ELJ’s “Key Five-And-One” Playoff Preview: Olympiacos (3) vs. Anadolu Efes (6)

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Two previews down; two to go. If you missed it or unaware of how these previews are formatted, check out part 1 of the preview (Real Madrid vs. Darussafaka) and part 2 (CSKA vs. Baskonia) so you’re caught up.

Okay, now onto part 3, the 3-6 matchup: Olympiacos Piraeus vs. Anadolu Efes Istanbul.

(Also, major H/T to YouTube user MyBasketballTV who uploads these awesome Euroleague player highlight videos that I mostly embed on here; please subscribe to him/her/them if you haven’t already.)

Vassilis Spanoulis

Nobody is more crucial to this Olympiacos team and their Final Four chances than Spanoulis, the long-time Greek point guard. At his best, he is the engine of this Olympiacos offense thanks to his versatile scoring ability, as well as flashy and spectacular passing and playmaking. Furthermore, Spanoulis is one of the craftiest players in the continent, able to draw fouls, and do the little things to get to the line and help Olympiacos earn extra shots as well as extra points.

In Round 2, the 34-year-old point guard demonstrated why he has been voted a Euroleague and Greek MVP, putting up a masterful performance in a 90-66 win over Anadolu Efes at home in Piraeus. He scored 17 points on 5 of 9 shooting from the field, dished 9 assists, had 3 rebounds and accumulated a PIR of 26, the highest for a winning club that week and the highest mark of the season for him. The dominating demonstration by Spanoulis earned him Euroleague MVP for the week, as showcased in the video below:

But, as great and legendary as Spanoulis can be (I mean, christ, the Euroleague made a special documentary on him and he’s still active in the league), he can be his own worst enemy at times. He can be a black hole if his shooting is not on, as well as a turnover machine, forcing unnecessary passes at seemingly poor times. And as of late, Spanoulis hasn’t really finished the year on a good note, which correlates strongly with Olympiacos’ poor finish (they finished 1-4 in their last 5 games). After putting up a PIR of 24 in a big 79-77 win in OAKA over Greek rival Panathinaikos in Round 8, Spanoulis hasn’t reached the 20 PIR mark since, and has only put up a PIR in double digits six times from Rounds 9-30. Those are not impressive marks considering how much he has the ball in his hands and is depended on for offense in Ioannis Sfairopoulos’ system.

Luckily, despite Spanoulis’ regression after a hot start (Rounds 1-8), they have been able to get over his cool down period. But, this will be a tough matchup for Spanoulis (vs. Thomas Huertel, who’s been one of the best point guards since February), and Olympiacos is dealing with many injuries as well. For Olympiacos to punch their Final Four ticket, they will need an early-season Spanoulis (or past-season, MVP-esque one) over the next three-to-five games.

Nikola Milutinov

After an injury in a Greek Basket League game on April 10th, Khem Birch will be a serious question mark this series for Olympiacos. That is a huge blow to Olympiacos’ front court, which has depended on him as a powerful rim runner and anchor to their defense, which has been one of the Euroleague’s best this season. While Patric Young has experience with this Olympiacos squad and offers the same kind of physicality as Birch, 22-year-old Serbian Nikola Milutinov will be the more important player in the post and could be the key difference this series, especially if Birch misses games or is not 100 percent.

Milutinov has surged as of late, with his strongest performance of the year coming in Round 28 against Real Madrid, whose front court is stacked with NBA-caliber bigs such as Gustavo Ayon, Anthony Randolph, Othello Hunter, Felipe Reyes, and Trey Thompkins. The Serbian rising star and 2015 first round “draft and stash” pick of the San Antonio Spurs put up a line of 18 points,4 rebounds, and a PIR of 24 (a season high) in 21 minutes of play (also tied for a season high). Milutinov, who formerly played for Partizan Belgrade before coming to Piraeus, has soft touch and good skills and touch around the rim for a near seven footer, as evidenced in this highlight video of his performance against Madrid below:

However, consistency has been a problem for Milutinov this season. He has five games this year where he posted negative PIR marks, and he can be a non-factor on the floor at times as well. In the last game against Efes, he barely played, logging less than three minutes before being primarily regulated to the bench. Unlike Birch, whose springy and physical, Milutinov is a more “to-the-ground” big, lacking the athleticism or physicality of the newly acquired Canadian center. With Birch’s status a game-to-game issue, Sfairopoulos is going to need to trust the young Serbian star with more minutes on the floor. And consequently, Milutinov needs to capitalize on that coach’s trust with a big series as well.

Derrick Brown

Much like Spanoulis, Brown has been a bit of a life force for this Efes squad this season. When he plays well, Efes hums on the court and looks like one of the Euroleague’s best teams. When his play wanes, Efes looks as beatable as any of the other non-playoff teams. For Efes to have a chance to pull off the upset, head coach Velimir Perasovic and this Efes team will need a big series from Brown.

The 29-year-old, 6’8 former Xavier Musketeer is an explosive player on both ends of the court. The lefty forward can drive the ball and score strongly around the basket thanks to his high-flying athleticism, but he can also pull up and hit the mid-range with ease. He has a great ability to block shots and initiate the Efes fast break off of turnovers, an area they excel in considering the bevy of athletic guards and forwards on their roster. Brown demonstrated this ability and then some in a masterful performance in Round 21 against Red Star, where he scored 20 points, had 11 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists and accumulated a PIR of 33 in a 86-72 win in Belgrade. The dominating performance on the road, in a hostile Kombank arena environment, earned Brown MVP of the week honors, as seen below.

Brown most likely will be matched up with forward Georgios Printezis, who has been Olympiacos’ most consistent (and perhaps best) player this season. Brown hasn’t been great this year against Olympiacos, as he has only put up PIR marks of 8 and 11 in both contests. For Efes to pull of the upset, they need their best and most dynamic player to step up and win the matchup against “King George”. If he doesn’t, the chips will be heavily stacked against the Turkish squad in terms of making their first Final Four since 2001.

Thomas Huertel

If Brown is Efes’ most important player, Huertel may be their most dynamic. Though he is a sixth-man off the bench, Huertel is the team’s primary playmaker, leading the team in assists at 5.8 apg. Huertel is a crafty playmaker, able to beat defenders off the dribble and find open teammates for good, high-percentage shots. But Huertel is no, Ricky Rubio-“pass first and second; shoot third” guard. He can get to the rim and can find his stroke from the outside, as evidenced by him shooting 51.8 percent on 2-point shots, and nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc, both solid marks from a point guard.

During the month of February, no player was more crucial to his squad than Huertel was to Efes during that month of play. Huertel averaged over 16 ppg and over 10 apg, good for a PIR average of 23 during that time span. His stellar play, which helped Efes get back in the playoff picture after a poor start to the season, earned Huertel MVP of the month honors, as seen in the video below:

The French guard doesn’t get as much attention at times because he shares point guard duties with Jayson Granger, who normally starts for this Efes squad. But Granger is more of a combo guard who is depended on for shooting and scoring, not as much for playmaking, like Huertel. Without a doubt, the matchup between Spanoulis and Huertel will be a fascinating one, and if Huertel can outduel the Greek Euroleague legend, that could mean not only a return to the Final Four for Efes, but a boost to Huertel’s stock as a player not only here in Europe, but abroad as well.

