By Uygar Karaca / email@example.com
Let’s be honest with ourselves: no one could have predicted this semifinal line-up of the EuroBasket. And no one should feel bad about not predicting Poland eliminating a Doncic-led Slovenia while Mateusz Ponitka gets into the history books of the tournament with the 4rd triple-double ever.
The hosts Germany clearly exceeded expectations already and the winnings culture of perennial tournament contenders, Spain and France, were underestimated.
Of course, there is also the other side of the coin: The hype and intensity of every day’s media actuality sometimes make us forget how much we were surprised back in the earlier tournaments.
History has shown us that many of the international FIBA tournaments- not just EuroBasket- are hotbeds of unexpected events unfolding while underdogs creating a stir. The idea that the players who dominate the NBA will come and easily take Europe by a storm gets rendered into misleading delusion, thanks to the cunning strategies of talented and ambitious coaches and determined role players. The scenario where the biggest favorites reach the final is more of a rarity rather than orthodoxy.
In order to evaluate the topic, we appealed to David Blatt, the connoisseur, and creator of such surprises both in his club career and in the national teams. Returning to the Euroleague with his consultant role in Maccabi Tel Aviv, the legendary coach simply rewrote the history of Russia in basketball between 2006-2012. Besides the incredible 2007 Eurobasket title, he also led the Russian team to the bronze medal in Eurobasket 2011. The semi-final appearance in the World Championships in 2010 without Viktor Khryapa, Andrei Kirilenko, and JR Holden and the 2012 Olympic bronze medal are just some examples of a glorious term.
In his career full of success, the most recent trophies of Euroleague (2014- Maccabi Tel Aviv) and finally the Eurocup victory with Darüşşafaka (2018), maybe fresher in his mind. But as the coach who brought the Cleveland Cavaliers to the finals in the NBA as well as his trophies in Israel, Russia, and Italy, Blatt is without a doubt one of the people who know best where the road to success passes in two completely different game types: Europe and overseas.
– Coach, let’s first start with the biggest question: Everybody is so surprised about the NBA superstars like Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Luka Doncic not seeing even the semi-final stage at Eurobasket. But I think you might see things like these of sorts. What are your impressions, is that common for us to see that many NBA players coming to Eurobasket and not making it to the final four?
Eurobasket has been this way for many years and it is not so uncommon to see a lot of NBA players coming and playing in Eurobasket. But in fact, it is uncommon when you see probably the three best players in the world right now playing in Eurobasket at the same time and not qualifying to even for the semi-finals.
– So this is a little bit cliche but yet, so easily forgotten. Can we say that is yet another confirmation of how the European game and the NBA game differ from each other, right? After all, it was the same story back in World Cup 2019 where neither Jokic nor Antetokounmpo advanced much further. Even last season’s Olympics, it was France rather than Doncic-led Slovenia who made it to the final. Why is that so?
I can only tell you that watching all the games and seeing all the teams, just shows one thing: In the European game, the best teams win. In the NBA game, generally, the teams with the best players win. This is a major difference. It’s not a criticism. It’s just the way the game is played.
Because in my mind unquestionably, the Jokic-Giannis-Doncic trio are the three of the top five players in the world if not the three top players in the world. but it’s a different game. There are different rules, and the types of defensive alignments that you can play in Europe greatly can limit certain players. Although Giannis and Jokic scored at an extremely high level in a shorter game, the FIBA environment changes the way that the game is played. It emphasizes different things in the game that make it difficult for the biggest stars necessarily to win.
– Ok, this is a bold call but can we say that coaching in Europe strategically goes deeper than what it is in NBA? I mean Doncic, Jokic, and Giannis are virtually unstoppable in the NBA but the situation is different here.
The European game is different on so many levels. But particularly in terms of the defense that you can play or the limitations on defense that you can use in the NBA game. Also, the length of the game is very very important because each and every possession is more critical in a 40-minute game compared to a 48-minute game.
The fact that the teams are built in such a manner that they have to depend even more on one another for the overall impact, efficiency, and effectiveness of the team, one or two players cannot simply take over the game as you can as you see what can happen. That can happen in the NBA but in the European game, it is so rare.
Honestly, that is actually one of the things I like about it. It makes it so much fun. It’s challenging, interesting, and unpredictable. That’s why like I like the differences between the NBA and the European game from a basketball standpoint. It’s fun to see both in each other’s particular cases. Also, it is fun to observe how teams, coaches, and players are doing to adjust to each different environment. Then also, what happens when these two particular environments do meet? Fun to watch.
