Does Valencia have a chance against the Real Madrid juggernaut?

Since 1983, the Liga Endesa (ACB) has been dominated by three clubs: Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Saski Baskonia. Every final since the league began has involved one of those three clubs, and though this year continues that trend (Real Madrid), the top-heavy stranglehold has been challenged a bit. For the first time since 2010-2011, we will not see an “El Clasico” (Barcelona-Real Madrid) ACB Final, as Valencia Basket punched their ticket to the Final after beating Baskonia 3-1 in the semifinals.

For Valencia, this ACB Final is another crowning achievement on what has been for the most part a stellar and historic season in a variety of ways, as they have reached the Eurocup and Copa del Rey championships this season. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to capitalize on the championship opportunities, as they fell to Unicaja Malaga in the Eurocup final, and Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey championship. Despite being heavy underdogs to one of Spain’s premier clubs, Valencia is hoping that their third shot at a trophy will be the charm.


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Valencia finished 23-9 during the ACB regular season, tying for second-overall, but ceding to the third spot due to a tie-breaking loss to Baskonia. Valencia has thrived at home at Fuente de San Luis, as they went 18-2 at home in the regular season, and 4-0 during the playoffs. Though they were nearly a .500 team on the road in the regular season (10-9), they did win a huge game 1 against Baskonia in Fernando Buesa arena that ended up being the difference in the tight, competitive series.

The No. 1 seed Madrid had the easier path to the Finals, as they beat a young, but inexperienced 8th seed Andorra in the first round (2-1) and then swept Eurocup champion Unicaja 3-0 in the semifinals. On the other hand, Valencia had a “more difficult than you think” route, as they beat a Barcelona team that was desperate to salvage a disappointing season (2-1) and beat a Baskonia team that not only had an edge in terms of talent, but also got a late-season reinforcement who happened to be one of the best 1-on-1 scorers in the Turkish BSL this year (Ricky Ledo).

That story has been a familiar one for Valencia this off-season, both in ACB as well as European play. On paper, Valencia doesn’t really jump out at the casual basketball fan. They had to face VTB MVP Alexey Shved and Khimki in the Eurocup playoffs, and Valencia came out on top. They had to face former NBA All-star Amare Stoudemire, Euroleague Final Four coach Simone Pianigiani and Hapoel Jerusalem and they came out of that series victorious. Valencia was also considered heavy underdogs in the semis, as many figured Ledo was just the cherry on top that Valencia couldn’t handle, and yet it’s the Southeastern Spanish coast team that’s in the Finals, not the Basque club.

The same situation will be true in the ACB finals against Real Madrid. Valencia didn’t have much success against the top-seeded club this year, as they lost 94-75 in Round 2 at home and 85-71 in Madrid in Round 18. They fell short again in the Copa del Rey, but were a bit more competitive, as they lost 97-95. To imagine that Valencia can win three games against the King of Spanish basketball when they weren 0-3 against them in 2016-2017 seems like a tall, if not impossible task.

That being said, don’t expect this Valencia club to go down without a fight.


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Valencia is a team that is as strong as the sum of the parts. In other words, they really depend on the “team” rather than one individual player. They don’t have that star guy who can take over a game. They don’t have a Sergio Llull or Anthony Randolph or even Luka Doncic like Madrid. But, they play incredibly polished team basketball on both ends of the court, as I have chronicled about after their loss to Unicaja in the Eurocup final. That is a credit to head coach Pedro Martinez, who has had tremendous success not only at Valencia, but in the past with Gran Canaria.

If Valencia is going to depend on a player, that honor would go to either center Bojan Dubljevic or forward Fernando San Emeterio. Dubljevic really is the heart and soul of the team in many ways. The Montenegrin post led the team in points (12.4 ppg), rebounds (5.6) and PIR average (14.7). Furthermore, Dubljevic’s impact goes beyond the court, as he connects with teammates and fans alike. He garnered a lot of fans beyond Valencia for his “Will Griggs”-inspired performance in front of the Valencia faithful after their clinching game 4 victory.

San Emeterio doesn’t have the “big” personality of Dubljevic, but nobody came up bigger in game 4 than the 33-year-old Spaniard. In game 4, he scored 19 points, and had 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in the deciding victory. What made his performance even more impressive was his perfection from the field. Yes. He was completely perfect, as he went 4-4 on 2-pt shots, 3-3 from beyond the arc, 2-2 from the charity stripe. That is some Christian Laettner-esque shit right there.

San Emeterio’s hard-nosed defense will also be needed to neutralize Madrid’s wings, especially sharpshooter Jaycee Carroll, who can get hot from three quickly, and Doncic, who can be a do-everything playmaker. But for Valencia to have a shot at all this series, they will need their posts to have big series’ in order to neutralize Madrid’s depth in the frontcourt. Madrid has not only the best frontcourt in Spain, but in all of Europe, with Randolph, Gustavo Ayon, Felipe Reyes, Othello Hunter, and Trey Thompkins playing in the paint. Obviously, Valencia can’t match up with that kind of star power on paper. However, if they can get physical with the Madrid frontcourt, force them out of the paint, and get them out of rhythm, they’ll have a shot. Teams who have beaten Madrid have been able to employ that strategy, whether it’s forcing Ayon or Hunter off the block, or forcing Reyes, Randolph or Thompkins to be jump shooters. If Valencia wants to win, they will need to to outwork and outhustle the more talented Madrid posts with Luke Sikma, Will Thomas and Pierre Oriola, while also getting some offensive production on the other end.

Valencia has accomplished a lot. Appearances in the Eurocup, Copa del Rey and now ACB finals are nothing to shrug off, and they have apparently qualified for the Euroleague next season as well (though the EL does have a provision preventing more than 4 teams from one country being represented in the competition). And even if they don’t pull off an upset against Madrid, they should not be disappointed. Nobody outside of the city of Valencia is expecting this club to pull this upset off. Madrid has too much depth, too much talent, and too much pedigree to lose this series.

But you never know. No club has won the ACB outside of the Madrid, Barcelona, Baskonia triumvirate outside of Unicaja in 2005-2006, and before that, Manresa in 1997-1998. Will Valencia join that small, but illustrious group?

We’ll know Valencia’s chances of pulling the miracle off after Game 1 on June 9th.

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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.

Four Teams to Watch in the Eurocup Next Season

Expect Jamar Smith to play a key role in helping Unicaja make a run to the Eurocup championship.

In terms of the premiere second-tier European basketball competition, the Eurocup continues to hold the title, though FIBA’s Basketball Champions League has given the ULEB-sponsored competition fierce competition this summer (mostly due to FIBA muscling clubs with possible National Team and Domestic League sanctions; Italy and France were two countries who deferred to FIBA this off-season by not sending any teams to the Eurocup). However, only the Eurocup has the automatic Euroleague qualifier for whoever wins the competition, and with a new format, and less Euroleague/Eurocup crossover (no teams will be sent down to the Eurocup mid-season as in years past), the ULEB second-tier competition promises to be the most competitive in its 14-year history (the competition began in 2002-2003).

So, with an automatic berth and possible Wild Card spot on the line (the Euroleague offers one Wild Card slot out of its 16 teams), which of the 24 Eurocup participants will have the greatest chance of punching their ticket to the Euroleague in 2017-2018? Who will be worth watching, especially when the playoffs begin in the Spring?

In this post, I will take a look at four Eurocup participants who’ll be worth paying close attention to this upcoming season, and should make a run at that coveted Eurocup title and Euroleague berth.

Joan Plaza should have a much better year in Malaga this season after Unicaja limped to finish line in the Euroleague and ACB a year ago.

