It’s been awhile since I have been able to post here on this blog, and I am rewatching the Euroleague playoffs this week to get myself reaquainted with the Euroleague (NBA Playoff season doesn’t help) as well as re-psyched up for the upcoming Euroleague Final Four. It could be the long layoff. It could be summer is approaching. Apologies for the long periods without posts or Tweets. Those who follow this blog should be used to it by now.
Anyways, we are almost a week away from the start of the Euroleague Final Four, one of the most underrated events in professional sports. Unlike the NBA, it’s single elimination, no best of five or sevens here. Win two games, and your team is the champion of Europe. Simple as that; no second chances until next year. For basketball fans who get numb to the postseason until the NBA Finals in June…
In this edition of “Basketball Tapas”, the focus will be on the FIBA Champions League and their announcement of their field for the 2016-2017 as well as the Eurocup adding four new additions to replace the four Italian clubs that defected to the Champions League last minute. Also, we’ll take a look at couple of Euroleague clubs who made some key moves to boost their rosters.
Some key things to note about that draw and groupings:
Group D looks to be the most promising and competitive group in the regular season. Eurocup and LNB runner-up Strasbourg heads the group, but clubs such as Iberostar Tenerife of the ACB, KK Cibona and Mega Leks of the ABA, and possibly Besiktas of the BSL, if they get of the qualification group, will also be challenging for group supremacy. If there is a “group of death” of sorts of the four, group D may be it.
Speaking of Besiktas and the qualification rounds, I imagine there are some teams who probably aren’t happy about their status of playing in these rounds. Besiktas probably made the biggest splash in terms of transfers of any club in the BSL beyond the four Euroleague participants, and yet they only got a bye from the first round of qualification play. Furthermore, Dinamo Sassari, who participated in the Euroleague the past two seasons, will have to win in both rounds of qualification play to make it to the regular season group stage. They definitely were hit the hardest of the four Italian clubs who left the Eurocup out of fear of being banned in Serie A play.
The format is similar to the old Eurocup model, which has it’s positive and negatives (more teams participating, but less guaranteed exposure and games for teams in comparison to the newly-remodeled Euroleague and Eurocup models). As stated in a previous post, the competition is stronger than anticipated, but it’ll be interesting to see if the “favorites” (Strasbourg, Pinar Karsiyaka, Aris, etc.) will persevere to the playoffs and Final Four in this more cutthroat cup competition where there is less forgiveness when it comes to early losses. For FIBA’s CL to be taken seriously, they need big-time clubs to make it to the championship to get attention from basketball fans all over Europe. Unfortunately, this model is less conducive to making that happen in comparison to its competition (Eurocup), and that is a big risk for FIBA in their first year of this new “league”.
Eurocup adds four new clubs to make up for Italian defection
Days after the Eurocup officially announced its field, the four Italian clubs participating in the competition withdrew out of fear of sanctions and suspension from Serie A domestic play. This included Reggio Emilia, Cantu, Trento, and Sassari, as they ended up moving to the Champions League instead in order to avoid punishment (though they certainly took their time in doing so; it wasn’t confirmed that their four Italian clubs were out of the Eurocup officially until the recent Champions League field announcement).
It is a bit sad to see that we will see three major European countries not represented in the Eurocup (France, Turkey and now Italy), which hurts the Eurocup’s position as the top second-tier competition in Europe. However, the addition of some new clubs to the mix should add some nice variety to the Eurocup field. MZT Skopje represents a country that has been underrepresented in major club competitions (Macedonia), and they could help get the country and its basketball federation a bit more recognition. Furthermore, Fuenlabrada proved to be a fun team in the ACB last season, led by Croatian standout Marko Popovic, and it’ll be intriguing to see if Popovic can have the kind of impact in the Eurocup this season like he did in the ACB a year ago.
The absence of Italian clubs in the Eurocup will be noted in 2016-2017, but the Eurocup rebounded nicely and quickly with these four additions.
Guard Ricky Hickman signs with EA7 Armani Milano
Former Maccabi Tel Aviv and Fenerbahce point guard Ricky Hickman announced that he will be signing with EA7 Armani Milano, a big signing for the Italian club that is coming off a Euroleague campaign where they did not qualify for Top 16 play.
