Past season and unsuccessful Final Four, team philosophy and personalities, NBA connections and literature – in CSKA head coach Dimitris Itoudis interview…
Dimitris Itoudis: We are not the Harlem Globetrotters
Past season and unsuccessful Final Four, team philosophy and personalities, NBA connections and literature – in CSKA head coach Dimitris Itoudis interview.

Let’s start with the general things. What are your thoughts about the past season? Did it exceed your expectations?
Overall I think that we played good basketball. We played 69 games, and I think in most of them we demonstrated a high level of basketball. The players performed despite the injuries, absences and the fact that we had to create a new team after February. Of course, we had some ups and downs, especially in February. But that was something I, my coaching staff and the players expected. Overall, we played good basketball. We won the VTB League with a 9-0 record in the playoffs, we reached the Euroleague Final Four, and we were unfortunate to lose in the semi-final to Olympiacos, leading most of the game and bringing it to the point that we wanted. We didn’t have a perfect season as we weren’t able to take both titles – Euroleague and VTB League – but I think overall that we should be happy about most of the things that the team accomplished this year.

Talking about the style of play, everyone points out that the team played a very spectacular, high scoring basketball. Was it your plan to establish this kind of game, or was it kind of the flow of the team system?
The easiest way to talk is after the war, to be the general after the war ends. If you remember I said that I want to increase the tempo of the team because of the players we had. They can play basketball with high intensity, high tempo and high scoring. We scored 90 or more points on average, considering that we have 40 minutes, not 48 like in the NBA. This is because we have a good roster, an athletic team and centers that can run the court like Sasha Kaun, Kyle Hines or Pasha Korobkov. We were sure that we can have more possessions. To have more possessions, you cannot turn the ball over, have to rebound, and take care of the ball. Then you will have more chances to score. It’s a fact that we played not only attractive basketball, but also effective basketball. If you just play attractive basketball and don’t care about the result then you are the Harlem Globetrotters or whatever. We are not the Harlem Globetrotters. We are a professional team; we have our philosophy and rules in our game. But at the same time we let our players develop their abilities and talents within the game. Because at the end of the day, this is all about the players.

The team played good defense, finishing eighth in the Euroleague in points allowed. And we had an average margin of more than 10 points.
Sometimes statistics are good to justify something, but in general I will say that we played pretty good defense, especially in the games that were important, must-win games for CSKA. We found ways to cover our weaknesses, because this is all about covering the weaknesses and turning to your advantage.

The season started with a long series of victories – 30 wins in a row. Did you expect this kind of start?
No. We definitely didn’t expect that. We were just working on improving the quality of our game and at the same time we were concerned about absent players. Nando De Colo couldn’t start the season because of the injury he had with the French national team. Milos Teodosic missed 11 games, Manu Markoishvili missed almost two months, Khryapa was injured from the beginning of the season, we missed Alexey Zozulin because he had to go for the surgery, we missed Demetris Nichols twice, Sonny Weems had to miss time because of his back problems. It was a tricky season, but that’s all about the team, the roster that you are building. You always try to predict something that may happen during the season. We said from the beginning that we have one motto – nobody individually is better than the system, and the system will win. In hard times the other players stepped up. Since we are talking about the injuries, we have to say that our bigs Sasha Kaun and Kyle Hines didn’t miss a single game. Sasha sat out in some games because I wanted to rest him. Pasha Korobkov missed one game because of a twisted ankle in Prague. Vorontsevich was there almost the full season.

Some coaches like to say that it’s easier to control the team when you have some players out. Because it’s easier to distribute playing time, everybody is happy.
I would like to have all my players healthy, and then to decide who is playing, who is not; to rotate them properly or let some of them rest. It is a fact: coaches say that when the season is coming closer to the end, you decide to play with a shorter rotation. But at the moment you’ve already made your conclusions as a coach, and you pick the players that you have to play with. So there’s nothing bad about that. The players are professional. They know somebody plays today, tomorrow he may not play. But the system is already set, it is recognized and well-known by everyone. By the way, nobody came to CSKA with a gun to their head. They’re satisfied, they’ve signed contracts, they had a deal, and they are coming here. Before that deal they have talked to me individually, and I told them in detail what to expect, how we function, how we work, and what the obligations are. Everybody knew there was going to be healthy and high-level competition within the team.

