On the eve of an NBA Championship title game Assistant Coach of the Toronto Raptors, Sergio Scariolo speaks to Future Stars about the move from European Basketball to the NBA.
Hi Sergio, we are in the middle of NBA Play Off and perhaps the day before you will become an NBA Champion but let’s move back in time a little bit. How did you end up in the NBA and what was the decisive factor in this decision?
I have been speaking to various NBA organisations for possibly the past 5-6 years but I couldn’t see a situation which would suit both my personal and professional circumstances. The Raptors provided me with a great opportunity on every possible level. I’m working with a coach which I have known for a long time, since he was working in England. I think we are sharing the same view on basketball and it was very easy to decide on our responsibilities. Raptors were also very forthcoming regarding by job with the Spanish federation, and they understood how import it is for me.
I presume an opportunity to continue coaching the Spanish National team had to be a real dealbreaker. It is such an iconic part of your career and the opportunity to coach Spain in the World Cup in China in 2019 and Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 had to be very tempting?
This is a very open organisation which sees the game as true basketball without borders. They welcome an input from basketball philosophies and incorporate it in their own, unique approach to the game. They are very happy that I’m still working with the Spanish federation. I would say its an element of prestige for them that they are employing someone who is very successful and experienced in the International game. I must say that wasn’t the case with other NBA clubs which I was talking to. They wanted me to solely concentrate on their affairs and I also understand this point of view, but it wasn’t something for me
How did you adapt to being an assistant coach? You always been in charge and run your own business. This must be a completely different mindset?
Definitely it was an adjustment which took some time, perhaps a couple of months. At the present moment I’m completely comfortable with my position and happy to participate in the life of a team contributing from a different position. What helps is the fact that Nick and myself have a very similar view of basketball, he also spent a lot of years coaching in Europe. Of course, I have to add something new not only repeat his ideas which would be pointless. My job is to add an international flavour to our system and find components of the European game which fits our overarching game philosophy. In a situation like mine the most important factor is to feel that your contribution is valued and makes a real impact on the team. As soon as that happens the process of adaptation is much easier.
I cant think of two more contrasting personalities that you and Nick Nurse. How are you finding common ground and building such a successful organisation?
It wasn’t difficult at all. It’s very important to be yourself and act naturally but you must understand that you are part of a bigger system. Even when I was a head coach I have worked with a team of people, assistant coaches, general managers, presidents of the club and other people and I had to adjust my ideas accordingly. Pretty much the same applies to my current position. I must understand when I can introduce my suggestions and ideas and when others take over. Timing is very important, you must asses the situation correctly and be ready to contribute when it is needed. There is certainly no clash of personalities between Nick and myself and we both understand that our work and actions must foremost contribute to the success of the team. I have a tremendous mutual respect and that makes our job much easier.
Raptors has changed dramatically on and off the court during the last 12 months. A new Head Coach and coaching staff , new leader of the team and probably most importantly a new mentality. How did you manage so quickly find a winning formula?
Decisions taken by our president Masai Ujiri were absolutely crucial. Trading the star of the team DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard was a risky decision and could go either way. It worked out beautifully. Even the trade of Marc Gasol which I think was very important to us was carrying a degree of risk and uncertainty. We have lost good players like Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright which were well established in the team and mindset of supporters but replaced them with an absolutely unique player in my mind. This is a sign of a great leader and Masai is such a leader. You make a decision which is good for the organisation and no matter what risks are associated you persevere with it.
How important was the arrival of Marc Gasol to Raptors? This must be quite important for you personally since you have worked with Marc for such a long time on the international scene?
I have spoken to Masai about this trade and let him know my opinion on Marc. He is an ultimate winner who will dedicate everything to the team achieving their objectives. He is a very deep thinker who stores of thousands of information about the game of basketball. Even more importantly he analyses this information and understands that even the most minute details play an important role. Offensively he is a very good reader of the game and with his shooting ability he can be a very effective stretch five. He sees the game a couple of moves ahead and can create an amazing opportunity for the rest of the players. Perhaps he is not the most athletic player in the team but he can play defence as well. He is a true student of the game. He analyses his opponents for hours and knows how to react to their moves and mask his athletic disadvantages.
Raptors have improved tremendously on defence this year. Last year they were conceding 116,1 point per 100 possessions now you have reduced it to 102,4 points per 100 possessions. Raptors have also changed their mentally a lot. They had a reputation of a good team in regular season which quickly disappear as soon as Play Off starts. Now you seem to be transfixed on your ultimate goal. There were no signs of celebrations after Game 4 in the Finals. How have you achieved it so quickly?
In Kawhi and Marc we acquired two great defensive players. Leonard has been in All Defensive Teams in five different NBA seasons. You bring a guy like that and the entire approach to defence changes. You also must notice that we have very mobile and ferocious players like Fred Van Vleet, Danny Green or Kyle Lowry who can easily shut down outside shooters, we are very comfortable with changing match ups. It was also important that Lowry and Leonard have missed quite a lot of games this season. I think they missed 40 in total, but we have to learn how to win without them. That made us very tough mentally. Look at our run in the Play Off. We were always behind other team and then we found the way to win the series. We started the first round from defeat against Orlando at home. We were losing 2:1 to Philly than 2:0 to Milwaukee and still managed to win. That experience made the team much more focused and determined.
You are leading the series 3:1 and you heading home. Do you think that the majority of the job is done and you will celebrate the title in Toronto?
No, not at all. Even if we are going to play just one more game, this will be a long hard battle which will not be decided till the last moments. They are an incredibly talented team which knows how to win championships so we can’t rest even for a second against them. We have to stay cool and calm all the time. Even in the last game we were trailing by a couple of points but we maintained composure and knew when to attack and take initiative. Having said so, playing against Golden State you can’t feel that you have comfortable lead. They can eradicate a 10 points advantage within a minute.
Well, your frontline of Lowry, Van Vleet, Green and of course Leonard is very well suited to cover their outside shooters. In the last game Clay Thompson and Steph Curry really struggled to get open shots. Some other Golden State players simply declined to shot from outside.
It is not important to stop Curry and Thompson from shooting, it’s important to cut their supplies and make sure that they can’t get the ball in dangerous areas. That of course requires constant communication and focus. So far we are doing it pretty good and we must continue it in the next game This is a recipe for final success.
I hope that you will achieve it tomorrow evening.
Photographs courtesy of Mansor Ahmed Photography