Family Guys - a closer look at U-BT Cluj Napoca
CLUJ NAPOCA (Romania) - According to U-BT Cluj Napoca's Sporting Director, Branko Cuic, "People think Dracula, Transylvania, they don't think basketball, Transylvania."
Well, maybe that is all about to change. To explain how it might make sense to first show you exactly how much has already changed. Because if you haven't been closely following the story of this Cluj Napoca team, you may not understand exactly how far along this whole thing is.
In the clip below we see Cluj Napoca playing at home in the beautiful, ten-thousand-seater, BT arena, matched up against Unicaja of the ACB, with a homegrown head coach calling the plays on the sidelines and a full-blown European basketball atmosphere hammering on the drums in the background. These are not sights or sounds that Romanian basketball fans have been used to seeing in recent years. You also see #13, Andrija Stipanovic, and #35, Patrick Richard playing with instinctive chemistry and perfectly executing a dribble handoff out of the post (we will come back to this concept later).
They didn't go on to win that game but they did win the road game in Malaga and they also won on the road in Istanbul at Darussafaka. Let's just repeat that in case you thought it must be a typo, U-BT Cluj Napoca from Romania are in the Round of 16 in the BCL and have already won on the road at legitimate European giants Unicaja and Darussafaka. The clip below is from that road win in Istanbul. This time we also see #77 Luca Colgeag, an 18-year-old, homegrown Romanian on the floor.
The play was coming out of a timeout and #14 Stefan Bircevic reads the play perfectly and rejects the off-ball screen to take a handoff from #22 Dustin Hogue. This time we see Richard and Stipanovic playing the role of cheerleaders on the bench, fully cognizant of how important it was for the team to perfectly execute the plan out of the timeout. As you may have guessed, the leadership provided by these two - on and off the floor - is going to be a consistent feature of what you are about to read.
Almost all of the things described in the two previous paragraphs would have been very far-fetched if someone were to have predicted them before the season started but these two clips are not isolated incidents, they are regular features of a team and a club that is arriving in European basketball. To tell the story of how we got here, we spoke to Head Coach, Mihai Silvasan and Executive Sporting Director, Branko Cuic.
"The two of us, Mihai and myself were players here and even though I am seven years older, I quit as a player only six months before him. Then we started to work in the club, him as an assistant coach and me as the youth director," described Branko Cuic.
Cuic had, in fact, been a mainstay of Cluj Napoca as a player. His career in the club was eight years which is practically an eternity in the world of short-term contracts that we usually see in Europe. Mihai Silvasan's career in the club has been an even longer-term affair. Although he's still young in coaching years at 37, he has devoted almost his entire life to the club. "I was born and raised in Cluj Napoca," he said. "I won National Championships with the club as a junior but unfortunately my senior career was cut short," Silvasan explained. He hung up the playing boots at just 30 years of age but had it not been for his determined passion for the game it could have been even earlier. "After my first back surgery at 22, the doctor that looked at the MRI told me 'It's time to start thinking about doing something else' ", Silvasan recalled. His career lasted another eight years after that, with second back surgery and an Achilles Tendon injury mixed in before he was finally forced to call it a day.
Mihai Silvasan calling the play.
As is often the case with coaches, it seems that a playing career full of unfinished business was the driving force behind what is already a very promising coaching career. Silvasan completed his coaching licenses and started his learning journey with online courses before he was forced to retire and then as Cuic described earlier, he went straight to work as an assistant coach with the senior squad after retiringñ.-. But those first assignments as an assistant and as the youth director were to be short-lived for both men.
"It was a scary moment," said Silvasan. "After one year as an assistant the owners and sponsors asked me to come on as the head coach and at that time Branko started as sports director," he explained. The two former teammates quickly formed a young, dynamic, and ambitious combination between the front office and coaching staff then instantly got to scheming and planning for the club to rise. "Our goal was always to build something in Europe. It’s never easy to win the Romanian championship but our dream was always to do something in Europe and show the great conditions we have here," said Branko Cuic. That last point about the conditions at the club is undeniable. The club's sponsors are also the main sponsors of the BT Arena that was formerly known as the Polyavalent Hall and had the seating capacity extended in order to host Eurobasket games in 2017. The city itself is one of Romania's most appealing and offers the type of living conditions that have helped the club attract the level of players we are seeing at the club now.