1. Unicaja Malaga

Unicaja will be participating in the Eurocup for the first time in club history. For some squads, that is an honor, but for Unicaja, it’s quite a buzzkill. Unicaja has been a Euroleague mainstay, who qualified for the Top 16 for the 11th consecutive season last year, and made the Final Four in 2007. But, despite a hot 7-3 start in the Regular Season of the Euroleague, injuries and roster turmoil resulted in a 4-10 record in Top 16 play (11-13 overall) and a first-round sweep in the ACB playoffs to Valencia. And thus, after a mediocre campaign and without an A license lock, Unicaja proved to be the odd-team out when it came to picking the Euroleague field of 16 in 2016-2017, losing out on the lone Wild Card spot to Turkish upstart Darussafaka Dogus.

With the demotion to the Eurocup, the summer didn’t start off well for Unicaja, as star Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who was one of the best players in the Regular Season round, and had masterful performances in road wins over Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv and CSKA Moscow, ended up leaving Malaga (first going to Darussafaka before the New York Knicks bought out his rights from the Turkish club). In addition, center Fran Vazquez, one of the leading shot blockers in Euroleague history, also left the club, signing with ACB rival Iberostar Tenerife. Much like Lokomotiv Kuban experienced a mass exodus of talent after their Eurocup demotion, it appeared Unicaja was going to suffer the same fate this summer.

However, Unicaja has rebounded quickly, and has suddenly put together one of the most competitive squads in the Eurocup this summer. To make up for Kuzminskas’ departure, they added shooting guard Adam Waczynski, a Polish national who averaged 14.6 ppg with Rio Natura Monbus Obradoiro of the ACB last season. His arrival should mesh well with Jamar Smith and Nemanja Nedovic, two returning wing scorers from last year’s squad. Additionally, Unicaja got stronger in the playmaking department, as they added solid point guard options in Oliver Lafayette (from Olimpia Milano) and Kyle Fogg (from Eisbaeren Bremerhaven) who should help solidify the backcourt with Alberto Diaz, a young, rising star who should get more playing time opportunities than a season ago. And lastly, in the front court, Unicaja added depth and athleticism by signing Trevor Mbakwe (from Maccabi Tel Aviv), Jeff Brooks (from Nizhny Novgorod) and Dejan Musli (from Manresa). This trio should help Unicaja be more effective in the post not just in terms of rebounding and offense, but defensively, as they should improve a block rate (2.8 percent) that was below average in the Euroleague a year ago.

With added depth at his disposal, head coach Joan Plaza should have an easier time coaching this squad than a season ago. Plaza stayed at Unicaja despite other job openings  in his home country being available, such as Laboral Kutxa Baskonia and FC Barcelona. Then again though, Plaza’s stock took a bit of a hit after such a poor finish in Malaga last season, so it is possible that he wasn’t in serious consideration for those positions despite his coaching pedigree. That being said, with a deeper, more athletic roster and a bit easier Eurocup schedule (which should ease the burden of also playing in the ACB), Plaza should make Unicaja competitive again, with a Eurocup championship not only a possibility, but an expectation in 2017.

Amare Stoudemire’s signing with Hapoel Jerusalem will make the Israeli club a favorite in the Eurocup.

2. Hapoel Jerusalem

Though they traditionally are overlooked in comparison to rival Maccabi Tel Aviv (who has an A license in the Euroleague), Hapoel Jerusalem was arguably the best team in Israel a season ago. Not only did they have the best record in regular season Winner League play, but they also made it to championship game, something rival Maccabi did not do. Unfotunately, their loss to 4th-seeded Maccabi Rishon (who is playing in the Champions League) in the title game left the Jerusalem-based club with little to show for what was an extremely successful campaign overall in 2015-2016.

Not ready to rest on their laurels, Jerusalem was as active as any Israeli club this summer, Maccabi Tel Aviv included. They hired Simone Pianigiani, an Italian head coach who had Euroleague success with Montepaschi Siena and Fenerbahce Ulker. And in terms of the roster, they added an influx of American talent, which included combo guards Jerome Dyson of Auxilium Turin, Curtis Jerrells of Galatasaray, and Tarence Kinsey of Crvena Zvezda, who should be pulling main point guard duties next season. They also boosted their size in the post with Travis Peterson, most recently of Valencia, and Isaac Rosefelt, who comes locally from Hapoel Holon.

However, though those signings added some much needed depth to their roster, no acquisition generated as much splash as the recent signing of Amare Stoudemire, who recently retired from the NBA, but signed a two-year deal with Jerusalem. A partial owner of the franchise (though he did have to sell his shares as a requirement of joining the team so there was no conflict of interest), Stoudemire, a former NBA All-Star and All-NBA player, is one of the most high profile players to ever come to Israel, and should add a dimension in the post that the Winner League or Eurocup has rarely seen. Though Stoudamire has struggled with injury since leaving the Phoenix Suns during their “Seven Seconds or Less” days, he still was an effective bench player last season with the Miami Heat, and is only 33-years-old, still relatively young considering how long he has been playing professional basketball.

To think Stoudemire will channel his Phoenix or early New York Knick days is foolish, but Amare should have an impact on this team immediately. He is still immensely talented on the offensive end as a scorer, and he and Kinsey should thrive in the pick and roll. Furthermore, Stoudemire is coming motivated to Jerusalem, as this is something he “wanted” to do, not a last-end resort, as is the case with most imports. I could see this situation being similar to Stephon Marbury’s success in China, as Stoudemire could achieve a positive revitalization for both himself and this Jerusalem team in the next couple of years. And if that revitalization could result in a Eurocup title and Euroleague berth in 2017-2018, that would only add to Stoudemire’s legacy individually, and make Jerusalem’s risk well worth it in the end.

After a down year with Panathinaikos, Sasha Djordjevic looks to rebound with Bayern Munich.

3. FC Bayern Munich

Much like Unicaja, Bayern was another victim of the downsizing in the Euroleague, as their failure to get out of the Regular Season, or ability to win the BBL from Brose Baskets Bamberg resulted in them being left out of the Euroleague field. However, much like Unicaja, instead of letting such a demotion get to them, they instead have reloaded with a formidable team that looks to compete for the Eurocup crown.

The biggest addition for the Munich-based club was the hiring of former Panathinaikos head coach Sasha Djordjevic. Djordjevic, the current Serbian Men’s National Team coach and a former European club legend in his playing days, is coming off an uneven campaign in Athens where he was unable to bring the Greek power back in the spotlight, as PAO were swept in the Euroleague playoffs by Baskonia a year ago. Though his one-year tenure in Greece was underwhelming, he is coming back to a smaller club with less pressure in Germany. Prior to Panathinaikos, Djordjevic also coached in Italy, first with Olimpia Milano from 2006-2007 and then with Benetton Treviso from 2011-2012.

Another plus is that Djordjevic is that he will have top player Nihad Djedovic to mold his offensive strategy around. The Bosnian National was one of Bayern’s most productive players a year ago, as he had the highest touches per game on the team in Euroleague play, and averaged 0.97 PPP, not extremely productive, but not bad in comparison to his high usage (the higher the usage, the harder it is to produce higher PPP). Djedovic, who has spent most of his professional career in Germany, was definitely in high demand this summer, but it appears that he enjoys his role in Munich as well as the community, and that was a big plus for the club as they aim to return to the Euroleague in 2017-2018.

