Credit: BasketNews
Credit BasketNews

BasketNews' Donatas Urbonas sat down with Anadolu Efes Istanbul head coach Ergin Ataman and discussed the team's success in recent years, finally winning the EuroLeague, maintaining their continuity and momentum, and the upcoming challenges in Europe and perhaps, the NBA.

Coach, you joined Dusan Ivkovic and Aito Garcia Reneses as coaches who won at least four European trophies, and for sure, the EuroLeague is the biggest challenge. It seems like you have been chasing this dream for 25 years. How does it feel when you finally reach your dream?

The feeling is very good because so far, I have won everything in Turkey. Many titles, many cups, many President cups, and other European competitions. But of course, the main cup is the EuroLeague. I have a great team, and I have worked in a great club during the last four years in Efes. And it was time to win this cup, so it was great for me. After the pandemic hit, the EuroLeague was canceled. Maybe I was the only person who was against it and wanted to continue playing. All other competitions continued: in football, the NBA, many other basketball leagues. But EuroLeague canceled, and I was very upset. All last year we talked that we deserved to win the EuroLeague and now to finally win, it was great for me, my family, and also for all the Turkish people who believe and support us.

So what is the next goal for you?

After winning the EuroLeague, we also won the Turkish league easily against an excellent team - Fenerbahce. For the next two months, we enjoyed ourselves, we make a party. Then, I had a one and a half month holiday, but now it's over, and it's time to play the new EuroLeague season and to start our repeat. We'll be good because only Maccabi and Olympiacos were able to win two titles in a row. Now, we'll try to win one more time in a row because we will play with the same team. We lost only one player - Sanli - and replaced him with the same type of player - Petrusev. It won't be easy to repeat because to win the EuroLeague, not only the team and chemistry is important. Also, to take the good momentum is key. We were in very good shape and had great momentum during the last two years, and we were ready. The team was mentally ready. We started last season really badly, but it's important to find our real level in the middle of the season, so this will be really important. I'm sure that every game we will play next season will be more difficult because everybody wants to beat the champions. It will be a very difficult season.

You kept almost the same team, but who impressed you the most out of all other teams? Who do you think made the best moves during the off-season, and who will be your biggest rivals next year?

I believe it will be the same balance. Barcelona and Real Madrid made some changes, they swapped some players. I believe that Real Madrid with Poirier have more experience under the basket, but they lost Garuba, who played really well last year. Barcelona took Sertac Sanli, but Pau Gasol left, they will miss him. Moscow will be a different team because last year in an important time, Milutinov didn't play, who will be a key player for them. This year, they also landed Grigonis, who I like very much. I think that Moscow will have more power than last year. We played two pre-season games against Milano. They lost some important players, but they signed some great players. Especially Nicolo Melli will be important for them. Fenerbahce changed important players, and I believe they did a good job in the market and gained players like Polonara, Booker, Henry. Zalgiris, Baskonia, Olympiacos made good moves too. Zenit are still a good team. We don't know about Kazan so that it will be a very tough competition again. I see the same balance and the same favorites to make it to the Final Four.

Other teams have made major changes. It seems like they made moves just to beat you and to become the EuroLeague champions. Your situation is different, you managed to keep the same core, and nine main rotation players have been a part of Efes since 2018. I wanted to bring you back to that year. You mentioned that you wanted to find good pieces that were good not only talent-wise but also personality-wise. What do you remember about that summer and the negotiations? For example, why did you pick Shane Larkin, Vasilije Micic, Rodrigue Beaubois?

I remember that we changed everything. Only three players remained with the team: Dogus Balbay, Bryant Dunston, and Krunoslav Simon. We worked a lot on scouting that summer. We also looked into the personalities of the players and tried to build a good puzzle. If you transfer 12 Shane Larkins, or six Larkins and six Micics, the balance is not good. We needed everybody to play well with each other. We picked Pleiss, Anderson, Moerman, and everybody was critical of us. They thought these player's careers were going towards the end, but these players were key for us. In 2018-19, we had some players who didn't have great statistics, but all of them are really important for team chemistry, and it was the key to our success. We believed the group, not individual players. We had many injuries: we played without Dunston, and last year we played three years without Pleiss, but we didn't go in the market to check who was free. No, we believed Sertac Sanli and gave him a chance. He used it very well. For us, it's important which players are in good shape, and we give them a chance. This season, we start with the same mentality. We are the champions, and we improved our budget, but we never went on the market to get new players. We improved the salaries of our current players who improved. When we built the team in the summer of 2018, our budget was around 11 million euros. Now, it's doubled, but we didn't make any transfers because these players improved, we became champions, and everybody received more money.

