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Loyalty to the Principles

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Çağrı Turhan sat down with Galatasaray assistant coach Emir Alkaş to discuss work as a Euroleague assistant, the different styles that have dominated the past decade of European basketball, coaching figures that have shaped his approach to the game of basketball, and much, much more …

He graduated from the computer engineering department of an Ivy League school with an honor degree, he is the managing partner of a company which was awarded an “Entrepreneur of the Year”-Award and he is continuing a family tradition of raising race horses. And it doesn’t stop here. Emir Alkaş’ profile is an unusual one on the top European basketball platform.

How does such a character end up coaching basketball? The answer is simple: it is the love for the game. As a writer, his basketball articles were so convincing that decision makers in the basketball business found that he shouldn’t waste his time with writing anymore, but start coaching. Some of his works were among the best I have ever read. They had a major influence on my decision to start writing myself, leading me to express my own views on the game of basketball. You may have witnessed Galatasaray’s assistant coach feeling disappointed after Lakovic’s meaningless foul on Teodosic at the end of the game or jumping with joy on the final buzzer, while his side was ending CSKA’s much-hyped undefeated Euroleague run. What did we say? Love for the game!

ÇT: Cimbom fans seem very satisfied with your performance so far. On the other hand, this is a club heavily dependent on football. In this country, when the football team sneezes, the other departments catch a pneumonia. What can you say about the stability of the organization, given the problems that you, just like the other big clubs in this country, could face due to this reality? After all you have only few people here in your staff to compete with teams like CSKA Moscow, who do the same work with 20 to 30 people. From an organizational standpoint, does the club’s basketball section have enough resources to keep pace with the competition?

EA: Even though I am not among the final decision makers in our organization, my observation here is as follows: It is true that we have to do a similar amount of work as the teams that we are competing against. We have to cover the same ground with significantly less people, with respect to those clubs. We may be doing some extra work that wouldn’t cross our mind. On the other hand, we really enjoy that process, as the structure here is constituted in a healthy way and the selected staff consists of quite selfless people. We prefer to spend more hours on our work, which may include performing tasks outside of our job description in order to keep the family environment here, rather than having a couple of additional managers, one more assistant coach, one more physio, who may not be doing their jobs well enough. That is one of the most basic requirements of Coach Mahmuti in the recruitment phase, whether it’s about a coach, player or other personnel. People here work extremely hard, always make sacrifices for the club and are always ready to help everyone when needed, whenever an emergency situation comes up. I think that is the right approach for this organization to work and develop with at the phase of establishing and build-up. I think that this will be our way going forward as well. In this sense, I’m personally very happy about being part of it. It also suits me very well to run projects for this organization, being allowed to express my thoughts on different issues besides my main responsibilities.

ÇT: First making the TBL finals last season and then qualifying for the Euroleague turned the focus of Galatasaray fans on your team as much as on the football section. You kind of overachieved and exceeded the expectations quite a bit. Therefore, the overall attitude of the fans is quite positive, as they also see a team which plays their heart out on the floor. However, this is a club where fans want to see a “W” all the time and everything else is considered a failure. Expectations have risen so quickly, but these are still baby steps. Do you have any concerns about the effect that these unrealistic expectations could have on your side, as you try to establish and improve yourselves at the top level?

EA: Expectations are definitely among the crucial variables while running this team. But it is not a factor which could be determined by people from outside this organization. Therefore we keep saying the same things while setting our goals, especially when sharing them with our community. Our main purpose is reaching the next phase, winning the next game, performing well on the next game, getting well prepared for the next game both from a technical and managerial standpoint. Of course we discuss the long term plans amongst ourselves. There are a lot of players and other personnel whom we are filtering right now as part of our macro plans, despite the busy schedule we are on this season. Nevertheless, I cannot share everything and there are a lot of things that even I don’t know . This is an organization where both the daily work and the long term plans and projects are handled very well thanks to the structure implemented by Hakan Üstünberk¹ and Oktay Mahmuti.

ÇT: From an organizational standpoint, the performance on the court is quite an overachievement in my opinion …

EA: Of course we were sad after losing the finals, but we would definitely have settled for the TBL finals had we been asked before the beginning of last season. We would also have settled for playing in the Euroleague. Now we made Top 16 and are in position to advance to the next stage. Some people get angry at Coach Mahmuti for claiming that “we can’t win the Euroleague this season”, but it is clear how the title could be won. Some things must be understood, especially at the top level where a lot of top teams are competing for titles. It must be understood that big success cannot be achieved through spending big money in little time. Succeeding at this level requires being there for a long time, having the right people in the right positions and keeping patience. We work hard but other teams also work hard.

