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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
The Euroleague’s switch this season to the new 16-team, 30-round Regular Season format, in my opinion, has been a resounding success. The continuity of the same teams competing, and same general week-to-week schedule has not only helped Euroleague teams and players gain familiarity with worldwide basketball fans (especially American ones who are just getting acquainted with the European game), but it also has helped the product on the court: teams can prepare better knowing exactly what their schedule is until the end of the Regular season in early April.
Now, we are in Round 30, the last game of the regular season. Many Euroleague purists who didn’t support the new format worried that the last few weeks may be worthless, especially if the competition was too top heavy, as has been the case in years past. However, Round 30 will prove to be a crucial week for a majority of the Euroleague squads, as playoff positioning, as well as the remaining 8th spot will all be on the line April 6th-7th.
And if that’s not enough, a Eurocup champion (and hence ,automatic Euroleague berth for 2017-2018) will be determined as well on April 5th. This is a huge week in European basketball, and it will be tough as a fan to navigate through it (after all, no one wants to be late to big news, though as an American, it happens to me quite frequently).
Thankfully, here’s a guide of what to know, what games to watch, and what to watch for during this incredibly important week for basketball in the European continent.
April 5th-Eurocup Championship Round 3
Who punches their Euroleague ticket?: Valencia Basket vs. Unicaja Malaga
Both teams have held serve in this All-ACB Liga Endesa final, as Valencia took the first game in Valencia, thanks to a 14 point, 8-rebound performance by center Bojan Dubljevic, who also hit a dagger 3-pointer with 31 seconds left to clinch a 68-62 win. With a chance to clinch the title and win a record fourth Eurocup championship, Valencia fell short, as the rabid Malaga fans, a 22-point performance by Jamar Smith, and a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double by Alen Omic helped Unicaja pull out game two in a 79-71 win.
Both teams have been extremely good at home, as both teams also went undefeated at home in the semifinal rounds as well. With that being the case, the advantage appears to be in favor of Valencia, who not only has the homecourt advantage, but the Eurocup championship experience that Unicaja sorely lacks (this is their first year in the Eurocup after being a long-standing participant in the Euroleague previously).
The player to watch in this game may be Fernando San Emeterio, who has not had a strong Finals after playing well in the previous rounds of the playoffs, especially in the semifinals against Hapoel Jerusalem, where he had two games with a PIR over 20 (both at home). In game 1, San Emeterio only scored 4 points on 2 of 5 shooting for a PIR of 4. In game 2, even though the points went up (he scored 9), it was an extremely inefficient game for the Spanish veteran, as he shot 2 of 10 from the field (1-of-6 from three point land), and posted a PIR of 1. San Emeterio has had a big home game every round of the playoffs so far (in the Quarterfinals against Khimki, he had 17 points, 8 rebounds and a PIR of 29 in game 1 at Valencia). If he can produce that in game 3, Valencia’s fourth Eurocup championship is as good as sealed. That being said, if Unicaja can neutralize him for a third-straight game with the combo of Jeff Brooks and Adam Waczynski, then Unicaja could pull off the game 3 upset, and their first Eurocup championship.
April 6th-Euroleague Round 30 games
Watch it on replay: Brose Bamberg vs. Galatasaray Odeabank
What if Brose hadn’t lost so many close games this year? What if Galatasaray could play any semblance of defense? Both teams have showed flashes of being a postseason threat, but unfortunately for them and their fans, they often fell short this season. This should be an exciting game, not to mention a high-scoring one. However, both teams were out of the playoff picture weeks ago. If you have the time, watch this one on replay, as it may have a chance to break the 100 point mark for both teams. Bamberg post savant Nicolo Melli should have a field day against the Galatasaray frontcourt, which has been inconsistent all year on the defensive and rebounding end.
Worth watching sporadically: Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv vs. Panathinaikos
Maccabi is trying to avoid the 20-loss mark and salvage something of what has been an extremely dysfunctional and disappointing season thanks to multiple coaching and roster changes. While this game may not mean anything in terms of postseason, a big win over the heavily favored Athenian club good be good momentum for Maccabi in the Winner League as well as next season (proving that they still deserve an A license despite two sub-par years). To Maccabi’s credit, Ainars Bagatskis has done a decent job, getting the most out of a less-heralded roster (such as Gal Mekel and Joe Alexander) and making Maccabi tough competition on a round-by-round basis. Sylven Landesberg has especially thrived under Bagatskis, which makes one wonder how Maccabi would have done this year had they relied on him instead of flameout Sonny Weems and the injury-ridden Quincy Miller.
An interesting dilemma: Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz vs. Zalgiris Kaunas
Baskonia is looking for a win in their home Euroleague Regular Season finale, as this game could determine their playoff position, which could range from 5th-to-8th depending on whether the Basque clubs wins or loses, and what else happens in the other games. What’s interesting is if Baskonia beats Zalgiris, and gets the fifth spot, that would mean a matchup with Pana, who swept Baskonia during the Regular Season, including two weeks ago, where Pana absolutely shut down Baskonia’s offense 72-63 in Vitoria. It may be tempting for Baskonia to “tank” this game against Zalgiris, especially since Baskonia has split with CSKA and Real Madrid in the Euroleague this year (they also got swept by Olympiacos, so they might want to avoid the sixth spot as well).
Baskonia on paper is better than Zalgiris, as Baskonia will have distinct advantages at the point guard position (thanks to Shane Larkin) as well as in the frontcourt, where Toko Shengelia has been a key cog in Baskonia’s late-season resurgence. However, Baskonia’s desire to get out of matchups with Pana and Olympiacos (5th and 6th), as well as Zalgiris head coach Sara Jasikevicius’ subtle auditioning for a more high-profile coaching job next season (Barcelona seems to be the one most talked about as a destination for Saras) could factor in a potential upset at Fernando Buesa Arena on Thursday. It may be the fan in me over-thinking it, and I can’t imagine head coach Sito Alonso will want to lose the last game of the year going into the playoffs.
But hey, you never know…perhaps the Gregg Popovich “resting” players strategy of the NBA could pop up in Round 30 in Vitoria.
Meltdown in Istanbul?: Fenerbahce vs. Barcelona
If Fenerbahce loses, it’s entirely possible that they could get the 8th seed in the playoffs. Yes, that’s right. This club was one basket away from a Euroleague championship a year ago, and was widely heralded as the favorites to return to the Final Four and win it with it being hosted in Istanbul. Now, it’s plausible that Fenerbahce could be entrenched in a brutal first round matchup with Real Madrid, the Euroleague’s top seed.
It’s amazing how head coach Zeljko Obradovic has not killed someone from Fenerbahce this year (maybe he has and we just don’t know). This year has been a perfect storm against Turkey’s premiere club: Bogdan Bogdanovic and Luigi Datome have all been injured down the stretch and missed time; former All-Euroleague player Jan Vesely has declined significantly; they have some questionable losses, including getting swept by Darussafaka in Euroleague play. Other than Ekpe Udoh (who has put in a MVP case of his own), and Bogdanovic (when healthy), Obradovic has struggled to get any consistent productivity from his club that entered the season as heavy Final Four favorites.
