CSKA and de Colo remind VTB (and doubters) that they’re arguably Europe’s best

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It was easy to forget about how dominant CSKA Moscow was this season, especially leading into the VTB Finals against Moscow rival Khimki.

After all, considering their 2015-2016 campaign included a Euroleague and VTB title, this season could be considered a disappointment. They finished second in the regular season, looked shaky against Baskonia in the playoffs (though they did sweep), and they finished 3rd in the Euroleague Final Four, losing to underdog Olympiacos in the semifinals. For a powerhouse like CSKA, those results just aren’t enough.

And then there were all the other stories. The Milos Teodosic leaving to the NBA rumors. The whether “Dimitris Itoudis will be back as head coach” rumors. The rumors of David Blatt coming to replace him. Khimki’s epic comeback against Zenit St. Petersburg in the semifinals. Khimki’s Alexey Shved winning the VTB Regular Season MVP award.

There seemed to be all kinds of indicators that this would be series, that maybe CSKA would run out of gas, and Khimki, qualifying for the Euroleague with their semifinal win, would build on the momentum they achieved from their victory over Zenit. Milos would be distracted. Nando wouldn’t be able to handle the load himself. Itoudis would fold under the pressure of being on the “hot seat”. These were all stories that I thought would make this CSKA-Khimki finals a close and competitive series. Even the promos got me pumped that Khimki had a puncher’s chance of pulling the upset.

(Yes, I have no idea what the words say; I am not literate in Russian unfortunately.)

And yet, CSKA just slapped me and other doubters back into reality three games later.


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This was not a series by any stretch of the imagination. This was complete and utter domination from start to finish. CSKA completed their 9-0 undefeated run through the VTB playoffs (they also swept Astana in the first round and then Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar in the semifinals) by beating Khimki by an average of 16.3 ppg. The combination of Aaron Jackson and Cory Higgins guarding Shved made the reigning VTB MVP a complete non-factor, as they limited him to 31 percent shooting from the field and a cumulative PIR of 23 for the series. It was the kind of performance that made the Golden State Warriors’ run in the NBA postseason look pedestrian in comparison.

While all the attention was on Shved and Teodosic, and for good reason, de Colo proved once again this VTB finals why he is one of the best guards in all of Europe. De Colo didn’t really impress in his tenure with the San Antonio Spurs, and there are always doubts amongst European basketball fans about the legitimacy of de Colo’s tenure so far with CSKA. Is he a MVP-caliber player because of or despite Teodosic? Some people will credit Teodosic’s big time shooting and playmaking as the reason why de Colo is successful: teams are more afraid of the Serbian wizard hurting them than the French guard.

De Colo bucked that theory in what was a magnificent series from beginning to end. In game 1, he scored 21 points, shot 57 percent from the field, put up an efficiency of 20 and had a +/- of 22. What is probably the most underrated aspect of de Colo’s game is his ability to draw fouls and get to the line. The 29-year-old guard did that in bunches in game 1, as he drew 7 fouls, and went 12-13 from the line. As for Teodosic? Well, he only scored 7 points and put up a PIR of 8 while shooting 25 percent from the field.

In game 2, Teodosic stepped up and his biggest game of the series, as Khimki actually made things close in the first half. He scored 23 points, on 8-of-11 shots from the field (73 percent), and posted a game-high PIR of 24. But once again, de Colo’s performance was also solid, as he scored 20 points, shot 7 of 13 from the field (54 percent), posted a PIR of 14, and drew a game high 6 fouls. While Milos got all the attention, you can see in the highlights below that de Colo did his share of damage in the series swinging game 2 win.

In the deciding game 3 CSKA victory, it was once again de Colo who shined brightest, as he scored 20 points, 6-of-12 from the field (50 percent), had 4 rebounds, 3 assists, put up a PIR of 19, and had a +/- of 34, a game high. Once again, Khimki threw all they could to stop the French national, whether it was Shved or Markel Brown or the “Russian Delly” Viacheslav Zaitcev, and yet it had no effect. De Colo proved once again that though he doesn’t have the personality or flair of teammate Teodosic, or perhaps even Khimki’s Shved, he’s the VTB’s best overall player, and there was no doubting that as he was awarded Final MVP during CSKA’s trophy raising ceremony on Khimki’s home turf.


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There were other stories worth talking about from this series for sure. Semen Antonov emerged as CSKA’s go to guy and leading minutes-man in the block as he put up 16 and 18 points in game 1 and 2, respectively. Aaron Jackson may have earned himself a bigger contract and role for another club in Europe for his efficient performance as well as shutting down Shved. Kyle Hines continued his streak of winning championships as a player, going back to his time with Olympiacos as well as Bamberg. And one has to wonder if Dusko Ivanovic and his ponytail will be back on the Khimki bench after going down so soundly in the VTB Finals.

And while it wasn’t the biggest story, one has to feel that Itoudis validated himself and his future as CSKA head coach. Itoudis, a disciple of Zeljko Obradovic (he was his top assistant when Obradovic was at Panathinaikos), has done nothing but succeed in his tenure with the “Russian Army” team. Three Euroleague Final Fours, three VTB titles, and a Euroleague championship. Yes, he does coach a club with the biggest budget in Europe (35 million Euros). However, big budgets don’t necessarily translate to automatic success. Real Madrid, who has the second-largest budget (27 million Euros), is in a dogfight with Valencia in the ACB Finals and was whooped by CSKA in the third-place game in the Euroleague Final Four. And Olimpia Milano had the sixth-biggest budget in the Euroleague (19 million Euros) and they finished in dead last in the Euroleague, and were bounced in the semi-finals of the Lega Basket Serie A playoffs.

The bottom line? Money helps, but you need the right coach to put it all together. Itoudis has done that in his three years in CSKA, and he should do that going forward as head man of CSKA in the next couple of years at least. And if CSKA decides to go “crazy owner” and let him go? Well, Itoudis will have his pick of the top jobs in Europe. And he will be successful, no doubt about it.

But even that Itoudis redemption story is secondary to de Colo. De Colo will be back in CSKA, and the roster will look a whole lot different for the most part. Jackson will probably be gone, as well as his running mate Teodosic. And yet, the CSKA train will keep humming. De Colo will keep making big time shots, getting to the line, and carrying this club to top-level success, even though we will try to think of ways to doubt him or lessen his accomplishments. Maybe we will say it’s “Itoudis’ coaching” or “Kyle Hines’ mentorship” next year as the reason why de Colo puts up another All-Euroleague campaign.

But let the highlights speak for themselves below…

Yep. It’s about time we put those doubts of de Colo as a superstar player in Europe back in our pockets where they belong.

