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.

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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.

Faded Star: Erez Edelstein and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv Looking to Bounce Back in 2016-2017

Gal Mekel (99) and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv are looking to rebound after a horrid 2015-2016 season

“I want to coach in the Euroleague. I think that is something that is missing in my career. Every coach wants to guide Maccabi. Every coach wants to coach in the Euroleague and so do I. I told the owners that I only want a contract for one year because I’m certain we’ll accomplish our goals.”

Erez Edelstein will be Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv’s 3rd head coach in less than a year. Even in European basketball, where coaching and player change is quite common, not to mention quick, this kind of turnover for the legendary club rings all kinds of alarms.

Just two years ago, in 2014, Maccabi was celebrating their 51st Winner League championship and their 6th Euroleague championship, despite entering the Final Four as heavy underdogs to CSKA Moscow (their semi-final opponent) and Real Madrid (their championship opponent). David Blatt was the hottest coach in the game, and Maccabi was the best story in European basketball, a classic case of how teamwork and determination could overcome tremendous money and talent. It was like the movie Hoosiers, only this time the story was taking place in Milan, Italy, not Indianapolis, Indiana.

Unfortunately, the luster of that 2014 Euroleague title for Maccabi has worn off quickly. Blatt left Maccabi to go to the United States to explore NBA opportunities (which eventually became the Cleveland Cavaliers head coaching position), and longtime assistant and former Maccabi player Guy Goodes took over the helm. There were some positives during Goodes first season: in the Winner League, Maccabi finished 27-6, won another Israeli Cup, and finished 16-11 in the Euroleague and qualified for the playoffs. Unfortunately, Goodes’ debut season was marred by some tremendous letdowns: Maccabi lost in the playoff semifinals to a 17-16 Hapoel Eliat team 3 games to 2, and they were convincingly swept in the Euroleague playoffs by Fenerbahce.

A disappointing end for Goodes and Maccabi in 2014-2015 only compounded to more frustration to start 2015-2016. Maccabi, playing in a difficult group with CSKA Moscow, Spanish club Unicaja Malaga, and German upstart Brose Baskets Bamberg, got off to a 1-3 start in Euroleague group play, the worst four-game start in Euroleague group play for the illustrious franchise in 17 years. And things only got worse domestically as well, as they started they year 3-2, which included an 88-83 loss to Maccabi Ashdod, a team that eventually went 9-13 in Winner League play.

The horrid start combined with the deflating finish the previous season was more than enough in Maccabi’s management’s eyes to part ways with Goodes.

After firing Guy Goodes, Maccabi hired Croatian Zan Tabak to right the ship…unfortunately, his performance wasn’t good enough.

After failing to lure Edelstein (more on this later) and Lithuanian legend Sarunas Jasikevicius (who eventually took over home club Zalgiris Kaunas after a mid-season coaching change), Maccabi settled with Croatian Zan Tabak, a former NBA and European player who had 20 years of playing experience professionally. However, while Tabak certainly had his merits as a player, his coaching experience was questionable, as his previous jobs included Sant Josep Girona and Trefl Sopot in Poland, Baskonia (Laboral Kutxa) in Spain, and Fuenlabrada of Spain, a mid-tier ACB squad. With the exception of his tenure in Baskonia, Tabak really didn’t have the kind of preparation or experience to handle the magnitude of a job like Maccabi, especially in mid-season.

There were some bright spots of course in Tabak’s campaign. They finished 3-3 in Euroleague play, and had some strong performances, especially in his first game as coach where they lost a heart-breaker to CSKA Moscow 88-82 (Maccabi led during most of the game). Maccabi also won another Israeli Cup, and finished the year 19-3 overall in Winner League play (they went 16-1 under Tabak).

Unfortunately, much like Goodes’ first year, Maccabi struggled at the end, as they were upset in the semifinals by Maccabi Rishon, a team that finished 11-11 in Winner League play. That finish was further compounded with a disappointing 2-4 performance in Eurocup play and not qualifying for the next round of the Eurocup, even though the competition was a far step down from what they had faced earlier in Euroleague play.

Hence, with these two major negatives glaring on his resume, Tabak had the chips stacked against him in terms of coming back the following year, and that was proven to be true after Maccabi decided to part ways with him in June.

With all this turmoil and overreaction, it seems crazy that anyone in their right mind would want to coach Maccabi. One mistake, and you’re looking for another coaching job the next day.

But, Edelstein seems to be more than up for the challenge.

Edelstein’s National Team coaching experience in the Eurobasket 2015 should bode well for Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2016-2017

Edelstein is a bit of an antithesis of the previous two coaches. Goodes was a Blue and Gold lifer, who had not only spent considerable time as an assistant coach, but also played for Maccabi for eight seasons in the 90’s. As for Tabak, he was a legendary European player of sorts, who had a NBA playing pedigree, which included stints with teams such as the Toronto Raptors and the Houston Rockets. He also had performances like the video below, which shows the potential he could have had as a player in the NBA if a few more breaks went his way:

As for Edelstein, he doesn’t have extensive Maccabi ties, as he has never been in the organization as a player or even assistant coach. And unlike Tabak, he wasn’t a legendary player with an extensive resume that spans over multiple teams and continents.

But, Edelstein possesses something that neither of those previous Maccabi coaches had: success as an Israeli National Team coach.

In the Eurobasket 2015, Edelstein led the Israeli team to a 3-2 mark in group play, which was good for second in the group and qualified them for the round of 16. Though Israel was beat soundly by Italy in the elimination round 82-52, Edelstein and his squad finished 10th in the tournament overall, their best finish in European competition since 2005, when they finished 9th.

Furthermore, Israel also experienced some good wins in last summer’s Eurobasket, including a 75-73 nail-biter over Poland, a team with NBA player Marcin Gortat and college star Przemek Karnowski of Gonzaga. You can see in the video not only  how Israel was able to score and create offense despite Poland’s massive size advantage in the paint, but how big the Israeli win was in terms of helping their country get more recognition on the mass European stage.