On paper, Fenerbahce should take care of things against Barcelona in Round 30. Barcelona has gone through it’s own horrendous season, plagued by injuries and down seasons by key players (Ante Tomic being the main culprit). Barcelona is 12-17, and it’s already been widely rumored that there is going to be significant changes roster and coaching-wise this off-season. In many ways, this Barcelona team is a dead-man walking, which should be a softball for a Fener team looking to get some momentum heading into the postseason.
Will Barca win one for Georgios Bartzokas in what could be his Euroleague finale with the Catalan club? Obradovic and the Fenerbahce players and fanbase certainly hope not.
April 7th-Round 30 of the Euroleague
Probably don’t bother: Olimpia Milano vs. UNICS Kazan
It’s a battle to see who avoids the Euroleague cellar. After flirting with competitiveness in the middle of the season UNICS has lost 12 Euroleague games in a row. Without an A license and after a subpar showing this year, they are probably destined back for the Eurocup, unless they can rally in VTB play. Other than Keith Langford challenging for the Euroleague scoring title, and head coach Evgeny Pashutin’s turned up talks to his team, there really hasn’t been any reason to pay much attention to this team during the last third of the season.
The same can be said of Jasmin Repesa and his Milano squad. They are playing hard despite being out of the playoff pictures weeks ago, and they are doing well enough in Italian League play that they will probably be back in the Euroleague in 2017-2018. Furthermore, fellow countryman Andrea Cinciarini has been worth watching during this end-of-the-year stretch, highlighted by his 17 point performance in a 88-84 win over Zalgiris last week which ended a 13-game losing streak in Kaunas. But neither of those reasons, much like the UNICS one above, should merit this game as worth watching, be it live or replay.
The great, but nothing to gain or lose matchup: CSKA Moscow vs. Olympiacos
CSKA’s home finale in Moscow will certainly be a challenge: this could be a potential Final Four or Championship game matchup. All season long, these two clubs have been the two of the best three teams (along with Real Madrid) and it seems fitting that they will play in a mega-matchup which will be April 6th’s Game of the Day.
Unfortunately, neither CSKA or Olympiacos has anything to gain in this Round 30 game. Real Madrid clinched the No. 1 spot after a win over Fenerbahce last week, and Olympiacos can’t go any higher or lower than their No. 3 spot. Olympiacos could use the week to rest players, especially considering key players such as Vassilis Spanoulis, Georgios Printezis and Matt Lojeski have had various injury issues throughout the season. CSKA could also benefit from such a strategy, as head coach Dimitris Itoudis may want to make sure his combo of Nando de Colo and Milos Teodosic is 100 percent by Game 1 of the Playoffs.
Nonetheless, I think this will be a competitive game, as both teams are looking to bounce back after losses the previous week, and do not want to enter the playoffs on losing streaks. That may be enough to at least force both CSKA and Olympiacos to play their full rosters (momentum going into the postseason is always huge), which should produce a highly entertaining game between the Euroleague’s two premiere clubs.
Efes Strikes Back?: Real Madrid vs. Anadolu Efes
After a 19-point Round 25 loss in Istanbul to Brose Bamberg, many Euroleague fans wondered if Anadolu Efes was going to even make the playoffs. They were 13-12, and had a tough four-game schedule down the stretch that included a road game in Kaunas against Zalgiris (who at the time was also competing for the 8th spot), a home game against Fenerbahce (which isn’t really a home game), a home game against Olympiacos, and a road game against Real Madrid in the season finale. It seemed entirely plausible that Efes could have gone 0-4, and missed the playoffs for a second straight season.
Instead, since the Bamberg loss, Efes has gone 4-0, winning the first three out of their “death stretch”, with a chance to win all of them in the season finale. Efes is now 17-12, and not only have they clinched a playoff spot, but they are also shooting for a chance at the fifth position, which would match them up with Pana, whom they have split with this season. Efes has plenty of weapons, with Derrick Brown as an inside-outside frontcourt threat, and Bryan Dunston controlling things down in the paint. But the biggest resurgence has been at the point guard position, as Jayson Granger put up his best performances of the year during the final double week of the season, helping Efes clinch their playoff ticket thanks to an incredible 25 point performance in Kaunas, and then following it up with a 13-point, 5 assist performance against derby rival Fenerbahce. And what’s amazing is that despite Granger’s presence, he is not even the best point guard on the team, as Thomas Huertel from France has carried this Efes team for the most part this season. That kind of depth makes Efes a scary playoff foe for any top seed.
As for Real Madrid, their depth is unparalleled both in the back and frontcourts. Anthony Randolph, who will be signing an extension with Madrid, is finally playing the best basketball of his career (including NBA), making him a scary matchup for opposing post players, and boosting the depth of an already loaded Los Blancos frontcourt which includes Felipe Reyes, Gustavo Ayon, Othello Hunter and Trey Thompkins. However, one of the biggest progressions this year may be Sergio Llull, who may be the frontrunner (and deservedly so) for the Euroleague Regular Season MVP award. The combination of Llull’s improved efficiency, and knack for carrying Los Blancos during big moments at the end of games puts him over other competitors such as de Colo and Milos Teodosic of CSKA, Udoh of Fenerbahce, Printezis of Olympiacos (though he certainly has his share of big game moments) and Singleton of Panathinaikos.
The tempting pick may be for Real Madrid to rest their starters and with their depth they could afford to do so. But I think Madrid is aware of Efes’ surging, and they know Llull’s challenging for that MVP award. This Efes game could be a signature moment/game for Llull to cement his legacy as the Euroleague’s best player of the 2016-2017 season, and I think head coach Pablo Laso will play him on that alone.
A surging Efes team looking to garner the fifth spot? A Los Blancos team looking to seal Llull’s award as the Euroleague’s best player? This should be a hell of a game.
This is the game of the week. Period. It will be a dogfight. It probably won’t be pretty. There will probably be a lot of shitty calls in favor Dacka (as we saw last week against Bamberg). But clear your schedule, put a reminder on your phone or whatever.
This is the game you need to watch in Round 30. And you need to be cheering with the whole of Belgrade and Serbia for Red Star as well.
“It’s like picking between one of the signature clubs…the very essence of what makes European basketball what it is…and basically like the Mr. Burns’ family picnic.”
-Rob Scott on this week’s Euroleague Adventures
After the last double-round week of the season, the Euroleague playoff picture is nearly complete. Anadolu Efes punched their ticket to playoffs with the combo of a massive road win in Kauans over Zalgiris in Round 27, and a derby upset over Fenerbahce in Round 28. While the seeding is still yet to be determined, Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow, Olympiacos, Fenerbahce, Panathinaikos, Baskonia and Efes are all making plans for Euroleague basketball beyond Round 30.