– What is the biggest challenge playing with NBA superstars, coming for the national team for a very short period? And you need to integrate them in a restricted amount of time like you did with Andrei Kirilenko for instance?
Well, first of all, there are rules regarding the amount of time that you can practice before the summer tournaments. In our time, we were practicing five-six weeks before the competition.
Nowadays, The Players Association in the NBA won’t allow you more than three weeks for these players. You know, some of the players are practicing longer. That’s one thing to set.
The second thing is to coach them in the European way. I mean, you should not try to adjust to the NBA game just because you have an NBA player, it doesn’t work. The European game’s style won’t allow you to do that.
Of course, if we are talking about the Olympic Games, where the very best NBA players come, that is a different issue but the very best NBA players did not come to the other competitions. Many of them are playing once every four years. That’s why you see that it’s much more difficult for the USA teams to compete in these competitions. t I think you have to coach the European game, regardless of whether you have NBA or European players. Yeah, because it’s a different breed of game.
– Do you think that the scheduling of the tournament has a role in and plays fatiguing like no back-to-back games of such intensity?
All the teams are going through this. It’s not one team or the next that has any particular advantage because of the difficulty of the schedule. And the schedule is very difficult, believe me. When I was coaching the national team environment it was even more difficult. We were playing 11 games, not eight or nine games.
– Do you think it needs to change?
Well, it’s my thinking and I would like to answer this question with a wider perspective. There needs to be a drastic rethinking of all of the international competitions and I’m sure it’s unavoidable. We cannot continue with this process of FIBA windows and of the number of years that the national teams have. It just won’t work anymore. The teams in the NBA are not going to allow it. The battle between FIBA and Euroleague is not going to survive, not forever, and not for either of them. This is a situation that must be resolved. If not, international basketball as we know is in danger of disappearing.
– A lot of people are talking about referees from the first day of the tournament. On the one hand, this is a good way of justifying your mistakes and externalizing the losses. On the other, there were some really big mistakes as well. But were the referees bad as people talk?
No, I don’t think it is as bad as his people are saying. I think there are problems, though. I think competitions on this level should have the best referees like they should have the best players. That’s not to say that the best referees are only in the Euroleague or FIBA. What I am saying is that the best referee should be there regardless of which organization they are associated with.
This brings us back to the original problem. The war between FIBA and Euroleague must end. I said that many years ago. This is an enormous problem. Back then, was only beginning. Now, we’ve hit the head of it. And you think that solution must be found for good basketball, for the good of refereeing, for the good of bringing the best players, for the good of scheduling the good of the fans. Enough is enough.
– Let’s talk about the tournament and basketball a little bit more. Do you have a favorite team coach at this level? For the remaining part?
My favorite right now would be Germany. I think they’ve been playing the most consistent and the best basketball and they are at home. I think basketball in general in Germany is really growing, the fan interest is great. I think that certainly, the performance of this German national team is going to push it even further along but specific to this EuroBasket, the German team has been very well-coached and has a great group of players, really great. They are playing at a high level in front of their home fans. I would make them the favorite right now, particularly with Slovenia, Greece, and Serbia out.
– How much of this Germany reminds you of your team, Russia during that successful campaigns? I ask this because they are also a collective team like you were, they have also leaders as well. You had also some really surprising tactics and strategies to shift the games and change the games.
Well, I would tell you that this German team is better on offense than we were. We were not really on bad offense or something, but really we were great defensively. We did play a different style of basketball in German is playing. So I don’t know how much they remind me of our Russian national team. Other than the fact that they’ve been very successful so far.
– There was this quite surprising part in the tournament where a deja vu occurred. Both Turkey and Italy did not manage to convert any of the free throws with about less than 20 seconds remaining. They were potential game winners. In return, France bounced back and won both games in overtime. Many people think that is a lot of luck but don’t they miss the composure of Vincent Collet and his team’s durability on the elite level over a long period of time?
I think miracles are in the sky. What happened here was on the ground, you know, a purely physical thing. A player can miss free throws, you know, this can happen. It’s part of the game. It’s part of high-pressure situations. I always believed that it’s easy to put your finger on a particular moment in the game. But what happens in the first quarter in a particular moment, realistically is no less important than what happens at the end of the game.