Edelstein is definitely a coach who gets the most out of his talent, not to mention manage it quite well. Despite some considerable size disadvantages in comparison to some of their opponents, Israel was able to neutralize it by running a free-flowing offense that included a lot of outside shooting not to mention some good ball movement, as well as dribble drive action. What was impressive during the tournament was how Edelstein utilized talent on his squad like Gal Mekel and Omri Casspi. Edelstein ran a lot of plays to set up his two talented perimeter players, and it paid off on frequent occasion. Casspi scored 16.8 points per game and shot 47.1 percent from beyond the arc. As for Mekel, he averaged 15.8 points per game and a team-leading 4.6 assists per game, while also shooting 54.5 percent from the field. That should be comforting to know for Maccabi fans that Edelstein knows how to utilize his talent on his roster, and it is even more promising since Mekel will be back with Maccabi next year.

Edelstein preaches ball movement, as evidenced during the Eurobasket where eight Israeli players averaged two or more assists per game. That is something that will fit in well with this Maccabi team, as they ranked 6th in the Euroleague in assists-to-field goals made ratio. Thus, with that kind of mindset already in place, and a couple of key players already familiar with Edelstein’s system and philosophy from the Eurobasket (Yogev Ohayon also played with the Israeli team in the Eurobasket as well), Edelstein should be able to transition seamlessly with the team during off-season workouts.

Trevor Mbakwe (right) was one of those players who didn’t live up to the hype in his first year with Maccabi.

One of the reasons Edelstein did not want to join this Maccabi team mid-year last season was due to the fact that he didn’t think the talent on the roster could be successful. In many ways, he was right and he made the sound decision to wait until the end of the year to see if the job was available again.

In many ways, one could not fault Tabak for the job he did, as the roster was flawed in its composition from the beginning. Many of Maccabi’s off-season signings proved to be disappointments, including Jordan Farmar, whose second stint was hardly worth remembering. Farmar simply didn’t fit in this team, and he didn’t have the kind of “creation” and “penetration” abilities like previous points guards Jeremy Pargo (last season) and Tyrese Rice (the year before during their championship season). Not only did Farmar merely average 8.9 ppg on 20.3 mpg, but he also was second worst on the team when it came to plus/minus in Euroleague play, only above 17-year-old Dragan Bender, who barely played during the Euroleague competition.

However, Farmar was not the sole culprit of Maccabi’s failures in 2015-2016. Maccabi failed to really get anything substantive from their post acquisitions, including Trevor Mbakwe and Ike Ofoegbu, who proved to both be extremely limited offensively, and Arinze Onuaku, who was not only limited to put backs and layups around the paint, but struggled immensely in pick and roll defense (as evidenced by his negative-3.4 plus/minus mark, fourth worst on the team). And though Brian Randle posted some good offensive numbers, 8.9 ppg on 60 percent eFG%, his lack of strength on the rebounding end was evident night in and night out.

In fact, though Maccabi did a good job crashing the glass, as their 33.7 offensive rebounding rate was second-best in the Euroleague, they struggled to keep opponents off the glass themselves, as their 67.9 defensive rebounding rate was second-worst in the Euroleague. Maccabi actually defensively was not all that bad, as they were a Top-5 team when it came to opponent effective field goal percentage (51.7 percent). However, the fact that they couldn’t keep opponents off the glass and gave up numerous second chance opportunities did them in time in and time again, and that was usually due to their bigs not getting in good rebounding position or having the strength to keep opposing post players at bay.

While Edelstein was the big hire of the off-season, Maccabi has made tremendous strides in terms of upgrading the roster. They made an immediate splash this summer by acquiring center Maik Zirbes, a rebounding force, and forward Quincy Miller, an inside-outside threat, from Crvena Zvzeda. Add that with the acquisition of guards Sonny Weems of the 76ers (and formerly CSKA Moscow) and DJ Seeley of Gran Canaria, and Maccabi definitely made a commitment to become more athletic and stronger with their roster on the floor. Furthermore, with the acquisition of these three new faces, as well as full seasons of Mekel (who didn’t join the team until mid-season after Euroleague group play), combo wing Sylvan Landesberg, and forward Itay Segev (who came in strong as a starter toward the end of last year despite playing as a 20-year old), Maccabi should be primed to not only outperform last year’s results, but perhaps make a dark horse run to the Final Four. Maccabi was not that far off from making the Round of 16 last year, and they showed glimpses of being a good team in Euroleague, Eurocup and Winner League play, but they just seemed to run out of gas at the wrong times. The depth they have next year will not only prevent that, but should help them be the most successful Maccabi squad since 2014.

Now, how successful will that be? It is hard to determine, since there are a lot of players with futures in doubt. Will Mbakwe and Randle be back, not to mention Devin Smith, who has been a rock for this team for years? Will there be enough touches for new players such as Miller, Weems, and Seeley, who have tended to be high-usage players in their previous stops? Can Zirbes and Segev and whoever else is playing in the post, solve Maccabi’s rebounding woes from a year ago? And lastly, can Mekel, (who most likely will the starting point guard next season), an Israeli who is playing with his home country’s most popular and successful team, reinvigorate this proud franchise, not to mention his own professional career?

Quincy Miller (30) and Maik Zirbes (33) are new signees who will be key to Maccabi success next year.

There are a lot of questions for Edelstein to answer and unfortunately, he will have to do it in a quick amount of time. However, like he said in his opening interview after being hired, he knows the pressure that comes with this position and he expects to accomplish great results in a limited amount of time. It’s why he took the job, and why he only wanted a one-year contract: there is no “rebuilding” with Maccabi Tel Aviv. You either produce results or you get out and they find another person.

But to be fair, this is the strongest a Maccabi team has looked for a long time, even stronger perhaps on paper than the 2014 team that won a championship. If Taylor Rochestie and Smith are back, they will have considerable scoring on the perimeter to go along with their new signings, not to mention longtime reserves such as Ohayov and Guy Pnini. While there are some questions on the block, Zirbes will be one of the strongest post players that they have had since Big Sofos a couple of years ago, as Zirbes, though not the most finesse player, is the kind of banger that can keep other teams from pushing around Maccabi in the paint. Hopefully that kind of attitude will rub off on Segev and whoever else Maccabi brings back or acquires to solidify their post depth (whether it’s Randle, Mbakwe or someone else).

