This blog focuses on the Euroleague and little else. While I have thought about going into Eurocup, Champions League and European domestic league play, as an American, I do not have the time nor resources to go that in-depth into the full scope of European basketball. And thus, second-tier competitions like the Eurocup have gone mostly ignored by me during the regular season. It’s just one of the realities you have to accept when you’re running a blog powered by passion and interest in a subject rather than dollars.
However, we are hitting the home stretch of the Eurocup, as the quarterfinals have officially finished, and the semifinals begin Tuesday. With a champion earning an automatic spot in the Euroleague, the remaining four teams will be battling it out fiercely to gain one of those coveted positions in Europe’s top competition.
So, who should European basketball fans pay attention to? What are the matchups? Who should be favored, and why? Let’s take a quick look at the Eurocup Final Four, and their respective Best-of-3 series’.
Lokomotiv Kuban vs. Unicaja Malaga
Loko took care of business in the quarterfinals, sweeping VTB rival Zenit St. Petersburg with relative ease. They won 77-52 in Kuban in game 1, and then cruised to a 88-77 win on the road in the deciding game. After an uneven regular season in Eurocup play, where they went 3-5 in the opening round, Loko has been on a roll, going 5-1 in Top 16 play and winning 7 of their last 8 games. One of the big reasons has been the change in personnel, as Sasa Obradovic, the former coach of Alba Berlin, took over for Fotsis Katiskaris in November. Loko, coming off a Final Four appearance in the Euroleague season fired Katiskaris after a 1-3 start in Eurocup play, and the move has paid off, as Loko has gone 10-3 under the Serbian head man.
Obradovic has a fiery reputation (as evidenced by him nearly coming to blows with Alex Renfroe during a timeout while coaching Alba Berlin), but his personality has rubbed off on Loko in a good way. This team is certainly not as loaded as the Final Four squad a year ago. Anthony Randolph, Dontaye Draper, Victor Claver and Chris Singleton are playing for other Euroleague squads, and Malcolm Delaney is currently in the NBA. However, though they lack the star power from a year ago, there is a grit and toughness with this Loko squad that Obradovic has been able to find success with. Former Temple star Mardy Collins is a two-way player, who is able to do damage both in the post and the perimeter on the offensive and defensive end. Guard Taylor Rochestie this year with Loko has been able to recapture some of the luster he once had as a player with Nizhny Novgorod a couple of seasons ago (he suffered a bit of a down season with Maccabi Tel Aviv last year). And lastly, Matt Janning has added some much needed outside shooting and scoring, while Andrey Zubkov, Kevin Jones and Ian Vougioukas have provided versatility and production in the frontcourt.
Yes, on paper, this team is a lot less impressive than last year’s Euroleague squad. That being said, this Loko teams plays a lot differently from the 2015-2016 team…and that’s a good thing. While former head coach Georgios Bartzokas (now with Barcelona) had Loko humming as one of the Euroleague’s best defensive teams a year ago, offensively, they struggled to find cohesion. They relied heavily on the trio of Randolph, Singleton and Delaney, mostly in Isolation and Pick and Roll, and though it could be successful at times due to the talent of those three, it often could stagnate and be brutal to watch, especially against the better-coached defensive teams in the Euroleague. Obradovic definitely has utilized this Loko roster more creatively, as they seem to flow a lot better in the motion offense Obradovic has installed in Krasnador. And, they haven’t lost much on the defensive end from last year either, as evidenced by Loko absolutely suffocating Zenit St. Petersburg in the quarterfinals.
Obradovic doesn’t have the talent that Bartzokas had last season, but this team hasn’t lost much, and may be a bit more enjoyable to watch on a game-to-game basis in terms of chemistry on the court. That being said, advancing to the title game won’t be easy. Unicaja Malaga is playing in their first Eurocup ever, but it’s a dubious honor: Unicaja has been a mainstay in the Euroleague prior to this season. While Unicaja didn’t have the talent depth of Loko, they also were hurt in the demotion to the second-tier competition, as star player Mindaugas Kuzminskas ended up going to Darussafaka before eventually making his way to the New York Knicks of the NBA (Dacka got the money from the Knicks for Kuzminskas’ rights).
Much like Loko, Unicaja had to go through a bit of a rebuild in 2016-2017. However, head coach Joan Plaza has seemed to right the track of a club that struggled immensely down the stretch a season ago. Wing Kyle Fogg has been the leader on the perimeter and go-to-scorer for this group (though primarily off the bench), as he averaged a team-high 12.8 ppg on 55.1 percent shooting from inside the arc and 43.2 percent from beyond the arc during the Eurocup regular season. Fogg was not alone though, as Alberto Diaz, Jamar Smith, Oliver Lafayette, and Nemanja Nedovic all added much-needed production and scoring at the guard position for Unicaja. In the paint, center Dejan Musli has brought some much needed production over from Manresa, as he averaged 12.1 ppg and 3.9 rpg during Eurocup play. Additionally, Alen Omic has brought physicality and relief for Musli at the center position, while forward Jeff Brooks had added some needed athleticism and inside-outside scoring ability.