Obviously, it’s what everyone remembers, it is what everyone sees. That’s what everybody wants to say the factor which determines the outcome of the game. Of course, it has a significant impact but it’s not the only impact.
You look at France and their wins, right? You might say it’s providence or something like that, but you don’t get to be where France’s situation where you have the ability to be influenced by, some mistakes that their opponent commits. The guy missing the free throws would mean nothing unless you’ve done the work and put yourself in that situation where you have the chance to win the game. In the case of an unexpected event or occurrences like what happened with those free throws might occur but you need to be in the position to capitalize on that. That could be even a missed layup at the very end of the game.
I always believed that things that happen early in the game, are no less important than what happens later in the game. Just nobody remembers them.
– Let’s jump to another topic. Spain is playing with the naturalized guard, Lorenzo Brown, the new Maccabi player. The decision was criticized in the beginning, especially from the Spanish side. And I think you had many, many good experiences with that. JR Holden’s leadership change the course of events regarding Russian basketball’s fate, back then. When it comes to today, what do you think about the rule of naturalized players?
Firstly, Lorenzo Brown and JR Holden, are totally different situations. There are so many different situations about this rule. I’ve told you about the present situation and problems between Euroleague, and FIBA. I know that people maybe want to raise it as a big topic, but it’s not all new, been going on for years and years and years. This is another element of the competition.
I also don’t see this rule as going away because there are too many different types of situations. Some that are justifiable some that may be less so, but they do exist and they will continue to exist. I don’t see that as something that’s going to change.
– Do you have a favorite player or maybe a player that you find yourself most impressed by the performances?
You know, I’m working for Maccabi, so I’m enjoying seeing Lorenzo Brown play now. He left the story behind and played great basketball. So that’s a subjective view. But still, I think he played very well.
From a more objective perspective, I think the player who impressed me the most was Franz Wagner from Germany. He had a great coming-out tournament. You know Jokic is one of my very favorite players and Antetokounmpo of course, but they’re not playing anymore, unfortunately.
– How about Markkanen? He had a tremendous tournament but do you think he got the credit deserved? Compared to Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo?
Markkanen was terrific in the tournament. He played such great basketball on a number of different levels, not only did he score the ball but he facilitated as well. He passed, he rebounded, and he was impactful in so many different ways. He was one of my very favorite players in the tournament as well. Obviously in the NBA, those three players Jokic-Doncic-Giannis have been more impactful and more significant but you know in this particular environment but Markkanen was no less great.
– Lastly, I would like to ask you about your opinion, on the general level of this Eurobasket. People say that this is the best Eurobasket ever but I think that there is a recency bias. Do you agree that this was the greatest?
Firstly, I need to make it clear that this has been a great EuroBasket and I really enjoy seeing it.
Second of all: No, I don’t think that this is the greatest. But beyond that, I don’t think it’s even possible to label, the greatest Eurobasket ever for any of the tournaments. It’s so hard to say such a thing, like this other discussion on who is the greatest player of all time. There are different eras and different types of teams. To claim that this particular EuroBasket is greater than some of the other Eurobaskets, I’m not sure.
But it’s okay, you know, we live in the world of media extravaganza, and the way to promote programs, articles, and shows is to talk about this being the greatest of all time. Again, this is a great EuroBasket. But is it necessarily better than other Eurobaskets? I’m not sure.
Surely, basketball has grown. We are seeing the game change. We’re seeing new stars, bright stars are coming, and that’s wonderful. I don’t have any problem with it. I just try to remain somewhat honest about the fact that there were many great Eurobaskets.
You know, for fun purposes, I was looking at the roster of the Spanish team that we beat in 2007, in their home. Go ahead and look at that roster for a second.
– Who can forget that roster? The both Gasols, Sergio Rodriguez, JC Navarro, Cabezas, Rudy Fernandez, Jose Calderon, Jorge Garbajosa.. It’s incredible.
It’s great pleasure, always great players, and great teams. I wouldn’t do any disrespect, to the excitement and the appreciation of this great EuroBasket.
But I would just tell you that people need to be a little careful when you say, this one is better than the next one, you know, and maybe better than some of them.
For example, in that same EuroBasket 2007, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, and Tony Parker were in there. Is there a better player than Dirk Nowitzki? I’m not sure. But that’s okay. Of course, people could make their own choices and have their opinions.