Ettore Messina, From A Local’s Perspective

Darius Soriano —  July 13, 2011

The announcement went a bit under the radar, but the Lakers officially introduced Ettore Messina as a member of Mike Brown’s staff last week. This has been in the works for what seems like months, so it’s no surprise that his official hiring didn’t get the type of press that an addition like this would normally garner.

Make no mistake though, this is a big deal. Messina is one of the most decorated coaches in the world, is well respected, and his arrival as a coach in the states has been highly anticipated. So with his hire finally being set in stone, I reached out to long time FB&G’er Xavier Sánchez who is our de facto foreign correspondent. For those that aren’t familiar, Xavier is a professional youth team coach in Spain and has done countless posts for us on all things European basketball. Xavier was kind enough to answer some general questions about Messina and provided some excellent insight. Now, on to the Q&A…

FB&G: When Messina was first mentioned as a potential addition to Mike Brown’s staff, one of the first hints at his style was the video clip of a clinic he ran on post play. Is he a coach known for developing big men? Do you think he can help get the most out of Gasol and Bynum?

XS: Gasol will absolutely love Messina, and its not entirely because of the European flavor (Messina is Italian and Pau is Spanish, not even the same country) but because Messina loves fundamentals.  As you can see in the video from the post play clinic everything he talks about is position, the right foot to land first… Pau’s game is about all that.

Bynum will pick up a lot of tricks he doesn’t have because he’s never been asked to be a polished low post player. But the key is on Bynum and his desire to learn how to do it. Messina puts a lot of pressure on the technical part of the game as it’s easy to recognize both for the coach and the player and they can work on it. Mental errors are harder to work on and that’s where Bynum could choke. If he doesn’t he’ll learn a lot from Messina.

He’ll probably make the transition from the triangle easy because he likes the players to read the offense and work what the defense gives them, that’s why he stress so much the importance of versatility and fundamentals. The more things you’re able to perform, the bigger problem you are for the defense. Bigs tend to move a lot, setting picks between bigs and switching between the high and low post. That of course requires high basketball IQ. In recent years of NBA, high basketball IQ was related to the triangle, in Europe where physical talents are not the bread and butter, we call it just basketball.

Messina is an amazing communicator. He’s a straight talking man with an incredible knowledge of the game. Its not like the zen culture the lakers had before, he’ll be chasing players telling them every minimal thing they could do better and if the player listen and tries hard (I’m looking at you Bynum) fundamental heaven is the sky.

FB&G: How “guard friendly” is his system? Does he rely on a PG to create offense for others? How do you see him using Kobe Bryant and his varied skill set?

XS: Messina has always relied on “big” playmakers. Antoine Rigaudeau, Marko Jaric, Manu Ginobili or Theo Papaloukas are just the kind of guys he wanted to give the ball to, all of them over 6-6 feet.  Neither of those have been great shooters (Ginobili being the best of them) but incredible ball handlers, with good penetration and playmaking skills.

He’s also used a lot 2 american guards during his stint in CSKA Moscow, JR Holden and former Duke (Blue Devil) Trajan Langdon, both under 6-3 but with great shooting stroke that could compensate the lack of shooting touch its big PG had.

I could see Kobe being that kind of playmaker if he buys on sharing the ball and letting the game come to him. Kobe is a fundamental beast, he studies the game as few others do in this league and that gives him an edge. Messina will kindly love to use 2nd round pick Morris could also enjoy coach Messina predilection for tall driving guards. Fish could fill the short SG role that Holden and Langdon used to play for him but he’s way past the prime. At least he’s smart enough and a good leader, just hope he can hold himself on D. A guard with more playmaking ability wouldn’t hurt.

In his four Euroleague titles, 3 of the MVPs where guards (Ginobili, Papaloukas and Langdon) but saying his system is “guard friendly” would be taking it too far. I like Messina when he says that a good coach has the ability to detect the player strengths and draws a system to work for them. He’ll share his philosophy but he doesn’t have a closed system he applies everywhere as D’Antoni does with his run and gun or Jackson with the triangle.

The 3 things I’ve seen the most from his teams are:

  1. A more than impeccable pick and roll game. Having a beast as Papaloukas helps as he is (not exaggerating) the European Stockton reading P&R situations. As you can see from this small clip of the high P&R they ran in CSKA Moscow; expect some of this to happen this season.
  2. High efficiency shots. Bad shots lead to easy fast break points. If he has fast and young players that might mean run, run, and run the fast break and stop it if they can’t finish the easy basket. With a veteran Laker team it will probably mean long worked possessions.
  3. More all-around players, less specialists

FB&G: Many think of Messina as an offensive coach and envision him helping out mostly on that side of the ball. But, what is his philosophy on defense? Do you see him being able to help the Lakers on D?

XS: As I said before, Messina starts defending by attacking smart. Bad shots lead to long rebounds and easy transition points so that’s the first thing he’ll try to transmit to the coaching staff.

He’s always been a guy more in the line of help-recover than help-rotate. I hated how the Lakers changed defenses on every pick and roll situation, I don’t think Mike Brown will like that neither, but the team is what it is, full of vets. Again, it all depends on what the staff sees and the reaction of the players to the more aggressive defense Brown will ask for.

As you may see in this clip, it’s a CSKA Moscow – Macabi Tel Aviv game. In the first quarter they are already full court press, double teams, super aggressive off the ball defense on Vujcic (Metta World Peace like) and even some well executed 2-3 zone.