However, there is one spot remaining, and these final two weeks will be a battle between two clubs who faced off against each other in Round 1 (who will also meet up against each other in what could be a playoff, “winner-take-all” game): Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) of Serbia and Darussafaka (Dacka) of Turkey.
It is highly likely that most fans outside of Istanbul will (or should) be pulling for Red Star to hold onto the Euroleague’s final playoff spot (they currently have the inside edge as they sit at 15-13 in the eighth spot; Dacka is 9th at 14-14). With one the lowest payrolls in the Euroleague, Red Star favors playing young Serbian talent developed within their youth system rather than filling their roster with expensive veterans. (Red Star has had one of the best U18 squads in Europe as of late; as they finished second in last year’s Adidas Next Generation Tournament and won their region again this year.) While this certainly didn’t win them a lot of headlines in the off-season from the European basketball media, it definitely helped win them over their fanbase, who could easily rally around a team that was populated primarily by their own countrymen, not always the case with European clubs. The approach has had its peaks and valleys of course, as head coach Dejan Radonjic has had to be patient this year in watching his young guys develop, especially on the offensive end (they started the year 4-7). But the core of young Serbians such as Stefan Jovic, Nemanja Dangubic, Marko Guduric, and Luka Mitrovic, playing along with more seasoned Serbian vets such as Ognjen Kuzmic, Branko Lazic, Marko Simonovic, and Milko Bjelica and foreign imports such as Charles Jenkins, Deon Thompson, and Nate Wolters has produced a club that has managed to be once again competitive with bigger clubs despite being dwarfed in terms of payroll and resources.
Red Star certainly doesn’t play the prettiest style of basketball in the Euroleague, as they rank second-to-last in offensive rating (only Barcelona is worse), and last in points per field goal, according to Overbasket.com. This is mostly due to the streakiness of Red Star’s offense, as well as their shooting, which is led by Simonovic, Jenkins and Wolters off the bench. When those three are hitting shots, they can beat anyone in the Euroleague. If they are not…well, it tends to be a rough night, as we saw in their last game against Barcelona, where Red Star posted a true shooting rate of 35.3 percent and 0.84 points per field goal (highlighted by Simonovic posting a 0.63 in that category). That is not to say Red Star is inept in putting the ball in the hoop. They have some players who can have big scoring nights and carry their team to victory, as Kuzmic, Simonovic, Jenkins and even Guduric (who played crazy well against Olympiacos) have proven. The unfortunate issue though is Radonjic and the Red Star fans have no idea where it’s coming from game to game (and if it will come at all).
So how has Red Star been successful? That can be mostly credited to Red Star’s defense, which ranks as one of the best in the Euroleague. They have allowed the fewest points per game at 73.3, just a shade better than Olympiacos, who is third overall in the Euroleague. Radonjic has his guys play incredibly hard on both ends, as they contest shots well, don’t give up easy baskets, and are able to switch for the most part pretty well off the pick and roll thanks to the all-around tenacity and sneaky athleticism of their players on the defensive end. Kuzmic has even become an average to slightly above defensive player with Red Star, something that was thought to be unthinkable last season when he played with Panathinaikos and was mostly regulated to limited minutes. As long as the offense is good enough, Red Star has come out victorious because of their stingy and tough defense. Case in point: If you look at their schedule this year, when they score more than 1.00 PFG, they are 13-2 this year (only losses came to CSKA in Moscow and Dacka in RD 1); when they score less than 1.00, they are 2-11. 1.00 is about average, so that just goes to show that when Red Star can muster “average” (not even good) offense, they will be on the winning side more often than not because they are so effective at preventing points on the other end.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been easy to muster “average” offense as of late, thanks to guard Stefan Jovic missing multiple games due to injury. Jovic, who is talked about as a target of Barcelona this off-season and is struggling with a nagging back injury, missed Rounds 24-27 and only played 3 minutes in a Round 28 loss to Barcelona. The result? A 2-3 record and some missed opportunities to clinch a playoff berth. Jovic’s statline isn’t impressive: he’s averaging 7.5 ppg and is shooting only 42.9 percent and 0.95 PFG. However, when he’s on the court, the offense hums, as their true shooting rate is 48.6 percent and PFG is 1.05 when he is on the floor. When he’s not? Their true shooting rate dips to 43.8 percent and PFG sinks to 0.95. Without a doubt, the health of Jovic down the stretch, and how much he plays, will be a big factor in Red Star’s playoff chances. His playmaking, passing, and ability to lead the offense in high-leverage situations makes Red Star a slightly above average offensive team when he’s on the floor, and considering their defense, that should be enough to get them in the postseason.
The only question is IF we’ll see him on the floor in the next two rounds. Unlike some injuries to key players this year (mostly Bogdan Bogdanovic of Fenerbahce), it has been hard to determine when Jovic will be back seeing major minutes again.
We’ll find March 31st against UNICS Kazan.
While Red Star’s local talent and high energy crowd have made them the darlings of the Euroleague fan-o-sphere, Dacka may be their evil twin of sorts: they really haven’t been all that good until the past few years, after the wealthy Dogus group acquired their club, intent on making them a contender with traditional Turkish powerhouses such as Fenerbahce, Efes and Galatasaray. This season, qualifying despite the format downsizing from 24-to-16, there seemed to be signs of Dacka taking that step forward to become one of Europe’s elite clubs. They signed David Blatt, who coached the Cleveland Cavaliers for a season and a half (and took them to the NBA Finals). They acquired big-name American talent in Brad Wanamaker (coming off a solid season with Brose Bamberg) and James Anderson (who played last year with the Sacramento Kings); and they also picked up in the middle of the year, Ante Zizic, a Croatian national who was a highly lauded draft pick by the Boston Celtics in the latest NBA Draft. And lastly, after a 73-70 win in Belgrade (a very difficult thing to do considering those fans) in Round 1, it appeared Dacka was ready to make the transition into the upper division of the Euroleague after making the Top 16 a year ago.
But, this Dacka team just hasn’t lived up to the hype (or the hype the club wanted European basketball fans to believe). Other than Wanamaker and Zizic, nobody on this team has really performed all that well this year. They don’t seem to have much chemistry on the court, and while they certainly have a collection of talent like Anderson, Scottie Wilbekin, and Will Clyburn, they tend to thrive not so much within the offense, but more as individual 1-on-1 players. When they are on, sure it’s entertaining, but it hasn’t been consistent, and thus, not as fun to watch. It’s kind of shocking to see, especially when considering that Blatt, who made his name as a bit of an offensive wizard as a coach with Maccabi, has not been able to orchestrate much with this team (on both ends really, but glaringly on offense), despite some really talented pieces. Whether he’s making an adjustment back to Europe or trying to get over the “ISO-heavy” experience of coaching the LeBrons…(I’m sorry, Cavs) it’s safe to say it hasn’t really worked all that well for Dacka, and that Blatt hasn’t duplicated the success he had in Maccabi with Dacka in year one. (Rob Scott, Austin Green and George Rowland also reiterated this point more eloquently on their latest Euroleague Adventures Podcast.)
