The Foreign Exchange: the Case for Ettore Messina as Lakers Head Coach

After Byron Scott's long-awaited departure, the Lakers are looking for their coach of the future in the next head coaching hire. Ettore Messina brings the knowledge, culture, and stability necessary to set the Lakers on the right track.

With Byron Scott out, Laker fans everywhere are sensing the dawn of a new day. May 18th will shed some light on what the near future may hold, after ping-pong balls reveal their pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, but the front office has a chance to set the team’s path on a larger scale with the current coaching decision.

European coaching legend Ettore Messina, currently an assistant for the Spurs, is supposedly high on the team’s list, especially if the organization is unable to pry Luke Walton away from the Warriors. The Lakers were recently granted permission to interview the Warriors assistant coach, who is a fan favorite due to his history as a Laker player and his high-profile job with one of the greatest teams in history. Ignoring for a second the unlikelihood that Walton bolts the Bay Area and their historic roster, Messina might be a better choice for the organization anyway.

While a young coach might make sense for the Lakers’ young roster to grow and build a culture as a team, the organization needs someone with stability. Someone who is established, someone who knows all facets of the game, and someone who already has a culture in mind. That person is Ettore Messina.

Messina is a familiar face to some Laker fans; he was on Mike Brown’s staff during the ill-fated Howard-Nash experiment. But his pedigree runs much deeper than a failed establishment of Mike Brown’s Princeton offense. The four-time Euroleague champion and two-time Euroleague Coach of the Year has spent the last couple years as the Spurs’ head assistant, playing the role of head coach a few times in Gregg Popovich’s absence. To be honest, his impressive history in European basketball and his current role in helping develop an all-time historic roster far outweigh the underperforming year with Mike Brown and the Lakers; that team had many more problems than X’s and O’s.

So would Messina be effective at the helm of the Lakers’ current iteration? Messina has been described as a tough, no-nonsense coach with a strong personality. His interviews convey a similar tone, and that also would explain why Popovich trusts him as a substitute head coach.

Some Laker fans might balk at the idea of another hard-nosed coach after Byron Scott perpetually clashed with D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. But there are a couple of key reasons why fans shouldn’t worry at their similarities of demeanor.

Ettore Messina is much more Gregg Popovich than Byron Scott. (Source: BasketUniverso.It)

First, Byron Scott has never been confused with an X’s and O’s genius. His playbook wasn’t truly made available for Russell to dispatch with the team, and Russell admitted that he often didn’t know what Scott wanted from him. Because Scott’s desires and direction weren’t clear to the team’s prized rookie, it was hard for Russell to truly perform in the coach’s system.

It’s much easier to follow the direction of a unsentimental coach if you can trust in his basketball knowledge. And Messina doesn’t lack that. Gregg Popovich has admitted to stealing plays from him while Messina was coaching in the Euroleague. Messina also squared off against a Maccabi Tel Aviv team led by head coach and known basketball genius David Blatt in the 2008 Madrid Euroleague Final Four, coming away with his last Euroleague championship. You don’t out-coach David Blatt on the highest stage without a high basketball IQ.

Second, despite the lack of results in the win column and the cries from Laker Nation, the Lakers’ young players actually developed pretty well under Byron Scott’s disciplined approach. Julius Randle became the double-double machine he is under Scott’s reign, and Larry Nance, Jr. settled into his role as the high-energy, defensive hustle player the team needed. Scott’s relationship with Russell was a bit more contentious, obviously. But Scott’s refusal to simply hand Russell the reigns to the team immediately seemed to have paid off; by the time Russell was given a spot in the starting lineup, he seized the opportunity, pouring in career highs in all categories and demonstrating an insane amount of confidence down the stretch of the season, especially in clutch time.

Messina’s main task will be continuing to develop the Lakers’ young core into the stars the organization hoped they would be on their respective draft days. Messina preaches ball movement as a main tenant of his offensive system, which doesn’t cater to a singular ball handler being the impetus for the action on offense. 

Fortunately, Messina does have an affinity for working with taller, playmaking guards, a description that matches D’Angelo Russell well. He entrusted playmakers like Manu Ginobili and Theo Papaloukas to start his offense as proficient ball-handlers with both the ability to get to the rim, as well as maintain their court vision after penetrating. Ginobili, Papaloukas, and Trajan Langdon were all the long, playmaking point guard prototype that Messina prefers, and all three won Euroleague Final Four MVPs under Messina.

Messina also employs a smart pick and roll game, something Russell should eventually thrive on once familiar in Messina’s system. Similar to the triangle and the Princeton offense, his P&R system is one that relies on each player reading and reacting to the defense’s movements. Russell already has the vision to see plays before they happen, and should fall right in line with Messina’s ideas.

Post play is another staple of Messina’s offensive philosophy. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times while he coached the Lakers, he declared that in order to be an effective offensive, teams need to either swing the ball to get the defense moving, or cause them to collapse by getting the ball inside. Before you call his schemes archaic, know that Messina is about balance. Feeding the ball into the post is more of a piece of his offense rather than the final goal. From the man himself, “Getting the ball inside gives us balance and allows us to attack the heart of the basket...In the initial phases of the game where the referees are very demanding, our powerful inside game causes many of the opposing big men to get into early foul trouble. This limits their time on the court, and we look to take advantage of that. Losing a defensive big man or two early in the game frees us to make more penetrations to the basket.”

While Julius Randle is more of a driving big than a post-up threat currently, a renewed focus on post touches could help Randle and young center Tarik Black develop more refined post games.

As with most European coaches, his most important transition will be on the defensive end. Most European coaches have to adjust from the more zone-based defensive schemes to which they’re accustomed to the NBA style. That being said, Messina’s main intention in coming to the States as an assistant was to learn more about the NBA game to make his transition to a head coaching position easier. While also demonstrating his lack of ego, the time spent with the perennial contenders in San Antonio and their dominant defense has definitely instilled in him modern NBA defensive principles.

Not only that, but his offensive philosophies lend themselves to teams being more prepared on the defensive end. His emphasis on shot selection is purposeful; bad shots and inefficient ball movement (i.e. lateral perimeter passes and iso turnovers) lead to transition points and easy baskets. By limiting those, Messina teams already have an advantage on the defensive side of the ball before even getting back.

From a basketball standpoint, Messina’s knowledge acquired from over two decades of championship basketball on the highest of stages offers the Lakers the pedigree they lost when Phil Jackson walked out of the door. His ability to learn from others and adapt his system to personnel are perfect to lead this malleable Lakers team, especially in today’s ever-changing NBA.

His conflicts with management during his stint in Real Madrid are enough to give pause when you think of the high-profile management group in the Lakers’ front office. But Messina attributes those conflicts to ownership's refusal to engage in a long-term rebuild, instead opting for a revolving door of a roster to try and plug and play established veterans in his system. The Lakers, after CP3, Nash, and Dwight, have committed to themselves to the long-term view, even hiring the Tank Commander Byron Scott himself to lead the team to lottery glory.

Messina is the right coach for Russell, the right coach for the Lakers rebuilding young team, and the right coach to institute a tradition of successful basketball back in Los Angeles. With the team in a precarious position this off-season, the team needs a step in the right direction to restore the allure of the purple and gold.

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