Will Georgios Bartzokas be the right coach for Barcelona?

Georgios Bartzokas is officially the new head coach of Barcelona; they are hoping he’ll be celebrating like this (his Euroleague title with Olympiacos in 2013) in the near future.

Finally…all the turmoil, rumors, and reports are over. FC Barcelona finally has a coach, and it isn’t Sarunas Jasikevicius or Sito Alonso (who ended up taking the Laboral Kutxa Baskonia job…more on that in a separate post). After a lengthy process to figure out Xavi Pascual’s replacement, Barcelona management settled on Greek national Georgios Bartzokas, most recently the head coach of Lokomotiv Kuban of Russia.

Bartzokas is an interesting hire by Barcelona management after a multiple week process that felt much longer. He doesn’t have the playing pedigree of Jasikevicius, nor does he have Alonso’s youth or deep ties within the Spanish basketball system. Despite not having those characteristics, Bartzokas has been a successful head coach, as he won a Euroleague title in 2013 when he was head coach of Olympiacos and led Loko to their first ever Final Four as well as a third place finish last season (in the club’s second appearance in the Euroleague ever). There is no question that the 51-year-old Athenian head coach can make teams competitive at the highest level of play in Europe, but is he the right fit for the Catalan club, and can he bring the kind of success (ACB and Euroleague titles) that evaded previous head coach, Xavi Pascual, the past couple of seasons?

After all, as stated before in one of my previous posts, in Barcelona, it’s “championships or bust.” Consolation prizes aren’t a reality with the Catalan faithful, and it will be fascinating to see how Bartzokas will be able to transfer the success he had with Loko last year to Spain, but this time, under much more cutthroat circumstances.

Bartzokas has found Euroleague success as a coach, first with Olympiacos in 2013 and last year with Loko.

Bartzokas came onto Barcelona’s radar late, as it seemed in mid-June, Bartzokas was going to honor his contract with Kuban for at least one more season, according to a report from Sportando. And honestly, it didn’t seem to matter at the time, as Saras seemed to be a shoo-in for the Barcelona job once Pascual officially was let go (which happened a couple of weeks later). But, as we learned before, Jasikevicius wasn’t eligible for the position due to ACB rules, and in early July, after the Alonso reports proved to be erroneous, Barcelona was still without a head coach.

And surprisingly, things also changed dramatically for Bartzokas in Krasnodar.

Despite pledging his allegiance, the outlook for Lokomotiv Kuban looked quite bleak for 2016-2017. While Loko had a banner year in the Euroleague with their surprise Final Four run, their domestic season wasn’t as successful. In the VTB United League, Loko finished an underwhelming fifth, and were promptly swept by Khimki Moscow 3-0 in the playoffs. Because of the disappointing finish, the club didn’t earn the B license out of the VTB to qualify for the Euroleague (that went to Unics, who finished second to CSKA Moscow), and they missed out on the lone wild card spot to Darussafaka Dogus of Turkey. With new condensed format of the Euroleague, Loko was left out of the field of 16, and regulated to Eurocup, a harsh reality to stomach for Bartzokas and the organization after they ousted Barcelona in the playoffs months earlier.

And because of the regulation, it became less of an incentive for ownerships to pay top dollar to keep players, and star players began to look and find contracts elsewhere. Malcolm Delaney headed to the NBA where he signed with the Atlanta Hawks. Versatile big man Anthony Randolph ended up signing a two-year deal with Real Madrid. And though they haven’t signed anywhere else yet, Victor Claver and Dontaye Draper have made it known that they are not returning with Loko next season. And thus, it made sense for Bartzokas to look elsewhere despite pledging his commitment nearly a month earlier. Loko looked to be a rebuilding job in 2016-2017, and quite a big one in Europe’s second-tier competition. That’s not what Bartzokas signed up for when he said he would “honor” his contract, and when Barcelona came along with an offer, he took it gladly, knowing that the Loko job would be more risk than it was worth.

