Ranking the field of the upcoming Euroleague Final Four

Some thoughts about the upcoming Euroleague Final Four in Istanbul…

Euroleague Jam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anadolu Efes: New coach, New (Younger) Approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darussafaka: The “New Kid on the Block”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Galatasaray: Eurocup title down; Euroleague next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fenerbahce: The “King stay King”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Quick Preview to the FIBA OQT Bracket Rounds

Turkey and Canada are still two teams that have a chance to qualify for a spot in the Olympics in this Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

After a preliminary round of games, we have reached the bracket rounds of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The reward? Three teams will get berths in the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where they can fight for a chance to earn a bronze or silver medal (sorry…nobody’s competing with the USA, even though the lack of big-name stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry will make it a little bit more interesting). 12 teams remain in the OQT, and to be frank, there is a strong chance a team worthy of an Olympic berth will not qualify through this tournament. While I do think the FIBA World Cup is a better venue for National Team basketball competition, the Olympics still remains the most high-profile, and the dogfight for the last three spots will be interesting to follow this weekend.

For those who are unaware, the tournament is split into “three groups”: An Italy Group, a Serbia Group and a Philippines Group. The winner of each group goes to the Olympics. Everybody else will be forced to watch the Olympics on the NBC Family of networks from their home country (whether or not it’s the one they participated for in this tournament though is to be determined). Before going into the preview of the “bracket” round, let’s point out some key events and thoughts from the tournament so far.

  • Not a great tournament for FIBA Asia or FIBA Africa, as the teams from the two continents went a combined 0-12 in group play. I know the NBA is trying to make great inroads with both those continents, both economically with fans as well as in basketball development. However, it is obvious that those continents are still years away from seriously competing on the global level with major continents like the Americas and Europe.
  • Speaking of FIBA Asia, it was a bit of a disappointing showing for Gilas Pilipinas (the name of the Filipino National Team). Despite the home court advantage, Gilas went 0-2, with losses to France and New Zealand in Manila. They played admirably in both games, and actually gave France a pretty good fight, as they actually led the global power after the first quarter. However, their lack of size (average height was 6’5 and that was with naturalized citizen Andray Blatche) ended up being their own worst enemy in both games, as it has been in FIBA Tournaments in the past. There still is some promise with Gilas, as Terrence Romeo and Bobby Ray Parks look to be a good combo to take over the mantle at the guard positions when Jayson Castro and Jeff Chan retire from international play. It’ll be interesting though to see how long Gilas lasts with Tab Baldwin, who has obviously made an impact offensively and defensively with the club (they played a much more aggressive scheme in the OQT). The Filipino Basketball organization isn’t known for being patient, but I think Baldwin deserves some more time, at least through the next FIBA Asia Championship to prove his worth.
  • The Americas was a bit of a surprise, as Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico all qualified for the Bracket round. Canada, despite missing Minnesota Timberwolf Andrew Wiggins, has remained competitive in their group (though inconsistent…as always) and has really been boosted by the presence of Tristan Thompson, who hasn’t been as active in the international scene the past couple of years. Mexico was missing former NBA player Gustavo Ayon, who just recently signed an extension for the reigning ACB champions, Real Madrid. However, they were able to pull the upset over Iran, who had former NBA player Hamed Haddadi, to qualify for the bracket round in their group. And Puerto Rico, who have faded a bit since their “monumental” Olympic win over the USA in 2004, have played well, and parlayed the experience winning the Centrobasket Tournament weeks earlier into solid play in the OQT.
  • There is going to be at least 1 deserving European squad left out of the Olympics this August. Latvia, Greece, France, Czech Republic, Serbia, and Italy have all proven that they would be competitive if they made the Olympic field, but unfortunately, only three of those listed have a chance to make it. At this point, I would not be surprised to see all three slots go to European squads. The FIBA Europe field in this OQT has been that strong (the lone exception being Turkey, who have not looked very good this tournament).

Okay, with some of those thoughts out-of-the-way, let’s get to the preview of the bracket round of each group.

