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.

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Can Quincy Miller Save the Season for Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade (And Save His Career Too)?

Ryan Thompson (5, red) struggled immensely against Real Madrid in the wake of an injury to Luka Mitrovic; He and Red Star hope new addition Quincy Miller can get them back on track.

After a promising 81-59 opening day win at home against Strasbourg, times have gotten tough for Serbia’s Euorleague club, Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) Telekom Belgrade. Earlier in the week in domestic play, the team suffered a massive blow when it lost captain Luka Mitrovic to a left knee injury during a rare home loss to Union Olimpija. Mitrovic, in addition to his leadership role, has been a crucial building to Red Star and head coach Dejan Redonjic’s recent success the past couple years after making the jump to the Euroleague last year, and making the second round. Last season, Mitrovic averaged 8.6 ppg and 5.2 rpg in 24 games as a 21-year-old, which earned him a 3-year contract extension this off-season. This year appeared to be a breakout year for him, as he put up a stat line of 13 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in the season opener. Add that on top of a pre-season injury to forward Nemanja Dangubic that will keep him out a few more weeks, and it’s easy to see why things looked grim for Red Star as the entered yesterday’s road game against defending Euroleague Champion Real Madrid.

However, even the most pessimistic of Red Star and Serbian basketball fans didn’t quite foresee their 98-71 blowout loss to the Spanish powerhouse. The first half for Red Star was especially putrid, as they scored only 6 points in the first quarter and 14 in the second to find themselves down 56-20 at halftime. In the second half, they made the game a little bit more respectable, scoring 21 in the third quarter and 30 in the fourth, but it was obvious that Real had put in their replacements, and were simply trying to rest up after halftime to conserve their star players for the following week of games, both Domestic and Euroleague.

The biggest difference in the game was the play in the post, as Red Star couldn’t stop Real in the paint, and vice versa, they couldn’t score in the paint against the talented Spanish front line either. Real shot 57.8 percent on 45 2-pt shots, with Gustavo Ayon scoring 16 points on 6 of 9 shooting on 2-pt shots, and Willy Hernangomez, playing a lot of early minutes due to Felipe Reyes in foul trouble, scoring 11 points on 5 of 6 shooting. As for Red Star, they shot 33.3 percent on 48 2-pt shots, and while German Maik Zerbes tried to pick up the slack with a 15 point performance, almost half of his points (7) came from the free throw line and he shot 4 of 10 on 2-point shots, struggling to get position and shots on the active Real post players (Real blocked 6 Red Star shots). Furthermore, they also got little to nothing from other post players such as Stefan Nastic, who went 1 of 6 from the field  and played a little over 7 minutes, and recent off-season addition Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who went 1 of 5 from the field, had 1 rebound and was blocked 3 times in 13 minutes. Add those disappointing factors along with Israeli point guard Gal Mekel scoring 0 points and getting no assists (compounded even worse by Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull combining for 16 assists), and it makes sense why there was a difference in Total Player Index Rating between Real and Red Star (134-60).

While Mitrovic’s injury effect has already been felt by Red Star, there is help on the way. Earlier this week before their contest against Real, Red Star signed former NBA draft pick Quincy Miller, who has played for the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons, as well as the Reno Bighorns, Grand Rapids Drive and Iowa Energy of the D-League in his early 3-year professional career. Miller is an interesting pickup by Red Star, as he is still incredibly young (22 years old) and has so much raw potential, size (6-9, 210 pounds) and athleticism. However, this will be his first stint in Europe in general, let alone the Euroleague, and it will be interesting to see how Miller will adjust to the European (especially Eastern European) culture as well as the style of game from America.

What Miller Offers Red Star

Quincy Miller was drafted by the Denver Nuggets, but has struggled to find a place in the NBA. Will a year-long stint with Red Star Belgrade change that?

Miller probably left college earlier than he should’ve, as he declared for the draft after his freshman season at Baylor, where he played with future NBA and European professional players like Quincy Acy, Perry Jones and Brady Heslip. In college, Miller averaged 10.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg in 24.4 mpg over a 37 game span and shot 44.7 percent from the field, as well as 34.8 percent from 3-point land during the Bears’ Elite-Eight season. Miller impressed teams and scouts during his time at Baylor with his raw athleticism and his inside-outside game, but his inconsistent shooting (48.5 percent eFG%), tame rebounding percentages for a big man (7.5 offensive rebounding rate; 16.1 defensive rebounding rate), and tendency to be a “ball-killer” (his 23.1 usage rate was second highest on the team) and get the Bears out of rhythm offensively at times, was a major reason why he fell to the second round, though he was projected as a mid-to-late first round pick going into the 2012 draft.

In his rookie year, Miller struggled to find the floor, as he played only 7 games, and spent most of his time in the D-League, as he appeared in 23 games with the Iowa Energy, and averaged 11.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg on 39.1 percent shooting. In his second season, Miller saw more time with the Nuggets, as new head coach Brian Shaw gave him some more time on the floor to prove if he was worth keeping around and could realize his potential. He appeared in 52 games and averaged 15.2 mpg, and Miller was known for making some impressive plays at times, as evidenced by the highlights below:

However, despite his “upside” and ability to create off-the-dribble for a player of his size, Miller’s youth and lack of experience was obvious, as he only averaged 4.9 ppg and 2.8 rpg and put up a PER of 8.6 (15 is average). Trying to build a more “playoff-ready” roster, the Nuggets let Miller walk in the off-season (as a second round pick, he didn’t have the kind of rookie deal that first round picks receive; second round picks go year-to-year after their initial contract), and in 2014-2015, Miller found himself bouncing around in the D-League and NBA.

Despite the lack of security and a stable team, Miller’s most promising stint in his early professional career happened last year in the D-League during a 15-game stint with Reno, where Miller was featured in first year head coach David Arsenault’s “System”.  For those who aren’t familiar, the “System” originates from Grinnell College and features constant full-court pressure defense, frequent waves of substitutions and a heavy reliance on 3-point shots (at least half of their total field goal attempts need to be from beyond the arc). Miller fit in this system like a glove, as he averaged 25.3 ppg and 7.6 rpg on 50.3 percent shooting. Miller constantly torched team from beyond the arc, but he also was able to beat slower defenders on the dribble drive to the rim, and meshed seamlessly in Reno’s fast break, consistently finishing break opportunities off of turnovers as well as made and missed baskets (Reno is always running the break, regardless of the result on defense). Take a look at a game during last year’s D-League Showcase in Santa Cruz where he scored 35 points against the Westchester Knicks.

His impressive stint in Reno earned him billing as the Top D-League Prospect by the D-League Web site last season, as well as short 10-day contracts with the Kings and Pistons and a spot on the Brooklyn Nets preseason roster. But, Miller didn’t do enough to make the Nets roster, and after being cut by Brooklyn, and the D-League not really a lucrative financial option, Miller opted to sign with Red Star for a much better payday as well as a bigger role on a team that is looking to stay competitive despite their rash of injuries.

The big question will be how Redonjic will utilize Miller with this roster. Miller isn’t a physical forward and he will not help much on the glass (they were outrebounded 51-33 against Real), but Mitrovic didn’t possess any of those qualities either, and he still was a productive player that Redonjic planned to build around this season. Furthermore, Red Star has those types anyways with Zerbes and Schortsanitis. What Redonjic needs from Miller is scoring and instant offense, which was painfully missing against Real, as it seemed like Red Star didn’t have the kind of go-to scorer to help them out of the various scoring slumps they suffered through in the first half of Thursday’s contest. Miller needs to be able to be “the guy” and carry this Red Star team on the offensive end, and considering Red Star likes to push the ball and play more up-tempo, it makes sense why Red Star signed Miller, who played his best basketball in an up-tempo system in Reno.

It will be interesting though how Miller responds to the European game, as well as how he fits chemistry-wise with this roster. As talented as Miller is, one of the biggest knocks on him is his attitude and focus, as this was stated about him in a pre-draft scouting article from Draft Express prior to the 2012 draft:

Additionally, his focus and energy level are inconsistent, as he doesn’t seem to bring the same intensity level from possession to possession, which was clearly an issue for him already in high school. He’ll need to improve his toughness, particularly in terms of fighting his way through screens, something that getting stronger will likely help with.