You have followed CSKA in previous years, so do you agree that CSKA this year had probably the deepest roster in recent memory and a very good chemistry?
I don’t know if it was the deepest, but I know CSKA always had a full roster, with two or three players at each position. When I signed a contract here we talked with the management and coaches about how to build a healthy environment. We had some players under contracts, so we built the team according to our needs at the moment, and what qualities we are looking for on each position. I think that we had good chemistry, which is not easy to build. This is the biggest achievement, because it is was created day by day by the players in the locker room, because it is their second home, and that’s important.

After CSKA lost to Olympiacos in the Final Four, some media and fans were saying that coach Itoudis should do a better job teaching Milos Teodosic, and they blame you for that. What do you think about that?
I take all blame, I have no problem with that, and I don’t care what they write. I know what I did, and I did it my best.

And you don’t regret anything?
I do regret that we lost, and I learn from every game – not only from the losses, but also from the wins.

Do you turn every negative experience into a positive?
Always, that’s my motto. I’m my biggest critic in the world. Basketball is my life, I analyze many times the game in many aspects. The journalists can’t imagine how we prepare the team, what we are doing during the game. They have the right to write everything, no problem with that. You can write that I’m the worst coach, that I’m ugly, lazy, inexperienced, I don’t care. Somebody gave me this job, and I know that I’m doing it well.

Dusan Ivkovic once said that Teodosic is a special player who plays for the moment, for the magic of basketball. Do you think that kind of player attitude fits for the professional basketball player?
First of all, I don’t want to judge my friend Dusan Ivkovic’s words. Second I disagree that there are players on this level who play for the moment. We all win together, we all lose together. Milos Teodosic is not the only factor that led us to lose against Olympiacos. When Olympiacos was coming back, Milos was not even on the court. But this is another issue to discuss. Teo is a very important player for CSKA, he has obligations, he has achieved a lot, and he also has to improve in many aspects – like every player, like every individual. It’s unfair to point the finger at one person. If you have to point your finger, point it at me.

Ok, then can you say something that you did wrong in that game?
I will never will say that in public. I’m the coach, I’m doing my job. But many of my friends from all over the world said: if Spanoulis is on the floor with 0 from 11 shots from the field, 0 assists and 5 turnovers with 3 minutes 44 seconds to go – you won the game. Simple as that. If someone told you two months ago that the Cavaliers without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving will be in the Finals, everybody would call you crazy, nobody would bet money on that. Don’t be the general after the war. Yes, you have right to do that, but I’m the general during the war. I’m in the fight with my players. If you ask me, I would make the same coaching decision again in those 3 minutes 44 seconds. Spanoulis had amazing moments individually. We witnessed great defense by Vorontsevich, great defense by Nando De Colo, staying on his left hand, great defense by the whole team on switches. End of story. This is one game, my friends. You should stay with the facts. Did we want more? Yes. Could we do more? Yes. Can we find some reasons why this or that happened? Yes. That’s what we are talking about with the coaching staff, with the president. Nobody can guarantee we’re going be there, or we are going to win it. The Final Four format unfortunately gives extra chances to underdogs. I disagree with this system, and not because we lost. I was against it when we won titles with Panathinaikos. And I said that to Jordi Bertomeu. This is an unfair system.

