This is the first part of a series called “EuroBall and Beatz” where I highlight a Euroleague player’s highlight MixTape and a song from an up and coming musical artist or act. Check the page on the header to see the complete collection of posts in this series.
If there is one player I’m going to miss greatly in the Euroleague next year, it is “El Chacho” Sergio Rodriguez from Real Madrid. In many ways, Chacho was the Euroleague and ACB’s answer to former Sacramento King and Memphis Grizzly (and Orlando Magic and Miami Heat if you want to be semantic) point god Jason Williams, only Spanish-speaking, a bit smaller, and a whole lot more hipster with that killer beard of his. (Seriously, that beard is dope; he looks like a logger from Western South Dakota, only instead of cutting trees up with an ax, he’s cutting defenders up with slick handles, and no-look passes).
Rodriguez isn’t exactly young at 30 years old, but his career has gone through a bit of revitalization after coming back to Spain from the NBA in 2010. In that time span, he has primarily played for Real Madrid, and in addition to tantalizing fans (and like, on the cusp of erotically tantalizing…just kidding…or am I?) with his assortment of killer crossovers, sensational passes, and crazy, streaky shooting, he also has helped kept Real a power on the European and Spanish scene. He has been a 3-time All-ACB player (2014-2016), a Euroleague MVP (2014) and an All-Euroleague 1st team player (2014) and led Real to a Euroleague title in 2015. And he’s done this despite the presence of Sergio Llull, another high-profile, high-usage Spanish guard, who more or less plays the same position (Llull is more of a point guard who focuses on shooting and scoring rather than El Chacho, who focuses more on playmaking; but they are essentially both point guards).
The most endearing part of El Chacho’s legacy in this latest go-around in Europe is that he doesn’t seem to worry about the media or the spotlight (seriously, how many players would defer the “attention” to another player on a team as big as Real Madrid?). Instead, he’s all about letting his game on the court do the talking and creating magnificent play on the court. He’s like an Andy Warhol, but instead of Campbell Soup and Madonna postmodern paintings, and canvases, El Chacho stupefies audiences (and opponents) in the pick and roll and with floaters at the rim. There were glimpses of this kind of “El Chacho” when he played in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings, but it hasn’t been until the last few years or so in Real that El Chacho really has been given the freedom on the court from head coach Pablo Lasso to stretch out his wings and fly as a point guard savant.
I know that some basketball fans aren’t as pumped about his arrival. People will point that he’s 30, and that he didn’t succeed in the NBA the first time, and that the Euroleague isn’t the same as the NBA. Yeah, we get it. The Euroleague and European basketball isn’t the same as the NBA. But you know what? El Chacho will have a better coach in Brett Brown that will allow him to play more freely than he was allowed to in Nate McMillan’s “boring ass” offensive system in Portland. (Seriously Larry Bird…you fire Frank Vogel for not running a “fast offense” and you then hire Nate “I’m so fucking boring, let’s see how many Isos I can run for Brandon Roy even though he is clearly 75 percent healthy” McMillan? Good luck!) He will be going to a team that is used to misery; and TJ McConnell, Kendall Marshall, and Ish Smith at point guard; and the mindset that they won’t be competitive for at least another 2-4 years. Just imagine the joy El Chacho will bring with his passes, his crossovers, his crazy step backs from feet beyond the arc? Forget “the Process”. Sixers fans will be making all kinds of “El Chacho” chants instead of their usual “Trust Sam Hinkie” ones (which they can’t do anymore anyways, because you know, he’s fired).
Maybe El Chacho wasn’t the best player on his own team that past few years (you could argue Llull or Gustavo Ayon would take that honor). But he was the most fun and entertaining, and did so in a joyful, playful, but humble way. Damn it, Philly. You better appreciate it him for who he is and what he brings on a nightly basis, because you know Spanish and Euroleague fans will be aching for his spectacular skill set by November, maybe sooner (myself included).
Action Bronson (feat. Chance the Rapper)-“Baby Blue”
To stay on the theme of “Savants with Beards”, the beatz portion will focus on Action Bronson’s track “Baby Blue” which features Chicago-based hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper, who’s like the biggest fucking thing in rap music right now. I mean, honestly, Chance right now is like at “Pokemon Go” levels with his latest rap album “Coloring Book”. The album and his status spit so much fire, that you have all kinds of hipsters, rap critics, and twitter folks losing their shit every time the song is added to a public playlist on Spotify or is played in a coffee shop or hookah bar beyond 7 p.m. on a weekend evening.
But this isn’t about Lil Chano from 79th, this is about Bronson, an artist in the current rap game now like El Chacho is in the world of basketball. Bronson (a former high-end restaurant chef turned self-made hip hop lyricist) and his style harken back to that intense 90’s hip-hop scene that really developed general music fan’s opinions and educated them how rap could be a diverse, deep, and legitimate musical art form. His rap reminds you of a cross between old Wu Tang, Nas, and Biggie with some Fat Joe or Big Pun stylings slightly mixed in. It’s definitely loud, blunt, and in your face, kind of like Action Bronson’s presence himself, who definitely sticks out with his large frame, Brooklyn Hipster-chic wardrobe (he is from Queens, New York) and bushy, dope-ass beard. (He has to hold his facial locks while eating sometimes, as evidenced on his own show on Munchies, appropriately named “Fuck, That is Delicious”, which is by the way, fucking awesome).
And that’s what makes this collaboration with Chance such a refreshing tweak to Action’s musical style: Chance is not the kind of intense, “I’m gonna fuck you up if you jack with me” rapper that Action is, and that really balances “Baby Blue” out. Chance is really chill as fuck as a rapper in his music, and to be perfectly honest, somewhat joyful in his style (not to say he doesn’t have edge; but let’s be honest here, there are a lot of God and church influence in “Coloring Book”; nihilism is something Chance ain’t down with). And with his more “upbeat” influence, it blends well with Action’s brash approach, creating a dope track that is worth jamming to on multiple occasions.
Action Bronson and El Chacho. Two bearded artists who are killer at their craft and probably don’t get the appreciation they deserve at times in their respective fields.
We need to get these two together, with Action wearing a Philly “El Chacho” jersey in a Snapchat or something soon. Maybe when El Chacho gets more situated to East Coast Philly life of course; I’m sure he’s focused more on working with Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor in the pick and roll, not hanging with hip hop artists who are filming restaurant shows on Vice on the side.
But give it a couple of months. And keep an eye on that “Rodriguez” jersey on the Sixers NBA Store. And see what Action Bronson does…(I can hope, right?)
“It’s clear that we didn’t know how to take advantage of the home-court advantage we had to close the series. We had that opportunity in the fourth game, after winning the second one here, but like today, we couldn’t make shots in the last quarter. It has been a beautiful series, as I said, and we had our options to win it.” –Xavi Pascual after their Euroleague Game 5 loss to Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnador.
For the second straight year, proud European basketball club FC Barcelona will not be hoisting any major trophies this year, and there are major questions that need to be answered this summer when it comes to the future of this Spanish basketball power. In the Euroleague playoffs in late April, despite a 2-1 series advantage with Game 4 at home, the Catalan franchise fell 3 games to 2 to Russian club Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnador (a club that was playing in the Eurocup a year ago) for the remaining Final Four spot in Berlin. The loss marked the second year in a row Barcelona failed to get out of the playoff round in the Euroleague, a rare and remarkable occurrence since they had only missed the Final Four once from 2008 to 2014 (in the 2011 playoffs they lost to Panathinaikos 3-1).
