Heres a little story to start this entry. Last week I was having lunch with Arturas Karnisovas and Sam Hinkie, Vice-President of Basketball Operations for the Houston Rockets, who own Real Madrids back-up point guard Sergio Llulls rights. And at some point during the conversation Sam asked me when exactly he could expect to read an update to the blog. So, as you see, I had an additional incentive to write this post. Now, lets get it underway.
The trip to Moscow with Real Madrid presented me with the opportunity to see old friends and colleagues. I met everybody here. We visited Andrey Vatutins office where we watched Maroussi CSKA game. Id say sitting there, watching my former team is something I wouldve never expected to happen. There were some mixed feelings and I have to admit that at some point I got close to being upset about CSKA players mistakes and happy for their good execution. And I was clear-cut delighted when Victor Khryapa scored that incredible basket because I didnt want to bring bad luck to CSKA.
Anyway, we spent a lot of time together and I received plenty of gifts from everybody including my great tennis mate and currently vice president of the club Yuri Yurkov, vice president Natasha Furaeva, assistant coach Dima Shakulin, athletic trainer Gosha Artemyev everybody. The following day many of those people went to Khimki to see the game and it gave me an additional source of nervousness, because I wanted Real to perform well in front of them. Some of my CSKA friends even stayed and waited for me after the game to give their support and wish me good luck. I really wanted my team to win, but unfortunately we had way too many ups and downs, committed too many mistakes down the stretch and Khimki deserved to beat us.
I realized that with me coming from Italy even though by that time Id already won Euroleague twice with my Bologna teams and reached Final Four with Benetton Treviso the atmosphere was quite skeptical
Lately Ive been thinking about the differences between my first year with CSKA and my first year with Real Madrid. You see, these are two great clubs, two great organizations, two excellent teams. But I was in a different situation when I came to Moscow. At that time I was replacing the legendary Dusan Ivkovic whod done an excellent job with CSKA. And I realized that with me coming from Italy even though by that time Id already won Euroleague twice with my Bologna teams and reached Final Four with Benetton Treviso the atmosphere was quite skeptical. The general attitude was Well, lets see whos this guy whom Sergey Kushchenko brought in to coach CSKA. That gave me the opportunity to start working and not worry about asking for extra patience.
Up to now it hasnt been the same here in Madrid. My signing with the club is considered a big addition, a major move by the President Florentino Perez. For the local media the common thinking is Ettore Messina is with the club so its going to be very strong for sure. And once you get past those first days of excitement, such situation puts a chip of additional expectations on your shoulder which is something I wouldve rather avoided.
In many articles the team has been labeled as Real Madrid of Ettore Messina. I think things like that can affect the players who ultimately are the most important participants of the game. Ive always believed that coaches do the biggest part of their job helping select the players and then organizing the team in the daily workouts and assuring its prepared for the games. The coach for me is not some sort of a chess player who moves pieces on the game board. Any team is first and foremost a players team. Its their family, their home. Players have to create the teams identity and take the responsibility. What I can do is help them understand this, help the players become responsible for the team. I realize its only natural that very good years with CSKA created high expectations; I just hope this doesnt affect my mentality and my work.
Usually, things dont go well for my teams early in the season. Ive been trying to find a reason for that for a long time. It happened in Bologna (both times I was appointed a head coach there), in Treviso, it happened with CSKA. Here in Madrid its even more difficult because we have eight new players and each of them has a hard time adjusting to the coachs demands and figuring out his role in the team.
I guess I could agree with the notion that sometimes bigger clubs have more trouble adjusting to the off-season changes than the smaller ones
I guess I could agree with the notion that sometimes bigger clubs have more trouble adjusting to the off-season changes than the smaller ones. Perhaps thats because those teams usually sign top players who are used to getting the spotlight. For such guys it could be quite challenging to step back and accept a smaller role. And Im not talking about selfishness or bad will here. Its just when you get many big names on the roster it means some of them will have to get used to fewer spotlights, less freedom, reduced playing time. Thats why sometimes supposedly strong teams dont fare well in the beginning of the season. If you want an example, just look at Panathinaikos. Last year they won Euroleague but the club struggled mightily until the Top 16 stage. That one big win they got in Malaga turned their season around. And Barcelona, the side that won Liga Espanola and reached the Final Four where almost beat us (I mean CSKA), also had ups and downs until they pulled an upset of Tau Ceramica. From that point on Barcelona dominated the Spanish League. So, it takes time but the important thing is to have enough talent to keep winning despite all the obstacles. Even if those wins are not all that pretty.
Personally, as I already mentioned in this blog, I consider myself a tailor whose job is to create the best possible suit for the team. Im not a prêt-à-porter guy; I dont produce those ready to wear clothes. Im like a man who makes a suit thats supposed to fit its owner perfectly. That means it takes time for me to understand whats best for the team both defensively and offensively. Like, we can defend a pick-and-roll in many different ways. And the way we defended it with CSKA could be ill-suited for a team thats not as powerful and at the same time is much quicker than CSKA. We have to adjust our pick-and-roll defense, adjust principles of defensive rotations, etc. Its my job to define through experiment what we should do.
Same goes for the offense. With CSKA, we didnt run a lot of pick-and-rolls. We liked to create post-up opportunities for our bigs and set plenty of off-the-ball screens for the shooters. But here in Madrid day by day I become more and more confident that this is a team that should use pick-and-rolls more often. Weve got a lot of frontline players who can pick and pop out, which could give us versatility as far as offense is concerned. At the same time, its important not to overlook posting-up that forces defenders inside and creates space for our shooters on the perimeter.
Players just need to know that what were trying to do is find a common way to see and play basketball. I dont believe in imposing my ways on them
Figuring all this out takes a while and in the meantime were not playing consistently and sometimes lose games. Players just need to know that what were trying to do is find a common way to see and play basketball. I dont believe in imposing my ways on them. I want to be clear on this a team has to play in a disciplined way. But that does not mean always looking over your shoulder, trying to execute something under the orders of some policeman. Disciplined here means always able to understand whos in the best position to take a shot and being ready to take the responsibility of shooting the ball without passing it to somebody whos not in a good position. Also, it means to know how important it is to sacrifice on defense and stop your opponent from getting easy baskets. This kind of self-discipline and toughness is something every team has to develop if it wants to compete and be victorious.
Right now were in the process of becoming a competing team, because only teams that can compete have a chance to win. Its something fans and people who look from the outside dont always understand. In their opinion, if a team has a competent coach and good players, then its all simple and victories will come. But its not like this. The first thing is to stop being just a group of individuals and become a team that can compete. Its vital to understand how difficult it is and how mentally tough you should be in crucial moments of a game. Basically, if you want to win, sometimes you have to play like those great tennis legends who dont make unforced errors at all. Thats exactly what we couldnt do in Khimki, by the way. And thats the biggest reason we lost that game.