Bartzokas is a different kind of hire for Barcelona, and the Barcelona job is a different one as well for Bartzokas. Previous head coach Xavi Pascual was a Barcelona-lifer of sorts, as he got his start coaching the B team in 2004, and then spent a couple of seasons as an assistant to Dusko Ivanovic before taking over in 2008 after Dusko was fired. Bartzokas on the other hand, has no experience coaching or playing in Spain, and his only basketball experience outside of his home country of Greece came last year with Loko, and that was in Russia, where the VTB and Russian Domestic scene is not as strong as the ACB. For Barcelona, one of the top clubs in the ACB, the Bartzokas hire is a bit of an experiment, as the coaches they have hired in the past had experience in Spanish basketball as a player or coach.

But, if there is one thing the Athenian coach can do it is win and win quickly. Bartzokas took over Olympiacos in 2011, and promptly won a title in 2013, beating CSKA Moscow in the semifinal and Real Madrid in the championship game by double digits. After an underwhelming season in 2014-2015, when Loko went undefeated in the Eurocup regular season, but choked in the quarterfinals, Bartzokas led Loko to a dream Euroleague season which not only included a trip to the Final Four, but also a dramatic comeback in the playoffs, where despite being down 2-1 in the series and facing elimination in Game 4 in Barcelona, they won two straight games to punch their ticket to Berlin. Bartzokas’ basketball acumen, as well as cool demeanor, especially in big games, has served him well in his coaching career, as he has installed immediate success in every place he has coached so far.

For Barcelona, hiring a coach who could produce a quick-turn-around is exactly what they needed, especially with their rivals in Madrid dominating not only them, but the ACB the past couple of seasons.

Athletic defenders like Randolph (left) and Chris Singleton (right, 1) were key to Bartzokas finding defensive success in Loko.

What has made Bartzokas such as successful coach is his emphasis on defense. Last season, Loko was one of the best teams defensively in the Euroleague, as their 100.2 defensive rating was the second best mark over the full season (and only .1 behind Fenerbahce Ulker). However, Loko really found their groove defensively when Top 16 play began, when they fully had their roster intact (Randolph only played 60 minutes total in Regular Season play). In Top 16 play,  Loko’s defensive rating was 98.4, 3.1 points better than the second best mark (Fenerbahce), and their net rating of 11.4 was also the best in the league in the Top 16, even better than eventual champion CSKA Moscow (who had a 10.0 mark). Once Bartzokas had all his horses (mostly Randolph), Loko was one of the toughest teams to beat on a night in-night out basis, and Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy was a big key to that tremendous success in the Top 16.

Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy really is nothing spectacular. He emphasized strong, man-to-man defense, with little switching, and an emphasis on stopping the drive as much as possible. On the backside, Loko usually sagged their defenders to create help more than typical from most squads, which is characteristic of many Pack Line defenses. Take a look at how Loko is positioned on this possession against Barcelona in the playoffs.

Screenshot 2016-07-12 at 8.47.59 AM

See Claver on the weakside sagging heavily toward the paint, which was a heavy part of Bartzokas’ philosophy last season: force teams to beat them from the outside. However, one reason Bartzokas was able to do this because Loko did two things well: 1.) utilize their length and athleticism and 2.) play extremely hard in half court defense. Loko was a cohesive unit on the floor defensively, and Bartzokas deserves a lot of credit for maximizing the talent on his roster on this end.

Bartzokas didn’t utilize a lot of full court presses or traps in the half court, mainly because he didn’t need to. He had length and athleticism advantages defensively at nearly every position. Delaney was a big point guard who could body up most opposing point guards with ease, and he was strong enough to play through screens and blow up opposing pick and roll plays. And Delaney’s backup, Draper, was a small bundle of muscle who didn’t have Delaney’s height, but had the same kind of strength-speed combo to either frustrate opposing guards or play through screens easily. Claver was a versatile defensive player who had the size to play opposing fours, but also the speed and length to hound and frustrate wings as well (he could sag this low on this possession because if Barcelona did skip it, he had quick enough reactions and athleticism to recover and break down and properly contest the three pointer or prevent the drive). Ryan Broekhoff didn’t have the athletic gifts of some of the other players in the starting lineup (mostly Claver or Randolph), but he played EXTREMELY hard on the defensive end. One could say Broekhoff was the glue that kept this squad together. A defender who didn’t give as much effort may have put Loko in situations where his teammates would be compromised more defensively. However, because of Broekhoff’s effort, and his ability to play through screens and guard multiple positions (he could guard guys on the perimeter or post depending on the situation), his teammates were able to play in their comfort zone and not worry about frequently having to help on breakdowns, which consequently made them more effective defenders, and thus, a more effective defensive team.