Things did not fare much better in the ACB league in Spain. Sure, one could say that the season overall turned out to be a success in the Liga Endesa. Barcelona had the best regular season record at 29-5, and they made quick work of a scrappy Fuenlabrada team in the first round, 2 games to 0, and in the second round, outlasted a strong Laboral Kutxa Baskonia team that had made the Euroleague Final Four, 3 games to 1. Furthemore, according to Eurobasket.com’s Top 100 Club ratings, Barcelona ranks No. 3 in the World behind only Euroleague championship participants CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce Istanbul, respectively.
But regular season records and preliminary ACB playoff rounds do not matter with the Catalan basketball fans. Much like the New York Yankees of Major League Baseball, the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA or even their own futbol franchise, what matters at the end of the day are championship trophies. There are no such things as moral victories or consolation prizes with a fanbase that demands the highest degrees of success on an annual basis.
And once again, for the second straight year, Barcelona fell to their Clasico rivals Real Madrid. After Barcelona’s thrilling Game 1 victory at home 100-98, Real Madrid cruised to the three straight victories in the Liga Endesa Finals, outscoring their rivals by a combined 44 points over the three-game span. The loss was particularly humbling for the Catlan squad considering their ACB first place finish in the regular season as well as stronger performance in the Euroleague, where they had a better record in the Top 16 (8-6 to Real Madrid’s 7-7 mark in Top 16 play) and Playoffs (Real Madrid was swept by Fenerbahce).
Nothing is official in the latter’s regard of course, as Xavi Pascual, who has been the head coach since 2008, is still officially the coach of Barcelona despite another disappointing season. Nonetheless, things have stagnated for the Spanish basketball power, and it is clear amongst basketball fans that all kinds of changes need to be made, not just in terms of coaching, but talent as well.
Pascual has been the head coach of Barcelona since 2008 and probably has had one of the most successful tenures of any coach in Europe in that time span. In his coaching career, they have won four ACB Championships, and have been runner up in seasons when they have not won it all domestically. In the Euroleague, he led them to a 2009-2010 championship, and has seen his club participate in the Final Four on four other occasions (2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014). He is a four-time ACB coach of the year award winner as well as a Euroleague coach of the year winner in 2010 when Barcelona won the Euroleague Championship over Olympiacos. Quite simply, it would be hard-pressed to find a whole lot of others coaches in Europe that have been as accomplished as Pascual as of late.
Unfortunately, the past two seasons haven’t been kind to him, as Pascual has been widely criticized for his coaching style and strategy which have included an emphasis on methodically playing in the half court, and an over-reliance on aging veterans past their prime. Despite other Spanish clubs like Baskonia and Real Madrid pushing the pace and producing an exciting brand of up-tempo basketball to various success, Pascual employed a much slower pace this past season that involved draining the shot clock and putting less of an emphasis on transition. In the Euroleague, Barcelona was the slowest team in the Euroleague Top 16 in pace at 70.4 possessions per game (in comparison, Baskonia ranked third-fastest at 74.7 and Real ranked sixth-fastest at 73.4). While that was not necessarily a bad thing (Barcelona’s net rating was actually better at 3.6 than Baskonia’s 1.9 and Real’s 0.1 in Top 16), it didn’t endear them to general European basketball fans who were used to seeing much more exciting styles of play from other Spanish squads in Europe’s premier club competition.
And the slow pace wasn’t the sole wort for this Barcelona squad this season aesthetically. Pascual emphasized a rather conservative defensive approach, as his teams tended to rely heavily on zone looks against much better competition and de-emphasized producing turnovers (they had the 6th-lowest opponent turnover rate in the Top 16) and blocking shots (they had the fourth-lowest block rate in the Top 16). The rather risk-averse approach had its advantages, especially if opposing teams were not shooting well from the outside. That being said, if players or teams got on hot shooting streaks (as evidenced by Loko’s Anthony Randolph and his 28 point on 11 of 17 shooting performance in Game 4 of the playoffs), Barcelona found themselves on the losing end, sometimes badly, because they didn’t have the kind of defensive system that would generate extra turnovers and extra possessions necessary to produce big-time comebacks.
Of course, Pascual hasn’t necessarily been this kind of coach, as if you look in years past, he has always been around league-average when it comes to pace. Hence, this year may have been an anomaly. But why? Well, it’s hard to play up-tempo with an aging roster that not only struggled through various injuries, but also couldn’t compete with quicker and more athletic teams.
Which leads us to our next issue: the roster change needed in Barcelona. Despite his legendary status, Juan Carlos Navarro suffered a horrific season by all accounts. At 36-years-old, Navarro doesn’t have the speed and athleticism anymore to compete with Europe’s top guards and wings. Additionally, his shot also deserted him, especially in Euroleague play. In the Euroleague, Navarro shot only 44 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from beyond the arc, some of the worst percentages of his playing career. The combination of his age and poor shooting was a reason he played under 20 minutes a game in Euroleague competition and sat out during key stretches of many big games. In ACB league play, Navarro wasn’t much better, and he was utilized less, as he shot only 35 percent from beyond the arc, and 42.7 from the field. Hence, after such a regression this season, it made sense why Navarro only played 17.8 minutes per game, and was replaced in the rotation by younger wings such as Pau Ribas and Alex Abrines.
But Navarro wasn’t the only one who failed to live up to expectations. Carlos Arroyo, a former NBA guard with the Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and Miami Heat failed to live up to his billing as he struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness to only average around 15 minutes per game in both ACB and Euroleague play. Guard Brad Oleson was a mess in Euroleague play, as the usually reliable outside shooter, shot a disastrous 26.7 percent from beyond the arc, and had the lowest PIR of any player that averaged 10 or more minutes on the team at 2.6. And Ante Tomic, who was deemed the center of the future for Barcelona after signing a three-year extension last June, struggled to have any kind of impact, as he averaged a paltry 10.9 ppg and 5.4 rpg in about 20 mpg and 0.95 points per possession. To make matters worse, he was a liability on defense who was subbed out in favor of backups Samardo Samuel, Shane Lawal and Joey Dorsey, who often needed to make up for his defensive shortcomings. Tomic was often exploited by opposing guards in the pick and roll as he was neither quick enough to switch or consistently hedge and recover, and his block rate of 0.8 percent was lower than guards Alex Abrines, Tomas Satoransky and even Carlo Arroyo. In all honesty, that is pretty lackluster, if not embarrassing, for a seven footer who was once a NBA Draft pick.
One could sum up Barcelona’s roster in three words: old and fragile. In the ACB, where there is a much bigger talent gap between the top teams (Barcelona, Real, Valenica, Baskonia, etc.) and the rest, it worked out okay, until the championship against Real of course. But in the Euroleague, where the competition is much better week after week, Barcelona just couldn’t keep up, and it made sense that they fell to a Loko team that had little history of success in the Euroleague prior to this season. Experience is important, but experience can’t make up for lost shooting, an inability to consistently defend the pick and roll and being muscled out by more athletic and physical opponents. And not only did that happen against Loko in the playoffs, but throughout the Euroleague campaign, especially in losses to Khimki Moscow, Baskonia, Zalgiris and Olympiacos in the Regular and Top 16 season. Barcelona just looked like a team over the hill, that had to rely on miracle shooting or lackluster execution from their opponents to pull out victories.