2016-2017 will be a critical year for Maccabi. A new coach and a new format with less teams in the Euroleague means it’s more critical than ever for Maccabi to perform. They have the kind of coach with excellent experience who has been saying the right things to demonstrate that he is “all in” in terms of making Maccabi a winner again. They also have added the right kind of pieces roster-wise, showing that management is willing to spend whatever it costs to make this team better. And they have the motivation, as this franchise is hungry to show that the last two years were a blip on the radar, and that they are ready to return to their rightful illustrious place in the European basketball scene.

Now, it’s just a matter of all those factors melding together. Let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later.

David Blatt, Darussafaka and Istanbul: A Respected Coach’s Rocky and Quick Road Back to Europe

“Make no mistake. I have won everywhere I have been…and I plan on doing the same here.”

When he was hired in May of 2014 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, David Blatt echoed those words to the media public. Blatt, was fresh of a Euroleague championship victory with Maccabi Tel Aviv over longtime European and Spanish power Real Madrid, and the Cavs, who had missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season, were looking for a refreshing voice to lead their team going forward. And it made sense for the Cavs to hire Blatt. Not only did he prove he could win at Maccabi, both in the Winner League in Israel and in the Euroleague, but he also found success as an international coach, leading Russia to a surprising bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics. For Blatt, the lure of coaching a NBA franchise was a lifetime challenge he coveted and desired, much like any coach who looks for the next “step up” in the coaching ladder. Cleveland, with the top draft pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, had some valuable young pieces like Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett at the time, and Blatt, who had a history of producing overachieving teams with limited talent, seemed to be like a good fit, and a breath of fresh air that the organization needed after retreads like Byron Scott and Mike Brown (again) failed in four playoff-less seasons Post-Lebron.

Of course, Blatt didn’t expect to be a head coach so quickly in the NBA: when he stepped down originally from Maccabi Tel Aviv, he appeared to be headed as an assistant to Golden State or Minnesota to situate himself with the NBA game, similar to Ettore Messina before him, who became an assistant with the Lakers and then Spurs after a successful tenure with CSKA Moscow. (Apparently, Steve Kerr wanted Blatt badly and it seemed to be a done deal until Cleveland called and interviewed him.) Nonetheless, he was given the opportunity as NBA head coach, and Blatt wasn’t going to turn it down, even if he was not as familiar with the American game like the European one. However, with his Princeton-influence, strong defensive mentality, and fiery personality, Blatt looked like he would have some success, and would make the necessary adjustments over time to become a successful NBA head coach. After all, he was going to coach the Cavs, who had suffered mediocrity since Lebron James left town. Just getting them into playoff contention would be enough; a playoff berth, even as an 8 seed, would be cause for celebration and validation of his hire.

And then less than two months later, this happened.

Who would have thought that it would be the beginning of Blatt’s long, painful, and frustrating march back to Europe?

The relationship between Blatt and Cavs star Lebron James seemed strained and doomed from the start.

To be fair, Blatt never asked to coach Lebron and Lebron probably would have never asked Blatt to coach him either. Blatt was coming to coach a young team, one that was going to be led, in his mind, by No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and former No. 1 pick Irving and supported by Thompson and Bennett (oh yeah…I forgot Bennett was a former No. 1 pick too…somehow) in the block. In Blatt’s mind, his young guys would grow into his system, be used to his authority and demands, especially considering Wiggins and Irving had been used to demanding coaches in college like Bill Self at Kansas and Coach K at Duke (Wiggins and Irving, respectively). And though Blatt had not really achieved anything in the American game as far as coaching, that was going to be fine: neither had any of the young players on the Cavs.

However, with Lebron now on board that all changed. After Summer League, Wiggins was traded to Minnesota along with Anthony Bennett and some other pieces for Kevin Love, a NBA Veteran and All-Star. Now, the hope in Cleveland, with the Big 3 of Lebron, Kyrie and Love wasn’t just to make the playoffs, it was to win the Eastern Conference AND a NBA Championship. Blatt of course didn’t back down from the challenge, but in retrospect, I don’t think he realized the magnitude of media scrutiny as well as intensive player ego management that would haunt him for his one-and-a-half season stint in the city of Cleveland.

On paper, there is not much you can argue with when it comes to Blatt’s tenure. He went 83-40, including 53-29 in his first season with the Cavaliers, leading them to an Eastern Conference Championship, as well as 2 wins in the NBA Finals, the first two wins ever in Finals history for the franchise. He also did this without Kevin Love throughout most of the playoffs, and without Irving from games 2-6 of the Finals, as well as some games during the playoffs. This year, the Cavs started 30-11 and Blatt had them as one of the better teams in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency this season (they were 3rd and 10th in those categories this year).

Usually, with any other team in the NBA, there would be talk of an extension after a 30-11 start. But this was Cleveland, and “Lebron’s” Cavs, and while one couldn’t argue with the record, the marriage between Blatt and Lebron and the Cavs never really felt stable over the one-and-a-half year time. Let’s just take a look at some of the issues that plagued Blatt as the Cavs’ head coach:

  • People questioned Blatt’s authority on the team, as Lebron had grown a reputation for tuning out or overruling Blatt during timeouts and play calls.
  • There was widespread consensus on the team that Tyronn Lue was more respected and listened to on the coaching staff from the players; what makes this more awkward is that Lue was a finalist for the Cavs job, though Lue on frequent occasion has gone out of his way to say he didn’t agree with Blatt’s firing.
  • There were reports that Blatt seemed to be overwhelmed by big moments, as he froze up and panicked when diagramming plays during timeouts during crucial stretches of the playoffs (the Chicago series having several reported instances of this).
  • Blatt treated other Cavs players differently from Lebron during practice, as he would go out of the way to criticize role players while not saying anything to Lebron, even if James was the main culprit of the mistake.
  • The media and Blatt did not get along, as Blatt chastised the media with sarcastic answers and patronized their questions during press conferences and interviews.