It’s pretty simple. For newly christened European basketball fans like myself who are growing more in love with the European game everyday; for those seasoned Euroleague veteran fans and bloggers who want solid, exciting playoff basketball; for those who care about the health of the sport in Europe and it’s future; for those that cheer for the underdog not just in basketball, but any sport…the decision is really simple when it comes to whether or not Red Star or Dacka should claim the last playoff spot.
Let’s go Red Star…and let’s go Brose Bamberg (who play Dacka in Round 29). Let’s start planning for a playoff game in Belgrade by April 1st.
This transfer season has had plenty of stories, mostly centering on the mass exodus of European talent to the NBA through the draft and free agency. Safe to say, almost every club participating in the Euroleague next season has been affected by the NBA, as if they did not lose talent directly, they either lost out on a potential signing to a NBA team or at risk of losing their current players in a year or two, should the player decide to change their tune about making the trip to North America. It is a difficult place for European clubs to be in, as even the biggest clubs in Europe don’t have the kind of money to throw at players in comparison to their American competition, making the ability to keep their best, young, in-their-prime talent more arduous (though not impossible) than ever before.
However, beyond the “exodus” narrative this off-season, the other big story this off-season has been the activity of the four Turkish Euroleague clubs who have dominated the off-season with big moves in terms of boosting their rosters and organizations. In summers that are typically dominated by traditional A license powers such as Real Madrid, Panathinaikos, and Maccabi Tel Aviv, for example, the four Turkish clubs have stolen most of the spotlight when it comes to garnering new talent (though Maccabi TA and Panathinaikos have made some key moves themselves). And that is peculiar and a sign of the changes in power going on in the Euroleague, as Turkey doesn’t necessarily have the kind of history in the Euroleague that other European countries have.
In modern Euroleague play, only two teams from Turkey have qualified for the Final Four (Anadolu Efes and Fenerbahce Ulker). Last year, Fenerbahce’s overtime loss in the championship game to CSKA Moscow was the best finish a Turkish club has ever had in the Euroleague (Efes finished third in both appearances in 2000 and 2001; Fenerbahce finished fourth in 2015). And, in the modern Euroleague-era, there was a 14-year gap between Turkish club appearances in the Final Four (after Efes made back-to-back Final Fours, no Turkish club made the Final Four until Fenerbahce broke that streak in 2015). While clubs from Greece, Spain, Russia, Italy, Serbia, France and even Lithuania have hoisted the Euroleague trophy at the end of the year, such an honor as evaded Turkish clubs in the 28-year-history of the modern Euroleague.
However, that history of “missing out” seems primed to change as soon as a next year. The four Turkish clubs (Anadolu Efes, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Darussafaka) looked determined to make their mark through aggressive management this summer, and hope 2016-2017 is the year when Turkey will finally be able to bring home a Euroleague trophy to Istanbul. Who is the most likely to do so? Well, let’s break down each Turkish team and what they did this summer thus far in terms of strengthening their team.
Anadolu Efes: New coach, New (Younger) Approach
Prior to the last two seasons, Efes had been one of the strongest Turkish clubs in Europe. After all, until Fenerbahce burst onto the scene under Zeljko Obradovic, Efes has been the only club to make the Euroleague Final Four. Add those Euroleague credentials with the most domestic championships (13) in the history of the Turkish Basketball Super League, and it easy to see why that Efes has been the “face” of Turkish basketball in the European club scene for quite some time.
However, much like the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball or the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA, a rich history of success doesn’t always guarantee continued success in the current day. That has been the case for Efes, as they have taken a back seat in both domestic and Euroleague play to their local rivals. After winning four straight BSL titles from 2001-2005, Efes has only one BSL title (2009), the same number as local Istanbul rival Galatasaray, and Besiktas and Karsiyaka, smaller clubs who are not even in Istanbul. To make matters worse though, their one title is paltry in comparison to chief rival Fenerbahce, who has won 6 BSL titles since 2005 (and you could count it as seven, as Ulkerspor was a club run by the same sponsor as Fenerbahce currently).
In Euroleague play, Efes has been a consistent participant in Top 16 play, with the occasional appearances in playoff play (they have made the playoffs four times since their last Final Four appearance), but they have not been able to break through to the Final Four like Fenerbahce has the past couple of seasons. To address this recent trend of underperformance in the Euroleague is new coach Velimir Perasovic, who used to coach Efes back in 2010-2011 and comes over recently from Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, whom he led to the Final Four and a fourth place finish a season ago (and they were an overtime period away from earning a spot in the championship game). Much like Bartzokas with Lokomotiv Kuban last year, Perasovic is a coach who has the ability to turn around clubs quickly, and maximize the talent on his roster. He helped Ioannis Bourousis go from a bench player averaging about 10 minutes a game with Real Madrid in 2015 to a first-team All-Euroleague player and ACB League MVP who was garnering interest from NBA clubs before signing with Panathinaikos. He coaxed breakout years from point guards Darius Adams and Mike James, and helped get Davis Bertans and Adam Hanga Summer League looks with the San Antonio Spurs. And he did all these individual things for players while helping Baskonia get to their first Final Four appearance since 2008. It is one thing to help players achieve a bunch of individual accolades (Rick Barnes at Texas was able to do this all the time), but to also create an environment where those individual accolades produce team success is the sign of an excellent and special coach, which Perasovic is and has proven to be in the past.
Unfortunately, Perasovic will be inheriting a different roster than the one Dusan Ivkovic had in 2015-2016. Dario Saric will be heading the 76ers, and Jon Diebler and Alex Tyus will be moving to Turkish rival Galatasaray as well. And unlike in years past, Efes hasn’t really added any free agents as of note, as the biggest signing has been Slovenian Alen Omic from Gran Canaria. Instead, it appears that Efes will build their team with a new approach: relying more on what they currently have under contract, as well as young Turkish players with plenty of upside.
While Efes at this time will return important imports such as Derrick Brown and Thomas Huertel, who both contributed significantly to Efes a season ago, this team has many young Turkish players who are expected to have increased roles from a season ago. The biggest one is Furkan Korkmaz, who most likely will replace Diebler as the main threat on the perimeter for Efes. Korkmaz was a first round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers this year, despite only averaging 8.6 minutes per game in Euroleague play and 12.8 in BSL competition. However, Korkmaz offers significant athletic upside from the wing, and is a fan favorite thanks to his Slam Dunk contest appearance where he dunked in a Darth Vader mask, as evidenced below.
Korkmaz is probably the most high profile Turkish talent, but he isn’t alone on this roster. 20-year-old Ogulcan Baykan will join him on the perimeter, as well as Dogus Balbay, who could receive an increased role if Jayson Granger goes elsewhere through transfer. Also, 21-year-old Cedi Osman showed some promise after averaging 9.5 ppg in Euroleague play and could really break out this season as a more concentrated option in Perasovic’s offense. And lastly, Ahmet Duverioglu is a project big who will get more time and touches in the paint now that Saric and Tyus are gone.
