great job for me as an advance scout and then as an assistant coach."

Bzdelik joined the Nuggets organization as a scout in the 2001-02 season. Midway through, coach Dan Issel was ousted and Mike Evans became an interim coach. Various prospects were considered, but it was not until summer 2002 that Denver general manager Kiki Vandeweghe offered Bzdelik the job. He had moved up from scouting to an assistant in July, and was named head coach Aug. 21.

Bzdelik jokingly said he tried to talk Vandeweghe out of it. The truth is, Bzdelik knew how bad the Nuggets' roster would be. Last season, Denver limped home with a 17-65 record, tying Cleveland for worst in the league.

Yet Bzdelik earned the respect of many NBA observers and fellow coaches for the way his team prepared and played hard each night, despite a talent gap between the Nuggets and their opponents.

This season, however, with an infusion of new blood and one more year of experience, the Nuggets have already won more games than they did all of last season, with victories over the Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers.

Before last night, Denver was sixth in scoring, 14th in field-goal percentage, 16th in three-point percentage and seventh in foul shooting.

In other words, the Nuggets can now score, and while some of that is due to better players, namely free-agent guard signees Andre Miller, Voshon Lenard and Earl Boykins and No. 3 overall draft choice forward Carmelo Anthony, a lot of their improved offense can be attributed to Bzdelik's change in philosophy.

Last year's Nuggets, led by plodding power forward Juwan Howard, walked the ball up, slowing the game's pace to give them a better chance to win. This year's team, with better-conditioned athletes, runs more, particularly at home where the mile-high atmosphere gives it more of an advantage.

"I think he's always had, as we all do, a running streak," said Riley. "We would all like to get out and break, but it has to do with the level of talent. You can't allow your team just to run randomly if don't have guys that can finish or hit the medium-range jumpers or if you don't have great rebounding. I think last year, he probably coached to the level of his talent and controlled it defensively and controlled it offensively."

Above all, Bzdelik leaves little to chance. Practices are scripted, down to breaks.

"He's done a great job," said Miller, who signed with Denver from the Los Angeles Clippers last summer. "He comes into practice energetic. He has a game plan and a practice plan and when we go into games, we're prepared. He has the respect of the players. On the court, he is fiery and behind closed doors [also]. He expects a lot and we go through a lot of film. When he gets in your face, he gets in your face and that's how you earn the respect of your players."

Bowen said Bzdelik has been exacting but has made the team accountable. "I remember the first day," said Bowen. "Jeff hadn't even got the head coaching job, but he was here working guys out in the summer. He said, 'Every day, we're going to be here. We're going to be here on time, and we're going to have our shirttails tucked in.'

"Bringing that attitude early and right away, before he was even the head coach, has carried through to the court. Our shirts are tucked in, and a lot of guys gripe about it, but it's a team and we're professionals and he's brought a sense of professionalism along with the stability."

Not everyone has been entirely on board with Bzdelik's attention to detail, notably Anthony, the rookie superstar.

Anthony, the former Towson Catholic forward, has been lighting up the league, scoring a career-high 39 points last night after hitting 26, including the game-winner, Saturday. But, according to Bzdelik, he may be susceptible to bad habits. The two weren't seeing eye to eye.

"At times, good, and at times, not so good, just like our team," said Bzdelik about Anthony's defensive efforts. "That's the point that I'm trying to drive home to him, that in order to be a complete player ... you have to learn to dominate the game in all areas, on defense, on the boards."

For his part, Anthony said Bzdelik was cramping his style.

"He's a, how should I say, really demanding coach," Anthony said. "He likes things done when he says to do them. He's not quiet. Looks can be deceiving."

Bzdelik pondered benching Anthony for a time, and the two met to air their respective grievances after a home game in which the Nuggets were thumped by San Antonio.

The result: Anthony scored 20 points and held his own against Kobe Bryant in Denver's subsequent 113-91 win over the Lakers, and averaged 18.8 points per game in January, scoring in double figures in 14 straight games.

Bzdelik, who is in the second year of a two-year deal, with a club option for a third, acknowledges the demands that winning places on him and his team.

"We've created a higher level of expectation than probably what most people would have thought of prior to the start of the season," Bzdelik said. "But you know what? That's what we're in this business for. I want that, our organization wants that, our players want that. It will be interesting to see how we all handle the pressure of raising that bar."

Bzdelik file

Age: 51

Season: Second, 45-86 overall

Experience: Assistant coach at Northwestern University, 1980-85. ... Head coach at UMBC, 1986-87. ... Assistant coach with Washington Bullets, 1988-94. ... Scout with New York Knicks, 1994-95. ... Assistant coach with Miami Heat, 1995-2001. ... Nuggets scout, 2001-02.

Personal: Graduated from University of Illinois-Chicago in 1976. ... Wife, Nina; children, Brett and Courtney.

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