Five Things to Take Away from 2017-2018 Euroleague Regular Season

I’ve been away from the Euroleague scene for the most part of the 2017-2018 season. Job and personal commitments can do that, especially when you run any web site as a labor of love, not for profit. However, as I do every year, I get sucked back into the Euroleague at some point in the season, and luckily for me, I have gotten back in, right come playoff time.

So, being the opinionated person that I am, here are five things to take away from this year’s Euroleague Regular Season. This isn’t really a post for detailed analysis. I would suggest Euroleague Adventures, Eurohoops, Courtside Diaries, or various other European basketball sources to get something really detailed. However, for a light look, this may be worth a gander.

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Maccabi Tel Aviv not back…but they’re not a mess

I will tip my hat to Neven Spahija, who got Maccabi Tel Aviv back to respectability this year after the club went through two miserable seasons prior. Though their 13-17 record doesn’t look good on paper, they were 12-10 at the 22-round mark, and were a few points away from being a .500 or better team during their 1-7 stretch. Yes, it was baby steps in Spahija’s first season, but that is what this franchise needed, especially after their four-head coach debacle in 2016-2017 where they went 10-20 and finished 14th in the Euroleague standings.

As always, American import talent was the key to success this year, as guards Pierre Jackson and Norris Cole came from the G-League and NBA, respectively to lead Maccabi Tel Aviv on the offensive end. DeShaun Thomas and Alex Tyus (making his triumphant return to Israel) also added some versatility in the post, as Thomas became an inside-out threat, while Tyus finished well in the pick and roll and provided much needed shot blocking in the post, something they missed dearly a season ago. Lastly, Artisom Parkhouski offered some nice skill and touch in the paint after coming over from UNICS Kazan a year ago.

At the same time though, this roster probably is still in some need of change. This team didn’t score much from beyond the arc, as they only scored 24.6 percent of their total points from beyond the arc, the worst mark in the Euroleague, according to overbasket.com. While it’s important for a team to have an identity (Zalgiris was second-last in this mark and made the playoffs), the Maccabi offense seemed to lack variety, and they struggled to find scoring when they couldn’t get their main horses going. It will be interesting to see how Spahija maneuvers lineups down the stretch in the Winner League season, as how the team (as well as certain players) finish in domestic play could make a difference in terms of who stays and who doesn’t for the 2018-2019 season.

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Sarunas Jasikevicius is building something special in Kaunas

Saras continues to improve as a coach at the professional level. When he took over Zalgiris during the 2015-2016 season, it seemed like he was in a bit over his head, unable to connect with the roster, demanding the same kind of perfection as a coach that he demanded from himself as a player. This led to a disastrous last-place finish in Top 16 play. In year 2, thanks to a full off-season, and getting more players to fit his style, Zalgiris stayed in the playoff hunt for almost all of the season, finishing 14-16, good for 10th overall in the Euroleague standings. Saras’ reputation blew through the roof, as he was linked to many coaching vacancies in the summer as a result.

This year, Saras may be on the cusp of building something really special in his home country of Lithuania. Zalgiris swept traditional Euroleague powers Olympiacos, Barcelona, and Olimpia Milano and finished 18-12, 6th overall in the standings, and qualified for the playoffs (where they will face Olympiacos, a possible upset in the making). And Saras accomplished all this with the same, mostly Lithuanian, roster from the past couple of seasons. Yes, Aaron White proved to be a great wing acquisition from Zenit. And yes, point guard Kevin Pangos has seemed to thrive under the tutelage of Saras in two seasons. But make no mistake: the heart and soul of this team comes from local Lithuanian talent, not imports (which is the inverse of what most Euroleague clubs do, with the exception of Crvena Zvezda).

Saras will once again be courted hard by Euroleague powers or big-money clubs (Russian ones come to mind). However, what Saras is doing in Zalgiris is unique, and I think he will continue to build Zalgiris into a Euroleague power for at least the next few years.