Playoffs are much better?
Basketball is all about playoffs. Final Fours happen only in college. And by the way they don’t play for the third place there. But don’t get me wrong, I am not looking for excuses. We had to be ready for only one game. But in one game, you can lose to anyone. This season we lost to Avtodor in one game. We also lost to Lokomotiv twice and they weren’t even in the finals in the end. We also lost to Khimki in a regular season game but beat them 3-0 in the Finals. With all due respect to the teams mentioned, I learn from my mistakes and my defeats, as I said.

Going back to the whole situation with injuries and everything. The team ended the season with almost a full roster. Even Sonny Weems did not have a really serious injury…
He didn’t perform, I’m sorry. We didn’t finish with a full roster. Sonny Weems was out for the final, and not even a single journalist asked me about that. Nobody mentioned that. This is also something you have to consider. I’m smart and experienced. There were a lot of words about Sheleketo and Pateev missing time, Augustine staying out for the first game. Nobody even noticed that Weems was injured.

Okay, but the team had 15 players healthy for the Final Four and 14 in the finals. Because of that, you can say good words about the team’s athletic trainers.
Not because of that. During the whole season we did a good job. We were a team that was prepared to play attractive, high-speed basketball, and fight on defense at the same time. We had an extended pre-season camp, and we decided to do that because we wanted to stay together, we wanted to get to know each other. Now it’s different. The majority of the team I think will stay the same, and the pre-season can be a little shorter. And we have to take EuroBasket into account. The whole process, the whole preparation was great. It helped the players to be ready to perform. We could prevent even more injuries, and this is what we have to do in the next level of next season. Fewer injuries, and more players available on the court.

Talking about individuals, Nando De Colo arrived this year after a couple of years in the NBA. And he actually had the best season of his career. What can you say about his performance?
I think we all have to be satisfied with the choice we made. The president, sponsors and me as a coach are happy that we brought in such a player, such a character, person. Nando did prove that he can play good basketball. He still has a lot of things to learn, and to do. Nando has to make many different adjustments, to adopt the role of being one of the most important players at CSKA, at the same time the creator and executor. It’s important. He reached his first Final Four. I hope he stays healthy. He gets to play now for the French national team, one of the strongest teams in this European competition. He got this role on the team, and achieved everything with the hard work. Nando is a very good professional. He’s coming to the practices early, leaving late, caring about his health, nutrition, body. He is fully dedicated to what he is doing. We need players that appreciate themselves and the club that they working for.

Can you say that he fits into system perfectly?
During the summer when I called Nando, trying to convince him, he had some different options, most of them were in NBA. I verbally drew him the picture how the things will be here at CSKA. On most of the things we agreed on during the summer, he improved during the season.

Talking about new players, we’d single out Pasha Korobkov, who can be a name in the future of the team.
Pasha arrived with big enthusiasm. I gave him some moments in crucial games because I believe this is the way to make young players grow up. They don’t grow when they come on the floor with a 30-point difference. Even I can dress up and play being up 30. Young players need to show their character in tough moments. And Pasha showed it – against Limoges on the road, against Efes on the road, against Unicaja. We have to define his position. He is in between a 4 and 5. Definitely he has to work on his body, to add some muscle during the summer. Kostas will give him the right direction – hopefully Pasha will be able to come to Greece and work with Kostas individually. Korobkov is very skilled, he shoots the ball well from perimeter and I agree that he can be called a future part of CSKA. He was a rookie last year, the first time in the Final Four, the first time a champion. He got married on Thursday and is becoming a grown man. It is very important for him to improve his English, not only to understand me but also to communicate with his teammates and understand what the opponents say. He has the instincts of a winner, and this is what we are looking for from young kids.

