Dec. 20, 2007--This is my sabbatical year. I am in a unique position to learn from other basketball coaches as they work with their teams. I have observed NBA and college practices (as many coaches in my position do) but I wanted to take it a step further. With that in mind, I recently took a 19-day trip to Moscow (Russia), Athens (Greece) and Istanbul (Turkey) to observe three of the most respected coaches in Europe. As in any other profession, the pursuit of knowledge and improvement are important in coaching basketball.

Before I go any further, I would first like to acknowledge and thank coaches Ettore Messina (CSKA Moscow), Zelimir Obradovic (Panathinaikos, Athens), and David Blatt (Efes Pilsen, Istanbul). These three men are widely considered the top three coaches in Europe and were all extremely forthcoming, sharing, and open with their thoughts and philosophies regarding coaching, the international game and basketball in general. All of these coaches have remarkable basketball knowledge and insights and their extraordinary success proves it. Like all successful coaches, they have a vision of what they want from their teams and a unique ability to get their teams to play the way they want. Although these coaches have their differences, what is key is that they have found what works for them to be successful.

Most people say basketball is basketball. Well ... yes and no. The fundamentals of the game are the same wherever you go: pass, dribble, shoot, defend, rebound, screen, play hard and play together. However, most basketball observers recognize the difference in styles of play between high school, college, NBA, and International competition. They all have many similarities, but the differences are what make them unique. And I love them all.

Basketball has been evolving for years — just watch some of the Hardwood Classics on NBATV or some of the college games on ESPN Classic. Some things have changed dramatically, some things slightly and some things have come full circle. For example, if you watch an NBA game from the ‘80s, there are very few, if any, pick and roll situations. In an NBA game today, you may see three pick and roll situations in the same possession.

In particular, the NBA has evolved over the last decade. I believe the two major components of this evolution are:

  1. The defensive rule changes in 2001 designed to promote more ball movement, player movement, and skill enhancement.
  2. The growing impact and success of foreign born players on NBA teams.

The success international players have had in the NBA, combined with the success other countries have had in international competition, has opened the eyes of coaches in the United States. It has demonstrated that basketball is truly a global game. Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni coached many years in Italy and brought many of his basketball thoughts and philosophies with him. Those (and Steve Nash) have translated into great success.

For decades, American coaches would teach “our game” to anyone who would want to learn more. This is something that Coach Obradovic readily acknowledged to me. Now, the teaching and learning has become a two-way street.

Before I continue with my observations, I would like to say that this is neither an endorsement nor an indictment of either the NBA game or the International game; it is just what I saw.

Here are some observations I made during my trip:

It's a Different Game
When the United States was beaten by Yugoslavia in the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, Vlade Divac was interviewed after the game. It was a bitter loss for the U.S. and Vlade tried to explain that the international game is different than the NBA game and not to judge the NBA players too harshly.

It is indeed a different game. Coaches Messina, Obradovic, and Blatt all have coached games against NBA teams using NBA rules and all three were quick to point out the rules and the interpretations of rules make it a different game.

Here are a few examples of the different rules:

  • Trapezoid Lane: This lane is wider on the baseline than in the NBA but narrower at the free throw line. The impact is varied. Post players tend to post higher in the lane, which impacts the spacing on the court. An American point guard told me that the court seems smaller and there is nowhere to drive. This is also part of the reason why big men in Europe will float out to the perimeter.
  • No Defensive Three-Second Rule: Again, this clogs the international lane which deters drives to the rim and therefore promotes passing.
  • The 3-point line is nearly two feet closer in international play, which also reduces spacing.
  • 40-Minute Game: Since it is a shorter game (same as our college game), this impacts substitutions, rotations, and effort levels.
  • No restricted area under the basket, making it easier for players to take charges.
  • No basket interference once the ball hits the rim. This takes a while to get used to.
Then, there are different rule interpretations:
  • Officiating remains a very difficult job that involves objective and subjective elements. When you play Euroleague games, there will be three officials from three different countries. Needless to say, these differences become apparent during the course of a game. And certainly, these interpretations are different from what we are used to in the United States. Players have to understand:
    • What is traveling?
    • What is a foul?
    • What is a legal screen?
    • What is legal post defense?

These are just of few of the differences in the rules and interpretations, which have resulted in the game evolving differently over the years.

It's a Team Game
I spoke with a couple of American players who have NBA experience and are having successful careers in Europe. Both players felt the biggest difference between the NBA and European basketball was the team concept played in Europe. Twenty years ago, American players in Europe were usually expected to play the full 40 minutes of a game and average 20-plus points a game. Now, if you look at the statistics of the 24 Euroleague* teams, currently there are only two 20-plus scorers and only one player averaging more than 34 minutes. Obviously, the NBA has profited from its league’s stars for decades. Most of the European stars are playing in the NBA; therefore, the Euroleague is not as star-driven.