“It’s no big secret that Richard and Stipanovic are the ones that made the chemistry of this team. Their relationship on the court and off it. Both of them are family guys."
The club also didn't need to wait long for the new appointments to start bringing in trophies. "That year we won everything in Romania and then started to build in Europe with the FIBA Europe Cup," said Cuic about the 2016/17 season. But after that early success followed a two-year barren spell when the club won nothing and the learning process really began. For Silvasan that learning started with self-reflection, especially with respect to his handling of players. "After my first season, like any young guy in any domain that had immediate success, he may have the tendency to believe that he’s great and that was my sin," said Silvasan before specifying how that overconfidence manifested, "in my second and third year I started to become too tough (on the players)," he said.
For many coaches in leagues where domestic trophies are not only expected but anything less is considered a failure, two seasons without winning might have cost them their job. The club saw things differently and decided that just removing the talented, young coach wasn't the type of culture they wanted to build. Sporting Director Branko Cuic instead opted to go down a path less trodden and brought in some elite experience to help guide Silvasan.
That experience came in the form of legendary Serbian coach Dusko Vujosevoc, who himself was prevented by his health from being able to complete all the duties of a head coach. "The club decided that we needed help," said Silvasan. "We brought in Dusko Vujosevic as an advisor coach with the target of using his experience and advice to build the club as a good European level club," clarified Cuic, before going into the slightly unconventional dynamics of the role. "He would lead practice, and coach Silvasan would lead in games. It was unusual but for us but it worked," he said. "It was a strange situation," said Silvasan. "Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, he (Vujosevic) didn’t know what to expect and how it could work but I think we had two successful years," Silvasan explained.
Another thing I learned from Dusko is that you need good characters and good chemistry - Mihai Silvasan.
After a first season ended prematurely by the pandemic, the two coaches guided the club to the Romanian league title in the second season. Then Vujosevic left the club and coach Silvasan in a much more prepared state for a journey into competing with some of Europe's biggest and best. "That helped me a lot and made me the coach that I am today. It changed the way I saw things, it changed my perspective and how I saw the relationship I had with the players." Said Silvasan of his two seasons with the legendary Serbian coach. This time with Vujosevic as a mentor also opened doors for Silvasan to learn that very few from Romania have had access to. "One of the things that Dusko helped me with was attending Obradovic practices when he was in Fenerbahce," Silvasan explained.
It wasn't just strategy and practice planning that Vujosevic left the club with. According to Silvasan the type of players the club scouted was also better adjusted to their needs. "Another thing I learned from Dusko is that you need good characters and good chemistry," he said. For Branko Cuic that character and chemistry started with two players that still make up the core of the team we see now in the BCL, Patrick Richard, and Andrija Stipanovic. "It’s no big secret that Richard and Stipanovic are the ones that made the chemistry of this team. Their relationship on the court and off the court. Both of them are family guys," he said.
Richard and Stipanovic executing the pick-and-roll.
The Here and Now
With the foundation and culture built by the teachings of Dusko Vujosevic and the core of the team set by Patrick Richard and Andrija Stipanovic, Silvasan now found himself in a position as a coach where he could really start to put his own handprints on the way the team plays. The team needed a style of play that would not only bring fans to fill those ten thousand seats but also be conducive with efficient, winning basketball. The answer was a combination of aggressive defense and offensive flow.
"If you ask me how I see basketball, I want to play extremely aggressive defensively, I want to press the ball, I want to stay in the passing lanes, I don’t want to let my opponent do things easily," Silvasan explained before defining a rule that perfectly illustrates his idea of aggressive defense. "We never go under the screen unless it’s a switch and then we want to go under and try to stop the big from going into the paint," he stated.
The clip below is a perfect example. What you are watching is the very first possession of their road win in Malaga at the very start of the Round of 16. We see #0, Karel Guzman picking up Norris Cole and making his life difficult before the ball crossed half court. They fight over every off-ball screen, then Richard fights over the ball screen whilst Stipanovic hedged to remove any room to maneuver. #Brandon Brown jumped to take away the pass to the roller and Richard perfectly read the last passing option for Unicaja and came up with the steal.
