David Blatt on his coaching odyssey and upcoming season

David Blatt talks to Future Stars about his coaching odyssey and upcoming season.

Your most spectacular successes always carry a hint of historical achievements. The victory with Russia in the European Championship was the first championship title after the collapse of the Soviet Union, you were the first European Head coach in the NBA and winning Euroleague with Maccabi was so unexpected that it became an iconic moment in Israeli basketball. You are with a historic, iconic club right now but Olympiacos Piraeus is not doing so great recently. So where exactly you are in your project with the Greek giant?

I think when you are doing anything for a long period of time you are bound to encounter many different types of situations and circumstances. Some of them are expected some others completely unexpected. It is important to understand each of these situations for what they are and to try and maintain the highest level of professionalism which you can achieve, even when there are things that are not in your own control but that you are part of when you are a member of an organisation.

It is a very diplomatic answer. Speaking of unexpected situations, Olympiacos will not participate in Greek domestic competition for the upcoming season. You will play just in Euroleague. What is your assessment of this situation? Could it be quite an unexpected advantage for you?

Obviously my decision to stay and stand by the club is an indication of how I feel about situation. And it is not a diplomatic answer which you alluded to. It is a simple fact. I understand the basis on which club made its decision and also understand results of it, that we will only play this season in the Euroleague. Unless there are some unexpected changes in terms of how the Greek league is run and governed. If there is no changes, we will be the first team in the history, I believe, which will play only in Euroleague without involvement domestic competition. How this will affect us? Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that. It would be irresponsible if I told you that did. There will be positives and negatives in terms of possibilities for how this can impact the team. My job is to manage it professionally and I will do it to the best of my abilities.

So, if we move in time to the beginning of the summer next year what position in the Euroleague would constitute success for you?

This is a very common question mainly because people are very result oriented. My philosophy for my career and my teams has always been that commitment to excellence and professionalism comes first. Results will follow, they do not lead. So to tell you now in the beginning of August what is success and what is not a success would be dishonest of me because it is not how I judge things. You are talking to someone who had more than their fair share of success in many, many different situations, some of them you have already mentioned. However, I always judge and value my own success and success of my team by the effort and level of commitment which was put into the season. This philosophy allows me up this date to never experience disappointment. Sadness yes, disappointment no, because when you made maximum effort there is no reason to feel disappointed.

Sadness yes, disappointment no! Would this approach also apply to your NBA experience?

There is some disappointment relating to my NBA experience because I wasn’t able to see through the process I felt I needed and the team needed to go through in order to be successful. The fact that time run out on me before it ran out on my team because despite  leaving the team in the middle of season this team went to win the NBA championship.

When you were coming to Cleveland you were signing up to a very different project, which was meant to be the rebuilding of the team. All of a sudden Lebron James turns up, rebuilding is over and it’s time to win the first championship for the city of Cleveland! This is a completely different proposition.

Championship or bust! However, I have no regrets. Regrets in my opinion are waste of time and effort and there is no value in it. I took my shot and going in my first year to the NBA Final and leaving the team the next season with the best record in Eastern Conference is nothing to be ashamed of. Knowing in my heart that I was never really able to put my footprint into the team, I readily admit that it is and was for me a disappointment. I didn’t have enough time with this team. I wasn’t going to dwell on it forever I had to move forward and I have. The questions which I’m asked right now three years after are a bit annoying. This is in the past and I have done a lot of things since which I’m proud of.

If you had another offer from the NBA club, would like to have another shot on this league.

I have tried with variety of clubs and I believe in some situations I was very close to getting the jobs. Unfortunately, these clubs went in a different direction and this is a part of the business. I have decided to move forward with my European career in the place where I’m very happy and comfortable and not looking back.

Do you feel that Euroleague is your natural environment. Arguably Euroleague is the last bastion of true basketball where the ball is shared among all players, teams are going at each other from first to the last minute like is no tomorrow?

