Sergio Scariolo's case for GOAT status

Donatas Urbonas
Senior Staff Writer
2022-09-14 11:10

Sergio Scariolo's success with the Spanish national team makes a case for the GOAT status in FIBA basketball.

Credit: Imago-Images - Scanpix
Credit Imago-Images - Scanpix

Death, taxes, and Spain winning the EuroBasket. Sergio Scariolo couldn't go with a younger and less experienced team, but Europe still failed to seize the opportunity to stop Spain's dominance in international basketball.

When we thought it was the end of the era, Spain continued their incredible streak.

They made the EuroBasket semifinal for the 11th straight time, a sequence that started in 1999, winning 4 gold medals in the last 6 tournaments.

"If others don't see an opportunity this year, I don't know when they will be able to see it," Spanish NT head coach Sergio Scariolo joked after a quarterfinal win against Finland.

A 61-year-old coach brought nine EuroBasket debutants, including many unproven ACB players.

His team is led by 37-year-old Rudy Fernandez. Usman Garuba, who was coming after a tough injury-plagued season with the Houston Rockets. NBA backup center Willy Hernangomez and his brother Juancho Hernangomez, who was thought of coming back to Europe. Also, a controversially acquired Lorenzo Brown.

In such a talented EuroBasket, with Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic headlining the tournament, that wasn't a convincing group on paper.

Even Scariolo got depressed watching Serbia vs. Slovenia in a friendly game before the EuroBasket.

But the Italian head coach once again proved he makes a case for the greatest head coach in FIBA national teams basketball.

Under coach Scariolo, Spain won the gold 5 times in 10 FIBA competitions.

Scariolo led Spain to the top of the podium in three consecutive EuroBasket. They went for medals on 7 of 9 occasions. 

Scariolo's W-L record with the Spanish national team is 66-19 (77.6%).

You might argue that Scariolo won everything coaching the most talented international team. Yes, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jose Manuel Calderon, Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, and many others were wonderful players. Other national teams could barely match Spain's talent and depth.

But apparently, you can't take it for granted.

Greece and Serbia had generational stars on their roster, two NBA MVPs of the last four seasons, and solid assets around them. Both couldn't advance to the semifinals. Both struggle to win anything in the recent FIBA competitions.

FIBA powerhouses like France, Serbia, and Greece also had very talented teams. But they all combined for eight medals (France 4, Serbia 3, Greece 1) during the same tenure Scariolo was coaching Spain.

With four gold medals, Scariolo ties Stepan Spandaryan for second place in the most winningest EuroBasket coaches category. Above, there is only Alexander Gomelsky, who won in 1963, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1979, and 1981.

No other EuroBasket coach won the gold at least twice in this century. 

Credit USA Today Sports – Scanpix

What also puts Scariolo above other coaches is that he won with two different generations, a completely different approach, and against more talented teams.

Probably the most offensively talented national team became a defensive lockdown nightmare due to its well-equipped physical tools, high-IQ players, passion, and clever Scariolo coaching.

Scariolo went for an eye-opening run in 2019, when Spain won all nine games and lifted the FIBA World Cup trophy in China. In the last 16 years, Scariolo became only the second coach who left Team USA behind in the World Cup.

The EuroBasket 2022 is another proof of Scariolo greatness.

On paper, it looks like the least excited Spanish team that Scariolo ever coached.

When Lithuania beat Spain twice in the preparation stage, the Lithuanian fans weren't really delighted with it because they thought Spain wasn't a EuroBasket threat.

Willy Hernangomez became a dominant force inside the paint, putting 17.2 points per game on 63.7% FG shooting. 

If you didn't watch Spain play, you might think Usman Garuba is having a disappointing tournament (4.8 PPG, 5.0 RPG).

But his defensive versatility and rebounding were clutch in both elimination games, especially vs. Lithuania, where his offensive boards, including a game-saving tip-in at the end of regulation, were converted into many 2nd chance points.

Rudy Fernandez is playing like a true legend, making shots at crunch time and crucial defensive stops. He's constantly hurt and questionably for games almost daily, but he is the first to dive into the stands to save an improbable ball to show a true leadership example.

Lorenzo Brown did his things offensively and defensively (15.2 PPG, 7.6 APG).

The others follow with great confidence and pride in their role. Alberto Diaz is the best example.

He was already sent home by Scariolo at the end of the preparation stage before Sergio Llull got hurt, so he got a last-minute call to the camp again. Now, his clutch stops, deflections, and taken charges basically won games endings vs. Turkey and Lithuania.

This team came down from huge deficits in both knock-out stage games. Against Lithuania, Spain was behind by 11 at the end of the third quarter. There were many tactical reasons behind it too.

Scariolo threw different zone defenses all the time to isolate Lithuanian star power in the paint with Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas. His box-and-one move ultimately froze Lithuania's offense in the clutch stretch that helped to take the lead and put the team on a winning track.

Credit Reuters

Later, Spain became the first EuroBasket 2022 team that won the game after being down by 15 points vs. Finland.

"Well, it is overwhelming to see the effort of this young team, with nine players that never played EuroBasket, coming back from huge deficits. We didn't shake, and we stood firm. We didn't lose faith in ourselves," Scariolo was proud of his team.

"You got to give credit to these guys for their heart. This is amazing. This is a matter of pride. We worked for many years to make these kids grow with the right values. The right way to compete and to stay together. To welcome new people to the group. Or the ones who came from a training camp of their team three days before their championship," Scariolo said.

"All these things… It was way above basketball, something which is really delightful. But at the same time, we're here and made it to this unbelievably high-level championship. We'll try to give it another shot. Why not?"

Consistency in winning and bringing the team to the final phase of basically every tournament.

Tactical flexibility and finding a different way to win.

Managing the personnel and establishing a continuation of the process and right values.

Overachieving against top-level opponents.

That makes the formula for the GOAT conversation.

Sometimes there is something above basketball and tactics.

But most of the time, Sergio Scariolo's factor is also behind it.

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