Yes, Barcelona had a mediocre roster, but that wasn’t to say that there wasn’t hope or some youth on the team. Abrines, Satoransky and Ribas were all young players who had pretty good seasons, and looked capable of carrying this team in ways Navarro, Oleson and Arroyo couldn’t. But, Pascual, being a veteran coach, couldn’t seem to part with his veteran players in the lineup, even though all indication statistically said he should have. As detailed in this excellent piece from Rob Scott of Euroleague Adventures, Pascual’s reliance on Navarro and Oleson, over younger and more effective players like Abrines and Ribas, especially in key games, could be one of the reasons for his departure. Here’s an eloquent piece that sums up Scott’s point about Pascual:
Pau Ribas was supposed to be the marquee signing of the summer, but he was underused as Pascual refused to let go of Navarro and Oleson, even Arroyo. The stubborn commitment to ‘his guys’ is probably great for motivation, and every indication is that his players love him. But there must be a point at which the team makes a clean break with the past. It looks like that has just begun
Not a lot of players seem to be safe on this Barcelona roster going forward, not even Justin Doellman a big signing a couple of seasons ago from Valencia, who averaged 9.6 ppg and shot 43.5 percent from beyond the arc in Euroleague play, and 11.9 ppg in the ACB this past season. At 31 years old, Doellman isn’t exactly in that boat of Navarro and Arroyo age-wise, but his style of play (more of a stretch 4 who excels as a spot up shooter) and lack of agility and gifts defensively don’t fix the glaring flaws Barcelona has in terms of speed and athleticism. Doellman, much like other import Samardo Samuels, may not have been a part of the problem in 2015-2016 for Barcelona, but he doesn’t seem like he would be part of the solution in the future either, as what he brings to the table could easily be replaced by someone currently on the roster or another signing.
Pascual returning is probably a miracle (if not impossible really considering the “leaking” of these reports about him going), and all indications seem to point to Jasikevicius being the guy to help Barcelona get out of this “stagnation period” Barcelona has been in the past couple of seasons. Jasikevicius would be an interesting hire, as he certainly is a big name due to his time as a player not just in Barcelona, but all over Europe including Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, Panathinaikos, and Zalgiris. However, he only has been a head coach for about half a season, and while he did lead Zalgiris to a Lithuanian Championship, his team didn’t particularly do well in the Top 16 under his watch, as Zalgiris went 2-12 in the Top 16, which was the worst record of any team in that round, and had a net rating of minus-16.2, which was also the worst mark of any team in the Top 16 in that category. Granted, Zalgiris was at a much bigger talent disadvantage than the competition (Paulius Jankunas was really the lone bright spot of that club last year), and by the time Saras took over Zalgiris in January, they already were on the outside looking in when it came to a playoff berth. Hopefully for Barcelona’s sake, Jasikevicius has grown as a coach (and his Lithuanian Championship was a step in that direction) and learned some things from his “trial by fire” with Zalgiris that will help him avoid mistakes that led to such a poor record and net rating in the Top 16 last season.
At the very least, Jasikevicius will bring a more “up-tempo” style (Zalgiris was around league average in pace at 72.8) and he will bring a much fiery personality to a club that seemed to grow fatigued with Pascual’s more “subdued” and “political” demeanor. Pascual will not be easily replaced, especially when one reflects back about his eight years as coach there, and the multitude of awards, both team and individual, he accumulated with Barcelona. That being said, Jasikevicius is a fresh, but familiar face that should help bring the kind of new energy on the sideline this club needs to compete again with Real Madrid.
Of course, a team can only go so far with coaching. The talent needs to upgrade if Barcelona wants to be more competitive. Satoransky, Abrines and Ribas are a good core, Stratos Perperoglou and Alexander Vezenkov could grow into their roles, and maybe Tomic can rebound after a season of regression. However, Barcelona needs to get more athletic on the perimeter, and stronger and more physical in the post, and it will be interesting to see what Barcelona’s new GM will do to address both those issues.
Because a third-straight season of deference to Los Blancos in ACB and Euorleague play?
Well…that may be too much to take for Catalan basketball fans.
The NBA is not the only basketball league having their championship finals right now: in Spain, the Liga Endesa Final series is going on between longtime Spanish rivals (in multiple sports) FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. The best of five series began today in Barcelona, and wow, what a finish, as the top-seeded Barcelona ousted Los Blancos in a nailbiter 100-99, which ended on a game winning shot.
Luckily for us, the ACB posted the last minute of the game in its entirety on its YouTube Channel. Instead of just posting the video, I decided to break it up into chunks so we can go more in-depth in terms of what led to such an exciting finish in the first game of the ACB’s championship series. So, let’s break it down by each possession from when it was 98-97 Barcelona and about a minute remaining.
(Note: not all commentary will be of the serious variety…so beware).
98-97 Barcelona; Real Madrid ball; 57.7 seconds left
Real Madrid gets a quick shot to give them maximum amount of possessions down the stretch, not something to take for granted given Barcelona’s tendency to drain the clock under head coach Xavi Pascual (in the Euroleague, Barcelona had the slowest pace of any club in the Euroleague). However, this goes about as badly as it possibly could for Los Blancos.
Real Madrid center Gustavo Ayon gets caught in no man’s land after setting the pick, as Ante Tomic plays it well enough to prevent the roll, and Rudy Fernandez is in the spot where Ayon would pop to (though he has really little outside game, so him popping wouldn’t be much good). “El Chacho” Sergio Rodriguez could drive and try to take Tomic to the rack to make the layup behind him or draw the foul, but instead he kicks it to Fernandez, who despite an open look, totally airballs it.
For many Portland Trail Blazers fans, there is little surprise here, as Rudy had his share of disappointment during his time in the NBA with the Blazers. However, Blazers fans do wish Rodriguez would have had this beard in Portland. He would have never left the city after being crowned the “Hipster King Supreme” by 2012.
98-97 Barcelona; Barcelona ball; 43.7 seconds left
I like this pick and roll action by Barcelona. Juan Carlos Navarro and Tomic run a high ball screen and roll action with Navarro hitting Tomic on the roll. You could argue Tomic could take this to the rack and at the very least draw a foul, but with it still being two-possession territory time-wise, Tomic wisely picks up his dribble and hits Pau Ribas who is rolling up at the top of the perimeter after setting a staggered screen earlier for Navarro after he passed it. Ribas’ shot look is contested though by a good closeout by Real Madrid defender Sergio Llull, and Ribas takes a dribble and passes it out on the perimeter to wing Stratos Perperoglou.
This is where it gets pretty, and its unfortunate that Barcelona is unable to finish on this end. Perperoglou gives it to Tomic in the post who has gotten good position on Ayon in the left block. Perperoglou then cuts toward the middle as if he’s going to set a cross screen for Ribas, but at the left elbow, he cuts in front of Fernandez (who is in bad defensive position by overplaying Perperoglou on his cut) and receives the ball from Tomic on a beautiful “give and go” exchange.
Unfortunately, Perperoglou doesn’t finish the easy layup, though he looks like he was expecting to be fouled, and Fernandez makes some effort to do so, though it’s difficult to tell if Fernandez deked at the last moment and caused Perperoglou to over-compensate on the finish, or if Fernandez did foul and the refs missed it.
98-97 Barcelona; Real Madrid ball; 22.2 seconds left
The Portland “Hipster God” Rodriguez turns down the Ayon screen and instead dribble penetrates, which forces Tomic to come out and help. This is key because that is one major issue with Tomic: he really struggles when the initial defense breaks down and he has to help, as he has a tendency to get out of position after a lot of switching due to penetration and ball movement. Rodriguez forces Tomic out of the paint, hits Fernandez in the corner, who immediately swings it to Llull on the left wing beyond the arc.