In addition to keeping Djedovic, Bayern also was able to keep wing and team captain Bryce Taylor, who underperformed in the Euroleague but scored 13.6 ppg in the BBL, as well as big man John Bryant, who was arguably Bayern’s most effective post player, as evidenced by his team-high 62.6 percent True Shooting percentage and 1.15 PPP in Euroleague play. Bryant is not particularly graceful or athletic, but he has always been an efficient, highly productive player, and he should continue to be so under Djordjevic, who demands a lot from his big men. Another big signing in the post by Bayern was Devin Booker, the reigning French League MVP with Chalon a season ago. Booker should be a nice replacement for Deon Thompson, who signed with Galatasaray this summer.

In many ways, Bayern is pretty much the same team that went 4-6 in the Euroleague a season ago, as the roster remains pretty much intact, perhaps even better with the Booker acquisition as well as other signings such as Vladimir Lucic from Valencia, Ondrej Balvin from Sevilla and Danilo Barthel from Fraport Skyliners, all players who should add depth to their front court. Add that with a motivated head coach in Djordjevic, who is looking to rebound after his failed one-year voyage in Athens, and the outlook appears pretty rosy for the Munich-based club in terms of competing for a title in both the Eurocup and BBL, both roads back to the Euroleague.

David Stockton should help bring a jolt from the PG position for Cedevita Zagreb.

4. Cedevita Zagreb

The Croatian club is coming off a pretty solid year in Euroleague play, as they qualified for the Top 16 for the first time in club history. Considering the club (or country in general) doesn’t have the history of other Balkan rivals (such as Serbian clubs Partizan or Crvena Zvezda) in terms of Euroleague success, their appearance in the Top 16 could be a sign of breakthrough.

Unfortunately, what may be breakthrough in the long run didn’t help their consideration in 2016-2017, as they didn’t have the season nor the kind of money or fanbase to merit a wild card berth in the Euroleague this season. However, Cedevita may be even better than last year, even though they will not be seen or on fans’ radar as much as they were in the Euroleague a season ago.

First off, Cedevita didn’t necessarily make any big time moves, but rather they opted for quality and fit rather than quantity. Gone are imports Jacob Pullen and Bill Walker, former college stars and NBA journeymen. Instead, Cedevita concentrated on keeping their young core together. They re-signed Luka Babic, who had some interest from other clubs, and they also were able to keep other crucial roster pieces such as Miro Bilan and Marko Arapovic. Also, they brought in athletic wing Scotty Hopson, who scored over 22 ppg in China last year, but averaged 15.5 ppg with Anadolu Efes back in 2013-2014. He will add some much needed athleticism and isolation scoring for this Croatian club.

The biggest player returning though may be Dzanan Musa, the Bosnian teenage star who is probably the most sought-after prospect in Europe. The MVP of the U16 European Championship a year ago, Musa is only 17 years old, but saw some playing time with the Cedevita senior squad a year ago. Musa is a special talent, and he will be given a much bigger role, especially now that he is a year older and has experience playing and practicing with the senior club. I don’t think Cedevita will expose him too much, out of fear for hurting his development (and they have Hopson and Babic so there isn’t a tremendous need to rush him), but he definitely will play a key role in the rotation in 2016-2017. To see his development will be exciting to follow, especially considering he is expected to be a lottery pick in the NBA in a couple of years.

Cedevita also made one of the more underrated signings in David Stockton, the son of NBA Hall of Famer, John. Stockton, though small in stature and lacking in natural athleticism like his father, is the kind of true playmaker that will help this Cedevita squad on the offensive end. D-Stock lives to make assists, as he has that passing gene that made his dad the NBA career leader in assists. Stockton was the starting point guard and leading assist man not only at prestigious college program Gonzaga his senior year (home of Lithuanian power forward and OKC Thunder draft pick Domantas Sabonis) but also of the most productive offense in the D-League with the Reno Bighorns (the most fun team to watch in the D-League thanks to head coach David Arsenault’s offense). Those kind of merits show that Stockton can produce on the professional level, and that he is ready to transition that playmaking skill set to the Eurocup and ABA.

Cedevita will benefit from the chemistry they developed last year during their Top 16 run, as well as new acquisitions, like Hopson and Stockton, who should mesh seamlessly with the culture of this club. There were a lot more teams that may have made “bigger name” signings, but I like the core Cedevita brings back and the potential for breakout from some of their young stars (like Musa), which should make them a dark horse in the Eurocup this season.

Some honorable mentions to watch in the Eurocup

  • Nizhny Novgorod: They barely missed out on the semis after a double-ot loss to Strasbourg a year ago, and they signed an excellent combo guard in DeAndre Kane, formerly of Iowa State. They lost a lot of talent though from last year, and they will have a new 31-year-old coach in Arturs Stalbergs, who has no head coaching experience, so that dampens the enthusiasm for this year a bit.
  • Alba Berlin: They made some good signings to solidify their backcourt with young talent in Malcolm Miller and Peyton Siva, and Engin Atsur should add some veteran leadership to their squad. They also have added a lot to their junior team, as they are looking more into the future rather than winning in the present. However, they are thin in the post, and it will be interesting to see if new head coach Ahmet Caki will see that solidified in the months leading up to the season.
  • AEK Athens: They loaded up with a lot of local Greek talent, including 22-year-old Giannoulis Larentzakis, who signed a four-year deal after averaging 11.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg and 2.9 apg with VAP Kolossos Rodou a year ago. However, while they have quantity in terms of acquisitions, it’s hard to see if there is much real quality with this AEK roster, which makes it hard to see them as a genuine contender (though I wouldn’t be surprised to see them buck expectations).
  • Lokomotiv Kuban: I think it’s going to be a rebuilding year, even though they have been making a late run in talent acquisition this summer (they signed Mardy Collins from Strasbourg and somehow got Kenny Gabriel from Pinar Karsiyaka even though he seemed to have offers from bigger clubs like Olympiacos). The most fascinating thing to watch will be new head coach Fotis Katsikaris, the former Greek National Team head coach, who had a solid campaign last year with UCAM Murcia of the ACB. Katsikaris has known to overachieve with teams (with the exception of the Greek national team, which blew it in the Eurobasket in 2015 and OQT this summer), as Murcia was one of the more fun teams to watch in the ACB a year ago thanks to do-everything Argentinian point guard Facundo Campazzo. Will Katsikaris be able to pull that “Murcia Magic” with Kuban, a team coming off a Euroleague Final Four appearance a year ago?

 

After Final Four season, Laboral Kutxa Baskonia starts from scratch

Adam Hanga is one of the few players left from the Laboral Kutxa Baskonia squad that made the Euroleague Final Four a year ago.

The 2015-2016 season was safe to say a surprise “dream season” for Basque club Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, especially in Euroleague. As stated before on this blog, Baskonia was led by Ioannis Bourousis, a Greek center signed late in the off-season who ended up earning first-team All-Euroleague and All-ACB honors, in addition being named ACB Liga Endesa MVP. (He also was in close consideration for the Euroleague MVP with eventual winner Nando de Colo of CSKA Moscow). Bourousis, a bench warmer with Real Madrid in 2014-2015 whom many thought was in the twilight of his career, proved to be the life force of this Baskonia team during their impressive Euroleague run. He was one of the best rebounders in the league, a versatile scorer who could hurt teams in the block or on the perimeter, and defensively, though not incredibly athletic, he used his big frame and instincts to take away easy baskets from opposing players. And in addition to his individual skills, it became obvious week after week how Bourousis’ veteran presence and leadership was appreciated and respected from his teammates, as Baskonia saw career years from point guards Darius Adams and Mike James, as well as strong campaigns from wing players such as Fabien Causeur, Davis Bertans and Adam Hanga. Bourousis may not have been named the Euroleague MVP, but no one player was more crucial to Baskonia’s Final Four run than the Greek center.