“There is a level of fan support evolving which is considered as equivalent to Partizan and Panathinaikos, and more specific to basketball.”

Sometimes, we are fighting a bazooka with a jackknife. We are also aware that we possess certain things that other clubs may not have. There is a level of fan support evolving which is considered as equivalent to Partizan and Panathinaikos, and more specific to basketball. As a result of unique elements like this, we are able to reach a point where we are indeed capable of fighting the bazooka with a jackknife. On the other hand, looking at the season as a whole, the jackknife cannot beat the bazooka every day. I think, overall, the path we are on is the right one, both from an organizational and technical standpoint. Everybody knows what the goal is. It is very important and positive that everybody is on the same track. Some things will be achieved slowly, one step at a time. Furthermore, it may not be possible to keep going further every single season. You could do well for two seasons, take a step back the next season, before doing better again for the next three seasons. For example, Panathinaikos didn’t even qualify for the playoffs when they were eliminated by Partizan. The next season they came back to win the title. It is safe to assume that nobody questioned the mission of that team or called for a coaching change or the replacement of club executives. Hence, they won the championship again the following season, defeating a wonderful team like Messina’s CSKA in the process. This is the level of stability we want to reach.

ÇT: You had mentioned before that your basic strategy on the court is perfecting the principles you believe in by repeating them game by game rather than taking an approach of tactical flexibility, where strategy may undergo dramatic changes, depending on the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. This approach has its own pros and cons like all preferences. That leads me to the following question: Isn’t it a handicap while playing against higher level teams? For example, the game Bilbao Basket lost to Siena a week ago was a perfect example of the pros and cons. Coach Katsikaris tried to make his side play at a significantly slower pace than usual in their ACB games. It clearly looked like a preparation for Siena, maybe for Real Madrid and Malaga as well. In the game, Bilbao stayed loyal to its strategy for 25-30 minutes. Had they maintained this for the whole 40 minutes they could have won by a big margin. However, the minutes when they returned to their habits proved costly for them. During those sequences they were playing into Siena’s hands, and in the end they conceded a double digit defeat. What do you think about this coaching choice in general?

EA: Actually a game you win early in the season or the points scored early in the game are just as important as the points scored at the end of the game. I think this depends on the style which a person uses. Coach Mahmuti has a number of very clear principles and is loyal to these principles. It includes always staying true to your principles regardless of victory or defeat, good or bad situation, bringing a high level of intensity in every single practice, making a few changes in the scheme while starting the season, maintaining the same defensive principles in general and making a few changes with respect to the opponent, a structure which considers the season as a developing construction which will be completed at the end of the term, instead of dividing the season into subparts of three to five games. As for your Bilbao example, Katsikaris may be that type of coach. That type of coaching does exist, but so do other types. The important thing is to be able to do it in a suitable way for yourself, stay true to your style, in a way that it fits the nature of your personnel. What is right for Katsikaris and Mahmuti may not be one and the same. Should Katsikaris act like Mahmuti and Mahmuti act like Katsikaris next year, you would witness disaster. In brief, that’s our style. We try to utilize our more limited resources more effectively, keep working on the same things on a daily basis and make less specific tactical preparations for each game.

“We don’t have a back to the basket player to efficiently play in the low post, but we were fourth in points in the paint in the Euroleague before the Olympiacos game.”

We are not doing less than others on the court from a tactical point of view. Our game is steady and standard, what we are playing is well-known to the opponent. Getting stops, moving the ball through passing instead of dribbling in order to produce a clear shot, running the floor with the help of mobile big men, playing pick and roll frequently and getting an edge by playing pick and roll, making use of that edge by spreading the floor with correct spacing. One of the basic tools to slow down the game is giving the ball to your lowpost player where the player produces in a static pattern, playing inside/outside. We don’t have a guy who can do that. A player who can do that could bring disadvantages. There could be problems with pick and roll defense, running the full court, playing an open court game and rolling after the pick. There are very few players who can do all these things together, and those play only for top teams. If we had the opportunity to sign players like Fran Vazquez and Erazem Lorbek, we would. I think the level we are playing at is exactly what is possible to be achieved with the resources we have. Our game is based on teamwork; team spirit is very important for us. Team spirit is an indispensable element for every team that relies on good passing. The teamwork we are showing and the modesty of coach Mahmuti is connected, in my opinion.