It’s a bit hard to tell here, but Llull really seems to fake out Navarro, as Navarro over-sits on Llull’s right, as if he is going to pass out back to Rodriguez. Instead, Llull drives with his left to the left block, causing Tomic to creep out of the paint to help stop the drive. This causes Tomic to take his eyes off of Ayon, who is rolling to the hoop, and Llull hits Ayon cutting to the right block. Because Tomic had to help for a second on Llull, Tomic can’t recover, though he does an admirable job to use his height to prevent the layup. But the combo of him being a little bit late, and a great athletic move leads to an impressive Ayon finish.
But the best part? Fernandez, who can’t seem to do anything right in this stretch of the game, clocks Ayon in the head while flying into crash the boards. I do not know why Pablo Lasso kept him in at this point. Blazer fans would be throwing almonds on the floor at this point in disgust with Fernandez. (Yes Portland hates him that much).
99-98 Real Madrid; Barcelona ball; 14.2 seconds left
This isn’t a bad play drawn up by Pascual: get the ball in the hands of your best player (Navarro) and try to cause the defense to switch to get a favorable matchup. Navarro and Justin Doellman set the high screen and roll and Ayon and Llull switch, cross-matching Ayon with Navarro. Navarro resorts to what he does well in this situation: take it to the rack and either score or draw the foul (Navarro has a reputation of lunging into the body to draw fouls).
Remarkably though, Ayon plays incredible defense on this play. He stays off of Navarro so the Spanish guard cannot draw contact for the foul. With the exception of a minor hand check at the top of they key (not to mention a hand check from Navarro in return), Ayon puts on a clinic in terms of how to properly defend the drive, especially in a critical situation. Ayon stays with him with his shoulders square, and he also doesn’t fall for Navarro’s initial head fake when Navarro first picks up the ball. By not falling for the head fake, when Navarro does go up for the finish, Ayon is easily able to block the shot and block it quickly.
Unfortunately, Real Madrid cannot get the loose ball in a scramble, as neither Ayon, Fernandez (God…again!) nor Andres Nocioni (Remember that name? Yes, he’s in Europe now, not on a NBA roster wasting cap-space of your favorite team) can grab it before it rolls out of bounds. A hell of a defensive play by Ayon, but Real Madrid’s inability to grab the loose ball and ice the game gives Barcelona one last shot…
99-98 Real Madrid; Barcelona ball; 3.0 seconds left
Pascual has Navarro taking the ball out in this situation with Tomic just outside the left mid-post, Perperoglou at the top of the key, Doellman right beneath the free throw line, and Ribas standing on the right wing beyond the arc, there to just scratch his balls or something (but in all seriousness, he just needed to be out of this play to clear space in the middle). Take a look at the action that follows after Navarro throws it in:
Doellman begins the action by setting the screen for Perperoglou, who will come off of Doellman’s screen and cut to the hoop. Tomic will flare out to the arc. Ribas will do nothing because that is what he’s supposed to do here: nothing. (Pau Ribas is not winning you this game in 98 percent of situations, so why try?)
Navarro predictably passes it to Tomic, and steps out to get the ball. Llull defends him to prevent the dribble hand-off, and in response, this happens:
Is this is a push or not? Watch the clip above and you can be the judge yourself. However, I am not sure why Llull is playing Navarro like this. I get it, you don’t want him to get the dribble handoff and get a clean look for a three off the handoff (which works like a de-facto ball screen). However, there are two reasons why Llull should have let him get the handoff instead of play to prevent it:
1.) Real Madrid is only up by 1. Whether its a two or three doesn’t matter at this point. I get Llull’s strategy if there was a two point lead on the line, but in this scenario, a layup hurts just as much as a three-pointer. Thus, make him take the longer shot.
2.) Navarro this year was a 33.6 percent 3-point shooter this year in ACB play. He’s has not been a dead-eye by any means, and if he makes the three, then luck was on their side. Poor scouting on the Real Madrid staff to not emphasize this point more to Llull in the timeout.
So, whether Navarro pushes Llull off or not is inconsequential. Llull had poor positioning, which led to this:
Llull is out of position because of the “push off” and Ayon isn’t able to switch so easily off the give and go because of Llull’s lack of positioning. And thus, Navarro gets a clear lane to the hoop. Nocioni has to help and plays to take away the shot by jumping to block it, but as you can see, that leaves Perperoglou wide open, and Navarro recognizes this and instead of playing “hero” ball and going to the rim, he pitches it Perperoglou in the key. And thus…
Perperoglou layup, though Ayon and the Real Madrid defense do their damnedest to prevent it. Despite all the pressure though, he gets it off, the buzzer sounds, the ball goes through the basket and Barcelona is up 1-0 in the Liga Endesa finals after a 100-99 victory.
Overall, it was a wild last minute, and I look forward to not only watching more extensive tape of this game (I don’t have ACB streaming access so it’s harder to find full games than the Euroleague; hence a reason why I primarily focus on the Euroleague and not other domestic leagues), but also the following games in this series. Real Madrid and Barcelona is a great basketball rivalry, and if Game 1’s finish was any indicator, this championship series should be another exciting chapter in the Spanish basketball rivalry’s heated and extensive history.
“I want to coach in the Euroleague. I think that is something that is missing in my career. Every coach wants to guide Maccabi. Every coach wants to coach in the Euroleague and so do I. I told the owners that I only want a contract for one year because I’m certain we’ll accomplish our goals.”
Erez Edelstein will be Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv’s 3rd head coach in less than a year. Even in European basketball, where coaching and player change is quite common, not to mention quick, this kind of turnover for the legendary club rings all kinds of alarms.
Just two years ago, in 2014, Maccabi was celebrating their 51st Winner League championship and their 6th Euroleague championship, despite entering the Final Four as heavy underdogs to CSKA Moscow (their semi-final opponent) and Real Madrid (their championship opponent). David Blatt was the hottest coach in the game, and Maccabi was the best story in European basketball, a classic case of how teamwork and determination could overcome tremendous money and talent. It was like the movie Hoosiers, only this time the story was taking place in Milan, Italy, not Indianapolis, Indiana.
Unfortunately, the luster of that 2014 Euroleague title for Maccabi has worn off quickly. Blatt left Maccabi to go to the United States to explore NBA opportunities (which eventually became the Cleveland Cavaliers head coaching position), and longtime assistant and former Maccabi player Guy Goodes took over the helm. There were some positives during Goodes first season: in the Winner League, Maccabi finished 27-6, won another Israeli Cup, and finished 16-11 in the Euroleague and qualified for the playoffs. Unfortunately, Goodes’ debut season was marred by some tremendous letdowns: Maccabi lost in the playoff semifinals to a 17-16 Hapoel Eliat team 3 games to 2, and they were convincingly swept in the Euroleague playoffs by Fenerbahce.
A disappointing end for Goodes and Maccabi in 2014-2015 only compounded to more frustration to start 2015-2016. Maccabi, playing in a difficult group with CSKA Moscow, Spanish club Unicaja Malaga, and German upstart Brose Baskets Bamberg, got off to a 1-3 start in Euroleague group play, the worst four-game start in Euroleague group play for the illustrious franchise in 17 years. And things only got worse domestically as well, as they started they year 3-2, which included an 88-83 loss to Maccabi Ashdod, a team that eventually went 9-13 in Winner League play.
