Three Thoughts about Fenerbahce from the Final Four

Some thoughts about Fenerbahce and their Euroleague title run…

Euroleague Jam

So, it’s official: Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul are the champions of Europe after their physical 80-64 victory over Greek power Olympiacos Piraeus. They are the first club from Turkey to win the Euroleague title in championship history, and this championship may have officially solidified Turkey as one of the top powers in European basketball circles (honestly, this has been the case for about a decade now, but Turkish basketball always seems to get overlooked by most general basketball fans and media). For Fenerbahce fans, this title a big deal, and I can’t help but feel happy for them, as they not only witness a Turkish club win the title on their home turf in Istanbul (always a good thing to win a championship in front of the home fans), but also exorcised some demons from last year’s debilitating championship game loss to CSKA Moscow in Berlin.

Anyways, as typical after any big moment…

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Ranking the field of the upcoming Euroleague Final Four

Some thoughts about the upcoming Euroleague Final Four in Istanbul…

Euroleague Jam

It’s been awhile since I have been able to post here on this blog, and I am rewatching the Euroleague playoffs this week to get myself reaquainted with the Euroleague (NBA Playoff season doesn’t help) as well as re-psyched up for the upcoming Euroleague Final Four. It could be the long layoff. It could be summer is approaching. Apologies for the long periods without posts or Tweets. Those who follow this blog should be used to it by now.

Anyways, we are almost a week away from the start of the Euroleague Final Four, one of the most underrated events in professional sports. Unlike the NBA, it’s single elimination, no best of five or sevens here. Win two games, and your team is the champion of Europe. Simple as that; no second chances until next year. For basketball fans who get numb to the postseason until the NBA Finals in June…

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After Final Four season, Laboral Kutxa Baskonia starts from scratch

Adam Hanga is one of the few players left from the Laboral Kutxa Baskonia squad that made the Euroleague Final Four a year ago.

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.

Baskonia hopes that Spanish head coach Sito Alonso, formerly of Dominion Bilbao, will bring a youthful energy that will help develop their younger players as well as keep them competitive in ACB and Euroleague play.

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.

Andrea Bargnani is coming off a poor season with the Brooklyn Nets; Baskonia is hoping he can rekindle himself as a player in Europe and in the Euroleague.

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:

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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.

Baskonia is banking on a big year from Roddy Beaubois, who’s coming over recently from Strasbourg.

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.

Lucky 7? How Panathinaikos is shaping up to be Euroleague favorites in 2016-2017

After five titles in 13 years, Panathinaikos has struggled to find success after head coach Zeljko Obradovic left for Fenerbahce.

“When I came in June 1999 to Athens to join Panathinaikos, I could not have imagined that this would be my team, my family, my home for 13 years. In these 13 years, we had many beautiful moments, many celebrations, but also difficulties. We were always together as a great and true family.”

-Zeljko Obradovic at his Panathinaikos farewell press conference in June 2012

Panathinaikos has always been associated with legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic, and for good reason, really. The “Greens” from Athens have won the most championships (six) in the modern Euroleague era, and Obradovic during his 13-year tenure in Athens was responsible for five of them. Under the well-respected and fiery Serbian coach, Panathinaikos became one of Europe’s most recognized, and respected clubs, annually competing for Greek Basketball League championships, as well as Euroleague Final Fours and titles. Before Obradovic, the Greens were simply another Greek club in the European basketball climate, on the same level with Olympiacos, Aris and PAOK (who all made Euroleague Final Fours prior to Obradovic coming to Athens). Now, along with Olympiacos, they have become one of Europe’s elite clubs, able to afford and attract all kinds of talent worldwide, with the expectation that they will add to the “stars” (i.e. Euroleague titles) each and every year. Since Zeljko, “championships and nothing less” have been the expectation not just for fans, but the players and organization as well.

Unfortunately, for Greens fans, since Obradovic left to Turkey to take over Fenerbahce, the club has not been able to live up to the lofty expectations since their coaching messiah left in 2012. In the post-Obradovic era, Panathinaikos has not made the Final Four, and in that same time span, they have seen Greek rival Olympiacos make the Euroleague championship game in two of those years (with a championship in 2013 and a runner up finish in 2015). For a club that exerted their dominance so forcefully in the Euroleague for nearly 13 seasons in the 2000’s, this kind of regression has not only been disappointing, but somewhat unacceptable in the eyes of the organization and fanbase. Thus, with such dissatisfaction from their internal and external supporting base, there has come constant change, as the club has gone through multiple player and roster changes in the the last four seasons.

Despite the wild inconsistency of the last four seasons, Greens fans have reason to be optimistic. The upcoming 2016-2017 season, the fifth season in the post-Obradovic era, looks to be the most promising yet, as the club has assembled the kind of roster that can truly compete for a Euroleague Final Four berth, not to mention championship. How did the Greens get to this point? And what will make this season different from the previous four, which ended up in playoff disappointment?

Well, let’s break down the road the Greens took to not only thrive this summer in the transfer market, but also set themselves up for success in 2016-2017.

Sasa Dordevic led Panathinaikos to the playoffs in 2015-2016, but the lack of big wins overshadowed statistical success.

Good on paper, but unable to follow through

After failing to make the Euroleague Final Four for a fourth straight season, and losing to CSKA Moscow in the playoffs, Panathinaikos decided to fire coach Dusko Ivanovic. After going through an interim coach for the remainder of the season (where they lost in the GBL finals 3-0), on June 30, 2015, the Greens tabbed Serbian Sasa Dordevic to be the new head coach for the 2015-2016 season.

Dordevic had the kind of resume that made the Greens faithful hopeful. In many ways, he was likened to a younger version of Zeljko: he was Serbian; had made his name as the Serbian National Team Head Coach (he led Serbia to a runner-up finish in the 2014 FIBA World Cup); and had a standout playing career for multiple clubs in Europe, with a brief spell in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers. On the other hand, Dordevic didn’t have much extensive club coaching experience like Zeljko, prior to his arrival in Athens, as Dordevic only had “cups of coffee” stints with Olimpia Milano in 2006-2007 and Benetton Treviso in 2011-2012. Nonetheless, the combination of his National Team coaching experience as well as his highly respected status as a player made the Panathinaikos club feel confident in tabbing Dordevic as their new coach.

The 2015-2016 roster was full of big-name Greek, European and American talent, and it looked like the kind of team Dordevic could be successful with right away in the Euroleague. At the point guard position, they had Nick Calathes, who came to Panathinaikos after a successful stint as a backup point guard with the Memphis Grizzlies, and the legendary Dimitris Diamantidis, who would be playing his last season professionally. On the wings they had former NBA player Sasha Pavlovic, American James Feldeine and Serbian Vladimir Jankovic to give them shooting and scoring. And in the post, they had the athletic and physical James Gist as well as Greek Antonis Fotsis in the power-forward position, and Serbian star and former Minnesota Timberwolf Miroslav Raduljica and former Golden State Warrior Ognjen Kuzmic. Though they were a bit of an older roster, Dordevic had the depth and pedigree to immediately be one of the most competitive clubs in Europe.

However, in week 1, the Greens lost on the road to first-time Euroleague participant, Pinar Karsiyaka, a club that failed to make it out of the 10-game opening round. * In many ways, that opening loss was a microcosm of the 2015-2016 season: so much potential, but nothing but “thuds” in the end.

(*Edit July 28th: As noted by a commenter below, the loss was actually to Lokomotiv Kuban, not Pinar Karsiyaka. Barcelona was the team that actually lost to Karsiyaka in round 1 of the Regular Season, which I confused Panathinaikos with. This is sort of fitting because they had a disappointing season as well and also fired their head coach by the end of the season as well. In comparison, Panathinaikos’ loss to Loko was not as bad considering Loko made the Final Four. But the loss was to a Loko team without Randolph, and it was Loko’s first game in club history in the Euroleague, so it was disappointing to an extent. Just not as bad as Barcelona’s to Karsiyaka.)