However, as the Euroleague season gets closer to starting, the “dream season” of Baskonia is merely a memory. Not only is Bourousis gone, back in his home country playing for Panathinaikos, but most of the roster had departed as well. James is in Athens with Bourousis (James actually signed first with Panathinaikos and was key in recruiting the Greek star, who also was in negotiations with some NBA teams this summer), Adams signed with a team in China, Causeur went to Brose Baskets Bamberg in Germany, and Bertans earned a contract with the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA. And if that was not enough, head coach Velimir Perasovic left early in the off-season, accepting a deal to be the new head coach of Anadolu Efes, a club looking to compete after big off-seasons by BSL rivals Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Darussafaka. Unlike other Final Four teams such as CSKA and Fenerbahce, who were able to keep most of their crucial players, Baskonia is starting from scratch, still piecing together their roster even as of this moment. That kind of rebuilding approach of course isn’t the most surefire path to success, especially when a team reached the heights Baskonia rose to last season in the Euroleague.

That being said, if there is any club that can overcome the odds and buck expectations, it’s Baskonia.

Many European basketball fans forget how under the radar Baskonia happened to be in October of the Euroleague season a year ago. Adams and James were relatively “no-name” guards, and Bourousis had warmed the bench behind Gustavo Ayon and Felipe Reyes in Madrid a year earlier, making his signing a head-scratcher (there probably was more enthusiasm for Sofoklis Schortsanitis’ arrival in Crvena Zvezda, where he barely lasted) . The Latvian Bertans was coming off a knee injury he suffered in the tail end of the 2015 season, and the Hungarian Hanga had played most of the 2015 season on loan with the Italian club Sidigas Avellino of Lega A. There was a lot of roster question marks with this Baskonia team at the start of the 2015-2016 season, and the fact that they opened the 10-game Regular Season with a group that included Olympiacos, Olimpia Milano, and Anadolu Efes didn’t help fans’ uneasiness either (considering going in they were probably thought of as the 4th best team in that group by many experts).

And yet, we know how the story went in 2015-2016. Baskonia management showed the fanbase and Euroleague followers that they knew what they were doing, and they had a Final Four and an Executive of the Year award for Jose Antonio Quejarata to prove it. So, yes, Baskonia probably lost more of their roster than management or the fans wanted. Yes, they lost a solid head coach to a Euroleague competitor. But they’ve gone through this song and dance before. So another Final Four campaign is in the works, right?

Well…that may be a tougher task this time around, but Baskonia has some potential, and it starts with their new head coach.

Baskonia hopes that Spanish head coach Sito Alonso, formerly of Dominion Bilbao, will bring a youthful energy that will help develop their younger players as well as keep them competitive in ACB and Euroleague play.

The new man in charge of this Baskonia club is Sito Alonso, the former Dominion Bilbao coach who was rumored as a candidate for the vacant Barcelona job this summer. Alonso did not go to the Catalan club, but he did earn the Basque club position which may have been a better fit for him anyways. Alonso is known to be a developer of young talent, as he coached the Spanish Under-20 team to a bronze medal in the 2013 European U-20 Championships, and was also a Spanish National Team assistant on the 2014 FIBA World Cup team. In terms of club experience, he doesn’t exactly have extensive Euroleague experience, as he has only coached 1 team in the Euroleague, DKV Joventut in 2008-2009, where they went 4-6 and failed to make it to the Top 16. However, he has proven to be successful in Eurocup competition, as he helped Joventut win a Eurocup championship in 2008 (which helped them qualify for the Euroleague), and he went 11-5 with Bilbao a season ago in the Eurocup (which made up for their disappointing ACB campaign where they missed out on the playoffs to Fuenlabrada on a last second shot on the last day).

Alonso, who is only 40 years old, provides a fresh perspective to this Baskonia squad that was used to the veteran presence of previous coach Perasovic a season ago. One of the interesting aspects about Alonso’s hire is the fact that he is only the second Spanish coach hired by Baskonia in the past 11 years since Pedro Martinez and Natxo Lezkano split duties in 2005 (the other Spanish coach was in Ibon Navarro in 2014-2015), so his Spanish roots, both personally and in the coaching profession (he hasn’t coached a club outside of Spain) will help the local fan base endear to him immediately. Furthermore, what will make or break Alonso’ tenure is how he will utilize the young talent on this Baskonia team, as player development has been his calling card in his coaching career thus far. As of this moment, Baskonia has four players under 25 years old on this roster that will be featured in the rotation: Ilimane Diop and Tornike Shengelia, who both return from last year; and newcomers Johannes Voigtmann from Germany and Rafael Luz from Brazil. Diop and Voigtmann will add depth in the center position behind newcomer and former NBA No.1 pick Andrea Bargnani, who is most likely the projected starting center. Diop did well as a starter mid-season, benefiting from the extra minutes due to Bourousis’ preference for coming off the bench. Diop is athletic and has strong shot-blocking skills, but he still needs to improve his offensive skills (his back to the basket game was limited) and get stronger to help him battle defensively and on the boards against opposing Euroleague and ACB centers. Voigtmann comes from FIBA Europe Cup Champion Fraport Skyliners, where he succeeded in the BBL as a BBL Rising Star and Most Improved player winner in 2015, and All-Star in 2015 and 2016. Voigtmann, who averaged 11.4 and 5.5 rpg in the BBL a year ago, will be the kind of young big who should benefit from Alonso’s tutelage, though he may go through some growing pains considering the improvement in competition from the BBL and Europe Cup to the ACB and Euroleague, respectively.

Alonso’s most interesting work though may be with Shengelia and Luz, who play power forward and point guard respectively. Shengelia only played 9 Euroleague games a season ago with Baskonia, and though he put up decent averages, (9.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) in limited minutes (17.8 mpg), his contributions were small in comparison to other players on the Baskonia roster. Furthermore, Shengelia also carries some personal baggage that Alonso was exposed to as coach of Bilbao. In 2015, Shengelia and Bilbao player Dejan Todorovic were involved in a massive fight on court that resulted in a five-game suspension. There was a lot of finger pointing in terms of who was at fault that resulted in a lot of bad blood between the clubs. Whether or not former Bilbao coach Alonso and Shengelia can bury this hatchet will be crucial, especially considering Shengelia will play such a key role for Baskonia this upcoming season.

As for Luz, the 24-year-old Brazilian point guard comes over from Brazilian powerhouse Flamengo, which won the domestic league championship a year ago. Luz is familiar with the Spanish club scene, as he signed originally with Unicaja in 2007. However, he mostly played on loan to other clubs during his tenure with Unicaja, and this will be the first time he will gain major playing time at the major European level in his career. Luz has flair and potential as a point guard averaging 7 ppg and 4.1 apg a year ago in Brazil. Furthermore, he will benefit from Alonso’s mentorship, as he has strong experience developing point guards, as evidenced by nurturing current NBA player Ricky Rubio during his early years in Joventut.

Andrea Bargnani is coming off a poor season with the Brooklyn Nets; Baskonia is hoping he can rekindle himself as a player in Europe and in the Euroleague.

Alonso will likely have the most impact as a coach on the young players on this roster. However, as with any Euroleague team, the goal is still to win and make the Final Four, even if the odds may be against them. For Alonso to do that, he will have to rely on former NBA players Bargnani, the projected starting center, and Rodrigue Beaubois, the projected point guard who played last year with Strasbourg and formerly played with the Dallas Mavericks.

