This is a guest post from Max Kesler of Hoopsbeast, check out his site and follow him on Twitter. Max is fascinated by coaching and shared this piece about how the best in Europe compared to their counterparts in the NBA
The EuroLeague is widely considered to be the second best basketball league in the world. Every year, 16 teams from Europe compete for the title of EuroLeague champion. It is the most prestigious title in European club basketball.
There has been plenty of comparison between NBA and EuroLeague players already. What often goes undiscussed is what happens on the sidelines. How do EuroLeague coaches differ from their NBA counterparts? What are the main differences in systems, styles, and environments?
To get an insight, let’s take a look at two distinguished European coaches: Legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic and the up and coming Sarunas Jasikevicius.
Obradovic is considered by many to be the best coach Europe has ever seen. With over 40 trophies in 28 years of coaching experience, it’s not difficult to see why. He won nine EuroLeague titles with five different teams, making him the most successful coach in the history of the competition. Even the revered NBA coach Gregg Popovich admitted to stealing some plays from Obradović, and the two share a great amount of respect for each other.
Sarunas Jasikevicius, who coaches BC Žalgiris is a rising star in European basketball. At 43 he is not exactly young, but he only became a head coach a little over three years ago. Following his retirement as a player, he wasted no time making a name for himself in his new career as a head coach. In the 17/18 season, he shocked the European basketball world by taking Žalgiris all the way to the EuroLeague Final Four. To add some perspective, Zalgiris had the second lowest budget in the league that year.
A tale of two systems
Both coaches value a system that relies on ball movement and pick-and-rolls to create mismatches or drive and kick opportunities for open shooters. If you’re an NBA fan, this style of play might seem familiar as it’s the staple of most modern NBA offenses.
Jasikevicius himself used to play for Obradovic in Panathinaikos, so Zeljko’s principles were bound to rub off on him. Despite some similarities, however, there are important differences in how the Obradovic and Jaskievicius execute their offense. Let’s take a look at some their 3-point shooting numbers from last season to find out why.
Obradovic’s Fenerbahce shot an unreal 43,2% from three on 22,7 attempts per game. They led the league in 3pt percentage, but they shot less than the league average number of threes per game (22,9). Meanwhile Jasikevicius’s Zalgiris came absolute last in 3pt attempts with 15,9 per game, but their 3pt percentage was fifth best in the league at 38,4%.
Jasikevicius and his tailored system
Most of Zalgiris’ 3pt shooting comes from two players (Westermann and Milaknis) who combine for almost half of their total 3pt attempts. This means coach Jasikevicious can expect the opposing defenses to try and deny them the ball. In order to get around this Zalgiris uses a lot of screens and player movement to create space for shooters. If the defense overcommits to the free shooter, it leads either to a dump off pass to the big or a drive and kick by the guard.
Zalgiris doesn’t shy away from what are considered to be inefficient methods of attack by NBA standards. Long midrange shots and post-ups are not at all a rare sight in their offense, and they do it because they’re good at it. They had the third best FG% in the league last season at 49,2%.
This is a result of a system that is completely fitted to the players. Everyone has a role that compliments their individual strengths and hides their weaknesses. This ability to adjust to his players is among Jasikevicius’ greatest assets as a coach.
Obradovic and Europe’s most efficient offense
Fenerbahce’s 3pt shooting is a lot more evenly distributed with six players averaging more than 2,5 attempts per game. When all of them shoot 39% or better the defense is doomed to pick its poison. The first thing that jumps out at you when watching Fenerbahce is their spacing and movement.
Obradovic has spent a lot of time exchanging ideas with Gregg Popovich. The style of basketball his team plays may remind you of the championship era Spurs which were defined by excellent ball movement. They will run a lot of pick-and-roll variations and step up screens for guards. The way those plays are set up in their system practically begs for a defender to help off of a shooter. Without that help, you’re giving up a layup or a dunk.
If a defender decides to help it will inevitably lead to a pass to an open shooter or set the shooter for a drive and kick. Even if the initial action and the initial drive are contained, the offense won’t panic. They will simply keep moving the ball and attacking the closeouts until someone is left open at which point the ball will find them.
This sounds very simple on paper. Maintaining the proper spacing and the flow of this kind of offense requires incredible discipline. Obradovic is a wizard at instilling this discipline in his players. Everyone is aware of their role and the rules of the offense. Every play they run is optimized to maintain the best spacing possible.
Even a simple pick-and-roll on the wing is accompanied by weak side player movement in order to give the ball handler and the roll man a clearer lane.
Obradovic’s offense generates incredibly efficient looks, open threes or shots at the rim. It’s no wonder that last season they led the EuroLeague in FG% with 52,2%
The European style of coaching
The NBA is a star-driven league, and if a coach gets into conflict with his best player it is usually the player who will have the final say. Things are different in Europe as coaches have much more authority there.
Obradovic is famous for demanding near perfection from his players. Even when his teams have a huge lead he isn’t going to let them get complacent and start making mistakes. He will call a time out and chew out any players who made big mistakes. This applies to everyone, from the starters to the end of the bench players. His reputation and expertise have earned him a great amount of respect from his players. When he speaks (or shouts), everyone listens in silence.
Jasikevicious doesn’t have quite the reputation or experience of Obradovic but commands great respect from his players none the less. He himself was a player not so long ago, and he can relate to them on a more fundamental level. As a former point guard, he is used to leading a team and knows exactly how to lift the mood of the team. He’s known as a “player’s coach”, but won’t hesitate to clamp down when needed.
Both of their styles are different from what you’d see in the NBA both in and out of games. In NBA games, you won’t see coaches confronting players nearly as much during time outs, if at all.
Outside of games, the European practice regime is stricter than the NBA. Euroleague teams will often practice two times a day, whereas NBA teams often have workouts instead of practices. At youth level, European stars emerge from academies and youth programs run adjacent to the pro basketball clubs, whereas American youngsters are coached through basketball camps and have to attend a year of college.
Moving to the NBA
Despite many being aware of the coaching talent in European competition, the NBA seem to have been reluctant to give European coaches the chance in the past.
Would Obradovic and Jaskivicius have what it takes to coach in the NBA? In terms of pure expertise, the answer is most definitely yes. Both would have to make some adjustments, however.
While Obradovic’s coaching brilliance has been praised by both Europeans and Americans alike, his intensity would most likely not fly in the NBA. Multiple American players with NBA experience have said that he absolutely has what it takes, but American players might not be able or willing to handle his approach.
Jasikevicius is a different story. Multiple NBA teams already have him on their radar. Toronto interviewed him for the head coaching job, and the Grizzlies are currently looking at him as a potential candidate. This speaks volumes about his qualities. He is a tireless worker and a great X’s and O’s man. As a former point guard, he knows exactly how to find and exploit the weaknesses he sees in film sessions, and he looks at a lot of film.
His Zalgiris team has consistently overachieved in the past few seasons and it is in large part thanks to Jasikevicius’s coaching. He would be a great candidate for a rebuilding team in need of a coach who can bring in a winning culture and develop young talent. Jasikevicius was extremely successful as a player and has all the makings of a top tier coach, so an NBA move is most likely only a matter of time.
The bottom line
The EuroLeague definitely has coaches that could give their NBA counterparts a good run for their money. The role of the coach is somewhat different in the two leagues due to differences in philosophy. European basketball is much more team-oriented, not relying on isolation scoring from superstars as much. This gives the coaches a much bigger role as their systems and plays are often the difference makers.
With plenty of European players in the NBA already, the NBA teams are looking at the top European teams more and more. With this increased exposure it is only a matter of time before European coaches start making their mark on NBA basketball as well.