Panathinaikos rebounded from the opening week loss, as they went 6-4 and finished third in the division and qualified for the Top 16. While they avoided a massive letdown like other big name clubs such as Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv and EA7 Armani Milano, who failed to qualify for the next round, their third place finish in the group was a bit disappointing, considering the group was considered one of the weaker ones in the Regular Season round.

In the Top 16, Panathinaikos started to mold into form, as they went 9-5 and finished tied for second in their group with Lokomotiv Kuban (a team that finished first in their group in the opening round). Panathinaikos, which struggled with scoring and outside shooting, got a mid-season boost when they added Elliot Williams, a former NBA Draft pick, to be a wing combo threat. Taking minutes away from Pavlovic and Jankovic, the move proved to be beneficial, as Williams gave Panathinaikos an athletic threat on the offensive end that could create offense individually late in the shot clock.

During the Top 16 season, the Greens, with the addition of Williams, were statistically speaking one of the better teams in the Euroleague. They had the fourth-highest Net Rating in Top 16 play (higher than FC Barcelona and Baskonia, a Final Four participant), as well as the third-best defensive rating over the 14-game span (behind only Loko and Fenerbahce). And, under Dordevic, they moved the ball the best out of any team in the Euroleague (as evidenced by their 64.9 A/FGM rate tied for second in the Euroleague), not to mention crashed the boards effectively (as evidenced by their 32.4 offensive rebounding rate, third-best in Top 16 play).

So how come Panathinaikos failed to win a single game in their five-game playoff series against Laboral Kutxa Baskonia?

One of the main issues for Dordevic and this squad was their shooting inconsistency. Despite an elite defensive rating in Top 16 play, their offensive rating was around league average at 106.9 (10th in Top 16 play). Despite an elite assist rate, they didn’t shoot especially well from the field, and their players struggled to score or create offense in isolation situations (usually due to good pressure defense by opponents). Panathinaikos ranked 11th in eFG percentage in Top 16 play with a eFG% of 52.7, a pretty mediocre mark. This lack of effectiveness in shooting led to possessions where the Greens would have to force offense, which unfortunately led to a multitude of turnovers, as evidenced by their 19.8 turnover rate, second-highest in Top 16 play, behind only Crvena Zvezda.

One of the big reasons the Greens shot ineffectively from the field relative to their competition was due to their lack of confidence in shooting beyond the arc. Panathinaikos tied for the second-lowest 3PA/FGA rate (0.34) in Top 16 play, and that low number was mostly due to their 34.1 3FG percentage, which was fourth lowest in Top 16 play. Because they didn’t have a knockdown shooter, outside some occasional streaks from Diamintidis, this forced them to constantly pass around for shots or get things into the post to Raduljica or Gist. This worked a lot of the time because guards like Calathes were effective at creating offense, and Raduljica was a talented low post scorer. But when they faced good defenses that took away passing lanes with pressure defense or didn’t give them a lot of second-chance opportunities, the Panathinaikos offense would stagnate and get down-right ugly, leading to a lot of losses and deflating performances that didn’t inspire confidence in the Greens faithful.

Dordevic didn’t do a bad job by any means. While the Greens had some big names, it was obvious that many of them didn’t have the skills that matched their names anymore. Despite their NBA pedigree, Pavlovic and Calathes were two of the clubs most ineffective scorers, as evidenced by their 0.82 and 0.77 PPP (points per possession) rates, respectively. And Raduljica, though a big name and a talented offensive player around the rim, didn’t exactly provide the rebounding they needed in the post to play him big time minutes (his 13.0 rebounding rate wouldn’t have even put him in the Top 30). And thus, Dordevic did all he could to make this team successful, which was a playoff berth and not much more.

But as stated before, playoff berths aren’t good enough. After Baskonia completed their sweep in Athens, Dordevic was let go and former Panathinaikos head coach Argiris Pedoulakis took over for the remainder of the season and re-signed for the 2016-2017 season.

Panathinaikos hit it big this summer by landing First Team All-Euroleague player Ioannis Bourousis from Laboral Kutxa Baskonia.

Building the Greens with “proven” talent

After a season where they relied on “NBA” names and Serbian talent to mesh with their Serbian coach, the Greens have undergone a different approach: going after players who have been recently successful in the Euroleague. This off-season, with the exception of maybe Real Madrid (though time will tell if their three bigs: Randolph, Ayon and Thompkins will mesh together), Panathinaikos probably had the best offseason of any Euroleague participant when it came to roster acquisitions. Let’s take a look at each move they made this summer.

  • Signed point guard Mike James from Baskonia: James gives them an explosive threat off the bench, similar to his role behind Darius Adams in Baskonia. Calathes is a deft passer, but he doesn’t have the ability anymore to really play in isolation and get to the rim to score. James on the other hand does, as he thrives in such situations and can get to the rim and throw it down against lesser defenders.
  • Signed Chris Singleton from Loko: Singleton and Gist will give Panathinaikos one of the most physical stretch-4 combos in the league. Singleton is a physical player with the ball, as he is able to bang posts or smaller wings off of mismatches in the post, or he is able to clear out in ISO situations, get space and hit the mid-range and occasional 3. Defensively, he is not the most pure rebounder, but for a guy of his offensive skill set, he holds his own on the glass, especially offensive end (he had an 11.0 offensive rebounding rate last year). With Gist, Singleton gives Panathinaikos to play small ball (put Singleton at the 5) or give them depth should Gist get into foul trouble.
  • Signed Ioannis Bourousis from Baskonia: Without a doubt the best signing this off-season of any Euroleague club, period. Bourousis is the reigning ACB MVP, and was a first-team All-Euroleague player, who had the second highest PIR in the Euroleague last season (behind only Euroleague MVP Nando de Colo). Bourousis led Baskonia to their first Final Four in nearly 10 years, and helped mentor a young squad to exceed most people’s expectations (many figured Baskonia to be a Top 16 participant at best). Bourousis had the second highest rebounding rate (19.1) of any player in the Euroleague last season (behind only Barcelona’s Joey Dorsey, who played nearly 570 less minutes than Bourousis), and was one of the Euroleague’s most effective scorers with a True Shooting percentage of over 61 percent. To put it bluntly: no player was more valuable this off-season than Bourousis, who had proven his worth last year as a multi-talented big in the mold of Vlade Divac. And despite serious NBA offers, Bourousis returned to his home country to play for Panathinaikos. The addition of Bourousis, who is coming of a season where he experienced a career renaissance, automatically puts the Greens in the Final Four conversation.
  • Signed KC Rivers from Real Madrid: If Bourousis put them in the discussion, Rivers solidifies their status as Final Four favorites. The biggest issue for the Greens a season ago was shooting, and Rivers helps that issues immensely, as he automatically becomes the Greens most effective and reliable 3-point shooters. Rivers also comes from a winning pedigree, as he was a key cog of the 2015 Euroleague champion Real Madrid squad. In terms of his shooting prowess, Rivers thrives behind the arc, as evidenced by his 41.1 percent rate from beyond the arc in 2015 with Real Madrid, and his 44.2 rate in BBL play with Bayern Munich last season. Though he did drop to 37.1 in EL play with Madrid after being acquired from Bayern Munich through transfer during Top 16 play, his dip was most likely due to the fatigue of playing with multiple clubs in 2015-2016. Expect his rate to climb back into the 40 percent range, and if it does, Panathinaikos will have the shooting that will make them a more well-rounded squad offensively than a season ago.
The pressure will be on for Argiris Pedoulakis to bring Panathinaikos their first Euroleague title in the post-Obradovic era.