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Give Baskonia’s Pedro Martinez his due

When Pedro Martinez took over Baskonia, the club was 0-4 and just had first-time head coach Pablo Prigioni abruptly resign. Baskonia was hoping to find the same kind of magic with Prigioni that Zalgiris found with Saras and instead, it backfired tremendously. As for Martinez, despite leading Valencia to an ACB title, a Euroleague berth, and a Eurocup runners-up finish in 2016-2017, he was sent packing from Valencia, and was jobless going into the 2017-2018.

It’s amazing how things work out sometimes.

Since Martinez took over, Baskonia has gone 16-10 and qualified for the playoffs, something that seemed unthinkable after Round 4. And they have done this despite losing Euroleague defensive player of the year, Adam Hanga, who left for Barcelona in the off-season. Martinez has really utilized the strengths of this roster, leaning on Toko Shengalia, who may be a dark horse Euroleague MVP candidate, while getting the most out of young talent like Luca Vildoza, Janis Timma, and Vincent Poirier.

It won’t be an easy matchup for Baskonia in the playoffs, as they will take on the defending champs, Fenerbahce, in the first round. However, the Martinez hire has gone from a temporary stopgap solution to perhaps one they can build upon in the near future.

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Things not much better with Barcelona and Olimpia Milano…

Both Barcelona and Olimpia Milano made big-time coaching hires to get their clubs going back in the right direction after sub-par 2016-2017 campaigns. However, both squads struggled to get anything going, and once again finished near the bottom of the regular season standings in the Euroleague.

Barcelona showed a lot of promise this off-season by not only hiring Sito Alonso from Baskonia, but also acquiring top talent in the backcourt in Thomas Huertel (from Efes), Phil Pressey (from the G-League), Edwin Jackson, and Euroleague defensive player of the year Adam Hanga. And yet, that top talent and coaching change wasn’t enough, as the Barcelona club went 7-14 before firing Alonso and replacing him with Svetislav Pesic for the remainder of the year. The Catalan club showed some improvement by finishing 4-4 in his 8-game tenure, but the lackluster 11-19 overall record and sparse crowds at Palau Blaugrana hasn’t given the franchise much to be hopeful about this season.

As for Milano, the big-name hire of Simone Pianigiani was a controversial one, as he was known as a foil to the Milano franchise during his tenure with Montespachi Siena. Unfortunately, things proved to be more of the same for the Milano club, the lone Italian representative in the Euroleague for the second-straight season. They went 10-20 during the regular season, and once again weren’t able to get much out of high-profile signings such as Andrew Goudelock, Jordan Theodore, Curtis Jerrells (who came with him from Hapoel Jerusalem) or Mindaugas Kuzmiskas (who came over after being waived by the New York Knicks). MIlano still holds the top spot in the Italian League standings and looks like a strong candidate to rebound with a domestic league title, which evaded them a year ago, so maybe year two in the Euroleague will be kinder for Simone (if he makes it that long of course).

So why is this a big deal? Well, both are A-License clubs, meaning that they are entrenched in the Euroleague for 10-year periods of time, regardless of finish in the Euroleague or their domestic league. That isn’t the case for most other clubs, who have to earn their right to stay in the Euroleague on an annual basis (by winning their domestic league competition or qualifying as an at-large). And thus, with sparse crowds and lackluster play, these two clubs are definitely making the argument that the Euroleague has to seriously re-visit their policy with handing out A-Licenses. This may not be something that will happen in the near future, but another season or two of mediocre play from these two clubs may (or should) start the discussion sooner rather than later.

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It’s a pretty wide open Euroleague playoff race

There’s no real dominant Euroleague squad this year. CSKA holds the top spot, but they’re not the same without Milos Teodosic, and they have had their share of injury issues, much like other top clubs such as Fenerbahce and Real Madrid. Fenerbahce doesn’t have the dominant feel of last year’s squad (not to mention game changers like Ekpe Udoh or Bogdan Bogdanovic). Real Madrid’s success corresponds with Luka Doncic, which is a lot of pressure for a teenager. Panathinaikos looks like a top end club at times, and certainly has the depth to win a Euroleague title, but on some occasions they looked like a middle-of-the-road team. And Olympiacos? “Kill Bill” Vassilis Spanoulis is starting to show his age, and the depth on this Piraeus squad just isn’t what it once was.

