As the Euroleague season heads into Round 17, the performances of German club Brose Bamberg and Serbian club Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) Belgrade have certainly turned the heads of many Euroleague fans and experts. While both had good campaigns a year ago (Brose made the Round of 16; Red Star made a surprise playoff appearance where they were swept by CSKA Moscow), it was expected that these two would be battling to avoid the cellar in “revamped” 16-team Euroleague format. Both teams had lost key players in the off-season (Brose lost star scorer Brad Wanamaker to Darussafaka; Red Star lost explosive wing Quincy Miller and post mainstay Maik Zirbes to Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv), and didn’t necessarily replace them with any “big-name” signings. Thus, it was easy to dismiss that both teams would give some fight, but were far from serious contenders for a playoff spot.
And yet, here we are, with Red Star currently in the 7th position at 8-8 and Brose on their tail in the 9th position at 7-9. Both teams have won their last three games, each with quality wins over playoff-contenders on the resume in the recent stretch (Brose has beaten Olympiacos and Barcelona by double digits; Red Star did the same to Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow). Considering how wide-open the playoff situation is beyond Real Madrid, CSKA and Olympiacos, both under-the-radar clubs have to be taken seriously not only as playoff contenders, but perhaps Final Four dark horses to boot.
That being said, we are only one week into the second-half of the regular season. Are Brose and Red Star for real? Or are they simply riding hot stretches of play, about to be exposed in the coming weeks or toward the end of the season? Let’s take a look at both clubs, and their outlook over the remaining 14 regular season games in the Euroleague in 2017.
Melli and the Brose offensive machine.
Niccolo Melli was named the Euroleague MVP for December and for good reason. After a buzzer-beating 90-88 loss to CSKA Moscow, Brose was 2-8 and in the Euroleague basement on December 1st. Since then, the Bamberg-based club has been 5-1, their lone blemish a loss to Real Madrid in the Spanish capital. And the spectacular play by Brose’ Italian star has been a major reason for the turnaround. Melli is averaging 13.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.2 apg on 55.6 shooting from the field, which includes a 57.5 true shooting rate. All this has helped Melli accumulate a PIR average of 20.3, not only the highest on the team (the closest is newcomer Fabien Caseur with 12.1), but also the second-best mark in the Euroleague (behind only UNICS’ Keith Langford).
Yes, Melli success’ has been largely responsible for catapulting Brose back into the playoff hunt. That being said, what this roster has been able to do despite the lack of “big-name” star power has also been a marvel to witness since week 10. Brose has become a three-point gunning team, similar to NBA clubs like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Though they are only 5th in the Euroleague in total 3-point attempts, they have made the 3-pointer an effective weapon. 37.5 percent of their points come from three-pointers, according to Overbasket.com, which is the top mark in the Euroleague. And furthermore, this has worked to the advantage of their overall offense, as evidenced by their points per field goal mark of 1.19, which is best in the Euroleague as well.
One of the most interesting aspects of this 3-point heavy assault is that it is mostly utilized when Melli is on the bench. Melli leads the team in MPG at 30.8 per game, and when he is on the court, 49.5 percent of their points come from 2-point attempts, and 36.3 percent come from beyond the arc, according to Overbasket. However, when he is on the bench, that 2-point percentage drops to 47.1 and 3-point attempt percentage rises to 41.5. Now, a higher share of points doesn’t necessarily mean success, but their 42.1 percent 3-point make rate with Melli off the floor shows how well head coach Andrea Trinchieri utilizes his lineups not only when his best player is on the floor, but resting on the bench as well.
Brose probably can light it up with anybody in the Euroleague on the perimeter. Darius Miller is averaging a team-high 13.3 ppg and is shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc, even though he has only started 8 games this year. Caseur, who served a reserve/complementary assignment on Baskonia’s Final Four squad a year ago, has emerged as a valuable shooting/point hybrid for the Euroleague’s lone German squad, as evidenced by his 10.3 ppg and 12.1 PIR. And lastly, Janis Strelnieks and Maodo Lo have also provided crucial spark to this Brose team as well on both ends of the court, both in the starting lineup and off the bench.
So the question is this: can Brose parlay their hot play as of late to a playoff spot? Right now, it’s hard to see them not unless they cool down considerably from the field, which is possible, as it did happen to them in the Round of 16 a year ago. As effective as their offense is, they still offer up some size and physicality to opponents, and against more bruising teams, Brose could find trouble not just scoring points, but pulling off wins. The recent return of Elias Harris helps with some of those issues, and Daniel Theis has stepped up big time this year, but they don’t have the post depth of clubs like Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, Real Madrid, or Baskonia.
And yet, maybe it doesn’t matter. Trinchieri has always been regarded as one of the finer coaching minds in Europe, and he has probably done his most masterful job yet. He has made this team one of the most effective offensive clubs in the Euroleague even though they don’t have that one “superstar” go-to guy (though Melli certainly is becoming that, if he’s not at that level already). This Brose team could have packed it in after losing eight of their first ten, but while clubs in similar positions at the time like Olimpia Milano and Galatasaray have seemed to fallen off by the wayside, Brose has become one of the scariest and most dangerous teams in Europe.