How does Panathinaikos put this all together?

As we have seen in the past from many Euroleague teams, sometimes the biggest names don’t equate to “most successful.” The Greens have gotten off to a good start by acquiring players who address specific needs from a year ago: James gives them instant offense off the bench, Singleton gives them toughness to complement Gist, Bourousis gives them playmaking and rebounding from the post, and Rivers gives them shooting. Pedoulakis will have a much easier time with this squad offensively than the one a year ago during his interim stint, which had to work so hard through their sets to create offensive opportunities against good defenses.

Furthermore, one of the more underrated developments of their signings was their ability to find guys who meshed together chemistry-wise. James and Bourousis were close teammates in Baskonia, and they are likely to continue that on and off-the-court camaraderie in their new surroundings in Greece. Rivers is a proven professional who has fit in with any club he has gone due to his role as a specialized shooter, and athletic defender. And Singleton has embraced the European lifestyle and game after coming over from the NBA, as he is the kind of emotional player that will thrive from the energy of the Greens’ rabid fanbase. So, a lot of credit has to be given to the Panathinaikos management: they took the time to not only find the right talent and skill fits to this roster, but also the right personalities that should mesh easily with the current players on this roster.

Of course, these four new players can’t do it all. They need Calathes to improve his efficiency as a playmaker and scorer (which should be easier with more options around him). They need their young Greek talent such as Vasilis Charalampopoulos and Nikos Pappas to step up and earn more minutes after being regulated to the bench mostly in 2015-2016. Fostis and Jankovic need to step up after mostly regression seasons a year ago. The new talent will certainly be a boost on their own individual merits. But if the returning players on this Greens squad can also improve and bounce back from a year ago, then the new talent added will be amplified even more on the court, meaning a special year for this Panathinaikos squad.

Pedoulakis has been the coach of the Greens before, so he knows the expectations in Athens: win a Championship or else. However, he has the talent to do it, and in the new Euroleague format, with a longer season, he also had the kind of depth that will help them be a competitor throughout the course of the Euroleague and GBL seasons. Yes, injuries happen. Yes, regression seasons happen. But on paper, this Panathinaikos squad is ready to compete for another Euroleague crown.

Can the Greens get the first Euroleague title in the post-Obradovic era? Well, if the chips fall right (and we won’t know that until the games start), 2017 looks to be a prime opportunity for Panathinaikos to get lucky number seven.

Turkey’s Time: How the four Turkish clubs look to compete for a Euroleague title

Fenerbahce came up short to CSKA Moscow in last year’s Euroleague Final. Will this be the year Fenerbahce or another Turkish club brings the first Euroleague title to Turkey?

This transfer season has had plenty of stories, mostly centering on the mass exodus of European talent to the NBA through the draft and free agency. Safe to say, almost every club participating in the Euroleague next season has been affected by the NBA, as if they did not lose talent directly, they either lost out on a potential signing to a NBA team or at risk of losing their current players in a year or two, should the player decide to change their tune about making the trip to North America. It is a difficult place for European clubs to be in, as even the biggest clubs in Europe don’t have the kind of money to throw at players in comparison to their American competition, making the ability to keep their best, young, in-their-prime talent more arduous (though not impossible) than ever before.

However, beyond the “exodus” narrative this off-season, the other big story this off-season has been the activity of the four Turkish Euroleague clubs who have dominated the off-season with big moves in terms of boosting their rosters and organizations. In summers that are typically dominated by traditional A license powers such as Real Madrid, Panathinaikos, and Maccabi Tel Aviv, for example, the four Turkish clubs have stolen most of the spotlight when it comes to garnering new talent (though Maccabi TA and Panathinaikos have made some key moves themselves). And that is peculiar and a sign of the changes in power going on in the Euroleague, as Turkey doesn’t necessarily have the kind of history in the Euroleague that other European countries have.

In modern Euroleague play, only two teams from Turkey have qualified for the Final Four (Anadolu Efes and Fenerbahce Ulker). Last year, Fenerbahce’s overtime loss in the championship game to CSKA Moscow was the best finish a Turkish club has ever had in the Euroleague (Efes finished third in both appearances in 2000 and 2001; Fenerbahce finished fourth in 2015). And, in the modern Euroleague-era, there was a 14-year gap between Turkish club appearances in the Final Four (after Efes made back-to-back Final Fours, no Turkish club made the Final Four until Fenerbahce broke that streak in 2015). While clubs from Greece, Spain, Russia, Italy, Serbia, France and even Lithuania have hoisted the Euroleague trophy at the end of the year, such an honor as evaded Turkish clubs in the 28-year-history of the modern Euroleague.

However, that history of “missing out” seems primed to change as soon as a next year. The four Turkish clubs (Anadolu Efes, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Darussafaka) looked determined to make their mark through aggressive management this summer, and hope 2016-2017 is the year when Turkey will finally be able to bring home a Euroleague trophy to Istanbul. Who is the most likely to do so? Well, let’s break down each Turkish team and what they did this summer thus far in terms of strengthening their team.

Velimir Perasovic returns to Efes (here in his first tenure there in 2011) to duplicate the Final Four success he had last season with Laboral Kutxa Baskonia.

Anadolu Efes: New coach, New (Younger) Approach

Prior to the last two seasons, Efes had been one of the strongest Turkish clubs in Europe. After all, until Fenerbahce burst onto the scene under Zeljko Obradovic, Efes has been the only club to make the Euroleague Final Four. Add those Euroleague credentials with the most domestic championships (13) in the history of the Turkish Basketball Super League, and it easy to see why that Efes has been the “face” of Turkish basketball in the European club scene for quite some time.

However, much like the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball or the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA, a rich history of success doesn’t always guarantee continued success in the current day. That has been the case for Efes, as they have taken a back seat in both domestic and Euroleague play to their local rivals. After winning four straight BSL titles from 2001-2005, Efes has only one BSL title (2009), the same number as local Istanbul rival Galatasaray, and Besiktas and Karsiyaka, smaller clubs who are not even in Istanbul. To make matters worse though, their one title is paltry in comparison to chief rival Fenerbahce, who has won 6 BSL titles since 2005 (and you could count it as seven, as Ulkerspor was a club run by the same sponsor as Fenerbahce currently).

In Euroleague play, Efes has been a consistent participant in Top 16 play, with the occasional appearances in playoff play (they have made the playoffs four times since their last Final Four appearance), but they have not been able to break through to the Final Four like Fenerbahce has the past couple of seasons. To address this recent trend of underperformance in the Euroleague is new coach Velimir Perasovic, who used to coach Efes back in 2010-2011 and comes over recently from Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, whom he led to the Final Four and a fourth place finish a season ago (and they were an overtime period away from earning a spot in the championship game). Much like Bartzokas with Lokomotiv Kuban last year, Perasovic is a coach who has the ability to turn around clubs quickly, and maximize the talent on his roster. He helped Ioannis Bourousis go from a bench player averaging about 10 minutes a game with Real Madrid in 2015 to a first-team All-Euroleague player and ACB League MVP who was garnering interest from NBA clubs before signing with Panathinaikos. He coaxed breakout years from point guards Darius Adams and Mike James, and helped get Davis Bertans and Adam Hanga Summer League looks with the San Antonio Spurs. And he did all these individual things for players while helping Baskonia get to their first Final Four appearance since 2008. It is one thing to help players achieve a bunch of individual accolades (Rick Barnes at Texas was able to do this all the time), but to also create an environment where those individual accolades produce team success is the sign of an excellent and special coach, which Perasovic is and has proven to be in the past.

