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Why Dell Demps might hire Ettore Messina, the most qualified Spurs assistant to date

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The New Orleans Pelicans coaching search continues with a look at one of the most interesting candidates in the pool.

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By now, I'm sure you've heard of Ettore Messina. He has one of the most storied backgrounds around for an assistant NBA coach, yet he's not a household name because most of his achievements have occurred outside of the United States.

Instead of re-inventing the wheel, let's have a look at what our friends at the Denver Stiffs had to say about his accomplished past:

Ettore Messina is on the short list of most famous and well-respected European coaches of the last decade. He coached Virtus Bologna nine seasons in two separate stints between 1989-1993 and again from 1997-2002. The team won four Italian league championships and two Euroleague championships, one in 2001 behind star player Manu Ginobili. In between his two stints with Bologna he took over as head coach for the Italian national team, leading them to the championship game in 2007 where they lost to the much more talented Yugoslavian team. He left Bologna in 2002 for Benneton Treviso where he replaced Mike D’Antoni.

In 2005, he joined Euroleague powerhouse CSKA Moscow, then owned by Mikhail Prokhorov. It was with CSKA Moscow that he achieved perhaps his greatest successes, making it to the Euroleague finals four straight years in a row, winning championships in two of those four seasons. Considered to be the best coach in Europe, Messina left CSKA for Real Madrid. However, in two seasons in Spain, Messina was unable to replicate the success that he had in Italy and Moscow. After two failed seasons with one of Europe’s most famous teams, Messina stepped down.

He made his first foray into the NBA in 2011 when he joined Mike Brown’s coaching staff with the Lakers. After one season in L.A. he returned to CSKA Moscow and led them back to the Euroleague semi-final where they lost by one point after a heartbreaking collapse to Macabi Tel-Aviv, a team coached by Cavaliers head coach David Blatt. A few months after that game, Messina joined the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant to Greg Popovich.

Messina had one hiccup in Spain with Read Madrid. From what I've been able to gather, it sounds like it was a bad fit. Their club management put an extreme amount of pressure on Messina to accomplish certain things immediately, like beating arch rival FC Barcelona in addition to winning a European club title. He did everything he could including traveling around Europe in an attempt to find the right combination of players for Madrid's roster, but after less than 2 years, it became too much.

"I decided to do what I did in order to help achieve a union on and off the court, which is absolutely necessary," Messina explained in a press conference on Saturday. "I lost the opportunity to be in my tenth Final Four in 10 years. I have also lost, I have sacrificed. If I have done this, it's because I want to help.

"It's been a very interesting year-and-a-half, with many important experiences, and it's something that doesn't happen to everyone in their professional lives. I'd like that say thanks for that and thanks to the fans who have supported us and give respect to those who have criticized us."

Many feel that with the Spurs bringing Messina to San Antonio, he will be groomed to be Gregg Popovich's successor. Here is the problem with that theory though.

Gregg Popovich signed a five-year extension less than a year ago. Although in this linked article Pop stated his chances of carrying out all the terms of the contract are not very good, it's doubtful he'd walk away well before the conclusion of the deal. Thus, I expect he'll be on the sidelines in San Antonio for at least another couple of seasons.

That's problematic because Messina wanted to be an assistant for only the short term.

He had said that he was interested in coaching in the NBA and didn’t mind doing so as an assistant for a couple of years.

Well, he had uttered these words back in 2011 and he just wrapped up season number two.

It is interesting that when he first came to the NBA, he had turned down the Spurs because he would have been buried behind several other assistant coaches (Mike Budenholzer and Don Newman). In addition, he had turned down the Raptors, Nets and Kings beforehand.

As it was mentioned above, his first stint came under Mike Brown and the Los Angeles Lakers. After one season, he went back to CSKA Moscow and stayed there for several seasons; however, it was reported that the Lakers considered Messina for their head coach once Mike D'Antoni resigned.

Now, having fulfilled his self-designated quota, Dell Demps might have a golden opportunity before him. Messina is a high demand coach but is very selective, picking assignments that will not only propel his career forward but seemingly only with relevant ball clubs.

Just several weeks ago, it was rumored Messina was on the Oklahoma City Thunder's list, but Sam Presti ended up choosing Billy Donovan. For Demps, the choice to look away from Messina might prove more difficult.

  1. Demps is considered to be a worldly individual. He has played professional basketball on three continents (Asia, Europe and South America), and during his M.B.A. studies, he even elected to study abroad.
  2. "He took an international course and went to Santiago, Chile, to study. One of the visits was to the telecom company in Santiago that was completely paperless. I think that was pretty influential on him about how he wanted to improve his efficiency and effectiveness to be really productive."

