CSKA head coach Dimitris Itoudis tells about strange preseason, first impressions about the newcomers and necessity of changes in world basketball…
Dimitris Itoudis: The favorites are the ones on the court, not on paper
CSKA head coach Dimitris Itoudis tells about strange preseason, first impressions about the newcomers and necessity of changes in world basketball.

During the summer, even taking a breathe at home in Greece, you was surely thinking how the team will look this season. What were your general ideas both roster- and tactical-wise?
First of all, whatever we did, we were on the same page with management, me, Andrey Vatutin, Natalia Furaeva, Andreas and Andrey Shchepankov. We were talking a lot about the team and our ideas. We tried to keep the core untouched and we managed to do it with high percentage. We were satisfied with the way we are playing as a team, the identity we had last three years. We play physical, fast and well-organized in our set plays. We play attractive but at the same time effective. So there were no need to change basic philosophy. Therefore we tried to bring players that can fit into this philosophy.

Talking about our strategy on players market, we had to choose in between two ways of building the roster. Either you sign all important players available after the season finishes – and I have to repeat that we never talk to the players before the end of the season, – or you have to wait and risk, you may lose some players right now but acquire somebody after NBA teams start cutting their rosters. We all understand that NBA remains as a priority for many players, especially American, because of money and value of the championship. We chose the first way.

Our goal is to sign athletic, hungry players, and also the ones who can give us size because the size of the team is not something that can be given by just big guys, playing 4 and 5. We also had to take into consideration the limitations we have in the VTB League. By the way, we are obviously in unequal conditions in comparison to other countries. Fenerbahce may have 9-10 foreigners, Olimpia Milan, Efes, Barcelona, Real have 9 foreigners… So we worked together under the rules we have to keep the team that can play effective, attractive basketball adored by the fans and to keep our identity. I think we managed to do it.

We have lost two very important players, Milos and Aaron. But we replaced them with high-quality players. Right now we need time because many players were busy with their National Teams so we did not work much together. So the process will continue during official games and, hopefully, it will not cost us some losses. We know very well that both competitions we are playing in will be decided in Final Four format.

Fans know me very well: I am not a person who talks much about future. We need to set our targets. And first one is to become united, to become a team. We need to build right chemistry, the bond that united us even more. That comes through games, practices, travels, hotels. We need this experience. Second target will be to adopt the philosophy. To play fast but controlled basketball, knowing what we do, reading the situations, taking the advantages given to us. We have size, so we can punish in or out. We need and we can defend better. Third, is to see, where we can finish both in EuroLeague and VTB League. We want to end up having the home-court advantage in playoffs. But initially we have to qualify. This is something realistic. In EuroLeague we have another 15 teams. And everyone around will label us as favorites. I have no problem with that. People can say whatever they want to say. For me favorites are the ones who are good on the court, not on the paper, with all due respect to what fans and journalists say. Realistic target will be to finish in top 8. So, as you see, we have many steps. And we start from the first one. We concentrate on practices, videos, individual talks.

Going back to changes, you already said that we replaced some players with other players. That give everyone the reason to make comparisons. You know that people already talk a lot about comparing Rodriguez to Teodosic etc. Do you compare the players?
No, I don’t. If you start comparing, you’re losing your points. You will never find identical players. You can find some similar characteristics but you will never get second Milos, for instance. Surely, both Milos and Sergio are great ball-handlers, they have good court vision, they fast in transition, they can make long-distance threes, read the game well, play on highest level, have big experience. But this is not what fills my thoughts. People also have to understand that we could build the team differently. We could have different players. People should not compare, they have to see the physiognomy of the team. And the players should also adapt to different roles. We need bigger impact from Vitaly, Misha, Voro, Semen. Pasha gets back to give us what he is capable to do. If you start comparisons, go and recall us of Duda and Marcus Brown. Current team doesn’t have those players anymore. We don’t have Milos, Aaron, Sasha Kaun, Sonny… But we have Nando, Nikita, Sergio, Voro, Semen, Leo, Kyle, Othelo, Vitaly, Victor others, we have different team that needs your support. And the team will make huge effort.

It is not easy to collect the team. We cannot sign everyone we want. I understand that we are in good situation but we act under limitations.

I think the most reasonable comparison that we can allow is brought by addition of Will Clyburn. Because we did not have this type of player.
I fully agree. He gives us size on the perimeter and he can also play together with Nikita. Here we also had to choose. We could add bigger player but we preferred to have Will, who is versatile, athletic, who can help the team run the court. Again, we need time to try different combinations.

Preseason was kind of strange for us…
Very strange.

You can find good and bad thing about it. Bad thing is that we could not have full team. Besides that your game philosophy and set plays are designed for certain players. Not having them complicates preparations.
Not only that. We chose not to run the plays for Nando, Leo, Sergio. We adjusted our plays to the roster we had. We added plays when they came from National Teams, it kind of helped us that our French guys returned earlier. Still it doesn’t mean that we could not run with our other players. Here we can again say that we had very good preseason. Juniors helped a lot, Katsivelis helped, we helped him too, he signed with PAOK recently.