As with anything, some of those were true to an extent and some were most likely overblown. As stated in the last point, Blatt and the media did not get along well, and with Lebron a superstar in the NBA, and being an “Ohio Native,” it was obvious what side the local media (and many cases national media) would side with, and thus Blatt never seemed to get any kind of positive momentum in the public eye during his coaching tenure. And hence Blatt, a four-time Israeli coach of the year, a Russian Federation coach of the year, and a Euroleague coach of the year, not only was let go by the Cavs, but his legacy in America is somewhat tainted, as he is known for being successful as a NBA coach “only because of Lebron.”

For any basketball coach, being typified in such a way is not only an insult to the work and sacrifices one makes to be a head coach (as is especially true with Blatt who really had to work hard to get every head coaching job he earned, especially in Europe), but also a death stamp of sorts when it comes to future jobs. Just look at Mike Brown, who cannot get another head coaching position in the NBA after failing in Cleveland a second time (granted without Lebron, but it confirmed the “cannot win without a superstar” talk).

It really is unfair. It’s one thing if Blatt had no coaching experience. It’s one thing if he came to the States openly wanting to coach a Lebron James-led team. It’d be one thing if he wasn’t a four-time Israeli coach of the year, a Russian Federation coach of the year, and a Euroleague coach of the year as recently as two years ago.

But here we are…after 123 NBA games, David Blatt is going to Turkey.

Former coach Oktay Mahmuti wasn’t the coach to help Darussafaka surpass other Turkish rivals like Efes and Fenerbahce

Darussafaka is a totally different landscape than Blatt’s previous European stop, Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel. Of course, there is a cultural change that Blatt will not only be making from America, but his last experience in Europe. Blatt is Jewish and Israel is primarily a Jewish state, so Blatt fit in very well not just in the organization and city of Tel Aviv, but the culture of Israel as well. On the contrary Darussafaka is located in Turkey, primarily a Muslim country. And hence, it will be interesting to see how a mostly Muslim fanbase will react to a Jewish coach leading their team, though I think Blatt understands there may be some bias against him due to his cultural background. (And to be fair, Istanbul has really grown as a city and is more progressive than most Muslim-majority countries; simply look at many of the non-Muslim Europeans and Americans on clubs in the Turkish Basketball League).

And yet geographic culture is not the only issue; there is also a difference in basketball culture from Maccabi as well. Last season was Darussafaka’s first season in the Euroleague, and the club only has a modest history of success. The last time the club won the Turkish Basketball League Championship was in 1962 (and the other time was in 1961) and from 2010-2013, the club was regulated and participated in the Turkish League’s second division. And honestly, it makes sense that Darussafaka has struggled to be in the limelight: they share the same city with other bigger clubs like Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Efes, three traditional Turkish powerhouses with fervent fan bases and wealthy ownership groups (and who will also be participating in the Euroleague next year; Galatasaray missed last year, but will participate again after winning the Eurocup last season).

However, in 2013, Dogus Holding (a financial conglomerate based out of Turkey) bought the club and has made an effort to help Darussafaka compete with the traditional basketball powers based out of Turkey. It started with hiring of long-time Turkish coach Oktay Mahmuti, who had coached other Turkish clubs like Efes and Galatasaray to various degrees of success (he also coached Italian club Bennetton Treviso).  In 2014, Darussafaka won the Turkish Second Division and were promoted back to the first-division domestic league. And the following year, they finished 3rd in the Turkish Division and qualified for the Euroleague as a wild card.

This season was a bit of an up and down campaign for Oktay in his third year. Despite it being the first year in club history in the Euroleague, Darussafaka qualified for the Round of 16, ousting long-time power Maccabi in the their group to do so for the final spot. However, the Round of 16 was far less kind as Darussafaka missed the playoffs by going 5-9 and finishing 6th in their division, also behind Turkish rival Efes, who went 7-7 (though as consolation, Darussafaka did finish better than Cedevita Zagreb of Croatia and Unicaja Malaga of Spain).

Domestically in the BSL (the Turkish Basketball League), the results were a little more disappointing. Darussafaka finished fourth in the regular season standings at 20-10 and were ousted in the semifinals by Efes convincingly 3-0. Though there had been considerable steps taken by Oktay and his club since his hire, Oktay didn’t exactly generate the most excitement out of Turkish basketball fans as well as the Darussafaka fan base, which is run by new owners to the European basketball scene who are more akin to the “tech” owners that we see in the NBA today like Robert Pera of the Grizzlies and Vivek Ranadive of the Kings.

The biggest pitfall for Oktay in his tenure in Darussafaka was his defensive-oriented style of play, and his teams lack of ability to generate consistent offense. Granted, that has been Oktay’s calling card in his coaching career, and he did a decent job at it with Darussafaka last year, as their 102.8 defensive rating was actually 5th best in the Euroleague last season. However, the offense was not just boring, but borderline atrocious, as they posted an offensive rating of 99.2, which was seventh-worst out of all Euroleague teams last season. This led to a negative efficiency difference rating of minus-3.6, which put them below average and barely over Bayern Munich (minus-4.0) and Maccabi (minus-4.8), two teams who didn’t even qualify for the Round of 16.

With the combination of an ineffective, lackluster offense and rather mediocre attendance numbers (Darussafaka was 5th lowest in the Euroleague when it came to home attendance), it made sense that a change was deemed essential by ownership. Oktay was a consistent force and was going to keep them competitive as the head coach. However, with only 16 teams now qualifying for the Euroleague starting in 2016-2017, Darussafaka not only needed a big name who would help Darussafaka make the transition from a “B-quality” team to an “A-quality” one. Oktay wasn’t going to give them that, and Oktay wasn’t going to help them attract bigger names on their roster as well.

And that is where Blatt comes in.

Already in his comfort zone in Europe, Blatt talked to European prospects at the Adidas Eurocamp this summer.