ÇT: Galatasaray looks to be struggling sometimes on offense in the Euroleague. I think if one of the top options on offense could find his rhythm, the team offense could level up simultaneously. That could significantly affect everything else in a positive way. Is this the problem?

EA: As our purpose is to play as a team, with accurate halfcourt execution, we may look slower than other teams. Nevertheless, when we play well, we are able to score in a variety of ways. We don’t have a back to the basket player to efficiently play in the low post, but we were fourth in points in the paint in the Euroleague before the Olympiacos game, if I remember correctly. What does that imply? That there is good ball movement, good cutting, good play off the ball, good screen and roll play.

“Our defensive approach is very detailed. Details like the offensive player’s angle to the rim or to the ball and the distance between him and his defender are discussed in depth.”

Being halfway through the season, it is necessary for us to get to know the players, to understand which player likes to take initiative at what point, but also for the players to get used to their roles. For example, we think that we have three to four players who can take the final shot, take the initiative during crucial times of the game. During a season, it may take until January to identify how to use which player at which point.

ÇT: Galatasaray is quite successful on the defensive end. What is the difference Oktay Mahmuti makes? Also considering the old Efes Pilsen tradition of excellent defense …

EA: I can explain this as detailed as I am allowed to go. First of all, something he expresses at coaching clinics is the fact that our defense is based on commitment to always the same principles. Our defensive approach is very detailed. Details like the offensive player’s angle to the rim or to the ball and the distance between him and his defender are discussed in depth. All these things form a tablet of principles, which every player knows. Every single player will react the same way according to the guidelines we have installed, if you ask him how to play a specific position. There are small changes game by game, but the reason we limit these adjustments is that we prefer to stay loyal to our principles; thus we repeat practicing the same things over and over again. I think that helps us a lot to succeed on defense.

Our defensive approach consists of different levels. In many defensive mechanisms, there are typical settings, such as help defense by the big men and on-ball perimeter defense by the backcourt players, where front court players are responsible for basket protection and perimeter defense is the responsibility of the guards. Our approach is different. Our main defensive strategy is to constantly move all five players close to the ball, aiming to stop the perimeter offense. Of course I cannot tell you all of our secrets but this is our basic approach. We don’t have thirty different types of pick and roll defense; we are clear on what we are doing in what situation and in which way our player is going to defend. Our defensive mechanism consists of pressuring on the ball and not having just one level of big man defense behind the ball, both front- and back court players take part; additionally, all players are also responsible for their individual matchup.

Emir Alkaş worked for David Blatt on the Efes Pilsen staff in 2007/08

ÇT: What can you say about the head coaches you worked with so far? What is their most interesting and impressive aspects?

EA: I approach these coaches with a high degree of respect, since I still see myself in the learning process and consider myself a young man on this platform. Each of these coaches is very skilled in some areas but also weak in others, just like me, you and everybody else. For example, David Blatt has an enormous creativity as far as offense goes. He looks at the team’s situation and could come up with a creative solution in a matter of seconds. During a timeout, he can draw up a play which has never been executed before. He may be convinced of its effectiveness and will apply it with a high success rate.

“Blatt has a very strong sense about the application and translation of X’s and O’s onto the court.”

Coach Blatt’s teams score extremely well after timeouts. It is of course related to game preparation but it is also related to quick thinking. He has a very strong sense about the application and translation of X’s and O’s onto the court. Personally I think the starting points of many schemes played in European basketball, are related to him, especially from his seasons back when he was an assistant coach with Maccabi Tel Aviv.

As for the specific Maccabi style, we see the transition game: playing at a high tempo, scoring through quick pick and rolls early on the shotclock, gaining momentum by playing spectacular basketball with athletic players. In better words, they use players who have quickness, scoring ability, athleticism and a combination of height and ballhandling. Maceo Baston runs the floor extremely well, Chuck Eidson is one of these rare point-forwards. In their system, it was discussed whether Maceo Baston, the same player who played in Badalona, was the best big man in Europe and whether Nikola Vujcic, the same player who was sent on loan to ASVEL, was the best center since Vlade Divac. They used these players effectively. Jamie Arnold, who is currently doubtful to be signed by a TBL team, can contribute with 14 points off the bench in a Euroleague final in their setting. They optimize their teams on offense.

