Dusan Ivkovic said he is the best Coach of the whole Euroleague, as far as we can read on the books he won the title in Vitoria, as he did in Berlin 2016, and made 5 consecutive trips to the Final 4 with Cska.
Dimitris Itoudis is one of the most important and dominating head coach in Europe and a conversation with him can bring you to all the biggest themes of basketball, especially in a tough time as the one we are actually facing.
– First of all Coach, congrats for being nominated in the WABC (World Association of Basketball Coaches) Advisory Committee : hopefully you will be the one reopening the talks between EL and FIBA. We definitely need it and we need it now…
This is the first reason of my being there, it is the first thing I thought.
– Being a professional sportsman has never been so difficult as during this period: which are Dimitris’ thoughts and feelings about the situation we’re living?
We are fighting a war against an unknown enemy. We just have to listen to experts and be disciplined.
– Actually it looks like in Russia the coronavirus effect seems having less impact than in western Europe: how do you live your daily life and which are the basic rules that came from the local authorities?
We do not have strict rules as in other countries but we are kind of isolating ourselves with self restrictions in our normal life. As family we follow common sense not because we are afraid of the disease but just because we are afraid of spreading it. We have to stay at home not to condemn other people. As a club we agreed all together to continue the practice, with a kind of “work-home” situation. You know, we have to fight as humanity.
– VTB manager Ilona Korstin said that the decision to stop was independent and that it was a risk the league decided to take, since nothing official came from the authorities. Now, she added, it’s paying off. Do you agree with the decision and do you think that all the VTB clubs are correctly involved in these decisions?
This is the pure truth. After NBA and EL suspended their season we took that decisions. We were shooting around the morning of Alba game and that was the day of Kalev vs Loko game. An assistant coach from Kalev was positive, it was the first case. VTB has many nations involved, so we decided all together, the league, the club and the players that agreed after sending a letter with their opinions.
– Let’s go back to what we love more, the game… How difficult is, in this atmosphere, to stay focused on practicing without playing games?
It’s difficult, but I want to tell you that my players are practicing very hard in these days. They are showing how professional they are and I’m proud of it. They are really focused but you know it’s not easy since you don’t know when you will play the next game.
– With EL games stopped your record is 19-9, reasonably fighting with Maccabi for the Playoff advantage in the fourth spot. Is this a kind of placement you could expect at the beginning of the season in a rebuilding situation?
Well it’s not about what we expected but it’s about being realistic. It’s a rebuilding season and you do not rebuild in one night. Many players left the team, many creators left the team so we had to establish a new status quo. There is great enthusiasm, but we need time.
– Will (Clyburn) injury was a devastating and shocking situation but then it looked like you and your team managed it in the best way possible. No panic trying to find a substitute (even if Will is Will, no way to have another one…), when you had the opportunity you signed Howard Sant-Roos. Is it correct to say that all of you gave a bit more trying to to cover what was missing without Will?
Will injury was our first major force of the season. An adversity we had to face from the beginning, after just 4 games. We had to find an identity without Will and I was sure it was about playing a consistent defense. So, once again let’s be realistic: we have always been in a position to have home court advantage and this means a lot to us. When we realised that we were missing him all season long we knew there was not another Will… He had two surgeries, one for the ligament and one for the ankle to be cleaned. So my answer is yes, we all stepped up. All the guys understood the situation, the club made a big effort by signing Sant-Roos, it was not easy, needed to talk to AEK, Andrey (Vatutin) was so important in that period. I do not know it is about karma, but Howard came twice in his career to substitute Will: the first one in Darussafaka, then now.
– A couple of curiosity about Sant-Roos. Can we say he is a reliable three point shooting away from being one of the top in his position?
He is so versatile and this is so important to me. He can play three different positions and I want him to be a creator. We work with him to make him a real creator. 3 point shooting is about working and working, being repetitive. He needs to correct something in his shooting move, he will do it. Will too, when he came to cska, improved a lot his 3s. His percentage could be fascinating for Howard.
– Can I add he is a great defender, but if we want to find a defect is that sometimes he is too confident in his D skills so that he keeps a too upright position on the perimeter?
You know, his debut was against Real Madrid, that we left at 55 points. He played 23 minutes after only two practices. He was so good to keep the rhythm of his teammates even if he could have faced some problems since he didn’t know the sets and the whole system. Maybe he is a bit too confident in his D skills but that being versatile is what means more to me.