Apparently, Darussafaka was in talks with Blatt in April and had made him an offer around that time. However, Blatt wanted to test the NBA coaching waters, as he interviewed for vacant NBA jobs such as the Knicks one (apparently his desired choice), the Kings position (his second choice) and the Rockets job. After all three jobs went to other candidates, and not impressed by other offers (there were rumors that Blatt was asked to come back to Maccabi, but he passed on the offer), Blatt signed with Darussafaka, impressed by their commitment from ownership and management (he has a multi-year contract worth around 3 million euros per year), and motivated by the chance to build something special in Istanbul.

The cupboard certainly won’t be bare next season for Blatt. Darussafaka has a nice collection of American talent such as returning scorer Scottie Wilbekin, former Notre Dame star Luke Harangody, Reggie Redding, Jamon Gordon, and Marcus Slaughter; European talent such as Georgian Manuchar Makroishvili and Serbian Milko Bjelica; and domestic talent such as former Celtic Semih Erden and Emir Preldzic. And with Blatt now on board, it will be interesting to see what kind of other talent Darussafaka will be able to attract this off-season, especially considering Blatt’s European success and NBA experience (despite all the issues, he did still win an Eastern Conference championship, which is more of an accomplishment than a lot of NBA coaches not to mention current European coaches). It is to be expected that Darussafaka will be able to attract another name or two during this signing and transfer period.

Blatt has never shied himself away from a challenge and that certainly is evident in Darussafaka, though of a different sort. With Maccabi and Cleveland, he had to manage big expectations, and he was able to be successful with such lofty goals placed upon him from upper management. Darussafaka is a different challenge. The history isn’t there like Maccabi, nor is the superstar there like in Cleveland. Darussafaka’s most successful season was arguably last year, and yet, they fired their coach. If anything, this situation feels more like a Memphis Grizzlies or Sacramento Kings scenario rather than the Cleveland one he faced in the NBA (unrealistic expectations combined with a “no-so-elite” team).

And yet, this current job in Istanbul, might be more in Blatt’s wheelhouse. He relishes being the underdog and surprising people. He has done it in his coaching career countless times. He won an Italian League title with Benetton Treviso, even though they were one of the more under-the-radar teams in Italy. He upset two powers in the Final Four in CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid during his 2014 Euroleague title with Maccabi. And he led Russia, who had fallen off the global stage after the break up of the Soviet Union, to not only a 2007 Eurobasket title, but a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics, despite coming into each of those tournaments as heavy underdogs.

This is exactly the kind of coach Darussafaka needs. They need someone to help charge fan interest in Istanbul in their club. They need someone to utilize their talent to their maximum ability. They need someone that can help them go toe-to-toe with Turkey’s best clubs, not an easy task after Fenerbahce was one quarter away from nearly winning the Euroleague championship.

Yes, Darussafaka has not played a game yet, but they are a team that should be watched during the 2016-2017 domestic and Euroleague season.

Blatt and Darussafaka seem like a perfect match.

I just wonder how long this tenure in Turkey will be before the NBA starts calling again.

Will the Euroleague Changes and Issues with FIBA Have a Negative Effect on European Basketball?

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Though the Euroleague season is well over (With CSKA Moscow claiming the trophy in a thrilling overtime win over Fenerbahce Istanbul), there hasn’t been any lack of excitement or headlines surrounding the Euroleague competition as it prepares for the upcoming 2016-2017 season. Most of the attention however has been of the controversial variety, especially with the change of the season format, as well as the Euroleague’s issues with FIBA, who is trying to create their own major club competition for the first time since the FIBA Suproleague in 2001.

In terms of the first point, the Euroleague will be making some major changes to their competition, as they will do away with their multi-round format and instead go to a longer, more-traditional regular season model. Traditionally, the Euroleague first round is only 10 games long, with 24 teams split into 4 groups. After the 10 game season, the Top 16 teams (top 4 in each division) advance to the second “Top 16” round while the remaining 8 teams get regulated to the Eurocup (the second-tier league in Europe) for the remainder of the season. In the Top 16 round, the teams are split into two groups and compete in a round-robin format over a 14-game schedule. At the conclusion of this slate of games, the best four teams in each group advance to the playoffs for a Best of 5 series. The winners of those playoff series then advance to the Final Four, where it is single elimination from there.

For those American fans unfamiliar with European basketball, think of this format as the World Cup meets old-school first round of the NBA playoffs with the NCAA Final Four. It’s a bit batshit and it can cause some weird-ass moments like this due to the Euroleague’s controversial “scoring margin” procedure (similar to soccer), but it does provide for some interesting drama with each game’s importance so magnified for advancement.

However, the main issue with this format is that Europe’s most recognizable and lucrative teams may not always make it past the first round, which was mostly evident this year. Due to lackluster performances and some organizational turmoil, A License teams (established clubs who participate in the Euroleague regularly due to their massive status in the club scene) such as EA7 Emporio (from Milan, Italy) and Maccabi Fox (from Tel Aviv, Israel) missed the Top 16, and thus, the Euroleague lost a considerable amount of their fanbase after the first round due to their “off years”. This was a big blow especially since both these teams have popular appeal beyond their home countries (especially in the case of Maccabi), and it’s a lot harder for general Euroleague fans to get excited for teams that don’t necessarily have much Euroleague history not to mention aren’t guaranteed to be back the following season (as was the case with teams such as Cedevita Zagreb from Croatia and Khimki Moscow from Russia, both teams who will not be participating in the Euroleague next year).

Thankfully, the new format will solve some of those “fan” issues listed above. As detailed in the Euroleague’s 10-year agreement with IMG, the “condensed” 16-team format (from 24) and extended regular season schedule (30 rounds instead of the combined 23 rounds from rounds 1 and 2), the Euroleague now will have a more established league that guarantees longtime and well-known clubs will be on the international stage longer for the benefit of European basketball fans (not to mention these clubs’ fans who generate a lot of revenue). This new format also benefits the fans because fans will get to see their clubs play all the top teams, which wasn’t necessarily the case in the past format. If a team got bounced early, fans might not have seen them play a fellow country rival or another big-time European club. But, with the extended schedule, every one of the 16 teams will play one another, which will generate better match ups during the regular season, while still keeping the same competitive spirit that makes the Euroleague so unique.