Serbia Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Latvia vs. Puerto Rico

Semifinal 2: Serbia vs. Czech Republic

Analysis: Puerto Rico has been a good story, as they pulled off a big win over African power Angola 91-81 in Game 2, and only lost by 6 points to Serbia, a heavy favorite as they are playing these group games in Belgrade. Puerto Rico is led by their point guards, as Carlos Arroyo (who went through an up and down season with FC Barcelona in the ACB last year) and JJ Barea have played well, as expected for Puerto Rico, averaging 12.5 ppg and 14 ppg, respectively. However, the big surprise has been John Holland, who is averaging a team-high 16 ppg and 5 rpg from the wing position. The depth on the perimeter for Puerto Rico has made them a sneaky dark horse threat.

As for Latvia, they have been led by Bilbao Basket star Dairis Bertans, who is averaging a group high 19 ppg on 54.5 percent shooting, and the two Janis’: Janis Timma and Janis Blums. Timma has done more of his damage around the basket, as he is averaging 10.5 ppg but only shooting 25 percent from beyond the arc, while Blums has been a marksman from three, averaging 10 ppg on 54.5 percent from beyond the arc. The only issue for both teams will be in the post, as Puerto Rico relies on aging players like Renaldo Balkman to hold down the fort, while Latvia is missing Knicks superstar Kristaps Porzingis. Whoever wins the rebounding edge will be key to who makes it to the championship game in this matchup, especially since they are both strong teams on the perimeter.

As for Serbia, they are the favorite and rightfully so: they are in Belgrade, and are led by a lot of NBA and European talent such as Milos Teodosic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Miroslav Raduljica, Nikola Jokic and Nemanja Nedovic. Serbia struggled a bit to put away Puerto Rico in game 1, but they have seemed to find a groove against Angola, as they won by 23 points. Jokic and Raduljica have been key in the post for Serbia, and Bogdanovic has provided impact, as expected, on the offensive end both off the drive and from beyond the arc (he is averaging 12 ppg and shooting 46.2 from beyond the arc. However, the key to the team earning an Olympic berth rests on Teodosic and his ability to create offense for this Serbia team. While Teodosic’s leadership and presence on the floor has been felt (he was a +24 in net rating in their win against Angola), he hasn’t really exploded with a big performance (he had 8 points, 6 assists and 4 turnovers in the game 2 win). If he can channel his big-performance capability in this bracket round like he did in the Euroleague, then Serbia will be a shoe-in for 1 of the 3 Olympic berths.

However, they might have a tougher time in the semifinal round than in a possible championship game. Led by first-team All-Euroleague center Jan Vesely and future Washington Wizard and former FC Barcelona guard Tomas Satoransky, the Czech Republic bounced back with a convincing 16 point win over Japan in game 2 after a rough 12 points loss to Latvia where they shot 37.7 percent from the field, including 2 of 15 from beyond the arc. The key to a possible dark horse run in this bracket will be the combo of Vesely and Satoransky, as they are a tough combo to stop when they are on. Satoransky has been a bit up and down though, as he only scored 5 points against Latvia. He will need to improve upon that performance against Serbia if the Czechs want a possible rematch with Latvia. Only this time an Olympic berth could possible be on the line.

Pick: Serbia

Italy Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Greece vs. Croatia

Semifinal 2: Italy vs. Mexico

Analysis: This is arguably the strongest of the three groups, as you have three legitimate Olympic teams in Greece, Croatia and Italy. Unfortunately for FIBA and International basketball fans, two of these worthy teams will be left out in Rio.

Mexico has been a surprising story, led by NBA journeyman Jorge Gutierrez at the guard position, who is averaging 12.5 ppg, and under-the-radar guard Francisco Cruz, who plays for VEF Riga in Latvia. However, the lack of Ayon in the post is a serious hinderance for this Mexican club, and though Lorenzo Mata is serviceable, they are going to have issues defending Italy’s long and outside-oriented bigs.