From DraftExpress.comhttp://www.draftexpress.com/#ixzz3pVFrH45N
http://www.draftexpress.com

This will be interesting considering Red Star’s passionate fan base as well as the annual circumstances Euroleague teams face with the threat of being regulated with a poor season, which puts additional pressure on players, especially imports, to perform and make an impact right away. Miller can come off as passive and uncaring at times on the court, and to the common European (or even American) fan, that can be a huge insult, and prevent them from supporting a player. Red Star fans though have showed in the past that they can really get behind their players though, as evidenced by their little “bus surprise”  put on by the fans for Schortsanitis when they signed him this off-season. If Miller can embrace them and the environment (which is one of the best home crowds in Europe), and be more consistent in terms of displaying his passion on the court, not only can he help Red Star win, but he can garner the kind of fan support he never really received in the States professionally or in college. And at the end of the day, when somebody is a fan favorite, they will get paid in one way or the other.

That being said, at the end of the day, this is most likely temporary. Miller solves an immediate need and has the potential to fill the role that Mitrovic would have had prior to his injury, which is as the team’s primary dynamic scorer. There is no questioning his skills, but how Miller adjusts to Redonjic, the Red Star team and European basketball will be key to whether Red Star rebounds after the early setback to Real, and Miller revitalizes his status as a prospect, or they continue to regress and Miller proves that he is another “athletic” talent who doesn’t have the makeup to put it all together at the professional level.

Let’s face it. Red Star needs Miller to continue their Euroleague success from 2014-2015, and Miller needs Red Star to find his way back to the NBA. Whether or not this “relationship” can or will be successful for both parties though is yet to be determined, and it will be interesting to see if Redonjic can be the “counselor” to make it work this season.

It’s Only One Game, but Should We Worry About Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv?

Devin Smith and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv struggled to score as well as stop CSKA Moscow in their opening day 100-69 loss.

One of the premiere and most anticipated games heading in week 1 had to be between CSKA Moscow and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv in Moscow. A rematch of the Final Four semifinal two years ago, where Maccabi pulled a stunning 23-12 4th quarter rally to upset the favored CSKA 68-67, CSKA killed the excitement early and also returned the favor and then some by beating Maccabi by 31 points (100-69) in what was the biggest blowout of week 1 in the Euroleague. While in some cases, the CSKA win is an indicator of how good this CSKA team may be this year, and how they are the early odds-on favorite to win the Euroleague title, it also demonstrated the issues this Maccabi squad will face this season. After a big off-season where they acquired big names such as former Los Angeles Laker and Clipper Jordan Farmar and VTB league stud Taylor Rochestie, as well as promoted top Croatian prospect Dragan Bender from the developmental league, many expected Maccabi to continue their annual string and run of competitiveness in the Euroleague, despite playing in a difficult Group D that also includes Darussafaka Dogus of Istanbul, Brose Baskets of Bamberg, and Unicaja Malaga in addition to CSKA. However, the lackluster performance on opening day exposed some major holes and issues that may present some difficult challenges for Maccabi when it comes to advancing beyond the second round.

The Cinderella Euroleague Run in 2013-2014

2013-2014 was a dream season as Maccabi went from underdog to winning their 6th Euroleague title in club history.

The 2013-2014 Maccabi squad was to European basketball what the “Hickory Huskers” were to Indiana high school basketball lore. After an 8-6 and 3rd place finish in their group in the second round, Maccabi pulled off a 3-1 upset over EA7 Emoporio Armani Milan in the quarterfinal to earn a surprise berth in the Final Four. After upsetting CSKA thanks to their miraculous 4th quarter of play, Maccabi carried on the momentum in the championship game, defeating the heavily favored, and star-studded Real Madrid 98-86 to earn their 6th Euroleague Championship in club history as well as finish the year 21-9.

The club relied on a hefty mix of wily veterans and hungry role players. Maccabi mainstays such as wings Yogev Ohayon and Guy Pnini were key as ever, but they also got solid years from fellow perimeter players such as David Blu (who retired shortly after winning the title), Joe Ingles (who parlayed his strong, multi-skilled performance that year into a contract with the Utah Jazz), Tyrese Rice (who left for more money and a bigger role in Moscow with Khimki the following year) and Devin Smith. Add that with the massive, but productive post presence of Sofoklis Schortsanitis and the strong post flexibility of Alex Tyus, and it makes sense that head coach David Blatt was able to lead Maccabi to a surprise Euroleague championship.

Blatt, a Princeton graduate and established as well as heavily respected European coach (he had coached Maccabi for years and also earned rave reviews in helping Russia to a bronze medal in the last Olympics), had built a solid, and battle-tested team that showed a strong resilience throughout the 2013-2014 campaign (they certainly took their lumps in the second round, and that may have helped them not just be overlooked going into the quarterfinals, but learn and improve upon their flaws). They averaged 79.5 ppg, and relied heavily on the 3-point shot, as evidenced by 36 percent of their total field goal attempts being from beyond the arc. However, they were efficient in their style of play, shooting 39.9 percent from beyond the arc and 54.4 percent on their 2 point attempts. Sure, his roster didn’t have the mainstream or higher-paid names of bigger clubs such as Real, CSKA or even Olympiacos, but they were still extremely productive, and better yet, they fit Blatt’s, perimeter-oriented, Princeton-influenced system perfectly, which sometimes can go a lot longer way than just pure talent (as demonstrated by Maccabi winning the Euroleague championship).

Guy Goodes and the honeymoon wears off for Maccabi in 2014-2015

Though they went 16-11 in his first year, analytics showed that Maccabi regressed significantly under new Head Coach Guy Goodes last season from their Euroleague championship campaign in 2013-2014

After winning the 2013-2014 title, Blatt sought greener pastures and a higher pay day in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers. As his replacement, Maccabi hired Guy Goodes, a former Maccabi player (as well as general Israeli basketball player, as he played from 1985-2004 with various Israeli League teams) and assistant under Blatt from 2010-2014. Goodes’ familiarity with the Maccabi roster seemed to be a promising sign and major reason why they hired him, and with most of the talent back, and some key additions in dynamic point guard Jeremy Pargo and versatile forward Brian Randle, many expected Maccabi to make a serious run in their defense of their 2013-2014 Euroleague championship.

Unfortunately, the team never quite meshed under Goodes. Though they did finish 16-11 and made it to the quarterfinals, their Expected W-L (check basketball reference.com for what Expected W-L is, which is basically a Pythagorean W-L taking into consideration point scored and points allowed) was one of a sub. 500 team (specifically 13-14) and they were utterly dominated in getting swept by Fenerbahce Istanbul in the Euroleague quarterfinals. The team struggled with consistency from their roster, as they got solid seasons from Pargo and guard Devin Smith, as well as post players Randle and Alex Tyus, but they got an underwhelming campaign from Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who averaged only 14.2 mpg and 6.5 ppg and 2.3 rpg in 26 Euroleague contests. Considering he was such a big factor in their 2013-2014 title run, the lack of production from the longtime Greek standout did not help their cause much in the defense of the title.

Additionally, it never seemed like anyone really stood out for Maccabi other than perhaps Smith, who was not just the team’s leading scorer in Euroleague play at 15 ppg, but also leading rebounder at 6.1 rpg. For a forward, that is not a bad statline to have, but Smith was a guard, which proved to be a Catch-22 for Maccabi. Yes, he was an incredible player who played hard on both ends of the floor and had tremendous impact for Maccabi in 2013-2014 (and it was recognized, as he earned 2nd team All-Euroleague honors and made the All-Imports team along with Pargo). That being said, when your guard is your leading rebounder, that screams all kinds of alarms with the weakness and lack of physicality from your post players, and that is not a recipe for success. Goodes and Maccabi tried all different kind of combinations, and brought in some late additions such as Joe Alexander to boost their depth and versatility and size, but it just wasn’t enough. Maccabi chemistry-wise just seemed to be a shell of the Blatt-coached 2013-2014 team that never really felt like a serious contender, even though they made it to the playoffs.

Rebuilding again with big-name players and youth for 2015-2016

17-year-old Croatian Power Forward Dragan Bender will be key to Maccabi’s Success and Whether they Bounce Back from the CSKA loss.

After the team’s disappointing sweep in the playoffs and the lack of production in 2014-2015, Maccabi let Schortsanitis go and replaced him in the post with 17-year-old Croatian super-prospect Dragan Bender and super-athlete Trevor Mbakwe. Bender has been a hot topic in all kinds of draft circles, as many scouts like his inside-outside ability, as well as his athleticism and maturity for a teenager playing at such high level with many long-time veterans. As for Mbakwe, he has been categorized as one of the strongest “athletic” talents in European circles, and has the potential for a breakout, as his offensive game, which has been slow to develop ever since his college days, has come a long way since he was at Minnesota.