Of course, one of the drawbacks with the creation of this new format means there will be 8 less teams playing in the Euroleague, which makes it a bit of a bummer for the smaller clubs, as well as basketball fans who appreciate the underdog. The wild card slots have reduced from 4 to 2, which means underdog stories like Lokomotiv Kuban this year, who were playing in the Eurocup a year ago and made it to the Final Four this season despite being a wild card, will be a lot less likely. Also, with A license teams less likely to see changes in its composition (i.e. lose their license and not participate in the Euroleague), it also means that international fans will not be able to see European clubs aside from the usual powerhouses like Barcelona, Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow, and Maccabi. In my case, it was disappointing that after the first round I was not able to follow other Euroleague teams such as CSP Limoges (from France) and Stelmet Zielona Gora (from Poland) after they were bounced from the first round. With this new format, I will be hard pressed to see them at all, let alone 10 games of them.

That being said, while the limited amount of teams hurts the more “under-the-radar” clubs, it does strengthen the Eurocup, the ULEB (Union of European Leagues of Basketball) and second-best competition in Europe (the winner of the Eurocup advances the next year in the Euroleague). The Eurocup will now follow the format of the old Euroleague with the multi-round format, and with the addition of more teams next year who probably were good enough to compete in the Euroleague, the Eurocup will undoubtedly be more competitive, and hopefully this could generate interest in the Eurocup being televised more since the quality of the competition has increased. For international fans like myself, the lack of any television coverage of the Eurocup keeps it from being followed or covered more closely, but an increase of good teams could change that, as better games will make it more exciting and desirable to basketball fans who want to see other competition outside Europe’s main league.

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The changes in format however to the Euroleague and Eurocup however has produced a lot of ill will though as of late with FIBA, who is trying to get back into the European club scene with the creation of their own league: the FIBA Champions League (named after the FIFA counterpart). FIBA has been trying to get back into the European club scene ever since FIBA lost the rights to the competition after the 2000 season, when the clubs formed their own league independent of FIBA through the Euroleague Basketball Company. Because FIBA did not have any copyright on the “Euroleague” name, this organization was able to get away with it, and thus FIBA lost its main source of competition revenue outside their international competitions such as the European championship (now called Eurobasket) and World Championship (now called World Cup) just to name a few. However, considering international competitions are limited to a bad time for basketball on the calendar (the summer months after all club competitions have ended) and aren’t annual events, they are definitely far less lucrative then the club competition scene now under the guidance of the EBC.

FIBA over the past couple of years had been looking to lure some top clubs back to FIBA with the creation of the Champions League, but after the 10-year deal with IMG, getting any top clubs was out of the question. So, it appeared that FIBA, to keep some kind of good will with the EBC in order to preserve their own international competitions, was going to settle with being the “second-tier” league, perhaps replacing or competing with the Eurocup. However, while there seemed to be some interest early-on, and even some agreements, it appears FIBA will be on the outside-looking-in when it comes to building this new competition, as many of the teams that FIBA was desiring look to be participating in the ULEB’s Eurocup rather than FIBA’s Champions League.

As expected, FIBA did not take this lying down. They threatened to suspend and not allow countries who will participate in the Eurocup and even Euroleague to participate in their international competitions such as the Eurobasket, which is due in 2017. This included power countries such as Spain, Serbia, Greece, Israel and even Italy, who lost their duties hosting the 2017 Eurobasket due to this controversy over club participation. However, despite FIBA’s power moves, they have not been able to have much impact, as a Munich judge ruled an injunction that prevented FIBA and FIBA Europe from sanctioning these countries and clubs for joining the Eurocup instead of the Champions League. Hence, no suspensions have been given out, though FIBA is working to see if it can reverse the injunction in the near future.

With all these changes lurking for 2016-2017 as well as the ongoing controversy between the EBC/ULEB and FIBA, it will be interesting to see how things will pan out not just going into next year but once the 2016-2017 campaign begins in October as well. It is understandable to see FIBA’s frustration. As a global governing body, the lack of any kind of presence any more in the professional basketball scene beyond international competition has really hurt them from having the kind of impact FIFA enjoys in soccer. It’s bad enough FIBA really has little to no influence in the world’s strongest league (the NBA), but to have no influence in the second-strongest league in the world (the Euroleague) makes it even more painful. FIBA knows that having the Euroleague and Eurocup control would go a long way to strengthening their power as a global sporting federation, especially with online streaming’s ability to reach audiences not just in Europe, but all over the world. The Euroleague brand is greater than ever before on a global scale. Basketball fans want to watch more Euroleague, see possible “prospects” in action that will be making their way to the NBA. Euroleague TV’s launch this last year has proven that the Euroleague doesn’t need to be “lumped in” with FIBA and other club competitions (as was the case when it was with Livebasketball.tv) to be lucratively successful.

Unfortunately, this jockeying for “club basketball” coverage in some people’s minds has done European basketball more harm than good in the long run. Michael Long of Sports Pro Media, remarked this in his post examining the creation of the Champions League and its impact on European basketball:

What is certain, however, is that the creation of a second continental competition would appear a major step back for basketball in Europe. Some would argue that the introduction of a dual system would be disastrous, creating a situation reminiscent of 16 years ago when Fiba’s Suproleague survived just one season competing alongside the Euroleague that would subsequently replace it. Certainly, the European market at that time could not sustain two rival basketball competitions. Many doubt whether it can today

It does feel like in the quest for garnering control, both leagues may do more harm than good for European basketball in general, as Long points out above and in his article. After all, as mentioned in the Sports Pro Media piece, without the participation of 11 of the best European clubs teams, it will be hard to imagine the Champions League be better than a second-tier club competition in Europe, thus making FIBA’s endeavor seem like a waste of time, not to mention resources. At the same time, it would be nice to see if the Euroleague could show more cooperation toward unifying professional basketball in Europe, and perhaps by giving FIBA primary involvement in the “secondary” league, that would lessen tension between the two organizations, and not jeopardize international competition, which is important and special, especially when it comes to the World Cup and Eurobasket.

