The 2015-2016 season was safe to say a surprise “dream season” for Basque club Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, especially in Euroleague. As stated before on this blog, Baskonia was led by Ioannis Bourousis, a Greek center signed late in the off-season who ended up earning first-team All-Euroleague and All-ACB honors, in addition being named ACB Liga Endesa MVP. (He also was in close consideration for the Euroleague MVP with eventual winner Nando de Colo of CSKA Moscow). Bourousis, a bench warmer with Real Madrid in 2014-2015 whom many thought was in the twilight of his career, proved to be the life force of this Baskonia team during their impressive Euroleague run. He was one of the best rebounders in the league, a versatile scorer who could hurt teams in the block or on the perimeter, and defensively, though not incredibly athletic, he used his big frame and instincts to take away easy baskets from opposing players. And in addition to his individual skills, it became obvious week after week how Bourousis’ veteran presence and leadership was appreciated and respected from his teammates, as Baskonia saw career years from point guards Darius Adams and Mike James, as well as strong campaigns from wing players such as Fabien Causeur, Davis Bertans and Adam Hanga. Bourousis may not have been named the Euroleague MVP, but no one player was more crucial to Baskonia’s Final Four run than the Greek center.
However, as the Euroleague season gets closer to starting, the “dream season” of Baskonia is merely a memory. Not only is Bourousis gone, back in his home country playing for Panathinaikos, but most of the roster had departed as well. James is in Athens with Bourousis (James actually signed first with Panathinaikos and was key in recruiting the Greek star, who also was in negotiations with some NBA teams this summer), Adams signed with a team in China, Causeur went to Brose Baskets Bamberg in Germany, and Bertans earned a contract with the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA. And if that was not enough, head coach Velimir Perasovic left early in the off-season, accepting a deal to be the new head coach of Anadolu Efes, a club looking to compete after big off-seasons by BSL rivals Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Darussafaka. Unlike other Final Four teams such as CSKA and Fenerbahce, who were able to keep most of their crucial players, Baskonia is starting from scratch, still piecing together their roster even as of this moment. That kind of rebuilding approach of course isn’t the most surefire path to success, especially when a team reached the heights Baskonia rose to last season in the Euroleague.
That being said, if there is any club that can overcome the odds and buck expectations, it’s Baskonia.
Many European basketball fans forget how under the radar Baskonia happened to be in October of the Euroleague season a year ago. Adams and James were relatively “no-name” guards, and Bourousis had warmed the bench behind Gustavo Ayon and Felipe Reyes in Madrid a year earlier, making his signing a head-scratcher (there probably was more enthusiasm for Sofoklis Schortsanitis’ arrival in Crvena Zvezda, where he barely lasted) . The Latvian Bertans was coming off a knee injury he suffered in the tail end of the 2015 season, and the Hungarian Hanga had played most of the 2015 season on loan with the Italian club Sidigas Avellino of Lega A. There was a lot of roster question marks with this Baskonia team at the start of the 2015-2016 season, and the fact that they opened the 10-game Regular Season with a group that included Olympiacos, Olimpia Milano, and Anadolu Efes didn’t help fans’ uneasiness either (considering going in they were probably thought of as the 4th best team in that group by many experts).
And yet, we know how the story went in 2015-2016. Baskonia management showed the fanbase and Euroleague followers that they knew what they were doing, and they had a Final Four and an Executive of the Year award for Jose Antonio Quejarata to prove it. So, yes, Baskonia probably lost more of their roster than management or the fans wanted. Yes, they lost a solid head coach to a Euroleague competitor. But they’ve gone through this song and dance before. So another Final Four campaign is in the works, right?
Well…that may be a tougher task this time around, but Baskonia has some potential, and it starts with their new head coach.
The new man in charge of this Baskonia club is Sito Alonso, the former Dominion Bilbao coach who was rumored as a candidate for the vacant Barcelona job this summer. Alonso did not go to the Catalan club, but he did earn the Basque club position which may have been a better fit for him anyways. Alonso is known to be a developer of young talent, as he coached the Spanish Under-20 team to a bronze medal in the 2013 European U-20 Championships, and was also a Spanish National Team assistant on the 2014 FIBA World Cup team. In terms of club experience, he doesn’t exactly have extensive Euroleague experience, as he has only coached 1 team in the Euroleague, DKV Joventut in 2008-2009, where they went 4-6 and failed to make it to the Top 16. However, he has proven to be successful in Eurocup competition, as he helped Joventut win a Eurocup championship in 2008 (which helped them qualify for the Euroleague), and he went 11-5 with Bilbao a season ago in the Eurocup (which made up for their disappointing ACB campaign where they missed out on the playoffs to Fuenlabrada on a last second shot on the last day).
