Is Zeljko Obradovic too brash to coach in the NBA, or are some NBA players too self-centered to play for Obradovic?
Yesterday, HoopsHype editor Jorge Sierra posted a poll amongst several players throughout Europe as to which coaches in Europe would make the best head coaches in the NBA. While the consensus top three of Ettore Messina, David Blatt and Zeljko Obradovic is pretty obvious, as all three coaches are clearly capable of running an NBA squad, the panel’s take on Obradovic was quite irritating.
“Serbian legend Zeljko Obradovic, the winningest Euroleague coach ever with eight titles, came a distant third behind Blatt and Messina, with many players citing his brash style as something that wouldn’t fly at all in the NBA.”
During Obradovic’s 13-year run with Panathinaikos, he has unprecedented success, winning 5 Euroleague titles, 11 Greek League titles, and the Greek Cup 6 times, all while Greece was unquestionably a top 3 league in Europe. Obradovic employed a system that was very pick-and-roll heavy, which focused on utilizing the corners to open up the offense and make it more difficult for the defense to commit.
There is no denying that there is some similarity with the way the San Antonio Spurs play.
During Obradovic’s time in Greece, he had an MVP level point guard in Dimitris Diamantitis, and an elite level power forward in Mike Batiste, who became masters of the pick and roll together in a very similar fashion to how John Stockton and Karl Malone gelled together and benefited from the chemistry they built with extended continuity.
To say that NBA players won’t buy into Obradovic’s style because he is demanding, strict and holds his players accountable, is to say that this generation of NBA players are not capable or being coached, or willing to sacrifice some ego for the benefit of the team. However, if you look at all the successful teams in the NBA over the last decade, you will find that each one of them had a coach that applied many of the same principles that Obradovic demands.
Greg Popovich has gotten star players like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to give up minutes, stats and personal achievement for the benefit of the team. Doc Rivers championed “Ubuntu” with the Celtics when the Celtics put together a team of future Hall of Famers, in which everyone played for each other on both ends of the floor. Even with the Heat now behind Erik Spoelstra, it is obvious that everyone is buying into the team system. And while it’s hard for the casual fan to notice due to the spectacular ability of LeBron James, when their gears are clicking the Heat play as a team.
In truth, Obradovic is very similar to Larry Brown, who famously demands his players to “play the right way” and chastises players who don’t. Brown’s style may have been difficult for players to handle, but there is no denying that it works, considering he took a team of Allen Iverson and average players to the NBA Finals, and had an impressive run in Detroit in which he won the 2004 NBA Championship with no likely future Hall of Famers on his squad.
If it really is true that a coach like Obradovic cannot coach in the NBA because the players would rebel for being demanded to give the maximum for the team, then I think that says something very disturbing about the current state of the NBA. However, I don’t think it’s a true statement. In general, the top teams value players who are willing to buy into a team’s system, and are wary about players who, although talented, feel like they are above the team.
There is no question that Obradovic has the knowledge, personality and overall capability to coach in the NBA, and in the right situation could even be one of the top coaches in the league. However, it certainly will be interesting to see how his future team — if there ever is one — reacts to his style.
AJ Mitnick is an American living in Israel and working as an Assistant Coach for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick is in his third season with Maccabi Rishon, where they have made the Israeli League Final Four, and have twice made the Final Four of the Israeli State Cup . Follow him on Twitter.