Saras is Staying with Zalgiris, which Might Be the Best Move for Both

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Sarunas Jasikevicius will be facing off against Real Madrid’s Pablo Lasso next year, but only in the Euroleague with Zalgiris, not the ACB with Barcelona.

This summer’s drama centering on FC Barcelona’s head coaching position for next year had the storyline of a  tumultuous soap opera, with the kind of twists and unexpected changes one would expect from a M. Night Shyamalan film, not a basketball  managerial change. Let’s take a second to recap everything that happened which led to Sarunas Jasikevicius going from “likely” Barcelona head coach, to being back with his hometown Zalgiris club in a couple of weeks.

  • On June 23rd, news leaks that Saras has reportedly agreed to terms with Barcelona about taking over the head coach position next season. The news is awkward because head coach at the time Xavi Pascual has not been given any notification about his standing for next year, and it has literally been one day since Barcelona lost the ACB Liga Endesa Finals to rival Real Madrid.
  • Later that day, general manager Joan Creus announces that he will be stepping down from his position at Barcelona.  The news is a bit expected, considering Barcelona’s two-year slide in both the Euroleague as well as ACB (as I wrote about earlier). But, there is still no word on Pascual, and no immediate GM is named as a replacement.
  • On June 28th, Barcelona and Pascual officially part ways, with Pascual delivering a press conference making his announcement later that day. In the press conference, Barcelona ownership state their desire for a “new model” when it comes to building their team, which explains the ouster of Creus and Pascual.
  • Around June 28th-29th, rumors start to surface that Saras might not be eligible to be the head coach of Barcelona due to a rule in the ACB that prohibits coaches with less than two years of club coaching experience from coaching teams in the Liga Endesa. While there is no official word yet, the likelihood of Saras coaching in Spain grows more dim.
  • In a surprise development, on June 30th Barcelona names 40-year-old Sito Alonso, formerly of Bilbao Basket, as the new head coach of Barcelona. Considering Bilbao did not make the Liga Endesa playoffs last season, and with other experienced candidates like Andrea Trinchieri of Brose Baskets Bamberg and Giorgos Bartzokas of Lokomotiv Kuban available, the club’s decision to go with the young Madrid-born coach was a surprise.  Additionally, Aito Reneses, who coached Barcelona from 1985 to 2001, was named the team’s new Technical Director. As it turns out, the ACB coaching rule was indeed the reason for Saras not taking over the head coaching position.

Without a doubt, I am sure all of this was disappointing for Saras, whose stock as a coach was riding pretty high after he led Zalgiris to a Lithuanian championship in his first season as head coach. After all, he was a former Barcelona player, and the chance to coach one of Europe’s best squads in not only the best European competition, but also the best domestic league (ACB) I’m sure was an opportunity Saras had been dreaming of after he hung up his jersey and retired as a player. That being said, while the Barcelona opportunity didn’t come to fruition as he may have hoped, another year with Zalgiris may be the best thing going forward not only for the Lithuanian club, but his development as a coach. Let’s go over a few reasons why Sara is best served staying in Kaunas for at least one more year.

Saras still needs some time to develop as a coach in European competition.

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Though Saras did well with Zalgris in the LKL, he still needs to develop as a coach in Euroleague play.

Saras has definitely proven himself domestically as a coach in Kaunas. When he took over the reigns at Zalgiris for Gintaras Krapikas on January 13th, Saras led Zalgiris to a 24-3 mark for the remainder of the Lithuanian season, playoffs included. Zalgiris found a rhythm with Saras as coach which emphasized a faster tempo and a more wide-open, higher-scoring offense, as they scored over 100 points three times in that 27 game span (rather than only once under Krapikas). In 47 Lithuanian games, Zalgiris averaged 85.9 ppg, shot 55.9 percent from the floor and 39.3 percent from the field, and limited their opponents to 70.2 ppg (a difference of 15.7 ppg in favor of Zalgiris). No question Zalgiris was head and shoulders above their domestic competition, and Saras should be credited for helping Zalgiris prove that they were Lithuania’s best team on a game-in and game-out basis in the LKL.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Saras in the Euroleague, as Zalgiris struggled to compete against Europe’s top clubs, especially in the Round of 16. When Saras took over, Zalgiris was 0-2 in Top 16 play, which included a 21-point blowout at home to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia in Round 1, and an even worse 33 point blowout to Brose Baskets Bamberg in Germany. Things unfortunately didn’t get much better though for Zalgiris, as they went 2-10 under Saras in Top 16 play, and finished in last place not only in their group, but overall as well.

Zalgiris struggled immensely against European competition, as they had a difficult time competing with longer, more athletic opponents on both the offensive and defensive end, didn’t have the kind of speed on the perimeter to handle quick guards or beat opponents off the dribble (which resulted in them adding Jerome Randle at point, though his addition was too little, too late),  and didn’t exactly shoot well enough to keep defenses honest. This all accumulated into mediocre numbers in Euroleague play: in 14 games, Zalgiris was outscored by 172 points, shot only 47 percent from 2-point land, and an even worse 32.8 percent from the three. They also finished poorly in a lot of advanced categories in Top 16 play including last in net rating (minus-16.2), effective field goal percentage (45.5) and 3PA/FGA (0.26), second-to-last in opponent field goal percentage (56 percent; only Unicaja was worse), and third-to-last in opponent turnover percentage (16.1 percent). Statistically, it made sense why Zalgiris finished in the bottom of Top 16 play, as it is further evidence how overwhelmed the Lithuanian representative was against Europe’s top clubs.