Tyler Honeycutt

Tyler Honeycutt is not the team’s best player. That honor probably belongs to Brown, or maybe Huertel. But there is no player that is more complete or well-rounded than Honeycutt, who has been a Draymond Green-esque player for this Efes squad. Honeycutt doesn’t average double figure points this year (only 9 ppg), and he has only started 1 game as well, but his 13.6 PIR is third-highest on the team, and that is due to his multi-faceted game on both ends of the court.

Just look at the other categories Honeycutt excels in: he averages 7.1 rpg, a team-high and 0.9 bpg, the second-best mark on the squad. But, he also averages 1.1 spg, also the second-best mark on the team. And he is primarily a wing player that can play four positions on the floor. If that’s not Draymond Green-esque, than I don’t know what is. He put on his best Green-like performance in Round 5 against Panathinaikos, as he scored 15 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and dished 4 assists, good for a game-high PIR of 28, as illustrated in the video below.

Honeycutt is a nightmare matchup for Olympiacos on both ends of the floor thanks to his superb athleticism, strong skill set, and long 6’8 frame. Olympiacos will have to find a way to neutralize him, which will be easier said than done, especially considering the former UCLA product can beat teams in so many ways on both offense and defense.

Series Wild Card: Can Olympiacos stop the bleeding?

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Olympiacos is team trending downward and fast. They lost sharp shooting Matt Lojeski late in the season, which has limited their outside shooting effectiveness as a team as of late. Birch may or may not play this series, and even if he does, he won’t be a 100 percent. Spanoulis hasn’t quite played as well down the stretch, and that is worrisome considering his age and the miles on his body odometer as a player. Erick Green, who looked mid-season like the boost Olympiacos needed to make the Final Four, has totally disappeared from the Olympiacos rotation for whatever reason. Other than Printezis and Kostas Papanikolaou, this team has been a mess during the last third of the season and goes into the playoffs as a bit of a wounded dog of sorts.

Which begs us to ask the question: can coach Sfairopoulos stop the bleeding and turn Olympiacos’ fortunes around?

Olympiacos will have the home court advantage. And they certainly have the playoff experience advantage over Efes. But there are a lot of question marks about this Olympiacos squad entering the playoffs, and Efes is no slouch. Perasovic took Baskonia to the Final Four last year. Huertel has some playoff experience during his time with Baskonia (when they were Laboral Kutxa). Efes beat Olympiacos just recently in Round 29, so this Turkish club knows they can match up with the Greek basketball power. And Efes can run and gun with the best, and that will test the depth of Olympiacos, which is looking a little sketchy at this moment.

Olympiacos will need to make a statement in game 1, a statement that the last third of the season didn’t mean shit, and they’re ready to prove why they finished third in the Euroleague and that they can add another Final Four to their illustrious history. I know Olympiacos fans are telling themselves this, and believe Spanoulis and Printezis will help turn around this Olympiacos ship.

Game 1 will tell…because if Efes’ surprises in the opening playoff game…well…fans of the Red and White might need to start planning for next season rather than next month.

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ELJ’s “Key Five-And-One” Playoff Preview: CSKA Moscow (2) vs. Baskonia (7)

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Onto part two of the ELJ “Key Five-And-One” Playoff Preview. If you missed out on part 1, check it out here, as I look at the key five players to the Real Madrid-Darussafaka series.

Now, let’s take a look at the 2-7 matchup between CSKA Moscow and Baskonia Vitoria-Gastiez.

Milos Teodosic

Nando de Colo is the more polished player and scorer, but nobody is probably more important to his squad than Milos. When Teodosic is humming, swinging the ball around to open men, and hitting it from deep, you can almost guarantee a CSKA win, as has been the case on frequent occasion the past few seasons.

Teodosic leads CSKA in minutes per game at 29, and is also their leading assist man at 7.2 apg. Additionally, he also scores 16.1 ppg and has a PIR average of 17.5. While the latter mark is second to de Colo, Milos has gotten to his high marks mostly coming off the bench, as he has started only six games this season (mostly in de Colo’s absence, when he was out for a little bit in the middle of the year due to injury).

De Colo has been a consistent force, especially on the scoring end, and it is expected that de Colo will get his during this series. But nobody controls or orchestrates the CSKA offense more or better than Teodosic…and that has its positives and negative (though mostly positive). Teodosic has a flair for the dramatic, and can make beautiful passes and assists look effortless. At the same time, he can also turn the ball over with just as much ease, and his defensive effort can wane on occasion. Considering Baskonia has some high-effort guards in Shane Larkin, Jaka Blazic and Rafa Luz, Teodosic can’t lose his concentration in this series, as Baskonia will make him and CSKA pay if they allow Baskonia to score in transition off of turnovers.

But the bad news for Baskonia? Look below

34 points, 10 assists and a ridiculous 43 PIR in 112-84 beatdown of Baskonia in Round 9 in Moscow. Considering the first two games will be in Russia, I’m sure Baskonia is hoping they don’t see that Milos again in the playoffs.

James Augustine

Augustine comes off the bench for CSKA, much like Milos, and he may not be their best big (you could argue for Kyle Hines or Nikita Kurbanov). However, the CSKA newcomer has been a bit of a polarizing figure this year for the Moscow-power, and his performance in this series could not only determine a Final Four spot, but perhaps whether or not they repeat as Euroleague champs.

Coming over from a Khimki Moscow team that barely missed the Euroleague playoffs a season ago, Augustine has put up good numbers: he leads the team in rebounds at 4.5 per game and he is averaging 5.8 ppg on only 16:28 mpg. However, the biggest question mark with Augustine has been defense, as he has a reputation of getting exposed in the pick and roll or outmaneuvered in the block by more skilled post players in the Euroleague. This is a huge issue considering Baskonia’s depth and talent in the frontcourt. Will Augustine be able to handle Johannes Voigtmann, Ilimane Diop, Toko Shengelia, or Kim Tillie, who all do different things from the post position? Augustine has been inconsistent this year, but he has risen to challenge in big moments before, as evidenced by him hitting this big game winner against CSKA a few seasons ago.

CSKA utilizes their posts in many different ways, but without a doubt, they will need a prime Augustine in this series. If he gets brutalized on the defensive end by Baskonia’s weapons, it will put even more pressure on Milos, Nando, and the CSKA perimeter to have an even bigger series on both ends of the floor.

Adam Hanga

The Hungarian forward is most likely going to the NBA next year, probably following in the steps of former teammate Dairis Bertans who left to play for the Spurs at the conclusion of the 2016 campaign (the Spurs also own Hanga’s rights). It is fitting that Hanga may play with the Spurs next year, as Hanga is almost a “lite” version of San Antonio star Kawhi Leonard. Hanga is an incredibly athletic, defensive oriented wing that can nearly guard anyone on the floor, and when he’s on offensively, he can carry this Baskonia team to victory more often than not (much like Leonard with the Spurs).