The Bargnani acquisition has been one that has garnered equal praise and criticism. Many find the deal akin in situation to the Bourousis signing a year ago: a late unexpected signing of a player coming off a down year. Some though think the comparison is a stretch, and that Bargnani is on the wrong end of his career, and isn’t the kind of center who can have the impact that Bourousis had a year ago. Rob Scott, who writes for Euroleague Adventures, had this to say about the Bargnani signing in a tweet:

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Scott has a good point about Bargnani, as the Italian center has struggled to stay healthy and effective when on the court in the past five seasons. Since his career year in 2010-2011 in Toronto where he played 66 games, and averaged 21.4 ppg and 5.2 rpg, it has been mostly downhill for the former No. 1 pick, the first European player to ever be drafted in that slot. He has only played more than 40 games twice since 2011 (42 games with the Knicks in 2013-2014 and 46 games with Nets last season), and he has only had a Win Shares total over one twice as well (2.2 in 2011-2012 with Toronto and 1.5 with the Knicks in 2013-2014). Last season in Brooklyn, a team that played to their low expectations in the pre-season, Bargnani failed to have much impact at all for the Nets, as he only averaged 6.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg, and a career low 13.8 mpg. The writing seemed to be on the wall for Bargnani’s NBA career, as he was passed up in the rotation late in the year by youngsters Chris McCullough and Thomas Robinson, a bad sign for a veteran in a contract year trying to earn his keep in the NBA.

Bargnani surprisingly is only 31 years old despite playing 10 seasons in the NBA. However, he struggled to find a position in the States, not quite quick or agile enough to be a 3 or 4, but not physical or strong enough to play the 5. He has regularly put up paltry rebounding numbers for a big (his career average is 4.6 rpg) and defensively, he has proven to be a liability time and time again. He isn’t the kind of physical shotblocker that can guard the rim well, and he frequently gets lost and taken advantage of in pick and roll defense. Now there may be some room for optimism in 2016-2017 with Baskonia. Bargnani will face less quality bigs in the Euroleague than he did in the NBA, he can still shoot it from beyond the arc well for a 7-footer (he’s a career 35.4 percent 3-pt shooter and two seasons ago with the Knicks he shot 36.6 percent from beyond the arc), and perhaps being back home in Europe will be a breath of fresh air after years of ridicule in America for failing to live up to his No. 1 status. At the end of the day though, Bargnani remains a bigger risk than Bourousis a year ago, as he isn’t the same player (Bourousis is a much better rebounder and defender), making the potential of this pickup quite murky for this Baskonia squad.

Baskonia also picked up headlines by signing Beaubois, who averaged 11.6 ppg and 2.3 apg in 24 mpg in Euroleague play a year ago with Strasbourg, who finished runner up in the LNB and Eurocup in 2016. Beaubois is a dynamic player, more of a shoot-first combo guard than a pure point. At 6-feet, 2-inches, Beaubois has a strong frame for a guard, and can use that to his advantage, especially from beyond the arc. He shot 37 percent from 3-point land in Euroleague play a year ago, and he depends on that shot greatly, as evidenced by his 0.43 3PA/FGA rate. That being said, Roddy can be his own worst enemy at the times, as he has a tendency to over-dominate the ball on the offensive end, and sometimes sink a team when his shot is not on. Last year, his touches per game was highest on the team at 13.02, not necessarily great considering his points per possession was 0.89, which is 0.11 lower than average. For Beaubois and Baskonia to be successful, they will need the Beaubois of 2011-2012, where he had his best season as a professional, averaging 8.9 ppg and 2.9 apg while producing a PER of 15.3 and a Win Shares total of 2.2 with the Dallas Mavericks. During that season, Beaubois played within Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle’s system, and looked to produce for the team and not just himself, which benefited the Mavs and his professional outlook.

Unfortunately, since returning to Europe, he has played a bit more selfishly much to the detriment of his team, and himself (he has become less efficient and effective playing this way). There were times his individual play helped lead Strasbourg to big wins, but there were also times where his inefficient play got in the way of what head coach Vincent Collet was trying to do on the court. Channeling the “good” and “efficient” Beaubois may be one of Alonso’ biggest challenges going into this season, especially considering the depth issues of Baskonia as of this moment, which may enable Beaubois to be more “selfish” offensively.

Baskonia is banking on a big year from Roddy Beaubois, who’s coming over recently from Strasbourg.

Alonso doesn’t have the greatest hand dealt to him in comparison to his Euroleague competition, but the cupboard isn’t bare. There’s potential for Alonso to utilize Bargnani in a way that will allow him to play more in his comfort zone (on the perimeter from beyond the arc), and assign his younger bigs (Diop, Voigtmann, Shengelia) to take care of the “dirty work” (rebounding, post defense, etc.). If Beaubois focuses more on “team” offense rather than “individual” scoring, he and Hanga and Jaka Blazic could be an effective starting trio on the perimeter. Kim Tillie is a proven power forward that could provide valuable production and mentorship to the younger post players, and Luz could breakout under Alonso, who has been successful developing Spanish point guards with previous clubs.

There certainly is potential for success. At the same time though, there is a lot of potential for things to go south. After all, expectations are high for the club not only due to their Final Four run a year ago, but also due to the fact to the more competitive structure of the new 16-team Euroleague format which will be incorporated starting this year. Already, we have seen another Euroleague mainstay (Unicaja) become a victim of the new format after a sub-par year a season ago. While Baskonia is in better financial and competitive shape than the Malaga-based club, it serves as a reminder of what lack of Euroleague success can do to a club, even if it is only for a small stretch of time.

The pressure will be on Alonso and Baskonia in 2016-2017, especially in the Euroleague. Can Alonso put these awkward and eccentric pieces together to produce a successful squad? Or are the pieces too flawed and broken to work out in the end? Is this rebuilding project perhaps just too much, and the magic of that “rebuilding” job in 2015-2016 just a miracle that won’t be seen again?

There is still time in the off-season to add pieces, but you can bet Alonso, his staff and Baskonia management, are doing all they can now to make sure that their plan can work by October.

“Basketball Tapas”: Miller out for Maccabi TA, Taylor re-signs with RM, Abrines going to OKC

“Basketball Tapas” are newsletter-like posts where I highlight major news stories, articles and links on the Web centering on European basketball for that day or over a couple-day span. Hopefully, I will be able to make this a regular part of the blog where I am publishing it every day or at least every couple of days.

In this edition of “Basketball Tapas,” we will take at three major Euroleague-participating teams who will had major incidents happen to them in the past couple of days. Two of them were negative; one was positive. What happened and to who? Well…let’s get to serving our Tapas of the basketball variety for the day.

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Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv’s Quincy Miller injures self in pickup game; out 6-9 months.

Over a week ago, there were reports that Quincy Miller, Maccabi’s big summer signing from Crvena Zvezda, hurt himself in a pickup game back in the United States. Originally, it was suspected it would be a minor injury that would keep him out a few weeks. Unfortunately, news broke today about the severity of his injury:

Really difficult news to hear, especially considering how late it is in the summer signing period, and it will be difficult to replace a player of Miller’s talent and skill set. (How many 6’10 players can shoot threes, take it to the rack like a guard, and block shots?) Apparently, the injury occurred in a game with former NBA players like Baron Davis and Kenyon Martin and current NBA star Kyrie Irving, so it wasn’t as if Miller was horsing around and got hurt in an asinine fashion. (This isn’t the Monta Ellis on the Moped situation.)

