New Orleans Pelicans Head Coaching Tournament: Ettore Messina v. Mike D’Antoni

Ettore Messina

By: Christopher Louis Romaguera

Theoretically, Ettore Messina has the most interesting and effective offensive schemes out of any of the potential head coaches for the New Orleans Pelicans. He also may be the biggest gamble, having never been a head coach in the NBA or collegiate level. Messina has coached in nearly every European league imaginable, and as decorated as they come in Europe. Messina has won: 4 Euroleague championships, 4 Italian League Championships, 7 Italian Cup Championships, 5 Russian League Championships, 2 Russian Cup Championships, and 2 VTB United League Championships in his last two seasons in Europe. Messina has also been awarded Euroleague Coach of the Year twice, and was named one of the “50 Greatest Euroleague Contributors” in 2008.

Unlike David Blatt (comparisons will be inevitable), Messina would come into a head coaching position with a little NBA experience, having been a full-time consultant for the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2011-2012 NBA season under Mike Brown, and being the lead assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs this past season. Messina was the head coach for the Spurs for a few games this season when head coach Greg Popovich couldn’t give it a go.

For all intents and purposes, Messina has taken the San Antonio Spurs job in order to learn from Pop (and use that experience to propel him to a head coaching job in the NBA.) He has written blog posts about his experience, showing a humility and eagerness to learn that Blatt did not by accepting an assistant coach position. After signing Messina last year, Pop said “I am honored to have such an accomplished individual join our program…Coach Messina is an exceptional coach, a great leader and someone we can all learn from.”

Messina is a diehard basketball lover, and X’s and O’s savant, to the point where he published a paper on his offensive philosophy. Unlike Monty Williams, who often sent messages about not having the personnel for his defense or offense, Messina talks about utilizing the players he has, saying it is on the coach to put players “into the best conditions to be dangerous on offense: we want to be effective using the players’ skills.”

Messina places an emphasis on the team playing uptempo, moving like “a wave.” The team is expected to get into the break via “the defense and it starts from a recovered or stolen ball. Other times, the action begins from a defensive rebound or after an opponent’s scored basket. We play an organized transition, changing the ball side, and finally getting the ball inside to the center.” Everything Messina does on offense is based off of catching the defense off-guard in order to find an advantage. With Messina, there is no excuse when it comes to slowing down the game.

Messina also preaches getting the ball into the middle of the court, something that would greatly benefit Anthony Davis. Messina stresses “Our first goal is to give the ball to the center after penetrating inside the defense. In this way, we create a situation where the defense must react and where we now have a precise rhythm for our offense after the ball has gone inside.” He also stated “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 game” (I imagine many Pelicans fans will be nodding after watching the offense last season.).

The Pelicans got rid of Williams because of he wasn’t the long-term fit for the franchise. Quotes like this from Messina let you know this is a coach with the longview in mind:

“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.”

This understanding that offense isn’t about play calls, but a unit’s understanding of time and place, is exactly the kind of offense that works in today’s NBA. If the Pelicans were to build an offense like that, they would be much more free flowing, and create open and good looks within the flow of the offense.

If the Pelicans really are trying to build off the Spurs model, which can be deducted by Dell Demps and Williams being a part of the fabric for the past five years, Messina may be the perfect coach. The biggest issue with European based coaches is getting used to the rigor of the NBA schedule, but Messina just got a crash course from the best in  the business by being under Pop for the past year.

The biggest Messina specific criticism is that he is hard on his players, and may lose them. But the same was/can still be said of Popovich. But Pop got credibility by winning, and having his best player buy-in. Assuming Davis buys in to Messina, it is easy to see how the rest of the team will fall into line. Messina has taken note how Pop calls the team a program, and if he has taken that lesson to heart, the Pelicans could possibly see Messina build something permanent in New Orleans. A system like that, with a superstar like Davis, could be ripe for a longterm dynasty.


Mike D’Antoni

By Joe Gerrity

When you think of Pelicans basketball over the Monty Williams era, one word comes to mind– boring. Despite having teams that were young, fast, and ideally suited athletically for a 21st century style offense, Monty’s coaching resulted in the Pelicans playing the slowest basketball in the NBA over his tenure.

While winning a title is obviously the first priority, it’s not the only one. Fans want to see fun, exciting basketball. They want to see fast breaks, three pointers and epic dunkathons. With D’Antoni and a talented young team, there’s little doubt that you’re going to get to see the Smoothie King Center erupt with excitement on a regular basis.

D’Antoni has arguably impacted offensive strategy in the NBA more than anyone else in the past 15 years. His run and gun style and often positionless offense are utilized by coaches around the league, and both are ideally suited to the skill set of Anthony Davis. There are few big men in the league who can hang with Davis on a coast to coast sprint, and we’ve already seen how good he is at catching around the rim and finishing. It’s a mouthful, but the “throw the ball to Anthony Davis as he runs past his lumbering opponent” offense is damn effective. It’s a shame we haven’t seen more of it.

Last year the Pelicans were 24th in fast break points per game, scoring just 10.7, a pathetic total for such a young, athletic team. For reference, the Warriors notched 21 per game and the Rockets 18.8. In order to move forward the Pelicans need to take advantage of their speed and athleticism. They need to run, and nobody knows that game better than D’Antoni.

Haters (and my opposition) will argue that D’Antoni has rather objectively failed in his last two high profile coaching jobs, but it’s not hard to see why– the personel was simply not a good match for his system. You can blame him for not game planning better and altering his strategy to mesh with his players, and that’s fair criticism, but in New Orleans he would have the personnel to go back to his bread and butter style of basketball.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m concerned about defense as well, but as others have noted there are plenty of defensive minded assistant coaches on the market who would kill to work under Mike D’Antoni and with Anthony Davis. Also, if I may cross sports for a minute, the Saints championship defense was hardly great in a traditional sense, but they forced a lot of turnovers and the team took full advantage of them on the other end.

I see the Pelicans operating in a similar manner under D’Antoni. They might get burned on occasion defensively, but if the focus is on steals and forcing turnovers, and they are capable getting out in transition and finishing at a high percentage, then I’m willing to overlook some of the detriments of the run and gun. Especially since it’s so fun to watch.

Just picture Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday running the high pick and roll with Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon on the outside ready to fire long balls at a moments notice, with no hesitation. Do you really leave Holiday and Davis essentially in a 2v2 situation time and time again, or do you have your wings cheat off the Pelicans deep threats? It’s a no-win situation for a defense, and it’s something Monty just didn’t effectively run.

If the Pelicans go with D’Antoni, fans will never be bored again, and it’s possible we’ll witness some of the best offensive basketball this league has ever seen. There are certainly other more traditional options, but none with so much experience running and designing a fast paced offense.


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3 responses to “New Orleans Pelicans Head Coaching Tournament: Ettore Messina v. Mike D’Antoni”

  1. Not a big fan of either here but I’ll go with the veteran if he brings along a proven defensive assistant

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed your piece on Ettore Messina.  He sounds like an offensive mastermind, and having a year under Pop speaks volumes.  Although I think he may be a long-shot, as he is not a well-know commodity, I think he may be a good candidate for consideration.  For me, I still like Gentry best, but Messina sounds interesting.

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