And make sure they stay there for a good stretch of time…

Euroleague Final Four “NBA Prospect” Watch: Milos Teodosic

With the NBA Draft about a month away, and the NBA Draft Combine in full swing, many American basketball fans are going to pay attention to the Euroleague Final Four with this thought in mind: who are the best players in Europe who could potentially make their way to the NBA in a year or two?

Now, this is not a general look at the Euroleague and who could come to the NBA from the 16 Euroleague participants this season. Rather, this is a look at who the best four “Prospects” from the Final Four participants (CSKA, Olympiacos, Fenerbahce, and Real Madrid) who could be making their way to the states in the next couple of years. Because much like big performances in the NCAA Tournament could lead to inflated draft stock (look at Zach Collins of Gonzaga who went from “he’s going into 2018” to “2017 lottery pick due to his tournament performance), the same effect can happen to European players thanks to big Final Four performances.

Now, just a couple of points to explain how I came up with the best “prospects” from the Final Four squads:

  1. I didn’t include anyone who has played in the NBA before. So guys like Nando de Colo of CSKA, Ekpe Udoh of Fenerbahce and Anthony Randolph of Real Madrid were eliminated from consideration. Yes, it is possible that players who didn’t pan out in the NBA and go back to Europe can find some success (look at Sergio Rodriguez who got some good run with the Sixers this year), but I don’t consider them “prospects” by any means.
  2. I only selected one for each team. I wanted every club to be represented, so I selected the best “prospect” from each club, even though I’m sure you could make arguments for multiple guys from one team. (Fenerbahce and Olympiacos were prime examples, as they had a couple of guys from each team who could have made this list.)

Okay, let’s take a look at our first prospect in this four-post series:

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Milos Teodosic, CSKA

2016-2017 regular season stats: 27 gp, 28:23 MPG, 16.2 ppg, 7 apg, 17.4 PIR (average), 44.3 FG%, 37.5 3-PT FG%, 48.3 TS%, 1.12 P/FG.

2017 playoffs (3 games): 17 ppg, 5.7 apg, 17.3 PIR (average), 38.9 FG%, 35 3-Pt FG%, 47.2 TS%, 0.97 P/FG.

Why is Teodosic a NBA prospect?

Milos is one of the most dynamic players internationally who has not played a minute in the NBA. While he has always been a favorite among European basketball fan circles (i.e. “Euroleague Twitter”), his stock really blew up in last year’s Olympic games, where Teodosic stood out for his tremendous playmaking ability for the silver-medal winning Serbian squad. The flashy and colorful Serbian guard has not really showed much desire to play in the NBA until this season, as Teodosic has enjoyed the luster in Europe from winning multiple MVP and All-Euroleague team awards, not to mention being on the verge of a second-straight Euroleague title with CSKA. That being said, the 30-year-old guard is looking for a greater challenge to finish off his career, and the NBA really is the only spot where he can satisfy that need.

What kind of player will Teodosic be?

Teodosic is by no means a long-term project. Whoever acquires him will expect production and production immediately and in the short term. Considering his age, and the miles on his body from his years as a professional in Europe, Milos probably is looking at a 3-5 year career in the NBA depending on how successful he is. That being said, he is a talented player and a fierce competitor, and he has showed in International competition that he can excel against NBA players. If I were to compare him, I would say Teodosic probably projects to be a better Jose Calderon or Pablo Prigioni. He’s definitely more dynamic and a better shooter than those two, but Teodosic most likely is going to be a temporary stopgap for a NBA team, not a long-term solution. That’s why he’s generating so much interest from teams like the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings: he can be the starting point guard and keep the team productive and competitive, while also serving as a mentor to a young guard who will be expected to take over his mantle in two-to-three years.

What teams will/should he go to?

As stated before, Teodosic probably fits two kinds of situations:

1.) As a starting point guard, holding the mantle until a younger point guard can develop and adequately take the starting job.

2.) As a seventh-eighth man who can have big impact in the 2nd-3rd quarters for NBA teams’ second units.

I think Milos can excel in either role on any NBA squad, but I don’t think he will be okay with the latter role, which makes me think a team like the Nets or Kings will most likely sign him this off-season. I don’t think Milos leaves the stardom of Europe for a bench position in the NBA, hence the reason why hasn’t left the continent for the NBA thus far in his career. It’s “starting job” or “bust” for him, and he must feel like he has a good shot at a starting point position now, which is why it actually seems like him coming to the NBA could be reality and not just a rumor this time around.

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Will NBA fans like him?

Milos has a lot of personality, not just in terms of game, but in his appearance as well. It seems at times like Teodosic gives zero shits when it comes to his in-game look. He pretty much looks like a hobo at times, and the “I don’t want to be here” expression on his face all the time (both on and off the court) only seems to add to his aura as a underrated fan favorite in Euroleague Twitter world. But then the love grows even more when he starts dishing dimes and hitting treys. And any reservations you may have about his abilities are thrown out the window and you’re like “Wow! I was totally wrong about him.” NBA fans will either hate or love Milos depending on how they react to his “Don’t give a F” demeanor. I for one will love it, and I think most Millennial NBA fans will too. And hell, maybe some older NBA fans will gravitate toward him: After all, he will give 40-year-old rec league Dads something to shoot for when they play on Sunday nights.

Can I see some bomb highlights of him from this year?

What do you predict for Teodosic in 2018?

First off, I think CSKA is going to lose in their semi-final matchup against Olympiacos. This CSKA team has not been as strong as the Final Four squads the past few seasons, and I think their issues in the post will be exposed against Olympiacos. So, I know many basketball people and fans will think Milos will come back to Moscow in 2017-2018, unable to live with a loss in the Final Four after winning a Euroleague title in 2016.

Despite those Final Four results, I still believe that Milos will leave CSKA this summer and finally make his way to the NBA, where he will be signed by the Brooklyn Nets. As much as I want to see him on the Kings, (and they reportedly have the inside track due to his relationship with fellow Serbian Vlade Divac), I think the Kings are far too incompetent to actually sign an international player of Milos’ caliber. Believe me, as a Kings fan, nothing would excite me more than a Milos-Bogdan Bogdanovic guard combo cutting it up in the Golden 1 Center next season. But…sigh…they’ll just find a way to screw it up, and the Kings will re-sign Darren Collison or somebody of that caliber to the be the starting point guard.