The expectations are high amongst Efes fans and management, but Perasovic has a nice young core of Turkish talent to work with, as well as some veterans (like Brown and Huertel) who could provide good leadership for this squad, especially during the early part of the season. This will be a bit of a tougher task than last season with Baskonia, but Efes has the horses to compete, though they are young and will need to grow up quickly. This focus on “Turkish youth” is a bit of a different approach for Efes from the past couple of seasons, where the outlook was more focused on the short term. However, if it is successful, it could provide long-term benefits for Efes competitively down the road.
Darussafaka: The “New Kid on the Block”
Darussafaka has had a tough hill to climb in their basketball history. They are located in the same city (Istanbul) as basketball powerhouses such as Efes, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahce, and for the most part have been a third-rate option for basketball fans in that area. Since being founded in 1914, the club has only won two BSL championships (in 1961 and 1962) and had been regulated for a good while until 2013-2014, when Dogus financial group bought the team and immediately invested money in the club to not only bring it back into first-tier Turkish competition, but with the plan to be a competitor on the European stage. In many ways, the Dogus group story with Darussafaka is similar to the story of NBA teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings where a young ownership group comes in and tries to buck the trend of constant losing with strong investment in coaching and talent, as well as marketing to make their club a more “progressive” brand with the local fanbase.
The Dogus group so far has been successful in that plan, avoiding so far the pitfalls that have hurt new ownership groups like the Grizzlies and Kings (inner turmoil, inability to make consistent decisions). They have put a strong emphasis on changing the culture of the club, focusing on Darussafaka being a “modern” and “cool” club for younger Turkish basketball fans, whether it’s in their sleek, new uniforms (they have Under Armour as a sponsor; rare for European clubs), marketing, or in-game atmosphere. However, the biggest waves they have made has been on the court. In 2014-2015, they finished third in the BSL and made the quarterfinals of the BSL playoffs. After moving into a bigger arena in 2015, Darussafaka participated in the Euroleague for the first time in club history, where they made the Round of 16. In BSL play last season, they finished fourth in the regular season, and made the semifinal round of the playoffs (where they were swept by Anadolu Efes).
However, 2016-2017 looks to be the most ambitious year yet for the newly competitive Turkish club. After garnering the lone wild card spot in the newly reformed Euroleague, Darussafaka made headlines by replacing the older, more defensive-oriented Oktay Mahmuti with former Maccabi Tel Aviv and Cleveland Cavalier head coach David Blatt. Once they got their new, higher-profile coach in place, ownership spared no expense in the transfer market. They signed big-time playmaker Bradley Wanamaker from Brose Baskets Bamberg, and James Anderson, who played some decent minutes and a full season with the Sacramento Kings a season ago. They also solidified their depth with Turkish shooting guard Birkan Batuk from Anadolu Efes, Latvian combo wing Dairis Bertans from Dominion Bilbao, and French power forward Adrien Moerman from Banvit. And, the club narrowly missed out on Mindaugas Kuzminskas from Unicaja, who ended up signing a contract with the New York Knicks over Darussafaka (though the club did get 800,000 euros as a buyout).
The combo of Wanamaker and Anderson should make Darussafaka a legitimate contender immediately in the new Euroleague format. Wanamaker was Brose Baskets’ best player last year, as he thrived as the primary scoring and playmaking option in head coach Andrea Trinchieri’s offense. Brose Baskets, the reigning BBL champions, and a Top 16 participant will miss his presence heavily this season, as evidenced by the highlights below where his strong performance led Brose Baskets to a crucial win over Khimki in Top 16 play, earning him Top 16 Week 11 Euroleague MVP honors.
The big issue for Darussafaka at this point will be the depth of the squad, as well as how they will fare in the post. Already, there are rumors Semih Erden won’t be returning next year (he looks to return to the NBA), and it is still yet to be determined whether or not Luke Harangody, who had a very productive year for Darussafaka, will return as well as the primary post threat. And the futures of other role players such as Marcus Slaughter, Scottie Wilbekin and Reggie Redding are also to be determined, as they could change their minds about returning to the Turkish club depending on their desire to be back in the United States (i.e. sign a D-League contract instead). If they do return, expect Blatt to really succeed with this club in year one, since they are under-the-radar talent whose intangibles make up for their lack of athleticism or physical gifts (especially in Harangody’s case). If they do not though, it could be a steeper challenge, and may require a lot of experimenting with temporary options during the preseason and early part of the year leading up to the Euroleague season.
But, despite these issues, Darussafaka has an excellent two-star combo to build around (Anderson and Wanamaker) as well as a head coach who is one of the brightest in the game, and is hungry to prove himself again after a bit of a tumultuous debut in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Blatt should thrive with this roster, and in this situation: he has succeeded in much higher-pressure positions in the past in Maccabi Tel Aviv and Cleveland, and he was still able to make deep playoff runs in those situations. They may not have the depth to be Final Four-bound or compete with Fenerbahce for a BSL title just yet, but don’t count them out, especially considering Blatt’s tendency to maximize the talent available to him on the roster.
Galatasaray: Eurocup title down; Euroleague next.
After winning the first major European competition in club history (the Eurocup), Galatasaray is looking to make a move in Euroleague play after an aggressive offseason that rivals Darussafaka in terms of new acquisitions. Galatasaray has a passionate fan base, and is no stranger to the Euroleague either, as they made the playoffs in 2014, and have made the Round of 16 as well in 2013 and 2015.
Galatasaray made big noise this summer, acquiring a mixture of former NBA imports, as well as European talent who will bring much needed Euroleague experience next season. The biggest prize may be power forward Austin Daye, a former Detroit Piston and San Antonio Spur who has spent most of his professional career the past couple of seasons with the Austin Spurs, the Spurs’ D-League affiliate. Daye was a former No. 15 pick by the Pistons, and never really lived up to his potential. He never seemed to get the right opportunities in Detroit or San Antonio, and struggled to find a position as well. He wasn’t quite physical or strong enough to play the power forward position, but he wasn’t quite quick enough or had good enough handles to play the small forward position either. That tweener status was a main reason he ended up being mostly D-League roster filler as of late, and eventually moved overseas, where he played for Consultinvest Pesaro in the Serie A last year.
However, it will be interesting to see how head coach Ergin Ataman will utilize the multi-talented Daye with this Galatasaray roster. The strongest aspect of Daye’s game is his shooting, as he is able to easily shoot over players thanks to his 6’10 frame and seven-foot plus wing span. He succeeds not only beyond the arc, but in the mid-range as well, as he is able to hurt teams with a nice little post-up fade away around the block, when he is able to establish position around it (not always a guarantee as stronger posts have pushed him out regularly). Defensively, while not the greatest on-ball defender due to limited agility side-to-side, Daye is an able shot blocker, with good instincts for the ball. Granted, he’s not the kind of defender you want to camp down in the paint, as he gets overpowered easily, but for a stretch four type, he offers the kind of shot blocking that makes him somewhat of an asset defensively, which is not always the case with some stretch four types.