Plaza plays a bit of a different style from Obradovic. He prefers a slower pace, is a bit more methodical on the offensive end, and utilizes a deep bench. Much like Obradovic though, Plaza is a fiery coach who will get after his players when needed, but they have responded to him frequently on occasion, as evidenced by getting his team to come back after losing game one and win two straight games against Bayern in the quarterfinals (including the clinching game in Munich). Now, can Unicaja keep up the magic? Will they have enough left in the tank after the slog of not only a Eurocup campaign, but an ACB one, which is much tougher than the VTB slate that Loko faces domestically? It will be interesting to see, as Obradovic and Plaza will be holding nothing back on their squads, especially with the opportunity to return to the Euroleague on the line.
Valencia Basket vs. Hapoel Jerusalem
While Loko and Unicaja will be a fierce matchup, they are pretty close in composition to each other: animated coaches; rosters of overlooked, overachievers; both one year removed from the Euroleague. The other Eurocup Final Four matchup on the other hand is a battle between two remarkably different teams, not only in terms of style of play, but roster and philosophy as well.
Valencia, coached by Pedro Martinez, has been one of the strongest teams in Eurocup competition this year, highlighted by a 15-2 campaign leading up to the Semifinal. Valencia is an offensive machine, as evidenced by their 84.4 ppg. However, they score points with an incredibly efficient, spread the wealth motion-offense, which utilizes a full bench and multiple people scoring the ball. In many ways, Valencia exuberates the definition of a basketball team: multiple players contribute, they move the ball around unselfishly, and they communicate and frustrate opposing teams on both sides of the ball. The kind of culture Martinez has built in Valencia, and his ability to get his teams to compete with bigger, more financially-loaded Spanish clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid the past couple of seasons are coaching accomplishments that should be appreciated this year by more European basketball fans (they will be if they win the Eurocup and return to the Euroleague).
Valencia’s unique success is demonstrated in the numbers. During Eurocup play, only one player averaged double digits ppg (Bojan Dubljevic) and only three players averaged over 20 mpg (Dubljevic, Fernando San Emeterio, Joan Sastre). That kind of versatility and depth had made Valencia a tough team to scout and game plan for, as any player from Valencia can beat opposing teams on any given night. Additionally, they also have multiple players who can play both inside and outside, as evidenced by them ranking 4th in the Eurocup in 3-ptrs made. Hence, it should be no surprise that with that kind of depth, Martinez’s squad has only lost twice in 17 Eurocup games.
On the flip side, Hapoel Jerusalem and head coach Simone Pianigiani have opted for a different approach to Eurocup success. While Valencia has excelled with a spread-the-wealth, utilize-the-bench method, Hapoel has preferred a more NBA-like, star-studded approach. Without a doubt, Hapoel may have the most talented starting lineup in the Eurocup, with former NBA All-Star Amare Stoudemire and European mainstays Curtis Jerrells, Jerome Dyson, and Tarence Kinsey leading the way. And Pianigiani hasn’t shied away in his usage of his quartet of talented stars: in the playoffs, Jerrells, Dyson and Kinsey are averaging over 30 MPG, and Stoudemire is averaging over 26 MPG. That kind of playing load is typical of NBA teams, not European ones balancing a European and Domestic season at the same time. To compare, Valencia had only one player (San Emeterio) average more the 25 MPG during their playoff series with Khimki Moscow.
Pianigiani is a lot less complicated on the offensive end than his counterpart Martinez. Hapoel looks to get the ball to their playmakers off the pick and roll and in isolation, and that means letting their playmakers like Jerrells, Dyons, Kinsey and Stoudemire be creative in terms of getting buckets at the basket. For the most part, the strategy has been successful, as Hapoel averaged 86 ppg against Gran Canaria in the quarterfinals. However, they are extremely dependent on those four, as the highest ppg average beyond the four is forward Travis Peterson, who averaged 7 ppg and 23 mpg during the quarter finals. If any of Hapoel’s big four struggles from the field or is hitting a cold streak, they get in trouble, as they don’t have many options in their 9-man rotation to really step up and take the scoring mantle. Additionally, due to the freedom and fatigue caused by heavy minutes, it is common to see their stars make bonehead mistakes from time-to-time, sometimes killing the momentum they build on offense. That being said, they haven’t seen those issues often in either Eurocup or Winner League play thus far, but Valencia will be a significant upgrade from what they have faced for the most part in 2016-2017 in either league.
What’s funny about this situation is that both teams’ respective previous rounds provided good practice for their semi-final match up. Hapoel beat a Gran Canaria team that was well-disciplined , depended on a lot of different players for scoring, and played a deep lineup. Valencia bested a Khimki team that was loaded with athleticism and stars such as Alexy Shved, Robbie Hummel and Marko Todorovic. Hence, both teams should come ready on Tuesday after such competition in the quarter finals, though this semi-final match up will still be a major step up from both Gran Canaria and Khimki.
The big question to this series is this: who is more prepared? Will Valencia’s depth and discipline be enough? Or will Hapoel’s talent and explosiveness win out? Whoever wins, they will enter the Eurocup final as the favorite.