“Like a flash of lightning between the clouds, we live in the flicker” -Joseph Conrad
There really wasn’t a better story this year in the Euroleague than Greek center Ioannis Bourousis and Laboral Kutxa Baskonia’s run to the Euroleague Final Four. Baskonia, a basketball-centered club in the Basque capital of Vitoria, typically gets lost among other Spanish teams in the ACB Liga Endesa in terms of the global perspective. They are not as well-known among basketball fans beyond Europe because they do not have any big names or former NBA players on their current roster, and they do not have the major “Futbol” partner like Barcelona and Real Madrid. Yes, they have had some history producing players, as NBA players like Luis Scola, Jose Calderon and Tiago Splitter did suit up for Baskonia in the early 2000’s. That being said, in the past few years, Baskonia has remained a bit anonymous, usually getting passed over in the standings as well as the spotlight in the ACB and Euroleague by their Spanish counterparts in the east (Barcelona) as well as in the Spanish Capital (Real Madrid).
Going into this season, there were mixed opinions in terms of how Baskonia was going to perform in the Euroleague. Head coach Velimir Perasovic, a Croatian national in his first full season with the Basque club, had a young squad which included a bevy of quick, athletic and sharp shooting players who could play multiple positions. With such a roster, Perasovic decided to mold his team into a fast-paced, outside-shooting oriented team in the mold of successful NBA teams such as the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs in America, and Real Madrid in their home country. Darius Adams and Mike James were the kind of quick, combo guards who could hurt teams off the drive and from beyond the arc, and they had a strong collection of shooting guards and forwards such as Davis Bertans, Fabian Causeur and Jaka Blazic who could help stretch the floor and create space for Davis and James. And in the interior, while young, they had long, defensive oriented post players such as Illmane Diop, Kim Tillie, Darko Planinic, and Tornike Shengelia who could bring energy and hustle to make up for their lack of big game experience. And lastly, add Hungarian wing Adam Hanga, who could guard multiple positions on the perimeter, and Baskonia had the pieces of a promising, though relatively anonymous, squad for the 2015-2016 season.
However, the team was missing “big game” experience, and a couple of weeks before the season started, Baskonia signed Greek center Ioannis Bourousis from Real Madrid. At 32-years-old, the 7-foot, 270 pound Bourousis was coming off a year where he averaged around 11 minutes a game and took a back seat to Gustavo Ayon on the 2015 Euroleague champion team. After years of success with Olympiacos, EA7 Milano and Real Madrid, Baskonia was a bit of a project for him. Yes, they would need his presence and ability in the post, especially since Diop and Planinic, the two main centers, were still a couple of years away from being dependable, major minutes players. But Perasovic need Bourousis to mentor the young club, to be an example of what it took to be a major winning basketball club in Spain as well as Europe. Bourousis could have avoided the challenge, or not taken it seriously. After all, he was coming off a championship season and had a legacy in Europe that was already well-established. Instead, as displayed in this interview with him during the season, Bourousis accepted the challenge and made immediate inroads in developing the culture in Baskonia into a winning and professional one.
For the most part, the Spanish and European basketball critics felt Bourousis would make an impact, but they figured it would be a minor one at the most. Bourousis would put up better numbers and get a little more playing time from the previous year, and Baskonia would make the Top 16 and compete for a playoff spot, but most likely fall short. After all, how could a guy, who was coming off a reserve role, carry a team that hadn’t experienced major success on a domestic or inter-continental level since 2010 (when they won the ACB title), nearly six years ago?
Boy, did Bourousis and Baskonia prove their critics wrong.
If you look on paper, Bourousis’ year in Baskonia doesn’t seem all that impressive: he didn’t start a game all year for the Basque club, and he only averaged 13.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg in ACB play and 14.5 ppg and 8.7 rpg in Euroleague play. However, then you take into consideration the 40 minute games in Europe and the fact that Bourousis only played 23 minutes per game in ACB play and 24.6 minutes in Euroleague play, and his impact becomes more noticeable. Quite simply, there was on player as efficient or more valuable to their squad in Europe than Bourousis.