So this summer, it was really important for you to maintain continuity and to keep Vasilije Micic. You actually made the best signing by keeping him, and it seemed like this was the most difficult summer in terms of keeping your core intact. Do you feel  Micic was close to leaving the team, and what was your role in helping keep him in Efes?

In the last locker room meeting after the Turkish championship game last season, I had a five-minute conversation with the team. I appreciated last season, it was wonderful, we won everything. But I told the guys we would continue with the same team. We will enjoy going back on the court as the EuroLeague champions. So stay together. I will stay on the team. And I hope that you will return too. I believe that this had an effect on some players and formed their decision. I would have respected their decision anyhow. But I think winning everything last year and the enjoyment of playing together was the key to continuing with the same team this year. Except for one player - Sertac Sanli - who I was very upset about. Of course, he made a great transfer to Barcelona, and we are happy for him, but as champions, it would have been good for us to continue on the same road together. But losing only one player didn't change our mentality to go on the court with Efes uniforms as champions next year. I talked with Sertac after the transfer and wished him good luck. We immediately went on the market and signed a young player with a great mentality - Filip Petrusev. We thought about signing a big name with a lot of experience, and everybody offered us old players, but we decided on a player who would be good for our chemistry. There is a risk, it's normal. But I don't think so because all our guys have great personalities, and I'm sure they are ready to fight again to win one more time. There are no guarantees because there are other great teams, but I am sure that we will fight.

How do you try to keep your players happy? I know you were upset about losing the chance to win the EuroLeague after the season was canceled. The start of last season was really tough for you, but you turned it around and won the championship. How will you try to keep the players hungry and motivated?

Everybody says that coach Ataman gives players freedom on the court. That is true, but I also gave them responsibility. I am the coach, I am the leader, but I manage the guys. I have great assistants who help me and work individually with the players. But I don't put a lot of pressure on my players. Instead, I try to give them the mentality that they are responsible for our success. We chose these guys because they have a winning mentality. Before coming to Efes, they didn't win anything. But in Efes, they reached success because we gave them this mentality. I told the players to practice not for me but themselves. To improve your play and your salaries. You will play basketball until 35, 36, maybe 37, so improve yourselves and your salaries so you can improve the life of your families. So work for yourselves, not for me.

Before, you were known as a strict coach, but after the 2017-18 season, your philosophy changed. What was the breaking point for that?

When I went to the NBA and stayed for 10 days in San Antonio with coach Popovich, with Messina, then I left Galatasaray, and I saw a different mentality that was very effective. Popovich, for me, is the best coach in the world. But more than technically, he is a different person. He has a lot of power and confidence, his communication with the players and the staff is different, which affected me a lot. When I landed a job in Efes, I tried to do the same for my players. So I changed, you are right. Before, I was more strict, but now I'm more relaxed, quiet. My family is also very involved in basketball, especially my son. He is a different child. He was born on the court, and he is 11-year-old now. In the last four years, he was very involved in the team and very involved in the locker room. He talks with players and with me. He told me to take Larkin to dinner when I was angry with him. He had a great effect on my life. When we lost the fourth game in Madrid last season, it was 2-2 in the EuroLeague playoffs. I was very angry, and I didn't go to dinner with the team. He came to me and told me I made a bad decision and should join the team for dinner because we have the final game against Madrid in a couple of days. It was very important because he was right.

You have mentioned that after you win three EuroLeague trophies in a row, you may get a shot at the NBA. Maybe you talked with some NBA people and could go into more detail about the NBA challenge you would like to face?

I never talked with anybody in the NBA, but I believe that during the last five years, there have been a lot of really good coaches in Europe. The technical level of the EuroLeague is really good. I believe that not just me, but maybe five, six, seven current EuroLeague coaches could be successful in the NBA. I am confident, so if somebody gave me Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Brooklyn, New York, I would enjoy it. I have many star players in Efes who NBA teams are interested in. If I go to coach an NBA team, I would not be scared. The only problem for me is that my English isn't perfect. But it's not a huge problem because if I receive an offer, I can cover this issue in 2-3 months. But I am not very optimistic about an NBA offer because the NBA people are conservative about European coaches. The basketball that we are playing now in the EuroLeague would not be difficult to implement in the NBA. I believe that with Efes, we could make the NBA playoffs. The NBA is a great market, a great show. They have many players with great potential, but when they brought their third team in the 2019 World Cup, they didn't win anything. There is a huge difference between NBA star players and NBA's medium-level players. So I believe we could make the NBA playoffs.

Full conversation with Ergin Ataman:

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