I do think Milos will be a starter for the Nets as he battles with Jeremy Lin for the starting position on a 20-win Nets team in 2017-2018. He eventually will start more games than Lin because Lin will battle with injuries for a second-straight season. However, Hipster Nets fans will be instantly fall in love for “Hobo Steve Nash“, even though they will not lose their affinity for Lin and his crazy hipster hairstyles. Though fans will rally around Teodosic, his age and another lackluster season will make the Nets realize they need a more long-term solution at the point, and will make some kind of deadline trade in Februrary to gain more picks in the 2018 draft (with the hope that their 2018 pick will turn into Luka Doncic).

Ranking the field of the upcoming Euroleague Final Four

It’s been awhile since I have been able to post here on this blog, and I am rewatching the Euroleague playoffs this week to get myself reaquainted with the Euroleague (NBA Playoff season doesn’t help) as well as re-psyched up for the upcoming Euroleague Final Four. It could be the long layoff. It could be summer is approaching. Apologies for the long periods without posts or Tweets. Those who follow this blog should be used to it by now.

Anyways, we are almost a week away from the start of the Euroleague Final Four, one of the most underrated events in professional sports. Unlike the NBA, it’s single elimination, no best of five or sevens here. Win two games, and your team is the champion of Europe. Simple as that; no second chances until next year. For basketball fans who get numb to the postseason until the NBA Finals in June (especially this playoffs season, where it seems all but determined that we’re going to get a Warriors-Cavs rubber match), this kind of format is not only exciting, but a breath of fresh air. If you have not checked out the Euroleague Final Four before in years past, this may be the season to finally get acquainted with the Euroleague and European professional basketball scene.

In this quick preview, I am going to break down each of the four teams and rank them according to four categories:

  1. Talent
  2. Coaching
  3. Fan Attendance
  4. Intangibles

Okay, so let’s take a look at what the four clubs bring to the table when they arrive in Istanbul next week. While the field looks exactly like the one in 2015 in Madrid, the odds and outlook of the clubs is a lot different from the one which Real Madrid won in 2015.

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Olympiacos Piraeus

Talent: 4th of 4th

Olympiacos had the toughest road in the playoffs, as they were down 2-games to 1 to 6th seed Anadolu Efes going into Game 4 in Istanbul. However, thanks to the heroics of Vassilis Spanoulis, Olympiacos won two straight games, and punched their ticket to the Final Four, their fourth appearance in the last six seasons.

Unfortunately, this Olympiacos team may be the shakiest talent wise of the field. Olympiacos limped toward the finish, and as stated before, were on the brink of elimination until pulling off the huge road win in Istanbul in Game 4. The lone Greek representative relies heavily on the two-man combo of guard Spanoulis and forward Georgios Printezis, who earned first-team All-Euroleague honors this week. In the playoff series against Efes, Spanoulis averaged 17 ppg, 6 apg, and a PIR of 17.2, and his frontcourt mate Printezis, averaged 12.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg and a PIR of 14.8. Those two players were the only players for Olympiacos who hit the double digit PIR average mark for the club in the five-game series.

Olympiacos doesn’t have the best depth, but they did get some bounce back performances from post Khem Birch, who posted a PIR average of 8.4, and 6.2 ppg, 5 rpg, and 1.2 BPG in just under 18 MPG, and guard Erick Green, who averaged 10.2 ppg on 38.1 percent from beyond the arc. Both players were non-factors down the stretch in the regular season, and it was comforting for Olympiacos fans to see them appear again after being relative no-shows during late-March and early-April.

One advantage Olympiacos will have over CSKA is in the post with the trio of Printezis-Birch and center Nikola Milutinov, who averaged a team-high 1.4 bpg against Efes. Milutinov is not a scoring threat, but he adds depth to the Olympiacos front court, which will be tough for the thin CSKA frontcourt to handle in their semifinal matchup. Add that combo with the stretch four  and small ball possibilities with Kostas Papanikolaou, and this could be the factor which could propel Olympiacos to an upset victory and a return to the championship game.

Coaching: 4th of 4th

Ioannis Sfairopoulos is a solid coach, but he hasn’t won a Euroleague title as a head coach, which is something he’s missing in comparison to the other coaches in the field. Sfairopoulos puts an enormous trust in Spanoulis to run the offense, who can be a turnover machine on occasion. However, that trust does pay off, for even though Spanoulis can turn a game away, he can also win it with big plays and big shots in isolation. Sfairopoulos deserves some credit for creating a culture where that kind of freedom on offense from star players is not just allowed, but encouraged.

This ranking is less a dig on Sfairopoulos and more an indicator of how good the coaching will be in this Final Four. Perhaps, if Olympiacos can make an underdog run, I’ll feel silly for ranking Sfairopoulos so low initially.

Fan attendance: 2nd of 4th

Olympiacos fans typically travel well, and the fact that the Final Four is only 11 hours away bodes well for Olympiacos in terms of getting fan support. The only thing keeping them from being No. 1? Fenerbahce unfortunately. Thankfully for Olympiacos, they should have the fan advantage in their semi matchup with CSKA, meaning the Red and White don’t have to worry until the Championship game.

Intangibles: 2nd of 4th

They have Spanoulis. They have Printezis. They seem to have finally gotten to somewhat full strength after struggling with injuries during the last third of the season. And, Olympiacos this year has always seemed to rise up to the moment, which makes them terrifying in a single elimination tournament. They undoubtedly are the underdog going into the Final Four, but with their fan support and big-game experience (especially from Spanoulis and Printezis), they could surprise a lot of fans and experts Final Four weekend, especially considering they have the least to lose of the four teams.

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CSKA Moscow

Talent: 3rd of 4th

Depth-wise, CSKA and Olympiacos are close: Olympiacos has the edge in the frontcourt; CSKA out-does Olympiacos in the backcourt. Seriously. CSKA has two of the best guards in Europe in Nando de Colo and Milos Teodosic, and those two alone make me more confident in the Russian club in this matchup. But if you look at the CSKA perimeter a bit deeper, and it’s easy to forget how key Cory Higgins was in the playoffs against Baskonia, as he averaged 13.7 ppg on 60 percent shooting from beyond the arc in the sweep over the Basque club. Add the two-way versatility of Aaron Jackson, who averaged 8.3 ppg and 4 apg in the playoffs, and CSKA should prove to be a handful for the Greek representative.

The big issue will be if CSKA can handle Olympiacos’ physicality in the paint. They face a more “finesse” team in Baskonia in the playoffs, as their post players (mostly Johannes Voigtmann and Tornike Shengelia) hovered mostly in the mid-range. That won’t be the case in the Final Four, as Birch, Milutinov and Printezis can bang with the best in Europe. It will be interesting to see if James Augustine, Kyle Hines and Andrey Vorontsevich (and perhaps Victor Khryapa) will be able to hold their own against the Red and White frontcourt. If they do, that would go a long way in terms of helping CSKA repeat as Euroleague champions.