Hickman represents another key move in what has been an active off-season for the defending Serie A champions. In addition to signing Hickman to take over point guard duties, they also kept star player Alessandro Gentile from going to the NBA (the Houston Rockets apparently had strong interest), and also signed Slovenian forward Zoran Dragic from Khimki and Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica from Panathinaikos. Not only are they favorites to retain the Serie A championship, but they could be dark horse contenders for the playoffs and perhaps Final Four with the strong quartet of Hickman, Gentile, Dragic and Raduljica.
After dominating the Euroleague in the early years of the “modern” format, only one Italian club has made the Final Four since 2005 (Montepaschi Siena in 2011). Milano, one of the strongest and most historic clubs in the Italian Serie A, has not made the Final Four since 1992, and one can imagine head coach Jasmin Repesa and the Milano organization and fans are eager to break both of those streaks in 2017. Milano still had to develop some depth and probably need to add a couple of pieces to make their frontcourt stronger around Raduljica, but so far this summer, Milano has done a lot to make their club stronger after such a down Euroleague campaign a year ago.
Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv signs forward Richard Howell
After the devastating injury to Quincy Miller, one of Maccabi’s premier signings this off-season, the Israeli powerhouse seems to have found a solution to their Miller situation. Richard Howell is on his way to the “Yellows” in Tel Aviv, via reports and this announcement on his Twitter. The 6’8, 25-year-old former North Carolina standout has played in the NBA as well as the D-League, and fortunately will be familiar with the club and the country, as he played last season with Ironi Nahariya in the Winner League, where he averaged over 15 ppg and 9.8 rpg. (Howell also played for Talk n Text of PBA in the Philippines last year, as pictured above.) Howell seems to be optimistic about going to Maccabi and Israel, as he had this to say on his Twitter:
Excited for these next 2 years of basketball! Great opportunity #telaviv
Howell is not as “pure” replacement for Miller of course. While he does help their frontcourt, he doesn’t have Miller’s ball handling skills, and is not the outside threat from beyond the arc that Miller is. He is more of an “around the basket” player, who relies on his athleticism and crafty, physical skills to generate points and garner boards on both the offensive and defensive end. That being said, he is a much better rebounder than Miller, and he will provide a nice physical combo for Tel Aviv when combined with Maik Zirbes, who plays in the same, “hard-nosed” style. Considering Maccabi was one of the worst rebounding teams in the Euroleague last season (they ranked near the bottom in defensive rebounding rate), their signing of Howell is a nice addition that should help make up for the loss of Miller somewhat.
Other “Tapas” of note…
Luke Harangody re-signs with Darussafaka Dogus: This was an expected move, as it didn’t seem like Harangody was sought after by many other European clubs or back home in the NBA, but this is good confirmation for head coach David Blatt. Harangody is a tough, crafty player who lacks natural athleticism but makes up for it with good footwork around the rim, and a “high-motor” on both ends of the floor. With Semih Erden gone to the NBA, Harangody will most likely be the “primary” player in the pivot for Darussafaka.
Real Madrid re-signs Andrés Nocioni: The “Los Blancos” juggernaut keeps getting bigger. After re-signing Jeff Taylor, they have also signed Dontaye Draper to help with point guard duties, and now have extended the Argentinian mainstay. Nocioni will be a peculiar fit, as the frontcourt is a lot more crowded with the addition of Anthony Randolph, and he could see more competition at the small forward with Taylor and teenage sensation Luka Doncic, who improved mightily last year. Nocioni will find his minutes, but he will be depended on less this upcoming year than in years past.
Crvena Zvezda active with Ognjen Kuzmic and Jenkins signings: After losing Miller and Zirbes to Maccabi Tel Aviv, and parting ways with Tarence Kinsey, Red Star remained pretty quiet this summer as other Euroleague teams spent money left and right to boost their roster. While the club seems committed to building their club with local, Serbian talent, the past week has been the most active one of the summer for the surging Serbian club that made it to the Euroleague playoffs for the first time in club history. They signed Jenkins to replace Kinsey, a solid signing considering Jenkins is a more dynamic scorer than Kinsey, and he has familiarity with the Red Star club and environment (he played for them from 2013-2015), which should make his transition an easy one (the video of his sister reacting in awe to the Red Star “fans” in Belgrade remains one my favorites). The addition of Kuzmic also solidifies their front court, as the seven footer is the kind of presence that they need in the block on the offensive and rebounding end with Zirbes gone. It came a little later than expected, but Crvena Zvezda definitely seems primed to make another run to the playoffs, especially with this new combo of talent and coach Dejan Radonjic returning to Belgrade, a big victory for the club considering he was offered the position at Laboral Kutxa Baskonia this off-season.
