A whistle blows. A coach turns quickly and points at his bench. A player pops up and runs to the scorer's table. The game official crosses his arms. It's substitution time, but the mechanics behind what looks like a split-second decision are much more complex than that, as AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan head coach Simone Pianigiani explains in the latest edition of Coaches Corner.
Of course, each game is different. With so many games now, you don't know in advance what the form and distribution of energy for everybody on your team will be. For me, it's important to be clear with the players. We know that we have some players with one kind of responsibilities and other players with different responsibilities. Of course, all of them are really important during games in order to have a successful season. Because people forget that in basketball, sometimes if you play five minutes, you can decide games. So many things can happen in five minutes: if you are in the right position on defense, if you make one dribble less, one pass at the right time, even if you make sure just of the right spacing on the court, you help your team to build an open shot -- or not.
We have some players that we know that we want to manage the ball in critical moments or last possessions. This doesn't mean that the same player must shoot the ball. It means that maybe they must have the ball to create the shot by reading the defense. But this is in general. In a season like we have now in the EuroLeague, with teams competing in domestic leagues as well until the end, if you add in the national cup and the supercup, you can play 75 or maybe even 80 games. It's something unbelievable, and now in EuroLeague, you play back-to-back in three days. With all these things happening, it's impossible to have in your mind, well, this player will play these 30 minutes and his backup will play 10 every night. For me, it's important to build a team to be ready, to be unpredictable, to have players who can play in different positions, in different spots, with different kinds of combinations. This is so important to cover the season. At the beginning, we must be clear about the responsibilities, but then we must go inside to details, to adjust, to be ready to play with different lineups.
It's the momentum that you have to know. That means the moment of the season your team is in, but also what each game says to you. Because when you have a game, you have a game plan. But not just one game plan. Then you have game plan two, and sometimes game plan three. But this is not enough because sometimes you prepare something, and after five minutes, you must change completely, because you know for some reason what you prepared and thought was supposed to be, it didn't work. And our job is to be ready to find some different way. One way is tactical, but another way is substitutions. That means also putting someone in to make an unpredictable matchup on defense, to try something different.
I am not a coach who has in my mind beforehand that at some specific minute I want to change a player. It's not that way for me. It's just reading the game. Many times in my career I have gone a quarter or even 12 minutes in a row without any substitutions, and sometimes after five minutes I change the whole starting five. This is not because I have decided this before, but rather something from the game. The players must know that I am not just trying to mix and experiment: no. I want my players to be comfortable with their positions inside the team -- who will be starting five, who will be backups. And they must know that sometimes there will be some of them I will not use, or only for a few minutes or with a special mission, defensively for example.
I know that, with the long vision, that the players cannot play 40 minutes three nights a week, or even 35 or even 30. But this doesn't mean that I start substitutions because I marked it down beforehand. Because if I know, for example, that we played 48 hours before, we have to consider the level of energy players have, mentally and physically. So maybe I and my staff, who know from reading the situation, we say that this guy, tonight, no more than 20 or 25 minutes. But then if you see that he is effective during the game, you might adjust and rest him in the game after that one. But it also depends on the importance of the game: how are your results and how much you need him to win.
After three or four years in Siena, with some players who had been with me most of that time, we could arrive to some kind of agreement on how to use them, the optimal playing time and so forth. When the team has its identity, when you know the players and the players know what the coach wants, in these kinds of situations, it is possible to be more clear. Or if a player has a specific skill, for example Jaycee Carroll of Real Madrid, who knows when he comes in the game, they start to play for his shots. This is something you can do when you have the same players for some time and it's clear that we want that player's special quality in this specific moment, and all his teammates know this and can work in the right way. Think about centers, for instance you have a classic center who plays pick-and-rolls well, but then you have a second center who can stretch the floor because he shoots threes. When he comes in, all the teammates have to know that we can use different sets and options to take advantage of that skill. When he comes in the game, this is how we will play.
You must put all your options in your bag. When I talk about unpredictable, it means you must be flexible to change someone in the game, but change doesn't mean trying something that you never tried with your players and they don't know and never practiced. No. We must be clear when the players are under stress. Maybe the game plan was something different, but now we see it's not effective, so you have to pull out of your bag something different. Changing a player is like when you change, for example, the defense. Maybe tonight you think that you can't use a zone defense or full-court pressure. But then you feel that you must try one of them, and if it goes well, you may use the zone for many minutes, even though it wasn't in your game plan. But you have that defense in your bag, and you can always pull it out to try. It's the same with the players. Maybe I have a shooter I want to use for 10 or 15 minutes with the team looking for his shots, or I want to play small ball, or we play with five shooters for some minutes, or we force the other team to run with us.... Sometimes you see that it's effective and you stay longer with this than you planned. This may seem unpredictable, but things you have in your bag are very clear.
When your team is leading and everything is going well, maybe it's the moment to give someone a little bit of rest. In that situation, you can change one or two players, but trying to maintain the positive flow, and trying to do something extra, too, for the opponent to think about. And then you can save some energy for the end of the game or whenever the game needs to change. It's impossible at this high level to see teams consistently stay for 40 minutes without any problems. There are always some moments when games change. And now with the high speed of the games, with three-pointers, the energy of the game can change completely in a short time. And in this moment is when you want to have all your players ready, managing fouls and everything, to have the best lineup that you can have at that moment.
Speaking of fouls, I don't want my players to think too much at the beginning of the game about fouls, to preserve themselves by not getting in foul trouble. I want them to play at top energy, completely involved in the game. The mentality must be that everyone plays at top energy on defense. And sometimes it happens that key players get foul problems, but this is a part of the game. It depends on the opponent, the matchups, but if we think it's important that a certain player stays on the court at that time, despite his foul trouble, we can change a matchup to preserve him in a different way, or maybe help him with traps. If you know the player is smart about such things, you might be able to say, "Hey, give me three or four more minutes without any stupid fouls, and we will help you." But sometimes you have to just take him out.
My assistant coaches know the game plan. They know what kind of situations we are facing. They know in advance our philosophy, of course. And sometimes they will remind me that this is the moment we talked about that we can switch something, for instance because the opponent has made a substitution that can make it good for us to have a different matchup on defense. Or we need another guy who can spend fouls, depending on the bonus and other things. So, we decide together. The more brains, the better.
You don't need so much time for the team to have a good idea of the roles. However, you might need a lot of time to get your rotations perfect. For me, that's the biggest goal this season because we are a completely new team. Many players never played together or with me. We started behind many teams in Europe with the same coach and players surviving big battles together. In that situation, with such coaches and teams, the adjustments are easier. Those players need only to watch each other's eyes in critical moments to know how to react. But that takes time. For us, this season is a white page that we are filling. We had to talk a lot, see a lot of video, spend a lot of time together outside of practice. But I like this kind of work-in-progress, because this is the art of our job, when you build something together with other people. When you feel this kind of relationship and communication getting better and better during the season, every day, you know you are working in the right direction.