Another thing I learned from Blatt is the emphasis on game preparation, on a technical and tactical side. From what I have seen, coaches originating from Israeli and Greek basketball put particular emphasis on this subject. We are trying to establish something similar here as well. We believe that we are preparing the games well at this point. Oktay Mahmuti also knows the significance of game preparation and manages that side of our job very well. Since this is also the area where I do a lot of work in, it is natural for me to approach the people who give importance to game preparation with a lot sympathy. When we look at their preparation level and workload, it happens on an extremely high level. I have learnt a lot from that. When the Russian national team won the 2007 Eurobasket in Spain, excellent game preparation played a big part in that.

Also, Oktay Mahmuti has a special place for me, as we work together.

ÇT: Regarding Coach Mahmuti, the 2003-04 Efes Pilsen was the best defensive team I have ever seen. I remember a game against TAU Ceramica in Istanbul, where Macijauskas, who was probably the most hyped-up player at the time, could not make a single field goal as the result of an excellent defensive effort. Olympiacos came to Istanbul averaging more than 90 points over their previous couple of games but only scored 52 points because Efes did not go full strength in the final quarter. I don’t think any Montepaschi Siena roster, and they’ve had great defensive teams on their own, has been as good defensively as that Efes team. Missing the Final Four by a single point was extremely unlucky.

EA: I agree that they were the best Turkish team in Europe in the last decade, and Coach Mahmuti deserves credit for that job with somewhat unknown players. One of them had not lived up to the expectations in Benetton Treviso, another one was coming from Caja San Fernando, a third one from FMP Zeleznik, while a couple of big names – Marcus Brown and Kaspars Kambala – had left. And while there were doubts about whether playing with two Turkish playmakers would suffice, Efes succeeded by playing the whole season with just those two. It was an unorthodox team, which managed to go further in the Euroleague than any other Turkish team in the last ten years. It didn’t have an as prominent roster as other Turkish teams in the last decade, but it showed the best performance. Coach Mahmuti is to be thanked for that. As I was working in the Efes Pilsen organization back then, I know very well how that team was practicing and preparing for the games.

ÇT: Apart from game preparation, is it safe to say that he is really good at identifiying unheralded players who will function well in his system and play well with one another? Is he a great roster builder?

EA: I think it is a very good attribute for him not to have a name obsession. More or less every team he coached, from Benetton to Efes or now Galatasaray, is known for playing tough basketall, never being afraid to hurt the opponents. It takes a lot to create a team which is announced with the words “it’s not going to be an easy game” in the opponent’s locker room before the game, regardless of how strong the opponent is. He’s been able to build such teams whatever organization he worked in.

“The coaches most difficult to face? Two coaches come to mind. One of them is Xavi Pascual.”

He sticks to his principles, he is a charismatic figure, creating not only a healthy team environment but shaping the whole organization, leading it to become more efficient and consequently more successful. Being able to correct a refereeing decision in the middle of a Euroleague game, while living the game with such an excitement, is a quality, too. Maybe people will claim that I cannot say bad words about him due to our personal relationship, but these men are important figures. Mahmuti, Blatt – great people who’ve done a lot for the game of basketball. The respect they are shown in Europe documents that.

ÇT: Who are the coaches most difficult to face?

EA: We only had the chance to go in-depth on the teams we played against. Therefore we have a much better idea of what those coaches do, compared to those we didn’t face yet. I would like to primarily comment on the coaches we faced with Efes Pilsen and Galatasaray.

Two coaches come to mind. One of them is Xavi Pascual. Seeing how his FC Barcelona manages to execute a play perfectly with a single little change, on a complicated platform where many different plays are executed, that is exceptional. Barcelona has about 50 different types of plays. They choose about ten of those to execute during a game. Seeing how every player executes all these options perfectly was impressive. It requires very hard work in order to reach that level. They have very good players, with high intellectual capacity. They change one thing in a timeout and everybody executes the play like they’ve been running the play for twelve years.

Also, I would like to add a surprise here: We played against Estudiantes last year in the Eurocup, the team of Luis Casimiro². Their offensive organization was excellent, players were aware of what to do at any given point. Their individual quality isn’t on Euroleague level and they didn’t have a whole lot of success, but we had difficulties when facing them. Certainly there are other teams and coaches who deserve mention. For example, had we played with Bilbao, I would have a better idea about Katsikaris’ work. I can talk more easily about the coaches whose teams we’ve already analyzed. I chose my examples within that limited group.