Unfortunately, Perasovic will be inheriting a different roster than the one Dusan Ivkovic had in 2015-2016. Dario Saric will be heading the 76ers, and Jon Diebler and Alex Tyus will be moving to Turkish rival Galatasaray as well. And unlike in years past, Efes hasn’t really added any free agents as of note, as the biggest signing has been Slovenian Alen Omic from Gran Canaria. Instead, it appears that Efes will build their team with a new approach: relying more on what they currently have under contract, as well as young Turkish players with plenty of upside.

While Efes at this time will return important imports such as Derrick Brown and Thomas Huertel, who both contributed significantly to Efes a season ago, this team has many young Turkish players who are expected to have increased roles from a season ago. The biggest one is Furkan Korkmaz, who most likely will replace Diebler as the main threat on the perimeter for Efes. Korkmaz was a first round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers this year, despite only averaging 8.6 minutes per game in Euroleague play and 12.8 in BSL competition. However, Korkmaz offers significant athletic upside from the wing, and is a fan favorite thanks to his Slam Dunk contest appearance where he dunked in a Darth Vader mask, as evidenced below.

Korkmaz is probably the most high profile Turkish talent, but he isn’t alone on this roster. 20-year-old Ogulcan Baykan will join him on the perimeter, as well as Dogus Balbay, who could receive an increased role if Jayson Granger goes elsewhere through transfer. Also, 21-year-old Cedi Osman showed some promise after averaging 9.5 ppg in Euroleague play and could really break out this season as a more concentrated option in Perasovic’s offense. And lastly, Ahmet Duverioglu is a project big who will get more time and touches in the paint now that Saric and Tyus are gone.

The expectations are high amongst Efes fans and management, but Perasovic has a nice young core of Turkish talent to work with, as well as some veterans (like Brown and Huertel) who could provide good leadership for this squad, especially during the early part of the season. This will be a bit of a tougher task than last season with Baskonia, but Efes has the horses to compete, though they are young and will need to grow up quickly. This focus on “Turkish youth” is a bit of a different approach for Efes from the past couple of seasons, where the outlook was more focused on the short term. However, if it is successful, it could provide long-term benefits for Efes competitively down the road.

Darussafaka has a new image (Under Armour as a sponsor), a new coach (David Blatt, formerly of Maccabi Tel Aviv and the Cleveland Cavs) and new players to help them compete at the top with Turkey’s best clubs in BSL and the Euroleague.

Darussafaka: The “New Kid on the Block”

Darussafaka has had a tough hill to climb in their basketball history. They are located in the same city (Istanbul) as basketball powerhouses such as Efes, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahce, and for the most part have been a third-rate option for basketball fans in that area. Since being founded in 1914, the club has only won two BSL championships (in 1961 and 1962) and had been regulated for a good while until 2013-2014, when Dogus financial group bought the team and immediately invested money in the club to not only bring it back into first-tier Turkish competition, but with the plan to be a competitor on the European stage. In many ways, the Dogus group story with Darussafaka is similar to the story of NBA teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings where a young ownership group comes in and tries to buck the trend of constant losing with strong investment in coaching and talent, as well as marketing to make their club a more “progressive” brand with the local fanbase.

The Dogus group so far has been successful in that plan, avoiding so far the pitfalls that have hurt new ownership groups like the Grizzlies and Kings (inner turmoil, inability to make consistent decisions). They have put a strong emphasis on changing the culture of the club, focusing on Darussafaka being a “modern” and “cool” club for younger Turkish basketball fans, whether it’s in their sleek, new uniforms (they have Under Armour as a sponsor; rare for European clubs), marketing, or in-game atmosphere. However, the biggest waves they have made has been on the court. In 2014-2015, they finished third in the BSL and made the quarterfinals of the BSL playoffs. After moving into a bigger arena in 2015, Darussafaka participated in the Euroleague for the first time in club history, where they made the Round of 16. In BSL play last season, they finished fourth in the regular season, and made the semifinal round of the playoffs (where they were swept by Anadolu Efes).

However, 2016-2017 looks to be the most ambitious year yet for the newly competitive Turkish club. After garnering the lone wild card spot in the newly reformed Euroleague, Darussafaka made headlines by replacing the older, more defensive-oriented Oktay Mahmuti with former Maccabi Tel Aviv and Cleveland Cavalier head coach David Blatt. Once they got their new, higher-profile coach in place, ownership spared no expense in the transfer market. They signed big-time playmaker Bradley Wanamaker from Brose Baskets Bamberg, and James Anderson, who played some decent minutes and a full season with the Sacramento Kings a season ago. They also solidified their depth with Turkish shooting guard Birkan Batuk from Anadolu Efes, Latvian combo wing Dairis Bertans from Dominion Bilbao, and French power forward Adrien Moerman from Banvit. And, the club narrowly missed out on Mindaugas Kuzminskas from Unicaja, who ended up signing a contract with the New York Knicks over Darussafaka (though the club did get 800,000 euros as a buyout).

The combo of Wanamaker and Anderson should make Darussafaka a legitimate contender immediately in the new Euroleague format. Wanamaker was Brose Baskets’ best player last year, as he thrived as the primary scoring and playmaking option in head coach Andrea Trinchieri’s offense. Brose Baskets, the reigning BBL champions, and a Top 16 participant will miss his presence heavily this season, as evidenced by the highlights below where his strong performance led Brose Baskets to a crucial win over Khimki in Top 16 play, earning him Top 16 Week 11 Euroleague MVP honors.

The big issue for Darussafaka at this point will be the depth of the squad, as well as how they will fare in the post. Already, there are rumors Semih Erden won’t be returning next year (he looks to return to the NBA), and it is still yet to be determined whether or not Luke Harangody, who had a very productive year for Darussafaka, will return as well as the primary post threat. And the futures of other role players such as Marcus Slaughter, Scottie Wilbekin and Reggie Redding are also to be determined, as they could change their minds about returning to the Turkish club depending on their desire to be back in the United States (i.e. sign a D-League contract instead).  If they do return, expect Blatt to really succeed with this club in year one, since they are under-the-radar talent whose intangibles make up for their lack of athleticism or physical gifts (especially in Harangody’s case). If they do not though, it could be a steeper challenge, and may require a lot of experimenting with temporary options during the preseason and early part of the year leading up to the Euroleague season.

But, despite these issues, Darussafaka has an excellent two-star combo to build around (Anderson and Wanamaker) as well as a head coach who is one of the brightest in the game, and is hungry to prove himself again after a bit of a tumultuous debut in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Blatt should thrive with this roster, and in this situation: he has succeeded in much higher-pressure positions in the past in Maccabi Tel Aviv and Cleveland, and he was still able to make deep playoff runs in those situations. They may not have the depth to be Final Four-bound or compete with Fenerbahce for a BSL title just yet, but don’t count them out, especially considering Blatt’s tendency to maximize the talent available to him on the roster.

Galatasaray hopes their Eurocup title will transition to further success in the Euroleague.

Galatasaray: Eurocup title down; Euroleague next.

After winning the first major European competition in club history (the Eurocup), Galatasaray is looking to make a move in Euroleague play after an aggressive offseason that rivals Darussafaka in terms of new acquisitions. Galatasaray has a passionate fan base, and is no stranger to the Euroleague either, as they made the playoffs in 2014, and have made the Round of 16 as well in 2013 and 2015.

Galatasaray made big noise this summer, acquiring a mixture of former NBA imports, as well as European talent who will bring much needed Euroleague experience next season. The biggest prize may be power forward Austin Daye, a former Detroit Piston and San Antonio Spur who has spent most of his professional career the past couple of seasons with the Austin Spurs, the Spurs’ D-League affiliate. Daye was a former No. 15 pick by the Pistons, and never really lived up to his potential. He never seemed to get the right opportunities in Detroit or San Antonio, and struggled to find a position as well. He wasn’t quite physical or strong enough to play the power forward position, but he wasn’t quite quick enough or had good enough handles to play the small forward position either. That tweener status was a main reason he ended up being mostly D-League roster filler as of late, and eventually moved overseas, where he played for Consultinvest Pesaro in the Serie A last year.

