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David Ramsey: Former Air Force leader Jeff Bzdelik deserves another shot as NBA head coach

May 6, 2018 Updated: May 7, 2018 at 9:37 am
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Air Force head coach Jeff Bzdelik and guard Matt McCraw (5) in second half action against San Diego State Saturday afternoon, Jan. 20, 2007, at Clune Arena. Air Force won 56-51...by Kevin Kreck

Jeff Bzdelik is the only coach to lead the Falcons of Air Force Academy, the Buffs of Colorado and the Nuggets of Denver.

He delivered so-so work in Boulder and the edge of Colorado Springs and was rewarded for his mediocrity with new jobs and massive leaps in pay. He did superlative work with the Nuggets and was rewarded by being fired. Make sense? Not at all.

Bzdelik should never again coach a college team. He doesn’t understand the college game and its heavy emphasis on recruiting. He never got the knack of teaching teenage players. The Wake Forest student body busted out in mass celebration the day Bzdelik was fired in 2014.

But a wise NBA owner should give Bzdelik another chance as head coach. He’s a defensive genius, a word that’s tossed around too freely but deserved in Bzdelik’s case. The Houston Rockets have a superb chance to rule the NBA this season, and it’s because of Buzzy, the obsessive workaholic who oversees their defense.

 Two seasons ago, the Rockets ranked 21st in defense. Then they hired Bzdelik. This season, the Rockets ranked No. 6 even though they play at a revved up pace under the direction of James Harden. Since the All-Star break, the Rockets boast the Association’s third stingiest defense.

The Milwaukee Bucks have a chance to leap into the ranks of the NBA’s elite if they can find the right coach to toughen their defense and mold the outlandish talents of “The Greek Freak,” who is sometimes, but not often, called by his real name, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Bucks should hire Bzdelik.

You might be thinking that I’m making this statement of support of Bzdelik because we’re friends from his days at Air Force.

Um, no.

Bzdelik made few friends during his two seasons at the academy, and, trust me, I wasn’t one of them. And even Buzzy loyalists wondered about him after he departed. He coached the Falcons to a 50-16 record over two seasons (2005-2007), but this was after inheriting five players - Nick Welch, Dan Nwaelele, Antoine Hood, Jacob Burtschi and Tim Anderson – who had been or would be first- and second-team all Mountain West. He feasted with talent recruited by Joe Scott and Chris Mooney, but did virtually nothing to build a foundation for the future.

“Jeff Bzdelik didn’t do a lot of personal recruiting,” Air Force AD Hans Mueh told me. “He just didn’t. I don’t know what to make of that. It just is.”

Thanks to Bzdelik, the Falcons finished 1-31 in the Mountain West from 2008-2010. At CU and Wake Forest, Bzdelik did not inherit robustly stocked rosters and had no clue how to fill the shelves. He finished 27-89 in conference play before returning to the NBA.

But his college failures, which were many, should not be held against him as he’s considered for an NBA head job.

In 2003-2004, Bzdelik directed a Nuggets team that won 17 games the previous season to 43 wins and the playoffs. On opening night, I was stunned to see the formerly sleepy Nuggets playing ferocious defense and wrote a column saying the team would win more than 40 games. My boss called and asked, in a kind way, if I was feeling OK.

Bzdelik, with a limited roster, silenced my boss.  He persuaded Carmelo Anthony, a complicated soul blessed and cursed with immense love of self, to play with discipline and precision and emotion. Carmelo, not LeBron James, should have been rookie of the year. Bzdelik unleashed Marcus Camby, a long-armed maniac, as a rim protector. Bzdelik willed the Nuggets to heights few could have imagined.

For reasons that will remain forever mysterious, the Nuggets fired Bzdelik 28 games into the next season, and he’s never led an NBA team since.

He’s diligent to the extreme.  No one watches more video. No one sleeps less. The pro game is ruled on most nights by flashy shooters who dance after dropping long shots.

But playoff nights, the ones that truly matter, often are ruled by rugged, focused defenders. Bzdelik is 65, nearing the end of his long walk through American basketball. The quirky defensive mastermind deserves another chance as head coach.

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