With that in mind, there is more passing, more willingness to pass and more expectation of passing. The “extra pass” is the norm rather than the exception. Dribble penetration is a BIG part of the international game and the NBA game. Yet much of the penetration in the international game is to look to pass rather than score (unless it is a clear shot). Some of this can be related to the rules for spacing (as mentioned above), that fewer defensive fouls are called on driving to the basket, and more players taking charges.

If there is one frustration that I have noticed among international players whom I have coached in the NBA is that they expect and prefer more team play rather than one-on-one play. This is a basketball grassroots issue and a talent issue. I believe an oversimplified explanation is that the game is taught differently, without restriction at the youth level in Europe; there is a cultural difference regarding team/individual success and there is a difference in athletic ability which has led to this phenomenon.

Practice Time
Our college game is considered a “coaches' game” primarily because of the amount of time that the coach can practice and develop his team, as well as his ability to select his players. From a practice standpoint, the international game takes it even further. The pre-season is as long as or longer than our college seasons, with no restrictions on the amount of practice time. Once the season starts, coaches usually have two or three days of practice before playing a game, with no time restrictions. During the season, most teams will have at least one day a week with two practices.

You can never underestimate the benefits of practice, from both an individual and team perspective. The coaches I observed were all fairly demanding in what they wanted and expected from their players. It appeared from a coach’s perspective that coaching in Europe was a hybrid between the NBA and college. European teams have the benefit of more practice and preparation time -- as in college -- but you are still dealing with mostly grown men making thousands (sometimes millions) of dollars and are concerned about their playing career.

Difference in Talent Level
There is no question in the disparity of talent and athleticism between the NBA and the European teams. The best players in the world play in the NBA. It is not even close. Almost all of the best European players (46 at last count) are playing in the NBA. The dynamics of European competition has changed in the last 20 years. International players have improved and gone to the NBA. There has been team expansion in the NBA and NBA roster sizes have expanded. The freedoms now afforded by the Eastern European countries have led to more player movement between countries. Also, the European Economic Community has allowed more player movement among Europeans. Additionally, there are fewer restrictions on the number of foreign players on a European team.

X's and O's
Here are some observations regarding the X's and O's.
  • In general, there seems to be more movement in the European game.
  • Pick and roll/pop situations are as much or more prominent as in the NBA … Coach Obradovic’s team probably runs more of these than anyone.
  • Maybe it’s still early in the season, but there didn’t seem to be as many offensive sets.
  • Different wrinkles on offensive sets … some of which I felt would be effective in the NBA, and others, not so much.
  • Because there is no “defensive three-seconds,” there are more varied defensive styles and more helpside defense.
  • There seem to be more charges taken.
  • By contrast, there are not as many shot-blockers as in the NBA.
  • There is some post game, but not as much as the NBA.
  • There are many more baseline out-of-bounds situations.
  • Teams look to take fouls more readily, especially in fastbreak situations.
  • Teams seemed to have a better feel for spacing and moving without the ball.
  • You can set what we consider “illegal screens”, so consequently, big men set more, harder screens.

Finally, here are a few other observations.

Pressure: The best Euroleague teams will play more than 50 games this year. But those are divided into Euroleague play (20-25 games), country league play (20-25 games), and country cup games (3-5 games). Essentially, they are playing three shorter seasons and EVERY game becomes more important.

Road games: Winning games on the road in the NBA is difficult, but the road environments in Europe can be VERY hostile. The rivalry between some teams is so fierce that it can be dangerous. Again, this adds to the pressure faced by the players and coaches.

Physical Play: The international game seems to be more physical in the paint; more contact is allowed on drives to the basket; and the shooter is not protected as much as he is in the NBA. Another reason why there is a premium on outside shooting.

Parity: There is more parity in the NBA. The Euroleague teams do not have salary cap restrictions or a draft, so the top teams usually stay the top teams.

Video work: The teams I saw did as much video preparation with their teams as we do in the NBA, although they do not have the quantity televised games that NBA teams have.

San Antonio Spurs: When talking to the coaches in Europe, they all very much appreciated the San Antonio Spurs. Perhaps this is because the Spurs have done such a good job of combining the best of both games. Certainly they have been the leader of the international player movement over the past few years.

In Sum
I appreciated having the opportunity to analyze the style, content, and methodology of three great coaches and being able to look at the game of basketball from a refreshingly different perspective. When comparing the American game with the international game, I came to the conclusion that the differences are as much cultural as well as the games’ X's and O's. But as with most things in this world, you can profit from learning anywhere you go, as I did on this trip.

*Euroleague and ULEB Cup – The Euroleague competition is comprised of the top 24 teams from 13 different countries. After a couple of round-robins in pool play, the four best teams compete in the “Final Four” which is like our NCAA Final Four. There is also the ULEB Cup competition, which is the next tier of quality European teams. This competition starts with 54 teams and will finish with a “Final Eight” at the end of the season. See these websites for more information:

http://www.euroleague.net
http://www.ulebcup.com