In his first European campaign, Daye averaged 21.2 ppg and 9 rpg in 21 Serie A games with Pesaro, while being named to the Serie A All-Star game. As you can see in his highlights below, Daye showed that he still has some juice left in the tank, and he can be a solid primary scoring option for this Galatasaray team next season, especially from the outside.
However, while Daye may be the primary signing, Galatasaray also added depth with the acquisitions of Jon Diebler and Alex Tyus, who both have big-time Euroleague experience. Diebler was a key player during Karsiyaka’s cinderella run in 2015 in the BSL, and Tyus was a key contributor off the bench during Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 2014 Euroleague championship. For a club that desperately wants to duplicate the Eurocup success last year as much as possible next season in the Euroleague, acquiring these two is a step in that direction.
The last big signing for Galatasaray was Nenad Krstic who missed nearly all of last season with Efes due to injury. Krstic is the classic high-risk veteran signing, as he probably is in the downward spiral of his career, but he has big-time game experience not just in the Euroleague, but in the NBA as well. At the very least, Krstic will be a valuable veteran who could mentor some of Galatasaray’s younger talent.
There will be pressure on Ataman to make these pieces fit together and work, especially considering the fierce competition at the top in the BSL, and the higher-stakes in the Euroleague with only 16 teams making the field every year instead of 24, like in the past. Vladimir Micov and Blake Schilb, two of the returning starters from last year’s Eurocup squad, helps keep things stable on the perimeter for Galatasaray, especially with the addition of Diebler. And if they are able to keep Stephane Lasme, that will even add more depth in the post with Daye and Krstic, as well as Deon Thompson, whom they just added from Bayern Munich.
There is no question that the talent is there to compete in the Euroleague and BSL. Ataman has been given a nice hand, with management being as aggressive as possible to keep Galatasaray a regular participant in the Euroleague scene. The big question will be how Ataman gets all these new pieces to work with the returning roster. Ataman isn’t coming off the best Turkish National Team campaign, where they looked unimpressive in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, and didn’t seem to mesh together as a group in time to qualify for an Olympic berth. (And Ataman was blasted by Enes Kanter, a Turkish national who is playing with OKC Thunder for not maximizing the talent on the roster.) Will Ataman be able to handle the diverse influx of talent with Galatasaray, or will his struggles finding the right combinations on the floor transfer from FIBA to Euroleague play?
The Galatasaray ultras are faithful, but with such high stakes at play this season, they will not be patient if Ataman doesn’t get this Galatasaray club off on the right foot, especially in Euroleague play.
Fenerbahce: The “King stay King”
The sting of coming back from 20-plus down to force overtime, but still lose the Euroleague championship still resonates with this Fenerbahce team and fanbase. In arguably the greatest year in club history, everyone pretty much returns for head coach Zeljko Obradovic and the prospect of a returning roster with such big-game pedigree, as well as a coach who is never satisfied with runner-up finishes, is downright scary for opposing competition not only in Turkey, but in Europe overall.
Fenerbahce’s biggest victory this off-season was the return of post combo Jan Vesely and Ekpe Udoh, who both spurned returns to the NBA to make another Final Four run (and possibly Triple Crown run) with the Blue and Gold. It’s amazing to see how Vesely and Udoh have developed into All-Euroleague players in such a short time, as they struggled in roles as no-offense, limited-defensively players in the NBA who failed to live up to their Top-10 Draft Pick statuses. However, whether it’s the change of scenery in Europe or the tutelage of Obradovic in Istanbul, Vesely and Udoh have become arguably the best post players in Europe, and have been compensated as so to keep them in Turkey. Vesely succeeds as a pick and roll player, as his finishes around the rim off the pick and roll with Bobby Dixon were downright unstoppable at times for opposing Euroleague defenses. As for Udoh, he proved to be a monster cleanup presence, as he regularly finished missed baskets with big time throw downs. On the defensive end, Udoh made his presence known and then some, as he finished with the most blocks in Euroleague history by the end of last season. Expect these two, if healthy to be even better next season, as Obradovic will have a full season to figure out how to better utilize them together on the floor, which is crazy to think of since they were both All-Euroleague players a season ago (Vesely was a first-team player despite missing some time to an achilles injury and Udoh made second team).
The second big victory for Fenerbahce was keeping young wing star Bogdan Bogdanovic, a Euroleague rising star who is coming off his best season yet as a professional. It was widely thought Bogdanovic would make the transition to the Phoenix Suns (the NBA team who owned his rights), especially considering the increase in salary cap which most likely would have resulted in a big payday for the young Serbian. However, Bogdanovic bucked the Suns’ offer and decided to come back at least for another year with Fenerbahce (the Suns were so outraged that they traded his rights to the Sacramento Kings). Nicknamed “the White Mamba” by some Bogdanovic is a big-time competitor who can hurt teams beyond the arc and in the mid-range. His game is very classic, like a Serbian Kobe of sorts who can take over game when he wants. At only 23 years old, he has already had two valuable years of experience with Fenerbahce, and his third season should only be better after the challenges he faced in the Euroleague the past two seasons against Europe’s top competition. If you have any doubts about Bogdanovic, or how happy the Istanbul club is to return the Serbian star, just watch the highlight tape below.
Fenerbahce really has done something rare in the scheme of European club basketball: keep their roster intact. Even beyond the three mentioned above, Fenerbahce also returns forward Nikola Kalinic, Gigi Datome and Pero Antic as well as guards Bobby Dixon and Konstantinos Sloukas. To return the eight best players of a Euroleague runner-up squad is downright unfair, and it makes sense why many experts are claiming that Fenerbahce is the overwhelming favorite to return to the Euroleague championship game (along with CSKA Moscow, who also was able to keep a lot of talent, with Nando de Colo being the prime example).
Staying at the top isn’t easy, as Real Madrid, who pretty much returned everyone as well, didn’t exactly parlay their 2015 Euroleague Championship success into a repeat run in 2016 (though injuries were a big reason for it). The expectations are higher than ever for Fenerbahce, especially considering they are coming off a year where they won the BSL, Turkish Cup and narrowly missed on the Euroleague championship. Anything less than a Triple Crown would be deemed a failure to this organization and fanbase, especially considering the amount of money management spent to keep this roster intact.
But, one has to remember that Obradovic is the head coach of this team, and no coach in Euroleague history has been as successful as him. He is an intense competitor who demands only the highest level of play from his players, and it is obvious that the top talent on this roster, from Vesely to Udoh to Bogdanovic to even Dixon and Datome bought in to Obradovic’s high-pressure defensive as well as offensive system. With another year of familiarity with Obradovic’s system, it should be expected that Fenerbahce will be even more efficient and cohesive on both ends of the floor in 2016-2017.