And the jewel of Bartzokas’ defensive strategy was Randolph who did everything defensively. He could block shots with ease around the rim, but he was also quick enough to hedge and recover off the ball screen, or switch in a pinch (which didn’t happen very often). And Chris Singleton off the bench provided the same kind of defensive ability, though Singleton was a bit more on the physical side (though not as quick as Randolph). As one can see, all these pieces put together put up a strong defensive force that proved to be difficult for opponents to score on. The only times Loko gave up points was usually due to mental lapses on their own end. As talented and effective as Randolph was, there were times he broke down defensively in transition, as he sometimes tended to jog back down after a turnover or missed shot, which led to easy buckets in transition for opponents. But for the most part, Bartzokas had this Loko team a well-oiled machine on the defensive end, and installed a strategy that proved to be effective all-season long in the Euroleague.

Of course, it is to be expected that Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy will adjust with Barcelona in some ways. While he will be able to play a similar way on the perimeter with long wings such as Alex Abrines, Stratos Perperoglou, and Pau Ribas, Ante Tomic in the post is a much stiffer-moving defender who can’t recover or switch or block shots like Randolph. However, there is one weapon on the roster that Bartzokas most likely will utilize more, especially on the defensive end, and that is Shane Lawal. Lawal doesn’t have the offensive gifts of Randolph, but defensively, he mirrors Randolph’s profile nicely. Lawal is a long, athletic defender who can roam and fight through screens, and he looked like he was on the verge of breaking out for Barcelona before a midseason injury sidelined him for a while. Expect Bartzokas to utilize Lawal more, especially since he will fit into Bartzokas’ conservative man-to-man strategy that emphasizes strength and length to prevent baskets. The only issue for Bartzokas to address is defense from the point, as Juan Carlos Navarro isn’t the kind of defender that will fit into what Bartzokas liked to do with Delaney and Draper last season, and Tomas Satoransky isn’t going to be with Barcelona next year, but instead in the NBA (he would have fit better due to his large frame). It’ll be interesting to see if Barcelona management will add a point guard through transfer this offseason in the kind of athletic mold of Delaney and Draper to fit into Bartzokas’ defensive system in year one in Barcelona.

Bartzokas relies heavily on his star players offensively, as evidenced by Anthony Randolph’s 32.1 usage rate last year with Loko.

Offensively, it is a bit of a different story for Bartzokas, as this is where he will most dramatically differ from his predecessor. Pascual was known for being a great basketball mind, who relied on a heavy playbook and liked to call multiple actions and sets in the half court. Bartzokas is the opposite, as he prefers a hands-off approach and allows for a more free-flowing offense that relies more on isolation and getting the ball to 1 or 2 scorers and depending on them to make the offense work.

Last season, Bartzokas relied heavily on Randolph and Delaney, as they generated most of the offense for Loko, especially in the half court. Randolph led the team in usage rate at 32.1 perecent, a mark that was also highest in the Euroleague last season as well. A lot of the time, Bartzokas offense was simply get the ball to Randolph and let him do his thing, and considering how versatile and athletic a scorer Randolph was, it worked most of the time. When Plan A (get it to Randolph) didn’t work, it usually delved into Plan B which was get the ball to Delaney, who had the second highest usage rate on the team at 22.9 percent. And off the bench, Singleton proved to be a Randolph-lite, as his usage rate was 21.9 percent.

When it worked, it was a sight to behold. No better example was Game 4 of the playoffs, when Anthony Randolph went straight “LeBron James”-mode and won the game himself and kept Loko alive despite facing elimination on the road. Check out his highlights below and how heavily Loko relied on him in their sets (as well as Delaney, who set up a lot of Randolph’s buckets).

There really wasn’t anything groundbreaking with what Randolph, Delaney and even Singleton did on the court strategically. They got the ball, they either drove and finished (mostly in the case of Randolph and Singleton) or drove and created for others (mostly in the case of Delaney). It was simple, but it was effective and it was tough for teams to guard at times, especially when one player was hot, it usually opened up shots for others as well. And this isn’t something exclusive to Loko, as Bartzokas preferred this philosophy with Olympiacos as well, as Vassilis Spanoulis had a usage rate of 29.3 during their Championship run in 2013.

