By Aris Barkas/ email@example.com
According to Eurohoops’ popular vote, Zeljko Obradovic should be named the coach of the decade. While you can never go wrong with Zoc when it comes to awards and there’s also the case of Dimitris Itoudis’ success in CSKA Moscow, the consensus in our English edition is that Pablo Laso deserves the title.
Not only Laso restored Real Madrid to past glories, but he is on the head of a club that combines winning with producing top-level talent. That’s the holy grail for European basketball.
Plus, when coach Laso was informed about our preference, he accepted the title with humor and grace: “Sure, I accept all the titles they give me. But I think that are great coaches around Europe. And I think that coaching is something that probably you have inside yourself. For me, probably it was easier because I was a player but… Well, I’m pleased that you think like that about me. But like I said, I think there are great coaches all around Europe and that’s why the level of basketball in Europe is so high”.
After this kind of introduction, you can easily understand that the vice-president of the EuroLeague Head Coaches board was ready for a long conversation, at least as long as you can have during the frantic EuroLeague schedule. It included everything from Luka Doncic to the current state of the EuroLeague and, of course, what means to be a coach at this level.
What makes coach Laso and Real Madrid so unique, as that they continuously present young, top talent in their first team while winning big. And that’s not easy, but on the other hand, it’s a necessity even for the top European clubs.
“Well, first of all, winning is important, producing talent is also important, but the most important thing is the team,” coach Laso explains. “It’s true that we’re having players coming up from our youth program that they’re developing very good, and already they are helping the team and becoming better players. That’s very important for us because in the end we look at the team and we always need that young blood, that new spirit that comes into the team and gives us that extra energy. Of course, players are getting older, but also we’re bringing new players, and that energy is very positive for us. They have talent, but we know that we’ve got to use them and made them real players. That becomes a little bit easier to say if you don’t have to win because a lot of times you think that only experience is going to make you win. But a lot of times that energy that these young guys give you is going to give you – let’s say – something extra that you’re going to need during games to win them”.
The Doncic case
And then, there’s Luka Doncic. The Slovenian prodigy is the poster boy of Madrid’s basketball youth program, but also, as Laso admits, an isolated example. That’s why it’s not a surprise for the Spanish coach the fact that Doncic is taking the NBA by storm.
“Of course, Luka is one of a kind not only because of the way he sees basketball. And not only because he’s all about basketball but because I think he was very good at a lot of things. He has the character; he has respect for everyone. He is mature; he knows what to do at the right time. And this is why probably he’s having a great development in the NBA because he’s able to adjust to this situation. It simply comes to him. We saw this since he was 13-year old and arrived in Madrid. He was always ready to play. Always ready to help the team, any team that he’s been playing since that age, and he was always adjusting to the level that you put him”.
What talent means, after all? In Doncic’s case, Laso has a straightforward example that illustrates what makes Doncic unique.
“When we brought him on the first team (ed.note: back in 2015), we thought, “maybe he is going to be OK. We’ll see”. In two days, he’s one of the guys in the team. And this is the way he’s been on his career, and this is why he’s showing from the beginning that in the NBA he can be a very important player”.
However, there’s not a clear recipe that applies to everyone. While producing talent is essential, it doesn’t mean that there’s a fixed process that applies to everyone.
“Let’s say we don’t think this way,” Laso clarifies. “I think we have a great youth program run by Alberto Angulo and all his coaches. And of course, they bring the talent. But you have to work with that talent. It’s not like “ok; I have this talented guy. He’s going to play”. Right now, in the first team, we have Garuba and Nakic. I think both of them are helping us a lot. They will take their time to become the good players that everybody thinks they are. But even then, they know they have to work, and they have a lot of teammates who compete against each other every day in practice. So we’re not only expecting to win games, we’re expecting them to grow up as players and help the team. That’s the most important thing, to help the team win”.