ÇT: Overall, who are the best coaches from your point of view?

EA: Results speak for themselves. Every possession, every game, every second, every training in European basketball are significant and therefore entirely different from the NBA; the ones who excel in this environment will survive in the end. It is not easy to rank them all, since these people are working under different circumstances so it is difficult to compare them. I also have personal relations with many of them. Obradovic, Ivkovic and many more, these are undeniably top level coaches. As for Ivkovic, it is very impressive for a sixty nine year old man to manage the game with such poise and intelligence, making clever little changes, knowing which card to play and when. Obradovic is great, Pascual, Blatt, Pianigiani are obviously great, too.

ÇT: Could we say that Obradovic is the number one?

EA: Hmm, I guess so. I can mention different teams, other names beyond the well-known ones. For example, young coaches like Sasa Obradovic, who is a good coach in my opinion. His teams are always aware of what they are doing on the court. Luka Pavicevic is a very good coach as well. Even though he was fired in a bad way this season, Oded Katash is a good coach from my point of view. I had the chance to analyze their work and I really liked their approach and philosophy both on offense and on defense. I may be a bit romantic in looking at this subject. I may not always choose the most successful men in this business.

“Let’s not forget, every coach has been fired.”

Basically, what I like basketball-wise, is quick movement, taking care of the basketball, good decision making, using many different players and maximizing their talent to the team’s gain, bringing them together as a working mechanism rather than collecting a bunch of egos, and playing with a certain rhythm on the court. In 2003 I visited the U19 World Championship in Thessaloniki. It was a very good tournament, including prospects such as Andrew Bogut, Engin Atsür, Roko Ukic, Sofoklis Schortsianitis, JJ Barea, Linas Kleiza. Lithuania’s coach in that tournament was Kairys, who is currently serving as assistant coach for the senior national team. This was a great example of a team that was made so much better by good coaching. If a coach makes you say that, then he is a good coach, in my opinion. And let’s not forget, every coach has been fired.

ÇT: Just like Vujosevic said.

EA: Exactly. Those words are very true. It is not right to evaluate a coach based on how he did on just one team. If a coach can make a team play good basketball, he certainly has the depth. But, if his team may not be playing well, that doesn’t make him a bad coach. That’s how this subject should be approached, I think.

ÇT: Which coaches do you expect to be the top coaches in the future, who do you see as most promising to take over from the likes of Obradovic, Ivkovic and Messina? Maybe names that differ from the common ones?

EA: Personally, I am curious to see what is going to happen when the assistants of the current top level coaches get into head coaching positions. Most of the top coaches have worked with the same assistants for the last 10-12 years. When this era ends, their assistants will take over good teams. . CSKA assistant coach Sferopoulos coached a very good team – Kolossos Rhodes – and Pianigiani also started as an assistant. I think it will be a different era when coaches can add their personal perspective to the education they received on the sidelines.

ÇT: For example, Katsikaris is exactly that type of coach in my opinion; he doesn’t fully imitate Ivkovic.

EA: On the other hand, implementing what you have learned from a more experienced coach during your time as an assistant, that is a very good thing, since you don’t need a lot of time to develop your style when you assist a top-notch coach. And if you stay with him for a long time, it means that you agree with his basic principles and his perspective. You just make little modifications. Therefore, you start way ahead of someone who has to start from scratch. Your chances of progressing are much higher. For example, one of the best coaches in Europe right now, I think, is Pashutin. So much is obvious given the results of Unics Kazan this season as well as winning Eurocup last year.

ÇT: He was good at CSKA as well, I think.

EA: He reached the Final Four with CSKA when they were beginning a phase of rebuilding, starting to focus on younger players. Having been an assistant to both Blatt and Messina must have been a great experience which influnced him significantly, but the system he built from this experience has produced one of the top half court offenses in terms of execution. Ivkovic also favors the half court game, I consider him to be close to Ivkovic’s level in this area. When someone’s name is mentioned in the same breath as Ivkovic’s he deserves a lot of credit.

ÇT: The second half performances of Unics Kazan are incredible this season.

EA: Totally, Pashutin doesn’t try to gain an advantage through playing a fast-paced game, like Ivanovic does.

