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.

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

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

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

Sergio Llull

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

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

Anthony Randolph

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

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

Luka Doncic

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

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

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

Brad Wanamaker

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

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

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

Ante Zizic

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

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

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

Series Wild Card: David Blatt vs. Pablo Laso

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

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

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

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

We will know next week.

Three “Transfers” That Should Have Happened in the Euroleague

This piece appeared in the latest “Courtside Diaries” post and was part of a longer joint piece. Please read the full post on that web site, as it features some funny perspectives from other writers in the Euroleague blogosphere. 

There are five rounds left in the Euroleague season, and it’s starting to become clearer who will be seriously contending for a Final Four spot in Istanbul (Basically, Real Madrid, CSKA, Fenerbahce and Olympiacos). However, even though the season is almost over, it is fun to think about what teams could have possibly done to have improved their chances earlier in the season. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but what if Barcelona or Maccabi Tel Aviv or Brose Bamberg made a high-profile “transfer”, in the mold of NBA Trade Deadline deals, mid-season to boost their roster? Would it have made a difference, and pushed them in the playoffs? Or would the change in player composition have little to no impact?

Well, I decided to come up with three “transfers” that “should have” happened during this Euroleague season that would have made the Euroleague playoff race much more interesting. Granted, I don’t know if these moves would have worked or if the teams (or players) would have agreed to it, but these moves would have definitely entertained the Euroleague Twittersphere and fanbase alike.

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Move 1: Anthony Randolph and Dontaye Draper to Barcelona

Anthony Randolph and Dontaye Draper have been key members to this first-place Real Madrid squad. Considering the amount of money Real Madrid has to burn, adding these two basketball vets was a smart move in the off-season to build the depth of “Los Blancos” for the long, grueling Euroleague and ACB campaigns.

However, Randolph and Draper, two key members of Lokomotiv Kuban’s Final Four squad a year ago, have sort of taken a backseat in Madrid. While Randolph has been solid and regularly part of the starting lineup, he doesn’t have the fanfare of Felipe Reyes or Gustavo Ayon, and he also gets mixed in the shuffle with Trey Thompkins and Othello Hunter. Draper falls in the same category, as he falls in line behind not only Euroleague superstar Sergio Llull, but rising star Luka Doncic as well, who may be the next “tall point guard God” of the NBA in a few years. Thus, both Randolph and Draper, though important to “Los Blancos’” success, can be seen as a bit expendable simply because there is so much depth at their positions currently in Madrid.

On the other hand, Barcelona has been a mess in Georgios Bartzokas’ first season. Ante Tomic has proven to age poorly, and has struggled offensively and defensively against athletic and active post players. Joey Dorsey was a rebounding-only player who provided little, if anything, on the offensive end before he was eventually released. And at point guard, Barcelona has struggled to find any playmaking beyond Tyrese Rice. Not only would both Randolph and Draper have added more scoring, production and athleticism to this Barcelona team, but Bartzokas would have been able to properly utilize them on the offensive and defensive end, thanks to his experience coaching them in Kuban a year ago. Madrid would never ship two key players like Randolph and Draper to their “El Clasico” rivals, but it would have definitely invigorated the Euroleague and ACB fanbase to see Randolph, Draper and Bartzokas reunited this season in Catalan country.

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Move 2: Keith Langford to Zalgiris Kaunas

Zalgris Kaunas is still lingering in the playoff picture after a big win over Panathinaikos in Round 25. At 11-14 and in 10th position in the Euroleague standings, second year head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius (“Saras”) should be commended for maximizing the talent on this roster and having them compete against the best in Europe each and every week. There are some interesting and scrappy pieces on this team in post players Brock Motum, Augusto Lima, Edgaras Ulanovas and Paulius Jankunas as well as guards Leo Westermann, Kevin Pangos, and Arturas Milaknis. That being said, what has killed Zalgiris this year is the presence of a true scorer who can create his own offense on a consistent basis.

Keith Langford has been that player this year for Unics Kazan. He is averaging 22.2 ppg and leads the Euroleague in Index Rating as well at 22.74 per game (barely edging out reigning Euroleague MVP Nando de Colo of CSKA Moscow). And he is doing this for a second-to-last Unics team that has been ravaged by injury and currently sits at 7-18. Yes, Langford has fit in well for the Kazan-based club (which also participates in the VTB). But, his skills have gone to waste for a team that has fallen out of the race dramatically over the past 6-8 weeks.

The Lithuanian Zalgiris fanbase is one of most loyal and passionate groups in Europe, and Langford would fit in seamlessly into their basketball culture. The green faithful would appreciate his talents with sold-out crowds (not the case in Kazan, ) and multiple applauding cheers in his favor. In return, Langford would give Saras and the Zalgiris fans an experienced, competitive and multi-dimensional scorer who would be the missing piece to this tough Zalgiris team. With Langford, this team not only would have been a playoff team, but perhaps would have had some Final Four dark horse potential as well.

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Move 3: Alessandro Gentile to Brose Bamberg

This has been a rough year for the once promising Italian star. After a breakout 2014-2015 season with Olimpia Milano where he averaged 14.4 ppg in Lega Basket Serie A play, and 14.3 ppg during Milano’s 20-game Euroleague campaign, he has gone through a slow, sad fall in Europe. While he averaged 20 ppg in the Euroleague a season ago, Milano did not make it out of the first round of play. To make matters worse, Gentile underwhelmed in Serie A play, as he only scored 11.8 ppg, and shot 49.4 percent on 2-pt field goals and under 25 percent from beyond the arc.

2016-2017 proved to be a nightmare for the young Italian forward. Gentile struggled to mesh with fellow Milano teammates and staff on and off the court, as he only averaged 10.8 ppg in 9 Euroleague games, and 9.5 in 6 Serie A games before head coach Jasmin Repesa and Milano management cut ties due to the star’s difficulties on and off the court (he apparently did not get along well with Repesa). New Panathinaikos head coach Xavi Pascual took a flyer on him, hoping that Gentile would give the Athenian club some offensive firepower as well as improve the team’s depth in the frontcourt, lacking due to an injury to James Gist in the pre-season. Unfortunately, Gentile never seemed to gel with his Pana teammates or fit in Pascual’s offensive and defensive system. After averaging only 3.2 ppg in 9 games, Pana released Gentile, leaving his future next season in Europe and beyond in doubt.

Brose Bamberg has surprised in many ways this season, staying competitive in the Euroleague even though they don’t have the financial resources of other clubs in Europe. Much like Zalgiris or Crvena Zvezda, while they lack star power, they stay competitive due to excellent coaching and superb team chemistry. A lot of that can be credited to Italian head coach Andrea Trinchieri, who has helped Brose overachieve in the Euroleague in his tenure as head coach, and created a culture of winning in Bamberg (both in the Euroleague and BBL). If there is one coach who could connect to Gentile and help turn around his career, it would be Trinchieri (who is also a fellow Italian), who while a bit eccentric, always seems to get the most out of his players, and finds the right roles for them in his offensive and defensive system. Gentile, a free-wheeling scorer, would have brought much needed relief to this Bamberg team offensively, especially to Nicolo Melli, who has constantly been the focus of opposing defenses since mid-season. Of course, would there be a chance Gentile would implode in Germany like he did in Greece? Perhaps, but I think Trinchieri’s more “free-flowing” offense and personality would have meshed with the volatile Gentile better than the more rigid Pascual.

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.

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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.

Will Barcelona or Lokomotiv Take the Last Final Four Spot?

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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

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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

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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.

Final Verdict?

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.