Speaking of Italy, no team has looked better than this country over the past month, in both OQT and in international friendlies. Coached by former CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid head coach and current San Antonio assistant Ettore Messina, Italy cruised through group play with their meticulous, outside-oriented style. Italy is not known for playing a physical style of ball, but they have hurt teams with the 3-ball, as Marco Belinelli, Andrea Bargnani, Gigi Datome and Danilo Gallinari are all threats to hurt opponents from beyond the arc. The big question though will be how they fare in the post, as Bargnani isn’t exactly the kind of physical player to bang with the potential posts from either Greece or Croatia.

Greece is probably the deepest team in this group, and arguably the whole OQT in general. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ioannis Bourousis, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Efstratios Perperoglou, Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes leading the roster, Greece is a squad chock full of NBA and Euroleague pedigree. They don’t have the shooting depth of Italy, but the length they have will give Croatia fits, and Italy in the Championship, should they get past Croatia.

However, don’t count out Croatia, who bounced back from a 7-point loss to Italy with a 20-point win over Tunisia. This isn’t the kind of “strong” Croatia team we have seen in the past with Toni Kukoc or Dino Radja or Drazen Petrovic, but the talent on this team is young and capable of pulling the upset. Bojan Bogdanovic has carried the young squad, as he is the group’s leading scorer, averaging 25.5 ppg in group play. And Darko Planinic and Dario Saric (who will be going to Philly next year) have been holding things down in the post, though they still have room to grow as players. And lastly, don’t count out Mario Hezonja, who’s struggled this tournament, but has the potential to light it up from beyond the arc. I think this Croatia team is probably a couple of years away from being a real contender on the global scene, but they have a puncher’s chance against Greece.

Pick: Greece.

Philippines Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Canada vs. New Zealand

Semifinal 2: France vs. Turkey

Analysis: A bit of a blah group, as Turkey and New Zealand should be easy fodder for France and Canada, respectively. However, don’t count out Canada’s history of inconsistency on the big stage, as evidenced last year where they dropped a semifinal game against Venezuela that cost them the FIBA Americas 2nd automatic berth.

Athletically, Canada could compete with anybody in the OQT field. Their average height is 6’6 and they are a young team with an average age of 25 (and this is without Andrew Wiggins). However, sans Corey Joseph, who is averaging a team-high 17 ppg, this Canada team has struggled. Thompson has added NBA experience and defensive versatility to Canada’s roster, but has gone through efficiency issues on the offensive end, as he is shooting 31 percent from the field and averaging only 8.5 ppg. Brady Heslip, who lit up the D-League with the Reno Bighorns a year ago, has hit a cold streak so far in the OQT, averaging only 3 ppg while shooting 18 percent from the field. The talent is there for Canada: Anthony Bennett, Melvin Ejim, Khem Birch, Tyler Ennis, etc. However, they have not been able to mesh at times, as evidenced in their 58-55 win over a Senegal team they were much better than on paper.

Canada should make it to the Championship game of this tournament (most likely against France), but they should not take New Zealand lightly. The Tall Blacks pulled a big win in front of a passionate pro-Filipino crowd in Game 2, winning 89-80 in a game which they won every quarter but one (they tied the third quarter). They key to the Tall Blacks’ to qualifying for the bracket round has been guard Tal John and Corey Webster and forward Reggie Abercrombie. New Zealand doesn’t possess a ton of athleticism or highly skilled or big-name players in comparison to their competition, but they play well together, and they run a lot of different looks on defense to give teams fits. If Canada shows up to play like they did against Senegal, it would not surprise me to see the Tall Black add another upset to their OQT resume.

The Turkey-France matchup is one that would have been good four years ago, but will most likely be a blowout in favor of the latter. Turkey has a solid mix of NBA and Euroleague stars in Omer Asik, Bobby Dixon, Semih Erden, and Furkan Korkmaz.  However, the absence of real big NBA stars like Enes Kanter and Ersan Ilyasova makes this Turkish squad feel a bit second-rate in comparison to teams from past international competitions. And it has shown on the court, as Turkey not only hasn’t been impressive in group play, but they didn’t impress either in many of their friendlies leading up to the OQT competition.