Alonso, who is only 40 years old, provides a fresh perspective to this Baskonia squad that was used to the veteran presence of previous coach Perasovic a season ago. One of the interesting aspects about Alonso’s hire is the fact that he is only the second Spanish coach hired by Baskonia in the past 11 years since Pedro Martinez and Natxo Lezkano split duties in 2005 (the other Spanish coach was in Ibon Navarro in 2014-2015), so his Spanish roots, both personally and in the coaching profession (he hasn’t coached a club outside of Spain) will help the local fan base endear to him immediately. Furthermore, what will make or break Alonso’ tenure is how he will utilize the young talent on this Baskonia team, as player development has been his calling card in his coaching career thus far. As of this moment, Baskonia has four players under 25 years old on this roster that will be featured in the rotation: Ilimane Diop and Tornike Shengelia, who both return from last year; and newcomers Johannes Voigtmann from Germany and Rafael Luz from Brazil. Diop and Voigtmann will add depth in the center position behind newcomer and former NBA No.1 pick Andrea Bargnani, who is most likely the projected starting center. Diop did well as a starter mid-season, benefiting from the extra minutes due to Bourousis’ preference for coming off the bench. Diop is athletic and has strong shot-blocking skills, but he still needs to improve his offensive skills (his back to the basket game was limited) and get stronger to help him battle defensively and on the boards against opposing Euroleague and ACB centers. Voigtmann comes from FIBA Europe Cup Champion Fraport Skyliners, where he succeeded in the BBL as a BBL Rising Star and Most Improved player winner in 2015, and All-Star in 2015 and 2016. Voigtmann, who averaged 11.4 and 5.5 rpg in the BBL a year ago, will be the kind of young big who should benefit from Alonso’s tutelage, though he may go through some growing pains considering the improvement in competition from the BBL and Europe Cup to the ACB and Euroleague, respectively.
Alonso’s most interesting work though may be with Shengelia and Luz, who play power forward and point guard respectively. Shengelia only played 9 Euroleague games a season ago with Baskonia, and though he put up decent averages, (9.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) in limited minutes (17.8 mpg), his contributions were small in comparison to other players on the Baskonia roster. Furthermore, Shengelia also carries some personal baggage that Alonso was exposed to as coach of Bilbao. In 2015, Shengelia and Bilbao player Dejan Todorovic were involved in a massive fight on court that resulted in a five-game suspension. There was a lot of finger pointing in terms of who was at fault that resulted in a lot of bad blood between the clubs. Whether or not former Bilbao coach Alonso and Shengelia can bury this hatchet will be crucial, especially considering Shengelia will play such a key role for Baskonia this upcoming season.
As for Luz, the 24-year-old Brazilian point guard comes over from Brazilian powerhouse Flamengo, which won the domestic league championship a year ago. Luz is familiar with the Spanish club scene, as he signed originally with Unicaja in 2007. However, he mostly played on loan to other clubs during his tenure with Unicaja, and this will be the first time he will gain major playing time at the major European level in his career. Luz has flair and potential as a point guard averaging 7 ppg and 4.1 apg a year ago in Brazil. Furthermore, he will benefit from Alonso’s mentorship, as he has strong experience developing point guards, as evidenced by nurturing current NBA player Ricky Rubio during his early years in Joventut.
Alonso will likely have the most impact as a coach on the young players on this roster. However, as with any Euroleague team, the goal is still to win and make the Final Four, even if the odds may be against them. For Alonso to do that, he will have to rely on former NBA players Bargnani, the projected starting center, and Rodrigue Beaubois, the projected point guard who played last year with Strasbourg and formerly played with the Dallas Mavericks.
The Bargnani acquisition has been one that has garnered equal praise and criticism. Many find the deal akin in situation to the Bourousis signing a year ago: a late unexpected signing of a player coming off a down year. Some though think the comparison is a stretch, and that Bargnani is on the wrong end of his career, and isn’t the kind of center who can have the impact that Bourousis had a year ago. Rob Scott, who writes for Euroleague Adventures, had this to say about the Bargnani signing in a tweet:
@rafazdiaz Bou did everything he did last season for RM, just in short bursts. Bargnani hasn’t done anything near that in years
— Rob Scott (@robscott33) July 27, 2016
Scott has a good point about Bargnani, as the Italian center has struggled to stay healthy and effective when on the court in the past five seasons. Since his career year in 2010-2011 in Toronto where he played 66 games, and averaged 21.4 ppg and 5.2 rpg, it has been mostly downhill for the former No. 1 pick, the first European player to ever be drafted in that slot. He has only played more than 40 games twice since 2011 (42 games with the Knicks in 2013-2014 and 46 games with Nets last season), and he has only had a Win Shares total over one twice as well (2.2 in 2011-2012 with Toronto and 1.5 with the Knicks in 2013-2014). Last season in Brooklyn, a team that played to their low expectations in the pre-season, Bargnani failed to have much impact at all for the Nets, as he only averaged 6.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg, and a career low 13.8 mpg. The writing seemed to be on the wall for Bargnani’s NBA career, as he was passed up in the rotation late in the year by youngsters Chris McCullough and Thomas Robinson, a bad sign for a veteran in a contract year trying to earn his keep in the NBA.