It will be interesting to see how Maccabi handles this situation. They put a lot of hoopla on his (as well as Sonny Weems’) arrival, holding a “welcoming” ceremony of sorts this summer to help pump up the Maccabi fans for the 2016-2017 season. Without Miller, the outlook for this team’s a lot foggier, not a good thing considering Maccabi is coming off one of their worst seasons in club history in both Euroleague and Winner League play. Will they be aggressive in finding someone to replace him, and who at this point in the off-season? Or will management and Erez Edelstein simply roll the dice and depend on the roster they have?

I think it’ll be more likely that Maccabi will do the former than the latter.

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Jeff Taylor officially extends with Real Madrid

It was expected after Taylor received lukewarm interest from NBA clubs this off-season, but Real Madrid officially announced re-signing forward Jeff Taylor to a one-year deal with Los Blancos. Taylor struggled initially with Real Madrid, unable to find his role on the team in his transition from the NBA to the ACB and Euroleague. However, by the end of the season, Taylor excelled as a defensive-focused wing player, and started many games for Madrid down the stretch in ACB and Euroleague play.

Taylor has his issues. He struggles at times in team defense, he isn’t an adept shooter or shot creator, and he seems to “space out” on possessions on the floor. However, athletically Taylor is up there with any wing in Europe, and he adds more depth to a team that will be chock full of it next year, important to have considering the Euroleague’s extended season format. Though Madrid lost Sergio Rodriguez, the addition of Anthony Randolph, and the re-signing of Taylor, Gustavo Ayon and Trey Thompkins will make the Madrid club one of the longest and most athletic in Europe. And, consider the breakout season that Luka Doncic, still a teenager, could have next year after a solid full-season with the senior club last season, and this Madrid has to be a favorite for the Euroleague crown with CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce Ulker.

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Alex Abrines signs three-year deal with Oklahoma City Thunder

A lot of big losses for Barcelona this off-season. First, they lost 6’7 point guard Tomas Satoransky to the Washington Wizards, and now, the OKC Thunder, fresh off losing Kevin Durant to the Warriors, poached wing Alex Abrines on a three year, $21-million deal. That being said, the deal wasn’t entirely bad, as it seems to have freed up money for Barcelona to sign athletic four-player Victor Claver from Lokomotiv Kuban.

The Abrines deal is interesting because Abrines really didn’t show much beyond being a spot-up shooter with some defensive capability last season. Granted, it was difficult to tell how “good” Abrines may have been last year, as he struggled to get consistent minutes from Juan Carlos Navarro and Brad Oleson, veterans Xavi Pascual clearly favored last year in the rotation, despite their regression in 2015-2016. Maybe OKC sees something in Abrines that most European basketball fans didn’t see last season, and see him as a specialized player who could boost their 3-pt shooting on the wing, something they struggled with last season beyond Kevin Durant and occasional flurries from Dion Waiters (whom they don’t seem to be bringing back).

However, Abrines will be making more than Tomas Satoransky, interesting to see considering Satoransky’s skill set seem more valuable than Abrines. Satoransky is a tall point guard in the Shaun Livingston mold who can shoot from beyond the arc, defend up to four positions (though three really well) and can penetrate and create offense for himself and his teammates off the drive. That seems to be a more valuable skill set to NBA teams than Abrines’ “shooting-focused” abilities, but Satoransky will be making less than Abrines on a per-year basis. Yes, it’s probably a pedantic issue, considering they are both going to the NBA, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.

Other Tapas of note…

  • Fotis Katsikaris in negotiations to be Lokomotiv Kuban coach: The former Greek National Team coach (he wasn’t extended after the Olympic Qualifying Tournament) and current UCAM Murcia coach is a favorite to replace Georgios Bartzokas, who left for Barcelona. Katsikaris had a solid season with Murcia, where they gave Real Madrid a tough fight in round 1 of the ACB playoffs. The cupboard though is pretty bare in Loko, with Randolph, Malcolm Delaney and Victor Claver all signing elsewhere this summer. However, Loko will be in the Eurocup, and Katsikaris has done well in rebuilding jobs, as evidenced by his work with Murcia last season.
  • Besiktas signs Michael Roll: A surprising power move by the Turkish club, who will be playing in the inaugural Basketball Champions League competition rather than the Eurocup. After signing Devin Booker and Kyle Weems from French Clubs (Elan Chalon and Strasbourg, respectively), Besiktas stayed close, signing Roll from Büyükçekmece of the BSL. Roll was rumored to be going to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, so this is a bit of a surprise pickup by the Turkish club, and a big loss for the Basque team, who has lost a lot from last year’s Final Four team.
  • Jordan Sibert signs with PAOK Thessaloniki: A young, under-the-radar talent that will be going to a solid Greek club that often goes under-the-radar in the Greek basketball scene amidst Panathinaikos and Olympiacos. The 24-year-old Sibert, a product of Dayton University, averaged 13.1 ppg with the Erie Bayhawks of the D-League last season.
  • Maccabi Kiryat signs Trevor Releford and Koroivos signs Ken Brown: Two smaller clubs made pretty good point guard acquisitions, though we’ll see if these acquisitions move the needle for these mid-tier clubs. Releford, a product of Kansas City as well as the University of Alabama, scored 13.5 ppg in 28 games with Kolossos in the GBL, and gives the Israeli club one of the better point guards in the Winner League. Brown is coming from Lithuanian competitor Lietuvos Rytas, where he averaged 8.0 ppg in 28 games. He should give Korivos another point guard to complement Vincent Council, who averaged 5.8 ppg in 17 games last season with the Greek club.

EuroBall and Beatz: “El Chacho” and “Baby Blue” by Action Bronson

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.

That is not a homeless guy or the lead singer from Bon Iver…that is El Chacho, and safe to say European basketball fans’ loss will be the NBA’s gain (hopefully…)

“El Chacho” Sergio Rodriguez “Euroleague Stars” Mix

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 is a musical savant who entertains audiences in a multitude of ways (like El Chacho) and has a really awesome, gnarly beard (also like El Chacho!)

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?)

Will Georgios Bartzokas be the right coach for Barcelona?

Georgios Bartzokas is officially the new head coach of Barcelona; they are hoping he’ll be celebrating like this (his Euroleague title with Olympiacos in 2013) in the near future.

Finally…all the turmoil, rumors, and reports are over. FC Barcelona finally has a coach, and it isn’t Sarunas Jasikevicius or Sito Alonso (who ended up taking the Laboral Kutxa Baskonia job…more on that in a separate post). After a lengthy process to figure out Xavi Pascual’s replacement, Barcelona management settled on Greek national Georgios Bartzokas, most recently the head coach of Lokomotiv Kuban of Russia.

Bartzokas is an interesting hire by Barcelona management after a multiple week process that felt much longer. He doesn’t have the playing pedigree of Jasikevicius, nor does he have Alonso’s youth or deep ties within the Spanish basketball system. Despite not having those characteristics, Bartzokas has been a successful head coach, as he won a Euroleague title in 2013 when he was head coach of Olympiacos and led Loko to their first ever Final Four as well as a third place finish last season (in the club’s second appearance in the Euroleague ever). There is no question that the 51-year-old Athenian head coach can make teams competitive at the highest level of play in Europe, but is he the right fit for the Catalan club, and can he bring the kind of success (ACB and Euroleague titles) that evaded previous head coach, Xavi Pascual, the past couple of seasons?

After all, as stated before in one of my previous posts, in Barcelona, it’s “championships or bust.” Consolation prizes aren’t a reality with the Catalan faithful, and it will be fascinating to see how Bartzokas will be able to transfer the success he had with Loko last year to Spain, but this time, under much more cutthroat circumstances.

