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

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

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

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

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

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

What Miller Offers Red Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cinderella Euroleague Run in 2013-2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perfect storm of offensive and defensive issues against CSKA Moscow

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.47.13 PM

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

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.46.53 PM

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

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.47.35 PM

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

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.48.25 PM

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

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

Maccabi Baseline Screen Play-1

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

Maccabi Baseline Screen Play-2

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

And this is what happens:

Maccabi Baseline Screen Play-3

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

Do Maccabi Fans need to worry?

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

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

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

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

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

Dominating Early, but Finishing with a Whimper

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

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

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

Back in the Euroleague, but Cleaning House

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

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

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

Starting Slow, but Finishing Strong against Panathinaikos in Game 1

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

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

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

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

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

Can Lokomotiv Build on the Momentum from this Win?

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.15.24 PM

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

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

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.16.30 PM

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

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.17.22 PM

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

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.17.53 PM

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

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.18.08 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBall Breakdown Video and Why Smart Gilas Lost to China

Much to many’s surprise, China’s guards, such as Guo Ailun above (6, white) kept Smart Gilas’ star guard Jayson Castro (7, blue) under tight wraps

If you haven’t seen it, please watch the video below which is BBall Breakdown’s excellent take on the China-Philippines FIBA Asia Gold Medal Game last Saturday. As I live tweeted the game, it riled up all kinds of emotions from Smart Gilas fans, including this gem below:

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There we go. A woman who sounds like one of my aunts giving expert analysis to why China won. Anyways, take a look at BBall Breakdown’s excellent analysis of the FIBA Asia Gold Medal Game. If you haven’t already, check out their YouTube page, as they have excellent content from basketball fundamentals and strategy, to analysis of the NBA. For any basketball junkie, it’s required viewing for sure.

Here are few of my own thoughts about Smart Gilas’ play, though I won’t go into much depth, as Coach Nick did a good job of that already in the analysis above.

  • The one thing you have to remember is China was extremely favored this game. They were hardly challenged at all in this tournament, with the lone exception being their second game in the group stage against South Korea where they were losing by double digits as late as the 3rd quarter. In that game, China really came out sluggish, and didn’t shoot well either until the end, where their outside shooting came around and Zhou Qi took over in the paint. Other than that scare against Korea though, China had been on cruise control throughout the tournament. The same could not be said of Smart Gilas. We all know about their opening loss to Palestine, but they struggled with consistency throughout the tournament. They struggled at times and were down in contests against Lebanon and Japan, who they were much better than. They had to get a huge 4th quarter run to pull away from Iran. While China dominated, Smart Gilas seemed to be running on fairy dust, with lady luck seeming to help them time and time again. Eventually, the luck will run out, and unfortunately, for Smart Gilas it did against a much bigger and better and more athletic Chinese team. This is probably one of Smart Gilas’ best teams ever, but they still were a heavy underdog in this game and they needed a lot to go in their favor.
  • With that being said, while Smart Gilas’ execution at times was lacking, what wasn’t was their effort and heart for the most part. With the exception of Andray Blatche running out of gas seemingly in the 3rd and 4th quarters (especially on the defensive end, as chronicled in some lackluster help defense in the video above), Smart Gilas played with all out effort and reckless abandon throughout the game. The bench demonstrated this soundly, as I thought Abueva, who struggled with fouls and missed free throws, left it all out on the floor in admirable fashion. The heart and effort of Smart Gilas, especially the bench kept them in the game, even if their offensive and defensive execution certainly didn’t.
  • The biggest disappointment about this game was the lackluster performances from Jayson Castro and Terrence Romeo. I had been big fans of both of them in this tournament, as Castro was obviously the main piston to Smart Gilas’ dribble drive offense, and I felt Romeo was a young, heir apparent to Castron in many ways due to their ability to score and create offensively. Though Romeo is still green in terms of senior national team competition and still has to work in creating offense for others (he’s still too “ball dominant”), he has demonstrated a streaky and entertaining style of play that complements Smart Gilas’ team well. (On Twitter I likened him to those 90’s “shooting guards” in “point guard” bodies like Steve Francis, Allen Iverson and Gilbert Arenas). Unfortunately, they both struggled immensely both on the offensive and defensive end, as Coach Nick pointed out soundly above. I thought the main advantage Smart Gilas had in that game was at the guard position, as I thought Smart Gilas sported a much better arsenal at guard going into the final than China. However, that was far from the case, as not only did Castro and Romeo struggle, but Guo Ailun also broke out with a sterling performance that opened up the post for China, their main plan of attack. Castro was a big part of Smart Gilas’ win over Iran, as he dropped 42 points and seemed unwilling to be contained or stopped. Unfortunately, that performance didn’t repeat against China, and Smart Gilas struggled to stay in the game without his influence on the court.

Like I said on twitter earlier, Smart Gilas will still be playing in the Olympic Qualifying tournament next year, which is better than nothing and still gives them an outside shot at earning an at-large berth (and getting a silver in a FIBA area that is rising in terms of competition is nothing to slouch at; especially considering South Korea, which was one of the hottest teams in Asia the past couple of years failed to medal and will not be playing in the qualifying tournament). But, Smart Gilas will have their hands full, as they will play a difficult field which includes a multi-talented and young Canada team (which I think will be a dark horse in that tournament if they return everyone and get Tristan Thompson, who didn’t play in the FIBA Americas tournament) as well as European powers such as France and Greece. As stated before by Coach Nick in the video, Smart Gilas will always be outmatched in terms of size and athleticism, so it is important that they are sound in their fundamentals and gameplan if they want to earn a spot in the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.

It’ll be interesting to see if that can happen. Tab Baldwin will have a full year with the team, and he has pulled success stories before in New Zealand, Lebanon and Jordan. If Smart Gilas can make the Rio field, then without a doubt, that will be the magnus opus of Baldwin’s coaching career thus far.

Let’s see what can happen in a year for Smart Gilas. In the meantime, as I said before, congrats to China. They are a talented and young team, and could be a dark horse in the Olympics with the right draw. With talented posts like Yi and Zhou Qi, they will be a handful for anyone, let alone the basketball global powers.