In my opinion we have seen four basic styles of play in the past decade. One of them is the Messina style, getting the most out of any given roster, according to the strengths and weaknesses of the player personnel. It ranges from a very offensive minded Benetton team with Bulleri and Edney via a Kinder Bologna team which won the Euroleague final by grinding out low-scoring wins, to the defensive monster he created in Moscow. I call these global optimization coaches, optimizing every element of their system. Secondly, the Ivanovic style, which actually has not gained much recognition in Turkey, as if Vitoria were on the other end of the world. This approach consists of many demanding practices and very high tempo. When an Ivanovic team beats you, it can be humiliating. I call it rhythm basketball. It is a system which provides a player that handles the ball a lot, such as Igor Rakocevic, with great scoring opportunities in lethal spots on the floor, and as a result, they were able to use him effectively. Everybody has seen how the player performed after he left that system, which consists of more complicated and longer offensive sets, patterns that are not easy to learn and a commitment to a specific style but also heavily relying on offensive rhythm…

“Obradovic basketball is modular basketball.”

Third, the Maccabi or Gershon/Blatt style. Gershon and Blatt are different but they both start the offense via defense, play transition offense seven to eight times in a row, have just five plays on offense while other coaches have 20 and execute them at a fast pace. When it comes to defense, they are the type of coaches that whisper to the ear of the assistant coach during the trainings about when the offense should start. In this system there is a tendency for shortcuts, a lot of tactical moves on defense, which favors switches, frequent matchup zones like we see at Maccabi and the Russian national team. Pini Gershon could be considered as the master of that approach, coaching players with great hands and quick feet, running relatively few plays but executing them within the context of an uptempo, high-scoring game.

Also, there is the Obradovic style, modular basketball, with two creative players on the court alongside three finishers. While these two create, the other three are excellent complementary players who commit only few mistakes. When one of the three off-ball-players makes a mistake, they are warned much more sternly than the two creators. Excellent game preparation, excellent tactical work, where the assistant coach is extremely important. Their game bases heavily on the pick and roll. Some players create, others finish. Plays may focus on one specific advantage. For example, if Perperoglou’s post up game works well and they feel they can get him the ball in a good position, it doesn’t matter that Nick Calathes is the more creative player, they will keep playing through Perperoglou. They make unorthodox changes game by game, depending on what gets them an advantage.

ÇT: What are your thoughts on roster building, which you are responsible for as well? What are your priorities? If you were asked to start a team from scratch, what are your basic principles?

EA: Recruitment is becoming far more important than what you do on the sidelines. We can divide the work of a high-level coach into four parts: The first one is recruitment. Second, forming a system, a training system, basic principles. Coming third is ingame coaching. Four, tactical work and game preparation. Different coaches weight these parts differently. This era’s biggest trend is improved recruitment.

Starting from the NBA and spreading to Europe, player scouting, identifiying talent, following youth national team competitions expanded. Nowadays everybody knows everything, information is far better accessible now than in the past. Whoever has the better players will win more games. I think the key to signing good players is being meticulous. If you are meticulous, that means you have more information. If you have more information, you make a more reliable decision. Today information is not a big secret. You can call the GM of an NBA team and ask him about the personality of a player. What matters is getting the right information from right place and being able to make assessment based on that information. It is easy to decide about which player not to sign with the help of the information systems we are using, but identifying the player you do want to sign is extremely difficult. We consider certain factors while adding a player, after we are convinced of his quality. First, how will he fit into the puzzle alongside the players who he will share the same position and play together with. I think that is one of the very basic criteria. Would he play well with that player? Would he share the ball with him? Does he need lots of minutes on the floor to be effective or can he produce in limited minutes? The player who can still be effective in limited minutes is much more valuable than the player who needs a large amount of minutes. Today’s game is very fast, so a player can produce on a high level 20 to 22 minutes in average, 28 minutes tops, apart from the season-defining games. Players who look effective while playing 36-37 minutes per game may become a balloon. How would he play in limited playing time, in a limited role?

“We do not want a bad teammate under any circumstances.”

In order to anticipate how a go to guy would perform as a role player requires watching a lot of tape, preferably where he plays on different teams. I think one of the most reliable methods is to watch him play for different teams, national team performance and other teams. This is quite valuable information. Apart from that, we want to know about the personality of the player from people who worked with him before. We do not want a bad teammate under any circumstances. It has been going well for us, none of the players we signed so far was has a bad character. We don’t sign a player without having information, references. It doesn’t work any other way for us. In order to do these things, we need to work hard by watching the player for plenty of oncourt minutes. Secondly, we must maintain a good technology level. Finding tapes of the players is required as well. Possessing and using a network is a necessity. You do not need to call twenty four different places to get information, though. Time is a very essential criterion. Today Banvit is able to sign a player as soon as Olympiacos releases him and the information is out. Teams that perfect the ways of accessing information have clear a advantage over the competition.