Watching Bourousis play this year was like watching Vlade Divac during his glory years with the Sacramento Kings. Bourousis lacked any kind of athleticism and it was certainly possible that he had the lowest vertical on the team. He struggled to defend quicker players, and he was often exploited in the pick and roll when he switched on speedier point guards. But what Bourousis lacked in athleticism, he made up for in terms of skill set and basketball IQ. He dazzled fans and his team with dynamic moves in the post, as he killed opponents with excellent back to the basket moves, as well as a reliable jump hook and sweet fade away jumper in the mold of Dirk Nowitzki’s that buried teams time and time again in the block. When he didn’t score, his ability to see open teammates all over the floor led to easy buckets off the cut or open 3-point looks when defenses tried to collapse and double down on him. And Bourousis destroyed teams in pick and pop plays with Adams and James. If they tried to trap Baskonia’s quick guards, they were able to hit a popping Bourousis who would regularly damage defenses from the 3-point line (Bourousis shot 40.8 percent from three in ACB play and 38.8 percent in Euroleague play). If they tried to switch, Adams and James would get to the hoop with ease for the layup or the dunk. There probably was no more effective pick and roll combination in Europe than Baskonia’s Adams/James and Bourousis combo, and Bourousis was the key cog that made it happen, as his versatile skill set and pristine ability to read defenses made him one of the best offensive players in all of Europe last year.
As the season wore on, Bourousis seemed to come through in the biggest of moments, especially in the Euroleague. In a January 29th game against Barcelona, who had been 39-1 in their last 40 games on their home court in Top 16 play, Bourousis put up a sterling performance that displayed Baskonia was to be taken seriously in Euroleague play. In Baskonia’s 81-78 overtime victory, the Greek center scored a game-high 24 points on 9 of 16 shooting, had 8 rebounds, 3 assists and zero turnovers for a PIR of 28, which was the second highest mark for the week (behind only Tyrese Rice of Khimki’s 35, which he garnered against a lesser Zalgiris team in Moscow). Yes, Adams also had a strong game, as he scored 17 points and hit the game-tying 3 at the end of regulation, and Alex Abrines of Barcelona had a coming out party of sorts as he scored 21 points off the bench and nearly carried Barcelona to a come back win despite lackluster performances from their regular starters (Juan Carlos Navarro was shut out in 12 minutes of play and Justin Doellman only scored 5 points). But no player shined more in Europe and garnered more attention that day than Bourousis. After handing Barcelona their second loss at home in the Top 16 in their last 41 games, this much was clear going forward in the Euroleague: Baskonia was a force to be reckoned with, and Bourousis was the one to lead them.
The most endearing non-basketball moment from Bourousis though came when a reporter immediately after their win on the court asked him if he was “happy with his performance and the team’s win in the Top 16.” Bourousis, who came to install a sense of professionalism on this young squad, responded in the most work-man like way possible:
“I am not worried about how big this win is. All I am worried about is working hard and winning games.”
It was the kind of answer a veteran star of a veteran team would give, not one whose squad has been the routine underdog to other major European powers over the past half decade or so. And from that game and moment, Baskonia continued to play like a team who expected and knew how to win, and Bourousis continued to shine, proving that at 32 years old, he was one of Europe’s best players, if not best overall.
Throughout the season, Bourousis continued to raise his stock as a player week after week. He posted the highest PIR of any Euroleague player in 2015-2016 (44) in Week 2 of the regular season in a 96-89 overtime win over his former club Olympiacos. In the game, his marvelous performance included 28 points on 8 of 14 shooting, 12 rebounds, 3 assists and once again ZERO turnovers. Take a look at how Bourousis dominated the Greek power below in a monumental win Fernando Buesa Arena in front of a raucous Baskonia home crowd.
Over the course of the year, Bourousis was named sole Euroleague MVP of the week twice (Week 2 regular season and week 10 of the Top 16 in a crucial 98-83 win over Khimki Moscow) and shared MVP honors another two times (Top 16 Round Week 4 with Jan Vesely of Fenerbahce, and Top 16 Round 13 with Nando de Colo of CSKA Moscow). He also was named the Euroleague’s MVP for March, after averaging 18.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 2.8 apg in 27 MPG during a crucial stretch in the Top 16 which Baskonia qualified for the playoffs. And at the end of the year, Bourousis was named to the Euroleague All-First team, narrowly missing out on MVP honors to Nando de Colo (though Bourousis was named the ACB’s MVP a little bit later).