Unfortunately, when things stalled offensively for Loko, or if they couldn’t get the ball to Randolph or if Delaney wasn’t hitting his shots or finding room to drive or if Singleton was on one of his cold streaks, the Loko offense could get downright ugly. Poor turnovers from horrendous possessions led to easy baskets for the opposition on a more-than-desirable basis. Loko actually had the seventh highest turnover rate in Top 16 play, and their lack of ability to take care of the ball consistently would transfer to a lot of blown leads for the Krasnodar-based club. Yes, they would come back a lot of the times, as one of those three or another like Claver, would get on a hot streak to rescue them. However, Bartzokas’ simple offense sometimes proved to be Loko’s own worst enemy, as they didn’t play well in the pick and roll, nor did they have a lot of effective secondary plays to hang their hat on in the half court when the isolation wasn’t clicking.

Establishing an offense will be much a bigger challenge for Bartzokas in Barcelona than defense, and ultimately that will make or break his tenure with his new club. With Satoransky gone, and no new signing to take over his position (yet), it will be interesting to see who will step up and be that “primary” isolation playmaker that will succeed under Bartzokas. With Olympiacos, it was Spanoulis as well as Dimitris Diamantidis. With Loko, it was Delaney and Randolph. Three-four years ago Navarro could have handled that role, but he isn’t the shooter or shot creator he once was, as evidenced by his sub-par campaign last season. Tomic is an effective scorer around the block, but he is effective in the pick and roll (not one of Bartzokas’ go-to’s) and really can’t create much off the dribble. And wings such as Perperoglou, Abrines and Ribas have been more “secondary” offensive threats in the past, not necessarily primary offensive options (though that could change with Bartzokas giving them more responsibility and leash). Bartzokas most likely will adjust his offensive philosophy to play more to his roster’s strengths, as he most likely will try to find a middle ground between Pascual’s old system and his own for the short term until they get more talent tailored to his liking. Nonetheless, it’ll be interesting to see who will step up and be that “main” guy, as Bartzokas has leaned on that “primary” player in his coaching stops thus far.

Bartzokas seemed to get the most out of his players in Loko; will that carry over in Barcelona?

The pressure to win in Barcelona is more than ever, and Bartzokas knows he is not stepping into an easy job. Pascual was a misnomer for a European coach, as he actually stayed a long time in Barcelona, something that is not typically seen from coaches in the “impatient” basketball management world of European club basketball. However, he had success. He took Barcelona to Euroleague Final Fours and won ACB titles, and he didn’t the last two years, which is why he is gone. Bartzokas has done the same: he has won a Euroleague title and been to two Final Fours, but doing so in Greece and Russia is a lot different from doing it in Spain, probably the most high-profile country in Europe when it comes to Euroleague and domestic league success.

If there is one thing positive about Bartzokas’ outlook it is that Barcelona is trying to change how they “build” their team, so Bartzokas will have some leash if he doesn’t make the Euroleague Final Four or win an ACB title in year one. However, a bottom-out season (i.e. a fourth or lower finish in ACB play or not qualifying for the playoffs in the Euroleague) won’t save him, nor would two years without a championship. This isn’t a one-year audition, but the pressure to perform at the highest level certainly is going to be expected from the Catalan faithful

Bartzokas won’t be able to play the same exact kind of ball he did in Loko next season and how he adjusts his style, which differs from Pascual in so many areas, will be something to behold next year. Will it work? Will Bartzokas find the right compromise in styles offensively and defensively? Will he get some talent toward the end of the summer or start of the year that will allow him to do what he is accustomed to doing? (There were reports that Barcelona was trying to make a late push for Randolph before he ended up signing with Madrid.)

Bartzokas can’t waste much time though to figure out these issues. Real Madrid has dominated their El Clasico rivals the past two seasons, and that is a wound that gets deeper and deeper with every Real championship and win in the ACB and Euroleague.

If that competitive status with their rival doesn’t change quickly, it is not difficult to imagine who the fans’ scapegoat will be.

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