Coaching: 2nd of 4th

Dimitris Itoudis is a disciple of Zeljko Obradovic and it shows: he shares his mentor’s intensity and knack for full-court pressure defense. But, Itoudis is a bit more creative on the offensive end, as he prefers a perimeter based approach that constantly puts the ball in the hands of playmakers like Nando and Milos. While most would say Obradovic would do the same, I doubt Obradovic could tolerate the ups and downs of a player like Milos.

Itoudis is an outspoken leader (he called out the CSKA fans after lackluster attendance in the playoffs), connects well with his players (he has helped keep a team consistency throughout his tenure) and has proven himself at the Euroleague stage in his three seasons with the Moscow-based club (he is averaging 25 wins a year). Combine those intangibles with his basketball knowledge and acumen, and it’s easy to see why Itoudis ranks as the second-best coach of the Euroleague Final Four field.

Fan attendance: 4th of 4th

CSKA will have big name fans there. They will have the lower levels and courtside seats taken for. But in terms of overall fan attendance? Forget about it. CSKA is one of the best basketball clubs in Europe, with one of the most entertaining players in Europe (Milos) who’s most likely gone to the NBA next year (fingers crossed for the Kings). And yet, their home arena is nearly half-empty during the playoffs and is as quiet as an Orthodox church.

Yeah, don’t expect this team to be depending on the CSKA faithful next week.

Intangibles: 4th of 4th

I don’t feel like this CSKA team is going in with good momentum. Though they swept Baskonia, the Basque club had opportunities to win each game late in the fourth quarter. The frontcourt is going to have trouble against these other three teams who have tremendous depth in the post. Milos seems to have one foot out the door in terms of leaving Europe for the NBA, and I could see him having  a down Final Four with that weighing on his mind. And repeating as Euroleague champs is tough, and every non-CSKA fan coming to Istanbul (basically 95 percent of the fans in attendance) will be cheering for CSKA, the Goliath, to go down, whether it’s in the Semis or Finals.

Yes, CSKA has been a well-oiled machine all season long. But, in a one-game playoff against any of these clubs? Well…maybe against Olympiacos their odds are solid, simply because of their advantage in talent. But in the championship? Against Fenerbahce in front of their home fans (and looking for revenge)? Against the crazy depth of Real Madrid? The championship outlook for CSKA doesn’t appear so hot unfortunately.

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Real Madrid

Talent: 1st of 4th

This Real team is seriously like 13 deep. At point, they have the All-Euroleague first team Spaniard Sergio Llull (who may be the Euroleague Regular Season MVP as well). They also have a second-team All-Euroleague player in center Gustavo Ayon, who may not be even the most talented post player on their roster (I go with Anthony Randolph in that category). They have the biggest prospect in Europe, and the winner of the Rising Star award in Slovenian wing Luka Doncic. And they have veteran presence and experience on this roster with Rudy Fernandez and Felipe Reyes.

Let’s just be honest. Yes, there are a lot of good teams in the Euroleague. The four in the field really were the best four in Europe due to their talent, chemistry and depth. But when it comes to roster depth, size and versatility, Real tops them all. No question about it.

Coaching: 3rd of 4th

Pablo Laso is an accomplished coach. He has won multiple ACB titles, and won a Euroleague championship in 2015. But, like many coaches in Spain, he relies way too much on a deep rotation, even in the postseason. Playing 12-13 guys an even amount of minutes works in the Regular Season, especially when you’re juggling ACB (the best domestic league in Europe) and Euroleague competition. But the Euroleague Final Four is the pinnacle. Randolph needs to play big minutes. Llull needs to be on the floor. Doncic needs to be given rope. And yet, players will come out earlier than they should, because of this trend in Spain to play “more players” in the rotation.

Maybe Laso will adjust. But coaches are a creature of habit, and I have a hard time seeing such an adjustment from Laso, even in a single elimination format such as the Final Four.

Fan Support: 3rd of 4th

Real Madrid fans are loyal. They are definitely a top-5 fanbase in the ACB (I prefer Baskonia’s fans over Real’s, but they are at least better than El Clasico rivals Barcelona). But, while they do have their ultras and dedicated fans who chant all game, home contests tend to be more like NBA regular season affairs in Madrid. Fans cheer for big plays, but for the most part are pretty low key when the action dies down a bit. They would be akin to San Antonio Spurs fans or Los Angeles Lakers faithful. They recognize greatness, have their super loyal supporters, and can get loud when the game is on the line. But will they travel to Turkey? Will they be as crazy as the Red and White Ultras or Blue and Yellow Fener fans? That’s a lot harder to imagine.

Intangibles: 3rd of 4th

I really believe Real Madrid is the best team in Europe. If the Final Four was a seven-game series like the NBA playoffs, no question Madrid would be leaving Istanbul as champions of Europe. They are so fun to watch, have a roster that would probably finish better in the NBA than the Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns, and can beat opponents in so many ways on both ends of the court.

But, that game 2 loss to Dacka…I still can’t get over it. Real clearly was the better team than Dacka in that series (Dacka’ s offense basically consisted of Brad Wanamaker ISOs and Ante Zizic putbacks). This should have been the easiest sweep of the playoffs and yet Real still dropped one to the Turkish upstart and in Madrid nonetheless. That game has just scarred my excitement about Real’s title chances, and considering their first game will essentially be a true away game against Fener, it just seems tough for me to see Real build up any momentum this Final Four.

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Fenerbahce Istanbul

Talent: 2nd of 4th

Some people may think I’m crazy putting Fenerbahce over Olympiacos and CSKA here. “They finished fourth! How can you say their talent is better than Olympiacos or the defending champs?” Well…let’s take a look at a few things:

  • Fenerbahce dealt with injuries a lot this year. Nearly every key player to this team missed time at some point this year. If this team was fully healthy, they would have finished 1st or 2nd, most likely ahead of CSKA.
  • Bogdan Bogdanovic is the truth…case in point? He was voted a first team All-Euroleague player despite playing in only 20 regular season games. That’s respect. Plain and simple. (And he proved that with his straight up killer performances in OAKA in the playoffs against Panathinaikos, who was the hottest team in the Euroleague going into the playoffs.)
  • This team has great chemistry and can pick one another up when they slack. Jan Vesely has declined the past couple of years, and yet you don’t notice it because Ekpe Udoh has become perhaps the Euroleague’s best post player on both ends. Luigi Datome and Nikola Kalinic have been interchangeable combo forwards, capable of stretching opposing defenses (by playing small ball 4) and having big scoring outputs any given night. If Bogdanovic has an off night, Kostas Sloukas and Bobby Dixon can pick up the slack. This team just plays well with each other, and though they do not have Real’s depth, they probably have better chemistry on both ends when fully healthy, which they have been this postseason.