Hanga has improved his offensive game from a year ago, much more comfortable as a scorer than he was during their Final Four campaign in 2015-2016. This year he put up a line of 10.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg and 2.3 apg, good for a 13.5 PIR average, the third-best mark on the team (behind Shane Larkin and Johannes Voigtmann who both had a PIR average of 14.9). That kind of triple-slash potential, along with his defensive prowess may have Spurs salivating that Hanga is indeed a Hungarian version of Leonard. But, Hanga’s scoring prowess can go hot and cold from game to game. He is only shooting 33.3 percent from beyond the arc and around 67 percent at the line, and he can be a “ghost” on the offensive end in some games, as evidenced in Round 30 where he scored only 6 points and put up a PIR of 3 in a crucial loss to Zalgiris that made them drop to 7th in the playoff standings.

But he’s also capable of games like below against Barcelona, where he put up 14 points, 3 assists and had a PIR of 21.

Which Hanga is going to show up? If the good, Leonard-esque Hanga does, Baskonia’s chances of pulling off a legendary upset, and making a return to the Final Four, will look a whole lot rosier.

Shane Larkin

Larkin’s first year with Baskonia has for the most part been a success. After relying on the two-headed combo of Darius Adams and Mike James a season ago, Baskonia took a flyer on the former Brooklyn Net and University of Miami star. So far, Larkin hasn’t disappointed: he is averaging 13.1 ppg, 5.7 apg and is tied for first on the team in PIR average at 14.9 (with Voigtmann). And with little depth at the point position (Nico Laprovittola and Rafa Luz offer some good things and effort, but are probably average to slightly below backup options), it makes sense that head coach Sito Alonso has relied so heavily on the first-year guard (29 mpg, a team-high).

Larkin is explosive, competitive, and not afraid of the moment. That was evident in Baskonia’s 79-78 win over CSKA at Fernando Buesa where Larkin not only hit an ice-cold go-ahead shot with about 30 seconds to go, but also stole the ball on the defensive end to seal the game. If you look at the clip below, it’s impressive how Larkin commanded the moment on the offensive end with the swagger and confidence of a Euroleague veteran.

Considering CSKA’s strength is in the backcourt, this series will be a challenge for Larkin. In addition to de Colo and Teodosic, Aaron Jackson and Cory Higgins are also solid perimeter players who undoubtedly will try to make Larkin’s life difficult on both ends of the court. Larkin has had mixed results against CSKA as well: despite hitting the game winner, he only had a PIR of 8, and for the most part was neutralized until the game’s closing moments.

That being said, this will be Larkin’s first taste of the postseason as a professional, and it’ll be interesting to see if Larkin can rise to the moment like he did at times in the Euroleague regular season. Considering Baskonia’s lack of options at the point behind him, the Basque club’s Final Four future may heavily depend on Larkin’s adjustment to the playoffs.

Toko Shengelia

Voigtmann may have the best numbers of any Baskonia big, but no post player is more important to this squad than Shengelia. The Georgian missed some time during the middle of the season to injury, and in that time span, Baskonia swooned, going 1-5 in Shengelia’s absence from Round 18-23. When Shengelia returned to the lineup in Round 24, Baskonia finished 5-2, and saved a playoff spot which looked in dire shape after a Round 23 loss to Anadolu Efes.

Unlike Voigtmann or off-season pickup Andrea Bargnani, who has missed most of the year due to injury (a blessing in disguise since Bargnani was such a defensive liability), Shengelia is a physical, rugged back-to-the basket post player. Yes, Shengelia can step back and hit the occasional three. However, where Shengelia really flourishes is in the blocks, as he is physical and crafty on both the offensive and defensive end, and gives this Baskonia team a sense of toughness that they miss when he’s not on the floor.

His physicality was on full display, as you can see in the video below, in a crucial Round 27 game on the road against Brose, and Nicolo Melli, an All-Euroleague-caliber player. Shengelia put up a line of 16 points, 12 rebounds and a PIR of 22 in a 96-71 victory in Bamberg that helped Baskonia secure a spot in the postseason.

Toko is playing some of the best basketball of his career this season with Baskonia, and they will need him to continue this hot stretch to take advantage of CSKA’s lack of depth in the frontcourt.

Series Wild Card: CSKA’s Backcourt vs. Baskonia’s Frontcourt

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This series will be a contrast between two very different teams: CSKA has incredible depth in the backcourt with Milos, Nando, Jackson and Higgins, but they really lack a true go-to guy in the post; Baskonia on the other hand has so much versatility in the blocks, with rim runner Diop, the physical Toko, and Voigtmann and Kim Tillie who can beat you inside and out, but they lack playmaking beyond Larkin and Hanga.

So the question is, who’s going to give first?

Who wins this series could hinge on which of those two aspects cracks first. What if Nando shoots poorly? What if Milos is turning the ball over and giving up points off turnovers? What if Voigtmann is neutralized and made a non-factor? What if Toko gets in foul trouble?

My gut says Baskonia’s frontcourt is more likely to crack than CSKA’s backcourt, but we won’t know for sure until the games begin April 18th. As a fan, I’m pulling for Baskonia, but they’re going to need the frontcourt to be in full force to have a chance to return to the Final Four.

ELJ’s “Key Five-and-One” Playoff Preview: Real Madrid (1) vs. Darussafaka (8)

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We have five days until the Euroleague playoffs officially begin. Instead of just doing a traditional, all-out analysis on each series, I instead am going to highlight the five key players to each series. Plus, at the end, I will choose one “wild card” factor that could impact the respective series. Hopefully, this gives the playoff preview a different flavor from the rest of the previews out there (not that there is anything wrong with other previews; just want to do something different).

Okay let’s begin with our “Key Five” of the 1-8 matchup: Real Madrid vs. Darussfaka.

Sergio Llull

The likely Euroleague MVP favorite, a solid series from Llull will be required for Los Blancos to move onto the Final Four after missing out last season (they were swept handily by Fenerbahce last year in the playoffs). There are not many players as entertaining in Europe as Llull. The free-shooting, Red Bull chugging, do-everything point guard for Madrid was a key reason why they finished with the best record in the Euroleague at 23-7. While Llull has always excelled as a scorer, his  improvement this year in playmaking, ability to create for his talented roster, and knack for coming through in the clutch has elevated him from “local folk hero” to “European superstar who should be in the NBA” levels.

Llull is averaging a team-high 16.9 ppg, 5.9 apg and 16.7 PIR per game for Los Blancos, and he won multiple MVP of the weeks throughout the season. Thus, it is safe to say that Dacka point guard Scottie Wilbekin will have his hands full trying to contain this Spanish energizer bunny.

Anthony Randolph

Randolph led Lokomotiv Kuban (a team that played in the Eurocup this season) to a Final Four in 2015-2016, his coming out party occurring in the playoffs against Barcelona in Games 4 and 5. This year, Randolph made the trek west to Madrid to play for a loaded Real Madrid roster, and the former NBA lottery pick hasn’t disappointed. He averaged 10.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1 bpg, and a 13 PIR per game despite averaging a little over 20 mpg in the Euroleague (mostly due to Madrid’s crazy depth in the frontcourt). Randolph had probably his biggest performance in Round 28, where he was named MVP of the Week after a 21 point, 4 block performance in a road win in Piraeus over Olympiacos, as evidenced in this video below.

Randolph is on the verge of a three-year extension with Real Madrid, with at least one guaranteed in Spain (he could opt out for a NBA contract in his last two years). And it would be worth it, especially if Randolph continues his hot play and leads Madrid to their second Euroleague title in three seasons.