And thus, as good as Saras’ Lithuanian League debut was, he still has a lot to prove in the Euroleague. With a full offseason under his belt, and a little more input in the roster composition (Zalgiris loses Randle, but they will return Renaldas Seibutis and Robertas Javtokas) however, I think Saras can really prepare his team properly for the upcoming Euroleague season. They still need some quicker guards on the perimeter, and they do need to emphasize the outside shot better to open things up against the superior European competition. However, these are issues Saras can work on over a long period of time rather than having to fix them quickly week-to-week. And by helping Zalgiris perform better in the Euroleague, he will prove himself enticing to other European clubs who undoubtedly will be looking for new coaching positions for the 2017-2018 season.

Barcelona is a bit of a mess right now.

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Barcelona still has a lot of questions roster-wise, and that would be difficult for Saras to handle in his first full year as a club head coach.

A new GM and a new coach are a couple of the issues resolved this off-season for the Catalan club, but the roster still leaves a lot to be desired. Barcelona hasn’t signed anyone of note this offseason, and though ownership prefers a roster built from the “inside” of their organization (hence going with the younger Alonso as coach), Barcelona will still be relying on veterans like Navarro and Tomic it seems to be carrying them somewhat next year. That is fine if this was a few years ago, when Navarro was one of Spain’s and maybe Europe’s best guards. However, he is coming off one of his worst seasons, and at age 36, he isn’t likely to get better anytime soon. And to make matters worse, he is also blocking key players like Pau Ribas and Alex Abrines, younger players with more upside, from getting more minutes.

While I believe Saras is going to be a good coach with whatever club he coaches in the future, whether it’s Zalgiris (I think Zalgiris will improve in 2016-2017 Euroleague play now that Saras is coaching the team from the start) or another bigger club in the future. But I do not think Barcelona next year would have put him in a situation to really succeed. What are they going to do to build around Tomic, a limited defensive player, in the post? How are they going to replace Justin Doellman, an inconsistent player, but capable of stretching teams and being a force from beyond the arc?  Are they going to stay with Carlos Arroyo and Tomas Satoransky as the points? And if so, how are they going to hide Arroyo’s shooting and defensive inefficiencies?

I know the prestige of going to Barcelona was a huge incentive for Saras to leave Kaunas. That being said, I think the Spanish Coaches’ Association’s rules worked to Saras’ favor as I think this would have been a difficult job to undertake next year, especially considering the questionable roster composition and astronomical expectations from fans in both domestic and Euroleague play. Zalgiris is a much better situation roster-wise (he is familiar with the talent, and they have a lot younger players as well) and the expectations won’t be so unreasonable. After all, Pascual was one of the best coaches in Barcelona history, and after two seasons where they didn’t win any trophies, he was given the boot. It is possible that Barcelona may do even worse next year, which would put even more pressure on him in terms of keeping his job beyond a year, and that would be an unfair position for Saras, especially in his first full year as a club head coach.

The younger, majority-Lithuanian roster will give Saras a chance to build something special with Zalgiris.

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Paulius Jankunas is a key Lithuanian talent that could help Saras succeed in Kaunas with a young, mostly-Lithuanian roster.

Unlike Barcelona, Zalgiris is a relatively young roster, filled with Lithuanian talent. Currently, there are only four players over the age of 30 on the Zalgiris roster, and they have some good young talent in the roster in Brock Motum, Edgaras Ulanovas, and Leo Westermann, who is coming over from Limoges. Also, the return of Paulius Jankunas will be a good player for Zalgiris to build around, as he offers a veteran presence, as well as excellent production, as evidenced by his 12.3 ppg and 6.2 rpg on 54 percent shooting in Euroleague play.

There is something to say about building a club around talent from their home country. Crvena Zvezda not only did that last year to success (they made the playoffs), but also looks to be doing that next season, as they let imports such as Quincy Miller and Maik Zerbes walk to allow their young Serbian talent like Luka Mitrovic and Nemanja Dangubic to grow together for their home club. Zalgiris could do that next year, and the fact that they are led by a Lithuanian playing legend like Saras will be a huge intangible that could help Zalgiris outperform expectations.

And that makes Zalgiris a special scenario next year. If Saras gets his team to the playoffs in Barcelona but not the Final Four, that would be a bit of a disappointment, especially considering they want a “championship” each and every year in every league they participate in. On the flip side, if Zalgiris makes the playoffs under Saras next year, then that would be cause for celebration and excitement, especially considering Zalgiris hasn’t made the Final Four since 1999, when they won the Euroleague title. Lithuanian fans will be pushing and cheering for Zalgiris to succeed because of the home country investment in the club, both in terms of coaches as well as players. There wouldn’t be that same kind of fanfare in Barcelona, especially considering their history of dominance. They won’t be supporting their club if they hit a rough spot. Instead, they would be calling for the coach’s head.

So that’s what I’m hoping for next year with Saras: he builds this young club up, they generate some excellent chemistry throughout the season due to their combination of youthful and Lithuanian talent (easier to do with the longer regular season format), and they do what Crvena Zvezda did and make a surprise run to the playoffs, where anything can happen in five games. Maybe the exit out early like Red Star or maybe they make a run to the Final Four like Lokomotiv Kuban. Either scenario would be cause for celebration in Kaunas.

However, if they do the latter, not only will Saras cement his status as one of the most coveted coaches in Europe, but he will also further his legacy in European basketball. Only this time it will come as a coach, not a player.

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