So yeah. There’s a lot of reasons to like Fenerbahce’s roster.

And of course…Bogdan Bogdanovic is the truth.

Coaching: 1st of 4th

Zeljko Obradovic has won 8…fucking…Euroleague championships. He has turned Fenerbahce into one of the true powerhouse clubs in Europe.

Yeah, there is no competition here. Let’s move on.

Fan support: 1st of 4th

The Canaries will be in full force for this Fenerbahce team in Istanbul. This is the dream scenario really: a Final Four appearance in their home city. These fans get lit already for Turkish BSL games. Banvit-Fenerbahce can get crazy with the ultras. A semifinal rematch against Real Madrid, who beat Fenerbahce in their first ever Final Four appearance in 2015? A possible rematch from the 2016 title game against CSKA?

This Istanbul Fenerbahce crowd will be beyond lit for the semi final (and hopefully championship) game. And that “lit-ness” is going to give Fenerbahce an advantage on the that no other team in the Final Four field will match…not by a longshot.

Intangibles: 1st of 4th

Fenerbahce seems to be a team of destiny. The Final Four being in Istanbul. The crazy last round which had them go from 7th to 4th. Bogdanovic going nuts in OAKA. Udoh making All-Euroleague first team with Bogdanovic. The chance to be the first Turkish club in Euroleague history to win a Euroleague championship (and do so in their home country). Playing in front of one the most rabid basketball fan bases in all of Europe.

Fenerbahce has so much going for them as they head into the Final Four. They are the favorites, even if they may not look so on paper. In all honesty, it would be a miracle of God to NOT see Obradovic and the Fenerbahce team at the podium at center court holding up the trophy and covered in blue and yellow confetti on May 21st.

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

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

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

Milos Teodosic

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

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

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

But the bad news for Baskonia? Look below

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

James Augustine

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

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

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

Adam Hanga

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

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

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

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

Shane Larkin

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

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

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

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

Toko Shengelia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can Baskonia return to the Final Four?

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

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

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

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

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

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Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv’s flaws starting to show…

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

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

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

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

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

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Real Madrid or CSKA Moscow? Look to Luka…

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

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

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

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

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Starting planning for next year…

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

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

Euroleague First Trimester Awards

With 10 rounds down, the Euroleague regular season is officially 1/3 completed. While there are still 20 rounds to go until the playoffs, and teams still have pending roster/coaching moves to make to either maintain, improve, or turn-around their postseason hopes, the landscape in European professional basketball’s premier league is starting to get clearer.

So, to recap these first 10 games of the “new and improved” (and it really is improved; I dig this 30-round, 16-team format way more than the old “24-team Regular Season” and “Top 16” split season format), I will be handing out awards and honors from the first 10 games of this season. Yes, I know it’s early, and I imagine that many of these awards/honors will change over the course of the next 20 games. That being said, it is still important to recognize the Euroleague teams and individual players and coaches who have succeeded (and disappointed) thus far.

Best Team: CSKA Moscow

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As always, the premier Russian club has handled high expectations almost flawlessly. Nando de Colo was having another “MVP-esque” season, averaging 21 ppg and a PIR of 23.2 until his thigh injury sidelined him after seven games. However, even though they lost the reigning Euroleague MVP, they haven’t missed a beat, as Milos Teodosic has taken the sole mantle of leadership in de Colo’s absence. The Serbian is averaging 18.7 ppg, 8.2 apg and a PIR of 19.6.

While CSKA however has been the best team thus far over the first 10 games of the Euroleague campaign, their title will be threatened quickly over the next 20 games. Not only is de Colo out for a good period of time (he was expected to miss “several weeks”), CSKA’s depth is not nearly as dangerous as their title squad a year ago. After de Colo and Teodosic, nobody else has a PIR average over 10 except for Jeff Ayres, who has only played four games. Furthermore, the defense has looked shaky as of late in de Colo’s absence, as CSKA needed a buzzer beater to bail them out against last-place Brose Baskets Bamberg in a 90-88 win. CSKA ranks 11th in the league in points allowed, and though that’s not necessarily the best indicator of defensive effectiveness, it still shows that they aren’t quite elite in that category in comparison to offense (they lead the league in points scored).

With de Colo’s health, and CSKA’s supporting cast around Milos and Nando shakier than in seasons past, it could open the door for Real Madrid, who actually has a better points differential (+95 to CSKA’s +91) despite a worse record (7-3 to CSKA’s 9-1). Real has incredible depth, especially in the post, as Gustavo Ayon, Felipe Reyes, Othello Hunter and Anthony Randolph all offer different yet impactful skills to the table. Furthermore Sergio Llull is putting up a MVP-worthy campaign as the primary point guard with Sergio Rodriguez now in Philly, and Luka Doncic is turning into a budding point-wing superstar (and remember he’s only 17 years old). CSKA may be the best team now after 10 games, but Real could steal that title after Round 20, perhaps even sooner.

Runner up: Real Madrid.

MVP: Milos Teodosic, CSKA

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These past three games with Nando out of the lineup proves how important and effective Teodosic is to this CSKA team. Yes, de Colo is an essential part to this CSKA squad, and as stated before, an MVP-caliber player. However, I don’t know if they finish 9-1 after 10 games if Teodosic and de Color reverse roles. Teodosic is simply the unquestioned leader of this team, and at the point, he has been able to maximize his teammates’ effectiveness on the floor in ways that I don’t think any other Euroleague player today could, de Colo included. His combination of floor vision and offensive ability make him one of Europe’s most valuable commodities, and a key reason why CSKA will be gunning for another Final Four spot, and perhaps a successful defense of their crown.

That being said, Sergio Llull has been surging as of late, being the kind of playmaking guard that could make Los Blancos a “super-team” by season’s end. Llull is second in the league in PPG at 18.9 and also has 6 apg and a PIR average of 18.1. And he did this despite starting off the year atrociously from beyond the arc (he has gotten it up as of late, but it is still lackluster at 29.4 percent). The Teodosic-Llull MVP race will be interesting to follow throughout the Regular Season, as whichever team finishes the season with a better record could swing the MVP award for their respective point guard superstar.