Luka Doncic

The Slovenian boy wonder has made tremendous leaps as a player in year two with Real Madrid. Despite a primary bench role, Doncic has become one of Madrid’s most important players, both in Euroleague as well as ACB play. And that is incredible when you think about it: he’s only 18 years old (was 17 through a good part of this year), and he plays with former NBA players such as Randolph, Gustavo Ayon, Andres Nocioni, Rudy Fernandez, Jeff Taylor, and Trey Thompkins (I’m sure Jaycee Carroll had a cup of coffee with a NBA team too, but I’m too lazy to research it now). Doncic is probably Real Madrid’s most balanced player, as he is a triple-double threat every time he steps on the floor. And that is impressive potential in the Euroleague, where unlike the NBA (where triple doubles are becoming more and more common fare thanks to Russell Westbrook’s skills) triple-doubles are incredibly rare occurrences (there have only been six triple-doubles in Euroleague history, with the last one being done by Nikola Vujcic of Maccabi Tel Aviv during the 2006-2007 season).

During a MVP of the week performance, Doncic nearly put up the 7th triple double in Euroleague history with a 10 point, 11 rebound, 8 assist performance against Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv in Round 17. Not bad for a teenager, as you can see below.

Dacka doesn’t exactly have the strongest bench in the Euroleague, so it’ll be interesting to see if the wings of Dacka will be able to handle the Slovenian teenage prodigy. If they struggle to, you can almost guarantee that this will be a short series.

Brad Wanamaker

Wanamaker has sneakily become a dark horse candidate for MVP this year. While a lot was made about James Anderson’s decision to turn down a player option from the Kings to sign with Dacka instead, Wanamaker has been the Turkish club’s best signing. Wanamaker, a likely All-Euroleague selection, has been outstanding, especially during the last part of the season where basically carried Dacka to their first Euroleague playoff berth. Head coach David Blatt has transitioned his NBA experience with Dacka this year, and has given Wanamaker the kind of Iso-heavy reign that he gave LeBron James in his one-and-a-half year stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. And Wanamaker hasn’t disappointed, as evidenced by his 16.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.7 apg, 17.5 PIR per game line while averaging a team-high 32:56 mpg.

Wanamaker also had one of his biggest performances in Round 29, as he helped fuel a comeback on the road in Bamberg that kept alive Dacka’s playoff hopes. Wanamaker scored 30 points, had 6 assists and put a PIR of 34 in a key win that helped set up their crucial “winner take all” matchup with Red Star in Round 30 (which Dacka won).

Dacka will have a lot of factors going against them in this series, with Madrid’s depth and home court advantage being the primary ones. However, for Dacka to have a chance to pull off the upset, they will need Wanamaker to keep pulling off his “LeBron act” in this series.

Ante Zizic

Since arriving in January, Ante Zizic has been Dacka’s best and primary front court player, giving them the kind of balance they didn’t quite have when Semih Erden was their starting center. In Euroleague play, Zizic is averaging 8.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg, and a PIR of 12.2 in 16 games, while averaging nearly 22 mpg. The 20-year-old Croatian has generated a lot of buzz not just in Europe, but internationally as well, especially considering he was a first round pick of the Boston Celtics in last year’s draft.

Zizic is no stranger to big games, as he had his best performance against Turkish Derby rival Anadolu Efes in Round 19. Against Efes, Zizic scored 16 points, had 18 rebound and posted a PIR of 25. It was obvious, as one can see below, that Efes and head coach Velimir Perasovic just had no answers for the Croatian rising star (though Efes did win 93-81).

The Dacka front court is going to have issues against Madrid’s depth and versatility in the post. Zizic will have his hands full for sure, and it will be difficult for him to experience the wave after wave talent he will face in this series. If Zizic avoids foul trouble, and can step up like he has showed at times this year, then perhaps he can not only fuel a Dacka upset, but will come to the NBA sooner than expected.

Series Wild Card: David Blatt vs. Pablo Laso

Coaching will be a big deal this series. Blatt has a legendary status in Europe thanks to his 2014 title with Maccabi Tel Aviv, but his arrival in Dacka has received mixed reaction. Some have felt that he has disappointed, relying too much on the ISO ball that he utilized in the NBA. Some on the other hand have felt that he has done a good job, helping Dacka become more on the radar in the highly top-heavy European basketball scene. Whatever your thoughts are, it cannot be denied though that Blatt can be one of the more entertaining coaches to watch thanks to his fiery personality.

Laso on the other hand has been one of the best basketball minds in Europe for a while now. Though he doesn’t have the global celebrity of Blatt, Laso has one multiple ACB title, and a 2015 Euroleage championship with Real Madrid. This year may have been Laso’s most impressive campaign yet, as he has been able to manage the depth and egos of this Los Blancos team well in both domestic and European play.

Laso is no “quiet personality” though, as evidenced below:

It will definitely be entertaining to see what both coaches will do this series? Will Blatt out-scheme Laso? Will Laso demonstrate why he should be considered the best coach in Europe and dispatch Blatt and Dacka with ease?

We will know next week.

Adios a la Euroliga: a farewell to 2017 for the non-playoff teams

After the long, inaugural 30-round season, the Euroleague playoffs will begin on April 18th. Each of the eight postseason teams will be battling for a spot in the Euroleague Final Four, which takes place in Istanbul May 19-21st. For many squads, a Euroleague Final Four is expected and anything less would be considered a failure. For a few, a Euroleague final four might be the momentum the club may need to be a Euroleague mainstay for years to come.

However, this post is not about the playoffs, or the chances of a Final Four appearance for those eight teams in the postseason bracket. Rather, this is an ode, a eulogy for the remaining eight teams who did not make the postseason, and may or may not be back in the Euroleague in 2017-2018.

So grab your bottles, and let’s start pouring it out for those who missed the playoff cut in 2016-2017.

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Olimpia Milano (8-22, 16th place)

It hasn’t been your year Milano (or past couple of years, as you bowed out in the regular season last year as well). Many Euroleague and Italian fans thought you would perform better this year. You had the 6th highest payroll in the Euroleague this season. You signed Euroleague vets like Ricky Hickman and Miroslav Raduljica to boost your pick and roll combo. Alessandro Gentile was ready to have a breakout year before he eventually went to the Houston Rockets. Head Coach Jasmin Repesa was ready to make his mark after a disappointing Euroleague campaign in 2015-2016.

Oh how we were wrong. Gentile just imploded and was gone in a minute, playing in PAO green for a brief (unsuccessful) time before now making his way in Jerusalem. The wins came few and far between. It’s hard to say if this year was indeed worse than 2015-2016. A 30-game sample is a lot different from a 10-game one. But there wasn’t much to look on the bright side about. Yes, the win in Kaunas was nice. The coaches’ black on black with a red tie suit ensemble was always on point. (What else could you expect when your main sponsor is Armani?) But the future looks bleak for one of the most prestigious clubs in Europe today.

You still got that A-License though…for now at least. (Update: I imagine you can thank your EXTREMELY loyal fans for this.)