However, it will be interesting to see how head coach Ergin Ataman will utilize the multi-talented Daye with this Galatasaray roster. The strongest aspect of Daye’s game is his shooting, as he is able to easily shoot over players thanks to his 6’10 frame and seven-foot plus wing span. He succeeds not only beyond the arc, but in the mid-range as well, as he is able to hurt teams with a nice little post-up fade away around the block, when he is able to establish position around it (not always a guarantee as stronger posts have pushed him out regularly). Defensively, while not the greatest on-ball defender due to limited agility side-to-side, Daye is an able shot blocker, with good instincts for the ball. Granted, he’s not the kind of defender you want to camp down in the paint, as he gets overpowered easily, but for a stretch four type, he offers the kind of shot blocking that makes him somewhat of an asset defensively, which is not always the case with some stretch four types.

In his first European campaign, Daye averaged 21.2 ppg and 9 rpg in 21 Serie A games with Pesaro, while being named to the Serie A All-Star game. As you can see in his highlights below, Daye showed that he still has some juice left in the tank, and he can be a solid primary scoring option for this Galatasaray team next season, especially from the outside.

However, while Daye may be the primary signing, Galatasaray also added depth with the acquisitions of Jon Diebler and Alex Tyus, who both have big-time Euroleague experience. Diebler was a key player during Karsiyaka’s cinderella run in 2015 in the BSL, and Tyus was a key contributor off the bench during Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 2014 Euroleague championship. For a club that desperately wants to duplicate the Eurocup success last year as much as possible next season in the Euroleague, acquiring these two is a step in that direction.

The last big signing for Galatasaray was Nenad Krstic who missed nearly all of last season with Efes due to injury. Krstic is the classic high-risk veteran signing, as he probably is in the downward spiral of his career, but he has big-time game experience not just in the Euroleague, but in the NBA as well. At the very least, Krstic will be a valuable veteran who could mentor some of Galatasaray’s younger talent.

There will be pressure on Ataman to make these pieces fit together and work, especially considering the fierce competition at the top in the BSL, and the higher-stakes in the Euroleague with only 16 teams making the field every year instead of 24, like in the past. Vladimir Micov and Blake Schilb, two of the returning starters from last year’s Eurocup squad, helps keep things stable on the perimeter for Galatasaray, especially with the addition of Diebler. And if they are able to keep Stephane Lasme, that will even add more depth in the post with Daye and Krstic, as well as Deon Thompson, whom they just added from Bayern Munich.

There is no question that the talent is there to compete in the Euroleague and BSL. Ataman has been given a nice hand, with management being as aggressive as possible to keep Galatasaray a regular participant in the Euroleague scene. The big question will be how Ataman gets all these new pieces to work with the returning roster. Ataman isn’t coming off the best Turkish National Team campaign, where they looked unimpressive in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, and didn’t seem to mesh together as a group in time to qualify for an Olympic berth. (And Ataman was blasted by Enes Kanter, a Turkish national who is playing with OKC Thunder for not maximizing the talent on the roster.) Will Ataman be able to handle the diverse influx of talent with Galatasaray, or will his struggles finding the right combinations on the floor transfer from FIBA to Euroleague play?

The Galatasaray ultras are faithful, but with such high stakes at play this season, they will not be patient if Ataman doesn’t get this Galatasaray club off on the right foot, especially in Euroleague play.

Fenerbahce earned BSL and Turkish Cup titles last year; now all they need is a Euroleague one to complete the “Triple Crown”.

Fenerbahce: The “King stay King”

The sting of coming back from 20-plus down to force overtime, but still lose the Euroleague championship still resonates with this Fenerbahce team and fanbase. In arguably the greatest year in club history, everyone pretty much returns for head coach Zeljko Obradovic and the prospect of a returning roster with such big-game pedigree, as well as a coach who is never satisfied with runner-up finishes, is downright scary for opposing competition not only in Turkey, but in Europe overall.

Fenerbahce’s biggest victory this off-season was the return of post combo Jan Vesely and Ekpe Udoh, who both spurned returns to the NBA to make another Final Four run (and possibly Triple Crown run) with the Blue and Gold. It’s amazing to see how Vesely and Udoh have developed into All-Euroleague players in such a short time, as they struggled in roles as no-offense, limited-defensively players in the NBA who failed to live up to their Top-10 Draft Pick statuses. However, whether it’s the change of scenery in Europe or the tutelage of Obradovic in Istanbul, Vesely and Udoh have become arguably the best post players in Europe, and have been compensated as so to keep them in Turkey. Vesely succeeds as a pick and roll player, as his finishes around the rim off the pick and roll with Bobby Dixon were downright unstoppable at times for opposing Euroleague defenses. As for Udoh, he proved to be a monster cleanup presence, as he regularly finished missed baskets with big time throw downs. On the defensive end, Udoh made his presence known and then some, as he finished with the most blocks in Euroleague history by the end of last season. Expect these two, if healthy to be even better next season, as Obradovic will have a full season to figure out how to better utilize them together on the floor, which is crazy to think of since they were both All-Euroleague players a season ago (Vesely was a first-team player despite missing some time to an achilles injury and Udoh made second team).

The second big victory for Fenerbahce was keeping young wing star Bogdan Bogdanovic, a Euroleague rising star who is coming off his best season yet as a professional. It was widely thought Bogdanovic would make the transition to the Phoenix Suns (the NBA team who owned his rights), especially considering the increase in salary cap which most likely would have resulted in a big payday for the young Serbian. However, Bogdanovic bucked the Suns’ offer and decided to come back at least for another year with Fenerbahce (the Suns were so outraged that they traded his rights to the Sacramento Kings). Nicknamed “the White Mamba” by some Bogdanovic is a big-time competitor who can hurt teams beyond the arc and in the mid-range. His game is very classic, like a Serbian Kobe of sorts who can take over game when he wants. At only 23 years old, he has already had two valuable years of experience with Fenerbahce, and his third season should only be better after the challenges he faced in the Euroleague the past two seasons against Europe’s top competition. If you have any doubts about Bogdanovic, or how happy the Istanbul club is to return the Serbian star, just watch the highlight tape below.

Fenerbahce really has done something rare in the scheme of European club basketball: keep their roster intact. Even beyond the three mentioned above, Fenerbahce also returns forward Nikola Kalinic, Gigi Datome and Pero Antic as well as guards Bobby Dixon and Konstantinos Sloukas. To return the eight best players of a Euroleague runner-up squad is downright unfair, and it makes sense why many experts are claiming that Fenerbahce is the overwhelming favorite to return to the Euroleague championship game (along with CSKA Moscow, who also was able to keep a lot of talent, with Nando de Colo being the prime example).

Staying at the top isn’t easy, as Real Madrid, who pretty much returned everyone as well, didn’t exactly parlay their 2015 Euroleague Championship success into a repeat run in 2016 (though injuries were a big reason for it). The expectations are higher than ever for Fenerbahce, especially considering they are coming off a year where they won the BSL, Turkish Cup and narrowly missed on the Euroleague championship. Anything less than a Triple Crown would be deemed a failure to this organization and fanbase, especially considering the amount of money management spent to keep this roster intact.

