Adapting is an art form, and in the coaching profession, Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv's Neven Spahija has been as successful at it as anybody. From 2000 to 2011, he coached clubs in eight different countries and won titles in six of them: his native Croatia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Israel, Spain and Turkey. In four of those cases he won within a year of landing in each country. In this segment of Coaches Corner, Spahija discusses how he approaches adapting to a new place, new club and new team and builds success so quickly.
When I come to a new team, I need to recognize and understand the mentality and the sports culture of the place I am coming to. There have been many different situations in my career where I find the perfect spot and others times I arrived at a situation where I have to change most of the team. The current season with Maccabi different from any other in my life, because changing 12 players in one season is very, very difficult. When you turn over almost an entire roster, it is very difficult to predict your ceiling, where you are going and how to get there. But at the end of the day, it is very difficult to build around something that was unsuccessful and hopefully with new ideas, new coaches and even some changes in management, a new team can be successful as soon as possible.
One of the very first things I do when I come to a new team is to scout them from the previous year. In this way, I can see what was good and what was problematic and know how we want to build the team. Of course this season with Maccabi that doesn’t work, because only one player is back from last season. I didn’t have any time off in the summer like I usually do; I studied players in very difficult conditions because you never know who is able to come. And from the other side, if you like a player, there is the matter of the contract. Will he accept the money you have? There have been many times that I watched games of a player all night and when I woke up in the morning I was told he is going in a different direction. That is very difficult. But I don’t want anybody to accept this as an excuse. There is a budget and there will always be some limitations, but we try to choose the right players based on their basketball ability and also our philosophy and culture off the court. I think all of us need to think of the image of the franchise off the court as well as on the court.
In recruiting players, talent is obviously very important for me, but I treat personality the same. So if I realize that the talent is way better than the personality, I will always give up. I need it to be more equal and someone who is a good person, able to work, go into a tough situation and never provoke trouble in any situation on and off the court. I repeat, the image of a player for his franchise is very important.
Among the players who return from a previous season, there will always be some who will have a different role when a new coach arrives. How different it will be is about adjustments. Only games can show you the direction. When you play games, you have your goal, you have ideas, you know what you want to do. On the other side, the opponent is trying to change your philosophy. Only from games – and what we call money-time games, when the pressure from the opponent rises, can you truly learn what you are doing well, what you are doing wrong and how to adjust as quickly as possible.
In my teams, players know their roles ahead of time. Some players can play several positions, which is a big bonus if you have an injured player. But for instance, this season Norris Cole missed most of the preseason with an injury. And John DiBartolomeo, who played most of his career until now as a combo-guard, but more shooting guard than point guard, stepped up at point guard. And this is the first time in his career at point guard at this level. So that makes things different for him and for us.
I will never surprise a player with a different role he was not expecting. Everything is known in advance. I prepare my players from the beginning. When you have a team with seven or eight players from the previous season, everyone knows everything. When you have a situation like this season at Maccabi where you are building from scratch, defining roles can be the most difficult part.
You cannot compare how training camp looks as a coach when you are new to a team to when you are back from the season before. The result can be drastically different, better or worse, you never know, but it is totally different. The biggest advantage of being at a successful franchise is having a good group of players who succeeded the year before.
When I am new to a team and have many new players, I divide the minutes in preseason games mathematically, not based on quality and how they are doing on the court, because you need to find out who you are, both as individuals and together as a team. That means, for example, having a player play 10 or 15 minutes even if you see that there is no fit in that game position-wise or production-wise.
Most of the time when I come to a new team, I try to change the style to my way of playing. But there have been a few situations, like when I came to Krka Novo Mesto and we played in the EuroLeague, and I found an amazing program with amazing chemistry and players. So I just continued that with a few small changes. At Lietuvos Rytas, I had an excellent roster that fit my philosophy. And at Tau Ceramica was the same. And at these three teams, the results were more than good. But there are some teams where I have to change everything from the beginning. I change the style of basketball. I start to change the players. That takes a lot of time. And in a situation like this summer at Maccabi, I would not even consider taking a new player who did not fit my idea and my philosophy.
Team chemistry is important, but it is often something you can wish for, but not something you can build. You can do whatever you want to try to make it, but it is born. You can try to guide it by picking the right people and hoping they will build it by themselves. Of course, the culture of the place can help, but the real chemistry players create more than you can create it for them.
The best thing for building chemistry is for the team to go through a difficult period. Sometimes when you are winning, players can understand it the wrong way. And if you don’t understand why you won the game, it can hurt you just as much as if you don’t understand why you lost a game. For me to build chemistry, it's about how players behave when they hit the wall, when they confront a problem. How do they behave in that moment? How do they support each other? How do they listen to the coaches and how hard are they willing to work when everyone around them is depressed? To make a long story short, he who understands why he lost has a better chance to win in the end.
I don’t know how good I am as a coach. I have been successful, but sometimes good and successful are not the same. There are so many good coaches who have not won so much, so I would never say I am better than anyone else. But what I can say is there are few people in this business who have work in as many completely different environments, culture-wise, nationality-wise and religion-wise, as I have. And that is the richest part of my coaching career.
Let me explain. To work in Russia or Lithuania, Turkey or Spain, or now in Israel, there is no connection between them except for the court and the basketball. Everything else is different. To be able to adjust and find ways to work inside the different respective mindsets and cultures on and off the court is probably my best quality and the richest part of my career. I am so happy when I turn around and look at these past 15 or 16 years and see how many people I have met and how many things I know about different cultures. I enjoy this very much.