Although some of the best-performing Turkish Airlines EuroLeague teams over the years strive to keep a strong core of players who get better together season after season, a fact of life in professional sports is that rosters change consistently. Some years, there are fewer new players and other years a lot, but over time, even the best teams transition to rosters that are largely different from a few seasons earlier. Two-time EuroLeague champion head coach Dimitris Itoudis of CSKA Moscow knows that always keeping tabs on not only his own players, but potential replacements due to injury, retirements or contracts that end is an essential part of maintaining excellence.
“A reality of our profession is that teams will always change, and players will always come and go,” he says. “This year, I am working with a third generation of players at CSKA. If we go back to 2016 and my first EuroLeague title, that team had eight or nine players who won their first EuroLeague title: Milos Teodosic, Cory Higgins, Nando De Colo and so on. Then in 2019, in Vitoria, we had another eight or nine new champions, like Alec Peters and Othello Hunter. So it was almost a new team, and now in 2020 we have a third generation with newcomers like Nikola Milutinov and Tornike Shengelia, who are very motivated to bring what they can to the club and again take us to the first spot.”
Regeneration is the goal, and it’s not a duty that a head coach can park every season until the summer.
“Recruitment is a year-round process: it never stops.”
“That process of constantly regenerating the team is something you have to build throughout the year, which isn’t easy, and the circumstances are different every season,” Itoudis says. “Recruitment is a year-round process: it never stops. It isn’t only something that happens during the summer. One of your main priorities is to make sure you don’t get caught by surprise, so you need to know all the terms of all the contracts. Some players might have buy-outs or options to leave, so you always have to be ready to cover those spots.
“To find players, we scout all over Europe, the United States and other regions, and are always looking forward to see what we can add to become stronger as a team and organization. Sometimes stats can be helpful, but it depends what you’re looking for. If you want a defensive stopper, a warrior, he’s not going to have brilliant stats and the numbers aren’t going to help you. But when you need a scorer or a creator, then we’ll look at the numbers. So numbers can help, but they are by no means the only aspect we look for.”
Recruiting players goes well beyond finding one whose game you like and who wants to come play for your team.
“Before we sign a player, we do a lot of research to make a deep analysis of the person, looking at his work ethic, his motivation, his personal and family background – everything about him,” Itoudis says. “My coaches do a lot of this research, they have a network of people that we trust. We talk with people the player has worked with before, like teammates, coaches, doctors, assistant coaches. People they’ve had daily contact with. I’ve been in the business for 30 years so know a lot of people I can trust, and I can pick up my phone and call them.”
A major assessment that comes to bear strongly on any decisions is a player’s fit with the rest of his teammates, both on the court and off.
“The most important thing is to know your strengths and weaknesses, and to find the right player who can fit, chemistry-wise,” he continues. “If you sign an MVP at every position, that doesn’t mean you’re going to have the best chemistry or the best team. You need to fill your team with the best possible players at that moment, to help with whatever you need as a team. You need certain roles to be filled and, in a team, you need players who are willing to accept their roles. So before we sign a player, I might have a phone conversation and tell him: “Listen, you’re going to do this and that, but in your spot we already have these players. So are you ready for that?”
Honesty throughout the recruiting process is a must for Itoudis:
“For example, before we signed Mike James I spoke to him and said: “You’re a great player, you became top scorer here and there. But now you’re coming to a winning team. So are you prepared to accept certain things?” I told him that he has to feel accountable towards his teammates, coaches and the fans.”
“Players have to know that I will be honest, even if they may not like what I’m going to say. I have to tell them the truth. Sometimes it might be brutal, but it’s the truth and it comes from my heart and soul, because players need to know before they come here what I’m going to expect from them. So we have those conversations, and with Mike now it feels he’s been around for many years, even though he actually only played 70% of one year with us.”
“The most important thing is to know your strengths and weaknesses.”
Two recent recruits, former All-EuroLeague forward Toko Shengelia and Nikola Milutinov, had played a combined 28 games against CSKA since Itoudis has been coach, giving him the chance to evaluate them against his own game plans to stop them.
“Many times, the players we sign are guys we have already seen and played against,” he says. “For example, Toko has been around for many years and it’s well known that he’s a leader, and he can bring good creation from the post, good creation facing the basket, execution, leadership. To be honest, we were trying to sign Toko for several years, and that’s well known. When we tried again this summer, I said: “This is the third chance. If it’s not going to happen the third time, it’s probably not go to happen ever!” But I think it came at the right moment. Toko was playing at a great club, Baskonia, he had won the championship in Spain, one of the most prestigious championships, so I think it was the time for him to take the next step and he understands that he is coming into a different environment.
“And it’s the same with Nikola Milutinov, who played for another great club, Olympiacos. He has put in a lot of effort to develop into one of the most significant big guys in the paint in our league, but both of them now know they are coming to a winning team and they need to prove that we can build the right chemistry. CSKA had winning teams in the past; now this team needs to become a winning team.”
It’s not as easy as choosing established stars, however.
“The reality in sport is that players always move on.”
“Not all the players we sign are so familiar,” Itoudis notes. “Sometimes you might sign an underdog who performed in a different league, and I’ll give you an example: Cory Higgins, who came from Gaziantep, hadn’t been playing in EuroLeague and wasn’t a particularly advertised player. But he proved himself to be one of the most significant players in the EuroLeague and I’m very happy to have worked with him. You can say the same about Kyle Hines when he joined Olympiacos or Mike Batiste when he came to Panathinaikos. There are several signings like that who are not high-profile players when you sign them.”
In the end, even if signings happen mostly in the off-season, shaping a competitive roster as CSKA has always done is process that head coaches have to be on top of consistently, even if that work does not see its fruits until the next season – or beyond.
“I enjoy the process of recruitment. We would all love to build a team for ten years but we know this is not reality. We have a lot of competitors like the NBA, China and other great European clubs who have built great teams, like Barcelona, Real, Fenerbahce, Efes, Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, Maccabi and now Milano have had a great signings summer,” Itoudis concludes.
“The reality in sport is that players always move on, but we know this is one of the tasks that as coaches and management we have to accomplish. And we are here for the challenge.”