Bartzokas has found Euroleague success as a coach, first with Olympiacos in 2013 and last year with Loko.

Bartzokas came onto Barcelona’s radar late, as it seemed in mid-June, Bartzokas was going to honor his contract with Kuban for at least one more season, according to a report from Sportando. And honestly, it didn’t seem to matter at the time, as Saras seemed to be a shoo-in for the Barcelona job once Pascual officially was let go (which happened a couple of weeks later). But, as we learned before, Jasikevicius wasn’t eligible for the position due to ACB rules, and in early July, after the Alonso reports proved to be erroneous, Barcelona was still without a head coach.

And surprisingly, things also changed dramatically for Bartzokas in Krasnodar.

Despite pledging his allegiance, the outlook for Lokomotiv Kuban looked quite bleak for 2016-2017. While Loko had a banner year in the Euroleague with their surprise Final Four run, their domestic season wasn’t as successful. In the VTB United League, Loko finished an underwhelming fifth, and were promptly swept by Khimki Moscow 3-0 in the playoffs. Because of the disappointing finish, the club didn’t earn the B license out of the VTB to qualify for the Euroleague (that went to Unics, who finished second to CSKA Moscow), and they missed out on the lone wild card spot to Darussafaka Dogus of Turkey. With new condensed format of the Euroleague, Loko was left out of the field of 16, and regulated to Eurocup, a harsh reality to stomach for Bartzokas and the organization after they ousted Barcelona in the playoffs months earlier.

And because of the regulation, it became less of an incentive for ownerships to pay top dollar to keep players, and star players began to look and find contracts elsewhere. Malcolm Delaney headed to the NBA where he signed with the Atlanta Hawks. Versatile big man Anthony Randolph ended up signing a two-year deal with Real Madrid. And though they haven’t signed anywhere else yet, Victor Claver and Dontaye Draper have made it known that they are not returning with Loko next season. And thus, it made sense for Bartzokas to look elsewhere despite pledging his commitment nearly a month earlier. Loko looked to be a rebuilding job in 2016-2017, and quite a big one in Europe’s second-tier competition. That’s not what Bartzokas signed up for when he said he would “honor” his contract, and when Barcelona came along with an offer, he took it gladly, knowing that the Loko job would be more risk than it was worth.

Bartzokas is a different kind of hire for Barcelona, and the Barcelona job is a different one as well for Bartzokas. Previous head coach Xavi Pascual was a Barcelona-lifer of sorts, as he got his start coaching the B team in 2004, and then spent a couple of seasons as an assistant to Dusko Ivanovic before taking over in 2008 after Dusko was fired. Bartzokas on the other hand, has no experience coaching or playing in Spain, and his only basketball experience outside of his home country of Greece came last year with Loko, and that was in Russia, where the VTB and Russian Domestic scene is not as strong as the ACB. For Barcelona, one of the top clubs in the ACB, the Bartzokas hire is a bit of an experiment, as the coaches they have hired in the past had experience in Spanish basketball as a player or coach.

But, if there is one thing the Athenian coach can do it is win and win quickly. Bartzokas took over Olympiacos in 2011, and promptly won a title in 2013, beating CSKA Moscow in the semifinal and Real Madrid in the championship game by double digits. After an underwhelming season in 2014-2015, when Loko went undefeated in the Eurocup regular season, but choked in the quarterfinals, Bartzokas led Loko to a dream Euroleague season which not only included a trip to the Final Four, but also a dramatic comeback in the playoffs, where despite being down 2-1 in the series and facing elimination in Game 4 in Barcelona, they won two straight games to punch their ticket to Berlin. Bartzokas’ basketball acumen, as well as cool demeanor, especially in big games, has served him well in his coaching career, as he has installed immediate success in every place he has coached so far.

For Barcelona, hiring a coach who could produce a quick-turn-around is exactly what they needed, especially with their rivals in Madrid dominating not only them, but the ACB the past couple of seasons.

Athletic defenders like Randolph (left) and Chris Singleton (right, 1) were key to Bartzokas finding defensive success in Loko.

What has made Bartzokas such as successful coach is his emphasis on defense. Last season, Loko was one of the best teams defensively in the Euroleague, as their 100.2 defensive rating was the second best mark over the full season (and only .1 behind Fenerbahce Ulker). However, Loko really found their groove defensively when Top 16 play began, when they fully had their roster intact (Randolph only played 60 minutes total in Regular Season play). In Top 16 play,  Loko’s defensive rating was 98.4, 3.1 points better than the second best mark (Fenerbahce), and their net rating of 11.4 was also the best in the league in the Top 16, even better than eventual champion CSKA Moscow (who had a 10.0 mark). Once Bartzokas had all his horses (mostly Randolph), Loko was one of the toughest teams to beat on a night in-night out basis, and Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy was a big key to that tremendous success in the Top 16.

Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy really is nothing spectacular. He emphasized strong, man-to-man defense, with little switching, and an emphasis on stopping the drive as much as possible. On the backside, Loko usually sagged their defenders to create help more than typical from most squads, which is characteristic of many Pack Line defenses. Take a look at how Loko is positioned on this possession against Barcelona in the playoffs.

Screenshot 2016-07-12 at 8.47.59 AM

See Claver on the weakside sagging heavily toward the paint, which was a heavy part of Bartzokas’ philosophy last season: force teams to beat them from the outside. However, one reason Bartzokas was able to do this because Loko did two things well: 1.) utilize their length and athleticism and 2.) play extremely hard in half court defense. Loko was a cohesive unit on the floor defensively, and Bartzokas deserves a lot of credit for maximizing the talent on his roster on this end.

Bartzokas didn’t utilize a lot of full court presses or traps in the half court, mainly because he didn’t need to. He had length and athleticism advantages defensively at nearly every position. Delaney was a big point guard who could body up most opposing point guards with ease, and he was strong enough to play through screens and blow up opposing pick and roll plays. And Delaney’s backup, Draper, was a small bundle of muscle who didn’t have Delaney’s height, but had the same kind of strength-speed combo to either frustrate opposing guards or play through screens easily. Claver was a versatile defensive player who had the size to play opposing fours, but also the speed and length to hound and frustrate wings as well (he could sag this low on this possession because if Barcelona did skip it, he had quick enough reactions and athleticism to recover and break down and properly contest the three pointer or prevent the drive). Ryan Broekhoff didn’t have the athletic gifts of some of the other players in the starting lineup (mostly Claver or Randolph), but he played EXTREMELY hard on the defensive end. One could say Broekhoff was the glue that kept this squad together. A defender who didn’t give as much effort may have put Loko in situations where his teammates would be compromised more defensively. However, because of Broekhoff’s effort, and his ability to play through screens and guard multiple positions (he could guard guys on the perimeter or post depending on the situation), his teammates were able to play in their comfort zone and not worry about frequently having to help on breakdowns, which consequently made them more effective defenders, and thus, a more effective defensive team.

And the jewel of Bartzokas’ defensive strategy was Randolph who did everything defensively. He could block shots with ease around the rim, but he was also quick enough to hedge and recover off the ball screen, or switch in a pinch (which didn’t happen very often). And Chris Singleton off the bench provided the same kind of defensive ability, though Singleton was a bit more on the physical side (though not as quick as Randolph). As one can see, all these pieces put together put up a strong defensive force that proved to be difficult for opponents to score on. The only times Loko gave up points was usually due to mental lapses on their own end. As talented and effective as Randolph was, there were times he broke down defensively in transition, as he sometimes tended to jog back down after a turnover or missed shot, which led to easy buckets in transition for opponents. But for the most part, Bartzokas had this Loko team a well-oiled machine on the defensive end, and installed a strategy that proved to be effective all-season long in the Euroleague.