The bottom line? Expect something surprising this postseason. The last few Euroleague postseasons have been pretty chalk, but every club in the playoffs this season has some serious flaws. Yes, that makes it tough for betting, but for those who like excitement and shockers, this Euroleague postseason may have a lot to offer.

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A Quick Look at the Serie A (Italy) Semi-Finals

While the Euroleague is done, that does not mean basketball is over in Europe. While I do not follow domestic leagues as closely as I do the Euroleague, I think they are worth following for any fan of European basketball. While I will not pretend to be an expert on any of these matchups (again, do not follow domestic leagues as closely due to time and TV access), I will try to highlight some key players or storylines with the following contests.

Today, I will look at the semi-final matchups in the Lega Basket Serie A (Italy).

Serie A Semifinals

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EA7 Emporio Armani Milano (1) vs. Dolomiti Energia Trento (4)

It will be the Serie A’s best offense (Milano) vs. best defense (Trento) in this 1-4 semifinal matchup. While Trento made quick work of Banco di Sardinia in the first round of the Serie A playoffs (they swept the island club 3-0), Milano went through some growing pains, as they dropped the opening game at home to the 8-seeded Betaland Capo D’Orlando before winning the next three convincingly.

Milano are the defending champs and have been the best club in Italy as of late, representing Italy in the Euroleague this past season. However, while they have been a dominant force in Serie A, that hasn’t necessarily been true in the Euroleague, as they were knocked out in the first round last year, and finished in dead last in the new 30-game format with a record of 8-22. While they do have the finances, and a Serie A license to become a contender again, clinching another Serie A championship would go a long way in terms of building some momentum for 2017-2018.

Milano depends on their backcourt to generate points and tempo, which says a lot about their guards and wings considering they averaged 86.2 ppg (No. 1 in Serie A play). Point guard Rick Hickman (10.9 ppg, 2.8 apg, 10.3 PIR average in Serie A play) and shooting guard Krunoslav Simon (12.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 15.3 PIR) are the main cogs to this Milano offense, while Jamel McLean (8.6 ppg, 11.6 PIR) adds flexibility and athleticism from the wing.

However, it won’t be easy, as Trento may have the best perimeter defense in Italy. Their tough-nosed approach is led by Aaron Craft, the former Ohio State product who has been a key player for the fourth-seeded club that finished 18-12 this season. While Craft is a limited offensive player, he makes up for those deficiencies with tenacious defense and effort. For offense, that honor goes to Dominique Sutton, a high-volume wing scorer who is averaging 14.9 ppg in Serie A play. Considering Milano’s defensive inconsistencies this season, Sutton may be a handful for Milano’s perimeter players this series.

The key may be the post, as neither club excels in the painted area. Milano’s Miroslav Raduljica just isn’t the same player he was when he played in the NBA, and lacks athleticism, bounce and much versatility in his offensive game. And furthermore, Milan Macvan displays some potential, but it’s not necessarily a good sign when he’s the leading frontcourt player minutes-wise and he’s not even the leading rebounder on the team. For Trento, Filippo Baldi-Rossi is the main post threat, as he averaged 10.3 ppg and 5.2 rpg in about 22 mpg.

Way-too-non-informed prediction: Milano, probably comfortably

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Umana Reyer Venezia (2) vs. Scandone Avellino (3)

This will be a Basketball Champions League rematch of sorts, as Umana swept Scandone in the first round of the playoffs en route to their eventual berth in the inaugural Champions League Final Four (they lost to eventual champs Iberostar Tenerife in the semifinal and Monaco in the 3rd place game). Unlike the other semifinal series, where Milano has a distinct advantage in talent and resources, this one should be a more competitive series.

