Published January 04, 2013
The Dallas Mavericks were thought to be tip-toeing out on a shaky limb in 1998 when they traded for a skinny forward out of Germany named Dirk Nowitzki.
European players, especially one from a basketball no-man's land, were considered soft, and the conventional thinking was that a franchise could not win a championship with such a player as the cornerstone. Nowitzki proved everyone wrong, of course, developing into an MVP, winning a title and helping to usher in a new line of thinking with regard to international players.
Now practically every team is scouring the globe for top-shelf talent and has come to recognize that some of the professional leagues in Europe rival or exceed Division I colleges for competitiveness and skill. Fifteen years after Nowitzki was drafted, the NBA has an international flavor, evolving into a more open, free-flowing style of play in a game that had grown rugged around the turn of the century. A record-tying 84 international players were on NBA rosters when the league opened play this season, and franchises in Dallas and Minnesota had their hopes hinging on the recoveries of European stars.
With so many foreign players having so much success, the next step could be bringing in a coach from one of the power programs overseas to run a team. After facing some of the top candidates during the London Olympics, Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski has no doubt it could work.
"There is no question that an international coach can be an NBA head coach," Krzyzewski said during the Americans' run to the gold medal. "These guys are terrific in their preparation and a lot of the international players are playing in the NBA, so it is not a stretch."
Job security in the NBA is as volatile as any professional league, creating openings and searches for the next Phil Jackson almost on a monthly basis. This season alone, the Los Angeles Lakers fired Mike Brown after just five games and the Brooklyn Nets dismissed Avery Johnson three weeks after he was named Eastern Conference coach of the month. Often times those jobs are filled by retreads. Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman has had three head coaching jobs despite being nearly 150 games under .500 for his career; Johnson's abrupt firing thrust P.J. Carlesimo into his fourth head job.
They're hard-working coaches with deep reservoirs of basketball knowledge. But just like in 1998 when the Mavericks traded a standout from a traditional college basketball program — Michigan's Robert Traylor — to the Milwaukee Bucks for Nowitzki, the time could be drawing near for a forward-thinking franchise to go in a fresh direction.
"I would think we're getting closer," Timberwolves international scouting coordinator Pete Philo said. "If you took the top 10 percent of coaches in Europe and the top 10 percent here, they're pretty close. These guys over there can flat-out coach. We have some outstanding coaches here as well.
"It's our game here. We taught a lot of those coaches. With the way the game is played over there, they promote ball movement and spacing and cutting. They teach the game in an old-school way with new-school terminology and new-school ideas. Some of these coaches are definitely capable of coaching in the NBA."
Top candidates could certainly include David Blatt, who resurrected the Russian national program and led them to the bronze medal in London; Ettore Messina, a legend in Europe who rose to prominence in Italy and now coaches Russian power CSKA Moscow; and Rimas Kurtinaitis, the only coach to win the highly competitive Eurocup twice.
"That is going to be a very courageous decision on the part of an owner and a general manager," the American-born Blatt told The Associated Press. "Up to this point, it's been obvious they're not willing to take someone directly. And in fairness there are a lot of great coaches in the NBA that are in line and deserving.
"But much like what the Russian national team did, someone at some point is going to want to take a different direction and to make a break from the norm and to courageously step up and say, 'Hey we want to do things a little differently and we're not afraid.' When that decision comes, I hope I'm a guy they consider."
The challenges for an international coach in the NBA would be many. The different rules — from goaltending to zone defenses to the time the game and the width of the key — would be minor adjustments. But handling a much more demanding schedule with up to four games per week versus playing twice a week in Europe, and tailoring the approach to accommodate those differences would be paramount.
"People don't understand the NBA is 82 games," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "Europe is once or twice a week. College is twice a week. The thing about it is there's a psychological pattern that I think college and European coaches have to change when they get here. They probably have the brains and the talent and understanding of the system."
Karl and Timberwolves president David Kahn recommended that such a candidate spend some time as an assistant with an NBA team first before a franchise gives him complete control. The Lakers brought Messina over as an assistant last season, but he returned to coach CSKA this season. Current Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni made a name for himself in Italy with Benetton Treviso, but he had stints as an assistant with the Nuggets and Trail Blazers and then the Suns before being named head coach in Phoenix in 2003.
A coach with no domestic roots tapped to take over right from the start would also have to deal with the same skepticism that Nowitzki faced.
"I say this respectfully, but our players have to buy in," Philo said, speaking in general terms and not about the Wolves specifically. "If your players don't buy into your head coach, they're not going to play as hard. Your guy has to come with a little cache or your marketing department better do a good job promoting the guy."
Timberwolves forward Andrei Kirilenko has played in the NBA 10 years and also is a star in his native Russia, spending last season playing for CSKA Moscow. European coaches, in general, are more taskmasters, Kirilenko said — an approach that has been proven to be less and less effective in the NBA as the years have gone on and salaries have sky-rocketed.
"The coach in Europe, he is like the boss," Kirilenko said. "You can't say anything. You have to do whatever he says, no matter what. Here, it's more coaches trying to get on the same page as the players. The majority of the coaches are trying to get a good connection with the leaders of the team so they understand the idea of the coach and provide that idea on the floor.
"It's very tough in the NBA because the guys have such big egos that it's very tough to contain that for such an intense season. Playing twice a week, it's probably OK. You can deal with it. But playing every night, you get banged up a little bit and coach is trying to bring it, bring it, bring it. After 30 games, it would be, 'Come on coach. I don't want to hear it anymore.'"
So who will make the leap? The Nets would seem to be a logical choice with Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov, but they appear to be trying to lure Jackson out of retirement for another run. The Timberwolves (Rick Adelman) and San Antonio Spurs (Gregg Popovich) have two of the most respected coaches in the game. They've also been more open to bringing in international players than most teams, which would indicate a willingness to at least consider the idea down the road. And the Mavericks and owner Mark Cuban, again with a championship coach in Rick Carlisle, have proven to be one of the most innovative franchises in the league.
"I think that's a big step right now, but I can't deny someone might not pull that trigger," Karl said. "It might be an organization where someone wants a new face, a new script. I can't deny there's some guys over there that probably have the talent."
Blatt, who coaches Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, made it clear in London that he'd like to be the first one who gets a chance.
"If you're asking me could I do it, would I like to do it? Absolutely," Blatt said. "If you're asking me is it going to happen anytime soon? I'm kind of doubtful."
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