Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Making up for athleticism with angles, passing, timing, and execution

Ettore Messina is one of the top coaches in Europe, winning six Euroleague titles. He's also been coach of Italy's national team.

Currently, Coach Messina is head coach of CSKA Moscow ("Red Army").

On his blog recently, Coach Messina wrote candidly about his team's preseason trip to the States for a series of exhibition games against NBA clubs. A few highlights:

-- On dealing with the travel: "At the beginning the biggest thing about the trip was the joy to go overseas to face NBA franchises on their court. But soon we realized that we need to learn how to handle ourselves during such a long trip. Some of our players had problems with sleeping, recovery of energy and so on."

-- On the physical play of the NBA: "Before the trip I thought that the NBA rules would be a factor, but it turned out that the major factor in the first game was the physical strength of Orlando, which is a much more physical team than Toronto.

The players that impressed me the most were Dwight Howard (he looked like Godzilla against us) and Hedo Turkoglu.

I haven’t seen Hedo for a long time and I was very surprised to find out, when he came up to say hello before the beginning of our game and gave me a hug, that he became extremely big and strong — wide shoulders, wide chest. He plays at a great level, with great confidence and great quickness.

During the first possession, [Hedo] drove Siskauskas to the basket as if he was playing against a young kid. And Siskauskas is not only a strong player here in Europe, but is also a fast player. I was extremely impressed by Hedo. I think the title of the Most Improved Player he received last season gave him a lot of confidence."

-- On playing a 48-minute game: "Forty-eight minutes is a lot not only for the players, but for the coach as he has to imagine completely different rotation from the one he is used to. For instance, when we played against Toronto we were tired after 36 minutes. In Europe, we’d only have the last 4 minutes to play, but here we started a completely new quarter and it was very difficult for us to find energy."

-- On the differences between how NBA franchises approached the exhibition games: "In Toronto, where the franchise is run by two people who are extremely open to the rest of the world — Brian Colangelo and Maurizio Gherardini — our clubs interacted and we had the opportunity to exchange opinions.

I was very happy to be invited to give a basketball clinic to coaches there. It was not only an opportunity to say something about the system we have in CSKA, but also an opportunity to meet local coaches. It was similar to NBA teams coming to Europe. It was a big event not only on the court, but off the court, an opportunity to exchange knowledge between two different basketball worlds.

In Orlando, we were treated really well, but we never had a chance to meet anybody representing the team or the club before or after the game. This isn’t a complaint. I’m just pointing out a different approach: it was just another exhibition game for them.

They had prepared extremely well because I was very impressed by how thoroughly they scouted us. All our offensive systems were very well defended. Obviously, we liked more the possibility to interchange off the court as well, but I respect Orlando’s approach too."

-- On opening his practices to coaches: "I opened our practices to coaches. I always do. I think it’s very important. I don’t open our practices to journalists, because sometimes something not-so-good can happen during the practice. Some players might play bad, some players might start arguing under the pressure.

Like in all families little things might happen. The journalist is doing his job in every moment. This could lead to misunderstandings that can be harmful to the team.

By the way, you don’t invite critics to evaluate the performance of an orchestra to the general rehearsal. Come see us when we are on stage. When we are on stage, it’s part of our job to be evaluated."

-- On misconceptions about coaches in Europe: "When I was talking to US and Canadian journalists, I was surprised to see how many stereotypes about European coaches and basketball they still carry.

One journalist told me that European coaches are very severe, yell a lot and make a lot of practices. I asked him: 'Have you ever seen a practice in Europe?' 'No,' he said, but he heard it was like that. I simply suggested that he takes a look at the schedule of Euroleague teams.

Because of the schedule we have, we almost never go two practices a day. For example, in CSKA we have two practices only on Monday, after a day off. Other days, it’s either a day before the game or after the game, we have only one practice. We don’t want it to be an overkill for our players, we simply want them to play good basketball.

Due to the fact that we take part in three competitions, every single game is important. You cannot afford to lose several games in a row, as it will affect your standings dramatically in each competition.

They looked at me as if I was telling them something extremely strange. I explained that we need to emphasize the fundamentals of the game, because without the athleticism they have in the NBA, most of the situations can be solved only thanks to good attention to the angles, to the passing, to the timing, to the execution. We have to adjust our game, because the personnel we have is different.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of misinformation about the way we approach game in Europe."