The other good thing is that 4 out of 5 newcomers were available.
That’s very important. That also helped to build the bond, to stay together in the hotels, chat, travel, play. Also that was my decision to rest Will and Cory in first two VTB League games because they carried big load during the preseason. We lacked ballhandlers, creators, so we needed more from this guys. And they are in really good shape.

My first impression of our newcomers is that all of them are true professionals, hard-workers. For them it remains to understand where they came, what kind of legacy they have to defend, what kind of expectations they have to meet, what kind of development we need them to do within the group of players that what to win something. We sign the players who are not old. Everyone – Will, Othello, Sergio, Leo, Alan can make their step forward.

Sergio is definitely the center of attention now, he is considered one of top signings in Europe. Tell a bit more about him.
I think people more or less know the situation. We did several moves with our management. The first step was to try to keep Teo. It was obvious thing. We had personal meetings. The club gave him very good, generous offer which was actually comparable to the one he accepted from the Clippers. But we understand Milos desire to go there. I wish him all the best and truly believe in his success. He is a huge player and I wish him to get titles in the NBA. After Teo said ‘no’, we approached some other candidates. Sergio was on the market, he considered three NBA offers. We were in negotiations and he tried to find me, we talked several times. Sergio said: “Me and my wife, we have a concrete plan – to come and play for CSKA and you. I made a decision and I asked my agents not to look around. If CSKA wants me, I come.” This is something that is a big plus. Every club needs players that really want to defend its colors. Actually, all our newcomers said that they come here to win, no matter what. Sergio already played in the NBA, he went there twice, so he knows the game both in America and Europe. He also needs time to make adjustments, to understand, what kind of teammates he has, the plays, defensive system, everything. He is clever, he is very satisfied, his wife is satisfied. You need this kind of people around, who do their part without looking for snow, cold or something else as an excuses.

Looks like Othello already learned a lot about the team. He looks like he is an integral part of the team.
Yes. He is a huge help. Othello and Will joined us from the very first day, us and Kyle helped them. Now they look like they work in our system for years. Othello is another athletic center, they are replaceable with Kyle. We don’t miss athleticism, energy, defense and rebounding whoever from our centers goes to the floor. Othello always goes for offensive rebound, he is ready to fight for nobody’s ball. He obviously has some adjustment issues but overall I am happy with his effort.

You can probably say the same about Leo.
From the first game he played for us he was the best-prepared player regarding the new plays. We had to make certain changes, including the new calls. Even our veterans have to make adjustments. Andreas sent our playbook to Leo, he learnt a lot. So when he joined us it looked like he is on the team for years. I exaggerate a bit, of course. He is a smart guy, he gives us size, he can defend, he creates well.

The fans have to understand that any new player has to show his teammates what he is capable of doing, to be cooperative and acceptable, to be ready to lead, he needs to show to the fans, that he belongs to the team. That’s a process everybody has to go through.

During this preseason you also got Pasha back. What are your impressions of him?
Pasha missed the whole year but we do believe in him, we don’t want to give up on him and he doesn’t want to give up on himself which is really important. The medical staff and Kostas did great, phenomenal job. Pasha spent more than a month in Greece, working hard every day. For the player who was absent for such a long time he had very good preseason. Definitely we need to have different approach to him. He will have his ups and downs. He is not 100 percent healthy. But we are patient and ready to wait a bit more. We believe that in the end of the day we will have win-win situation. I mean that both the player and the club will benefit.

European basketball has changed in many ways. How will it affect the competitions?
People that lead basketball, FIBA, EuroLeague, they have to listen to voices of players. In the end of the day it is the players who provide show to the fans. We need them to be healthy, satisfied, ready to compete physically and mentally, to go on the court and give the fans joy and excitement the sport can give. The other part. Those misunderstanding, that we have in European basketball, should somehow come to an end. We are adult people, we all love basketball. Egoism doesn’t help nobody. Basketball should be united. This is also a great moment to realize that we need to implement the same rules in all basketball competitions – NBA, NCAA, Euroleague and FIBA all have their rules. And people are confused. They don’t see the same sport.

The future of basketball here is in creation of closed league with more teams and more exciting games. The local league with all the respect should consist of the teams that develop the players. Or the team that has quality, budget, airport, good hotel can join the EuroLeague. All successful leagues grow with time. I think we are going towards this direction.

Even though I have huge respect to Final Four, I participated in 11, but I think this format is dying. People say: “Lets play the Final Four because in one game everything can happen”. Ok, lets play one game then. Why we care of playing the long championship? Or lets flip the coin. Championship is a long process. We play 30 games, 5 playoff games and then you switch sudden death. This is something that should be and will be changed. If you still want one game – make it a final game. Last year we would have full gyms in semifinal series, CSKA – Olympiacos and Fenerbahce – Real. You can set one final game in certain city and you will get many fans from both teams coming.


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