The horrid start combined with the deflating finish the previous season was more than enough in Maccabi’s management’s eyes to part ways with Goodes.
After failing to lure Edelstein (more on this later) and Lithuanian legend Sarunas Jasikevicius (who eventually took over home club Zalgiris Kaunas after a mid-season coaching change), Maccabi settled with Croatian Zan Tabak, a former NBA and European player who had 20 years of playing experience professionally. However, while Tabak certainly had his merits as a player, his coaching experience was questionable, as his previous jobs included Sant Josep Girona and Trefl Sopot in Poland, Baskonia (Laboral Kutxa) in Spain, and Fuenlabrada of Spain, a mid-tier ACB squad. With the exception of his tenure in Baskonia, Tabak really didn’t have the kind of preparation or experience to handle the magnitude of a job like Maccabi, especially in mid-season.
There were some bright spots of course in Tabak’s campaign. They finished 3-3 in Euroleague play, and had some strong performances, especially in his first game as coach where they lost a heart-breaker to CSKA Moscow 88-82 (Maccabi led during most of the game). Maccabi also won another Israeli Cup, and finished the year 19-3 overall in Winner League play (they went 16-1 under Tabak).
Unfortunately, much like Goodes’ first year, Maccabi struggled at the end, as they were upset in the semifinals by Maccabi Rishon, a team that finished 11-11 in Winner League play. That finish was further compounded with a disappointing 2-4 performance in Eurocup play and not qualifying for the next round of the Eurocup, even though the competition was a far step down from what they had faced earlier in Euroleague play.
With all this turmoil and overreaction, it seems crazy that anyone in their right mind would want to coach Maccabi. One mistake, and you’re looking for another coaching job the next day.
But, Edelstein seems to be more than up for the challenge.
Edelstein is a bit of an antithesis of the previous two coaches. Goodes was a Blue and Gold lifer, who had not only spent considerable time as an assistant coach, but also played for Maccabi for eight seasons in the 90’s. As for Tabak, he was a legendary European player of sorts, who had a NBA playing pedigree, which included stints with teams such as the Toronto Raptors and the Houston Rockets. He also had performances like the video below, which shows the potential he could have had as a player in the NBA if a few more breaks went his way:
As for Edelstein, he doesn’t have extensive Maccabi ties, as he has never been in the organization as a player or even assistant coach. And unlike Tabak, he wasn’t a legendary player with an extensive resume that spans over multiple teams and continents.
But, Edelstein possesses something that neither of those previous Maccabi coaches had: success as an Israeli National Team coach.
In the Eurobasket 2015, Edelstein led the Israeli team to a 3-2 mark in group play, which was good for second in the group and qualified them for the round of 16. Though Israel was beat soundly by Italy in the elimination round 82-52, Edelstein and his squad finished 10th in the tournament overall, their best finish in European competition since 2005, when they finished 9th.
Furthermore, Israel also experienced some good wins in last summer’s Eurobasket, including a 75-73 nail-biter over Poland, a team with NBA player Marcin Gortat and college star Przemek Karnowski of Gonzaga. You can see in the video not only how Israel was able to score and create offense despite Poland’s massive size advantage in the paint, but how big the Israeli win was in terms of helping their country get more recognition on the mass European stage.
Edelstein is definitely a coach who gets the most out of his talent, not to mention manage it quite well. Despite some considerable size disadvantages in comparison to some of their opponents, Israel was able to neutralize it by running a free-flowing offense that included a lot of outside shooting not to mention some good ball movement, as well as dribble drive action. What was impressive during the tournament was how Edelstein utilized talent on his squad like Gal Mekel and Omri Casspi. Edelstein ran a lot of plays to set up his two talented perimeter players, and it paid off on frequent occasion. Casspi scored 16.8 points per game and shot 47.1 percent from beyond the arc. As for Mekel, he averaged 15.8 points per game and a team-leading 4.6 assists per game, while also shooting 54.5 percent from the field. That should be comforting to know for Maccabi fans that Edelstein knows how to utilize his talent on his roster, and it is even more promising since Mekel will be back with Maccabi next year.
Edelstein preaches ball movement, as evidenced during the Eurobasket where eight Israeli players averaged two or more assists per game. That is something that will fit in well with this Maccabi team, as they ranked 6th in the Euroleague in assists-to-field goals made ratio. Thus, with that kind of mindset already in place, and a couple of key players already familiar with Edelstein’s system and philosophy from the Eurobasket (Yogev Ohayon also played with the Israeli team in the Eurobasket as well), Edelstein should be able to transition seamlessly with the team during off-season workouts.
One of the reasons Edelstein did not want to join this Maccabi team mid-year last season was due to the fact that he didn’t think the talent on the roster could be successful. In many ways, he was right and he made the sound decision to wait until the end of the year to see if the job was available again.
In many ways, one could not fault Tabak for the job he did, as the roster was flawed in its composition from the beginning. Many of Maccabi’s off-season signings proved to be disappointments, including Jordan Farmar, whose second stint was hardly worth remembering. Farmar simply didn’t fit in this team, and he didn’t have the kind of “creation” and “penetration” abilities like previous points guards Jeremy Pargo (last season) and Tyrese Rice (the year before during their championship season). Not only did Farmar merely average 8.9 ppg on 20.3 mpg, but he also was second worst on the team when it came to plus/minus in Euroleague play, only above 17-year-old Dragan Bender, who barely played during the Euroleague competition.
However, Farmar was not the sole culprit of Maccabi’s failures in 2015-2016. Maccabi failed to really get anything substantive from their post acquisitions, including Trevor Mbakwe and Ike Ofoegbu, who proved to both be extremely limited offensively, and Arinze Onuaku, who was not only limited to put backs and layups around the paint, but struggled immensely in pick and roll defense (as evidenced by his negative-3.4 plus/minus mark, fourth worst on the team). And though Brian Randle posted some good offensive numbers, 8.9 ppg on 60 percent eFG%, his lack of strength on the rebounding end was evident night in and night out.
In fact, though Maccabi did a good job crashing the glass, as their 33.7 offensive rebounding rate was second-best in the Euroleague, they struggled to keep opponents off the glass themselves, as their 67.9 defensive rebounding rate was second-worst in the Euroleague. Maccabi actually defensively was not all that bad, as they were a Top-5 team when it came to opponent effective field goal percentage (51.7 percent). However, the fact that they couldn’t keep opponents off the glass and gave up numerous second chance opportunities did them in time in and time again, and that was usually due to their bigs not getting in good rebounding position or having the strength to keep opposing post players at bay.
While Edelstein was the big hire of the off-season, Maccabi has made tremendous strides in terms of upgrading the roster. They made an immediate splash this summer by acquiring center Maik Zirbes, a rebounding force, and forward Quincy Miller, an inside-outside threat, from Crvena Zvzeda. Add that with the acquisition of guards Sonny Weems of the 76ers (and formerly CSKA Moscow) and DJ Seeley of Gran Canaria, and Maccabi definitely made a commitment to become more athletic and stronger with their roster on the floor. Furthermore, with the acquisition of these three new faces, as well as full seasons of Mekel (who didn’t join the team until mid-season after Euroleague group play), combo wing Sylvan Landesberg, and forward Itay Segev (who came in strong as a starter toward the end of last year despite playing as a 20-year old), Maccabi should be primed to not only outperform last year’s results, but perhaps make a dark horse run to the Final Four. Maccabi was not that far off from making the Round of 16 last year, and they showed glimpses of being a good team in Euroleague, Eurocup and Winner League play, but they just seemed to run out of gas at the wrong times. The depth they have next year will not only prevent that, but should help them be the most successful Maccabi squad since 2014.