Of course, it is to be expected that Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy will adjust with Barcelona in some ways. While he will be able to play a similar way on the perimeter with long wings such as Alex Abrines, Stratos Perperoglou, and Pau Ribas, Ante Tomic in the post is a much stiffer-moving defender who can’t recover or switch or block shots like Randolph. However, there is one weapon on the roster that Bartzokas most likely will utilize more, especially on the defensive end, and that is Shane Lawal. Lawal doesn’t have the offensive gifts of Randolph, but defensively, he mirrors Randolph’s profile nicely. Lawal is a long, athletic defender who can roam and fight through screens, and he looked like he was on the verge of breaking out for Barcelona before a midseason injury sidelined him for a while. Expect Bartzokas to utilize Lawal more, especially since he will fit into Bartzokas’ conservative man-to-man strategy that emphasizes strength and length to prevent baskets. The only issue for Bartzokas to address is defense from the point, as Juan Carlos Navarro isn’t the kind of defender that will fit into what Bartzokas liked to do with Delaney and Draper last season, and Tomas Satoransky isn’t going to be with Barcelona next year, but instead in the NBA (he would have fit better due to his large frame). It’ll be interesting to see if Barcelona management will add a point guard through transfer this offseason in the kind of athletic mold of Delaney and Draper to fit into Bartzokas’ defensive system in year one in Barcelona.

Bartzokas relies heavily on his star players offensively, as evidenced by Anthony Randolph’s 32.1 usage rate last year with Loko.

Offensively, it is a bit of a different story for Bartzokas, as this is where he will most dramatically differ from his predecessor. Pascual was known for being a great basketball mind, who relied on a heavy playbook and liked to call multiple actions and sets in the half court. Bartzokas is the opposite, as he prefers a hands-off approach and allows for a more free-flowing offense that relies more on isolation and getting the ball to 1 or 2 scorers and depending on them to make the offense work.

Last season, Bartzokas relied heavily on Randolph and Delaney, as they generated most of the offense for Loko, especially in the half court. Randolph led the team in usage rate at 32.1 perecent, a mark that was also highest in the Euroleague last season as well. A lot of the time, Bartzokas offense was simply get the ball to Randolph and let him do his thing, and considering how versatile and athletic a scorer Randolph was, it worked most of the time. When Plan A (get it to Randolph) didn’t work, it usually delved into Plan B which was get the ball to Delaney, who had the second highest usage rate on the team at 22.9 percent. And off the bench, Singleton proved to be a Randolph-lite, as his usage rate was 21.9 percent.

When it worked, it was a sight to behold. No better example was Game 4 of the playoffs, when Anthony Randolph went straight “LeBron James”-mode and won the game himself and kept Loko alive despite facing elimination on the road. Check out his highlights below and how heavily Loko relied on him in their sets (as well as Delaney, who set up a lot of Randolph’s buckets).

There really wasn’t anything groundbreaking with what Randolph, Delaney and even Singleton did on the court strategically. They got the ball, they either drove and finished (mostly in the case of Randolph and Singleton) or drove and created for others (mostly in the case of Delaney). It was simple, but it was effective and it was tough for teams to guard at times, especially when one player was hot, it usually opened up shots for others as well. And this isn’t something exclusive to Loko, as Bartzokas preferred this philosophy with Olympiacos as well, as Vassilis Spanoulis had a usage rate of 29.3 during their Championship run in 2013.

Unfortunately, when things stalled offensively for Loko, or if they couldn’t get the ball to Randolph or if Delaney wasn’t hitting his shots or finding room to drive or if Singleton was on one of his cold streaks, the Loko offense could get downright ugly. Poor turnovers from horrendous possessions led to easy baskets for the opposition on a more-than-desirable basis. Loko actually had the seventh highest turnover rate in Top 16 play, and their lack of ability to take care of the ball consistently would transfer to a lot of blown leads for the Krasnodar-based club. Yes, they would come back a lot of the times, as one of those three or another like Claver, would get on a hot streak to rescue them. However, Bartzokas’ simple offense sometimes proved to be Loko’s own worst enemy, as they didn’t play well in the pick and roll, nor did they have a lot of effective secondary plays to hang their hat on in the half court when the isolation wasn’t clicking.

Establishing an offense will be much a bigger challenge for Bartzokas in Barcelona than defense, and ultimately that will make or break his tenure with his new club. With Satoransky gone, and no new signing to take over his position (yet), it will be interesting to see who will step up and be that “primary” isolation playmaker that will succeed under Bartzokas. With Olympiacos, it was Spanoulis as well as Dimitris Diamantidis. With Loko, it was Delaney and Randolph. Three-four years ago Navarro could have handled that role, but he isn’t the shooter or shot creator he once was, as evidenced by his sub-par campaign last season. Tomic is an effective scorer around the block, but he is effective in the pick and roll (not one of Bartzokas’ go-to’s) and really can’t create much off the dribble. And wings such as Perperoglou, Abrines and Ribas have been more “secondary” offensive threats in the past, not necessarily primary offensive options (though that could change with Bartzokas giving them more responsibility and leash). Bartzokas most likely will adjust his offensive philosophy to play more to his roster’s strengths, as he most likely will try to find a middle ground between Pascual’s old system and his own for the short term until they get more talent tailored to his liking. Nonetheless, it’ll be interesting to see who will step up and be that “main” guy, as Bartzokas has leaned on that “primary” player in his coaching stops thus far.

Bartzokas seemed to get the most out of his players in Loko; will that carry over in Barcelona?

The pressure to win in Barcelona is more than ever, and Bartzokas knows he is not stepping into an easy job. Pascual was a misnomer for a European coach, as he actually stayed a long time in Barcelona, something that is not typically seen from coaches in the “impatient” basketball management world of European club basketball. However, he had success. He took Barcelona to Euroleague Final Fours and won ACB titles, and he didn’t the last two years, which is why he is gone. Bartzokas has done the same: he has won a Euroleague title and been to two Final Fours, but doing so in Greece and Russia is a lot different from doing it in Spain, probably the most high-profile country in Europe when it comes to Euroleague and domestic league success.

If there is one thing positive about Bartzokas’ outlook it is that Barcelona is trying to change how they “build” their team, so Bartzokas will have some leash if he doesn’t make the Euroleague Final Four or win an ACB title in year one. However, a bottom-out season (i.e. a fourth or lower finish in ACB play or not qualifying for the playoffs in the Euroleague) won’t save him, nor would two years without a championship. This isn’t a one-year audition, but the pressure to perform at the highest level certainly is going to be expected from the Catalan faithful

Bartzokas won’t be able to play the same exact kind of ball he did in Loko next season and how he adjusts his style, which differs from Pascual in so many areas, will be something to behold next year. Will it work? Will Bartzokas find the right compromise in styles offensively and defensively? Will he get some talent toward the end of the summer or start of the year that will allow him to do what he is accustomed to doing? (There were reports that Barcelona was trying to make a late push for Randolph before he ended up signing with Madrid.)

Bartzokas can’t waste much time though to figure out these issues. Real Madrid has dominated their El Clasico rivals the past two seasons, and that is a wound that gets deeper and deeper with every Real championship and win in the ACB and Euroleague.

If that competitive status with their rival doesn’t change quickly, it is not difficult to imagine who the fans’ scapegoat will be.