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Unics Kazan (8-22, 15th place)

You should have just changed your name to “Keith Langford” Kazan (KLK) for short. Sure, Quino Colom was fun, when he was healthy of course. Latavious Williams was a big body who could bruise around and throw it down. Artisom Parakhoski always put up good lines on a nightly basis, and Evgeny Voronov was that nice, local talent. And you could always depend on head coach Eugeny Pashutin for a hyped-up, crazy, “I only understood 65 percent of what he said” pre-game speech. And those uniforms were dope…loved the Kazan skyline and the white and green. But…yeah, it was a good run UNICS. You did about as well as we all expected in your return to the Euroleague, and that’s all we as fans could ask.

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Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv (10-20, 14th place)

What is going on Maccabi? That’s two years. Two straight years of disappointment, just like Milano. Last year, you went through three different head coaches, and were bounced out of the regular season and in the early rounds of the Eurocup. This year, you went through four head coaches, and were out of the playoff race by the 3/4 mark of the season. You have six Euroleague championships, the third-most in Euroleague history (behind Real Madrid and CSKA). You have a unique basketball legacy as one of the more well-known clubs outside of Europe. You are really the epicenter of Israeli club basketball, perhaps sports in general. When you think of Israeli professional sports, you think of Maccabi. You think of Nate Huffman, and David Blu. You think of Tyrese Rice, and David Blatt. You think of Big Sofos, and Jeremy Pargo.

10-20. Constant turmoil. Sonny Weems and Andrew Goudelock hogging the ball, unable to mesh with one another or the team in general. You have no post help beyond Colton Iverson. You depended on guys like Gal Mekel, Victor Rudd and Sylven Landesberg way too late. You are building up bad losses in the Winner League that could jeopardize your A-License status. If things keep going like they are, Euroleague basketball fans will have to live with a season, a full-30 game season without one of Europe’s legendary clubs.

This can’t happen Maccabi. Keep Ainars Bagatskis. Make some smart moves. Use your surprisingly limited budget wisely. We need Maccabi back in the playoff and perhaps Final Four picture soon.

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Brose Bamberg (10-20; 13th place)

Man, Bamberg. You were on the cusp. If you look at your pythagorean W-L total (points scored vs. points allowed), you really had the profile of a 13-to-15 win team. Instead, you only won 10, and you were out of the playoff race sooner than you should have. There were so many good things to witness from you, Bamberg, the lone German representative in this year’s revised Euroleague. Nicolo Melli put up a renaissance year in the post. Andrea Trinchieri continues to prove that he is one of the brightest and most entertaining coaches in Europe today. Darius Miller did “Darius Miller” things (some good, some bad). Fabien Caseur had a career boost after an injury-riddled year last season with Baskonia. Daniel Theis may be the next Tibor Pleiss: big German center with a “ice”-sounding name.

But the losses…so heartbreaking, and in such frequent fashion. Whether it was on the road, or in front of the loyal and rabid home fans in Bamberg, they just came and came…and came. For a while, I thought you could be a playoff team. I though we could see an Itoudis-Trinchieri playoff matchup. I thought we could see the Melli-renaissance continue in the postseason.

But so many close losses. So unlucky. Just wait until next October, Bamberg. You have lost enough chips at the Euroleague poker table already.

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Galatasaray Odeabank Istanbul (11-19, 12th place)

Out of all the Turkish teams, I may like you, Gala the best. Your ultras are loyal, even though you had the lowest budget of the four Turkish Euroleague teams this year. There’s an authenticity to your squad. An authenticity to the playmaking seance of Sinan Guler. An authenticity to Blake Schlib’s physicality at the 3, or Austin Daye’s stretch-4 shooting prowess. An authenticity to fans either immense hate or immense love for head coach Ergin Ataman. An authenticity to the team’s general “lax” attitude to defense and keeping opponents off the offensive glass. You could make the argument that Gala made a lot of poor roster decisions early in the year (cough…Russ Smith…cough). You could say that they probably underachieved, though in reality, they were a fringe-playoff team at best. You could say that this team isn’t taking the next step with Ataman as coach, especially considering how polarizing this team was at the end of the year.

But don’t say you lacked “authenticity.” I enjoyed watching your  “one-year show” in the Euroleague. You scored buckets. You ran the floor. You beat good teams when we least expected it, and lost to bad teams when we expected wins. You looked like a playoff contender down the stretch on the road, and perhaps a bottom-end Eurocup team at home in the same time span. And yet, there was a genuine-feeling to yo guys, your club, inside and out. Something that Dacka or even Efes didn’t have. That authenticity that makes a Euroleague club really special, makes it different from the typical professional basketball club in the NBA, Europe or anywhere else in the world.

You weren’t great by any means, but you will be missed next year. I hope, much like the case for Valencia, we’ll see more televised Eurocup games on Euroleague TV next season so we can see more of you and your ultras.

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FC Barcelona Lassa (12-18; 11th place)

We probably should have seen this down season coming, Barca. You seemed to live in a world where you had one foot in the “rebuild” door and the other in the “stay the course” one. You were like a casanova trying to pick two lovers, but eventually disappointing both of them. The hiring of Georgios Bartzokas, signified a rebuild or a change in direction as a club, as he had no Spanish coaching or playing experience. But then again, you kept a lot of the same talent from the Pascual era. Back was Justin Doellman. Back was Joey Dorsey (who didn’t last long). Back was Brad Oleson. Back was Ante Tomic and the corpse of Juan Carlos Navarro. It looked like a Xavi Pascual squad, only it was a Greek, not a Catalan, who was coaching the red and blue.

And when you try to live in both worlds, generally speaking, those worlds collide in bad ways.  And that was the case time and time again in 2016-2017. Barca, you just never really seemed cohesive on the offensive end, and just struggled to put the ball in the bucket. Peterri Koponen from Finland showed glimpses, as did youthful star Aleksander Vezenkov, but for the most part, your style was akin to those Detroit Pistons teams of the late 2000’s, after they won their title in 2004: old, stiff, and boring to watch, and worst of all, not a threat in the postseason race.

It’s sad to see you like this. You were so close to making a Final Four a year ago, and now it seems like the club has been put years behind in terms of rebuilding. Bartzokas is good as gone, as may anybody else with ties to the Pascual-era. You should’ve just cut off the head and started from scratch a year ago with a clean roster when you hired Bartzokas. Instead, we had to witness you guys endure a long, slow death with a dead-man walking in Bartzokas leading the futile Euroleague charge.

Thanks for making Barcelona fans, and us general European basketball fans, nearly masochists in the process.

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Zalgiris Kaunas (14-16; 10th place)

Last season, Zalgiris, you had a Euroleague season to forget. You fired your coach in the middle of the Top 16 round and hired Lithuanian point “god” legend Sarunas Jasikevicius to finish the year. Well…while you did win a LKL title, you didn’t do much better in the Euroleague, as you finished last in Top 16 play. And to make matters worse, at the start of the summer, it seemed almost certain that Saras was going to coach his former club, Barcelona in 2016-2017. It looked like it was going to be a rough stretch for you, Lithuania’s lone Euroleague representative.

But then, ACB rules prohibited Saras from coaching Barcelona and they hired Bartzokas instead. I said how this was going to be a good thing, and how Saras would develop as a coach while mentoring your younger players and roster. You signed Kevin Pangos, a former Zag whom I love. And you kept your core intact, made up mostly of Lithuanians with prestige youth playing experience.