We started this journey (or at least this article) with two very specific clips of this Cluj Napoca offense and that was no accident. Mihai Silvasan's offense has produced three games this season where the team topped the 100 point mark and they play with a kind of understanding between the players that is rarely seen. Earlier in the season, we took a quicker look at the way they were creating more easy looks at the rim than any team in the league and they are still doing that.
Where we really see Silvasan's imprint on this team this season is in that offensive execution. "I count a lot on the dribble-drive game," he said. "We have an offensive system and many plays but still at the end of those actions, rarely you will have a shot straight away," he continued. Where you really see Silvasan's idea of that dribble-drive game is in what happens after those actions when the best shot isn't there straight away. This Cluj Napoca team is as good as anyone at turning the small advantage from the first action into a bigger advantage and a better shot.
"Let’s say we play 'Horns' or a diamond set with pick-and-roll on the side, or an off-ball situation that gets us a curl, we always want to fill the weakside corner in a driving situation. Then at this level, you won’t find easy layups after the first action, so we want to have the right pass option out, and then we start the dribble drive game and we practice this a lot." Silvasan explained.
The clip below shows you exactly why it's so important to him to fill the weakside corner. The initial side ball screen for Brown enabled him to create an advantage by rejecting the screen but when the help prevented the easy layup #30 Elijah Stewart cut to the basket. Brown made the no-look pass and converted the small advantage to a bigger one.
This rule of filling the weakside corner and cutting isn't just for dribble drives, it's the same rule for any method used to create the first advantage. Here we see it when Stipanovic cracked the shell of the defense on the short-roll.
One of Silvasan's favorite tools is the hand-off from the post. "I like to play a lot of dribble hand-offs from the post, it’s a hard situation to defend because the ball is low," he said. This hand-off from the post is the exact action we saw in the very first video in this article. But it's not just out of the post that they use them so well. Dribble hand-offs from all over the court are a major part of this offense and what you notice is the attention to detail on every dribble hand-off. "With normal hand-offs and ball screens on the perimeter, we always emphasize for the big to have one foot inside the 3-point line," Silvasan stated. The reason for this important detail is that this positional adjustment instantly makes the action much harder to defend as the defender will leave an easier shot if they go under.
We see those exact words echoed in reality in the next video. Three different clips, three different reads but in each one, the read is made easier because the big has at least one foot inside the arc.
The other key to the chemistry this team plays with on offense is the way their bigs pass the ball. "I like to play a lot of actions through my bigs, it’s a very important thing that they know how to pass and they want to pass," Silvasan said. In so many of Cluj Napoca's actions, you will see the paint left empty by the center staying out on the perimeter to pass the ball to cutters but their bigs are also all excellent passers when rolling to the basket.
Up next for U-BT Cluj Napoca is a make-or-break game in Belgium against Oostende. They can actually afford to lose and still go through to the Quarter-Final but they can't afford to lose by more than five points. Pressure games aren't new for this Cluj Napoca squad. Last season they made the choice of not dropping into the FIBA Europe Cup if they were knocked out of the BCL Qualifiers. They were knocked out by Igokea and felt the sharp end of that pressure. This year they made the same choice again and came through the other end after wins against Peristeri and Fribourg.
For Branko Cuic the mentality stays the same now as it was then. "People asked me if I believed we could go this far in the BCL and I told them I believed we could win the first game of the qualifiers. Then after that, I believed we could win the second round. I dream high but wake up on the floor," he stated. It's this same mentality that drives him to work just as hard on the scout for every player. To make that extra call to the neighbor instead of just the ex-teammate and assistant coach. He's fully aware that with each win in this competition his next call to an agent to sell the project to a player becomes easier and with each dramatic ending to a game, a new Romanian kid dreams about playing for U-Bt Cluj Napoca.
Resting on their laurels has never been an option. "Don’t sleep on any success you have already have," he said. "We want to do this every year," he continued. "Our organization and our fans deserve more than just showing up one year, I’m sure we can be an important part of the story of European basketball."