When it comes to basketball hierarchy in Turkey, Fenerbahce is the King. And this off-season, they have done their best to set themselves up to continue to be King for a least another season. That being said, staying at the top isn’t easy, and certainly Efes, Darussafaka and Galatasaray have done their necessary steps to make themselves a foil to Fenerbahce’s quest to keep the crown they currently have in Turkey and perhaps Europe. Fenerbahce knows with Bogdanovic most likely going to the NBA soon, and futures of other players such as Vesely and Udoh and even Datome and Antic always in doubt due to the big money of the NBA, their time to stay at the top in their current mold is limited, and they were too close to a Triple Crown last year to settle for anything less in 2017.
So Efes, Darussafaka and Galatasaray…if you come at the King…you best not miss.
“Make no mistake. I have won everywhere I have been…and I plan on doing the same here.”
When he was hired in May of 2014 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, David Blatt echoed those words to the media public. Blatt, was fresh of a Euroleague championship victory with Maccabi Tel Aviv over longtime European and Spanish power Real Madrid, and the Cavs, who had missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season, were looking for a refreshing voice to lead their team going forward. And it made sense for the Cavs to hire Blatt. Not only did he prove he could win at Maccabi, both in the Winner League in Israel and in the Euroleague, but he also found success as an international coach, leading Russia to a surprising bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics. For Blatt, the lure of coaching a NBA franchise was a lifetime challenge he coveted and desired, much like any coach who looks for the next “step up” in the coaching ladder. Cleveland, with the top draft pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, had some valuable young pieces like Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett at the time, and Blatt, who had a history of producing overachieving teams with limited talent, seemed to be like a good fit, and a breath of fresh air that the organization needed after retreads like Byron Scott and Mike Brown (again) failed in four playoff-less seasons Post-Lebron.
Of course, Blatt didn’t expect to be a head coach so quickly in the NBA: when he stepped down originally from Maccabi Tel Aviv, he appeared to be headed as an assistant to Golden State or Minnesota to situate himself with the NBA game, similar to Ettore Messina before him, who became an assistant with the Lakers and then Spurs after a successful tenure with CSKA Moscow. (Apparently, Steve Kerr wanted Blatt badly and it seemed to be a done deal until Cleveland called and interviewed him.) Nonetheless, he was given the opportunity as NBA head coach, and Blatt wasn’t going to turn it down, even if he was not as familiar with the American game like the European one. However, with his Princeton-influence, strong defensive mentality, and fiery personality, Blatt looked like he would have some success, and would make the necessary adjustments over time to become a successful NBA head coach. After all, he was going to coach the Cavs, who had suffered mediocrity since Lebron James left town. Just getting them into playoff contention would be enough; a playoff berth, even as an 8 seed, would be cause for celebration and validation of his hire.
Who would have thought that it would be the beginning of Blatt’s long, painful, and frustrating march back to Europe?
To be fair, Blatt never asked to coach Lebron and Lebron probably would have never asked Blatt to coach him either. Blatt was coming to coach a young team, one that was going to be led, in his mind, by No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and former No. 1 pick Irving and supported by Thompson and Bennett (oh yeah…I forgot Bennett was a former No. 1 pick too…somehow) in the block. In Blatt’s mind, his young guys would grow into his system, be used to his authority and demands, especially considering Wiggins and Irving had been used to demanding coaches in college like Bill Self at Kansas and Coach K at Duke (Wiggins and Irving, respectively). And though Blatt had not really achieved anything in the American game as far as coaching, that was going to be fine: neither had any of the young players on the Cavs.
However, with Lebron now on board that all changed. After Summer League, Wiggins was traded to Minnesota along with Anthony Bennett and some other pieces for Kevin Love, a NBA Veteran and All-Star. Now, the hope in Cleveland, with the Big 3 of Lebron, Kyrie and Love wasn’t just to make the playoffs, it was to win the Eastern Conference AND a NBA Championship. Blatt of course didn’t back down from the challenge, but in retrospect, I don’t think he realized the magnitude of media scrutiny as well as intensive player ego management that would haunt him for his one-and-a-half season stint in the city of Cleveland.
On paper, there is not much you can argue with when it comes to Blatt’s tenure. He went 83-40, including 53-29 in his first season with the Cavaliers, leading them to an Eastern Conference Championship, as well as 2 wins in the NBA Finals, the first two wins ever in Finals history for the franchise. He also did this without Kevin Love throughout most of the playoffs, and without Irving from games 2-6 of the Finals, as well as some games during the playoffs. This year, the Cavs started 30-11 and Blatt had them as one of the better teams in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency this season (they were 3rd and 10th in those categories this year).
Usually, with any other team in the NBA, there would be talk of an extension after a 30-11 start. But this was Cleveland, and “Lebron’s” Cavs, and while one couldn’t argue with the record, the marriage between Blatt and Lebron and the Cavs never really felt stable over the one-and-a-half year time. Let’s just take a look at some of the issues that plagued Blatt as the Cavs’ head coach:
People questioned Blatt’s authority on the team, as Lebron had grown a reputation for tuning out or overruling Blatt during timeouts and play calls.
There were reports that Blatt seemed to be overwhelmed by big moments, as he froze up and panicked when diagramming plays during timeouts during crucial stretches of the playoffs (the Chicago series having several reported instances of this).
Blatt treated other Cavs players differently from Lebron during practice, as he would go out of the way to criticize role players while not saying anything to Lebron, even if James was the main culprit of the mistake.
The media and Blatt did not get along, as Blatt chastised the media with sarcastic answers and patronized their questions during press conferences and interviews.
As with anything, some of those were true to an extent and some were most likely overblown. As stated in the last point, Blatt and the media did not get along well, and with Lebron a superstar in the NBA, and being an “Ohio Native,” it was obvious what side the local media (and many cases national media) would side with, and thus Blatt never seemed to get any kind of positive momentum in the public eye during his coaching tenure. And hence Blatt, a four-time Israeli coach of the year, a Russian Federation coach of the year, and a Euroleague coach of the year, not only was let go by the Cavs, but his legacy in America is somewhat tainted, as he is known for being successful as a NBA coach “only because of Lebron.”
For any basketball coach, being typified in such a way is not only an insult to the work and sacrifices one makes to be a head coach (as is especially true with Blatt who really had to work hard to get every head coaching job he earned, especially in Europe), but also a death stamp of sorts when it comes to future jobs. Just look at Mike Brown, who cannot get another head coaching position in the NBA after failing in Cleveland a second time (granted without Lebron, but it confirmed the “cannot win without a superstar” talk).
It really is unfair. It’s one thing if Blatt had no coaching experience. It’s one thing if he came to the States openly wanting to coach a Lebron James-led team. It’d be one thing if he wasn’t a four-time Israeli coach of the year, a Russian Federation coach of the year, and a Euroleague coach of the year as recently as two years ago.
But here we are…after 123 NBA games, David Blatt is going to Turkey.