  3. The New Orleans current general manager takes great pride in his scouting network. With all of his relationships he's formed overseas, Demps wealth of contacts have been responsible for unearthing players like Gustavo Ayon, Brian Roberts, Luke Babbitt and Alexis Ajinca. If the Pelicans were to hire Messina, his network would strengthen and grow that much more.
  4. Demps is a huge disciple of the Spurs Way. He mimicked their methods in the D-League with the Austin Toros and it appears he's doing the same thing in New Orleans. He undoubtedly would prefer signing a coach who shares and understands the same principles. The following excerpt, taken straight from Messina's blog, echoes what has inspired him in San Antonio.
  5. The Spurs do things together. There’s a lot of respect for everybody, and everybody is expected to give his or her opinion and help the group. It’s a unique philosophy of working together and facing adversity together as well. Coach Popovich has this rare ability to combine his demanding nature with the most sincere care for everyone within the organization. Players, management, coaches, doctors, physiotherapists – he cares about all of them. And that makes everyone proud to be a part of the organization. This is family first, basketball club second.

    Also, one of the biggest things in coach Popovich’s philosophy is the "we can’t skip any steps" principle. It means there’s time and place for every process. You always start from the basics here and then go on to the most intricate things. At the beginning of the training camp we went over the fundamentals of offense and defense. Passing, catching, pivoting, sliding, moving without the ball – it was as if we were a junior team. That’s one of the major messages coach Popovich sends out to his players: techniques are much more important than tactics. You have to master the fundamentals and then you need the desire to compete every day, meaning that every day you have to come in ready to play.

However, the most appealing facet of Messina for the Pelicans has to be his brilliant basketball mind. Did you know that Mike Brown flew to Italy back when he was coaching LeBron James and was looking for input to improve the Cavalier's offense? Or, how about the fact that Popovich was eager to learn from Messina once the Spurs hired him?

"I'll watch the game film closely because I'm always impressed with Coach Messina's teams," Popovich said after a preseason game against Messina's CSKA Moscow team in October. "They penetrate and pitch better than we do. We try to be a team that does that really well, and we've adopted some European style in what we do here and there, but he really does a great job with them. I want to look at that and see what we can do to get even better at it."

This quote also seems to backup the fact that Messina is renowned for being an offensive mastermind. One whose teams move the ball really well, similar to the Spurs style of play the last several seasons. This is the style of basketball I envision the Pelicans are best suited to play in the very near future.

It is nearly unanimous among fans that the team increases their pace in the following seasons, but I'm frightened by the thought of a D'Antoni or Gentry system for a variety of reasons. Would a run and gun offense really do the best job of showcasing Anthony Davis? What about the fact that playing with speed usually results in sacrificing size? (Remember, Davis sees himself as a PF.) And this is before we even talk about any hope for the defense.

Messina is a strong proponent of balance and playing inside-out.

For our offensive rhythm, it is critical that the ball find its way to our inside player. Playing the ball only on the perimeter creates a lot of difficulties for our offense and, as a result, it becomes harder to win games. On the other hand, getting the ball inside gives us balance and allows us to attack the heart of the defense, where we know that the opposing teams have a defensive organization ready to counteract. Therefore, we must be ready to play against this reaction in order to take an advantage and get an uncontested shot at the basket.

Over the years, we realized that we must aim to have at least 20 shots coming from these low-post situations. Moreover, in the initial phases of the games where the referees are very demanding, our powerful inside game causes many of the opposing big men to get into early foul trouble. This limits their time on the court and we look to take advantage of that. Losing a defensive big man or two early in the game frees us to make more penetrations to the basket.

However, having a focus on going inside doesn't mean his teams disregard pace. In fact, Messina-led teams first options are to push the issue and look for easy scores before opponents get a chance to set their defenses.

We make great use of offensive transition, the changing phase from defense to offense. These are not simple phases of a primary and secondary fastbreak, but an offense that is run full court with no interruptions. Our team has to move like a wave, where our players run at medium-high speed, occupying our offensive spots and trying to get any advantage they can before the defense is set.

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The main goal of the offensive transition is not to try for a shot on the first option, but to attack before the defense has a chance to set up, making sure to get the ball moving around.

Ettore Messina is more than just a international coach with a long resume that was mostly filled out across the Atlantic Ocean. He is recognized to be as one of the most brilliant basketball minds in the game today, and that's including within the NBA. His ties to our league go well beyond just his several assistant coaching stints. He has demonstrated an incredible amount of knowledge as evidenced through his personal writings from a number of blog entries. He understands how the NBA differs from the European brand of basketball.

And now, he has just spent a full season learning the game from the best coach and system in the game today. On paper, can you envision a more perfect candidate for Dell Demps? Someone who lives and breathes the Spurs Way with every breath?

Even if Demps is not a fan of the Godfather, listening to this Youtube video is likely music to his ears. Ettore Messina seems to get it, and even though he doesn't have the experience of a Jeff Van Gundy or Tom Thibodeau, I'd feel pretty safe in making the statement that he is one coach who could take the New Orleans Pelicans to the next level.

Should he get the chance?