Now, how successful will that be? It is hard to determine, since there are a lot of players with futures in doubt. Will Mbakwe and Randle be back, not to mention Devin Smith, who has been a rock for this team for years? Will there be enough touches for new players such as Miller, Weems, and Seeley, who have tended to be high-usage players in their previous stops? Can Zirbes and Segev and whoever else is playing in the post, solve Maccabi’s rebounding woes from a year ago? And lastly, can Mekel, (who most likely will the starting point guard next season), an Israeli who is playing with his home country’s most popular and successful team, reinvigorate this proud franchise, not to mention his own professional career?
There are a lot of questions for Edelstein to answer and unfortunately, he will have to do it in a quick amount of time. However, like he said in his opening interview after being hired, he knows the pressure that comes with this position and he expects to accomplish great results in a limited amount of time. It’s why he took the job, and why he only wanted a one-year contract: there is no “rebuilding” with Maccabi Tel Aviv. You either produce results or you get out and they find another person.
But to be fair, this is the strongest a Maccabi team has looked for a long time, even stronger perhaps on paper than the 2014 team that won a championship. If Taylor Rochestie and Smith are back, they will have considerable scoring on the perimeter to go along with their new signings, not to mention longtime reserves such as Ohayov and Guy Pnini. While there are some questions on the block, Zirbes will be one of the strongest post players that they have had since Big Sofos a couple of years ago, as Zirbes, though not the most finesse player, is the kind of banger that can keep other teams from pushing around Maccabi in the paint. Hopefully that kind of attitude will rub off on Segev and whoever else Maccabi brings back or acquires to solidify their post depth (whether it’s Randle, Mbakwe or someone else).
2016-2017 will be a critical year for Maccabi. A new coach and a new format with less teams in the Euroleague means it’s more critical than ever for Maccabi to perform. They have the kind of coach with excellent experience who has been saying the right things to demonstrate that he is “all in” in terms of making Maccabi a winner again. They also have added the right kind of pieces roster-wise, showing that management is willing to spend whatever it costs to make this team better. And they have the motivation, as this franchise is hungry to show that the last two years were a blip on the radar, and that they are ready to return to their rightful illustrious place in the European basketball scene.
Now, it’s just a matter of all those factors melding together. Let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later.
The Adidas Next Generation Tournament showcases some of the best 18 and under talent in Europe. While some of the players may have end-of-the-bench roles on the top-level club, most play for the developmental clubs, developing their skills and talents to be ready for the senior clubs in a year or two. It is very interesting to see how Europe treats their “player development” process (which can begin as early 13-15 years old, depending on how talented the kid is), especially in comparison to how that process is done in the United States.
Almost every club developmental team that participates in the Adidas NGT has promising talent to display, but there really are a only a handful of players who truly stick out and look primed to be major players on the Euroleague and Eurocup stage within the next few years. And that proves to be true for country’s national teams as well, as the talent that is showcased during this competition could also be a sign of what countries could be strong in future FIBA Europe competitions (such as the Eurobasket) depending on the countries’ talent participation in the Adidas NGT. If a country has a lot of talented players making an impact for their professional club’s developmental teams in the Adidas NGT, that could be a sign that that particular country is on the cusp of being a major contender in international competition within a five-to-seven year span.
One of those countries who look to be on the rise is Serbia, as they had an impressive trio of players who stood out impressively during the latest Adidas NGT. Forward Borisa Simanic and guard Aleksa Radanov of Crvena Zvezda (who finished runner up in the Adidas NGT to FC Barcelona) and forward/center Milos Glisic of Partizan were all named to the Adidas NGT All-Tournament team, and each put up impressive numbers and performances that will be chronicled in more detail below. And, not only will these three players have an impact in club competition in their respective domestic and international leagues (such as the Euroleague and Eurocup) fairly soon, but they also should be major contributors to the Serbian national team, who is coming off a fourth place finish in the Eurobasket 2015 (losing to France 81-68 in the 3rd place game). While the team is led by guards Milos Teodosic and Bogdan Bogdanovic, forward Nemanja Bjelica and centers Boban Marjanovic, Miroslav Raduljica and Nikola Jokic, only Bogdanovic and Jokic will be under 30 years by the next Eurobasket in 2017 (Bogdanovic will be about 26 and Jokic will be only 23) . So the need for good young talent to succeed the older veterans is high, and thankfully Serbia has that talent in the trio of Simanic, Radanov and Glisic.
So, let’s take a look individually at what each player did at the Adidas NGT and what their outlook is for their club as well as their national team.
Borisa Simanic, forward, 2.09 m, 18 years old
Simanic was named the MVP of the Adidas NGT for his dominating performances on the court as well as helping Crvena Zvzeda to a second place finish. Simanic was Red Star’s primary scoring threat and main impact player on the floor, as he averaged 22.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg while shooting 65.8 percent from 2-point land and 46.2 percent from beyond the arc. The 18-year-old Serbian also had a PIR (player impact rating) of 26.0, one of the higher marks from a player in the tournament.
The 2016 Adidas NGT was Simanic’s 3rd and final tournament, and he showed that he had come a long way since his debut in the Adidas NGT back in 2014. Simanic wowed basketball fans and scouts with his athleticism, his deadly three point shooting, and his ability to finish off the break. Though he is not a true “post” player in any sense, Simanic showed throughout the tournaments he was able to throw it down with authority off live ball turnovers as well as offensive rebounds as demonstrated in his highlight tape below.
However, Simanic’s main strength lies in his shooting, and considering he almost made nearly 50 percent of his 3-point shots, that further displays how talented and effective Simanic can be, especially considering his athletic 2.09 m (roughly 6’10) frame, which makes it hard for smaller forwards to defend him when Simanic is shooting. Simanic also shows strong handle for a big man, as well as developing athleticism and quickness that gives him the ability to drive the ball and finish around the rim should defenders close out too hard on him to defend his sweet shooting stroke from beyond the arc. Simanic’s athleticism doesn’t jump out at you, but he certainly has added more bounce to his game as he has grown into his body and become more coordinated since debuting as a 16 year old in 2014.
While Simanic has the shooting touch, the scoring ability, height and maturity (he displays a lot of composure on the court and determination, which is a reason why he spent some time with the senior club during the 2016 season) to be a future star for Crvena Zvzeda, he is still far from a finished product. His strength is lacking, as he gets pushed too easily by defenders out of the lanes when he doesn’t have the ball, and he lacks any kind of post or back to the basket game in the block. While Simanic excels with his shoulders square to the hoop and driving to the basket, especially with his size and against other forwards and centers, he needs to be able to have some kind of move set or scoring ability around the rim to make up for when his jump shot isn’t falling or if the defense is clogging the lane and he can’t get to the hoop on the drive. If Simanic can get stronger and be more comfortable with his back to the basket in the block, then he will be not only a more effective scorer, but tougher for defenses to stop as he matures as a player as well.