The same instinct is also definitely possessed by two other newcomers – Nichols and Markoishvili.
Definitely. Manu is a veteran of European competitions. He played at a high level in Cantu, Galatasaray, the Georgian national team. He even played for Benetton in the Euroleague Final Four. And he had an unlucky injury which took him out for 62 days. And it happened at the moment when he was ready to explode. He is a hard worker and great personality. One of the best for the team spirit. He is ready to go through the wall for you. Manu is a real fighter. He will be ready to cheer and support his teammates even if he is not on the roster because of foreigners limit. I have been very lucky to have him on the team this past season. D-Nichols is a special story. He was signed last but not least. People had their doubts, but not me. I knew what he can bring to the team. He played two positions – 3 and 4. He gave us his long-range jumpers, he can guard from the point guard to the center. And he was a key player when we used different defenses. He showed up in crucial moments, never hesitated to throw his body to stop the opponents, to take the charge, to get a rebound or shoot a key three-pointer. D is also another hard worker. Actually, I can say that about 80 percent of the players, and that makes me happy. I think that makes our season successful too. It is not only about the trophies. We live on daily basis here and it’s great when you see 10-12 players in the gym on the day off shooting or lifting weights.

Another story is about Andrey Vorontsevich. He got used to being a bench player but this season he was in the starting five, playing big minutes in a big role. You put him in this position and relied on him. Did you expect Andrey to perform that well?
It is not only about the starting five. What matters is who is playing the game. When I talked to Andrey for the first time I explained to him clearly what I wanted from him. He is growing up. He passed all these stages coming from the junior team, bench player. Now he is taking the responsibility I gave to him. He surely had a great season and I am happy for his individual achievements though he needed big help from his teammates and coaches to step up to this level. But he proved that he earned every minute I gave him on the court. That is also important. Nothing is given to you just because you’re handsome or you have big contract. Voro showed professional approach while doing his job and really helped the team. Does he have the space to develop? Yes. He has to improve his inside game, his strength which can let him defend big players on the block. In playing face to the basket he is already one of the best in Europe. He recognizes his passing abilities. He has grown up as an athlete and a man. It comes with experience. I rely on him and I believe together we did a great job. He is mature but has not reached his best. I continue saying to him that he should not stop, should not rely on what he did. You have to have motivation in you. The continuity is something that truly awards you, brings you to the company of elite players. Now it’s the moment to work even more. Because in life if you stop working somebody will chase you down and become better than you. His next season will be a proof for himself and for me that he really likes what he’s doing, that he becomes bigger in the way he shows up on the court. I believe that he will succeed.

It was the last year for Sasha Kaun at CSKA, still it was probably his best season. I think he deserves all the praise because he motivated himself, being in his last year here, and demonstrating such a good basketball.
Sasha Kaun is a special case, and I agree that we need to give special attention to Sasha. I said exactly the same words after the last game against Khimki, but I said that also during the season to him. First of all, I had a feeling that I worked with Sasha for 10 years or something like that. We don’t have to talk on daily basis or go out with the families, but we were so close, even though we had our differences, different opinions. It didn’t matter, this happens in every environment. Especially knowing that this is going to be his last year at CSKA, he was really motivated. He played maybe his best basketball. He fits into that system. I explained to him that with his body, being 211cm, being so explosive, and running the court so well – it’s unique, so we need to use this and get some early runs. He was focused, he was making free throws. I know that Khimki had a strategy of fouling him, sending him to the free throw line, but he was 90 percent from the line. He was our power and our strength over there. Talking about the future, it is going to be very, very, very, VERY hard to replace him. We will not find the same type of player. We’re going to try, but being able to block shots, being able to intimidate drivers, being able to help each other, being able to switch at the end of possessions and play against shorter guards, and being so motivated even though he achieved so many things. He was there for his teammates. He was there because he respects himself, because he respects this organization that gave him many things. I only can say a big thank you to Sasha. We said we will stay in touch. I hope he finds the best possible destination for himself and his family, regarding his career in the NBA. If not, we will wait for him with our hugs. Well, I am joking, I know he took the decision.