Finally…all the turmoil, rumors, and reports are over. FC Barcelona finally has a coach, and it isn’t Sarunas Jasikevicius or Sito Alonso (who ended up taking the Laboral Kutxa Baskonia job…more on that in a separate post). After a lengthy process to figure out Xavi Pascual’s replacement, Barcelona management settled on Greek national Georgios Bartzokas, most recently the head coach of Lokomotiv Kuban of Russia.
Bartzokas is an interesting hire by Barcelona management after a multiple week process that felt much longer. He doesn’t have the playing pedigree of Jasikevicius, nor does he have Alonso’s youth or deep ties within the Spanish basketball system. Despite not having those characteristics, Bartzokas has been a successful head coach, as he won a Euroleague title in 2013 when he was head coach of Olympiacos and led Loko to their first ever Final Four as well as a third place finish last season (in the club’s second appearance in the Euroleague ever). There is no question that the 51-year-old Athenian head coach can make teams competitive at the highest level of play in Europe, but is he the right fit for the Catalan club, and can he bring the kind of success (ACB and Euroleague titles) that evaded previous head coach, Xavi Pascual, the past couple of seasons?
After all, as stated before in one of my previous posts, in Barcelona, it’s “championships or bust.” Consolation prizes aren’t a reality with the Catalan faithful, and it will be fascinating to see how Bartzokas will be able to transfer the success he had with Loko last year to Spain, but this time, under much more cutthroat circumstances.
Bartzokas came onto Barcelona’s radar late, as it seemed in mid-June, Bartzokas was going to honor his contract with Kuban for at least one more season, according to a report from Sportando. And honestly, it didn’t seem to matter at the time, as Saras seemed to be a shoo-in for the Barcelona job once Pascual officially was let go (which happened a couple of weeks later). But, as we learned before, Jasikevicius wasn’t eligible for the position due to ACB rules, and in early July, after the Alonso reports proved to be erroneous, Barcelona was still without a head coach.
And surprisingly, things also changed dramatically for Bartzokas in Krasnodar.
Despite pledging his allegiance, the outlook for Lokomotiv Kuban looked quite bleak for 2016-2017. While Loko had a banner year in the Euroleague with their surprise Final Four run, their domestic season wasn’t as successful. In the VTB United League, Loko finished an underwhelming fifth, and were promptly swept by Khimki Moscow 3-0 in the playoffs. Because of the disappointing finish, the club didn’t earn the B license out of the VTB to qualify for the Euroleague (that went to Unics, who finished second to CSKA Moscow), and they missed out on the lone wild card spot to Darussafaka Dogus of Turkey. With new condensed format of the Euroleague, Loko was left out of the field of 16, and regulated to Eurocup, a harsh reality to stomach for Bartzokas and the organization after they ousted Barcelona in the playoffs months earlier.
And because of the regulation, it became less of an incentive for ownerships to pay top dollar to keep players, and star players began to look and find contracts elsewhere. Malcolm Delaney headed to the NBA where he signed with the Atlanta Hawks. Versatile big man Anthony Randolph ended up signing a two-year deal with Real Madrid. And though they haven’t signed anywhere else yet, Victor Claver and Dontaye Draper have made it known that they are not returning with Loko next season. And thus, it made sense for Bartzokas to look elsewhere despite pledging his commitment nearly a month earlier. Loko looked to be a rebuilding job in 2016-2017, and quite a big one in Europe’s second-tier competition. That’s not what Bartzokas signed up for when he said he would “honor” his contract, and when Barcelona came along with an offer, he took it gladly, knowing that the Loko job would be more risk than it was worth.