Runner up: Sergio Llull

Most Entertaining Player: Keith Langford, UNICS Kazan

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Russian club UNICS Kazan is probably going to finish near the bottom of the Euroleague by season’s end, (and their 3-7 start doesn’t help many people think differently). However, despite their lackluster outlook and record, as well as home court attendance (watching UNICS home games are depressing considering the amount of empty seats; it resembles a women’s community college basketball game crowd), they sport one of the Euroleague’s most entertaining players in Keith Langford. The former Kansas Jayhawk leads the league in scoring average (23.2) and PIR average (24.2). And he is far from a one-trick pony, as he is also averaging 4.1 rebounds per game and 4.2 assists per game.

Plain and simple: the lefty scorer can do it all, and is not just key, but really the reason for any success UNICS has experienced and will experience this season. There won’t be a lot of highs this year for UNICS. Their appearance this season has all the signs of a “one and done” Euroleague team. That being said, the spectacular Langford makes this team somewhat competitive and worth watching on a week-by-week basis.

Runners up: Milos Teodosic, CSKA; Nicolo Melli, Brose Baskets Bamberg.

Best Coach: Sito Alonso, Baskonia

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Yes, Dimitris Itoudis and Pablo Lasso deserve credit for making CSKA and Real Madrid, respectively, the best two teams in Europe. And yes, after the top-three teams (Fenerbahce being the third), it’s a crapshoot four-through-nine. However, while they are 6-4 and are still a bit unpredictable, Baskonia has been a pleasant surprise this season. And new head coach Sito Alonso deserves a lot of credit for making Baskonia a playoff contender thus far.

Remember what happened to the Final Four squad this offseason: They lost Darius Adams to China; Davis Bertans to the NBA; and Mike James and Euroleague MVP-runner up Ioannis Bourousis to Panathinaikos. Though they were able to keep Adam Hanga from the NBA (the Spurs own his rights) and ACB rival Barcelona, they replaced their core 2015-2016 roster with a lot of question marks, including former NBA players such as Andrea Bargnani and Shane Larkin, and Johannes Voigtmann, who was playing for Fraport in the FIBA Europe Cup, a third-tier club competition, a year ago.

However, Voigtmann and Larkin have been revelations, and though his minutes and impact is limited to preserve his health, Bargnani has also been effective as well. A lot of credit should go to Alonso, who has been able to create an offensive and defensive system that has not only gotten the most out of Baskonia’s new acquisitions, but also the mainstays from previous seasons. This is a different team from last year’s squad, but they have been effective because Alonso hasn’t tried to mold them into last year’s team either, which is a pitfall of many teams who experience success the previous season. Alonso has long been considered one of the brightest young coaches in the European club scene considering his junior national team success with Spain as well as head coaching experience with Dominion Bilbao and Joventut. However, if he continues to build upon the strong Euroleague start, his stock will be even higher than before by year’s end.

Honorable mention goes to Rami Hadar, who has done a sterling job after Erez Edelstein was fired after two games. Maccabi Fox is a flawed roster, with a lot of egos and not a lot of depth in the frontcourt. However, Hadar has adopted a full-court, push-the-tempo, small-ball philosophy that has helped Maccabi go 5-3 under his tenure thus far. However, as strong as Hadar’s start has been, it still is just a shade below in impressiveness in comparison to Alonso, who has outperformed expectations with this roster thus far.

Runner up: Rami Hadar, Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv

Most Surprising Player: Johannes Voigtmann, Baskonia

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To stay on the Baskonia bandwagon, Voigtmann probably has been the biggest surprise thus far in the Euroleague. Voigtmann played last season for the Fraport Skyliners, and his signing earned a lot less publicity than fellow center Bargnani, a former No. 1 NBA Draft pick who played for the Toronto Raptors, New York Knicks, and most recently the Brooklyn Nets. However, Voigtmann has proven to be the more effective replacement to Bourousis this season.

In nearly 25 mpg, Voigtmann is averaging 12.3 ppg and 7.3 ppg with a PIR of 17.8 (his total PIR is seventh-best in the Euroleague). He is shooting 68.8 percent on 2-pt FG, 42.3 percent on threes, and 78.8 percent from the line. Plain and simple: not many bigs this year have been as effective and efficient on the floor as Voigtmann this year. The pick and roll combo of him and Larkin (who is 13th in the league in PIR) will continue to give opposing Euroleague (and ACB) squads trouble over the next 20 games (as long as they stay healthy of course).

Some other surprise names for consideration are Nicolo Melli of Brose Baskets, who is third in PIR, and Derrick Brown of Anadolu Efes, who is fourth in PIR. However, both teams are not as good as Baskonia (though Efes is surging), and both weren’t as under-the-radar as Voigtmann (both played for their current squads a year ago).

Runners up: Melli and Brown.

Most Surprising Team: Anadolu Efes

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After starting 0-3, Efes is suddenly 5-5, coming off a big win on the road in Tel Aviv against Maccabi Fox. What makes this so surprising is Efes went kind-of-under the radar this offseason. Yes, they did hire Velimir Perasovic as head coach, who was coming off a final four appearance with Baskonia. But roster-wise what they did was tame in comparison to their Turkish rivals. Fenerbahce returned pretty much their whole squad from their Championship runner-up season, and Darussafaka and Galatasaray both signed many American players (Brad Wanamaker and James Anderson for Darussafaka; Russ Smith, Austin Daye, Jon Diebler, Alex Tyus, and Justin Dentmon for Galatasaray) who were expected to have a major impact on their respective teams. Add that with the loss of Dario Saric to the 76ers of the NBA, who had been Efes’ star player the past couple of years, and it appeared that Efes was on their way to being the fourth-best Turkish club in the Euroleague.

However, Efes, despite their winless start, has been surging. Derrick Brown has been one of the Euroleague’s best players (4th in PIR), and they also have gotten incredible impact from Tyler Honeycutt (11th in PIR), Bryant Dunston (16th in PIR), Thomas Huertel (53rd in PIR) and Cedi Osman (54th in PIR). There is some serious depth on this Efes roster, and Perasovic has proven that he may be one of Europe’s best coaches. Many people credited Baskonia’s success more to Bourousis rather than Perasovic a year ago. However, a year later, Perasovic has this Efes roster coming together, while Bourousis is struggling to have any kind of impact with Panathinaikos.

Yes, Efes is in the middle of the pack now, but Efes, with their combination of length and athleticism and offensive and defensive effectiveness, could be rising to the top not just by the end of the year, but by the end of round 20, the 2/3 mark of the season. And it wouldn’t be surprising to see Efes be challenging Fenerbahce for the title of the best “Turkish” club in the Euroleague by that point either, especially considering Bogdan Bogdanovic’s injury issues.