But, one has to remember that Obradovic is the head coach of this team, and no coach in Euroleague history has been as successful as him. He is an intense competitor who demands only the highest level of play from his players, and it is obvious that the top talent on this roster, from Vesely to Udoh to Bogdanovic to even Dixon and Datome bought in to Obradovic’s high-pressure defensive as well as offensive system. With another year of familiarity with Obradovic’s system, it should be expected that Fenerbahce will be even more efficient and cohesive on both ends of the floor in 2016-2017.

When it comes to basketball hierarchy in Turkey, Fenerbahce is the King. And this off-season, they have done their best to set themselves up to continue to be King for a least another season. That being said, staying at the top isn’t easy, and certainly Efes, Darussafaka and Galatasaray have done their necessary steps to make themselves a foil to Fenerbahce’s quest to keep the crown they currently have in Turkey and perhaps Europe. Fenerbahce knows with Bogdanovic most likely going to the NBA soon, and futures of other players such as Vesely and Udoh and even Datome and Antic always in doubt due to the big money of the NBA, their time to stay at the top in their current mold is limited, and they were too close to a Triple Crown last year to settle for anything less in 2017.

So Efes, Darussafaka and Galatasaray…if you come at the King…you best not miss.

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.

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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.

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.

Stagnating in Spain: Where Does Barcelona Go from Here?

For the second straight year, Tomas Satoransky (13) and FC Barcelona came up short in the Euroleague and ACB.

“It’s clear that we didn’t know how to take advantage of the home-court advantage we had to close the series. We had that opportunity in the fourth game, after winning the second one here, but like today, we couldn’t make shots in the last quarter. It has been a beautiful series, as I said, and we had our options to win it.” –Xavi Pascual after their Euroleague Game 5 loss to Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnador

For the second straight year, proud European basketball club FC Barcelona will not be hoisting any major trophies this year, and there are major questions that need to be answered this summer when it comes to the future of this Spanish basketball power. In the Euroleague playoffs in late April, despite a 2-1 series advantage with Game 4 at home, the Catalan franchise fell 3 games to 2 to Russian club Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnador (a club that was playing in the Eurocup a year ago) for the remaining Final Four spot in Berlin. The loss marked the second year in a row Barcelona failed to get out of the playoff round in the Euroleague, a rare and remarkable occurrence since they had only missed the Final Four once from 2008 to 2014 (in the 2011 playoffs they lost to Panathinaikos 3-1).

Things did not fare much better in the ACB league in Spain. Sure, one could say that the season overall turned out to be a success in the Liga Endesa. Barcelona had the best regular season record at 29-5, and they made quick work of a scrappy Fuenlabrada team in the first round, 2 games to 0, and in the second round, outlasted a strong Laboral Kutxa Baskonia team that had made the Euroleague Final Four, 3 games to 1. Furthemore, according to Eurobasket.com’s Top 100 Club ratings, Barcelona ranks No. 3 in the World behind only Euroleague championship participants CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce Istanbul, respectively.

But regular season records and preliminary ACB playoff rounds do not matter with the Catalan basketball fans. Much like the New York Yankees of Major League Baseball, the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA or even their own futbol franchise, what matters at the end of the day are championship trophies. There are no such things as moral victories or consolation prizes with a fanbase that demands the highest degrees of success on an annual basis.

And once again, for the second straight year, Barcelona fell to their Clasico rivals Real Madrid.  After Barcelona’s thrilling Game 1 victory at home 100-98, Real Madrid cruised to the three straight victories in the Liga Endesa Finals, outscoring their rivals by a combined 44 points over the three-game span. The loss was particularly humbling for the Catlan squad considering their ACB first place finish in the regular season as well as stronger performance in the Euroleague, where they had a better record in the Top 16 (8-6 to Real Madrid’s 7-7 mark in Top 16 play) and Playoffs (Real Madrid was swept by Fenerbahce).

And now, after a second straight season where Barcelona fell short to their rivals in a myriad of ways (in 2015 Real Madrid not only swept the Finals series, but Barcelona also had to watch Real Madrid hoist the Euroleague championship trophy), a massive wind of changes seem to be brewing in the Eastern Spanish countryside. Already, Barcelona General Manager Joan Creus has stepped down from his position, and there are circulating reports that former Barcelona and NBA player and current Zalgiris Kaunas coach Sarunas Jasikevicius is expected to take over as the new head coach.

Nothing is official in the latter’s regard of course, as Xavi Pascual, who has been the head coach since 2008, is still officially the coach of Barcelona despite another disappointing season. Nonetheless, things have stagnated for the Spanish basketball power, and it is clear amongst basketball fans that all kinds of changes need to be made, not just in terms of coaching, but talent as well.

Head Coach Xavi Pascual couldn’t finish the job the past couple of years in Barcelona, and, despite a history of success in his eight-year tenure, could be on his way out.

Pascual has been the head coach of Barcelona since 2008 and probably has had one of the most successful tenures of any coach in Europe in that time span. In his coaching career, they have won four ACB Championships, and have been runner up in seasons when they have not won it all domestically. In the Euroleague, he led them to a 2009-2010 championship, and has seen his club participate in the Final Four on four other occasions (2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014). He is a four-time ACB coach of the year award winner as well as a Euroleague coach of the year winner in 2010 when Barcelona won the Euroleague Championship over Olympiacos. Quite simply, it would be hard-pressed to find a whole lot of others coaches in Europe that have been as accomplished as Pascual as of late.

Unfortunately, the past two seasons haven’t been kind to him, as Pascual has been widely criticized for his coaching style and strategy which have included an emphasis on methodically playing in the half court, and an over-reliance on aging veterans past their prime. Despite other Spanish clubs like Baskonia and Real Madrid pushing the pace and producing an exciting brand of up-tempo basketball to various success, Pascual employed a much slower pace this past season that involved draining the shot clock and putting less of an emphasis on transition. In the Euroleague, Barcelona was the slowest team in the Euroleague Top 16 in pace at 70.4 possessions per game (in comparison, Baskonia ranked third-fastest at 74.7 and Real ranked sixth-fastest at 73.4). While that was not necessarily a bad thing (Barcelona’s net rating was actually better at 3.6 than Baskonia’s 1.9 and Real’s 0.1 in Top 16), it didn’t endear them to general European basketball fans who were used to seeing much more exciting styles of play from other Spanish squads in Europe’s premier club competition.

And the slow pace wasn’t the sole wort for this Barcelona squad this season aesthetically. Pascual emphasized a rather conservative defensive approach, as his teams tended to rely heavily on zone looks against much better competition and de-emphasized producing turnovers (they had the 6th-lowest opponent turnover rate in the Top 16) and blocking shots (they had the fourth-lowest block rate in the Top 16). The rather risk-averse approach had its advantages, especially if opposing teams were not shooting well from the outside. That being said, if players or teams got on hot shooting streaks (as evidenced by Loko’s Anthony Randolph and his 28 point on 11 of 17 shooting performance in Game 4 of the playoffs), Barcelona found themselves on the losing end, sometimes badly, because they didn’t have the kind of defensive system that would generate extra turnovers and extra possessions necessary to produce big-time comebacks.

Of course, Pascual hasn’t necessarily been this kind of coach, as if you look in years past, he has always been around league-average when it comes to pace. Hence, this year may have been an anomaly. But why? Well, it’s hard to play up-tempo with an aging roster that not only struggled through various injuries, but also couldn’t compete with quicker and more athletic teams.

Which leads us to our next issue: the roster change needed in Barcelona. Despite his legendary status, Juan Carlos Navarro suffered a horrific season by all accounts. At 36-years-old, Navarro doesn’t have the speed and athleticism anymore to compete with Europe’s top guards and wings. Additionally, his shot also deserted him, especially in Euroleague play. In the Euroleague, Navarro shot only 44 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from beyond the arc, some of the worst percentages of his playing career. The combination of his age and poor shooting was a reason he played under 20 minutes a game in Euroleague competition and sat out during key stretches of many big games. In ACB league play, Navarro wasn’t much better, and he was utilized less, as he shot only 35 percent from beyond the arc, and 42.7 from the field. Hence, after such a regression this season, it made sense why Navarro only played 17.8 minutes per game, and was replaced in the rotation by younger wings such as Pau Ribas and Alex Abrines.