Bartzokas is a different kind of hire for Barcelona, and the Barcelona job is a different one as well for Bartzokas. Previous head coach Xavi Pascual was a Barcelona-lifer of sorts, as he got his start coaching the B team in 2004, and then spent a couple of seasons as an assistant to Dusko Ivanovic before taking over in 2008 after Dusko was fired. Bartzokas on the other hand, has no experience coaching or playing in Spain, and his only basketball experience outside of his home country of Greece came last year with Loko, and that was in Russia, where the VTB and Russian Domestic scene is not as strong as the ACB. For Barcelona, one of the top clubs in the ACB, the Bartzokas hire is a bit of an experiment, as the coaches they have hired in the past had experience in Spanish basketball as a player or coach.
But, if there is one thing the Athenian coach can do it is win and win quickly. Bartzokas took over Olympiacos in 2011, and promptly won a title in 2013, beating CSKA Moscow in the semifinal and Real Madrid in the championship game by double digits. After an underwhelming season in 2014-2015, when Loko went undefeated in the Eurocup regular season, but choked in the quarterfinals, Bartzokas led Loko to a dream Euroleague season which not only included a trip to the Final Four, but also a dramatic comeback in the playoffs, where despite being down 2-1 in the series and facing elimination in Game 4 in Barcelona, they won two straight games to punch their ticket to Berlin. Bartzokas’ basketball acumen, as well as cool demeanor, especially in big games, has served him well in his coaching career, as he has installed immediate success in every place he has coached so far.
For Barcelona, hiring a coach who could produce a quick-turn-around is exactly what they needed, especially with their rivals in Madrid dominating not only them, but the ACB the past couple of seasons.
What has made Bartzokas such as successful coach is his emphasis on defense. Last season, Loko was one of the best teams defensively in the Euroleague, as their 100.2 defensive rating was the second best mark over the full season (and only .1 behind Fenerbahce Ulker). However, Loko really found their groove defensively when Top 16 play began, when they fully had their roster intact (Randolph only played 60 minutes total in Regular Season play). In Top 16 play, Loko’s defensive rating was 98.4, 3.1 points better than the second best mark (Fenerbahce), and their net rating of 11.4 was also the best in the league in the Top 16, even better than eventual champion CSKA Moscow (who had a 10.0 mark). Once Bartzokas had all his horses (mostly Randolph), Loko was one of the toughest teams to beat on a night in-night out basis, and Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy was a big key to that tremendous success in the Top 16.
Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy really is nothing spectacular. He emphasized strong, man-to-man defense, with little switching, and an emphasis on stopping the drive as much as possible. On the backside, Loko usually sagged their defenders to create help more than typical from most squads, which is characteristic of many Pack Line defenses. Take a look at how Loko is positioned on this possession against Barcelona in the playoffs.
See Claver on the weakside sagging heavily toward the paint, which was a heavy part of Bartzokas’ philosophy last season: force teams to beat them from the outside. However, one reason Bartzokas was able to do this because Loko did two things well: 1.) utilize their length and athleticism and 2.) play extremely hard in half court defense. Loko was a cohesive unit on the floor defensively, and Bartzokas deserves a lot of credit for maximizing the talent on his roster on this end.
Bartzokas didn’t utilize a lot of full court presses or traps in the half court, mainly because he didn’t need to. He had length and athleticism advantages defensively at nearly every position. Delaney was a big point guard who could body up most opposing point guards with ease, and he was strong enough to play through screens and blow up opposing pick and roll plays. And Delaney’s backup, Draper, was a small bundle of muscle who didn’t have Delaney’s height, but had the same kind of strength-speed combo to either frustrate opposing guards or play through screens easily. Claver was a versatile defensive player who had the size to play opposing fours, but also the speed and length to hound and frustrate wings as well (he could sag this low on this possession because if Barcelona did skip it, he had quick enough reactions and athleticism to recover and break down and properly contest the three pointer or prevent the drive). Ryan Broekhoff didn’t have the athletic gifts of some of the other players in the starting lineup (mostly Claver or Randolph), but he played EXTREMELY hard on the defensive end. One could say Broekhoff was the glue that kept this squad together. A defender who didn’t give as much effort may have put Loko in situations where his teammates would be compromised more defensively. However, because of Broekhoff’s effort, and his ability to play through screens and guard multiple positions (he could guard guys on the perimeter or post depending on the situation), his teammates were able to play in their comfort zone and not worry about frequently having to help on breakdowns, which consequently made them more effective defenders, and thus, a more effective defensive team.
