David Blatt: The Money-time Man

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s coach deserves all the praise he gets for bringing a star-less team to the Final Four, but is he headed for greener pastures?

Sefi Magriso

David Blatt’s first two appearances in the Euroleague Final Four were with teams that he inherited from the previous coach at Maccabi Tel Aviv, Pini Gershon. In 2001-02 he received a roster rich in achievements but partially involved in infighting – still, Nate Huffman, Anthony Parker, Ariel McDonald, Tal Burstein and Derrick Sharp were among the biggest names in European basketball at the time. In 2010-11 he promoted half the roster that failed under Gershon, and after Doron Perkins was injured during the series against Caja Laboral he based his team on Chuck Eidson, Lior Eliyahu, David Blu, Guy Pnini, Burstein and Sharp. Blatt brought Jeremy Pargo and Sofoklis Schortsanitis on board, and they played a major role in the team reaching the Euroleague final.

Blatt’s third team to reach the Final Four is all of his own making. Seven of the roster have been playing under him for two years or more – Blu has spent more than half his professional career coached by Blatt. Even the players who joined this season – Joe Ingles, Alex Tyus, Tyrese Rice and Andrija Žižić, who joined mid-campaign – were Blatt’s choices.

Maccabi has no outstanding hoopster this year. In a poll to elect the Euroleague’s leading players during the Christmas break, not one Maccabi player even got a mention. Qualifying for the Final Four at least got Ricky Hickman into the second-choice starting five. Needless to say, the other teams that reached the Final Four have representatives in the first-choice lineup – Real Madrid has two, Barcelona and CSKA one each. Even Milano, which was knocked out by Maccabi, has one: former Maccabi shooting guard Keith Langford, whom no team wanted to touch two years ago, before Blatt got him back on his feet.

Of all the 12 rosters that Maccabi has brought to the Final Four over the years, this one has the fewest stars. This must be credited to the man at the helm.

“David’s a great coach. He’s proved that for many years with various teams, some of them high-level and some of them at a lower level,” says Australian forward Ingles, who knows what a good team is – he played the previous three seasons for Barcelona. “A large part of our success this season can be put down to David. I played against him in previous years for Barcelona and Australia, and I saw how he treats players. I saw his leadership and the confidence he exudes, and that made me want to play for him. When I got to Maccabi I realized that he knows how to reach out to his players, and that’s not an easy thing to do for 10 months. It’s good to play under a great coach like David. I’ll remember this for a long time.”

Yogev Ohayon has played under many coaches in Israel, but at Maccabi he’s known only Blatt. He’s taken his share of castigations from the coach in the locker room, but knows that Blatt rates his center and has protected him all along. Ohayon always sees the glass as being half full.

“From a psychological perspective, I don’t have to say who David is – he gets down on you when needed, and lifts you when needed,” says Ohayon. “He deserves more than anyone to be in the Final Four. He’s the first to arrive at the court [for practice] and the last to leave. He works harder than anyone on the team, and gives everything he can. We players are blessed to have a great coach from who we can learn so much. I really enjoy playing for him. That’s my luck.”

Devin Smith is, possibly along with Blu, Blatt’s player. “David’s done an amazing job to get every player into his system, his concept, to understand his role. He’s like a teacher – he teaches us the game,” says Smith.

Adapting the game plan

It has not been an easy season for Maccabi – injuries, inconsistency, a series of embarrassing early-season losses in the Israeli league and even in the playoffs — but Blatt isn’t surprised that in a season like this his team has reached the Final Four.

“For almost the whole season the team has been excellent in the Euroleague. We won many games, took first place in our group in the first stage and finished third behind CSKA and Real Madrid in the second stage. We had to contend with a long injury list and other problems. We had a fantastic Final Eight and got to this stage on merit. I don’t think there’s anything unexplained in this.”

Maybe it’s a big surprise that Maccabi is one of the four best teams in Europe, but at least in the quarterfinal series against Milano the team proved itself.

“During the season we realized that we have different player permutations that we can use according to how the game develops,” says Blatt. “We had to work hard in training in order to help the players come prepared for the changes during a game – that we want to play one way with one lineup, and a different way with other players. They were prepared to accept such a system. Those who come to watch us – and I invite a lot of coaches – will see the great mental preparation that we invest in teaching and talking to the players. They know what is expected of them and understand how things are done here.”

Beyond being a basketball coach and tactician, Blatt is an educator. He sees his players’ character as no less, and sometimes more, important than their talent. “As a coach you have to make your players play together, that they will be ready with an open heart to accept and adopt the coaches’ way of doing things, that they think of the team before their personal advancement,” he says. “It begins, of course, with the type of player you bring in and the type of player you produce.

“Sometimes you inherit or acquire a player and reach the conclusion that he doesn’t suit the type of character you want in your team, and his willingness to take responsibility and the rules you have within the team in both basketball terms and otherwise. It’s a matter of education, to talk and show and help people internalize what you are looking for and need to help to achieve your targets. You have to understand who you are dealing with, how to approach the player and help him understand what’s needed in order to succeed.”

Perfectionist

Regarding his professional approach, this is what Blatt has to say: “Specifically regarding basketball, it very much depends on the roster available. You cannot work with all the team according to the same system. You have to be flexible and not one-dimensional regarding the type of talent and character you have at your disposal. The rules have to be clear and known to all. You have to demand from the players that they give their all both in offense and defense. In practice you prepare them for battles in the short term, and especially in the long term.”