Bargnani surprisingly is only 31 years old despite playing 10 seasons in the NBA. However, he struggled to find a position in the States, not quite quick or agile enough to be a 3 or 4, but not physical or strong enough to play the 5. He has regularly put up paltry rebounding numbers for a big (his career average is 4.6 rpg) and defensively, he has proven to be a liability time and time again. He isn’t the kind of physical shotblocker that can guard the rim well, and he frequently gets lost and taken advantage of in pick and roll defense. Now there may be some room for optimism in 2016-2017 with Baskonia. Bargnani will face less quality bigs in the Euroleague than he did in the NBA, he can still shoot it from beyond the arc well for a 7-footer (he’s a career 35.4 percent 3-pt shooter and two seasons ago with the Knicks he shot 36.6 percent from beyond the arc), and perhaps being back home in Europe will be a breath of fresh air after years of ridicule in America for failing to live up to his No. 1 status. At the end of the day though, Bargnani remains a bigger risk than Bourousis a year ago, as he isn’t the same player (Bourousis is a much better rebounder and defender), making the potential of this pickup quite murky for this Baskonia squad.
Baskonia also picked up headlines by signing Beaubois, who averaged 11.6 ppg and 2.3 apg in 24 mpg in Euroleague play a year ago with Strasbourg, who finished runner up in the LNB and Eurocup in 2016. Beaubois is a dynamic player, more of a shoot-first combo guard than a pure point. At 6-feet, 2-inches, Beaubois has a strong frame for a guard, and can use that to his advantage, especially from beyond the arc. He shot 37 percent from 3-point land in Euroleague play a year ago, and he depends on that shot greatly, as evidenced by his 0.43 3PA/FGA rate. That being said, Roddy can be his own worst enemy at the times, as he has a tendency to over-dominate the ball on the offensive end, and sometimes sink a team when his shot is not on. Last year, his touches per game was highest on the team at 13.02, not necessarily great considering his points per possession was 0.89, which is 0.11 lower than average. For Beaubois and Baskonia to be successful, they will need the Beaubois of 2011-2012, where he had his best season as a professional, averaging 8.9 ppg and 2.9 apg while producing a PER of 15.3 and a Win Shares total of 2.2 with the Dallas Mavericks. During that season, Beaubois played within Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle’s system, and looked to produce for the team and not just himself, which benefited the Mavs and his professional outlook.
Unfortunately, since returning to Europe, he has played a bit more selfishly much to the detriment of his team, and himself (he has become less efficient and effective playing this way). There were times his individual play helped lead Strasbourg to big wins, but there were also times where his inefficient play got in the way of what head coach Vincent Collet was trying to do on the court. Channeling the “good” and “efficient” Beaubois may be one of Alonso’ biggest challenges going into this season, especially considering the depth issues of Baskonia as of this moment, which may enable Beaubois to be more “selfish” offensively.
Alonso doesn’t have the greatest hand dealt to him in comparison to his Euroleague competition, but the cupboard isn’t bare. There’s potential for Alonso to utilize Bargnani in a way that will allow him to play more in his comfort zone (on the perimeter from beyond the arc), and assign his younger bigs (Diop, Voigtmann, Shengelia) to take care of the “dirty work” (rebounding, post defense, etc.). If Beaubois focuses more on “team” offense rather than “individual” scoring, he and Hanga and Jaka Blazic could be an effective starting trio on the perimeter. Kim Tillie is a proven power forward that could provide valuable production and mentorship to the younger post players, and Luz could breakout under Alonso, who has been successful developing Spanish point guards with previous clubs.
There certainly is potential for success. At the same time though, there is a lot of potential for things to go south. After all, expectations are high for the club not only due to their Final Four run a year ago, but also due to the fact to the more competitive structure of the new 16-team Euroleague format which will be incorporated starting this year. Already, we have seen another Euroleague mainstay (Unicaja) become a victim of the new format after a sub-par year a season ago. While Baskonia is in better financial and competitive shape than the Malaga-based club, it serves as a reminder of what lack of Euroleague success can do to a club, even if it is only for a small stretch of time.
The pressure will be on Alonso and Baskonia in 2016-2017, especially in the Euroleague. Can Alonso put these awkward and eccentric pieces together to produce a successful squad? Or are the pieces too flawed and broken to work out in the end? Is this rebuilding project perhaps just too much, and the magic of that “rebuilding” job in 2015-2016 just a miracle that won’t be seen again?
There is still time in the off-season to add pieces, but you can bet Alonso, his staff and Baskonia management, are doing all they can now to make sure that their plan can work by October.