– Actually your team has a offensive rating 98,6 (9th in the league) and a 92,9 (2nd) defensive one. Where do you think you should improve more an where do you think you are actually doing better than you thought?
One more time, we need to be realistic. We are a good defensive team, an excellent rebounding team. We are no more the guys that can easily score 90 or more pints, so we need to be consistent and that starts from the D.
– That 92,9 defensive rating sounds more effective since a player like Mike James was not known everywhere as a top D player: how did you managed that situation and which was the key to get so much from him in your half court?
I talked a lot to him in the summer. He can play very good D on the ball, he know how to go through picks and has an athleticism that allows him a lot playing D. Maybe he needs to improve on the weak side.
– Going back to MJ signing, we can say it was the most discussed and intriguing sign of the summer. After 6 months how would you define your relationship with him?
Frankly speaking, with all the respect due to his former clubs, what he really needed was to be part of an environment of real team effort. Playing with a captain like Kyle Hines it’s a huge help. Mike has everything but just need to be part of a team. He never won till now but we wants to do it and perfectly understands that winning means sacrifice. This group, all of them, wants to be coachable and this is so important. Don’t forget this is my third generation in 6 seasons here: we did the same with Pana, but it was in 12-13 years…
– At the beginning of the season, after we talked a lot about him, you told me «he has a lot of talent to bring to our team but at the same time he needs to understand our system». How is this process actually?
I would say good. Will’s Injury did not help him because we built a team around Will and then Mike. He was left alone and it’s never positive to have so much pressure on a single guy. He actually know what he has to face and that we need, once again, a team effort for that.
– I clearly remember two moments of your season with him: a timeout during which you told him «keep being aggressive», after a couple of offensive mistakes, and another one when you told him «you’re not ok, I can see from your body language», after some situation when he showed to be a bit nervous. Can you describe these two moments?
I coach these guys, I live with them, no one knows them better than me. He knows me and he knows that I will always tell him the truth. By being aggressive I mean that we need him to create as he can do, we need good plays coming from his effort and we need him trusting his teammates as he is doing. I do not talk for TV or the fans, I talk to my players, so if I saw his body language was not perfect, I just told him. You cannot imagine how important is the body language we show: for us, for our opponents, for everybody. And Mike knows how much we talked about that. Listen, during the recent Pana game we were up 10 at halftime, but it should have been 16 or more. It didn’t happen just because we made some turnovers. In the locker room I checked and saw Mike had only one assist but I was so happy because he was the best creator we could have, he was great, and the stats did not say the truth. If he works like that with 3/4 players collapsing on him we have a lot of secondary plays, so 50% is coming from his effort in creating.
– Daniel (Hackett) is another key factor in your team. I remember how many times you told me «you don’t know how many things he’s giving us that are not shown in the boxscore». This season it looks like his numbers too are growing and he’s having a better and better impact on the offensive side. Which kind of work did you do together to join this level?
Dany is a mature player. He had a contract expiring in june but I kept him quiet, he knew I wanted him for the next seasons. He signed the renewal, it’s great for us. In Vitoria, just after the title, he told me to keep pushing on him like he was a junior, to ask him always something more. This meant a lot to me, this shows how much left he has in his tank.
«Daniel is a mature player with so much left in his tank. I’m so happy to have him with us for the nest seasons »
– Kosta Koufos is another great move of the summer but obviously we all were expecting something more than 9 minutes, 3,7 pints and 2,8 rebounds. We thought he could have given the team a strong low post position, something different from what Othello was guaranteeing last year. In the last games he looked much more ready and part of the team. Can you define the kind of problems he had till now?
Generally speaking, when you sign 6 new players, you can face some problem. It happens to any coach. It’s hard to be immediately ok with 100% of what you have new. Kosta came from 11 years in the NBA, he adjusted to our game in the preseason than the injury stopped the process and after that he needed a new preseason. But he is stubborn and has a great work ethic. Now I agree with you, he is doing far better, but once gain another stop due to the situation. In any case you know I have 16 players and only 40 minutes of play: I do not coach thinking of the contracts, the past or the names. I do the best for the team and all my players know it.