It wasn’t exactly easy street. You struggle to find a go-to guy in crunch time. Your loss at home against Efes which effectively eliminated you from the playoffs was heart-wrenching, as many general Euroleague fans were pulling for you to make the field of eight. Maybe Saras just was a little “too tense” in big moments, and big games. But you guys did it your way: with a young roster, with fellow countrymen, utilizing the home crowd fans to your advantage time and time again. Kaunas wasn’t quite Belgrade, but it certainly was a solid candidate for number 2 for the best crowds in the Euroleague this season.

You should be commended Saras for what you did, for winning 14 games with a roster that was probably pegged to finish in the bottom half in the preseason. It was a joy to see Paulius Jankunas develop as an inside-outside threat, Lukas Lekavicius go balls out off the bench, and Leo Westermann demonstrate basketball IQ and a shooting stroke on a nightly basis. I never felt Zalgiris was a serious playoff contender at any point in the year, even in their crucial game against Efes in Kaunas. They just didn’t have that athleticism or that “star”. But Zalgiris was like that wonderful, scrappy, Mid-Major basketball team with the charismatic coach who got the most out of his players.

Man, I feel sorry for whoever is going to take over for Saras in Kaunas next year. This was a very special Zalgiris team not just for Lithuanian fans, but European basketball fans in general.

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Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (16-14, 9th place)

What can I say that hasn’t been said already about Red Star? You had the lowest payroll in the Euroleague. And yet, you were one game away from making the playoffs despite a paltry budget of five million euros (that’s right…five…freaking…million…euros). You lost Quincy Miller and Maik Zirbes to Maccabi, two key guys who led you to the playoffs a season ago. And who did you replace them with? Charles Jenkins, a combo guard who’s not really quick enough to be a true point, or tall enough to be a shooter; and Ognjen Kuzmic, who was coming off a lackluster year with PAO in 2015-2016. It was just those two, South Dakotan legend Nate Wolters, and a whole bunch of young players who came from your developmental system. Much like Zalgiris, this was expected to be a developmental year.

But I should have known better than to doubt the Red Star ultras. I should have known better than to downplay the coaching Dejan Redonjic. I should have known better and realized that Serbia produces some of the best young basketball talent in the world. I should have known better…Red Star is no slouch. Red Star plays with pride, they play with toughness, and the play to win…each and every night in the Euroleague.

Kuzmic surprised us, displaying the post skills that made him once a NBA draft pick. Marko Simonovic was the leader of the bench mob thanks to his streaky outside shooting. Stefan Jovic was becoming a point guard savant up there with the best of the Euroleague until he got injured. Nemanja Dangubic started to display the two-way, multiple position skills that makes him one of the more debated prospects in Europe. And Mjelko Bjelica? He proved to be the ultimate “dad-ball” player (i.e. an older guy who plays pickup and looks like he should suck, but is actually pretty good).

We all wish it was you, and not Dacka in the playoffs Red Star. We will miss your fans. We will miss your young roster. We will miss the Marko Guduric heat check step backs. We will miss Branko Lazic’s intensity on the defensive end.

We will just miss Serbian basketball in the postseason…it just goes underappreciated way too fucking much.

Unicaja and Joan Plaza Bounce Back; Pouring one out for Valencia

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Much like the NCAA National Championship, it was a grind-it-out, defensive oriented affair in Valencia in the deciding game of the Eurocup Finals. Despite Valencia’s tough home-court environment, Unicaja proved to be road warriors again, winning 63-58 in the deciding game on the road for the second time this postseason (they won game 3 in the quarterfinals against Bayern Munich). Unicaja was led by Eurocup Finals MVP guard Alberto Diaz, who scored 12 shots on 4 of 6 shooting, had two assists, and provided some great defense at the guard position throughout the series.

It was not a pretty contest by any means in the deciding game, as Diaz was only one of two players to reach double figures scoring for Unicaja (Jamar Smith being the other). However, the defense of Unicaja was the underrated star of the series, as Unicaja held Valencia to only 4 points in the deciding 4th quarter (though part of it was Valencia not making open shots; props to Mark Titus and his “if they don’t make shots, they don’t win” theory). The Malaga-based club also quieted two of Valencia’s best offensive players, Rafa Martinez and Fernando San Emeterio, throughout the series, and especially in Game 3, as Martinez scored 3 points on 1-of-7 shooting, and San Emeterio scored 7 on of 1-of-9 shooting (this also resulted in Martinez having an epic meltdown at the end where he got a technical for jawing with Nemanja Nedovic and made the game go on five minutes longer than it should have; I thought he was going to fight every Unicaja player on the floor). The big concern going into the series was if Unicaja would be able to handle the offensive precision and depth of Valencia, but in the most crucial moments, Unicaja’s perimeter defense, led by Diaz, Smith, Nedovic, Jeff Brooks, and Adam Waczynski, came up big and willed the underdogs to victory. As you can see in the highlights below, Brooks’ huge block on Martinez in the closing seconds was a moment that Malaga fans will remember for a long time.

The win helps Unicaja return to the Euroleague after a one-year hiatus. Unicaja was one of the more entertaining clubs in the regular season last Euroleague, thanks to Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who is now playing for the New York Knicks. However, they nose-dived a bit in Top 16 play, didn’t make the playoffs, and didn’t perform well enough in the ACB to generate an at-large berth, thus pushing them to the Eurocup for the first time ever this season.

Thankfully for the Malaga-based club, they didn’t have to spend too much time away from Europe’s top, and most lucrative competition.

The win also was a bit of redemption for head coach Joan Plaza, a fiery and intense coach who has also coached for Real Madrid and Zalgiris prior to arriving in Malaga. This is the second Eurocup title for Plaza, as he won one in 2006-2007 (then the ULEB Cup) with Real Madrid (in addition to an ACB title). However, he wasn’t able to build on that success for long in the Spanish capital. Lackluster finishes in the ACB and Euroleague in consecutive seasons after his dual-title campaign resulted in him being replaced by Ettore Messina, who achieved Euroleague Final Four success in Plaza’s wake, thus dwarfing Plaza’s Madrid legacy in the record books a bit.

However, Plaza bounced back this year with Unicaja, and it is a bit satisfying to see on Plaza’s behalf. He gets forgotten in Spanish coaching circles among fans as of late, as he doesn’t have the credentials of a Messina, former Barcelona and current Panathinaikos coach Xavi Pascual or Pablo Laso, the current Madrid coach. And there was some speculation on how long he would stay in Malaga after being demoted to the Eurocup this season. Despite all that, not to mention not having home court advantage or Dejan Musli, who was lost to injury prior to the Finals, Plaza was able to add another championship to his underrated legacy. You could see in the interview below how much the victory meant to him, and how much he knew it meant to the community of Malaga as well.

Good for you Joan. We need more of your profanity-laced timeouts in the Euroleague.


 

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Not living in Spain or having much access to ACB games (other than random YouTube uploads), I did not have much familiarity with this Valencia team leading up to this Eurocup playoffs. However, once I started watching the Eurocup, Valencia was one of the teams I fell in love with quickly.