ÇT: To return to talking about coaching styles, what about the style I would call “system coaching”, which Messina and Gershon have been successful with. Those teams play a certain type of game very consistently. Is this approach on the decline? After all there’s plenty of player fluctuation, rule changes, changes in the structure of the game, like increasing minute distribution. Here’s an example: Messina has lost three Euroleague finals to Obradovic, despite having, in my opinion, better rosters either of the three final games. Some people claim that, as the best players in Europe leave for the NBA, the final result here is decided more by coaching than anywhere else, that a coach’s in-game moves have a much higher effect on the outcome of games at top level here.

EA: We must look at these people first. When another Messina or Gershon emerges, he will rule the competition again with this very same style. Messina was giving Smodis plenty of playing time when he was in his early twenties. It is not right to isolate these people and their styles from the others. Minimum requirements of top level basketball are very high but they fulfill these minimum requirements very successfully. They also do a great job identifying talent. For example, Messina has his own scouting team. They find players before others do. He installs Ante Tomic as a cornerstone of his team in the middle of the season and thus makes Real Madrid a strong candidate for the Final Four. I think charisma also plays a big role here. Messina is a man who lectured at the University of Bologna for years. We all would love to have a new Messina, and when he arrives, he will be just as successful. The most charismatic coaches have always been winning. First it was Pat Riley, after him Phil Jackson. Coaching legends are persevering in Europe in particular. Therefore it feels like the Obradovic era will never end. But when it does end, the most charismatic coach of the time will replace him.

ÇT: I personally don’t like the structure of the Euroleague, which is stuck between a European competition and a closed league model. Certain teams have been dominating the competition for years. The chance for teams with lower budgets to succeed is decreasing. Even more so with the new Top16 format. What do you think about the path the Euroleague is taking?

EA: It is obvious that Euroleague is a league of giants. Furthermore, the league is very good at what it does, they have plenty of competence in their decision making positions. For example, when we talk to the Euroleague people, they say that Partizan’s run to the Final Four has opened a new window for other clubs as well, even if fourteen games in the new Top 16 format make it look more like the G8 structure. But it is a strong organization, managed professionally and successfully, there is no alternative; Even FIBA accepted the Euroleague’s superiority. Thus you definitely want to be in the Euroleague.

“When you visit the ULEB headquarters in Barcelona, one whole floor is dedicated to marketing. They are top-notch people in their business.”

You cannot claim Euroleague is the club of the rich guys. Noone can do that, since the organization is very successful. Referee organization, their managerial performance, sponsorship organization, level of communication skills and fairness, everything’s on a high level. Overall, the Euroleague is a very successful organization.

ÇT: Really that successfull?

EA: Definitely. Their marketing is at a level where they are selling the possibility of reaching the Final Four to everyone including Unics Kazan, after Partizan reached it two years ago. When you visit the ULEB headquarters in Barcelona, one whole floor is dedicated to marketing. They are top-notch people in their business.

CT: Who do you expect to step forward in the future? Due to the economics, the Greek clubs are declining. The same could happen in Spain and Italy. Russian and Turkish clubs improved by spending a lot of money. What does the future have in store for us? For example, could the ex-Yugoslavian countries rise again, ,both on club and national team level?

EA: I think whoever maintains good organization will be on top. Everybody will rise at one point. There was a crisis in Turkey as well, thus Turkish clubs declined, but now they are back on the rise again, attracting plenty of quality players. Russia’s situation is comparable. Traditional clubs like Panathinaikos, Olympiacos, Barcelona and Baskonia will always be up there. Even if they should stay away from the top at one point, the ones who continue the tradition will take their place. Pamesa Valencia is a good example. Valencia has always been a good mid-level team in Spain. They won the ULEB Cup, they made big investments, they tried to buy almost the whole TAU Ceramica team except for Luis Scola. But you cannot be the same team as TAU just by acquiring Oberto, Tomasevic or any other player. It even goes to having, for example, a physiotherapist as good as TAU’s when it is about becoming as good of a club like that.