Most Disappointing Coach: Georgios Bartzokas, Barcelona

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I figured Bartzokas to be an interesting pick, considering he coached a mid-tier team in Lokomotiv Kuban (though he did take them to the Final Four) and didn’t have any experience coaching in Spain. However, I thought his recent Euroleague success, and the additions of Victor Claver from Loko and Tyrese Rice from Khimki Moscow, and the re-signing of Joey Dorsey would give Bartzokas a solid foundation to build a successful team in his debut year.

Well, Barcelona is still competitive, as they are 5-5 and coming off a much-needed win at home over Panathinaikos. However, Bartzokas has really struggled to find any kind of consistency and chemistry with this Barcelona squad thus far. Yes, Barcelona has been effective defensively, as they have allowed the least amount of points in the Euroleague this year. That being said, defense was always Bartzokas’ strong suit (his Loko team last year was one of the most effective defensive teams in the Euroleague). Offense was the question mark with him, and unfortunately, that question remains unanswered. Despite their low points allowed total, their point differential is -31, a sign that the defense may be a product of a slow pace to go along with their glaring issues when it comes to scoring the basketball. Considering that mark is the third-worst in the Euroleague, Bartzokas needs to make some adjustments if he wants Barcelona to be seen as a serious Final Four contender.

Granted, Barcelona has experienced a lot of bad breaks. Juan Carlos Navarro, Pau Ribas, Claver, and Justin Doellman have all missed significant time due to injury, and considering Bartzokas gives a lot of freedom to his players to create on the offensive end (he relied heavily on isolation plays and the pick and roll from Malcolm Delaney and post players Chris Singleton and Anthony Randolph), the lack of major talent on the floor s been a hurdle. That being said, Tyrese Rice has been solid this year (15.81 PIR), and he is the kind of dynamic guard that Bartzokas utilizes well (as he did with Delaney and Dontaye Draper a year ago). It will be interesting to see if Bartzokas will rely even more on Rice going forward, especially if he starts to feel the hot seat more as the season progresses.

Runner up: Ergin Ataman, Galatasaray

Most Disappointing Player and Team: Ioannis Bourousis and Panathinaikos

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I understood that Bourousis would probably regress and not duplicate the kind of MVP-season that he had last year with Baskonia. After all, that team really found lightning in a bottle, especially in Euroleague play.

Nonetheless, Bourousis has seriously regressed. In 2015-2016, Bourousis averaged 14.5 ppg and 8.7 rpg on 55 percent shooting from 2-pt FG, 38.3 percent from beyond the arc, and 81.1 percent from the line. This year? 8.9 ppg, 5 rpg, 42 percent 2pt FG percentage, 25 percent from beyond the arc, and 72.7 percent from the line. Last year, Bourouis was second in the league in total index rating. This year, Bourousis is tied for 54th in total index rating.

And honestly, Bourousis’ regression has been a bit of a microcosm of Panathinaikos’ team this year. Other than Nick Calathes, who has really bounced back after an off-year last season, (he is 8th in the league in index rating), and Chris Singleton (who has proved that he was as every bit important to that Loko team last year as Randolph), Panathinaikos has just struggled to mesh on the court, especially on the offensive end. Mike James, also from Baskonia, has struggled with injury as well as ineffectiveness, and KC Rivers hasn’t offered much else on the floor beyond points. Add that with injury to James Gist and inconsistency from James Feldeine and Demetrius Nichols (as well as others), Panathinaikos has been the personified mediocre. Considering the amount of money this organization spent this summer, that kind of title is not necessarily a badge of honor.

Yes, Pana may be on the upswing after making a coaching change early in the year (Argyris Pedoulakis and his lack of ability to coach an offense finally caught up to him). But, I am not sure if Xavi Pascual, the former Barcelona coach, is necessarily the right fit for this team. They have players who do well in free-flowing offenses (such as Calathes, Singleton and Bourousis), and Pascual is known for a heavily-structured attack, featuring lots of set plays. Already, we can see the struggles initially, as Pana and Pascual are trying to find the right balance and where to compromise on the offensive end (especially in Pascual’s case). Furthermore, much like Bartzokas in Spain, Pascual has little to no experience in professional basketball in Greece, let alone outside of Spain. Yes, Pascual is a big name with a lot of victories, but can he make the adjustment to the culture of not only the organization, but the faithful Athens fans? Bartzokas is going through his growing pains, and it’s showing that Pascual is going through his own as well.

The big question is if Pana will be patient enough to see it out with Pascual. Considering the expectations placed on this squad at the start of the year, and rival Olympiacos’ recent successes over them in Euroleague and domestic play, I guarantee that Pana management won’t have thick skin with Pascual or this team if serious progress isn’t shown in the next 10-15 games.

The fact that Pana is at this point of desperation and panic is disappointing, because I figured Pana to be one of the more enjoyable teams in the Euroleague this year, especially after they acquired a rejuvenated Bourousis. Instead, they have seemed to be one of the more dysfunctional ones both roster and coaching wise.

Runner up: James Anderson, Darussafaka (player); Galatasaray (team).

Nando de Colo Returning is Good News for CSKA Moscow and European Basketball

Nando de Colo was key in CSKA Moscow’s Euroleague title game victory over Fenerbahce, and he will be key to a repeat in 2016-2017.

The eighth time was the charm for CSKA Moscow in 2016, as CSKA finally sealed the deal and won the Euroleague championship after eight straight appearances in the Final Four since their last championship in 2008 under former coach Ettore Messina (now with the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant). And though it is early in the off-season, CSKA once again is loading up their roster and making key moves, aiming once again to make the Euroleague Final Four in 2016-2017 (they have made it every to the Final Four every year since 2001).

No other Euroleague team, with the exception of maybe Maccabi Tel Aviv, has been as active in acquiring and re-signing talent this early in the off-season as CSKA. They re-signed role players such as Ivan Lazarev and sharpshooter Vitaliy Fridzon to bolster their bench, and they also signed power forward Semen Antonov from Nizhny Novgorod to help add some depth in the post. Add that with re-signing of captain and veteran Victor Khryapa, as well as swing man Cory Higgins, who averaged 9.2 ppg in Euroleague play and shot over 50 percent from beyond the arc, and CSKA could have been satisfied with their roster composition for 2016-2017 and considered themselves done for the remainder of the off-season or for a least a good amount of time.

However, they pushed it up a notch and also re-signed Euroleague and Final Four MVP as well as VTB League MVP Nando de Colo to a 3-year extension.

And with that move, the chances of other Euroleague teams knocking CSKA Moscow from the top of the Euroleague just got a whole lot dimmer.