Of course, who knows what either sides wants. Maybe a “secondary” competition isn’t enough for FIBA. Maybe the Euroleague is not interested in preserving or growing international competition. After all, the NBA, the world’s premiere basketball organization, gets away with little FIBA involvement, and perhaps the Euroleague is trying to follow the same mold of finding success while being independent of its governing body (though to be fair, the NBA doesn’t have the kind of conflicts with FIBA Americas that the Euroleague and FIBA Europe has).

Whatever happens though between the Euroleague and FIBA Europe, the fate of European basketball, not just with clubs, but perhaps overall, will be going through some major changes this upcoming 2016-2017 season. A lot of questions that could have a strong impact on basketball in the continent will be decided: Will FIBA still have the Champions League running? Will the Euroleague’s new format resonate better with fans rather than the traditional method? Will the Eurobasket 2017 be hindered by lack of participation from some Europe’s traditional powers?

It will be interesting to see how fate will unveil itself to European basketball by the 2016-2017 season.

Will Barcelona or Lokomotiv Take the Last Final Four Spot?

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After today’s slate of games, we now know who three of the four Euroleague Final Four participants will be on May 13th: Fenerbahce Istanbul, Laboral Kutxa (Spain) and CSKA Moscow. All three squads swept their opponents (with each one winning the decisive game on the road) in their respective series, and can begin the celebration and preparation for the Final Four event in a couple of weeks.

However, there is still one spot to be determined and that is being decided between long-time Spanish power FC Barcelona and the relatively Euroleague novices Lokomotiv Kuban from rural Russia. After their 82-70 Game 3 win in Spain, Barcelona is one game away from punching their ticket to Berlin for a chance at the Euroleague championship, but don’t count out Lokomotiv, the higher seed going into the series, who holds home court advantage should they be able to equalize and win on the road in Game 4 on Thursday.

Let’s take a look at each team and what is on the line for the in a crucial Game 4 later this week.

 

Barcelona Looking to Finish Strong

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Barcelona has had one of the weirder seasons in their history this year, as they haven’t found much consistency in terms of wins and losses. Statistically speaking, Barcelona has been one of the strongest teams, as they are the fourth-best team in the Euroleague this year in terms of net rating over the full season (6.8), but only had a 14-10 record through the Regular Season and Top 16 to show for it. Despite some big wins in the year over teams like Lokomotiv and a Top 16 season sweep over Spanish rival Real Madrid, they also had head scratching losses to Pinar Karsiyaka in the Regular Season opener and to Brose Baskets Bamberg during the Top 16 (a team they later beat by almost 20 in the second to last game of the year). In fact, due to all this inconsistency (they finished the Regular Season with three straight losses and lost five of their first seven in Top 16 play), it took until the final week of the Top 16 for Barcelona to clinch a playoff berth, as their win over Lithuanian power Zalgiris Kaunas on the road (and they were down at halftime) earned them one of the final playoff spots.

However, despite their meager record, this Barcelona team is loaded and peaking at the right time, though they certainly have their issues that could rear their head in the Final Four should they win on Thursday. First off, Barcelona has playoff leadership and experience with Juan Carlos Navarro being their primary option on the perimeter, along with complimentary wings players like Alex Abrines, Tomas Satoransky and Pau Ribas, who have been effective as of late, especially in the Top 16 and Playoff rounds (Abrines shot 6 of 10 from beyond the arc and scored 25 points total). In the post, Justin Doellman, a former Xavier product, has proven to be an excellent stretch 4 type, and they have depth in the post with Ante Tomic, Samardo Samuels and Joey Dorsey, whom they acquired during the Top 16 round. Dorsey especially has given Barcelona a physical presence, as his ability on the glass (his 16.8 percent offensive rebounding rate is second best in the Euroleague this year behind only Trevor Mbakwe of Maccabi Tel Aviv) and ability to body up opposing teams’ centers has made him an invaluable member of this Barcelona squad despite his relative lack of experience with the team and in Europe in general.

However, Dorsey hurt himself in Game 1, and his status seems to be questionable going forward as he missed games 2 and 3 in the playoffs. This hasn’t hurt Barcelona too badly, as their post depth, hot outside shooting, and the lack of a physical presence in the post or much post player depth in general from Loko has helped Barcelona be effective in his absence. That being said, the 3 final four teams have excellent players in the post, especially Fenerbahce, which is seeing a resurgence from newly acquired Ekpe Udoh, who has stepped up after Jan Vessley was lost for the season due to an Achilles injury in the Top 16 round. If Barcelona makes it to the Final Four and doesn’t have the services of Dorsey, it could make things very difficult in terms of having a serious shot at the Euroleague crown.

Another issue with Barcelona is their point guard play, as the squad hasn’t relatively gotten much from Carlos Arroyo, who was expected to be a playmaking catalyst for this squad. Arroyo only played little over 5 minutes in Game 3, and he only averaged 14.6 minutes in 7 games during Top 16 play, a downgrade from the 18.6 mpg he was seeing  during the 10-game regular season. This puts more pressure on Satoransky, who is the team leader in assist rate over the full season, and Ribas, who was 2nd in assist rate during the Top 16 round. Both those two are effective, but they do not have the dynamic athleticism that other Final Four teams have, and that could present issues, especially if Barcelona cannot transition their hot shooting from the playoffs to the Final Four (should they close it out).

