Toronto’s search for a new head coach has thus far been an arduous one. It turns out replacing a 59-win coach is tougher than it looks. Since firing Dwane Casey on May 11th, there has been almost no public acknowledgement from the front office that the field has been narrowed, or even what the front office is looking for in the new coach.
Thanks to reporting from Michael Grange and Josh Lewenberg over the past seven days, we know there are two final names that have piqued team president Masai Ujiri’s interest: Spurs’ assistant coach Ettore Messina and Raptors’ assistant coach Nick Nurse.
The two coaches are the obvious choices when you glance at the remaining field — Nurse has spent the last five seasons in Toronto, while re-shaping the team’s offense over the last year to better match that of an ever-evolving NBA. He knows the team and its players, and of the two candidates, Nurse would have the shortest adjustment time before next season begins.
Messina on the other hand may be a new name to some Raptors fans. Aside from sharing a sideline with the best coach in the league for the last four seasons, the Italian-born coach has been all over the globe, racking up numerous championships and awards over the last thirty years in all levels of European competition.
From Italy to Russia before a brief stint in Spain — defeating legendary EuroLeague teams in the process — there is one consistent thread that winds through Messina’s coaching career: wherever he has landed — geographically or competitively — success has shortly followed.
Let’s take a quick look at the many benchmarks of Ettore Messina:
Italian League — Virtus Bologna (1989-93; 1997-02), Benetton Treviso (2002-05)
In two head coaching stints with Virtus Bologna, Messina racked up a total of four Italian Cup (Coppa Italia) trophies — 1990, 1999, 2001 and 2002 — and three Italian League championships in 1993, 1998 and 2001. It was in his second go-around with Virtus that Messina would win his first and second EuroLeague titles — in ‘98 and ‘01 — of four total.
His wild success in the late nineties and early aughts with Virtus Bologna helped him become Mike D’Antoni’s successor as head coach of Benetton Treviso in 2002, where he would conclude his Italian coaching career by winning an additional three consecutive Italian Cup titles — a total of five straight overall and six in seven years. (All while coaching a young Andrea Bargnani, mind you.)
Russian League — CSKA Moscow (2005-08; 2012-14)
From Italy, Messina went on to make his mark in Russia with CSKA Moscow, perhaps the most highly-regarded basketball club in the country. In just his first season as head coach, Messina led CSKA to a Russian League title in 2006 — his first of five in that league — while going on to complete the Triple Crown, a term used in EuroLeague competition to denote victories in all three of a team’s national domestic league, domestic cup competition and lastly the EuroLeague competition during a single season.
After securing his fourth EuroLeague title with CSKA in 2008, Messina began to look toward the NBA and its many riches. As Daniel Reynolds pointed out in yesterday’s front-page report, the Italian coaching legend was getting attention from our very own Raptors a decade ago.
While it would be another three years before Messina ultimately got his chance, his rise through the NBA coaching ranks has been slow and methodical — much like his style on the sidelines. Starting off as a consultant to Mike Brown and the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011, before eventually signing onto Gregg Popovich’s staff in 2014, Messina has waited patiently for the right situation to come along.
It’s been remarkably educational to shine a light on Messina’s career over the past few days. Rather than finding unflattering details or scandals between the lines, you eventually find another impressive aspect of his career — something that should intrigue Raptors fans. Whether it’s his ability to speak five languages, or that he’s most often described by his peers as a master class in-game tactician, it’s not difficult to imagine Messina assimilating successfully into the Raptors locker room and evolving culture.
If I had a guess as to why Ujiri has pinpointed Messina as a finalist for the vacancy, it’s for his tact as a coach; the ability to adjust on the fly and to get creative on the whiteboard. That was a tool the Raptors sorely lacked during the Casey years and especially in the postseason, and I presume Ujiri wants to give this roster an opportunity to function in a radically new environment.
Compared to Casey (who has his own blend of brilliance), Messina’s cerebral thoughts and carefully curated speaking would be a huge shift for fans and media alike. As far as fitting into the locker room and the culture reset (assuming the players are still independently invested in that), his 25 years as a coach in Europe, plus four more with the Spurs means Messina already understands the egalitarian system that Toronto is trying to cultivate — and he could even end up providing a substantial boost to its efficacy.
Looking back at his seamless (and title-winning) transition between two Italian clubs, before travelling to Russia to immediately win a third EuroLeague title should give Raptors fans a ton of hope if Messina is chosen to lead Toronto into the future. While Nick Nurse would be an amazing (and also correct) choice in his own right — given both his history with the team and ability to put creative offensive looks on the floor — Messina and his vast experience provide just as much value to a team whose identity began a dramatic transformation just a season ago.
If Casey was paramount to the initial process of turning Toronto into a championship level team, there is a great chance that Messina is the coach to lead the Raptors over and around the many obstacles standing in the way of winning a title. There’s an incredibly tough choice to make — which explains the diligence Ujiri is showing before he announces his decision — but I can’t exactly say there’s a wrong choice in either coach.