American Luke Sikma and Romain Sato were a couple of my favorite players when they were in college, and it was nice to not only see them again, but still being just as effective as professionals in Europe. I remembered Sikma being an efficiency machine in the WCC when he played at the University of Portland, and I have fond memories of Sato torching A-10 foes from beyond the arc when he played at Xavier. Neither has changed much in terms of game. Sikma remains a versatile and efficient post player, and Sato is the hot-hand off the bench that could swing momentum for this Valencia club at any given moment.

But while I had some prior fondness for Sikma and Sato, I grew to appreciate all of head coach Pedro Martinez’s Valencia squad with each and every playoff game. I loved Rafa Martinez’s heat-check 3’s and abrasive personality that made Sasha Vujacic look like a choir boy in comparison. I sunk in the in-depth post moves and beard of Bojan Dubljevic, who was probably Valencia’s best player this series (he had 16 points, 6 rebounds and a game high 19 PIR in Game 3). San Emeterio and Joan Sastre were crafty wings, who gave up many athletic disadvantages throughout the playoffs (especially in the last two rounds against Unicaja and Hapoel Jerusalem), but were able to be effective on the offensive and defensive in positive ways for this Valencia club.

And the fans? Well, when things were going well, as they were in Game 1 of the Finals, you could appreciate how turned up they got, often times boosting their team on the floor.

Valencia was like that good college team that didn’t have five-star recruits, or one tremendous star player, but relied on great chemistry and depth to win games. Martinez played a 10-plus rotation where multiple guys received double-digit minutes, even in the postseason, something that seems crazy to think about it in retrospect (whether its college or NBA, most teams are playing an 8-man lineup). And Martinez, while intense, always seemed focused in the moment, looking more like a seasoned college coach than the professional one you would see in the NBA (though to be honest, I would say Euroleague coaches are closer in spirit to college ones than NBA).

If I had to compare Valencia to any college basketball team, it would be a Gonzaga, of sorts: good, but not great players; a head coach who isn’t necessarily as widely-heralded as others in Europe (he had a lot of success with Gran Canaria as well); and a small, but rabid fanbase that makes Fuente de San Luis one of the more underrated (and perhaps toughest) venues in Spain, maybe Europe.

I am happy for Unicaja and Plaza. I am happy that more basketball fans will get to see Alberto Diaz in the Euroleague next year. The Malaga fans are some of the better ones you will see in European basketball circles.

But I wanted to see Valencia a bit more. I wanted to see the “Pedro-ball” and Rafa Martinez going at it with CSKA’s Milos Teodosic in a “who has the better half-assed beard and is more combative” contest. I wanted to see a potential Zalgiris Kevin Pangos and Sikma cross-match, akin to their Gonzaga-Portland days in the WCC.

However, with the cap of country teams in the Euroleague at four (meaning there can’t be more than four teams from one country), it is probably all but certain that Valencia will be back in the Eurocup in 2017-2018 (along with Malaga, Real Madrid, Baskonia and Barcelona will most likely be in the Euroleague; Barcelona was not good this year, but they have an A license).

Pour one out for Valencia. Let’s hope they show more Eurocup games (other than just the playoffs) next year on Euroleague TV.

A Quick Preview to the Eurocup Semifinals

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Baskonia Returning to Final Four? Maccabi Fox in Trouble? (And Other Stories from Round 11)

In any other year, we would just have finished the opening slate of the Top 16 round stage of the Euroleague. This year, however, it’s just another week in the new, longer slog of the Euroleague campaign.

Let’s take a look at some things that happened in Round 11.

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Can Baskonia return to the Final Four?

Baskonia went from Euroleague dark horse to the Final Four a year ago in 2015-2016. However, it was safe to say most people weren’t expecting the same from the Basque club in 2016-2017. Of course, one could justify the thinking. They not only lost head coach Velimir Perasovic in the off-season to Anadolu Efes, but they also lost Euroleague MVP-runner up Ioannis Bourousis and Mike James to Euroleague competitor Panathinaikos; Darius Adams to China, and Davis Bertans to the San Antonio Spurs. Add that with uninspiring free agent signings such as Andrea Bargnani (coming off a miserable season with the Brooklyn Nets), Shane Larkin (a good, but not great NBA point guard), and Johannes Voigtmann (who played for the Fraport Skyliners; a FIBA Europe Cup participant a year ago), and it was expected to be a growing, perhaps rebuilding season in Vitoria-Gasteiz under new head coach Sito Alonso, who has only coached a total of 10 games in the Euroleague with DKV Joventut in 2008-2009.

Despite the modest projections, Baskonia has not only proven to be better than expected, but they may be even better than last year’s 4th place squad. Bargnani’s health going forward this season is a question, as he has only played 7 games this year, but he has been productive when on the floor, as evidenced by his 12.6 ppg, and 10.9 PIR. The biggest impact though has come from Larkin and their post players, where the Basque club has demonstrated considerable diversity in their depth chart. Larkin, a former Nets draft pick out of the University of Miami, has thrived in the Euroleague (not an easy feat considering the amount of Ameircan duds this season; more on that later). He’s averaging 13.5 ppg, 6.4 apg, and a PIR of 15.8, which is the second best mark on the squad. Though Adams and James certainly added a 1-2 punch from the point guard position, neither of them have the pick and roll passing ability and deftness in the half court offense that Larkin has demonstrated this year. What could make Larkin even more dangerous this year is the addition of Pablo Prigioni, a former Baskonia star returning to Europe from a stint in the NBA, who could provide excellent mentoring to Larkin, not to mention backup on nights when the first-year star is not on his A-game.

Of course, Larkin wouldn’t be as successful if he didn’t have quality posts to work with, and Larkin and head coach Alonso have been able to utilize their multiple talented block players to maximum effectiveness this off-season. Bargnani earned a lot of publicity in the pre-season due to his status as a former No. 1 NBA Draft pick, but it’s the other supporting bigs who have done most of the damage for Baskonia. Voigtmann has been a double-double efficiency machine, as evidenced by his 12.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg and team-leading 17.6 PIR. Tornike Shengalia, who was hobbled by injury a season ago, has been solid averaging 10.1 ppg and 4 rpg. And Kim Tillie has been a dependable big off the bench, as evidenced by his 4.4 ppg and 50 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Lastly, bring in Chase Budinger, who can bring some stretch-4 options into the mix, and it’s no surprise that the frontcourt has been the strongest aspect of Baskonia’s arsenal (along with Adam Hanga’s incredible defensive ability; he probably is the best perimeter defender in Europe).

One of the most interesting progressions this season though may be Ilimane Diop, who saw some time as a spot starter when Shengalia was injured a year ago. Diop doesn’t average much time (as he averages only 8.8 MPG), and he still is work in progress offensively, but he has appeared in every game this year, and has proven to be Baskonia’s most valuable post defender this season. According to Overbasket.com, teams are shooting only 34.6 percent from the floor when Diop is playing in comparison to 43.7 when he is off. That 9.1 percent difference is the largest positive difference for any post player on this Baskonia roster. It’ll be interesting to see if Alonso will utilize him more down the stretch, especially against teams that struggle to score in the half court.