And all these accomplishments didn’t just stand out on their own, as Bourousis, in his professional, workman-like way, continued to lead the charge to Baskonia’s success in Europe. In the Top 16, Baskonia went 9-5 which included only 1 loss at home (to Olympiacos in round 2). In the playoffs, against Greek power Panathinaikos, a team that had former NBA players such as Sasha Pavlovic, Nick Calathes, and Elliot Williams as well as European and Serbian standout Miroslav Raduljica, Baskonia swept the Greek favorite, which included a defining 85-74 victory in Athens in the deciding Game 3. And to further show the development of Baskonia’s team? In the clinching Game 3, Panathinaikos shut down Bourousis, as he only scored 9 points. However, the team stepped up to cover him as Adams and James scored a combined 44 points to help them earn their first trip to the Final Four since 2008.
Bourousis didn’t have to carry his team individually in the playoffs, and that was a further sign of the legacy and leadership he left with his young Baskonia colleagues this season. He had led the way so much in the season to the point that he had instilled confidence in his team to step up on an off night for him on such a big stage. Would Adams and James stepped up in such a crucial moment of the playoffs without Bourousis’ mentoring? Perhaps, but I find it highly unlikely.
In the Final Four, Baskonia ran out of gas unable to carry the magic from the Top 16, though they were certainly close and showed flashes of making a miracle championship run. In the semifinal, they were unable to stop a furious Fenerbahce comeback led by Bojan Bogdanovic and Gigi Datome, whom both led the Turkish power to win 88-77 in overtime, helping Fenerbahce to a 16-5 scoring difference in the overtime period. But despite the loss, the performance was typical of what Bourousis did all year: 22 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists and a game high PIR of 24. Even in a loss on the biggest stage in European basketball, Bourousis failed to disappoint by hitting several big shots (though not enough unfortunately), as evidenced in the highlight compilation below:
In many ways, it was a shame Bourousis was not named the Euroleague MVP. Yes, de Colo won a championship with CSKA, and yes he had his share of highs this year, as well as importance to CSKA finally getting over the hump after numerous Final Four chokes. But, no player in Europe was more entertaining than Bourousis. No player did more to change his team’s fortunes this year than Bourousis. Nobody had more impact or inspired or led his team better throughout all the rounds of the Euroleague than Bourousis. Yes, de Colo has a Euroleague championship, but CSKA is getting to the Final Four still without him. They have Milos Teodosic still, who would make up his absence. But Baskonia? Are they making it to their first Final Four in eight years without Bourousis? Are they getting out of the Top 16 or even Regular Season without Bourousis? It is a shame that the Euroleague committee didn’t recognize what Bourousis did for this team this year and didn’t give him the Euroleague MVP award.
And I am not alone in this thought either. I’ll also let this nice highlight “MVP Campaign” video further show why Bourousis was deserving of the Euroleague’s top individual honor.
Bourousis has about as much beef with the Euroleague as LeBron James does for not getting any MVP consideration this year. That’s how good Bourousis’ campaign this year was.
One of the aspects of Baskonia’s Cinderella season that gets lost in the Bourousis hype is the job that Perasovic did. While most coaches would be out in the forefront of such success, Perasovic, with his quiet demeanor, seemed to shy from the spotlight and let it focus more on his Greek superstar as well as his young and upcoming players. But even though he was not in the forefront media-wise like Zeljko Obradovic from Fenerbahce or Dimitrios Itoudis from CSKA (though they get a lot of attention for their fiery personalities), Perasovic was just as crucial to his team’s success like the coaches listed above.