I believe it’s healthier to examine the club level rather than the country level. If there is a big crisis in Russia, CSKA possesses the necessary know-how, vision, experience, management skills, lobby or whatever you want to call it, so they still stay on top. CSKA’s success cannot be explained by the money alone. Yes, Kirilenko does earn good money, but they also provide other factors to satisfy him in order to keep him there. No doubt he could get a better contract in the NBA. But they are such a good organization. They produced a good generation: Vorontsevich and Kaun have become very good rotation players. When you add two more good players to that core, you have a very good roster, partially built from their own resources. We all know how great it is to succeed with local players. This is a club with a great vision. Other teams intend to compete with them by spending big. At some point, they run out of money, as the Dynamo Moscow example shows.

ÇT: About young players: As a person who has worked at the under age level, how do you see the process of elevating young talents to the senior team level? It appears to be a reasonable option to send a player on loan to countries where the gap between the first and second divisions is smaller such as Spain or Italy. In other countries, like Turkey, it is much more difficult.

EA: I think successful countries and clubs, who develop new players through youth academies, treat every single player as a unique project with a specific value. Let me explain it this way: it may be a good option for one player to be sent on loan, but for another player staying on the team and participating in high-level trainings may be the right choice. It may be good for a player to be sent to another team on loan immediately after signing and play there for a couple of seasons before returning. It may be very important for one player to play a lot of minutes, whereas the other benefits more from training with a top quality roster, also in terms of physical development. I think this was the secret behind player development in former Yugoslavia. They did what was necessary for every single player.

ÇT: Like the examples of Petrovic and Kukoc show …

EA: Yeah. Take Partizan and Nikola Pekovic for example. They needed a player who Pekovic backed up and learned the key points from. As a result of that approach, he became the player he is today. For another player the right choice might be to send him on loan. Basically that’s the right perspective for me, to consider each player as a unique project. I think the most basic problem is that even though the mental strength and physical attributes of a player are very important, we also have to deal with other issues. These kids grow up and they might get engaged and have a more regular life. But the time which is lost while dealing with a player’s mental issues or the fact that his coach at youth tournaments counts on him to win games instead of educating him, could turn out to be very costly. You expect the player to explode at the age of 23 but at that age he may not have the skillset required to succeed at senior level. At the same time, a player who trains well within a good structure is more fundamentally developed than the other. You cannot be successful when you possess just a jump shot off the dribble and no other skills, ballhandling, low post game, and so on. While dealing with offcourt factors, work on fundamentals could be set aside. This is the basic problem in Turkey, in my opinion. And as I said before, there are two ways: One is to consider each player as a different project. The other is teaching a new thing every day, so they can add fundamental skills.

¹The former Galatasaray executive, responsible for the basketball section, has resigned recently.
²Won the ACB with TDK Manresa in 1997-98 season.

Written by sJacas

February 12th, 2012 at 5:54 pm

  • sJacas

    Really enjoyed this insight. Thanks to Çağrı for conducting the interview and doing all the work, and thanks to Coach for taking the time and answering in such great detail.

  • Fuck yeah

    Only a mediocre coach such as Blatt could run an offense for the first time after a timeout in a game. 

    I agree on Pavicevic and Pashutin though, promising coaches.

    If recruiting is so important nowadays, whose bad idea was it to sign Songaila? And will they be reprimanded for a bad choice from their superiors?
    Also I have a 120 square meters of balcony additionally to the size of my apartment, if I put a label “Entire floor is the home of best basketball blog in the world, ITG” it doesn’t mean I actually do good job in that space. Euroleague is a joke compared to real “top notch” competitions, organisation wise, like NBA, CL, EPL, ACB etc… even if they build twin towers and dedicate it to “marketing”.

    Their marketing is so “brilliant” that they managed to sell the idea to themselves that they can sell a Final Four to Prokom, by giving them an A license (over Partizan).

    It’s like a salesman in a Ferrari store would be proud of himself of convincing me that purchasing a Ferrari would be awesome. I’m sure I would be sold, just that I wouldn’t come up with the money needed to actually buy it. 

    Well, the one year Norilsk decided to stop funding CSKA the entire organisation collapsed and they didn’t make it… also this could be the last year of Panathinaikos as we know it (although the work done in marketing, youth and other section rather shows that there is a buyer coming…), after Dynamo lost their main sponsor (a real estate development company) they were $10M in debt and now they don’t even exist… where is ULEB Cup finalist Girona now? Where are EL clubs Iraklis, AEK and Peristeri? Come on… want it or not, money is the main tool to keep a team in top level.

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  • MrEuroleague

    Kudos on a great interview.
    Enjoyed reading it

  • Derfde

    great piece!

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