Senior assistant coach Guy Goodes, a former Maccabi star, has been with Blatt for four years. In previous years he acted as assistant to three other coaches, and recognizes Blatt’s uniqueness. “What’s special about David is that he’s a perfectionist in everything he does. He is totally in his work. From morning to night he lives and breathes the team. He has almost no need for rest — he’s focused nearly 24 hours a day on the team. When you’re concentrated on doing, trying to fix things, improving what you don’t do well as well as what you do well, good things happen — which is why his career is advancing all the time. His achievements speak for themselves. He has plenty of experience as a coach and his many years of familiarity with the team also helps him. To manage a team doesn’t just mean coming to practice and working on this or that move. He must withstand pressures from within and without – and David can do that.”

The second assistant coach, Alon Stein, made his first acquaintance with Blatt when Stein played under Blatt at Galil Elyon. Stein uses the same word that Goodes does to describe the head coach: “David is a perfectionist,” Stein says. “He goes into the tiniest details and it doesn’t matter if it’s shooting practice, a regular training session, preparation for a game or after a game. His head is permanently on basketball. On a personal level, David knows when to slap someone on the head but he also knows how to listen. When players go through a poor period, David knows how to approach and speak to them and point them in the right direction. He knows how to encourage them when things are not going well. In professional terms, David has a method he believes in, and he knows exactly where he wants to dock the boat.”

After winning the series against Milano, while most of the media were toasting Blatt, some of the club’s owners tried to downplay the coach’s achievement. Team manager Nikola Vujcic, who Blatt brought to Maccabi as a player 13 years ago, fell in step with his bosses: “David is the coach, and he deserves credit for the success in the same way that he would have been vilified had he failed. But there are others who should be credited for the success, such as [club president] Shimon Mizrahi and [co-owner] David Federman, who were patient and did not rush in and do anything rash. They didn’t change the coach or the players, which could have led to chaos. Of course, David is at the highest level of European coaches. He knows how to motivate players and win games, but he couldn’t have done it alone. We all helped each other.”

Bigger targets

One of the things that Blatt has learned during his second stint as Maccabi’s coach is to look more at the macro than the micro, and to concentrate on the bigger targets: winning titles, success in the Euroleague ahead of the Israeli league. Blatt, who used to boast that he hardly ever lost a local league game and never loses a playoff game, turned into a money-time coach.

He is not unbeaten – just last season Maccabi lost the Israeli league title to unfancied Maccabi Haifa – but in the Euroleage, when the money is on the table, he’s there. This was evident when Maccabi beat Caja Laoral three years ago, in the balanced and totally unexpected series against Panathinaikos two years ago, in the second half of the Top 16 last year and of course this year against Milano.

“David prepares us well for games,” says Smith. “Everyone knows exactly what he has to do. After defeats he does a good job fixing what went wrong in preparation for the next game. Against Milano we had a game plan. Between the games in Italy and the games in Tel Aviv we made some slight changes that worked well.”

“David knows how to prepare a team. Period,” says Ohayon. “His scouting is meticulous, down to the smallest detail.”

What is interesting about Maccabi this year is that the team qualified for the Euroleague Final Four on the back of an unprecedented run of four consecutive Israeli league losses, including a massive 28-point defeat to Hapoel Jerusalem.

“We’ve had our ups and downs this season,” Ingles explains, “but David knows how to prepare us for battle. We come into important games knowing what we have to do, prepared for every situation.”

Elusive title

A week and a half before the Final Four, Maccabi downshifted, and struggled to get past Galil/Gilboa. Goodes explains the strategy: “David has lots of experience, he feels when you need to step off the gas. Sometimes you have to lose a game or two in a series, which is hard to swallow in a place like Maccabi Tel Aviv.”

Stein sees it completely differently: “David doesn’t come and say ‘Boys, in two weeks we’ve got a target game.’ On the contrary. His greatness is in coming every day and giving it his all. David simply knows how to fix things. Nobody knows better than him how to bring players back to their best mental state.”

Blatt is nowadays considered one of Europe’s leading coaches. He won three medals as coach of the Russian national team: European champion, Olympic bronze and European Championship bronze. This is his third Euroleague Final Four with Maccabi (including one final) – the trophy that has most eluded him.

The problem is that his roster is far weaker than that of CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid or Barcelona. Not that Maccabi winning the cup is an impossibility – but he really deserves to be coaching a team deserving of taking on the lions of Europe. Maccabi will face CSKA Moscow in the semifinal of the Eurobasket Final Four in Milan Friday night.

“David is one of the top four or five coaches in Europe,” says Goodes. “He deserves to be the coach of a team that wins the Euroleague, and I’m sure that’s one of his targets.”

“It’s not for nothing that David’s names been linked not only with some of the top teams in Europe, but also the NBA,” says Stein. “Other coaches are heaping compliments on him.”

Vujcic says it’s not about other teams’ larger budgets. “Money isn’t everything. Maccabi has something beyond money.”

Blatt says he has no complaints. “I’m coaching a great team that has won the European Cup several times, maybe with different lineups, but I don’t feel I’m in a less attractive job than anywhere else in Europe.”

As for the players – they don’t want him to go anywhere. “David’s been here for a long time and I know he wants to continue,” says Ingles. “He likes being here, and his family is here. We’ll try to win the Euroleague trophy for him.”