On the other hand, though they are missing Rudy Gobert, and with Nic Batum sitting out (but on the bench), France is loaded with star power who play well together. They mix of NBA veterans like Tony Parker and Boris Diaw have meshed well with Euroleague stars like Nando de Colo and Thomas Huertel. The absence of Gobert and Batum has left France a bit fragile in the post, as Joseph Lauvergne and Kim Tillie haven’t been able to duplicate Gobert’s presence, as evidenced their 93-84 shootout against the Philippines. But, France can score from all over the court and in a variety of ways, and the presence of two highly skilled and polished playmakers like Parker and de Colo makes France one of the smoothest offensive teams in the OQT, which should carry them to victory in this group, and a spot in the Olympics.

Pick: France.

Four Thoughts from the Eurocup Field Announcement

Galatasaray of Turkey won the Eurocup last season. With a more competitive field, who will win the competition this season?

The transfer season is upon us and all kinds of wild news stories are flooding twitter and the internet ranging from coaching changes to new acquisitions by major clubs to players going to the United States in the hope of making a squad through Summer League. However, the biggest announcement over this past week was the of unveiling of the teams participating in the Euroleague, Eurocup and FIBA Champions League for the 2016-2017 season. While we do not know anything about the draws just yet, the announcement was particularly interesting with the Eurocup, especially considering the ramifications that could possibly be coming for countries of clubs when it comes to FIBA National Team Competition.

So, I wanted to list some thoughts about the Eurocup announcement and four “early” interesting storylines to follow leading up to the start of the season. I will also do another one on the Champions League, as the Champions League and Eurocup will be directly competing with each other for status as Europe’s “second-tier” competition to the Euroleague this season.

The Euroleague’s “Condensed” Format definitely made the Eurocup competition stronger.

Despite a Final Four appearance last year, Loko is back in the Eurocup due to the Euroleague’s condensed format. This will make the competition stronger than its ever been before.

The Euroleague’s decision to have just one round of regular season games rather than two, and 16 teams instead of an initial field of 24 seemed to leave a lot of mid-tier clubs out of the loop. Lokomotiv Kuban, the third-place finisher in the Euroleague a season ago, did not make the cut, and the same was true for other 2015-2016 Euroleague participants such as Unicaja Malaga (who will be making their Eurocup debut this season), FC Bayern Munich, Cedevita Zagreb, Dinamo Sassari, Stelmet Zielona, and Khimki Moscow. In addition, former regular Euroleague participants such as Partizan Belgrade, Alba Berlin, Nizhny Novgorod, Lietuvos Rytas, and Valencia, just to name a few, are also teams that weren’t able to make the Euroleague field, and will be looking for a Eurocup competition championship as well to boost them back into the Euroleague field in 2017-2018 after a multi-year hiatus.

The omission of these clubs from the Euroleague may be a disappointment to those clubs’ fans, as well as Euroleague fans in general who like to see “underdog” stories (such as Loko a year ago), but their addition to the Eurocup field makes the Eurocup competition better than ever. In years past, the Eurocup always had a couple of mid-tier clubs that were simply too good for the “EuroChallenge” (FIBA’s formerly sponsored “third-tier” competition that was replace with the Europe Cup last year and now Champions League), but didn’t offer enough “fight” to Eurocup competitors who had been demoted from the Euroleague. That made the early rounds of the Eurocup not worth watching or following.

However, the addition of these “higher-tier” clubs from the get-go, and an extended round format that is more akin to the Euroleague’s previous format (10 game first round, 14 round Top 16 and then playoffs and Final Four) will make the competition fierce from the beginning. Furthermore, since all 24 clubs will be starting in the Eurocup from the start (rather than 8 joining after demotion following the Euroleague Regular Season), teams will be more prepared and ready for the competition. A lot of times, teams who were demoted ended up playing poorly in the Eurocup, as the demotion was a sign of failure, and they either weren’t “up” for the Eurocup games, or organizations “transferred” players in the Eurocup rounds to recoup some money for the lost season. That won’t be the case this year hopefully, now that there won’t be any “new” teams joining mid-season, and the stakes for an automatic Euroleague berth more fierce than ever with only 3 B-Licenses and 1 wild card available .