The biggest veteran addition had to be Jordan Farmar, a former Los Angeles Laker and Clipper who was picked up to solidify the guard position along with Maccabi mainstays Smith and Ohayon as well as fellow newcomer and budding European player Taylor Rochestie (a former Washington State product under Tony Bennett), who was the leading Euroleague play scorer on Nizhny Novgorod last season at 18.3 ppg (Nizhny Novgorod was regulated to the Eurocup this season). Though Farmar has played the point guard position mostly in his career, he mostly likely will contribute as a wing/shooting guard in Goodes’ perimeter-based offense, especially with Ohayon seeming to have firm control over the point guard position and the heralded Smith on the other wing. That shouldn’t be too out of bounds for Farmar, as he played the point in Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense, where he ceded ball control to superstars like Kobe Bryant (as typical in Jackson’s version of the triangle). Farmar may not have the explosiveness of Pargo or Rice, two of Maccabi’s high-profile imports from the past two years, but he presents a long-range threat and veteran floor sense that should impact the offense for Maccabi, something that didn’t always happen on the offensive end of things for Maccabi in 2014-2015.

Either way, with a strong backcourt, a stronger emphasis on athleticism in the front court, and some improved depth, Maccabi on paper looks better than they did a year ago, and they are set up well for the future with their acquisitions of young talent like Mbakwe and Bender (however long Bender should stay). That being said, predictions and the preseason aren’t necessarily crystal balls, and despite some strong performances against EA7 in the NBA Global Games exhibitions, it all came crashing down for Goodes and the Maccabi squad in week 1 of the Euroleague season.

The perfect storm of offensive and defensive issues against CSKA Moscow

To say CSKA Moscow beat Maccabi is probably the understatement of the Euroleague season so far. The Russian power’s 100-69 dispatch of Maccabi not only proved how good CSKA could be this season, but the glaring issues that Maccabi needs to solve offensively and defensively in a Group that is no slouch with competitive teams like Unicaja Malaga and Brose Baskets also competing for the four spots to get into the next round of play. If Goodes’ team plays this week against Unicaja like they did against CSKA Moscow, they could easily be 0-2 and looking at a very large deficit in terms of point differential for the remainder of the regular season.

Let’s start out with the defense for Maccabi which really struggled, especially in their pick and roll communication. While Bender looked like a 17-year-old playing his first game in the Euroleague, he did some good things, especially on the offensive end. If Maccabi wants to be successful, Bender will be a big reason why. He gives them the kind of offensive versatility they simply can’t get from Mbakwe or Arinze Onuaku, a reserve center. (Though he is on a limited contract, and with the signing of Ike Ofoegbu just this week, I think Onuaku’s days could be numbered, especially since Randle will be coming back after sitting out game 1.) That being said, his defense (as well as the Maccabi perimeter defense) is a work in process, especially when defending the pick and roll. There were times where he was in no man’s land on the pick and roll and sagging way too off the kind of players you cannot sag off of, which opened up easy, lately contested shots beyond the arc. On the pick and roll, a lack of communication from the perimeter players, and Bender’s tendency to be non-committal in the lane before the pick and roll play developed either led to a lot of open jump shots, or easy drives to the lane for layups and dunks. When you play that kind of hesitant defense, as Bender showed, good teams like CSKA are going to shoot over 60 percent from the field, like they did last week.

However, I am not putting this all on Bender. He is still young and a project and still 17 years old. Playing in the Euroleague is tough for the wiliest of vets, and for Bender to be showing some production in game 1 is a promising sign. Furthermore, I think a lot of his defensive issues stemmed from hesitation and the mismatches CSKA threw at Maccabi rather than Bender’s natural defensive ability, which I think is  good to at least above-average due to his size, length and athleticism.

Even though this possession doesn’t feature Bender, this progression is a prime example of Maccabi’s issues with guarding the pick and roll. (In this possession is Onuaku and Mbakwe, who performed pretty terribly together on the court; they probably had the lowest plus-minus of any Maccabi post combo.)

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.47.13 PM

As you can see, this pick and roll starts pretty typical. CSKA’s post sets the high ball screen, Onuaku sages a bit, Mbakwe slides to play some help defense and the guard (in this case Rochestie) plays the point initially tight. But if you look at the play before, you can see that the miscommunication is already starting.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.46.53 PM

The play started with a Teodosic dribble hand off, and Rochestie and Farmar (who initially guarded Teodosic) were supposed to switch. But as you can see from the picture above, it doesn’t seem that Farmar knows there is a switch so they are both chasing the CSKA player who has just received the handoff. This leaves an overplay on the left wing side, which forces Onuaku to sag because there are already two defenders on the ball handler (the defender who is staying on his man after the hand off is going over the screen).

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.47.35 PM

After the screen, Farmar who initially stayed realizes he needs to switch, especially considering how much of a sniper Teodosic is from beyond the arc. So he changes directions and sprints out to try and recover. Rochestie and Onuaku are forced to play the pick and roll, but, because Onauku played the pick and roll so soft initially, he really didn’t get a good “feel” on the screener and you can see him up top (Hines) having a lot of space to make his way to the basket. Mbakwe should help and be closing the lane here, but because Farmar, who didn’t switch initially, changed his mind, Mbakwe isn’t in prime help position. If the defender had kept his responsibility originally, Mbakwe probably would have closed this pick and roll lane sooner. But, because there was such last-minute communication, he leaves the lane open because he thought Farmar would have it.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.48.25 PM

And CSKA takes advantage. Onuaku and Rochestie are sucked in the pick and roll, and Mbakwe is way too late on the help. Hines gets the open pass and is able to throw it down for easy points. There has to be better communication than that when defending the pick and roll. You cannot do last-second toggling between staying and switching on a player in the pick and roll. That leads to easy possessions and points for the offense, as evidenced above.

On offense, Goodes still prefers a perimeter-oriented lineup like his predecessor Blatt. But, understandably, he wants to utilize the depth and talent of his post players. However, the problem is that his post players are a bit raw and unrefined on the offensive end, and because of this, they have a tendency to freelance in bad ways and kill Maccabi’s spacing, which causes shots to be more difficult than they should be. Take a look at possession where Farmar passes to Pnini coming off an Onuaku baseline screen.

Maccabi Baseline Screen Play-1

The screen is not the best, but the play idea is sound. The baseline screen with the pass to the corner can free up the easy shot for the high percentage corner 3 pointer, a post pass to take advantage of a 1 on 1 mismatch in the block, or open up lanes for dribble penetration. That is…as long as the spacing is sound on both ends. But look at Mbakwe in the opposite post. He is drifting toward the low block instead of getting to the short corner or better yet, arc. And it only gets worse from there.

Maccabi Baseline Screen Play-2

Pnini decides to drive, which is not a bad idea since they don’t switch off the screen. But look what Mbakwe does: he drifts down the low block. This is bad for all kinds of reasons. First off it shrinks any spacing and basically leads the defender right into the play. You can see there are 3 defenders around the rim now, taking away any easy shot possibility Pnini may have. And second, not only are there 3 defenders in the post, but 2 players are being fronted in the post as well, taking away any kind of pass for Pnini on the drive. So, Mbakwe’s decision not only took away Pnini’s driving lane, but also any passing bailout options, since all the Maccabi players are effectively covered on this drive.

And this is what happens:

Maccabi Baseline Screen Play-3

A tough fade-away, easily-contested jumper. That is not good offense and the spacing was a key contributor to that. While Goodes may want to utilize his deep front court, he needs to put in the right combinations so they’re not shrinking the lanes like Onuaku and Mbakwe did on frequent occasion last week.

Do Maccabi Fans need to worry?

Goodes is a fan favorite because of his history as a player, but he hasn’t really satisfied the masses on the court after taking over for Blatt. Unlike Blatt, Goodes seems a little overwhelmed strategically, and that was on full display against CSKA. Instead of focusing on spacing the floor with his talented perimeter players, he frequently used 3-out, 2-in lineups that seemed to do more harm than good (especially with Onuaku and Mbakwe). The silver lining in all of this is that Randle was out last week and is expected to be back for Unicaja, and Ofoegbu will be a better fit for what Goodes wants to do than Onuaku, who just seems like a square peg in Maccabi’s round hole offense. Add that with Bender more likely to be comfortable with a game under his belt and against a less high profile opponent, and Maccabi certainly can bounce back after such an embarrassing defeat.