And the jewel of Bartzokas’ defensive strategy was Randolph who did everything defensively. He could block shots with ease around the rim, but he was also quick enough to hedge and recover off the ball screen, or switch in a pinch (which didn’t happen very often). And Chris Singleton off the bench provided the same kind of defensive ability, though Singleton was a bit more on the physical side (though not as quick as Randolph). As one can see, all these pieces put together put up a strong defensive force that proved to be difficult for opponents to score on. The only times Loko gave up points was usually due to mental lapses on their own end. As talented and effective as Randolph was, there were times he broke down defensively in transition, as he sometimes tended to jog back down after a turnover or missed shot, which led to easy buckets in transition for opponents. But for the most part, Bartzokas had this Loko team a well-oiled machine on the defensive end, and installed a strategy that proved to be effective all-season long in the Euroleague.
Of course, it is to be expected that Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy will adjust with Barcelona in some ways. While he will be able to play a similar way on the perimeter with long wings such as Alex Abrines, Stratos Perperoglou, and Pau Ribas, Ante Tomic in the post is a much stiffer-moving defender who can’t recover or switch or block shots like Randolph. However, there is one weapon on the roster that Bartzokas most likely will utilize more, especially on the defensive end, and that is Shane Lawal. Lawal doesn’t have the offensive gifts of Randolph, but defensively, he mirrors Randolph’s profile nicely. Lawal is a long, athletic defender who can roam and fight through screens, and he looked like he was on the verge of breaking out for Barcelona before a midseason injury sidelined him for a while. Expect Bartzokas to utilize Lawal more, especially since he will fit into Bartzokas’ conservative man-to-man strategy that emphasizes strength and length to prevent baskets. The only issue for Bartzokas to address is defense from the point, as Juan Carlos Navarro isn’t the kind of defender that will fit into what Bartzokas liked to do with Delaney and Draper last season, and Tomas Satoransky isn’t going to be with Barcelona next year, but instead in the NBA (he would have fit better due to his large frame). It’ll be interesting to see if Barcelona management will add a point guard through transfer this offseason in the kind of athletic mold of Delaney and Draper to fit into Bartzokas’ defensive system in year one in Barcelona.
Offensively, it is a bit of a different story for Bartzokas, as this is where he will most dramatically differ from his predecessor. Pascual was known for being a great basketball mind, who relied on a heavy playbook and liked to call multiple actions and sets in the half court. Bartzokas is the opposite, as he prefers a hands-off approach and allows for a more free-flowing offense that relies more on isolation and getting the ball to 1 or 2 scorers and depending on them to make the offense work.
Last season, Bartzokas relied heavily on Randolph and Delaney, as they generated most of the offense for Loko, especially in the half court. Randolph led the team in usage rate at 32.1 perecent, a mark that was also highest in the Euroleague last season as well. A lot of the time, Bartzokas offense was simply get the ball to Randolph and let him do his thing, and considering how versatile and athletic a scorer Randolph was, it worked most of the time. When Plan A (get it to Randolph) didn’t work, it usually delved into Plan B which was get the ball to Delaney, who had the second highest usage rate on the team at 22.9 percent. And off the bench, Singleton proved to be a Randolph-lite, as his usage rate was 21.9 percent.
When it worked, it was a sight to behold. No better example was Game 4 of the playoffs, when Anthony Randolph went straight “LeBron James”-mode and won the game himself and kept Loko alive despite facing elimination on the road. Check out his highlights below and how heavily Loko relied on him in their sets (as well as Delaney, who set up a lot of Randolph’s buckets).
There really wasn’t anything groundbreaking with what Randolph, Delaney and even Singleton did on the court strategically. They got the ball, they either drove and finished (mostly in the case of Randolph and Singleton) or drove and created for others (mostly in the case of Delaney). It was simple, but it was effective and it was tough for teams to guard at times, especially when one player was hot, it usually opened up shots for others as well. And this isn’t something exclusive to Loko, as Bartzokas preferred this philosophy with Olympiacos as well, as Vassilis Spanoulis had a usage rate of 29.3 during their Championship run in 2013.