For starters, convincing Bourousis to not only come to Baskonia, but take the role he did was not an easy task. After all, as mentioned before in this post, Bourousis was coming off a title, and had settled into his role as a reserve in Real Madrid. To convince him to not only play more minutes, but be a crucial part of this team was a risk that not many European coaches would take, especially with the fight to stay in the Euroleague an annual slog. And yet, not only did Perasovic convince Bourousis to be a valuable mentor on this team, but he was able to put him in the position to have arguably the best season of his career. Just a year ago, European basketball fans thought Bourousis was on the verge of retirement. Now nearly a Euroleague and ACB campaign later, thanks to Perasovic and his style of coaching and offensive system, Bourousis has rejuvenated his career, so much so that there is talk about San Antonio trying to bring him to the states.
That being said, Bourousis is just the tip of the iceberg. One of the major things that happens in Euroleague play, especially during the Top 16 when teams are positioning themselves for playoff spots, is the tinkering of rosters, through mid-season loans and acquisitions. Panathinaikos added wing Elliot Williams. Real Madrid added sharpshooter KC Rivers from Bayern Munich. Crvena Zvezda added guard Tarence Kinsey. It’s what European teams do to try and get a late push in their run to the playoffs and hopefully a Final Four.
Unfortunately, the mid-season additions don’t always work, and have mixed results. They can mess with team chemistry, and sometimes the talent doesn’t respond well in their new environment. Much to Perasovic’s credit, he pretty much kept and played the same roster and rotation from Round 1 of the Regular Season all the way to the 3rd place game of the Final Four. He continued to start young players like Diop and Planinic at center over Bourousis to help boost their confidence, and he showed faith in his young perimeter players like Blazic, Shengelia and Bertans who are all 25 and under. Not a lot of coaches would show the kind of roster faith that Perasovic did this season Baskonia. Most would have resorted to a veteran free agent from a lesser-tier club to solidify their playoff chances. But by maintaining roster consistency, Perasovic’s Baskonia squad developed game-by-game as a team, and ended up playing their best basketball by the end of the season because they had played so much together and consequently, matured as a team in the process.
And lastly, the style Baskonia played under Perasovic was a bit unorthodox, but proved to be entertaining and effective. They weren’t exactly the best shooting team, as their 52.3 eFG percentage was exactly league average for the year. Furthermore, they weren’t exactly a great “ball movement” team, as their 52.9 assist rate was lowest in the Euroleague (and this is out of 24 teams). And lastly, they didn’t generate a whole lot of second chance shots, as their offensive rebounding rate was 7th lowest in the league (of the six others, only Brose Baskets Bamberg made the Top 16). Combine all those factors with an offensive rating of 105.5 (11th best; below non-playoff teams like Khimki, Anadolu Efes and Brose Baskets) and one could ask this: how did Baskonia experience so much success?
The keys to Baskonia’s sterling season could be credited to Perasovic’s focus on pace, the high ball screen, the 3-point shot, and a defense that put a premium on NOT fouling. Let’s break down each point:
- Baskonia had the second fastest pace in the league at 75.5 possessions per game, which was only .1 possession lower than Strasbourg (who only played 10 games because they didn’t qualify for the Top 16). This emphasis on pace led to quick shots and more possessions. Because they generated quick shots, this resulted in less assists, hence why their assist rate was so low. But, on the flip side, though their assist rate was low, (the bane of every “traditional” coach who believes in Norman Dale basketball), they also had a low turnover rate, which was 10th lowest in the Euroleague, due to their ability to get shots up early in the shot clock.
- Another reason their assist rate was so low was that Perasovic really focused the offense on his his points James and Adams as well as Bourousis through the high ball screen. This led to a lot of dribbling, and thus, not a lot of chances for assists. But the high ball screen was so effective because Adams and James could take advantage on switches and either finish at the rim or kick out to open shooters on the perimeter, or they could hit Bourousis on the roll or especially the pop beyond the arc. Perasovic also let them freelance from the high ball screen and didn’t call many set plays due to his emphasis on keeping that quick pace, which was much different from their competition, especially clubs like Barcelona and Loko, other playoff teams who ranked in the bottom five when it came to fastest pace.
- The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets aren’t the only professional teams in the world that relies on the 3 ball, as Baskonia made the 3 a key part of their game in 2015-2016. Their 3-pt attempt to field goal attempt was 0.41, fourth highest in the league, and they could do so with knock down shooters like Bertans and Bourousis. Another thing interesting about the 3-point shot was that they put a premium on defending that shot as well. Their opponent 3FGA/FGA was 0.32, the lowest rate in the Euroleague. And hence, while Baskonia hurt teams with the 3-point shot, they weren’t allowing others teams to do so, and by doing that, they put themselves in many possessions exchanges where they were trading 3’s for 2’s, which has proven statistically to have value over the long course of a game and/or season.
