With the playoffs looming on the horizon, Shanghai Sharks coach, Daniel Panaggio, took some time out from preparing his side for a much anticipated series against Shanxi for a wide ranging talk that touched on everything from the Sharks’ regular season campaign, to the triangle offence, what its like to work with Yao Ming and the long term ambitions for the team as a whole.
AC: So let’s get started, what were your thoughts on the Tianjin game?
DP: I think I had a high level of tension throughout that game. I thought it was an important game, not just because of playoff positions, because if we played Guangdong, it didn’t bother me, but I didn’t want to finish that low; I wanted our guys to achieve more than eighth place. I also wasn’t happy with the way we played in Beijing, and so we had a long meeting [after the Ducks game] and looked at a lot of film and I didn’t feel that there was a big step up in execution against Tianjin. I expected that we would do better but we didn’t, so I was a little unhappy with that.
AC: Do you think that was exhaustion or did the team not take Tianjin as seriously as they should have?
DP: No I think they understood the significance of the game and how difficult it is to get an away win so we knew the score; I just don’t think that they concentrated enough. This is one of the things that I am challenged with when coaching this team, I am trying to open our minds and have us take initiative in terms of learning high level basketball. Also, another challenge is opening our minds and our willingness to communicate on the court and communicate with me. I want them to see [the Sharks] as their team not Yao Ming’s team or my team; I want them to take ownership in what they’re doing as professionals.
AC: You’re through to the playoffs now but is Shanxi the opponent you would have wanted, or would you have preferred maybe Beijing or someone else?
DP: It doesn’t matter because in all cases, we’re the underdogs, so we can go in there without feeling pressure. That’s why Guangdong didn’t scare me or bother me because I felt this is the championship team seven years running and here we are after our first year. We’re going to get a minimum of three, four, maybe five opportunities to play them in a row so let’s see if we can’t figure this thing out; let’s see how we measure in a series against the perennial champions. It would give us a measure of where we were and how far we’d come [since the start of the season].
AC: Do you think the team has overachieved this season or is 18-14 a fair result for the team?
DP: I give our guys a lot of credit for holding the home court as well as they have. We’ve had some really, really good home wins but the flipside is that we’ve also been a little disappointed with our poise, concentration and execution on the road.
AC: There have only been two teams that have got winning away records this season, what do you think the factors behind this are?
DP: Well in all leagues, the home team have an edge but in China, it’s a much bigger edge. I think to win on the road you have to play sound defence, be poised on offence and you have to pay attention to detail- and I think that’s an area where we need to get stronger.
AC: What’s been your favourite game of the regular season?
DP: I like the Bayi game [in Ningbo]. It was our first road win; I thought we played excellent. We overcame some obvious obstacles in that game, hung together and won. We had been waiting for a breakthrough and that was it. It was kind of an ‘over the hump’ game.
AC: You made some notable tactical changes to the team since you got here, particularly the triangle offence. Were you surprised at the reaction by some people when you went about installing it?
DP: Well, the reaction of the players was always positive right from the beginning. The team accepted it and worked at it- I think they actually liked it and enjoyed it. There were maybe some media people that really don’t count in the whole scheme of things, and they might have been writing about it, but they had no clue as to what it was or why we were using it it.
AC: True, but it seemed that whenever Shanghai slipped up, the triangle was brought up as a reason behind a loss or a blip; was this frustrating for you?
DP: No, we knew it would go with the territory. I discussed the offensive system in my interview with Yao and the rest of the organisation, and they were committed to it. I think the triangle is a great system of basketball but I also think it is very fitting for the Chinese. Athletically, they are not where the Americans are; you can’t give a lot of these players the ball and say ‘okay, shake and bake your way to the basket’, but if you master this system, through execution, you will find your scorers.
AC: Another big change you’ve made to the Sharks has been making the team far more defensively minded. Have you been surprised by the lack of attention to defence in the league?
DP: The type of defence played here is different, but defence is something that everybody can learn, so it has to be emphasized and it must be consistent. One day you might shoot well, one day you might miss but defensively you should be pretty consistent.
AC: Have you tried to make the Sharks function in an NBA mould, as in the way the team is set-up and run, the way the players interact with each other and so on.
DP: Yeah, but you have to do it incrementally; everything has to be done incrementally. Until your players understand, they can’t implement.
AC: When its game time, you’ve got Yao Ming looking down from his owners’ box- is that difficult for a coach when you are working alongside an iconic figure in Chinese basketball?
DP: No, I think it makes you want to be prepared because you have a trained eye for an owner. If you are not prepared, he’s going to know, while a lot of owners never would.
AC: As the season as gone on, you’ve obviously got to know your players and they seem like they really like playing for you. How has that been?
DP: I like my players. A lot of times you see coaching situations where coaches don’t necessarily like their players but I do. I try to take the approach that I’m going to teach them, so I’m going to use educational principles and the key to teaching is the connection that you can make between student and teacher or player and coach. When you can’t relate to the teacher or the student and the teacher can’t make that connection then learning’s going to be really difficult, but when you do, it’s amazing; [the players] will run through walls for you , they’ll move mountains for you- so that’s what I’m trying to do, connect.
AC: How is getting overseas players and Chinese players playing together like?
DP: It’s difficult but we were careful. We didn’t go for the most talented players we could get. Initially, we had Mike Harris and Ryan Forehan Kelly-who was one of the best things that ever happened to this team. Ryan is not a great athlete but he’s an incredibly genuine person, a real high quality character; he could blend in, he could lead through example as well as make plays- losing him was a big blow.
AC: You seemed genuinely distraught when he went down.
DP: I brought him here, he was my guy. He understood how we wanted to play and he bought in- he was just everything we wanted in a player. We did not want JR Smith-type situations where JR was going to dominate the game and everyone else was going to stand around and watch him. We wanted players who would blend in and continue to let the Chinese players grow and emerge- and that’s why we brought Marcus [Landry] in as well.
AC: Is finding the overseas help, but making sure those players integrate a number one priority for you at the start?
DP: Well it was for me this year, and it was for Yao. We were really conscious of that.
AC: We should close up now, so finally where do you see this team going in the next couple of years?
DP: Well we all think this is going to be a great testing ground for us in the next few weeks. Players could do really well in the regular season but how do they do in the playoffs; if you are averaging 25ppg but in the playoffs, you’re down to 15, that tells you something. If you average 3ppg and then all of a sudden, you are averaging 10 in the playoffs, if your performance goes up, then that bodes well for you. This is going to be like the final exam for the players; let’s see what they’ve learned now. Let’s put it to the test.