Unfortunately, when things stalled offensively for Loko, or if they couldn’t get the ball to Randolph or if Delaney wasn’t hitting his shots or finding room to drive or if Singleton was on one of his cold streaks, the Loko offense could get downright ugly. Poor turnovers from horrendous possessions led to easy baskets for the opposition on a more-than-desirable basis. Loko actually had the seventh highest turnover rate in Top 16 play, and their lack of ability to take care of the ball consistently would transfer to a lot of blown leads for the Krasnodar-based club. Yes, they would come back a lot of the times, as one of those three or another like Claver, would get on a hot streak to rescue them. However, Bartzokas’ simple offense sometimes proved to be Loko’s own worst enemy, as they didn’t play well in the pick and roll, nor did they have a lot of effective secondary plays to hang their hat on in the half court when the isolation wasn’t clicking.
Establishing an offense will be much a bigger challenge for Bartzokas in Barcelona than defense, and ultimately that will make or break his tenure with his new club. With Satoransky gone, and no new signing to take over his position (yet), it will be interesting to see who will step up and be that “primary” isolation playmaker that will succeed under Bartzokas. With Olympiacos, it was Spanoulis as well as Dimitris Diamantidis. With Loko, it was Delaney and Randolph. Three-four years ago Navarro could have handled that role, but he isn’t the shooter or shot creator he once was, as evidenced by his sub-par campaign last season. Tomic is an effective scorer around the block, but he is effective in the pick and roll (not one of Bartzokas’ go-to’s) and really can’t create much off the dribble. And wings such as Perperoglou, Abrines and Ribas have been more “secondary” offensive threats in the past, not necessarily primary offensive options (though that could change with Bartzokas giving them more responsibility and leash). Bartzokas most likely will adjust his offensive philosophy to play more to his roster’s strengths, as he most likely will try to find a middle ground between Pascual’s old system and his own for the short term until they get more talent tailored to his liking. Nonetheless, it’ll be interesting to see who will step up and be that “main” guy, as Bartzokas has leaned on that “primary” player in his coaching stops thus far.
The pressure to win in Barcelona is more than ever, and Bartzokas knows he is not stepping into an easy job. Pascual was a misnomer for a European coach, as he actually stayed a long time in Barcelona, something that is not typically seen from coaches in the “impatient” basketball management world of European club basketball. However, he had success. He took Barcelona to Euroleague Final Fours and won ACB titles, and he didn’t the last two years, which is why he is gone. Bartzokas has done the same: he has won a Euroleague title and been to two Final Fours, but doing so in Greece and Russia is a lot different from doing it in Spain, probably the most high-profile country in Europe when it comes to Euroleague and domestic league success.
If there is one thing positive about Bartzokas’ outlook it is that Barcelona is trying to change how they “build” their team, so Bartzokas will have some leash if he doesn’t make the Euroleague Final Four or win an ACB title in year one. However, a bottom-out season (i.e. a fourth or lower finish in ACB play or not qualifying for the playoffs in the Euroleague) won’t save him, nor would two years without a championship. This isn’t a one-year audition, but the pressure to perform at the highest level certainly is going to be expected from the Catalan faithful
Bartzokas won’t be able to play the same exact kind of ball he did in Loko next season and how he adjusts his style, which differs from Pascual in so many areas, will be something to behold next year. Will it work? Will Bartzokas find the right compromise in styles offensively and defensively? Will he get some talent toward the end of the summer or start of the year that will allow him to do what he is accustomed to doing? (There were reports that Barcelona was trying to make a late push for Randolph before he ended up signing with Madrid.)
Bartzokas can’t waste much time though to figure out these issues. Real Madrid has dominated their El Clasico rivals the past two seasons, and that is a wound that gets deeper and deeper with every Real championship and win in the ACB and Euroleague.
If that competitive status with their rival doesn’t change quickly, it is not difficult to imagine who the fans’ scapegoat will be.
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.
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.
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.
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.