It will be interesting to see though how “Eurocup” status will affect some clubs during this “transfer” season.

Guard Kyle Fogg, who signed with Unicaja Malaga, has been one of the few big-name players to sign with a Eurocup team this summer.

While the prestige and depth of competition in the Eurocup certainly improved on paper under the new format, it will be fascinating to see if the “demotion” for many clubs to the Eurocup to start the year will have a negative effect when it comes to acquiring talent this offseason. During this “transfer” season during June, we have not seen or heard as many big signings from teams participating in the Eurocup in comparison to their Euroleague brethren. While Euroleague participants such as Darussafaka Dogus, Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv and Anadolu Efes have dominated headlines with big-name acquisitions, teams who’ll be participating in the Eurocup have been particularly quiet, mostly relying on small-time upgrades or re-signings that have generated little to no buzz.

One of the most active Eurocup clubs this summer has been Unicaja, who signed former University of Arizona guard Kyle Fogg from German club Eisbaren Bremerhaven and extended a couple of key players from last year’s squad in Nemanja Nedovic and Jamar Smith. Furthermore, Italian club Dinamo Sassari has signed a slew of new players who will hopefully turn around the Sardinian club’s fortunes after a down season that resulted in the firing of long-time coach Romeo Sacchetti during the season. Other than those two clubs though, not many Eurocup clubs have generated attention sans a couple of middling moves here and there. It makes one wonder if being a “Eurocup” team rather than a Euroleague one for many of these clubs has affected their front office’s negotiating power not to mention payroll availability when it comes to garnering talent to build a competitive roster. In the past, a club like Loko would have made a big move by this time in the transfer season, and yet, they, along with some other clubs who participated in the Euroleague a year or two ago, have not acquired anyone of note.

Of course, there still is a lot of time before the Eurocup season tips off, and typically Eurocup participants are more active on the acquisition front when it gets closer to the regular season, when many Euroleague teams have their rosters set, and free agents are just looking for a decent place to play and have less negotiating power. As stated before, clubs like Unicaja, Dinamo, Loko and other “regular” Euroleague clubs tend to be more active than this when it comes to acquiring talent during the “transfer” season. Is it because they’re trying to save money now that they are not in the Euroleague? Or are clubs just being patient, knowing that they don’t have the negotiating leverage they once had when they were in Europe’s top inter-continental competition? Unfortunately, this is a question we will only know the answer to by late August/early September.

The absence of Turkish or French teams in the Eurocup is a bit overblown.

Despite a runner-up finish last year, French club Strasbourg will not be participating in the Eurocup this year.

One of the major stories of the Eurocup field announcement was the absence of any French or Turkish teams in the field of 24. This is the first year in a while where there have been no French teams in either the Euroleague OR Eurocup, which is a bit unusual considering France’s status as a country in Europe as well as the success of their National Team in FIBA competition. As for Turkey, while they do have four teams participating in the Euroleague, they are absent in the Eurocup, including Pinar Karsiyaka, a Euroleague and Eurocup participant last year, who opted to play in FIBA’s Champions League rather than the Eurocup, out of respect to FIBA’s wishes for second-tier clubs to participate in the CL rather than the Eurocup.

It is a bit startling to some to see the absence of such major basketball countries in the Eurocup, but the competition will not miss the two countries much, if at all, once competition begins. In terms of Turkey, as stated before, they already have four clubs playing in the Euroleague, and when you look at the BSL (Turkish Basketball League) beyond those four, the clubs aren’t very strong. Even Karsiyaka, who won the BSL a couple of years ago, have regressed mightily in less than a year, and will be in rebuilding mode after long-time head coach Ufuk Sarica left Karsiyaka for Beskitas after the season ended. So, yes, there are no Turkish clubs in the Eurocup, but with four in the Euroleague already, I don’t think Turkey as a basketball federation minds that they do not have a presence in the “Euroleague-sponsored” second-tier competition. Their strong footprint in the first-tier competition is more than enough to make up for the lack of Eurocup representation.

