After their 88-76 win over EWE Baskets Oldenburg in Game 2 of the EasyCredit BBL finals, Brose Bamberg looks set for another German domestic league championship celebration (though Oldenburg should get some credit for their incredible Cinderella playoff run). The “Freak City” club has made things look relatively easy this postseason, as they not only dispatched Oldenburg 96-60 in Oldenburg in Game 1, but they also swept Bayern Munich (a club that made the Eurocup playoffs this year and played in the Euroleague as recently as last year) in the semifinals.
The dominant performance this postseason can be considered another notch on the Bamberg championship belt that has been getting larger and larger since the 2009-2010 season. In the seven-year span, Bamberg has won the BBL six out of the last seven years (with it bound to be seven out of eight perhaps as soon as Sunday). The only time they did not win the BBL was during the 2013-2014 season, where they finished as the No. 2 seed, but were upset by in the first round of the playoffs by the Artland Dragons. (Bayern Munich ended up beating Alba Berlin in the championship.) Furthermore, in the same time span, they have won four German Cups, with the most recent one being this season.
What has made Bamberg’s dominance in German basketball so remarkable is that they don’t fit the profile of most clubs who are considered “powers” in European basketball. Bamberg’s a small city (73,000 population) that’s a fraction of the size of the metropolitan populations of their major BBL rivals in Berlin (3.5 million) and Munich (1.45 million). They had only a budget of about 8.5 million Euros in 2016-2017, which was the third-lowest of any Euroleague club (only Zalgiris and Crvena Zvezda has lower budgets). They don’t have a deep club developmental program like many of the top clubs in Europe. And when they do sign players, they either get “under-the-radar” German talent, or players who are looking to revitalize their careers whom they can sign on a discount. Just looking at this year’s club: forward Nicolo Melli and Fabien Causeur came to Bamberg from Olimpia Milano and Baskonia, respectively, after lackluster seasons, and a diminishment in role with their previous clubs. Since their arrival, Melli became the club’s most valuable player in Euroleague competition, and Causeur has been the club’s leading scorer in BBL play at 12.6 ppg. Already there are rumors that Melli and perhaps Causeur may be pursued by other clubs this summer, but as usual, Bamberg will have a plan to replace these top players, a seemingly annual tradition for the “small-market” German club.
Those are a lot of factors against the club, and yet, the club is on the verge of another BBL championship. For fans of European basketball who are relatively new to the game (such as myself), what Bamberg is doing is impressive, and should be a model for other European clubs who want to find long-term success despite not being in a large metro area or having the biggest budget to sign free agent players.
While Bamberg’s dominance in the BBL has been noted, they haven’t had quite the same success in the Euroleague. The club has qualified for the Round of 16 twice, but has never advanced to the playoff stage at all in their eight-appearance history in the Euroleague. While a spot in the Euroleague is always reserved for a team from the BBL, Bamberg, much like the other clubs in Germany, do not have A license designation, which means that they are constantly competing for a Euroleague spot year after year. Being in the Euroleague boosts clubs in so many ways: it gives the club more exposure, it helps them attract talent, and most importantly, it gives them more revenue opportunities. Bamberg has been able to capitalize on this, parlaying their frequent Euroleague appearances into building a strong club foundation that can still succeed despite frequent changes in talent (remember, last year the club lost Brad Wanamaker to Darussafaka in the off-season).
In the first year of the new Euroleague, Bamberg was Germany’s lone Euroleague representative, and the season was a bit of a mixed bag. After a 20-point win at home over FC Barcelona, the club was 7-9 after Round 16, and had an outsider’s chance of making the playoffs. However, injuries, inconsistency on the court, and well…bad luck resulted in them losing four straight games from rounds 17-20 (killing any postseason hope) and going 3-11 down the stretch, good for 10-20 overall and 13th overall in the standings (they were tied record-wise with Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, but they had a better point differential and swept Maccabi during the regular season).
On a first glance, one could say that it was a disappointing Euroleague campaign. However, this Bamberg team was much better than its record-indicated. Even though they had a 10-20 record, they ranked 6th in PPG (79.9) and 12th in PPGA (81). The difference of a negative 1.1 ppg average resulted in a pythagorean record (expected W-L) of 14-16. Just judging by pythagorean W-L, Bamberg finished 10th in the Euroleague, which is better than Zalgiris, Barcelona and Galatasaray, all clubs who finished better in the actual standings than Bamberg.