If there is anything to keep an eye on against Unicaja, it will be their defensive communication, especially against the pick and roll. CSKA is a team loaded with talent, so its not surprising that they made them pay for their errors on the defensive end. I will not be surprised to see CSKA beat more teams by 30 this year at home. But, Unicaja is not CSKA talent-wise, and in interviews, improving the defense seemed to be a priority for Goodes and his team in practice. It’ll be interesting to see if Goodes and Maccabi make the proper adjustments, and will be more sound in their communication and defensive responsibilities. If they do, then this CSKA game might a blip on the radar. If they continue to struggle, and let Unicaja do easy work around the rim like CSKA (and it’s possible with post players like Richard Hendrix and Fran Vasquez who can do serious damage for Unicaja), then maybe opening week is a sign of a long season to come for Maccabi and their fans.

Was Lokomotiv Kuban’s Victory over Panathinaikos a Fluke or Sign of Things to Come?

Ryan Broekhoff (right) and Lokomotiv got the best of Sasha Pavlovic and Euroleague mainstay Panathinaikos in the first Euroleague game of the year for both teams.

There was plenty of upsets in Week 1 of the Euroleague regular season, including a shocker where defending champion Real Madrid seemed to come out flat and was lost 84-70 to  Eurocup champion and new Euroleague participant Khimki Moscow . (Though to be fair, it was on the road, and Khimki’s crowd seemed especially amped with the defending Euroleague champions coming to Moscow.) However, while Khmki’s domination, as well as CSKA Moscow’s 100-69 blowout of 2014 Euroleague champion Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv were all big stories, one of the biggest surprises was Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar’s upset over Panathinaikos 81-70 in Krasnodar, Russia. Considering Panathinaikos is an A license team and regularly contending for a Euroleague Final Four and Championship, the loss to the wild card participant (meaning there on a 1-year license in the Euroleague and can move back down to the Eurocup division if they do not finish in the Top-4 in their group in the regular season) Lokomotiv generated a lot of discussion in Euroleague fan and media circles.

Dominating Early, but Finishing with a Whimper

Lokomotiv and head coach Sergey Bazarevich started the year well, but finished with a disappointing quarterfinal exit in the Eurocup to UNICS

Last year, Lokomotiv, who had been demoted to the Eurocup after failing to get out of the second round in the regular season the previous year, started off 2014-2015 scorching under first year coach Sergey Bazarevich, who assembled primarily an American-laden roster. Relying on players such as point guard Aaron Miles, wings Derrick Brown and Malcolm Delaney, and former lottery pick Anthony Randolph, Lokomotiv crusied through their group, going 10-0 and led all teams in point differential (+142) after the regular season ended. With their combo of elite talent as well as strong depth (they also got solid contributions from bench players such as Richard Hendrix, Krunoslav Simon and Nikita Kurbonav), it seemed like Bazarevich had assembled the kind of roster that would cruise to a Eurocup championship.

Things continued as usual in the Round of 32, as Lokomotiv dispatched Valencia of Spain, Asesoft Ploiesti of Romania and Nancy of France with ease, finishing 6-0 in their group with a point differential of +76. In the knockout stage though, they struggled to find the rhythm that made them the B Division’s best team all season. In round 1 of the Knockout stage against Brose Bamburg, they only won the initial game 80-78, a far cry from the dominance they displayed in the first two rounds of Eurocup play. Then, things just fell apart in round 2 against fellow Russian club UNICS. After winning the first game 87-78, Lokomotiv unraveled in the second game, losing 79-58. The 21-point differential resulted in a 157-145 combined score, and instead of advancing to the championship, they were out in the second round, forced to watch the rest of the knockout round from Krosnador. It was the only loss all season for Lokomotiv, but it was so damaging that it ended their season prematurely and put a damper on what was a superb campaign.

Back in the Euroleague, but Cleaning House

Former Los Angeles Clipper and Washington Wizard Chris Singleton was a key signing for Lokomotiv this off-season.

In recognition of their dominance, Lokomotiv earned license to the Euroleague as a wild-card participant for 2015-2016. Knowing that this is a crucial year, the Krosnador-based club cleaned house , letting nearly everyone but Delaney and Randolph (though his status is in the air as he did not play in Game 1) go as well as head coach Bazarevich after only one season (though he did go 19-1 in Eurocup play). Now installed as head coach is Greek national Giorgios Bartzokas who coached Olympiacos from 2012-2014 and led them to a Euroleague title in 2013 and earned Euroleague coach of the year honors that season as well.

As expected, Lokomotiv added a lot of athletic-American based talent, with the standout being Chris Singleton, who has played in the NBA and mostly spent time in the D-League last season (he played for the OKC Blue, the Thunder’s developmental program). However, there is also a lot of local, though older, talent on this roster, including Spaniard Victor Claver (who helped lead Khimki to a Eurocup championship last season) and Ukranian Kyrylo Fesenko, who has played in the NBA with the Utah Jazz and played last season with VTB squad Avtodor Saratov. Though not possessing as many big-names or as much high-end talent as a year ago, it is obvious that they are hoping that the mix of athleticism, veteran talent, and an established Euroleague coach will be the recipe for success in 2015-2016.

Starting Slow, but Finishing Strong against Panathinaikos in Game 1

One has to think that Bartzokas had a little extra motivation for this game, as he coached for Panathinaikos’ rival for 3 seasons. However, Lokomotiv struggled out of the gate, as they were down 21-17 and looked a little out of sorts as a team, struggling to find the right rhythm with the newly revamped roster. But in the 2nd quarter, they hit their stride, as they outscored the Greek power 28-20 in the second quarter to take a 45-41 lead into halftime.

After trading punches in the 3rd quarter, and the game 63-61, things looked prime for Panathinaikos to make a run and pull off the road win in the season opener. However, thanks to the athleticism of Singleton, the strong perimeter defense of Draper and Delaney, an efficient shooting night from Claver (he scored 13 on 5 of 6 shooting, including 2 of 3 from beyond the arc), and inspiring post play off the bench from Fesenko, who finished with 8 points on 4 of 7 shooting and 7 rebounds in less than 15 minutes of play, Lokomotiv outscored Panathinaikos 18-9 in the 4th and won 81-70 in a game that was a lot closer than the final score indicated.

What sealed the deal for Lokomotiv in the 4th was the strong perimeter defense, thanks to their athleticism and length on the wings. Panathinaikos, led by newly acquired guard Nick Calathes, relies heavily on the 3-point shot, as evidenced by their 22 attempts (36.7 percent of their total field goal attempts). However, beyond Calathes (who shot 2 of 4 from beyond the arc) and Dimitris Diamantidis (who shot 3 of 5), the rest of the squad shot poorly, as evidenced from their 2 of 13 mark from 3-point land (including Sasha Pavlovic, a long-time NBA player who shot 0 of 4), good for 15 percent (Panathinaikos shot 31.8 percent from 3-point land, not good considering their emphasis on the 3-point shot offensively). That low percentage is a credit to the Lokomotiv perimeter defenders and Bartzokas’ aggressive defensive principles, as Panathinaikos simply didn’t have a lot of open looks, especially in the 4th quarter with game on the line.

Lokomotiv doesn’t have a lot of pure size in the post (Fesenko is their only 7 footer and they don’t start anyone over 6’9; that being said, they have three 6’10 players in Igor Kanygin, Nikita Balashov and Nikita Zverev, but they are young, with Kanygin and Zverev 21 and Balashov 24, and raw, as they didn’t dress on the active roster for the game), but their aggressiveness and ability in the post was evident on the rebounding end. They out-rebounded the Greek club 42-26 total, and 12-8 on the offensive end (which is one of Dean Oliver’s four factors to winning a basketball game). With Lokomotiv getting plenty of second chances, and preventing the smaller, less physical Panathinaikos squad, it makes sense that Lokomotiv generated more 2 point field goal attempts (44-38) and shot a better 2 pt FG percentage (54.5 percent to 47.4 percent), which contributed greatly to their victory (as eFG percentage is the strongest portion of the 4 factors; eFG percentage accounts 2-pt and 3 pt FG percentage and Lokomotiv shot better in 3-point percentage as well).

(In a tangent central to Panathinaikos, Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica had only 5 total rebounds, the same amount as Calathes, and no offensive boards; those numbers need to improve if they want to be more serious contenders this Euroleague season).

Can Lokomotiv Build on the Momentum from this Win?

Singleton’s 16 point, 9 rebound and 2 block performance will need to be regular if Loko wants to make it into and past the 2nd round.

There is no question that this is a solid Lokomotiv squad. Their group isn’t easy, but they have the talent and coaching to compete with favorites in the group such as Panathinaikos, FC Barcelona and Pinar Karsiyaka. Singleton is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenders on the perimeter, as he can shoot over and post up smaller wings, but he has the speed to beat bigger and slower wings to the rack. Claver is a proven vet, whose ability to stretch out more traditional power forwards and shoot well from beyond the arc makes up for his lack of rebounding and physicality. And Fesenko is a solid bench option, though his stamina issues will probably prevent him from starting over Ryan Broekhoff (though his 4 point, 4 rebound, 3 turnover game certainly wasn’t encouraging).