Yes, it’s a long season, and on paper, there are some flaws. But the combination of Melli and Trinchieri’s coaching and system makes me confident that they’ll have a good shot to be one of the last eight teams remaining after round 30.
Red Star’s “ugly” but “potent” style of ball
Unlike Brose, this Red Star team looks horrendous on paper. They are dead last in points per field goal ratio at 0.99, and they are worst in the Euroleague in true shooting rate at 45.8, both according to Overbasket. Their 74.5 points scored per games is the second-lowest mark in the Euroleague (only FC Barcelona is lower at 71.7). And lastly, young Serbian standout, Luka Mitrovic, hasn’t really recovered after missing most of last year due to injury, as he is averaging only 14 minutes per game, 3.1 ppg and a PIR of 1.9 despite starting 13 games.
And yet, how is Red Star, pretty much seen as an afterthought going into the year, competing for a playoff spot, and knocking off teams like Real and CSKA in sound fashion?
Mostly due to defense, a revitalized Ognjen Kuzmic and their bench.
Give a lot of credit to Dejan Radonjic and what he has been able to do with this Red Star club in the newer, more competitive Euroleague. Even though offensively has been a challenge, this team really earns its bread (i.e. wins) on the defensive end. Their 73.6 ppg allowed mark is best in the Euroleague, and they have been extremely potent as of late. They held high-scoring, superstar-laced squads like Real Madrid and CSKA to 70 and 67 points per game, respectively, in wins in Belgrade (which probably has been the toughest place to play in the Euroleague the past two seasons). And last week, despite playing on the road in a tough Kaunas environment, they held Zalgiris to 61 points, which included a 7-point first quarter for the Lithuanian club to start the game. With athletic perimeter defenders like Charles Jenkins, Stefan Jovic, and Branko Lazic making things tough on opposing guards up top, and post players like Kuzmic and Dangubic cleaning things up below, Red Star has emerged as one of the best, and most underrated defensive squads in the Euroleague. It’s not a pretty style of ball, and their offensive numbers can attest to that. If Brose is more like the Rockets and Warriors of today, Red Star is more like the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks of the Mid-90’s (i.e. brutal, tough, defensive-oriented basketball). However, Radonjic has given this team a defensive-mindset and focus, and that has not only helped the Serbian club emerge with an identity in Euroleague play, but also wins.
Speaking of Kuzmic, one could argue that he could be a “comeback player of the year” of sorts, similar to Ioannis Bourousis in Baskonia a year ago. Kuzmic was primarily stuck to the bench last season in Athens with Panathinaikos, especially down the stretch and in the playoffs after Sasha Djordjevic was fired. He averaged only 5.1 ppg on 48.7 percent shooting from the field, and played a reserve role behind Miroslav Raduljica and James Gist. After losing front court star Zirbes to Maccabi in the off-season though, Red Star took a flyer on the former NBA player and Serbian national, and he has made the most of the chance. He is averaging 9.5 ppg on 57.1 percent shooting, 7.8 rpg, 1.1 spg and a team-high PIR average of 15.1. Once thought as burly and unsuited for the faster modern game, Kuzmic has been not only a force below, but especially in the pick and roll. While he only scored 8 points in over 14 minutes of play, he scored six points out of the gate off of pick and roll plays, which helped Red Star get off to a start they wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the game.
Kuzmic has seen a rejuvenation in his game, as has Jenkins, who returned to Belgrade after a short tenure with Olimpia Milano a season ago. However, what has also been remarkable is the effectiveness of their bench. Lazic, Milko Bjelica, Marko Guduric, Marko Simonovic, and Nate Wolters have all helped not only keep Red Star competitive games, but perhaps have helped their bench squad be more effective on the floor than the starting lineup. Simonovic is leading the team in scoring at 12.9 ppg. Wolters, a former South Dakota State Jackrabbit (got to shout out to my former home as much as I can) and Milwaukee Buck, has been effective at 37 percent beyond the arc, and is getting better from three-point land as he grows more accustomed to Europe. Bjelica and Guduric have their off nights (Bjelica is shooting a miserable 14 percent from three-point land), but they have showed some flashes of brilliance throughout the season. Much like Trinchieri, Radonjic has made the Red Star bench a genuine asset to this squad, even if it isn’t as pretty offensively as the Bamberg club.
Now, can Red Star make it to the playoffs in back to back seasons? Their defense is solid, yes, but they will need to get more consistent on the offensive end if they want to keep their position in the 7th spot. The addition of Deon Thompson from Galatasaray should help, especially in the post. Their horrendous offense at times though makes me more skeptical of this club as a playoff contender in contrast to Brose. That being said, their defense is already playoff-caliber, and Radonjic has demonstrated his playoff chops as a coach, not just this season, but last season as well. If they can improve just a little when it comes to putting the ball in the basket, that may be enough for this Serbian club to clinch a second-straight playoff berth down the stretch.