Aleksa Radanov, guard, 2.02 m, 18-years-old
Fellow Crvena Zvzeda teammate Radanov doesn’t have the height or the pure shooting or scoring ability of Simanic, but Radanov is an explosive guard with incredible speed and two-way ability from the guard position. While Simanic was Crvena Zvzeda’s Kevin Durant, Radanov was the Russell Westbrook, with his ability to drive to the hoop and finish at the him with aggressiveness and strength. In addition, Radanov was a pick-pocket on the defensive hound, not only putting pressure on opposing guards, but also generating a lot of turnovers that led to transition scoring opportunities for the Adidas NGT runners-up (he averaged 2.4 steals per game during the tournament).
However, the main strength of Radanov’s game is in his ability to create scoring opportunities in different forms for himself and his teammates. Radanov is strong in his drive and ability to take it to the rim, and he has good vision off the drive as well. He can hit teammates with spectacular passes (he averaged 4.6 assists during the Adidas NGT), but he also has the strength and body control to finish around the rim with a layup or even dunk. If you watch his highlights below (from the start to about 1:07), he amazes with his ability as a playmaker despite only being 17 during the time of competition. Whether it’s a behind the back pass or an emphatic dunk, Radanov displays some of that Westbrook-esque explosiveness off the drive that makes him entertaining to watch and enticing to think about when it comes to his professional future.
If there is one issue with Radanov, it is that his shot isn’t very consistent, especially from beyond the arc. While he shot over 40 percent from 3 during the Belgrade rounds, he only shot 31 percent from beyond the arc during the Berlin rounds, which undoubtedly hurt them against FC Barcelona in the Adidas NGT Final. If Radanov wants to continue to progress as a guard, he needs to shore up his shot, and not only get a more consistent stroke, but develop a faster and more fluid shooting motion as well (you can see in one of the clips his shot is extremely slow and i’m surprised he got it off at all, let alone made it).
I like Radanov a lot, and was surprised by his ability to finish against contract, and use his speed in the open court, especially with the ball in transition. He has a lot of Teodosic’s style of game in him (i.e. ability to be a creator for himself and others), and though he may not have Teodosic’s shooting ability just yet, he may have more pure athleticism and bounce than the Serbian standout guard who also won a championship with CSKA Moscow this past season. Once Radanov develops a more reliable outside shot, it will complement his already dangerous penetration game off the dribble that gave opponents fits during this years Adidas NGT and give him the potential to be one of Europe’s next great guards.
Milos Glisic, forward, 2.05 m, 18 years old
It hasn’t been easy for Partizan, as they have lost to conference rival Crvena Zvzeda twice in the national championship the past two years, and haven’t qualified for the Euorleague since 2013-2014. However, they do have some hope for the future, as evidenced by Glisic.
Glisic isn’t particularly tall at 2.05 m (roughly 6’9), but he is built like a rock and he is not afraid to play in the block. Unlike Simanic who tends to play more around the 3-point line, Glisic fights to get good position and displays a good back-to-the-basket game that is advanced for his age and leads to a lot of scoring opportunities. During this tournament, Glisic, who also made the All-Tournament team, was arguably the most impressive player in the entire tournament, as he averaged 27 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 1.8 spg and a PIR of 36.6.
One surprising thing that stood out about Glisic, especially on tape, is his quick hands and ability to generate steals. Even though he is a player who lives in the post, I was surprised how he was able to get easy steals off of unsuspecting opponents who weren’t ready for his quick hands. During the Adidas NGT, Glisic was able to get pick opponents on the perimeter and demonstrate a strong ability to finish in transition off the turnover. This sneaky ability will serve him well as he gets older as a player, and display Glisic’s unique combination of strength and speed as a player, as evidenced by the highlight video below.
There are a couple of issues with Glisic’s game of course. He is not particularly a strong free throw shooter, as evidenced by his 63.6 percentage during the Adidas NGT. Considering he shot 33 free throws in a 5 game span, he needs to get that percentage up in order to keep defenses honest and prevent them from fouling him purposefully “Hack-A-Shaq” style. The second issue is that is outside shot is not particularly strong either. I wasn’t entirely impressed by his shooting form, and his 35.3 percentage from beyond the arc wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring as well, especially compared to fellow countrymen Simanic and Radanov.
Nonetheless, I like Glisic’s game. He has the ability to be the kind of natural post player Serbia has been lacking as of late, though Jokic had a solid campaign in Denver last season. Glisic is incredibly strong and talented, with good footwork and a natural scoring touch around the block. If the free throw shooting can improve, he can be a lasting post presence not just for Partizan but the Serbian national team in the near future as well.
After today’s slate of games, we now know who three of the four Euroleague Final Four participants will be on May 13th: Fenerbahce Istanbul, Laboral Kutxa (Spain) and CSKA Moscow. All three squads swept their opponents (with each one winning the decisive game on the road) in their respective series, and can begin the celebration and preparation for the Final Four event in a couple of weeks.
However, there is still one spot to be determined and that is being decided between long-time Spanish power FC Barcelona and the relatively Euroleague novices Lokomotiv Kuban from rural Russia. After their 82-70 Game 3 win in Spain, Barcelona is one game away from punching their ticket to Berlin for a chance at the Euroleague championship, but don’t count out Lokomotiv, the higher seed going into the series, who holds home court advantage should they be able to equalize and win on the road in Game 4 on Thursday.
Let’s take a look at each team and what is on the line for the in a crucial Game 4 later this week.
Barcelona Looking to Finish Strong
Barcelona has had one of the weirder seasons in their history this year, as they haven’t found much consistency in terms of wins and losses. Statistically speaking, Barcelona has been one of the strongest teams, as they are the fourth-best team in the Euroleague this year in terms of net rating over the full season (6.8), but only had a 14-10 record through the Regular Season and Top 16 to show for it. Despite some big wins in the year over teams like Lokomotiv and a Top 16 season sweep over Spanish rival Real Madrid, they also had head scratching losses to Pinar Karsiyaka in the Regular Season opener and to Brose Baskets Bamberg during the Top 16 (a team they later beat by almost 20 in the second to last game of the year). In fact, due to all this inconsistency (they finished the Regular Season with three straight losses and lost five of their first seven in Top 16 play), it took until the final week of the Top 16 for Barcelona to clinch a playoff berth, as their win over Lithuanian power Zalgiris Kaunas on the road (and they were down at halftime) earned them one of the final playoff spots.
However, despite their meager record, this Barcelona team is loaded and peaking at the right time, though they certainly have their issues that could rear their head in the Final Four should they win on Thursday. First off, Barcelona has playoff leadership and experience with Juan Carlos Navarro being their primary option on the perimeter, along with complimentary wings players like Alex Abrines, Tomas Satoransky and Pau Ribas, who have been effective as of late, especially in the Top 16 and Playoff rounds (Abrines shot 6 of 10 from beyond the arc and scored 25 points total). In the post, Justin Doellman, a former Xavier product, has proven to be an excellent stretch 4 type, and they have depth in the post with Ante Tomic, Samardo Samuels and Joey Dorsey, whom they acquired during the Top 16 round. Dorsey especially has given Barcelona a physical presence, as his ability on the glass (his 16.8 percent offensive rebounding rate is second best in the Euroleague this year behind only Trevor Mbakwe of Maccabi Tel Aviv) and ability to body up opposing teams’ centers has made him an invaluable member of this Barcelona squad despite his relative lack of experience with the team and in Europe in general.