When Lokomotiv is in the fast break and using their athleticism, they may be one of the best teams in Europe, especially with Delaney, Singleton and Claver on the floor. But taking care of the ball may be an issue for this squad, as they made a lot of errors, turning the ball over 18 times, 3 more than Panathinaikos in the game. A lot of their turnovers stemmed from Lokomtoiv relying too much on isolation plays as well as lack of communication off the pick and roll as well as limited ball movement (which stemmed from the communication issues). Singleton will most likely be their best player considering his scoring ability (he led the team with 16 points) and multiple ability skill set (he had 9 rebounds, including 4 offensive boards and two blocks). But, there were times when the pick and roll that featured him stagnated, because there was a lack of communication and chemistry when it came to responsibilities on the initial ball screen.

Let’s take a look at a possession which was an early microcosm of their early struggles, poor communication and lackluster choices in the offense.

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.15.24 PM

Singleton begins the play from up top. He looks to pass the ball to the wing to set up the side pick and roll play, a staple of professional basketball. But after he passes it, look what happens on the play as he goes to set the ball screen.

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He sets the screen and the other post (Zubkov) doesn’t initially see it, and they are unsure who is supposed to be setting the screen here. Look at the congestion this causes. The wing (Bykov) doesn’t know where to dribble to because he doesn’t know who has the screen responsibility, and 3 Panathinaikos defenders are in the area taking away any free lanes to the hoop. The pick and roll is a free-flowing offensive staple, but when there is lack of communication when it comes to ball screen responsibility, then it kills time, congests the lane, and makes things easy for the defense (since they don’t have to move much because everyone is so close together).

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And then this happens. Because the defense senses the hesitation, they hedge the screen well, and Zubkov can do is give a halfhearted screen that is more of a push than anything. Bykov was lucky he got out of this and was able to find Singleton with the lag pass, because there was a strong possibility he could have gotten trapped here (which Sasha Pavlovic is trying to do on the right).

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After the lag pass to Singleton, Singleton dribble handoffs to Draper on the opposite wing and then does another ball screen. This one is much better and shows much better communication and awareness by the Lokomotiv players on the floor. Draper has much more room to dribble penetrate to the rack and he has a matchup advantage with the much bigger defender switching off the screen. As expected, Draper gets to the rack area, where Calathes has to help stop dribble penetration (along with Pavlovic, in the bottom left, who doesn’t need but sags in anyways).

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Draper then fires it into the corner for Delaney who is sitting wide open for what should be a high-percentage 3-point attempt. Now, this should be a successful corner 3 but look what inexplicably happens next.

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Delaney instead swings it back to Bykov who takes a contested 3. Though Delaney is covered in the image here, on tape, he had enough time to hit the corner 3, as Pavlovic, in the image above this one, had his back to Delaney and would have had a difficult time to block or contest the shot. Delaney was a 36 percent shooter from beyond the arc in Eurocup and VTB play last season. Passing on that shot really is unacceptable, especially considering Bykov’s defender was a lot closer to him than Pavlovic was to Delaney.

Despite this lackluster and frustrating to watch possession, it was still the first game, and you have to remember that this squad is pretty much entirely new from a year ago. Add that with a coach who is in his first year in the club, and growing pains, as seen in the possession above, are inevitable. That being said, this Lokomotiv team has the potential to not just make it to the second round, but maybe be a dark horse to go further (how much though, I don’t know). Singleton is a real building block for them, and they can match player to player with any club in the Euroleague. Furthermore, if Randolph does come back and play with the team, they will be even deeper and more dangerous, as Randolph, while a volatile personality, is multi-purpose talent who can take advantage on the perimeter and in the post when he is on and focused.

The main question with this team is chemistry, not talent. Can they mesh? Can they adjust to Bartzokas’ system and coaching style? Can they come together and finish strong at the end of the year and not fade like they did in the Eurocup a year ago? There certainly are a lot of questions surrounding this Lokomotiv team, who is facing a “win or go back to the Eurocup” situation and don’t have the kind of market or fanfare of CSKA Moscow or even Khimki (who is also in Moscow). Nonetheless, a win in the Euroleague, especially over an established club like Panathinaikos, is a promising sign for the second-round chances (Barcelona and Stelmet Zielona Gora can’t boast the same feat in their group) and should build some confidence for their remaining 9-game slate in the regular season.

Melo and the New York Knicks Could Be Better Than Expected…If Fisher Can Stay Out of the Way

Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks could be better than people expect…as long as Head Coach Derek Fisher doesn’t provide any more distractions.

The New York Knicks have been an unmitigated train wreck the past two seasons. Two years ago, after finishing 54-28 the year before (which included an Atlantic Division title but a disappointing 2nd round exit in the playoffs to the Indiana Pacers), the Knicks failed to live up to expectations that they could compete with LeBron and the Heat and the Pacers in the Eastern Conference. Though Carmelo Anthony put up a banner All-Star year for the Knicks, averaging 27.4 ppg and 8.1 rpg on 45.2 percent shooting in 77 games, and put up 10.7 win shares and a PER of 24.4, the Knicks’ franchise player failed to get much help from his supporting cast. Tyson Chandler was the team’s 2nd best player on a Win Shares basis (4.9) and he only played in 55 games due to injury. Amare Stoudamire and JR Smith had regression seasons (3.8 and 3.7 win shares, respectively) and Raymond Felton had one of his classic “off” years (i.e. he rested on his laurels and didn’t stay in shape), as evidenced by his PER dropping from 15.9 in his first season in New York to 12.9 in year two. .

With all these regressions from veteran players who were expected to be key contributors, the Knicks struggled to find any consistency on the court despite Melo’s best efforts. Their most glaring weakness was on defense as they ranked 24th in the league in defensive efficiency. And thus, instead of repeating as Atlantic Division champs and challenging the Heat and Pacers in the East, the Knicks missed the playoffs with a 37-45 record. Though the Knicks expected W-L (39-43) was a bit better than their actual, it didn’t hide the fact that 2013-2014 was a disappointing campaign, further evidenced by their SRS (Simple Rating System) of -1.40, which ranked them 19th in the league.

After the year concluded, Phil Jackson was hired as Team President to restructure the franchise from the inside-out, and the first one to go was head coach Mike Woodson, who failed to build on the momentum generated from his first two seasons as head coach (Woodson was 72-34 as Knicks head coach prior to 2013-2014). After a failed run at Steve Kerr (who took the Warriors job and led them to a NBA title), Jackson hired former player Derek Fisher, who had just recently retired as a player. Though Fisher had no coaching experience, Jackson hired him because he was a respected player in the league among his peers, and he knew the “Triangle” system from his playing days that Jackson wanted implemented in the Knicks organization.

In the off-season, Jackson’s presence was felt, as he let Chandler, Felton and Andrea Bargnani walk, and only signed Jason Smith in free agency. Instead of relying on veterans who had been inconsistent, Jackson decided to go a more organic route, trying to build within with guys like Cole Aldrich, who had showed some promise in 2013-2014 and Smith, a crafty inside-out center whose skill set was similar to Triangle centers Jackson had coached in the past like Luc Longley, Bill Wennington and Bill Cartwright. The Knicks were trying to craft a new identity, similar to Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers teams, where the team complemented the superstar (in this case Melo) in the Triangle offensive system.

Unfortunately, the Triangle never took off, and by mid-year, with the Knicks clearly going to miss the playoffs for a second straight year, Jackson shipped off mainstays Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland for draft picks and expiring contracts. By February, Stoudamire was bought out, ending a relationship that started out great, but slowly died out in frustrating fashion (few people remember how exciting Amare was in his first year in New York before Melo arrived). With bare bones for a roster, and Melo only playing 40 games due to injury, the Knicks finished 17-65. Not only was it the worst record in the league (something that isn’t easy to do when you think that the Sixers seemed to be shooting for that since Draft night), but they also were putrid when it came to offensive rating (29th), defensive rating (30th) and SRS (30th). Knicks fans have been use to disappointment and losing in the past (see the documentary “When the Garden was Eden” to get an idea of how bad the Knicks used to be before the Walt Frazier and Willis Reed days), but even this was tough to stomach. Just three years ago, the Knicks were thinking they could compete for a NBA title, now they were back to stage 1 of a total rebuild.