– Talking about the way you play this season, I was really impressed by the high level of your defense, while about the offense I could see a spacing that was so many times really perfect. As about that spacing my opinion is that you changed a lot compare to last season giving more opportunities on the perimeter, while with Nando, Cory and Sergio the “mid range” was more important than this season. Can you talk about the two different situations?
Nando and Cory could give us so many different things. With their dribbles it was so different, it needed to be different. Now we need to have more mobility of people, we can play “out to in” or “in to out” but we still have a lot of work left. Than, you know, it depends on what the opponents decide to leave you… Anyway spacing is a key factor: we do work so much on it.
– Let me try to find something negative… Your offense sometimes starts with a too slow tempo: this is when you face most of the troubles to find a good shot. Is this the biggest problem in your game?
We need rhythm and pace. When slow and static we lose a lot. We work so much for this situation too.
– As about that 3 point shooting, last year you finished with 21,61 attempt per game (11th in the league) at 40,75% (2nd), while this season you are attempting 28 shots from the arc (2nd) with a 39,16% (4th). Wow! You increased by almost 7 attempt keeping the percentage so high… This sounds like playing real basketball and being coached the best way…
Ok, thanks for your words… I want my guys to be chameleonic and reading is the most important thing. Sometimes we read to much… Shooting, especially in the clutch moments, need character, you need let’s say… “balls”. We practice a lot on this factor.
– You played you best games against the biggest opponents. Let’s say in Barcelona and Istanbul (Efes) you played close to perfection: it’s so good to show your best with great teams, but on the opposite side you lost some bad games against teams you were supposed to defeat. How do you balance this situation?
Every game is different. In the home game with Pana, even if not really home…, we did a mistake not fouling Calathes, with Asvel we had three more injuries but I will never say that, I hate excuses as well as I hate when we are inconsistent. We played the perfect game against Barça, it’s true, but I’m not stupid, I know there are not 30 points with them… But listen, what defines a team is how you react to losses. You wan to fall back or forward? You know sooner or later you will fall, it’s all about your reaction. We decided to move forward as we did last year: don’t forget the Champion team came from losses in Podgorica and losing the home court with Baskonia.
– Sometimes the game is so strange. Two Coach like Obradovic and Messina were facing big problems almost all season long. Unpredictable for two guys that lifted the trophy 13 times in 27 years. You know both of them very well, any idea of the problems they had?
I do not know, what can I say… But let me tell you that those guys are real examples of consistency in every part of the game. You know my relationship with Zeljko, I truly respect Ettore too. Everything that is big in basketball, they have it. You show you are a great coach not in single season, you show it during the years.
– Dusan Ivkovic recently said that Itoudis is the best coach in the Euroleague. Sounds so important, given who’s talking and who are the other coaches in this league…
Did he really say that? I don’t know… It’s an honor and a privilege being considered like that. I don’t know if the best or in the best, but just being in that group makes me so proud. Dusan is mentor to me, I’ve been knowing him since 1988 or 89, I recently talked to him in Belgrade in the Zvezda game, he is so important in my life. But all this is possible just because with Andrey Vatutin we always try to improve. There is great ethic behind the scenes of this club.
– President Vatutin said you all well know where to improve your team and that the organization is working in that direction. You won’t tell me anything about the names, I Know it, but I would say another guard able to attack from the dribble, with points in his hands and a big guy with a strong body to fight in the paint…
You know I won’t give you details, but which coach would not love to have those two kind of players that you mentioned…? We have a strategy, we want to make early moves and we are well aware that the market is so tight.
He (Andrey) added that the economical situation after the coronavirus outbreak could bring to many rearrangements for the future. Do you think EL world is ready to face some sacrifice in terms of money in the close future?
Well, it’s a big topic. We talk to NBA Coaches as well as EL ones, then ELPA and the Players Association in NBA. Talking to my captain Kyle too, we agreed that home is where we work, we are professional. Our home is Moscow, Russia. We are actually swimming in unknown waters, we don’t know what can happen and we do not want to follow any speculation. We just have to wait and see which will be the situation in the next weeks. Than talk again and see what to do. I don’t think the best way is to close the season and give titles to the actual leaders in the standings: how is that possible in a game played with Playoffs, Final 4 and so on?
– Ok Dimitris, it’s so sad not meeting you in Milan early april…
Let’s be confident, we will do it, in june or july, let’s hope we will be back playing soon.