And while Laso doesn’t want to say that this is the pattern which in theory all European clubs should follow, he makes it clear that this is the way for Real Madrid: “It’s hard for me to say how the other teams have to work. But you might have seen me last Saturday watching the EBA game between Estudiantes and Real Madrid. I think that it’s important to know the kind of players that you have behind the current roster. Of course, Tristan Vukcevic is a great talent right now. However, if we talk about the first team, it’s very difficult for Vukcevic to complete in Real Madrid. But this is the pressure that we’re going to put him because we believe he’s a guy that can play for us. He has to understand from that first day he came to Madrid that he has to work hard and gain his minutes, his spot because somebody else is going to take it if he’s not ready. We have a lot of expectations from him. We have Matteo Spagnolo, we have Juan Nunez, we have a lot of talent, but that’s not going to give them anything if they don’t work hard and become the guys that are ready to help their teams on any situation. They are now on the second team, but if one day they arrived at the first team, it will be because they deserve it, not because they have a great talent. I think they’re doing a good job and I hope that in time we will have them on the first team helping us”.
“I don’t look much at age.”
So is it easy for a coach who leads a powerhouse to trust young players? Does Laso prefers youngsters, or established stars? “It depends. I hate a little bit talking about established players or talk about young guys because… Let’s put it this way. An established player can be young, and a young guy can be established, so it’s tough to say where a player is ranked by age. I don’t look much at age. I think the guys that they’re young, they understand, or they have to understand that they have a long career in front of them. But when you see, for example, Jaycee Carroll or Rudy Fernandez or Felipe Reyes playing with the desire they do have every day in practice, maybe I will go with the established players. However, they feel young inside them, and this is very important. The young guys have to be ready. They have to be established to play with the first team, and they have that capacity of giving you energy but also already established players have to have the hunger of being competitive every day”.
All EuroLeague coaches are forced to tackle this issue and make the right choices, without really having the luxury of time and practice that it was available in Europe a decade ago.
“That is something that has changed a lot in the last few years,” Laso admits. “Our calendar now is unbelievable. I remember when EuroLeague teams used to play 40-45 games each season. Now we’re up to 70-some or 80 games, and this is not the NBA where you play 82 games on a regular season, and then you have playoffs. Here you’re playing for something every night. So this is something that we have to understand. Our calendar is difficult for players and also for us, for coaches, and a lot of times, we don’t even have time to interact with our team because the only way we interact is by practicing. We cannot be, you know, 24 hours with the players. We have them in practice; we also have video sessions as we prepare games. We are traveling with them. So we spend a lot of time with them, but it is difficult to interact with them with so many games because probably practice is the way that you do it. Practicing and resting is when you get your players to improve. And we don’t have that much time with this calendar, but we have to adjust, and this is something great coaches can do. Adjust to the calendar and adjust to the situation that we live in Europe now.”
Coaches should also be managers, especially when it comes to egos. “That ego some persons have, makes things difficult because they are all thinking their way. I am also included. It’s not easy for me on Christmas Day to tell my wife that I’m leaving for Athens for a game, but she understands; this is my life. So in the end, we have to live with this. And as coaches, we have to understand the way things are going to be”.
EuroLeague competition creates stars and drama
This kind of grind, coupled with the desire that everyone has to win every game – there’s no tanking in Europe, or a prize for it – creates a highly competitive environment that helps teams and players become the best possible version of themselves.
And a good team may get the same numbers of wins and defeats on the way to the playoffs. It’s not something that powerhouses, which are still finishing their domestic league season with two or three losses until they reach the finals, are eager to accept. In the previous years, before the change of the format EuroLeague when there were group phases with weaker teams included, top teams were expected to dominate.
You can’t do that anymore, or if you do it, you are special.
“EuroLeague has one very good thing; it’s the competition,” admits Laso. “I mean every game in EuroLeague is difficult, and a lot of time it looks like a tragedy losing one game, but you’re playing the best teams in Europe. So out of the thirty-four games that each side is going to give this year, you can’t win them all. There will be no team with a 34-0 record. It’s impossible because we’re facing the best teams, and with this calendar is very difficult to always play at 100 percent. And also, you’re facing great teams. So you have to understand that you can not win every night. It’s difficult because I want to win every night, but it’s difficult. You have to realize that you are probably going to lose games. And then, the only thing that you have to do is adjust. Make your team understand what they did wrong and try to get better for the next game”.
This kind of competition can help youngsters, much more than the NCAA, for example, but at this point in the conversation, this was irrelevant. Very few EuroLeague teams are not considered local powerhouses, and all of them suffer in any defeat.
Coach Laso knows it. In theory, he also knows the way to deal with it; but you can’t avoid the drama: “Well, this is easier to say than to do. It’s not that easy when you’re in the middle of the competition”.