Where are the Utah Jazz going to find their new head coach? Is veteran European coach Ettore Messina a viable option?
The NBA likes to recycle coaches, who generally come in four styles: the coddling, back patter; the let-me-please-be-the-coach type; the celebrity personality manager; and the hands-on, I-am-tough-don’t-mess-with-me guy.
San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Jazz legend Jerry Sloan fit into the last category, and about 10 percent of the league's coaches are cut from a similar cloth. They are old-school, structured, no-nonsense leaders who aren’t afraid to get in the face of million-dollar superstars.
Messina, a name that’s cropped up from the beginning of the Jazz's search, fits into the old-school group. Like Popovich, if hired, he would need time to find the right pieces that respond to his system.
Messina is a viable candidate because he is very good friends with Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey. A small-market team that doesn’t have the luxury of one or two superstars, Utah is going to need a Sloan, Popovich or Messina type — someone who will provide structure, system, role-playing and teamwork, getting optimum effort every possession on both ends of the court.
“He’s got a high basketball IQ, he’s structured, confident, strategic, personable and demanding,” said former BYU star Travis Hansen, who played for and against Messina during his lucrative career in Europe.
“He was pretty laid back during the preseason, watching, learning, analyzing things,” said Hansen. “He looked at talent, figured out what direction he wanted to take the team, who fit in what role, and after about three weeks coaching started.
“Messina is demanding, but he believes in players. If he signs you, it is because he thinks you are one of the best,” said Hansen. “He demands you to play to the best of your abilities. He gives you the ball and expects those who can deliver to deliver. Strategically, he’s great all-around, but he’s the best in the fourth quarter.
“It’s always up to the players to make plays, but when the game is on the line he knows where the ball has to go and how to get it there.”
Hansen said he and Messina both had similar years when he played for the coach in Madrid. “I was coming off a serious back injury and Messina was in a battle with the front office over players that needed to move and didn’t. We were both there one year and I totally agreed with his departure.”
Hansen said he learned more from Messina playing against him when he was in Moscow. Messina was tough, prepared and in watching film, Hansen learned a lot in how he used his wing players. “They always boxed out, they were really fundamental. One of his best players was Trajan Langdon, who played for Duke. He knew how to use him, get him not to dribble but shoot as a scorer. He gets players to excel in their roles. They knew what to do, whether they were pivot players, slashers, defenders or passers.”
Hansen said Messina helped him become a balanced player on both ends of the court. “He taught me when to go for offensive rebounds and when to get back on defense; when to pressure a guy and when to back off; when to go over the pick or underneath the pick; when to take it in and draw fouls, to make shots when open, when to be more aggressive and drive as opposed to shooting from the outside. He was very strategic and tactical.”
Hansen, a philosopher of sorts who was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, believes a person needs five strong influences in life to succeed. “Messina definitely can be one of those influences.”
Jazz management is being very meticulous with its coaching hire and Messina is one of many candidates being looked at. Some in European circles wonder if Messina would anxiously jump at a head coaching job in the NBA or if he’d feel out of his comfort zone. He definitely would be in charge and make players conform to his style.
It would also take him time to get the right players for what he does. Popovich really lucked out when he got a talent and personality like Tim Duncan, a superstar who accepts coaching, doesn’t rock the ship, and has other players follow his lead.
A key piece like Duncan — not just the talent, but the personality — can make or break a team, regardless of who has the whistle.
“He’s balanced. He’s a lot like I’d want to be if I was a coach,” said Hansen.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.