2014-2015 couldn’t have gone worse for Knicks fans. That being said, I think the Knicks will improve in 2015-2016, and I think a healthy and motivated Carmelo Anthony will be a big reason why (along with a better suited roster for his talents). However, whether the Knicks see a modest 8-12 game win improvement or something more substantial will fall on the shoulders of second year head coach Fisher, and his improvement from 2014-2015 which, unlike Melo, is something I have less confidence in.

Rookie Kristaps Porzigins will complement Melo well on the court, and allow Melo to play his more natural position of small forward.

The Knicks have struggled defensively the past couple of seasons, and the most common idea is that Melo is to blame. Critics cite his stronger focus on “offense” as a reason why the Knicks defense hasn’t clicked, consequently contributing to the recent team decline in performance on the court and in the win column. I am not saying that Carmelo Anthony is an elite or even above-average defensive player. But he is certainly not as bad as people think, and he has proven to use his 6’8, 230 pound frame to his advantage.

The problem the past few years for Melo defensively is that he’s been playing mostly out of position at the power forward spot. In 2012-2013, Melo played power forward 72 percent of the time and in 2013-2014 he played the position 62 percent of the time. Playing the stretch 4 can be an advantage for a team on the offensive end (which Melo took advantage of quite a bit thanks to his impeccable mid-range game), but on the defensive end it can be taxing as well as ineffective. And that proved to be the case, as more “physical” power forwards tended to take their toll on Anthony. Furthermore, considering how much the Knicks depended on him on the offensive end (his usage rate was 35.6 in 2012-2013, which led the league, and 32.2 in 2013-2014), it made sense that Melo may have struggled or put less effort on the defensive side of things. When you play a full-season, it’s difficult to play 100 percent on both ends. Something has to give, and in this case, that proved to be Melo going toe to toe in the block with NBA power forwards. When Chandler was healthy, it wasn’t a bad thing because he could clean up any of Melo’s mistakes. But when Chandler wasn’t healthy (as in 2013-2014), his defensive inefficiencies were made more glaringly obvious, though as stated before, considering Melo is not a natural power forward, it should have been expected.

Last year, Melo made the transition to small forward more, as evidenced by him playing small forward 77 percent of the time (his time at PF dipped to 22 percent). However, Melo only played 40 games, so this change was hardly noticed or had any impact, especially considering in the 40 games Melo did play, he struggled through nagging injuries. But, at the SF position, Melo’s game shines the most. As mentioned before, he is an impeccable mid-range shooter, a lost art in this era of efficiency and the 3-point shot, but still a talent nonetheless if the player is exceptional in the mid-range, which is the case with Melo. In the past 3 seasons, Melo has shot 44.1 percent, 44.7 percent, and 44.5 percent from 16 feet to the 3 point line, the area typical of the mid-range shot. Those percentages are extremely strong, especially when you compare him to players like Kobe, who has never shot over 42.9 percent from that distance and that was in 2009-2010; and LeBron, who shot 44.7 percent in 2012-2013, but has seen his shot regress to 36.6 percent and 37.7 percent in the mid-range the past two seasons, respectively. Analytic people might not favor the mid-range, but they will agree that if someone can do it consistently well, then it is worth it for the team, and that is the case with Melo who has proved he can shoot the mid-range effectively on a consistent year to year basis. Heck, look at his 62 point game below from a couple of years ago and you can see how his mid-range game opens up so many things for him as a scorer. It is so crucial to his ability to dominate as an offensive player, something that hasn’t been seen since MJ.

But while the mid-range is the strongest aspect of Melo’s game, his diversity of scoring skills (which he has developed tremendously from his Denver days) is what makes him one of the NBA’s best pure scorers. And furthermore, it also makes him more dangerous when he is playing small forward, where he outmatches opposing small forwards in terms of size. While Melo can torch teams from the mid-range, he can post up smaller wings in the post, or he can stretch them out and hit the 3 when needed. Prior to his injury filled-year, the past few seasons had seen Melo utilize the 3 point shot a bit more. In 2012-2013, 27.8 percent of his field goal attempts came from beyond the arc, and in 2013-2014, 25.3 percent of his shots were 3-pointers. Even last year, 22.2 percent of his shots were from 3-point land, which still would surpass any percentage he sported from his Denver days (the highest 3pt FGA percentage he had with the Nuggets was 14.6 percent, which was his rookie season). And though he shot more from beyond the arc, he proved that it is worth it, as his 3pt FG percentage was 37.9 in 2012-2013 and 40.2 percent in 2013-2014. Though it fell to 34.1 percent in 2014-2015, Melo was unhealthy, and considering he has had a full off-season to recover, and judging from his early results so far in pre-season (where he is looking like Old Melo again), it would not be surprising to see his 3-point percentage jump back to that 2012-2014 range.

With his ability to take and own smaller defenders in the post with his size, and stretch cheating or lumbering defenders with his mid-range and 3-point shooting ability, it makes more sense for Melo to see more time at the Small Forward position. But of course, in order to do that, the Knicks need to have a sound option at the 4 spot, which they haven’t really had the past few years.

And that is where rookie Kristaps Porzingis comes in.

Porzingis, the Knicks’ first round pick (and 4th overall) in the most recent NBA Draft, may not be a household or popular name with typical Knicks fans. And it is understandable (though unfair and unfortunate) that the nightmares of Darko and Tskitishvilli come to mind with the drafting of Porzingis. But, Porzingis is a multi-talented player who fits into what Jackson wants to do with this team. Early in the Summer League and Preseason, Porzingis has showed a strong, inside-outside ability and a willingness to go toe to toe with physical power forwards. He hasn’t always been successful, and he still needs to get stronger, but I believe the early results have been promising so far. At the very least, he takes pressure off of Melo from playing the 4, which will open up things more for Melo on the offensive end, and put less pressure on him on the defensive end. If fans are patient with him, it would not be surprising to see Porzingis as the Knicks’ third or second best player as soon as next season. He is only 20 years old, but take a look at some of the highlights of him below and it’s easy to see why the Knicks drafted him over more proven prospects like Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson.

Again. He’s only 20 years old. And for those that are thinking “Another Darko”, Jackson has assembled this roster to support the big man from Latvia. European players like Jose Calderon and Sasha Vujacic (who both will be key to the Knicks’ on court success) will be strong mentors to Porzingis who can also relate to him as fellow European players who adjusted to life and play in America. That is something Darko never had and undoubtedly stunted his development early in Detroit. Already, Porzingis has cited some good rapport and mentoring from Vujacic, and that is a good sign that will not only help Porzingis’ development, but make him more effective on the court, which consequently will make the Knicks, as well as Melo better this season.

Derek Fisher will need to rely and empower Anthony if he wants to keep his title as Knicks head coach

This Knicks team will be better in 2015-2016. If Calderon stays healthy, he will certainly be a better fit for this offense and team than Felton ever was. Vujacic is an underrated 3-bomber who has proven to fit well in Jackson’s Triangle. Free agent post pickups like Robin Lopez and Kyle O’Quinn and wing Aaron Afflalo will make the Knicks not only a better defensive team (which has been lacking the past couple of years), but also a tougher, and more well-rounded squad as well. All the pieces are in place, frankly, for a dark horse season where the Knicks could surprise some people in the Atlantic as well as the Eastern Conference. Considering the Detroit Pistons, the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers all get better with some key off-season acquisitions, that is not an easy statement for me to say. Nonetheless, I really truly believe that the Knicks’ off-season was one of the more subtle, yet effective ones around the league.

But unfortunately, what makes me hesitant that the Knicks will live up to that “dark horse” status is Fisher as head coach.

Last year, Fisher looked overwhelmed and under-qualified to lead the Knicks, even for “first year head coach with no coaching experience” standards. Fisher struggled to find an offensive or defensive identity with this team, and they often looked lost and disjointed as a team on the court, with no leadership or sense of direction. Now, I know by February the Knicks were obviously playing for draft position, but so were the Sixers, and Brett Brown seemed to have his team prepared night in and night out. You can still tell a well-coached team even when they are tanking, and the Knicks were far from that in every aspect of the game.

Now, the adjustment from year 1 to year 2 is huge for a coach. We even saw that with Jason Kidd, who started off horrendously as a head coach only to lead a Bucks team, which had the worst record in the league the year before he arrived, to a playoff berth and a six-game slugfest with the Bulls despite having one of the youngest rosters in the league. It is possible Fisher really learned from his first year and has made some adjustments. It is possible that Fisher will be better with a healthier roster and some more established talent that fits the Triangle better. It is possible that Fisher will be better with a healthy Melo. Fisher seems to be well-liked by players around the league and Melo doesn’t seem to be an exception to that rule. It is not out of the question to think Fisher will empower and put the leadership responsibility of the team squarely on Melo like Jackson did with MJ, Shaq and Kobe.

