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Lost in transition

Every single season you have a new team. Not only because there were one or several changes in the roster. Last year’s events became a part of the past. Players have changed. They don’t stay just the same people year after year. It no longer matters whether they experienced wins or losses last year. To sum up, the players are different, the team is different.

Of course, you can use some parts of the last year program. This will help as technical habits are still there. However you need to adjust your program and your strategy in order to integrate new players and find out how you can improve the new team.

There are two major theories on approaching a new season or a new team. The first one basically says that the system goes first. Many of my colleagues implement the same system every year with very slight changes. They try to find players that would fit in their system. Some of those coaches are in a good position: they have enough means to select players.

I have a different opinion. I adjust our system, our strategy, our tactical organization to the individual abilities of the players that we have. In this theory coach is similar to a tailor who makes a suit for a customer. Even if you use some general frame to make suits, you have to adjust it to the customer’s body. Ready-to-wear suits always need to be adjusted to the individuals that will be wearing it.

The same rule applies to the strategy we implement every year. First, it needs to address individual abilities of the personnel. Second, there should be mutual cooperation between coaches and players. Coaches have to come up with a tactical organization that will allow the players to use their individual abilities. Players have to make an effort to understand coach’s philosophy.

Generally, I might have some defensive and offensive objectives, but it will depend on players’ individual abilities what kind of system we’ll choose, and how we get to the point this time.

Let me give you an example. Suppose, I like switching defense. But to switch in defense you need to have tall guards. If I have a team with small quick guards, I cannot implement the system with a lot of switching. This way I’ll put my small guards in big trouble. If my big men are slow, I won’t be able to use switching either.

I have to adjust the system to players’ individual abilities. If they come off screens and shoot well, I have to organize the offense with some screening for them. If they are good at penetrating, I have to build my system around it. The general concept might be to play on offense together, to share the ball to look for an open man, but how we get there will depend on the roster we have.

Another important point is that transition period takes time. The process is usually the same. It starts with a short phase of 2-4 weeks. New players come together, the instructions they get are very limited because of the time available. They are positive, they are willing to cooperate with each other, they are willing to show their abilities to get some credibility.

Then first difficulties show up: opponents get stronger, games become more difficult. When the difficulties come, the quality of the game both in defense and offense goes down. This is the period we are now experiencing in CSKA. After showing a good level of cooperation in phase one, many players feel insecure now. In some situations they don’t know whether to shoot or pass, to help in defense or stay with their man. They start thinking too much about what they should do rather than letting it go naturally. It’s just the matter of time, matter of working every day in practice, matter of not losing confidence in one another. Results may be up and down, performance quality may be up and down. For the coach, it’s the matter of being consistent and confident in what the team is doing, what you are capable to do yourself.

Players and coaches should understand that practice is the time when everybody must think more in order to understand the system and their teammates better, to understand what should be done and what should not be done. But during the game, you should isolate yourself from this practice habit, concentrate on what you’re doing and let yourself go without thinking too much. It might be difficult, but all teams that managed to distinguish when thinking is necessary to learn, and when is the time to concentrate on what you’re doing and let it go, step quickly at a higher level.

Usually, it takes 3-4 months to complete transition period and to fully integrate new players and some changes in the tactical organization.

The history is full of examples of teams that eventually succeeded after 3-4 months of poor performance. Once you notice that the team starts playing without thinking too much, through the instincts, that means that thinking has become an instinct. When instincts of all players are directed by some guidelines that we all share and believe in, the team immediately gains a different flow in the game. This is one of the signs that the transition period is over. Almost every team goes through this period every season. The teams that start well immediately after adding new players are extremely rare.

Basically, after going through this period, you either get more stable and confident as a team or you lose confidence. The worse scenario happened to me several times. If it happens, it’s very important that coach and club management show the team that they a) believe in players, b) believe in the system and organization. Players immediately lose confidence, especially in moments when they feel they are not doing what they are expected to do and the team is not playing as a team. If, in that particular moment, they notice that people around them are questioning them, questioning coaches, questioning organization, they feel completely lost. The strong and secure guidance by the management and the coaches becomes decisive. As well as some leadership by example from the most important players.

In my opinion, club management has the most difficult job here. On one hand, they need to be consistent with their decisions and to feel confident. On the other hand, sometimes they need to find power to make some adjustments because of the initial mistakes in the selection or in the tactical organization, or even completely change the strategy. The ability of the management to sit down with coaches and discuss the adjustments might save the season even after a bad start.

However if some team makes a lot of changes during the season, it is very unlikely to accomplish anything. Overreacting, firing the coach, cutting players usually does not help to get any results. For one simple reason – it’s already a good excuse not to push themselves forward to achieve results. And this excuse would cover for any future failure.

During my first year with CSKA we had a lot of problems. We had a new coach, new system, many new players. Players that now are considered cornerstones of our success, like Smodis, Langdon, Vanterpool, were questioned badly back then. Maybe in this case it was helpful that we weren’t able to read newspapers. We just isolated ourselves and concentrated on what we had to do. The transition period ended in February. Interestingly, it also coincided with the injury of David Andersen. Psychologically, the loss of David helped us to bring more balance on the court, giving more responsibility to Papaloukas, for example.

As I said after the game with Montepaschi, at this moment we have some players who are thinking too much and not playing instinctively. It was easier when we were in China and in Siberia, because it was the first stage and our game was very elementary. Now the level of opponents is rising, level of pressure is rising. Now we need to fight for 2 points every single time. We’re not the team that we hope we will be in March or April. At least not yet. It’s just the matter of time.

Here are some tips that will help you to understand when the transition period is over. Good results show that you managed to find some consistency. Especially, if you manage to play your style on the road. Another sign is playing with a good flow and players are not thinking too much. In offense, the ball is moving fast and nobody stops that movement just to think where to pass it or to whom to pass it. In defense, you see the five people moving together at the same time and not one after the other. When you see this, it means that the team has completed the process and now it’s the matter of becoming more stable and playing on that level night in and night out. By repeating it, the team is becoming more confident. Wins help the confidence. There is a strong co-dependence. You play better, you win more. You win more, you become more confident.

Facing a strong opponent at the beginning of the transition period could be risky. It could work both ways. If you lose, it may hurt the confidence of the team. If you win, it could accelerate the process of building confidence and could help the chemistry of the team.

The only reason we start the season in Vladivostok and Siberia is to organize this trip when the weather is still good and we don’t have Euroleague season started. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize the high level of those teams. If you remember, last year we almost lost to Vladivostok and Novosibirsk. Plus Dynamo and Khimki were defeated in Vladivostok. So it isn’t a safe choice in what comes to the level of the teams. This year we repeated the trip as we had the opportunity to go to China to represent Euroleague.



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