- And speaking of defense, another interesting aspect of their defense was how they did not foul a lot or allow opposing teams to get to the line. Baskonia actually had the eighth-highest FTA/FGA ratio in the Euroleague, which was usually due to their fast guards and athletic wings like Hanga getting to the rack off the high ball screen. But, on defense, Baskonia actually had the seventh-lowest rate in the Euroleague in Opp FTA/FGA, meaning that they weren’t fouling and letting opposing teams get easy chances for points at the free throw line. This is a sound strategy and a credit to Baskonia’s defensive discipline, as they relied on contesting shots on defense getting rebounds off of missed shots, rather than relying on steals or blocks, which have a higher risk when it comes to fouling. But that wasn’t to say they completely abandoned “high risk” defense, as they were in the top-10 in both fouls and blocks, which again is credit to their defensive discipline. Perasovic and the Baskonia players deserve a lot of credit for this, and that was especially evident in their 101.1 defensive rating, third best in the league, and 48.8 opponent eFG percentage, which was best in the league. Bourousis and Baskonia was known for their ability to score and play up-tempo, but their defense was underrated all year, and was one of the key reasons why they made the Euroleague Final Four.
The combination of Bourousis’ career renaissance, the young roster gelling over the course of the season, and Perasovic’s fine job coaching this eclectic group of talents made this year extremely special for Baskonia and European club basketball fans across the globe. And yet, as wonderful as this season was for the Basque club, it will be difficult to duplicate next year. After such as successful season, Turkish power Efes came calling and was able to lure Perasovic with a major deal to coach their squad next year. Adams is back in America, added to the Spurs’ Free Agent camp, and looks less likely to be back with Baskonia next season, with the same looking to be true of James. And Bourousis’ future seems a bit murky, as it is likely that a big name European club will throw a lot of money at him if he decided to not make the jump across the pond to the NBA. Just like that, in a matter of weeks, Baskonia’s dream season seems to be just that: a one-time dream, not the foundation for something special.
And that is the challenge with smaller European clubs like Baskonia: it is hard for them to build something sustainable on an annual basis because they cannot compete in Europe’s free market player economy. Rich clubs like Efes can woo their coach with bags of money. Traditional powers like Olympiacos, or Real Madrid, or Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv can outspend them for their own players. The NBA will always be the primary option, especially for American players, if the opportunity presents itself. That is the reality for Baskonia, and though they are not alone in this system, it is a bit more painful because they have a fanbase that really is basketball-crazed. If the financial caps and confines in the NBA were present in Europe, Baskonia would have the chance to develop into a club like the San Antonio Spurs, a small market team that can compete due to good player development and shrewd player acquisition. But, in the current European landscape, they are forever building their club year-to-year, hoping for home run seasons like this past one.
So, we probably won’t see another season like 2015-2016 from Baskonia for a while, though they are better suited to catch lighting in a bottle sooner than most in the European landscape (they are in Spain, a major country and in probably the best domestic league in Europe in the ACB, all factors which help their chances in acquiring talent). Bourousis’ Baskonia tenure most likely will be a one-year show, and most likely he’ll be dazzling for another European club next year. Hopefully, the young talent that got valuable minutes and playing experience this year will parlay that into bigger roles in 2016-2017 and keep the team competitive in the ACB and Euroleague, though I do wonder if a new coach will want to keep the same core intact.
It’s the cruel nature of European basketball: the big teams feast and continue to get fat year after year while the others fight for scraps, and Baskonia, though not on the lower end, probably is closer to the latter than the former. But we shouldn’t forget this season from Baskonia. We shouldn’t forget about their Final Four run, Bourousis’ unofficial Euroleague MVP, the sensational plays of guards Adams and James, and the stoic nature of Perasovic on the sideline.
It’s teams like Baskonia that make the Euroleague worth following, especially for newer American fans like myself.