But there are so many things that make me skeptical of Fisher. Last year’s record and performance is one thing. However, I think of his time as the Union player’s rep where he basically allowed the Players Union to get swindled by Billy Knight during the lockout. I have been utterly disgusted by his poor decision-making in this whole Matt Barnes ex-wife fiasco (though I do put 90 percent of the fault of this situation on Matt Barnes, who has proven once again to be a jerk of massive proportions). Fisher has the potential to be a good coach and the coach Melo and this Knicks team needs. But he doesn’t have a great track record beyond his on-court playing days, and while that isn’t a total indicator for how a coach will perform (Mark Jackson had his off-the-court issues too, but he experienced on court success with the Warriors), it certainly doesn’t help the perception that he has everything under control, which is essential as a NBA head coach.

Maybe this Barnes incident is just a blip on the radar. Maybe the player’s union stuff was more Knight and Fisher was just the scapegoat because he was the Player’s union president. The past is the past. But, the bottom line is this: the Knicks have real potential. They could surprise people, especially if Melo is healthy, as he says, and they get a full season from Calderon. This roster fits what Jackson wants to do with this franchise in ways last year’s couldn’t even imagine. And it’s Fisher’s responsibility to make that happen. Fisher and Jackson may have a great relationship from their Laker days, but Phil is too competitive, and Knicks fans are too restless and impatient to put up with another season like last year.

Keep an eye on Fisher. Keep an eye on Melo. Keep an eye on the Knicks. 2015-2016 could be the year the Knicks turn the corner or when they make another change.

And you can guarantee that if it’s the latter, that change will begin with Fisher.

Olympiacos’ Vassilis Spanoulis, Anadolu Efes’ Dario Saric, and Everyone Else; A Euroleague Group B Preview

The passionate and rowdy fans of Olympiacos will be expecting a 7th Euroleague title this season, which would be the most in Euroleague history.

If you read the Euroleague Group A preview, it sounds like Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul and Real Madrid seem to be head and shoulders above the competition in their group. But while they clearly are favorites, I would not under-estimate the potential of the other four in the group, especially Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade and Khimki Moscow, who all have enough interesting pieces on their respective rosters to provide more challenge than expected in the group. I can’t help but see anyone but Fenerbahce or Real Madrid emerging as the top dog from the group, but it will be a night-in, night-out slog for them, especially in the initial 10-game stretch. One team will be eliminated from the playoffs that would have qualified had they been in a different group.

Group B seems to be that “other” group. Olympiacos finished as the runner-up in last year’s Euroleague Final Four, and they return most of the horses that nearly got them a championship. Furthermore, Fenerbahce’s Turkish rival Anadolu Efes Istanbul also remains a contender thanks to another year of Dario Saric, who has Philadelphia 76ers basketball fans hoping and wishing he will make it to the states soon and in one piece. (I mean, you can’t keep tanking forever, right?) But other than that? EA7 Emporio Armani Milan added some interesting talent in former Purdue Boilermaker and Minnesota Timberwolf Robbie Hummel and Croatian big man Stanko Barac, but they still are a bit of an unknown quantity after their up and down campaign a year ago. And the remaining three clubs (Cedevita Zagreb, Limoges CSP and Laboral Kutxa Vitoria Gastiez) really appear to be lukewarm competitively without much high end talent or depth to compete with the top dogs of the group.

But, when you have one of the Euroleague’s best teams (Olympiacos) and most interesting players (Saric), it makes your group worth watching, even if it doesn’t have the competitive depth of some of the other Groups.

Vassilis Spanoulis (center with waving towel) remains Olympiacos’ best player and leader going into 2015-2016

When it comes to talking about Olympiacos, the discussion always starts and centers on standout Greek guard Vassilis Spanoulis. Spanoulis has been the catalyst for Olympiacos for quite a while, and he was crucial in helping Olympiacos to another Euroleague title appearance last season (which they lost 78-59 to Real Madrid; though to be fair, Madrid had the home court advantage). In 2014-2015, he averaged 14.4 ppg, 5.5 apg and a PIR of 14.4, all team-leading categories. When it came to usage in Olympiacos’ more methodical attack, no one was more important last year for Olympiacos than Spanoulis. Though he is a year older, the pressure and responsibility to carry this squad in the Euroleague will remain on him. How he plays will most likely reflect how well Olympiacos does this year and whether or not they will get another crack in the Euroleague Final Four.

Spanoulis is not just the face of Olympiacos basketball, but the face of Greek basketball as well. His time and contribution to the Greek National Team has been long noted, and it was a bit bittersweet for him and fans of his as this latest Eurobasket will be his last appearance for the Greek National Team (as profiled in this post by Euroleague Adventures). Furthermore, as noted in the EA post by Sam Meyerkopf, time is reaching an end for Spanoulis’ career, and his legacy is a bit mixed, as he has struggled to share the limelight with others (most famously in Panathinaikos; Olympiacos’ Greek club rival) as well as take care of the ball (he is known for being a turnover machine, as evidenced by his team-leading 3.1 TOPG last season, which kills his assist rate). But Spanoulis still can be a wildly productive and entertaining player, and that was on full display in the Euroleague final in 2013 where he absolutely torched Real Madrid for 22 in the Euroleague Final (all in the 2nd half). Check out the video and some of the shots he makes, especially at the 2:20 mark where his make from near half-court is the dagger that puts Real Madrid out for good.

Nonetheless, while Spanoulis will be a critical part of the team, they will need help if they want to finish the job and earn another Euroleague championship to their trophy case. Olympiacos has done that adding a lot of young, athletic talent in Patric Young (formerly of the University of Florida) and Daniel Hackett (a former USC Trojan who played for EA7 last year and the Italian national team in the most recent Eurobaket). If the newly acquired talent can provide Olympiacos a spark (along with Spanoulis continuing his strong play), then their chances of a 7th Euroleague Championship could strongly be within their grasp.

Dario Saric is one of the most interesting players in the Euroleague due to his importance to Anadolu Efes as well as the Philadelphia 76ers who drafted him in 2014.

In Group B, no player is more fascinating the Croatian Dario Saric. Saric was famously drafted No. 12 by the Magic in the 2014 NBA Draft and traded to Philly, though Philly knew full well that Saric wouldn’t be coming to the States for at least two years. Despite that, he remains a centerpiece for the Sixers future, and how he performs for Efes and in the Euroleague will be a sign whether General Manager Sam Hinkie’s gamble and “rebuilding” plan was worth it for the Sixers organization. It’s fascinating to see so much hope and pressure on a guy who most American basketball fans have never seen before.

But, if last year was any indicator with Efes, then it is easy to see why the Sixers organization has been enamored with Saric. As a 20-year-old in his first full European club campaign, Saric averaged 9.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.4 apg and a PIR of 12.6 in 27 games for Efes. And Saric did this despite being a clear 2nd-3rd option behind Nenad Kristic and Stephen Lasme, and on a team whose style of play was more methodical (they averaged 75.3 ppg) and expected more physical play out of their taller post players.

However, veterans Kristic and Lasme are both gone, so Saric now inherits the mantle as the premiere post player for Efes. Saric offers a balanced, inside-outside skill set, and displays strong athleticism and footwork for a player 6’10. He was tabbed the 2013 FIBA Europe Young Man’s player of the year, and has built a tremendous reputation for his performance in International competition as well as a strong work ethic and intensity for such a young player. Just check out this “Focus On” profile him below, and not only do his passing and scoring skills jump out at you, but his composure and maturity for a 20-year-old (actually 19 at the time of the interview).

Efes doesn’t have a lot of big time names on their roster beyond Saric, so it’ll be interesting to see who will step up around him for Efes this season. Alex Tyus could be an interesting pickup, as he saw some valuable time for Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv the past 3 seasons, and was another member of their 2013-2014 Euroleague championship squad. Whoever becomes the main complementary player(s), the attention and high expectations will still be on Saric to help Efes make a playoff run to the Final Four (they have made it twice in club history, finishing 3rd both times). If he makes a big leap (and all signs are pointed to one) then not only expect Efes to succeed, but Sixers fans to be clamoring heavily for him, especially as they are expected to go through another rough season.

Robbie Hummel of EA7 dunks the ball past Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv defender Dragan Bender in Game 1 of the Euro Classic in Chicago, which Maccabi won 85-79. EA7 won Game 2 at Madison Square Garden 76-72.