Despite some interest from some NBA teams, Nando de Colo re-signed with CSKA for 3 more years.

It was interesting how CSKA was able to re-sign their star point guard so quickly in the off-season, let alone to a 3-year extension. After two successful seasons with CSKA, which culminated in multiple MVP awards both in inter-continental as well as domestic play, there was some consensus that de Colo would try it again in the NBA, as some NBA teams, including the Brooklyn Nets, were interested in him at least coming out to Summer League to display how his talents have grown since he went back to Europe. De Colo was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 2009, but he instead signed and played with Valencia Basket for three seasons before coming to the States. When he did come to the NBA, he played two seasons with the Spurs and a season with the Toronto Raptors before signing with CSKA Moscow after the 2014 season.

There was some incentive for de Colo to come back to America: he is only 28 years old, still relatively young and in the prime of his career, and he is coming off his best European campaign yet. In VTB play, he helped CSKA cruise to another league title, this time over Unics, as he averaged 16.6 ppg, 4.6 apg and 3.0 rpg while playing 22.6 mpg and shooting 54.9 percent from the field and 39 percent from beyond the arc. However, his Euroleague play is what attracted the attentions of so many American scouts and general managers: he averaged 19.4 ppg, 5.0 apg, and 3.6 rpg while playing 27.2 mpg and shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 46 percent from beyond the arc. While CSKA was also loaded with other key contributors like athletic center Kyle Hines and wizard combo guard Milos Teodosic, the numbers above show not only why CSKA went 24-5 overall in Euroleague play and won the Euroleague championship, but why de Colo also made All-Euroleague first team in addition to his Euroleague and Final Four MVP awards.

Add that incredible year, as well as a more openness to acquiring and playing international players by most NBA teams (especially after the breakout of Kristaps Prozingis last season in New York), and de Colo seemed to be in the perfect situation to at least test the waters in the United States. However, whether it was CSKA’s offer, the chance to repeat as Euroleague champs, or the lack of attractive NBA destinations, de Colo not only will be back at CSKA next year, but for the next three seasons as well.

And while that may be disappointing to some NBA fans who wanted to see the French point guard get a better opportunity the second-time around in the NBA, his return should bolster the Euroleague overall next season. De Colo is a fascinating and exciting player to watch. At 6’5, he has the shooting acumen of a shooting guard, but he can create off the dribble not just for himself, but for his teammates as well like any sound point guard. And with his size advantage, de Colo is able to post up smaller point guards and take advantage in the post, which was the case many times last year, as there aren’t many point guards in the Euroleague (or in Europe in general) that have the combo of size and speed to match up with de Colo.

If there are any doubts about de Colo’s impact and his ability to come through on the big stage, reference his performance in the Final Four, as de Colo proved to be a nightmare for opposing teams en route to the championship. In the semi-final, CSKA and de Colo faced Russian rival Lokomotiv, who only allowed 100.2 points per 100 possessions, which was second best in the league by only .1 point. What did de Colo do? He scored 30 points on 11 of 18 shooting, and also had 4 assists as well. Take a look at his performance in the highlights below.

And de Colo wasn’t finished that weekend either. In the championship game, CSKA faced Fenerbahce, who had the best defensive rating in the Euroleague last year at 100.1. (Remember, just .1 better than Loko!) And though de Colo was facing a tough, defensive Fenerbahce club, a seasoned coach who had won countless Euroleague titles before in Zeljiko Obradovic, and a well-traveled fan base from Turkey that packed the title venue in Berlin, de Colo didn’t miss a beat. The 28-year-old French national scored a team-high 22 points and had 7 assists and three steals in the 101-96 overtime victory. And though he and CSKA had some waves of inconsistency, de Colo came through when it counted in crunch time, as evidenced in the video of his performance below:

Is de Colo the best player in Europe? Right now, the argument is very tough to prove that he isn’t as of this moment. Yes, you could argue Ioannis Bourousis of Baskonia (Laboral Kutxa) probably has the most impact to his team, as Bourousis’ combo of post scoring, rebounding and leadership was a key reason why Baskonia made the Final Four. You could also argue that teammate Teodosic might be the most entertaining player, even if he doesn’t have de Colo’s consistency. And lastly, you could argue that Quincy Miller, who will be with Maccabi next season, has the potential to be the most dynamic player in the Euroleague next year, not only terms of scoring, but defense and athleticism as well. He was crucial to Crvena Zvzeda’s success last year, and being with a bigger club and around more talent in Maccabi could put him in the discussion of the best players in the Euroleague next year.

However, until it is proven otherwise, it is de Colo’s title to lose in 2016-2017 when it comes to who is “the best current player in Europe.” And that makes CSKA so scary next year. The idea of Teodosic and de Colo once again terrorizing opposing defense on the perimeter is going to be beautiful and entertaining for Euroleague fans to watch, and harrowing for opposing coaches who will be game-planning to try and stop that combination. And de Colo is just the tip of the iceberg: his ability to score and dominate opens things up for the other players. One of the reasons Hines was so successful was that he was able to finish baskets on put backs or off of easy passes because there was so much attention on de Colo and Teodosic. Would Hines have had the kind of big-time year, despite being under-sized as a center, if it weren’t for de Colo? Perhaps, but it would have been a lot harder to imagine.

The Euroleague once again will be competitive next year. Fenerbahce will be a strong team again if they retain a lot of their talent, and they undoubtedly will add some more unexpected pieces (like Ekpe Udoh last year). Anadolu Efes will be a much better squad next year with new head coach Velimir Perasovic coming over from Baskonia, (even though the future of Dario Saric is in doubt). Maccabi improved their roster and also got a new head coach in Erez Edelstein, and I expect that Greek powers Olympiacos and Panathinaikos will be much improved after disappointing Euroleague seasons.

However, CSKA is the team to beat and de Colo is the reason why. The 28-year-old reigning Euroleague MVP is so key to CSKA’s success and the fact that CSKA was able to re-sign him to three more years shows what kind of lengths financially the Russian power will go to keep their top place in the European basketball scene.

And even if you aren’t a CSKA fan, de Colo coming back is great for European basketball. It shows how far European basketball has come, and that being the best player in Europe is a title worth staying for and worth building upon when it comes to basketball legacy. Success in the NBA isn’t the only indicator of professional basketball success, and perhaps that is what de Colo is trying to do: show that being a legend in Europe is quite a title to have, and that you don’t need to be another Dirk or Tony Parker to validate your existence as a European basketball player.

I applaud de Colo for his decision, and I look forward to seeing him and Teodosic continue to tantalize basketball fans, and tear opposing guards up in the Euroleague next season.