Umana finished 21-9 in Serie A play, and 9-5 in the Champions League. The club is a balanced one, as they ranked 4th in points per game and 5th in points per game allowed in Serie A play. The No. 2 seed heavily depends on point guard Marquez Haynes, who 12.1 ppg and 3.3 apg while averaging a team-high 29.2 mpg. In the post, Umana can get creative with center Hrvoje Peric, who is averaging 12.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg, and power forward Melvin Ejim (a former Fred Hoiberg product) who is averaging 10.5 ppg and 5.5 rpg and offers athletic, multiple position defensive versatility.

As for Scandone, they on paper have multiple players who can score buckets and in bunches. It is exhibited in the two point-guard combo of Joe Ragland (a huge fan favorite in Italy), who is averaging 17.7 ppg and 5.2 apg, and David Logan who is averaging 16.1 ppg. Both are incredibly dynamic scorers who can change the course of a game in a matter of seconds. Furthermore, add in versatile and physical forward Adonis Thomas in the mix (he is averaging 11.6 ppg), and the flexibility Scandone has definitely will make this a tough match up for the favored Umana club (Scandone also ranks 3rd in Serie A in points per game allowed).

What could sway this series is who will win on the road first. Both clubs went 14-3 at home this year in Serie A play, but struggled a bit on the road. However, Umana was slightly better, as they went 10-7 on the road in contrast to Scandone, who went 8-8. Both teams should hold serve at home in this series, which plays to Umana’s advantage. But, if Scandone can fix their road issues and steal one in Venezia, then it could go a long way in helping Scandone pull off the upset.

Way-too-non-informed prediction: Umana, but in a close one.

Adios a la Euroliga: a farewell to 2017 for the non-playoff teams

After the long, inaugural 30-round season, the Euroleague playoffs will begin on April 18th. Each of the eight postseason teams will be battling for a spot in the Euroleague Final Four, which takes place in Istanbul May 19-21st. For many squads, a Euroleague Final Four is expected and anything less would be considered a failure. For a few, a Euroleague final four might be the momentum the club may need to be a Euroleague mainstay for years to come.

However, this post is not about the playoffs, or the chances of a Final Four appearance for those eight teams in the postseason bracket. Rather, this is an ode, a eulogy for the remaining eight teams who did not make the postseason, and may or may not be back in the Euroleague in 2017-2018.

So grab your bottles, and let’s start pouring it out for those who missed the playoff cut in 2016-2017.

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Olimpia Milano (8-22, 16th place)

It hasn’t been your year Milano (or past couple of years, as you bowed out in the regular season last year as well). Many Euroleague and Italian fans thought you would perform better this year. You had the 6th highest payroll in the Euroleague this season. You signed Euroleague vets like Ricky Hickman and Miroslav Raduljica to boost your pick and roll combo. Alessandro Gentile was ready to have a breakout year before he eventually went to the Houston Rockets. Head Coach Jasmin Repesa was ready to make his mark after a disappointing Euroleague campaign in 2015-2016.

Oh how we were wrong. Gentile just imploded and was gone in a minute, playing in PAO green for a brief (unsuccessful) time before now making his way in Jerusalem. The wins came few and far between. It’s hard to say if this year was indeed worse than 2015-2016. A 30-game sample is a lot different from a 10-game one. But there wasn’t much to look on the bright side about. Yes, the win in Kaunas was nice. The coaches’ black on black with a red tie suit ensemble was always on point. (What else could you expect when your main sponsor is Armani?) But the future looks bleak for one of the most prestigious clubs in Europe today.

You still got that A-License though…for now at least. (Update: I imagine you can thank your EXTREMELY loyal fans for this.)

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Unics Kazan (8-22, 15th place)

You should have just changed your name to “Keith Langford” Kazan (KLK) for short. Sure, Quino Colom was fun, when he was healthy of course. Latavious Williams was a big body who could bruise around and throw it down. Artisom Parakhoski always put up good lines on a nightly basis, and Evgeny Voronov was that nice, local talent. And you could always depend on head coach Eugeny Pashutin for a hyped-up, crazy, “I only understood 65 percent of what he said” pre-game speech. And those uniforms were dope…loved the Kazan skyline and the white and green. But…yeah, it was a good run UNICS. You did about as well as we all expected in your return to the Euroleague, and that’s all we as fans could ask.