See what I was saying? I repeat. This is JUST the first quarter clip. THE FIRST QUARTER!

Messina is a master teaching that kind of D, but I don’t see any of these applied in the NBA. Maybe some tweaks and suggestions and opinions, but Brown and the rest of the staff have an advantage on him in the NBA world… for now.

FB&G: What do you think are his main weaknesses as a coach? Do you see him having any adjustment issues in coming to the NBA? Specifically in coming to a Laker team with so much star power and such high expectations?

XS: The main issue in Messina as an NBA coach will be on the topic we talked before – Defense. European defense is so much different than the NBA’s. For instance, real zones are not allowed in America as we see them in FIBA ball, more closed into the paint making it harder to get to the hole.

Also, in Europe, every game is played at the top intensity. Of course there are games with rivalries and more things at stake but it’s not like in the NBA where most teams cruise during a game just to sprint the last 8 minutes, or even cruising the whole season to click for the playoffs. For European teams, the dynamic is 1 or 2 games a week, 2 practices per day 4 to 5 days a week. Not shooting sessions, PRACTICE – drills and actually working on the game. That’s quite a big change of rhythm not just for players but also for the coaches. See again the clip from question 3 and tell me if you’ve ever seen that in a regular season first quarter. Yeah right, cruising… (I know, I know, 3-4 games a week and all that stuff, but I’d rather see a well played game than 3 games that don’t matter for the first 40 minutes. Don’t kill me please, just an opinion). 

The last big adjustment Messina will likely have a hard time making is the control of the game the coach has over its players. You call Avery Johnson the “little general”? You’ve seen nothing. Coaches in Europe walk the bench up and down, don’t usually sit and are giving commands to its players. He’s probably calmer than the average euro coach but I can’t see that on an NBA bench. 

I don’t think the jump to the NBA via the Lakers bench will make the transition harder. Messina is a winner and is not afraid of it. Would Coach K be listened and respected in the Lakers bench? Messina has probably done more than him basketball wise. He’s got his head straight. He could have jumped into a starting gig in Toronto had he wanted it but as he said, he first needs to prove himself to be a good assistant coach in the NBA, make the transition the right way, and then see what happens. Adjusting to the players and situations has always been his forte, that’s just another adjustment he’s doing.

FB&G: Messina’s been a hot name in coaching circles for many years and there have been reports of him potentially coming to the NBA in past years. Why do you think he chose to come now?

XS: Well, Messina is a tremendously respected coach in Europe, he has enjoyed a great career with a combined 26 trophies and medals (also coached the Italian NT) including 4 Euroleagues in 7 final four trips.

His last gig in ACB league with Real Madrid didn’t go well. First of all he got a very young team with no chemistry at all. The situation was that bad that he resigned when he realized that neither the team front office nor the players were doing their job. The team had a pretty fair way to (what could have been) his 8th final four appearance but in that situation he could not go on.

After that, offers are still raining for him (Its Real Madrid’s image that is hurting right now) but in the wake of the Lockout I think Messina has seen the perfect occasion for him.

Let me dig into that: As I said before, Messina wants to see if he can be an assistant coach for an NBA team before jumping at the starting job but… have you dumped your job as head kitchen chef in a small bistro to be the guy that washes the dishes in a fancier downtown restaurant? I guess that it will be easier to do if the season is shorter.

More over, if he isn’t working on another euro project he can now concentrate in a more in depth study of the NBA until the lockout clears.

Now he has 19 years of top European experience, enough to be well respected and at “just” 51 years old is “young” enough to move to another goal after winning it all in Europe. 

I’m looking forward to see what he can do over there.


I also asked Xavier to talk some about Ricky Rubio; to explain what he thought his prospects were as he comes over to play for the Timberwolves. Below is his brief take on the young Spanish PG that we’ve been waiting to see in the league…

As you might have seen, the shaggy haired kid from my town has already worn his Timberwolves jersey. The word now in the US, for what I’ve heard and read, is that Rubio has peaked at 20 years old, that he’s nowhere near the talent he was when he was drafted. Can’t help but deny that.

First of all, stats argument with European players is totally out because of the difference of the game style, possessions per game and defense played.

Brandon Jennings played in a lower level league (Italian) for a much less talented team (Lottomatica Roma)  and played 19.6 min a game and averaged 7.6 points, 1.6 rebs, 1.6 ast, 1.2 steals and 1.2 To in 16 games.

Meanwhile, this season, Ricky has recorded 6.5 pts, 3,3 rebs, 3,6 ast, 1.6 steals and 1,8 to at 22.8 min in 20 games.

That isn’t to say that Ricky will have better numbers than Jennings next season even though his euroleague stats outplay the American kid. This tells you that European stats means almost nothing when translated to the NBA.

The one thing I’ve seen that I didn’t like of him this year is that he played in a system that didn’t fit him. Ricky belongs to an up tempo rhythm, running up and down the court, throwing passes left and right. Barcelona played half court games with JC Navarro (as great as he is) absorbing at least 12 to 14 seconds of each possession.

He still cannot hit consistently shots but neither is Rondo. He’s working on it though and I’ve seen a great improvement in his shooting mechanic from the last 3 years to now.

In a Timberwolves team, in need of a pick and roll capable PG, looking for a guy to distribute the shots that Beasley, Williams, Love and the kind will like to take, a pass first PG like Rubio will fit as Cinderella’s shoe. Plus, his defense is really underrated. He’s really smart on that side of the floor and his 6-9 wingspan also help.

I wish him the best.

Darius Soriano

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