If you compare the performance and shooting numbers of this year’s Baskonia squad to the one a year ago, it’s quite remarkable how similar the teams are statistically speaking. For the most part, they are the same efficiency-wise on both ends of the court with some minor differences: this year’s squad scores more in the post, and rebounds better; last year’s squad shot better from three and played at a bit faster pace. Considering the inconsistency we have seen from a majority of the Euroleague squads this year (especially in the 5-16 region), the fact that Baskonia looks to be as strong as last year’s squad on paper and in the record book (they’re 7-4 and tied for fourth) is definitely an encouraging sign for Baskonia fans that they will be able to make it back to the Final Four, only this time they will be purchasing a ticket to Istanbul rather than Berlin.

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Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv’s flaws starting to show…

After a big win in Piraeus over Olympiacos, things looked pretty bright for Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv. They were 5-4, in sound playoff shape, and looked to be really gelling under new head coach Rami Hadar (who took over for Erez Edelstein after an 0-2 start in Euroleague play). Furthermore, they were going into a three-game stretch which had 3-0 possibilities, with home contests against Efes and Brose and a road game against Crvena Zvezda, who had been fading as of late (though playing in Belgrade is always a difficult task due to their rabid fans).

However, it appears that Maccabi will be lucky to avoid an 0-3 stretch after Round 12. They were out-muscled and hustled against Efes in a 86-77 loss, as the Turkish club out-rebounded Maccabi 36-30 and had less turnovers (13 to Maccabi’s 21) as well. The following week, Maccabi came out flat and never recovered, as they put up an atrocious defensive performance in a 85-70 loss where Maccabi never led at any point in the game. Brose shot 54 percent from the field, including 48.1 percent from beyond the arc. Considering that 45.9 percent of Brose’s points came from beyond the arc, it makes sense that game was so lopsided, especially in the points per field goal mark (1.29 to Maccabi’s 0.86).

Now 5-6, and traveling to a tough venue in Belgrade, Maccabi is scrambling to find an identity and the right kind of leadership to help them get back on track. The talent is certainly there, and if Quincy Miller was healthy, you can understand why Maccabi fans were so excited about this team after such a disaster of a Euroleague and Winner League season a year ago. That being said, as kind of talked about by a lot of English-speaking Euroleague experts on Twitter, this team doesn’t seem to fit together with so many players possessing “similar” playing styles (i.e. “high-usage rate guards”).

New signings Andrew Goudelock and Sonny Weems need the ball to be successful and productive, and add that with a similar kind of player in Devin Smith, and it is no surprise that the offense stagnates into constant isolation and 1-on-1 plays. To make matters worse, Maccabi is thin in the post, with Colton Iverson and Maik Zirbes the only two giving any production around the rim, and they lack a true play maker who can create for others. Gal Mekel, expected to the be in the starting lineup, has been glued to the bench lately, and Yogev Ohayon, is a jolt of energy off the bench, but is not the kind of point guard to handle such a diversity of talents. And to make matters worse, though this team may be the fastest in Europe, especially with the combination DJ Seeley and Victor Rudd on the wings, they seem to take plays off, which was evident against a much more motivated and better prepared Brose team last week. They don’t fight through pick and rolls. They don’t contest shots consistently. And they don’t get on the boards like they need to at times, resulting in too many easy second-chance points.

Goudelock, Weems and Smith are talented scorers on their own, and on a squad bereft of talent, they shine as players. But on the same roster and sometimes on the same floor? Well, the offense stagnates, one of them ends up standing around totally disengaged from the offense and sometimes defense, and it has hurt Maccabi time and time again this year in terms of building chemistry and consistency. If Maccabi really wants to make the playoffs and be a serious contender for a Final Four spot, a change in the ROSTER and not the coaching needs to happen. It’s got to be Goudelock’s team. Or Weems’ team. Or Smith’s team. All three can’t co-exist. Yes they’ll have spurts like against Fenerbahce and Olympiacos, but more often than not, we’ll see duds like the ones against Efes and Brose due to the flaws of those three players working against each other and consequently, the team as a whole.

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Real Madrid or CSKA Moscow? Look to Luka…

CSKA Moscow was challenged early in Milan against Olimpia Milano, but their talent and depth took over as they won 79-64 to keep the top spot in the Euroleague standings at 10-1. However, with de Colo still out, and do-it-all guard Milos Teodosic citing fatigue issues, their top spot may be challenged real soon by Real Madrid.

Madrid won by a much slimmer margin against Zalgiris Kaunas 96-91. However, this is Zalgiris team that is gelling under head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius, and may be a move away from being a darkhorse playoff contender come March. The fact that Real took their best shot, and still came away with the victory is no easy feat, especially considering they also play in the Liga Endesa, the top domestic competition in Europe.

One of the big reasons to feel confident in “Los Blancos” is their depth, as they go 10-12 deep rotation wise, important considering the longer Euroleague campaign. New acquisition Anthony Randolph has been a two-way beast who complements established Madrid stars Felipe Reyes and Gustavo Ayon well. Furthermore, Dontaye Draper has been a nice backup guard who gives Madrid defensive stability when star Sergio Llull is on the bench.

However, the biggest revelation has been 17-year-old Luka Doncic, who scored 17 points, and had 4 rebounds and 4 assists and a PIR of 24 in their win over Zalgiris. Many expected Doncic to still be a year away from being a true impact player, but it’s already obvious that if Madrid wants to win the Euroleague, Doncic’s performance down the stretch will be crucial. He’s not eligible until the 2018 NBA Draft, but it’s safe to say that if he keeps this rapid progression, he should be a lock for the No. 1 spot.

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Starting planning for next year…

I hate to be saying teams should be thinking about 2017-2018 so early in the season, especially with limited licenses on the line. However, I think it’s safe to say we can eliminate the following teams from playoff contention:

  • Galatasaray Odeabank: the combination of injuries and lack of chemistry has killed this team. They looked absolutely outclassed on the road against Panathinaikos in a 83-58 loss. Yes, the game was in Athens and Pana was desperate for a win, but it was just a lackluster performance all-around for the reigning Eurocup champions. Other than Sinan Guler and Blake Schilb, there hasn’t been much to be positive about with this team. Their American acquisitions have not fit in (Russ Smith, Austin Daye and Justin Dentmon) and Tibor Pleiss just hasn’t given them anything lasting despite his NBA pedigree. Ergin Ataman is such a key figure in Turkish basketball, but another year of this will be tough to stomach for the Gala Ultras.
  • EA7 Amani Olimpia Milano: It’s bad enough that Olimpia is 4-7 after fading in the second half against CSKA at home. It’s bad enough that after a 2-0 start with wins against Maccabi and Darussafaka, they have lost seven out of their last nine games. It’s bad enough that they haven’t gotten much consistency from big-name signing Miroslav Raduljica. But now they have the whole Alessandro Gentile drama where they kicked the brash Italian star off the team and are now trying to find a team to transfer him to as soon as possible. Boy…this has been just a tough year for the Italian club, not to mention a tough stretch for Italian professional basketball  in general. No Italian club has made the Final Four since 2011 (Montepaschi Siena), and it looks like that streak will continue this season.
  • UNICS Kazan: UNICS has cool uniforms and Keith Langford, who I talked about last week. Other than that…well, it’s hard to justify a way that the Russian club gets in. They struggle on the road, especially against good teams, and last week’s 88-59 beatdown in Piraeus shows that this UNICS team is definitely outside the bubble of playoff contention.