But Navarro wasn’t the only one who failed to live up to expectations. Carlos Arroyo, a former NBA guard with the Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and Miami Heat failed to live up to his billing as he struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness to only average around 15 minutes per game in both ACB and Euroleague play. Guard Brad Oleson was a mess in Euroleague play, as the usually reliable outside shooter, shot a disastrous 26.7 percent from beyond the arc, and had the lowest PIR of any player that averaged 10 or more minutes on the team at 2.6. And Ante Tomic, who was deemed the center of the future for Barcelona after signing a three-year extension last June, struggled to have any kind of impact, as he averaged a paltry 10.9 ppg and 5.4 rpg in about 20 mpg and 0.95 points per possession. To make matters worse, he was a liability on defense who was subbed out in favor of backups Samardo Samuel, Shane Lawal and Joey Dorsey, who often needed to make up for his defensive shortcomings.  Tomic was often exploited by opposing guards in the pick and roll as he was neither quick enough to switch or consistently hedge and recover, and his block rate of 0.8 percent was lower than guards Alex Abrines, Tomas Satoransky and even Carlo Arroyo. In all honesty, that is pretty lackluster, if not embarrassing, for a seven footer who was once a NBA Draft pick.

One could sum up Barcelona’s roster in three words: old and fragile. In the ACB, where there is a much bigger talent gap between the top teams (Barcelona, Real, Valenica, Baskonia, etc.) and the rest, it worked out okay, until the championship against Real of course. But in the Euroleague, where the competition is much better week after week, Barcelona just couldn’t keep up, and it made sense that they fell to a Loko team that had little history of success in the Euroleague prior to this season. Experience is important, but experience can’t make up for lost shooting, an inability to consistently defend the pick and roll and being muscled out by more athletic and physical opponents. And not only did that happen against Loko in the playoffs, but throughout the Euroleague campaign, especially in losses to Khimki Moscow, Baskonia, Zalgiris and Olympiacos in the Regular and Top 16 season. Barcelona just looked like a team over the hill, that had to rely on miracle shooting or lackluster execution from their opponents to pull out victories.

Yes, Barcelona had a mediocre roster, but that wasn’t to say that there wasn’t hope or some youth on the team. Abrines, Satoransky and Ribas were all young players who had pretty good seasons, and looked capable of carrying this team in ways Navarro, Oleson and Arroyo couldn’t. But, Pascual, being a veteran coach, couldn’t seem to part with his veteran players in the lineup, even though all indication statistically said he should have. As detailed in this excellent piece from Rob Scott of Euroleague Adventures, Pascual’s reliance on Navarro and Oleson, over younger and more effective players like Abrines and Ribas, especially in key games, could be one of the reasons for his departure. Here’s an eloquent piece that sums up Scott’s point about Pascual:

Pau Ribas was supposed to be the marquee signing of the summer, but he was underused as Pascual refused to let go of Navarro and Oleson, even Arroyo. The stubborn commitment to ‘his guys’ is probably great for motivation, and every indication is that his players love him. But there must be a point at which the team makes a clean break with the past. It looks like that has just begun

 

After half a season and a Lithuanian championship with Zalgiris, Jasikevicius could be the coach to turn around fortunes at Barcelona immediately.

Not a lot of players seem to be safe on this Barcelona roster going forward, not even Justin Doellman a big signing a couple of seasons ago from Valencia, who averaged 9.6 ppg and shot 43.5 percent from beyond the arc in Euroleague play, and 11.9 ppg in the ACB this past season. At 31 years old, Doellman isn’t exactly in that boat of Navarro and Arroyo age-wise, but his style of play (more of a stretch 4 who excels as a spot up shooter) and lack of agility and gifts defensively don’t fix the glaring flaws Barcelona has in terms of speed and athleticism. Doellman, much like other import Samardo Samuels, may not have been a part of the problem in 2015-2016 for Barcelona, but he doesn’t seem like he would be part of the solution in the future either, as what he brings to the table could easily be replaced by someone currently on the roster or another signing.

Pascual returning is probably a miracle (if not impossible really considering the “leaking” of these reports about him going), and all indications seem to point to Jasikevicius being the guy to help Barcelona get out of this “stagnation period” Barcelona has been in the past couple of seasons. Jasikevicius would be an interesting hire, as he certainly is a big name due to his time as a player not just in Barcelona, but all over Europe including Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, Panathinaikos, and Zalgiris. However, he only has been a head coach for about half a season, and while he did lead Zalgiris to a Lithuanian Championship, his team didn’t particularly do well in the Top 16 under his watch, as Zalgiris went 2-12 in the Top 16, which was the worst record of any team in that round, and had a net rating of minus-16.2, which was also the worst mark of any team in the Top 16 in that category. Granted, Zalgiris was at a much bigger talent disadvantage than the competition (Paulius Jankunas was really the lone bright spot of that club last year), and by the time Saras took over Zalgiris in January, they already were on the outside looking in when it came to a playoff berth. Hopefully for Barcelona’s sake, Jasikevicius has grown as a coach (and his Lithuanian Championship was a step in that direction) and learned some things from his “trial by fire” with Zalgiris that will help him avoid mistakes that led to such a poor record and net rating in the Top 16 last season.

At the very least, Jasikevicius will bring a more “up-tempo” style (Zalgiris was around league average in pace at 72.8) and he will bring a much fiery personality to a club that seemed to grow fatigued with Pascual’s more “subdued” and “political” demeanor. Pascual will not be easily replaced, especially when one reflects back about his eight years as coach there, and the multitude of awards, both team and individual, he accumulated with Barcelona. That being said, Jasikevicius is a fresh, but familiar face that should help bring the kind of new energy on the sideline this club needs to compete again with Real Madrid.

Of course, a team can only go so far with coaching. The talent needs to upgrade if Barcelona wants to be more competitive. Satoransky, Abrines and Ribas are a good core, Stratos Perperoglou and Alexander Vezenkov could grow into their roles, and maybe Tomic can rebound after a season of regression. However, Barcelona needs to get more athletic on the perimeter, and stronger and more physical in the post, and it will be interesting to see what Barcelona’s new GM will do to address both those issues.

Because a third-straight season of deference to Los Blancos in ACB and Euorleague play?

Well…that may be too much to take for Catalan basketball fans.

All of Ioannis’ Men: Baskonia’s Cinderella Run and the Challenge of Doing it Again

Despite modest expectations, Laboral Kutxa Baskonia was one of the best stories of the Euroleague in 2015-2016.

“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.

Despite his age and reserve status a year ago, Ioannis Bourouris carried Baskonia to a magical season and had the best individual season of his career.

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.

Baskonia head coach Velimir Perasovic had the right temperament and strategy to maximize the talent on this Baskonia roster.

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.

 

Due to the Euroleague’s free-market structure, it will be hard for Baskonia to duplicate moments like this, taken after they qualified for the 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.

Nando de Colo Returning is Good News for CSKA Moscow and European Basketball

Nando de Colo was key in CSKA Moscow’s Euroleague title game victory over Fenerbahce, and he will be key to a repeat in 2016-2017.

The eighth time was the charm for CSKA Moscow in 2016, as CSKA finally sealed the deal and won the Euroleague championship after eight straight appearances in the Final Four since their last championship in 2008 under former coach Ettore Messina (now with the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant). And though it is early in the off-season, CSKA once again is loading up their roster and making key moves, aiming once again to make the Euroleague Final Four in 2016-2017 (they have made it every to the Final Four every year since 2001).

