After years of flirtation, the Spurs have finally signed legendary Italian coach Ettore Messina to an assistant coach spot. To some the name might only be familiar through those rumors linking him to the franchise in the past or perhaps as Manu's last coach before Pop. But people who follow international basketball know that this might be more than just a typical addition to the coaching staff. So let's all get on the same page by getting to know the Spurs' latest addition.
Ettore Messina, living legend
Messina is 54 and has been coaching at a high level for 25 years. He started his career in the franchise now known as Virtus Bologna in 1989. He coached there for nine years in two different stints, including one in which he coached Manu Ginobili and his team to an Euroleague title in 2001. After his extremely successful first stint in Bologna, he took over the Italian national team, which he led to a second place in Eurobasket, losing the finals to a stacked Yugoslavia team. Following that tournament, Messina went back to coaching in the Italian league, including his second stint with Virtus and three years with Benneton Treviso. After that successful early career in his home country, he made the move to Euroleague giant CSKA Moscow.
In his first four seasons with Mikhail Prokhorov's CSKA, Messina led his team to the Euroleague finals, winning two titles and losing two to Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos. At that point Messina was considered to be arguably the best coach in Europe and European giant Real Madrid came calling. Unfortunately, Messina couldn't find success in Spain amid a pressure-filled and unstable environment, and after two seasons he resigned. He's still not remembered fondly in Madrid and that stretch is the one black mark on his resume.
Having won the Euroleague four times already and fresh off a disappointing turn with Real Madrid, Messina decided to change gears and make the jump to the NBA, as a consultant to Mike Brown with the Los Angeles Lakers. Once Brown was fired, Messina returned to Europe for a second stint with CSKA Moscow in 2012. In two years in Russia, he led his team to two Euroleague Final Four appearances. After a devastating one-point loss to now Cavs coach David Blatt's Maccabi Tel Aviv, he was hired by the Spurs.
It's hard to accurately explain how accomplished this guy is and why it's a big deal he's part of the Spurs' staff. The best way might be through a direct comparison: imagine if Coach K became an assistant coach in the NBA. This is like that. The only reason someone with the pedigree and acumen of Messina hasn't had a firm offer as a head coach is because a lot of NBA teams aren't ready to hire a foreign coach yet.
A perfect fit for the Spurs
Messina's coaching philosophy is predicated on floor balance and ball-movement. Here he is, explaining it in his own words:
Messina's teams have always featured a healthy dose of post-ups but that insistence of getting the ball inside stems from an understanding of spacing. The intention is not necessarily to score from any one point on the floor, but to get the defense moving. Similarly, he teaches his players about the importance of the secondary break. Attacking early and seeing how the defense reacts can create gaps that will lead to easy shots. Messina has evolved through the years along with the game but his core principles have remained the same.
So from an Xs and Os stand point, Messina seems like a good fit. But what about his leadership?
First of all, the Spurs need any assistant coach that joins their staff to understand that Pop is calling the shots. Messina has mentioned multiple times that he has no problem being an assistant at this point. He wants to get to know the NBA from within and seems to be over himself. And he seems to perfectly understand the team concept the Spurs embody. From a 2007 column Messina wrote:
The biggest adjustment American players have to make when they move to Europe is putting team goals ahead of their own goals. In NBA players are generally assessed by their individual performance with a lot of emphasis on individual statistics. If you managed to improve your stats by the end of the season, usually you receive a better contract regardless the result of your team. In Europe if your team wins, you're perceived as a better player. That means individual statistics are only important combined with the team result.
He seems to be a great match for Pop and not only in basketball terms. He's a well-traveled, cultured individual. He speaks English, Spanish and Italian fluently and can carry a conversation in Russian and French. He's become known as a disciplinarian but that's common among European coaches and not far removed from Pop's reputation. And the fact that he has experience with a NBA franchise means he shouldn't have a hard time adapting. And his connection to Ginobili sure doesn't hurt.
Additionally, Messina has invaluable first-hand experience with European basketball and could help scout international players for the team. He's friends with his former player Sasha Danilovic, for example, who is team president for Davis Bertans' former team. He surely has contacts and sources all over Europe after a long and illustrious career and a team that is always looking abroad for talent could benefit from that.
Is Pop grooming a successor?
When someone like Messina, who has been rumored to be in the run for head coaching positions in the past, is hired, it's impossible not to think of him as a potential successor for Gregg Popovich. That's especially true now that both Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown have their own teams and the rest of Pop's apostles are either cutting their teeth (Jacque Vaughn) or have seen their stock drop (Avery Johnson).
That's why the timing of his hiring is a bit curious. The Spurs recently announced that Pop has signed a multi-year extension, which means he will be with the team for at least two more years. As mentioned, Messina is willing to be just an assistant coach, at least for now. But what happens if after a year a head coaching spot opens up elsewhere? Messina's resume is impressive enough without including a year assisting Pop. But going by all his past assistants that have gotten head coaching gigs, the Extraneous G's seal of approval carries a lot of weight. Bottom line, Messina could be tempted to leave before Pop is ready to retire.
Even if he doesn't, there are unique challenges Messina will have to go through before emerging as a can't-miss NBA coach. In Europe, the coach is more powerful than the players and gets to rule as he pleases. Practice time is abundant, precision is required, and the shorter season is unforgiving. His experience with the Lakers will come in handy here but being around Pop and figuring out how he handles the grind is perhaps the best lesson Messina has yet to learn. He seems to realize that, which is why if he is patient, he could end up having a long career as a NBA coach. Hopefully, Pop will be around for a few more years and Messina will get to learn under him so the franchise will get to make an informed decision when the time comes.
For now, this news is undeniably great. Not only does Manu get to reunite with one of his mentors, but the Spurs have added a great basketball mind to their ranks. San Antonio has not made any big splashes in terms of free agent signings during the summer but they have maintained their core and added a fantastic assistant coach to help mask the voids left by Brown and Bud. I call that a great off-season.