Head Coach Xavi Pascual has done a phenomenal job considering the circumstances his team has faced this year, especially early on when they looked like they would miss the playoffs. He has a methodical, half-court oriented approach, as evidenced by their 70.3 pace this year, which is the slowest rate of any Euroleague team this season. However, that has been effective in the playoffs, as they have gotten Loko to play out of sorts in the slower pace of the last three games. Furthermore, his defensive plan has worked, as he has held the 3-point chucking Loko squad (their 0.48 3PT/FGA rate was highest in the Euroleague this year) in check, as evidenced by their 21.7, 33.3 and 28.6 percentages from beyond the arc, which are all below their season 3-point average of 36.6 percent. For Barcelona to close this out on Thursday, Barcelona has to continue to follow Pascual’s plan of relentlessly hounding Loko’s shooters and force them to win in the post, which is not exactly a strength of Loko’s on the offensive end.

 

Loko looking to make a comeback

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Loko has been one of the most balanced teams in Euroleague play this year. They are the top team in the league in net rating at 11.4, higher than even fellow Russian squad CSKA Moscow, who has been far and away the most dominant team over the course of the entire season. Loko’s heavy 3-point attack on offense, and risk-taking and aggressiveness on defense (their 10.8 steal rate leads the league) has been a key reason why Georgios Bartzokas’ squad went 17-7 in the regular and Top 16 season combined.

Bartzokas can thank the two-headed combo of point guard Malcolm Delaney and Forward/Center Anthony Randolph for Loko’s success, especially during the Top 16 round. Everything runs pretty much through those two, as they lead the team in possessions per game with 15.89 and 15.8, respectively (the next highest rate is Chris Singleton with 9.25, and Singleton primarily comes off the bench). When those two are on, Loko has proven to be one of the toughest teams to play in the Euroleague on a nightly basis.  Delaney is the classic hybrid point guard, who can score at will as well as create offense for his teammates. His 2.08 assist to turnover rate is tops on the team, and over half of his shots come from beyond the arc (0.52). Add that with a strong true shooting percentage (60.1 percent) and a surprising defensive rebounding rate for a point guard (10.9) and it makes sense why Delaney is so crucial to Loko’s success. Delaney plays all out and is their engine on the floor on both ends, which makes sense why he leads the team in minutes during the playoffs (106). In the playoffs, Delaney is certainly doing his share to will Loko to a Final Four berth, as he leads the team in minutes, and is showing his effectiveness on the offensive end by scoring 1.03 PPP and posting a highly respectable 5.00 Assist to Turnover rate.

Randolph is second on the team in minutes, and is also a unique talent who has been critical to Loko’s success. Randolph isn’t always efficient: his 45.2 effective field goal percentage is not good, especially when you consider his 32.2 usage rate, which is tops on the team. Furthermore, a knock that has dogged him from his days at LSU is Randolph’s inconsistent motor on the floor, and that continues to be an issue. Randolph doesn’t bang down low with opposing bigs (his 2.8 offensive rebounding rate really is just flat out pathetic for a near seven-footer), and he has spurts where looks unfocused and disinterested, which leads to lapses on defense and the killing of ball movement and spacing on offense. With Dorsey out, one would think Randolph would be making his bread on the block and with his back to the basket to take advantage of Barca’s less physical post players. Instead, he settles in the mid-range and tries to create offense off the dribble, which seems to bail out Barcelona’s defenders, who don’t have the physicality of Dorsey.

That being said, Randolph, when he’s on, is not just the most dangerous player on Loko, but perhaps in Europe. On the defensive end, he is Loko’s best post defender, as evidenced by his 4.2 block rate. Offensively, he has a decent and versatile touch around the rim (though he probably settles for fade away mid-range shots too often), but he can also step back from beyond the arc and shoot with some effectiveness, as he did game 2 where he shot 40 percent from beyond the arc. He is also an effective free throw shooter, as his 76.8 free throw percentage is pretty solid for a big man, and his 10.3 assist rate shows that he can also create offense from the post for his teammates. Randolph has the tools and skills to really dominate in this series, but he has to flip on the switch and get more physical, or Loko will be most likely heading back home for the Euroleague season after Thursday.

Loko does have some good supporting players that can help turn things around for Bartzokas’ squad. Singleton, who started out the regular season as a starter before Randolph arrived in the Top 16 round, is very much like Randolph, though a bit less skilled (however he makes up for it by being more physical than Randolph, especially on the offensive glass). Also Ryan Broekhoff and Victor Claver are effective “glue” stretch players (not quite guards, but not quite pure posts) who are highly efficient despite their relatively low usage rates, as they lead the team in Points Per Possession at 1.14 and 1.09, respectively. But make no mistake, if Loko wants to win two in a row and punch a historic first trip to the Final Four, then they will need more effective production from Delaney, and especially Randolph, who has to take advantage in the post with Dorsey either absent or not 100 percent. If Randolph can do that, and if Delaney can continue his hyperactive production as the team’s  main playmaker, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Loko can win two in a row against Barcelona.

Final Verdict?

I am pulling for Loko, though having to win one in Barcelona to force game 5 seems like a tall task. As much I respect Pascual for the job he’s done turning this team around in time for the playoffs, Barcelona has been to the Final Four before countless times. While that may be good for Spain, who would like to have two teams on the big European stage May 13, I do not think Barcelona is built all that well to compete for a title against the likes of Fenerbahce or CSKA Moscow. A healthy Dorsey gives them a better shot, but I do not think they can keep shooting like they are against Loko in the Final Four and I don’t know if their post players can compete with Fernerbahce nor do I think their guards could compete with CSKA Moscow.

Now, does that mean that I think Loko will do much better? No, not at all. In fact, I think Loko would be an auto 4th place finisher should they make it to Berlin. However, they have been a nice story this year, as they were regulated to the Eurocup, Europe’s second-tier league, a year ago, and have really impressed in Bertzokas’ first year at the helm. Yes, they are a bit too dependent on Delaney and Randolph, but they are an entertaining squad, and it would be good to see them on the big stage, especially considering they are one of the more rural teams in the Euroleague, and their contests have a “small town” feel to them. Them making the Final Four would be akin to Hickory High in “Hoosiers”…

Unlike the Huskers however, Loko would not win it all. Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good story though, not to mention a foundation and marketing tool to build on for next year in terms of upgrading their talent for the future.