Darussafaka is a totally different landscape than Blatt’s previous European stop, Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel. Of course, there is a cultural change that Blatt will not only be making from America, but his last experience in Europe. Blatt is Jewish and Israel is primarily a Jewish state, so Blatt fit in very well not just in the organization and city of Tel Aviv, but the culture of Israel as well. On the contrary Darussafaka is located in Turkey, primarily a Muslim country. And hence, it will be interesting to see how a mostly Muslim fanbase will react to a Jewish coach leading their team, though I think Blatt understands there may be some bias against him due to his cultural background. (And to be fair, Istanbul has really grown as a city and is more progressive than most Muslim-majority countries; simply look at many of the non-Muslim Europeans and Americans on clubs in the Turkish Basketball League).
And yet geographic culture is not the only issue; there is also a difference in basketball culture from Maccabi as well. Last season was Darussafaka’s first season in the Euroleague, and the club only has a modest history of success. The last time the club won the Turkish Basketball League Championship was in 1962 (and the other time was in 1961) and from 2010-2013, the club was regulated and participated in the Turkish League’s second division. And honestly, it makes sense that Darussafaka has struggled to be in the limelight: they share the same city with other bigger clubs like Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Efes, three traditional Turkish powerhouses with fervent fan bases and wealthy ownership groups (and who will also be participating in the Euroleague next year; Galatasaray missed last year, but will participate again after winning the Eurocup last season).
However, in 2013, Dogus Holding (a financial conglomerate based out of Turkey) bought the club and has made an effort to help Darussafaka compete with the traditional basketball powers based out of Turkey. It started with hiring of long-time Turkish coach Oktay Mahmuti, who had coached other Turkish clubs like Efes and Galatasaray to various degrees of success (he also coached Italian club Bennetton Treviso). In 2014, Darussafaka won the Turkish Second Division and were promoted back to the first-division domestic league. And the following year, they finished 3rd in the Turkish Division and qualified for the Euroleague as a wild card.
This season was a bit of an up and down campaign for Oktay in his third year. Despite it being the first year in club history in the Euroleague, Darussafaka qualified for the Round of 16, ousting long-time power Maccabi in the their group to do so for the final spot. However, the Round of 16 was far less kind as Darussafaka missed the playoffs by going 5-9 and finishing 6th in their division, also behind Turkish rival Efes, who went 7-7 (though as consolation, Darussafaka did finish better than Cedevita Zagreb of Croatia and Unicaja Malaga of Spain).
Domestically in the BSL (the Turkish Basketball League), the results were a little more disappointing. Darussafaka finished fourth in the regular season standings at 20-10 and were ousted in the semifinals by Efes convincingly 3-0. Though there had been considerable steps taken by Oktay and his club since his hire, Oktay didn’t exactly generate the most excitement out of Turkish basketball fans as well as the Darussafaka fan base, which is run by new owners to the European basketball scene who are more akin to the “tech” owners that we see in the NBA today like Robert Pera of the Grizzlies and Vivek Ranadive of the Kings.
The biggest pitfall for Oktay in his tenure in Darussafaka was his defensive-oriented style of play, and his teams lack of ability to generate consistent offense. Granted, that has been Oktay’s calling card in his coaching career, and he did a decent job at it with Darussafaka last year, as their 102.8 defensive rating was actually 5th best in the Euroleague last season. However, the offense was not just boring, but borderline atrocious, as they posted an offensive rating of 99.2, which was seventh-worst out of all Euroleague teams last season. This led to a negative efficiency difference rating of minus-3.6, which put them below average and barely over Bayern Munich (minus-4.0) and Maccabi (minus-4.8), two teams who didn’t even qualify for the Round of 16.
With the combination of an ineffective, lackluster offense and rather mediocre attendance numbers (Darussafaka was 5th lowest in the Euroleague when it came to home attendance), it made sense that a change was deemed essential by ownership. Oktay was a consistent force and was going to keep them competitive as the head coach. However, with only 16 teams now qualifying for the Euroleague starting in 2016-2017, Darussafaka not only needed a big name who would help Darussafaka make the transition from a “B-quality” team to an “A-quality” one. Oktay wasn’t going to give them that, and Oktay wasn’t going to help them attract bigger names on their roster as well.
And that is where Blatt comes in.
Apparently, Darussafaka was in talks with Blatt in April and had made him an offer around that time. However, Blatt wanted to test the NBA coaching waters, as he interviewed for vacant NBA jobs such as the Knicks one (apparently his desired choice), the Kings position (his second choice) and the Rockets job. After all three jobs went to other candidates, and not impressed by other offers (there were rumors that Blatt was asked to come back to Maccabi, but he passed on the offer), Blatt signed with Darussafaka, impressed by their commitment from ownership and management (he has a multi-year contract worth around 3 million euros per year), and motivated by the chance to build something special in Istanbul.
The cupboard certainly won’t be bare next season for Blatt. Darussafaka has a nice collection of American talent such as returning scorer Scottie Wilbekin, former Notre Dame star Luke Harangody, Reggie Redding, Jamon Gordon, and Marcus Slaughter; European talent such as Georgian Manuchar Makroishvili and Serbian Milko Bjelica; and domestic talent such as former Celtic Semih Erden and Emir Preldzic. And with Blatt now on board, it will be interesting to see what kind of other talent Darussafaka will be able to attract this off-season, especially considering Blatt’s European success and NBA experience (despite all the issues, he did still win an Eastern Conference championship, which is more of an accomplishment than a lot of NBA coaches not to mention current European coaches). It is to be expected that Darussafaka will be able to attract another name or two during this signing and transfer period.
Blatt has never shied himself away from a challenge and that certainly is evident in Darussafaka, though of a different sort. With Maccabi and Cleveland, he had to manage big expectations, and he was able to be successful with such lofty goals placed upon him from upper management. Darussafaka is a different challenge. The history isn’t there like Maccabi, nor is the superstar there like in Cleveland. Darussafaka’s most successful season was arguably last year, and yet, they fired their coach. If anything, this situation feels more like a Memphis Grizzlies or Sacramento Kings scenario rather than the Cleveland one he faced in the NBA (unrealistic expectations combined with a “no-so-elite” team).
And yet, this current job in Istanbul, might be more in Blatt’s wheelhouse. He relishes being the underdog and surprising people. He has done it in his coaching career countless times. He won an Italian League title with Benetton Treviso, even though they were one of the more under-the-radar teams in Italy. He upset two powers in the Final Four in CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid during his 2014 Euroleague title with Maccabi. And he led Russia, who had fallen off the global stage after the break up of the Soviet Union, to not only a 2007 Eurobasket title, but a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics, despite coming into each of those tournaments as heavy underdogs.
This is exactly the kind of coach Darussafaka needs. They need someone to help charge fan interest in Istanbul in their club. They need someone to utilize their talent to their maximum ability. They need someone that can help them go toe-to-toe with Turkey’s best clubs, not an easy task after Fenerbahce was one quarter away from nearly winning the Euroleague championship.
Yes, Darussafaka has not played a game yet, but they are a team that should be watched during the 2016-2017 domestic and Euroleague season.
Blatt and Darussafaka seem like a perfect match.
I just wonder how long this tenure in Turkey will be before the NBA starts calling again.