No other Euroleague team, with the exception of maybe Maccabi Tel Aviv, has been as active in acquiring and re-signing talent this early in the off-season as CSKA. They re-signed role players such as Ivan Lazarev and sharpshooter Vitaliy Fridzon to bolster their bench, and they also signed power forward Semen Antonov from Nizhny Novgorod to help add some depth in the post. Add that with re-signing of captain and veteran Victor Khryapa, as well as swing man Cory Higgins, who averaged 9.2 ppg in Euroleague play and shot over 50 percent from beyond the arc, and CSKA could have been satisfied with their roster composition for 2016-2017 and considered themselves done for the remainder of the off-season or for a least a good amount of time.

However, they pushed it up a notch and also re-signed Euroleague and Final Four MVP as well as VTB League MVP Nando de Colo to a 3-year extension.

And with that move, the chances of other Euroleague teams knocking CSKA Moscow from the top of the Euroleague just got a whole lot dimmer.

Despite some interest from some NBA teams, Nando de Colo re-signed with CSKA for 3 more years.

It was interesting how CSKA was able to re-sign their star point guard so quickly in the off-season, let alone to a 3-year extension. After two successful seasons with CSKA, which culminated in multiple MVP awards both in inter-continental as well as domestic play, there was some consensus that de Colo would try it again in the NBA, as some NBA teams, including the Brooklyn Nets, were interested in him at least coming out to Summer League to display how his talents have grown since he went back to Europe. De Colo was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 2009, but he instead signed and played with Valencia Basket for three seasons before coming to the States. When he did come to the NBA, he played two seasons with the Spurs and a season with the Toronto Raptors before signing with CSKA Moscow after the 2014 season.

There was some incentive for de Colo to come back to America: he is only 28 years old, still relatively young and in the prime of his career, and he is coming off his best European campaign yet. In VTB play, he helped CSKA cruise to another league title, this time over Unics, as he averaged 16.6 ppg, 4.6 apg and 3.0 rpg while playing 22.6 mpg and shooting 54.9 percent from the field and 39 percent from beyond the arc. However, his Euroleague play is what attracted the attentions of so many American scouts and general managers: he averaged 19.4 ppg, 5.0 apg, and 3.6 rpg while playing 27.2 mpg and shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 46 percent from beyond the arc. While CSKA was also loaded with other key contributors like athletic center Kyle Hines and wizard combo guard Milos Teodosic, the numbers above show not only why CSKA went 24-5 overall in Euroleague play and won the Euroleague championship, but why de Colo also made All-Euroleague first team in addition to his Euroleague and Final Four MVP awards.

Add that incredible year, as well as a more openness to acquiring and playing international players by most NBA teams (especially after the breakout of Kristaps Prozingis last season in New York), and de Colo seemed to be in the perfect situation to at least test the waters in the United States. However, whether it was CSKA’s offer, the chance to repeat as Euroleague champs, or the lack of attractive NBA destinations, de Colo not only will be back at CSKA next year, but for the next three seasons as well.

And while that may be disappointing to some NBA fans who wanted to see the French point guard get a better opportunity the second-time around in the NBA, his return should bolster the Euroleague overall next season. De Colo is a fascinating and exciting player to watch. At 6’5, he has the shooting acumen of a shooting guard, but he can create off the dribble not just for himself, but for his teammates as well like any sound point guard. And with his size advantage, de Colo is able to post up smaller point guards and take advantage in the post, which was the case many times last year, as there aren’t many point guards in the Euroleague (or in Europe in general) that have the combo of size and speed to match up with de Colo.

If there are any doubts about de Colo’s impact and his ability to come through on the big stage, reference his performance in the Final Four, as de Colo proved to be a nightmare for opposing teams en route to the championship. In the semi-final, CSKA and de Colo faced Russian rival Lokomotiv, who only allowed 100.2 points per 100 possessions, which was second best in the league by only .1 point. What did de Colo do? He scored 30 points on 11 of 18 shooting, and also had 4 assists as well. Take a look at his performance in the highlights below.

And de Colo wasn’t finished that weekend either. In the championship game, CSKA faced Fenerbahce, who had the best defensive rating in the Euroleague last year at 100.1. (Remember, just .1 better than Loko!) And though de Colo was facing a tough, defensive Fenerbahce club, a seasoned coach who had won countless Euroleague titles before in Zeljiko Obradovic, and a well-traveled fan base from Turkey that packed the title venue in Berlin, de Colo didn’t miss a beat. The 28-year-old French national scored a team-high 22 points and had 7 assists and three steals in the 101-96 overtime victory. And though he and CSKA had some waves of inconsistency, de Colo came through when it counted in crunch time, as evidenced in the video of his performance below:

Is de Colo the best player in Europe? Right now, the argument is very tough to prove that he isn’t as of this moment. Yes, you could argue Ioannis Bourousis of Baskonia (Laboral Kutxa) probably has the most impact to his team, as Bourousis’ combo of post scoring, rebounding and leadership was a key reason why Baskonia made the Final Four. You could also argue that teammate Teodosic might be the most entertaining player, even if he doesn’t have de Colo’s consistency. And lastly, you could argue that Quincy Miller, who will be with Maccabi next season, has the potential to be the most dynamic player in the Euroleague next year, not only terms of scoring, but defense and athleticism as well. He was crucial to Crvena Zvzeda’s success last year, and being with a bigger club and around more talent in Maccabi could put him in the discussion of the best players in the Euroleague next year.

However, until it is proven otherwise, it is de Colo’s title to lose in 2016-2017 when it comes to who is “the best current player in Europe.” And that makes CSKA so scary next year. The idea of Teodosic and de Colo once again terrorizing opposing defense on the perimeter is going to be beautiful and entertaining for Euroleague fans to watch, and harrowing for opposing coaches who will be game-planning to try and stop that combination. And de Colo is just the tip of the iceberg: his ability to score and dominate opens things up for the other players. One of the reasons Hines was so successful was that he was able to finish baskets on put backs or off of easy passes because there was so much attention on de Colo and Teodosic. Would Hines have had the kind of big-time year, despite being under-sized as a center, if it weren’t for de Colo? Perhaps, but it would have been a lot harder to imagine.

The Euroleague once again will be competitive next year. Fenerbahce will be a strong team again if they retain a lot of their talent, and they undoubtedly will add some more unexpected pieces (like Ekpe Udoh last year). Anadolu Efes will be a much better squad next year with new head coach Velimir Perasovic coming over from Baskonia, (even though the future of Dario Saric is in doubt). Maccabi improved their roster and also got a new head coach in Erez Edelstein, and I expect that Greek powers Olympiacos and Panathinaikos will be much improved after disappointing Euroleague seasons.

However, CSKA is the team to beat and de Colo is the reason why. The 28-year-old reigning Euroleague MVP is so key to CSKA’s success and the fact that CSKA was able to re-sign him to three more years shows what kind of lengths financially the Russian power will go to keep their top place in the European basketball scene.

And even if you aren’t a CSKA fan, de Colo coming back is great for European basketball. It shows how far European basketball has come, and that being the best player in Europe is a title worth staying for and worth building upon when it comes to basketball legacy. Success in the NBA isn’t the only indicator of professional basketball success, and perhaps that is what de Colo is trying to do: show that being a legend in Europe is quite a title to have, and that you don’t need to be another Dirk or Tony Parker to validate your existence as a European basketball player.

I applaud de Colo for his decision, and I look forward to seeing him and Teodosic continue to tantalize basketball fans, and tear opposing guards up in the Euroleague next season.