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Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv (10-20, 14th place)

What is going on Maccabi? That’s two years. Two straight years of disappointment, just like Milano. Last year, you went through three different head coaches, and were bounced out of the regular season and in the early rounds of the Eurocup. This year, you went through four head coaches, and were out of the playoff race by the 3/4 mark of the season. You have six Euroleague championships, the third-most in Euroleague history (behind Real Madrid and CSKA). You have a unique basketball legacy as one of the more well-known clubs outside of Europe. You are really the epicenter of Israeli club basketball, perhaps sports in general. When you think of Israeli professional sports, you think of Maccabi. You think of Nate Huffman, and David Blu. You think of Tyrese Rice, and David Blatt. You think of Big Sofos, and Jeremy Pargo.

10-20. Constant turmoil. Sonny Weems and Andrew Goudelock hogging the ball, unable to mesh with one another or the team in general. You have no post help beyond Colton Iverson. You depended on guys like Gal Mekel, Victor Rudd and Sylven Landesberg way too late. You are building up bad losses in the Winner League that could jeopardize your A-License status. If things keep going like they are, Euroleague basketball fans will have to live with a season, a full-30 game season without one of Europe’s legendary clubs.

This can’t happen Maccabi. Keep Ainars Bagatskis. Make some smart moves. Use your surprisingly limited budget wisely. We need Maccabi back in the playoff and perhaps Final Four picture soon.

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Brose Bamberg (10-20; 13th place)

Man, Bamberg. You were on the cusp. If you look at your pythagorean W-L total (points scored vs. points allowed), you really had the profile of a 13-to-15 win team. Instead, you only won 10, and you were out of the playoff race sooner than you should have. There were so many good things to witness from you, Bamberg, the lone German representative in this year’s revised Euroleague. Nicolo Melli put up a renaissance year in the post. Andrea Trinchieri continues to prove that he is one of the brightest and most entertaining coaches in Europe today. Darius Miller did “Darius Miller” things (some good, some bad). Fabien Caseur had a career boost after an injury-riddled year last season with Baskonia. Daniel Theis may be the next Tibor Pleiss: big German center with a “ice”-sounding name.

But the losses…so heartbreaking, and in such frequent fashion. Whether it was on the road, or in front of the loyal and rabid home fans in Bamberg, they just came and came…and came. For a while, I thought you could be a playoff team. I though we could see an Itoudis-Trinchieri playoff matchup. I thought we could see the Melli-renaissance continue in the postseason.

But so many close losses. So unlucky. Just wait until next October, Bamberg. You have lost enough chips at the Euroleague poker table already.

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Galatasaray Odeabank Istanbul (11-19, 12th place)

Out of all the Turkish teams, I may like you, Gala the best. Your ultras are loyal, even though you had the lowest budget of the four Turkish Euroleague teams this year. There’s an authenticity to your squad. An authenticity to the playmaking seance of Sinan Guler. An authenticity to Blake Schlib’s physicality at the 3, or Austin Daye’s stretch-4 shooting prowess. An authenticity to fans either immense hate or immense love for head coach Ergin Ataman. An authenticity to the team’s general “lax” attitude to defense and keeping opponents off the offensive glass. You could make the argument that Gala made a lot of poor roster decisions early in the year (cough…Russ Smith…cough). You could say that they probably underachieved, though in reality, they were a fringe-playoff team at best. You could say that this team isn’t taking the next step with Ataman as coach, especially considering how polarizing this team was at the end of the year.

But don’t say you lacked “authenticity.” I enjoyed watching your  “one-year show” in the Euroleague. You scored buckets. You ran the floor. You beat good teams when we least expected it, and lost to bad teams when we expected wins. You looked like a playoff contender down the stretch on the road, and perhaps a bottom-end Eurocup team at home in the same time span. And yet, there was a genuine-feeling to yo guys, your club, inside and out. Something that Dacka or even Efes didn’t have. That authenticity that makes a Euroleague club really special, makes it different from the typical professional basketball club in the NBA, Europe or anywhere else in the world.

