Eye for detail unearths a little gold in Nuggets

Bzdelik: The former UMBC coach is always prepared, and his exacting style is surmounting Mile High doubts.

February 03, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

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.

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