Why we are still far away from getting a European head coach in the NBA

Why we are still far away from getting a European head coach in the NBA

By Aris Barkas/ barkas@eurohoops.net

There’s one European coach who made it as an NBA head coach and a EuroLeague champion who did the same. However, both cases are still considered unique and while every top European-born coach would like to be the first to get directly a job in the NBA after a successful EuroLeague run, it’s still a long shot.

Not because European coaches are unqualified. On the contrary, the current trend is to have a European assistant on an NBA team’s coaching staff but this was a dead-end for names like Ettore Messina and Sergio Scariolo.

Ergin Ataman was the latest named who was involved in this process with disappointing results.

In the recent past, both Sarunas Jasikevicius and Dimitris Itoudis were also linked with the NBA but in the end, nothing happened.

And it seems highly unlikely that any coach will get this kind of chance without first admitting to being an assistant, or maybe an “associate head coach”, which is practically a euphemism for the top assistant.

So can this gap get bridged somehow? It depends on the willingness of a European head coach to make concessions and also on the will of an NBA franchise to bet on him.

The fact that both Igor Kokoskov in the Suns and David Blatt in the Cavs couldn’t make it, is already a problem for the second part of the equation.

Kokoskov was born and raised in Serbia, but he moved to the States when he was 28 years old, coaching as an assistant first in the NCAA and then in the NBA for 19 years, before getting a shot at being the head coach.

Kokoskov is considered “American” by European basketball circles and the truth is that he didn’t like to adapt to the way things are done back in Europe. That was one of the main reasons he suddenly left Fenerbahcewhere he was the head coach during the 2020-21 season, and returned to the NBA to be an assistant again, first in Dallas and then in Brooklyn.

Blatt is American-Israeli, born and raised in Boston. He played college basketball at Princeton University from 1977 to 1981 under coach Pete Carril. So, getting a shot in the NBA was always in the cards. And he was more than unlucky when the Cavs signed LeBron James.

Blatt – who had also admitted he could make a career as a diplomat – has always found a way to communicate with his players. LeBron was simply another story. Blatt was hired to develop a young team during a rebuilding period and everything changed when LeBron decided to return to Cleveland. Blatt suddenly became expendable and replaced by Tyrone Lue.

In both cases, the end result was the same. Both coaches ultimately couldn’t deliver what the franchise wanted. And the problem obviously wasn’t the “Xs and Os”.

After all, we all tend to forget that the pioneer in this area is Milan legend Mike D’ Antoni, who was a two-time EuroLeague champion as a player with Olimpia Milan, then a Final Four contender as a coach and a winner of the EuroCup and the Korac Cup, before moving to the NBA where he was also a title contender and twice voted coach of the year (2005, 2017).

However, D’Antoni like Blatt, despite having an Italian passport, played college ball in the US and was born and raised in West Virginia. So he was never considered a foreigner in the NBA.

There’s also the general consensus that the NBA is a players’ league and in Europe coaches rule, having power that rivals NCAA coaches. That’s at least partly true and the star power of NBA top players is unmatched, but it’s an approach that doesn’t do justice either to NBA coaches or to EuroLeague stars.

With the NBA picking up talent from all over the world, it’s just a matter of time for a EuroLeague coach to finally make it. After all, a respectable number of European coaches are always part of the NBA summer league personal coaching.

But at the moment, it seems that the right time for a European head coach in the NBA has not yet come.

One prominent EuroLeague coach was interviewed some time ago for an NBA head coaching position.

He didn’t get the job while being considered by the front office one of the strongest candidates.

What’s really interesting is the explanation he got for not being hired: “You are a great coach, but you have strong reactions and you are not smiling a lot. That will be a problem because we will lose a lot of games and this will project badly to our fans”.

In Europe, if you are losing and you are smiling, you might get fired…

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