You weren’t great by any means, but you will be missed next year. I hope, much like the case for Valencia, we’ll see more televised Eurocup games on Euroleague TV next season so we can see more of you and your ultras.

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FC Barcelona Lassa (12-18; 11th place)

We probably should have seen this down season coming, Barca. You seemed to live in a world where you had one foot in the “rebuild” door and the other in the “stay the course” one. You were like a casanova trying to pick two lovers, but eventually disappointing both of them. The hiring of Georgios Bartzokas, signified a rebuild or a change in direction as a club, as he had no Spanish coaching or playing experience. But then again, you kept a lot of the same talent from the Pascual era. Back was Justin Doellman. Back was Joey Dorsey (who didn’t last long). Back was Brad Oleson. Back was Ante Tomic and the corpse of Juan Carlos Navarro. It looked like a Xavi Pascual squad, only it was a Greek, not a Catalan, who was coaching the red and blue.

And when you try to live in both worlds, generally speaking, those worlds collide in bad ways.  And that was the case time and time again in 2016-2017. Barca, you just never really seemed cohesive on the offensive end, and just struggled to put the ball in the bucket. Peterri Koponen from Finland showed glimpses, as did youthful star Aleksander Vezenkov, but for the most part, your style was akin to those Detroit Pistons teams of the late 2000’s, after they won their title in 2004: old, stiff, and boring to watch, and worst of all, not a threat in the postseason race.

It’s sad to see you like this. You were so close to making a Final Four a year ago, and now it seems like the club has been put years behind in terms of rebuilding. Bartzokas is good as gone, as may anybody else with ties to the Pascual-era. You should’ve just cut off the head and started from scratch a year ago with a clean roster when you hired Bartzokas. Instead, we had to witness you guys endure a long, slow death with a dead-man walking in Bartzokas leading the futile Euroleague charge.

Thanks for making Barcelona fans, and us general European basketball fans, nearly masochists in the process.

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Zalgiris Kaunas (14-16; 10th place)

Last season, Zalgiris, you had a Euroleague season to forget. You fired your coach in the middle of the Top 16 round and hired Lithuanian point “god” legend Sarunas Jasikevicius to finish the year. Well…while you did win a LKL title, you didn’t do much better in the Euroleague, as you finished last in Top 16 play. And to make matters worse, at the start of the summer, it seemed almost certain that Saras was going to coach his former club, Barcelona in 2016-2017. It looked like it was going to be a rough stretch for you, Lithuania’s lone Euroleague representative.

But then, ACB rules prohibited Saras from coaching Barcelona and they hired Bartzokas instead. I said how this was going to be a good thing, and how Saras would develop as a coach while mentoring your younger players and roster. You signed Kevin Pangos, a former Zag whom I love. And you kept your core intact, made up mostly of Lithuanians with prestige youth playing experience.

It wasn’t exactly easy street. You struggle to find a go-to guy in crunch time. Your loss at home against Efes which effectively eliminated you from the playoffs was heart-wrenching, as many general Euroleague fans were pulling for you to make the field of eight. Maybe Saras just was a little “too tense” in big moments, and big games. But you guys did it your way: with a young roster, with fellow countrymen, utilizing the home crowd fans to your advantage time and time again. Kaunas wasn’t quite Belgrade, but it certainly was a solid candidate for number 2 for the best crowds in the Euroleague this season.

You should be commended Saras for what you did, for winning 14 games with a roster that was probably pegged to finish in the bottom half in the preseason. It was a joy to see Paulius Jankunas develop as an inside-outside threat, Lukas Lekavicius go balls out off the bench, and Leo Westermann demonstrate basketball IQ and a shooting stroke on a nightly basis. I never felt Zalgiris was a serious playoff contender at any point in the year, even in their crucial game against Efes in Kaunas. They just didn’t have that athleticism or that “star”. But Zalgiris was like that wonderful, scrappy, Mid-Major basketball team with the charismatic coach who got the most out of his players.