Of the four remaining teams, EA7 has the best chance to make some noise, especially with the additions of perimeter scorers Robbie Hummel and Charles Jenkins, who should boost the consistency of the offense, something that EA7 struggled with at times last year. Also, they return Alessandro Gentile, who performed well for Italy at the FIBA Eurobasket (which the Italians finished 8th) and averaged 14.3 ppg last year for EA7. These three along with Oliver Lafayette, who averaged 6.8 ppg for Olympiacos last year, should provide EA7 with a solid backcourt. How their front court progresses though is a question, and it will be interesting to see who steps up in the post to help free things up for their talented perimeter players. Being one dimensional (i.e. relying on their perimeter players) may get them to the second round, but not much further than that against deeper and more balanced squads.

Cedevita Zagreb doesn’t feature a lot of big names with mainstream basketball fans, but one: Jacob Pullen, the former Kansas State Wildcat. Pullen averaged 14.3 ppg for Basket Brindisi of the Italian League last year, and also has Euroleague experience from a stint with FC Barcelona a couple of years ago. It’ll be interesting to see if Pullen can help lead Cedevita to the second round and garner the fourth and final group spot, especially with Limoges CSP and Laboral Kutxa featuring mostly young, countrymen-heavy rosters, usually a sign of a rebuild for the club.

Can Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul Steal the Crown from Real Madrid? A Euroleague Group A Preview

Bogdan Bogdanovic (blue left) and Jan Vesely (blue right) are key to Fenerbahce preventing Sergio Rodriguez (13, white) and Real Madrid from repeating as Euorleague champions.

Without a doubt, Group A in the upcoming 2015-2016 Euroleague season seems to be a “Group of Death” of sorts. All six teams have the horses to make a run to and in the Euroleague playoffs, but only four will come out advancing after the initial 10-game round-robin slate, as customary in the Euroleague first round. There will not be any “gimme” games in this group, which makes this group a “must-watch” for Euroleague fans on a nightly basis.

To look at a few teams briefly, Khimki Moscow won the Eurocup last year, and earned promotion to the Euroleague thanks to star point guard and former Euroleague champion (during his time with Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv) Tyrese Rice, who returns to the Khimki squad this season. FC Bayern Munich added some valuable pieces to their roster, including KC Rivers, who brings a championship pedigree after a reserve role with Real Madrid last season, as well as post man Deon Thompson, a former member of the Munich squad two years ago who split time between Hapoel Bank Yahav Jerusalem of Israel and the Liaoning Jiebao Hunters of China in 2014-2015. And lastly, Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade will be a dark horse of sorts, as they have one of the toughest home crowds in Europe, and they added legendary Greek center Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who had spent the past couple of seasons as the main post player for Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, especially during their championship season in 2013-2014.

But while the three above all have shots for second round and beyond dreams (as well as Strasbourg, who have an established coach in Vincent Collett, though to be frank, I see them as a bit of a longshot in this group, and sense them struggling a little bit more in their promotion than fellow recently promoted Euroleague squad Khimki), the heavy favorites in this group will be defending Euroleague champion Real Madrid and Spain and Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul of Turkey, who appeared in the Euroleague Final Four. I have already chronicled Real Madrid a little bit on this blog before, but I really think that with Fenerbahce’s recent success, as well as impressive off-season, the defending champions could not only have serious competition in their group, but perhaps deep in the playoffs as well from Turkey’s premiere basketball club.

Fenerbahce Celebrates after sweeping defending Euroleague champion Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Playoffs to earn a spot in the Final Four.

Last year was a banner campaign for Fennerbahce, as they went 8-2 in group play and 11-3 in the second round. Their 19-5 overall record in the first two rounds included two wins over Olympiacos (who ended up finishing as runner-up) and EA7 Emporio Armani Milan, and an impressive victory of CSKA Moscow, another Final Four participant not just last season, but the season before as well. In the quarterfinals in a best of five format, Fenerbahce cruised on their home floor against Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv with an 80-72 victory in Game 1 and an 82-67 win in Game 2. On Maccabi’s home floor, Fenerbahce displayed their meddle, winning a tense pressure-filled contest on the road 75-74, much to the disappointment of the Israeli home crowd. As you can see in the highlights below, despite the raucous home crowd, and the tough, desperate play from Maccabi to stave off elimination, Fenerbahce got big time performances and shots from players such as center Jan Vesely, and guards Bogdan Bogdanovic and Andrew Goudelock to propel them to the clinching Game 3 victory.

Though they fell to Real Madrid 96-87 in the Final Four game, as well as CSKA Moscow in the 3rd place game, the Final Four appearance, their first in their history of participating in the Euroleague, was a strong accomplishment for the Turkish basketball club. They showed that not only should they be taken seriously as a team at the domestic level in Turkey, but also throughout European basketball circles in general.

Last season, Fenerbahce was led by spark plug guards Goudelock and Bogdanaovic, who scored 17 and 10.6 ppg, respectively, as well as lanky, versatile forwards such as Vesely and Nemanja Bjelica, who scored 11.2 and 12.1 ppg and grabbed 5.4 and 8.5 rpg, respectively. Opposing teams struggled against Fennerbahce’s athleticism and up-tempo style, as they looked to push the ball on the offensive end in order to score in the fast break, and showed a lot of full and half court pressure defense techniques throughout the season to generate turnovers and easy points. Though they didn’t have the depth of some of the best teams in the Euroleague, they were a well-coached squad under Željko Obradović, and his coaching style and ability to maximize the talent of his roster was a big reason why the club reached the Euroleague Final Four for the first time in history.

This year, Fenerbahce re-loaded in a big way. Though they did lose Goudelock and Bjelica, two key contributors from a year ago, they filled in the gaps with a lot of veteran talent, many who had contributed in the NBA just recently. This off-season, the Turkish club signed Pero Antic (most recently of the Hawks), Ekpe Udoh (most recently of the Clippers and a Top-10 NBA Draft pick) and Luigi Datome (most recently of the Boston Celtics). All those signing are a huge boost to Fenerbahce’s Euroleague hopes, as all those players were such key contributors to NBA teams as recently as last season (especially Antic, who seemed to be a bit of a fan favorite in Atlanta). With the exception of maybe Real Madrid, it’s hard to imagine a fellow Euroleague team that sports the kind of veteran pedigree that Fenerbahce possesses. Add that with another year of the core of Bogdanovic and Vesely (who has looked tremendous in Europe after flaming out in the NBA as a former lottery pick), and it’s easy to see why Real Madrid could have their hands full in Group play.

Real Madrid certainly has the championship experience and a strong core built around their veteran home-country perimeter players such as Sergio Llull, Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez. Furthermore, as defending champs and a former Euroleague player himself, it’s hard to imagine Pablo Laso not having Real Madrid ready for not just their upcoming games against Fenebahce, but the Euroleague in general. That being said, the depth of Fenerbahce, especially in the post will present quite a challenge to Real Madrid. While they do have veteran Felipe Reyes, Gustavo Ayon and the recently added Trey Thompkins, it is hard to see them really matching up with the NBA veteran posts Fenerbahce has in Antic, Udoh and Vesely. And as stated before, nobody has seen a career revitalization in Turkey like Vesely. Seen as soft, passive and ineffective, Vesely has developed a lot of toughness and explosiveness in Fenerbahce that has helped his game immensely. In the most recent FIBA Eurobasket, Vesely proved to be the catalyst for an overachieving Czech Republic team that made it to the quarterfinals, and showcased himself as one of the best players in the field, as he flashed the athleticism and intensity that was hardly seen during his time in the NBA. If you check out high highlights below, it is scary to think what Vesely could be capable of in year 2 with Fenerbahce.

Group A has a lot of interesting stories and a lot of interesting teams that should be entertaining to watch and follow. But make no mistake about it: the number 1 spot out of the group will be battled between Fenerbahce and Real Madrid. It is still tough to pick against Madrid. Rodriguez and Llull are two of the best point guards in Europe, and have the capability to not just play, but succeed today in the NBA, and the chemistry this Real Madrid squad has simply cannot be matched by any other team in the Euroleague. One cannot overlook the importance of returning a majority of your squad from one year to the next, especially when the previous year resulted in a Euroleague title.

But, as we know not just from the Euroleague, but basketball and sports in general, repeating is tough. And this Group does Real Madrid no favors. Fenerbahce may have been elated with their Final Four appearance last year, but they are looking to go beyond a 4th place finish this year, and they have signed the talent necessary to prove that last year was no fluke. It’ll be interesting to see if their newly acquired horses will help them overcome an experienced Madrid squad, and result in their first Euroleague title in 2015-2016.