Sasha’s great play and healthy body throughout the season made it difficult for the toughest player in Europe Kyle Hines to get more playing time.
That inside competition was big for both guys. Kyle is undersized and he has had to defend bigger players throughout his career. So playing against Sasha during practices made him ready for this kind of competition, when he had Tomic or Schortsanitis against him. But you cannot measure Kyle’s size in centimeters. You measure it in heart and balls. When he steps on the court, he is big. In many cases much bigger than others. He is a guy who comes on the court and always works 100 percent. He never goes with the attitude like “Ok, today I am not ready, I am sore” or something. I remember during one practice he was hit in the shoulder and he yelled “Ah!” I looked at Andreas, he looks at me… Like, if Kyle says “ah” – it really hurts. Because he never says a word after hits. And he still continued practicing even though other players could have been knocked down. Kyle did not miss games last season because of health problems.

We need versatility on the team. And Kyle gives it in our front court.

The other player who played a huge role after sitting on the bench last season was Aaron Jackson. You had him starting in the beginning of the season and he was your go-to guy in the end.
It does not matter who starts the game. It is important how the player contributes to the team’s success during the long journey. I said that to Jack individually and I think many of you will agree with my words: he is a different player now. He is not the same player that he used to be. He is not even the same player who started working during the pre-season. His vision of the game is totally different – now he knows what he has to call in certain moments of the game. He knows when he has to pull the trigger, when he has to decrease or increase the rhythm of the game. It was a long process during the season and it also comes with the versatility we had at the guard positions with Aaron, Teo, Nando, Sonny – ball-handlers who create for others. Jack is a hard worker. He comes to practice early, he stays late, competes against the best shooters on our team. His competition against Vitaly Fridzon and D-Nichols was epic and hopefully it will continue the next years. This competition among the three-point shooters is very important. You know that Fridzon can make threes with his eyes closed, Nichols finished the season with the best three-point percentage in the Euroleague. Jack competes against them and that makes him a better shooter. He has the range and he is more mature as a player with the highest motivation to win everything. Also, Jack is a player who can perform through injuries. Nobody knows it but he played for a month not feeling his toe. He also received a lot of lessons in his life. You probably read that in college he was under gunfire, he and his teammates were injured, some of them could not play basketball anymore. He lives the life of a professional athlete, he earns money for playing the game he loves. And when you do it in harder way, the results are sweeter. He deserved everything in his life.

When you have such players, my job is easier. These kinds of players know that they will have playing time and still leave everything they have on the court during practice. They know that I am not a coach who criticizes players just because they are young. I criticize my leaders if there are reasons for it. That means that I care about them, that I want them to grow.

It was also a shaky season for Vitaly Fridzon. He started the year very well, played an important role but he got lost somewhere during winter time.
No, he was not lost. Vitaly is another hard worker, a winner, another guy who will come to practice on his day off. We just had 15 players and Kirilenko came at the time. The competition became bigger. I gotta take a player and try him out, and somebody is losing playing time. I am not a magician, I only have 40 minutes in the game, not even 48 as in the NBA. We had many individual talks with Vitaly here. He has a strong character and he’s gonna fight to show me and his teammates that he deserves his minutes. Still, if you compare the stats his minutes are up this season. He was an important player in our rotation. The finger injury moved him a bit back in our system. But he came back early and pushed me by his performances during the practices to bring him back into the roster.

You have a lot of Euroleague experience, but it was your first season in the VTB United League. Did the tournament surprise you in any way?
It was not a surprise. I said it in public several times, everywhere in European media. Euroleague is the best league with the Spanish, Turkish and VTB leagues coming next as the strongest competitions on the continent right now. I believe that the VTB League has huge space for development because there are good teams and people who love basketball. And I said after the final game against Khimki that the journalists’ job is crucial to advertise even more the sport off which you’re making money. Basketball now is probably sixth in Russia. I fully respect soccer, ice hockey, biathlon, winter sports. I respect the athletes and the coaches. But basketball is also the sport that brings glory to Russia. The national team won EuroBasket and Olympic medals, the clubs are winning the trophies. Khimki is the most recent winner by taking the Eurocup. CSKA played in 12 Euroleague Final Fours in 13 years. Those are huge achievements! Basketball makes Russians proud, no matter what club they support. I believe that basketball here deserves more attention, positivity, advertising. There is huge potential over here and we should help it.