I wouldn’t say this is the only place. I have said many times before and I will say it again, the nature of NBA season as opposed to Euroleague season is very different. The game is very different, the rules are very different, the length of the game is different, schedule is different and all these things cause a different dynamics on the season on a game to game basis. Or even minute to minute or quarter to quarter basis. Certainly in European game is much higher sense of urgency, much lower level of acceptance for mistakes because each and every possession is far more critical. There is less minutes and possessions in the game, there is also fever games so each game means much more. At the same time I wouldn’t say that European games are better than NBA, they just are much different, that is particularly noticeable during the regular season. Also in the format of Euroleague Final Four and Play Off is very different versus NBA Finals, which are seven games multiple series. NBA champion is a winner of quite often seven games series while Euroleague winner needs to win two games in the finals which very much changes the nature in which game is played and coached. I wouldn’t say that NBA or Euroleague is better or worse they are so much different.

I see another major difference. The influence of the major stars on entire organisations in the NBA is much bigger.

I would agree with that. There are some exceptions to this rule but by large the European game is a coach’s league and NBA is a players league. Not to say that there is more or less value in either. I’m not saying that one is better than other. In many cases in Europe, teams are  built in great part by the coaches as opposed to management who are making high value decisions for today and the future. Whereas in Europe, the immediacy of the game and importance of very next year is very much greater so teams change and modify based on different factors and reasons. Some teams in the NBA because of roster issues, because salary cap issues, because contractual issues are even built to lose. Whereas in Europe, rarely would you ever see such a thing. Of course, the NBA model from business and marketing standpoint is so far ahead of European basketball. The dynamics of the NBA game cause and leads to completely different management process and decision making. Coaches is Europe, generally speaking are having much shorter shelf life than NBA coaches do, again due to much longer term thinking of NBA organisations. So the dynamic is very, very different for various reasons.

So what is a future of European basketball? I’m not even touching conflict between FIBA and Euroleague which to a large extent is incomprehensible but talking about fast changing landscape. Young players are going to the NBA far too early and not playing there at all making clubs rosters difficult to maintain and build in a sensible way. What route should European basketball take to have solid, sustainable organisations?

This is a very important and relevant question particularly today. I believe that as the Euroleague becomes a more valuable and secured financial product this will allow teams to develop more longer term strategies and maintain and continuity for both youth programmes and pro teams. The more successful teams in Europe have already done that and these teams will continue to be successful in great part for that reason. But if Europe wants to compete on the level of the second best league in the world they would have to find a way to sustain themselves from a financial and internal growth standpoint. Particularly from the young players point of view, clubs must be able to grow their products and build the pro teams showing long lasting vision and direction. Easier said than done, but I believe that Euroleague is trying to create a model which in some way would allow them to mirror the system of the NBA. I think this process will continue to grow, as we seen this year as we have seen with the widening of the league from 16 to 18 teams. With this process, more and existing clubs will have to begin to build for beyond the next season. This process will continue in the near future and will create an environment for more high-level European clubs.

You have just mentioned importance of long-term planning and youth programmes. Nowadays I can’t imagine a worse time for young players to start their professional career. I’m not talking about examples of old Jugoplastika with the likes of Toni Kukoc or Dino Radja dominating Europe. I’m talking about a lack of young stars playing dominant roles in their teams. Luka Doncic is an exception to this rule not a sign of better times for a young players.

I would agree with that and I think Euroleague must recognise that very point and allow the teams to have an opportunity to create sustainable programmes regardless of specific one year results. In part, Euroleague is doing this by the number of contract teams, staying in the league for long time. I see that growing in the future to be honest with you because teams must see security to grow and build their product in an environment where they not competing only for one year but much longer. I believe Euroleague is making steps , maybe they are baby steps but surely steps in the right direction.

As far young players are concerned and their participation in high level basketball, you see many of them going to the NBA and not succeeding or not playing at all. I really don’t know and have never understood why they make this decision. I have had a few of these players, more than few. Fortunately, from my experience, most of the guys which I had who went from Europe to the NBA have found significant minutes and roles in their teams. Probably because they have spent enough time in Europe to develop their maturity and experience at high level European basketball.

You are far more than a basketball coach. You have graduated from Princeton writing a final thesis on Bernard Malamud and let’s face it if you asked an average basketball player about Malamud it would give them a heart attack. Then following your roots you have  immersed yourself in Jewish culture being immensely successful in Israel, then you have spent a very productive period in Russia, you felt at home in the NBA now you are in Athens. So where does David Blatt really belong to?

David Blatt is a citizen of the world which has always seen the sport as a vehicle to live. experience, share, bond and to bring together people from many different cultures. I think that would be the best description.


Photopgraph courtesey of FIBA.com