However, Dorsey hurt himself in Game 1, and his status seems to be questionable going forward as he missed games 2 and 3 in the playoffs. This hasn’t hurt Barcelona too badly, as their post depth, hot outside shooting, and the lack of a physical presence in the post or much post player depth in general from Loko has helped Barcelona be effective in his absence. That being said, the 3 final four teams have excellent players in the post, especially Fenerbahce, which is seeing a resurgence from newly acquired Ekpe Udoh, who has stepped up after Jan Vessley was lost for the season due to an Achilles injury in the Top 16 round. If Barcelona makes it to the Final Four and doesn’t have the services of Dorsey, it could make things very difficult in terms of having a serious shot at the Euroleague crown.
Another issue with Barcelona is their point guard play, as the squad hasn’t relatively gotten much from Carlos Arroyo, who was expected to be a playmaking catalyst for this squad. Arroyo only played little over 5 minutes in Game 3, and he only averaged 14.6 minutes in 7 games during Top 16 play, a downgrade from the 18.6 mpg he was seeing during the 10-game regular season. This puts more pressure on Satoransky, who is the team leader in assist rate over the full season, and Ribas, who was 2nd in assist rate during the Top 16 round. Both those two are effective, but they do not have the dynamic athleticism that other Final Four teams have, and that could present issues, especially if Barcelona cannot transition their hot shooting from the playoffs to the Final Four (should they close it out).
Head Coach Xavi Pascual has done a phenomenal job considering the circumstances his team has faced this year, especially early on when they looked like they would miss the playoffs. He has a methodical, half-court oriented approach, as evidenced by their 70.3 pace this year, which is the slowest rate of any Euroleague team this season. However, that has been effective in the playoffs, as they have gotten Loko to play out of sorts in the slower pace of the last three games. Furthermore, his defensive plan has worked, as he has held the 3-point chucking Loko squad (their 0.48 3PT/FGA rate was highest in the Euroleague this year) in check, as evidenced by their 21.7, 33.3 and 28.6 percentages from beyond the arc, which are all below their season 3-point average of 36.6 percent. For Barcelona to close this out on Thursday, Barcelona has to continue to follow Pascual’s plan of relentlessly hounding Loko’s shooters and force them to win in the post, which is not exactly a strength of Loko’s on the offensive end.
Loko looking to make a comeback
Loko has been one of the most balanced teams in Euroleague play this year. They are the top team in the league in net rating at 11.4, higher than even fellow Russian squad CSKA Moscow, who has been far and away the most dominant team over the course of the entire season. Loko’s heavy 3-point attack on offense, and risk-taking and aggressiveness on defense (their 10.8 steal rate leads the league) has been a key reason why Georgios Bartzokas’ squad went 17-7 in the regular and Top 16 season combined.
Bartzokas can thank the two-headed combo of point guard Malcolm Delaney and Forward/Center Anthony Randolph for Loko’s success, especially during the Top 16 round. Everything runs pretty much through those two, as they lead the team in possessions per game with 15.89 and 15.8, respectively (the next highest rate is Chris Singleton with 9.25, and Singleton primarily comes off the bench). When those two are on, Loko has proven to be one of the toughest teams to play in the Euroleague on a nightly basis. Delaney is the classic hybrid point guard, who can score at will as well as create offense for his teammates. His 2.08 assist to turnover rate is tops on the team, and over half of his shots come from beyond the arc (0.52). Add that with a strong true shooting percentage (60.1 percent) and a surprising defensive rebounding rate for a point guard (10.9) and it makes sense why Delaney is so crucial to Loko’s success. Delaney plays all out and is their engine on the floor on both ends, which makes sense why he leads the team in minutes during the playoffs (106). In the playoffs, Delaney is certainly doing his share to will Loko to a Final Four berth, as he leads the team in minutes, and is showing his effectiveness on the offensive end by scoring 1.03 PPP and posting a highly respectable 5.00 Assist to Turnover rate.
Randolph is second on the team in minutes, and is also a unique talent who has been critical to Loko’s success. Randolph isn’t always efficient: his 45.2 effective field goal percentage is not good, especially when you consider his 32.2 usage rate, which is tops on the team. Furthermore, a knock that has dogged him from his days at LSU is Randolph’s inconsistent motor on the floor, and that continues to be an issue. Randolph doesn’t bang down low with opposing bigs (his 2.8 offensive rebounding rate really is just flat out pathetic for a near seven-footer), and he has spurts where looks unfocused and disinterested, which leads to lapses on defense and the killing of ball movement and spacing on offense. With Dorsey out, one would think Randolph would be making his bread on the block and with his back to the basket to take advantage of Barca’s less physical post players. Instead, he settles in the mid-range and tries to create offense off the dribble, which seems to bail out Barcelona’s defenders, who don’t have the physicality of Dorsey.
That being said, Randolph, when he’s on, is not just the most dangerous player on Loko, but perhaps in Europe. On the defensive end, he is Loko’s best post defender, as evidenced by his 4.2 block rate. Offensively, he has a decent and versatile touch around the rim (though he probably settles for fade away mid-range shots too often), but he can also step back from beyond the arc and shoot with some effectiveness, as he did game 2 where he shot 40 percent from beyond the arc. He is also an effective free throw shooter, as his 76.8 free throw percentage is pretty solid for a big man, and his 10.3 assist rate shows that he can also create offense from the post for his teammates. Randolph has the tools and skills to really dominate in this series, but he has to flip on the switch and get more physical, or Loko will be most likely heading back home for the Euroleague season after Thursday.
Loko does have some good supporting players that can help turn things around for Bartzokas’ squad. Singleton, who started out the regular season as a starter before Randolph arrived in the Top 16 round, is very much like Randolph, though a bit less skilled (however he makes up for it by being more physical than Randolph, especially on the offensive glass). Also Ryan Broekhoff and Victor Claver are effective “glue” stretch players (not quite guards, but not quite pure posts) who are highly efficient despite their relatively low usage rates, as they lead the team in Points Per Possession at 1.14 and 1.09, respectively. But make no mistake, if Loko wants to win two in a row and punch a historic first trip to the Final Four, then they will need more effective production from Delaney, and especially Randolph, who has to take advantage in the post with Dorsey either absent or not 100 percent. If Randolph can do that, and if Delaney can continue his hyperactive production as the team’s main playmaker, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Loko can win two in a row against Barcelona.
I am pulling for Loko, though having to win one in Barcelona to force game 5 seems like a tall task. As much I respect Pascual for the job he’s done turning this team around in time for the playoffs, Barcelona has been to the Final Four before countless times. While that may be good for Spain, who would like to have two teams on the big European stage May 13, I do not think Barcelona is built all that well to compete for a title against the likes of Fenerbahce or CSKA Moscow. A healthy Dorsey gives them a better shot, but I do not think they can keep shooting like they are against Loko in the Final Four and I don’t know if their post players can compete with Fernerbahce nor do I think their guards could compete with CSKA Moscow.
Now, does that mean that I think Loko will do much better? No, not at all. In fact, I think Loko would be an auto 4th place finisher should they make it to Berlin. However, they have been a nice story this year, as they were regulated to the Eurocup, Europe’s second-tier league, a year ago, and have really impressed in Bertzokas’ first year at the helm. Yes, they are a bit too dependent on Delaney and Randolph, but they are an entertaining squad, and it would be good to see them on the big stage, especially considering they are one of the more rural teams in the Euroleague, and their contests have a “small town” feel to them. Them making the Final Four would be akin to Hickory High in “Hoosiers”…
Unlike the Huskers however, Loko would not win it all. Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good story though, not to mention a foundation and marketing tool to build on for next year in terms of upgrading their talent for the future.