We all should not only think about the negatives. “You lost the game”, “You’re inexperienced”, “You’re bad”, blah-blah. Ok, thank you, I know my mistakes, I know who I am, what the players say about me. I know my achievements and what I am going to win in my life. You don’t change my opinion. I don’t need another confirmation of what I am able to do. And, believe me, if I hear too many good words I turn my head around to check if the knife is coming. I say in general: basketball needs attention.

You know that Andrey Vatutin said in media recently: “Dimitris Itoudis can be the first European to become a head coach in the NBA. But we won’t let him go”.
Thanks to the President for the kind words. I don’t want to go either. Right now, we are here focused on building something good at CSKA. In general. Including our system of working with the youth, I pay special attention to that. We need that to improve for the future of Russian basketball. Yes, we also need good foreigners that fit into the system who respect what are we doing over here. But we should build on Russians. They have to light the fire. So I don’t think about the NBA job now. Our next task – of the management and coaching staff – is to build the new team for the next season, to find the replacement for Sasha Kaun.

There were some rumors of your contact with the Brooklyn Nets. Did you really have any talks?
I don’t quite understand what kind of contacts were mentioned. I do have many good friends overseas. I worked with the Detroit Pistons for seven years, had a strong relationship with Joe Dumars when he was there. I was on their coaching staff in three Summer Leagues. I worked in the Summer League with the Philadelphia 76ers once. And we did had a contact with Brooklyn: they invited Zeljko [Obradovic] and me as the candidates to take over the team, but it did not work out.

Do you have any invitations to work in the Summer League this year?
Yes, I have some open opportunities. But I am not sure if I want to go through this again, because I’ve already been there several times as I said.

We know that you like to read books. What is the latest one you’ve read?
“The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” by John C. Maxwell and “The 8 Rituals of Visionary Leaders” by Robin Sharma. Now I took the book from [Sports Director] Andrey Schepankov about the 11 rings of Phil Jackson. But I read everything, including belletristic ones.

Do you like Greek mythology?
Oh yes, I studied it.

In my opinion, there is a lot of common between sports and the ideas expressed in the myths. What is your favorite character?
Definitely. As for the character… It’s a big story, and we can talk for hours about the achievements, and not only the ones of gods but also by Ancient Greeks – like the Colossos of Rhodos. How did they build all those wonders when they did not have tools and machines we have now? It looks like they had computers back then. So if you study the characters in mythology or historical persons you will see a number of people who had values in their lives, they were focused on what they were doing. For instance, Spartans had strong hierarchy, discipline, schools, high standards of living. They made Athenians organize their life, society. They had to protect their borders at the same time… Those people were living in constant wars but the modern people are in wars too, but in different, economic way. You can dig out a lot of examples in history, they will teach you how to motivate yourself every single day. I will not choose one character. I learnt from many.

Do you think about basketball during your vacations?
I would lie if I say “I don’t”. For example, after winning the VTB League title we had only one day to rest and celebrate. On the next day me and my assistants were already discussing the candidates for the team. For sure, you escape this daily pressure of thinking how you can play better, how are you gonna play against a certain opponent. But you can’t stop thinking about basketball at all. You have to ask this question to my wife and daughter. But they are actually my greatest supporters. Without them I cannot be normal, calm and focused on what I am doing. And I am thankful for that.


19 June 23:14
Отличный диалог! Честный азартный и голодный тренер! Успехов!
Red Blue Horse
19 June 18:00
Очень интересное интервью. Предельно честное, что важно. Метод Итудиса мне все ближе и ближе, честно говоря, и очень хочется, чтобы у него и ребят в следующем году все получилось!
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