France on the other hand will have no representation in either the Eurocup or Euroleague, which is a bit more disheartening, since it is unlikely the Champions League will have the kind of publicity or reach with fans that those two other competitions have. However, unlike the French National Team, which is one of the best in Europe, as evidenced by a Gold Medal in the Eurobasket in 2013, their club scene has not performed as well as of late in European competition. The last team to make the Euroleague Final Four from France was Limoges in 1995, and the only team to make the Final Four in the Eurocup’s history was Strasbourg last season, who lost in the final to Turkish club Galatasaray for the Euroleague qualifying spot.

The only possible team that the Eurocup could have benefited from was Strasbourg, who has been the strongest team out of France the past couple of years. Coached lasts season by national team coach Vincent Collet, and with a roster of former Dallas Maverick Rodrique Beaubois as well as young American talent like Kyle Weems, Mardy Collins and Matt Howard, Strasbourg had one of their strongest seasons a year ago both in the Eurocup (finishing second overall), Euroleague (they won five games, and just missed out on making the Top 16) and domestically (they won 25 games in the LNB). However, after blowing a 2-0 lead in the finals to ASVEL, a team that finished in 5th place in the regular season, Collet was let go and who knows not only who will replace Collet, but how many of the players will stay on board with Strasbourg in 2016-2017.

And thus, with France’s strongest team looking to be in regression, and former Euroleague and Eurocup participant CSP Limoges coming off a pretty sub-par season (they only won 3 games in the Euroleague and went 18-16 during LNB play), the Eurocup may not have benefited competitively from France’s participation. And one can’t blame France for passing on the Eurocup either: France’s biggest strength in international basketball is their national team, and with possible sanctions coming for national teams whose clubs are participating in the Eurocup, choosing FIBA’s Champions League was the safest route to go.

How will sanctions affect the Eurocup beyond next year?

With multiple clubs participating in the Eurocup, will Spain, the reigning champions, along with other countries, be barred from the Eurobasket in 2017?

The Eurocup looks to be the strongest it’s ever been in its short history, with many Euroleague-quality teams flooding the field. It is clearly superior to FIBA’s Champions League, though the Champions League is a lot better than I initially thought it would be (it certainly is better than the FIBA Europe Cup field this past year). But the Eurocup participation could come at tremendous cost: already, many countries have dished out sanctions in their domestic league (Russia being the biggest one), and it seems strong that FIBA is trying to dish out similar punishment to the national teams as well who have clubs participating in the Eurocup.

Now, as they are still in court fighting this, it probably won’t have any effect on the Olympics this summer. However, the biggest question will be how FIBA will sanction teams by the Eurobasket in 2017? With Hapoel Jerusalem participating in the Eurocup, not only has the club gotten sanctioned domestically (they will be ineligible for the Israeli Cup, though it might not affect their status in the Winner League), but there is a possibility that they may not be able to participate or host games during the Eurobasket 2017 (Israel is one of the four hosts along with Romania, Finland and Turkey, who not clubs in the Eurocup). Considering Israel is coming off a strong showing in the Eurobasket 2015, this would be back-breaking for their national team after years of progress to be as competitive in FIBA play as they are in the club scene (mostly due to Maccabi Tel Aviv).

But then again, with so many major countries having clubs who are participating in the Eurocup such as Spain, Germany, Serbia, Croatia, etc. will FIBA actually dilute their tournament all for the sake of promoting their own club competition? Or is national team competition so important that those countries will wise up and push their secondary clubs to the Champions League over the ULEB-sponsored one? This year, it seems like those countries are taking their chances, but if the sanctions do become serious and teams are disqualified from competing in FIBA play, it makes one wonder if 2017-2018 will have a very different Eurocup field.

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

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

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

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

And then less than two months later, this happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is where Blatt comes in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blatt and Darussafaka seem like a perfect match.

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