So what does this mean? Well, the big difference in pythagorean and actual record indicates that Bamberg was really unlucky last season in the Euroleague. In games decided by 5 points or less, Bamberg was 2-11 last season. Now, some enthusiasts may credit that to the club “not being clutch” or “unable to handle pressure”, but the reality is that a few breaks here or a few breaks there, and maybe that record is 6-7, 7-6 or hell even 11-2. Was Bamberg a playoff club last year? Not quite, according to pythagorean record, but they were right on the cusp. If they can keep most of the core from this year’s club, and replace those who leave with some “underappreciated” stars like they have done in the past, than it is possible that this club could be a playoff team if their luck does a 180 in 2017-2018 in the Euroleague.
(Of course, this is assuming Bamberg closes out this series against Oldenburg and doesn’t pull an Asvel or Golden State Warriors.)
What will be key to Bamberg’s continued success is how long head coach Andrea Trinchieri stays in “Freak City.” After taking over in 2014 for Chris Fleming, the current German national team head coach and an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets, Trinchieri has continued the standard of success set by his predecessor, as Bamberg has won the BBL title every year in his tenure. This is not a surprise, as Trinchieri has been successful in his two previous stops before he made the move to Germany. With UNICS, he helped the club reach the Eurocup finals in 2013-2014, and he had considerable success with Italian club Cantu, as they won the Italian Second Division in 2009, the Italian Supercup in 2012, and was named Italian League coach of the year twice (2010, 2011).
Trinchieri is known as an offensive guru, able to get the most out of his players even without high-profile talent. He utilizes constant motion and movement in the half court, with an emphasis on high ball and away screens from his post players, and a strong emphasis on the three-point shot. Trinchieri’s offense feels modern in terms of professional ball: you see a lot of pick and roll, and a lot of drive and kick for open three point shots. However, it’s also obvious that he demands a lot from his bigs in terms of craftiness. What ‘s impressive from what you see on the video below is how post (and even wing) players will throw off defenders in initial actions, faking away or ball screens and then cutting to the basket or popping to the mid-range or three point line for open looks. Possessions vary each time down the court, but there are rules and some basic continuity to what’s going on in the halfcourt for Bamberg, a sign of a well-run, but flexible offense.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of Trinchieri’s philosophy has been Melli, who has excelled in Trinchieri’s system in his two seasons in Bamberg. He is not the most physical or tallest post player, nor is he quick enough to be on the wing, but he is crafty on the floor, and is able to stretch opposing post defenders out with his shooting touch, both characteristics Trinchieri seems to prefer in his big men. Hence, it’s no surprise Melli went from an unheralded bench player to a borderline All-Euroleague player who may be seeing a big payday this summer from another club.
With a third-straight BBL title, Trinchieri may seek other challenges in the future, as soon as this offseason. Bamberg is doing all they can to sign him to an extension, but the Euroleague coaching carousel will get interesting this summer, especially depending on what jobs are taken by certain coaches this offseason (Zalgiris head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius to Barcelona and former Cleveland Cavs and Darussafaka head coach David Blatt to Maccabi Tel Aviv are popular predictions). Yes, Trinchieri will want another shot in the Euroleague with this club, especially after so many close losses last season. Yes, this city and club loves him and his animated personality. But the amount of respect he has in the European coaching community is only growing, and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Trinchieri is able to land that “A License” job.
Bamberg has recovered from coaching losses before, as they transitioned seamlessly from Fleming to Trinchieri. However, to do it two times in a row? That won’t be easy, especially considering the lengths bigger-budget clubs such as Bayern Munich (they lobbied for a Euroleague Wild Card spot, and will undoubtedly increase their budget to acquire better players) and Alba Berlin (they are looking to upgrade at head coach after a disappointing couple of seasons) will go to catch up and dethrone Bamberg from the top perch.
As long as Trinchieri is there, Bamberg will continue it’s uncanny and atypical string of dominance in the BBL. But the end date on Trinchieri’s time in Freak City feels like it’s due soon. A year, maybe two tops if Bamberg is lucky. Good coaches in Europe don’t stay at small clubs for long.
Hence, Bamberg better have a contingency plan to soften the blow of his eventual departure, whenever it should occur.