Ever since news of his hiring broke out, every iota of new Lakers coach Mike Brown's philosophy on both sides of the ball has been thoroughly dissected by every self-respecting blogger or writer in Laker Land, notably his offensive playbook. Well, here's a new wrinkle in that analysis, and hopefully one that will assuage some fears about Brown's perceived offensive shortcomings. According to Hoopsworld's Eric Pincus, the Lakers have agreed to hire distinguished former Euroleague head coach Ettore Messina as a full-time consultant on Brown's staff. This position is roughly analogous to the one Tex Winter had with Phil Jackson, and Pincus, who originally broke the story that Brown was pursuing Messina, reports that the deal was agreed to Friday.
As many commentators have astutely noted, coaches like Brown who gravitate towards one side of the floor often significantly benefit from assistant coaches who can manage the other aspects of the game. Naturally, a good staff is essential for any head coach, as Phil's long association with Tex, Frank Hamblen, Jim Cleamons, and more can attest to, but it's especially true for Brown. In any case, let's review the newest addition to the Laker family:
Messina's first claim to fame was his tenure of the Italian team Virtus Bologna, where he was the head coach from 1989-2002, winning the Euroleague title in 1998 and 2001, and making it to the title game in 1999 and 2002. From there, he replaced Mike D'Antoni, who was leaving to become an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns, as the head coach of another Italian team, Benetton Treviso, which he led to the title game in 2003. He then departed Italy to become the head coach of CSKA Moscow, winning titles in 2006 and 2008, and most recently, was the head coach of Spanish League team Real Madrid during the 2009-10 season. Messina was twice named Euroleague Coach of the Year in 2006 and 2008 with CSKA Moscow, and earned similar honors in the Italian League six times. In many ways, Messina's accomplishments are analogous to that of a excellent college coach, and between the superior level of talent and far more complex offensive and defensive systems, you could argue it's even more laudable.
Among NBA executives, Messina has been a possible NBA head coaching candidate for a long period, with the only reservation being his lack of experience in the league. For his part, Messina has accepted that he has to pay his dues as an assistant in the NBA, and his association with Brown stretches back many years, as Brown would frequently travel overseas during the off-season to stay as his guest. Messina was also mentioned as a possible candidate for the newly opened head coaching position with the Toronto Raptors, who have never been adverse to adding more European players, with the recent departure of Jay Triano.
As far as his coaching philosophy goes, Messina has a reputation as a strong-willed and tough personality who has run highly disciplined offenses relying on a heavy amount of post-ups along with man and ball movement. In a highly comprehensive article he wrote while with CSKA Moscow, Messina wrote about some aspects of his offensive philosophy. To avoid getting swamped in basketball Xs and Os, here are some of the juicier bits, notably how they jive with our current personnel:
The general idea of the CSKA offensive system that eventually led us to our system of play was the conviction that it is certainly not the set play or playing free that makes the difference in a game. Rather, is was the ability of our players to understand what the defense was doing and to always be conscious of any changes that they were making. Our players must be able to read the defensive behavior of their opponents. Any offense can be original, but if the player on offense is not able to understand what the defense does, he loses effectiveness and our offense slows down. The strength of our offense depends on the options that the players have at their disposal after reading (and attacking) the defense. This special knowledge takes a while to be completely understood by our players.
Reading the defensive behavior of opponents is a basic quality of any offense, and these reads will almost certainly be different from the triangle, but it's nice to know that Messina's tough mindset doesn't extend to a lack of flexibility on offense.
For our offensive rhythm, it is critical that the ball find its way to our inside player. Playing the ball only on the perimeter creates a lot of difficulties for our offense and, as a result, it becomes harder to win games. On the other hand, getting the ball inside gives us balance and allows us to attack the heart of the defense, where we know that the opposing teams have a defensive organization ready to counteract. Therefore, we must be ready to play against this reaction in order to take an advantage and get an uncontested shot at the basket.
Over the years, we realized that we must aim to have at least 20 shots coming from these low-post situations. Moreover, in the initial phases of the games where the referees are very demanding, our powerful inside game causes many of the opposing big men to get into early foul trouble. This limits their time on the court and we look to take advantage of that. Losing a defensive big man or two early in the game frees us to make more penetrations to the basket.
At least twenty post-ups a game? Getting the other team into foul trouble? Avoiding stagnancy on the perimeter by getting it into the post? Where was this guy all of last year? Of course, there's a big gap between saying you're going to do something and seeing it implemented on the court, but as anyone who watched the Lakers this past season can attest to, the mind-boggling refusal of the team's perimeter players to throw the ball into the post more often was a huge problem.
Players must understand what needs to be done after the defense gets to work. They need to know what happens when the center is double teamed, how to move off the pick-and-roll, and how to position themselves in order to attack the weak points of their opponents. This is not an immediate process, but something that is built gradually as the young players learn the game. They must come to learn that at every ball possession, we must produce something, whether it be through a series of well-executed passes, or by reading a mismatch on the court and quickly exploiting it.
Again, these are relatively basic principles, but the Lakers' near-comic tendency to punt possessions away through a lack of ball or man movement or by not attacking key mismatches -- which the Lakers have on nearly any given night -- was endemic last year.
The rest of the article goes into more specific detail on some sets, including the use of screens to create spacing, another thing the Lakers were quite poor at executing and would have benefited from considering that the lack of shooting was already compounding that issue. Now, a caveat. Like nearly all Euroleague teams, and frankly, most NBA teams, Messina's sets included a lot of pick-and-roll, which is one way those teams compensate for the lack of explosive athleticism and one of the reasons you get the ill-informed stereotype that European teams are more "fundamentally sound" than their American counterparts. The Lakers are emphatically not a pick-and-roll team, and rarely run it besides some occasional sideline pick-and-roll play and as the item of last resort during crunch time when Kobe goes into hero mode.
There are some pick-and-roll sets can conceivably could work, particularly whenever Odom runs a 4-5 pick-and-roll and forces both bigs to defend on the perimeter, and this could make life easier on Blake, who looked lost in the triangle last year. Concurrently, this would also demand that Kobe handles the ball more in a distributing role, and that could have mixed results, depending on Kobe's mindset at the time and his diminished ball-handling ability courtesy of his finger injuries. It would also highly reduce Fisher's role, as he's not really an adept ball-handler off the pick-and-roll, to that of solely a spot-up shooter, and honestly, that's the only real on-court responsibility he should have right now. All that said, it would be highly helpful for the Lakers to pick up a point guard either in free agency, the draft (hint, hint), or via trade capable of running a half-decent pick-and-roll to reduce the dependency on the aforementioned three players.
All of this isn't intended to present Messina as a kind of panacea that is going to magically make the Lakers' offensive woes disappear. Part of that is personnel related, notably in regard to a lack of shooting from behind the arc, additional ball handlers capable of applying pressure on a defense via the threat of penetration, and an overall dearth of athleticism. There's also the fact that this isn't going to be a change that will happen overnight, particularly if a lockout extends into the season. That said, as I noted in an update to my initial reaction post to Brown, if you wanted a silver lining to the Brown hiring, this is certainly one of them. No one questioned Brown's defensive credentials at the time of the hiring, and this should put to rest some of the concerns about the other end of the floor.
Lastly, Pincus' report makes note of the other possible assistant coach candidates, including present Laker assistant Chuck Person, former Pistons head coach John Kuester, Mavericks assistant Tim Grgurich, and lead New Orleans assistant Michael Malone. We will certainly keep you updated as Brown continues to fill his staff with what is beginning to look like a pretty solid corps.