Man, I feel sorry for whoever is going to take over for Saras in Kaunas next year. This was a very special Zalgiris team not just for Lithuanian fans, but European basketball fans in general.

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Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (16-14, 9th place)

What can I say that hasn’t been said already about Red Star? You had the lowest payroll in the Euroleague. And yet, you were one game away from making the playoffs despite a paltry budget of five million euros (that’s right…five…freaking…million…euros). You lost Quincy Miller and Maik Zirbes to Maccabi, two key guys who led you to the playoffs a season ago. And who did you replace them with? Charles Jenkins, a combo guard who’s not really quick enough to be a true point, or tall enough to be a shooter; and Ognjen Kuzmic, who was coming off a lackluster year with PAO in 2015-2016. It was just those two, South Dakotan legend Nate Wolters, and a whole bunch of young players who came from your developmental system. Much like Zalgiris, this was expected to be a developmental year.

But I should have known better than to doubt the Red Star ultras. I should have known better than to downplay the coaching Dejan Redonjic. I should have known better and realized that Serbia produces some of the best young basketball talent in the world. I should have known better…Red Star is no slouch. Red Star plays with pride, they play with toughness, and the play to win…each and every night in the Euroleague.

Kuzmic surprised us, displaying the post skills that made him once a NBA draft pick. Marko Simonovic was the leader of the bench mob thanks to his streaky outside shooting. Stefan Jovic was becoming a point guard savant up there with the best of the Euroleague until he got injured. Nemanja Dangubic started to display the two-way, multiple position skills that makes him one of the more debated prospects in Europe. And Mjelko Bjelica? He proved to be the ultimate “dad-ball” player (i.e. an older guy who plays pickup and looks like he should suck, but is actually pretty good).

We all wish it was you, and not Dacka in the playoffs Red Star. We will miss your fans. We will miss your young roster. We will miss the Marko Guduric heat check step backs. We will miss Branko Lazic’s intensity on the defensive end.

We will just miss Serbian basketball in the postseason…it just goes underappreciated way too fucking much.

Three “Transfers” That Should Have Happened in the Euroleague

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

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

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

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Move 1: Anthony Randolph and Dontaye Draper to Barcelona

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

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

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

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Move 2: Keith Langford to Zalgiris Kaunas

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

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

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

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Move 3: Alessandro Gentile to Brose Bamberg

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

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

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

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.

“Basketball Tapas”: FIBA CL announces field, Eurocup adds 4 new clubs, Hickman joins Milano, Maccabi TA finds Miller replacement

In this edition of “Basketball Tapas”, the focus will be on the FIBA Champions League and their announcement of their field for the 2016-2017 as well as the Eurocup adding four new additions to replace the four Italian clubs that defected to the Champions League last minute. Also, we’ll take a look at couple of Euroleague clubs who made some key moves to boost their rosters.

Now, let’s get to serving!

FIBA Champions League announces field

After waiting for the Euroleague and Eurocup to make their announcements, as well as ironing out some last minute additions, the FIBA Champions League finally announced their draw for the upcoming 2016-2017 season. You can take a look at some of the highlights in the tweet below

 

Some key things to note about that draw and groupings:

  • Group D looks to be the most promising and competitive group in the regular season. Eurocup and LNB runner-up Strasbourg heads the group, but clubs such as Iberostar Tenerife of the ACB, KK Cibona and Mega Leks of the ABA, and possibly Besiktas of the BSL, if they get of the qualification group, will also be challenging for group supremacy. If there is a “group of death” of sorts of the four, group D may be it.
  • Speaking of Besiktas and the qualification rounds, I imagine there are some teams who probably aren’t happy about their status of playing in these rounds. Besiktas probably made the biggest splash in terms of transfers of any club in the BSL beyond the four Euroleague participants, and yet they only got a bye from the first round of qualification play. Furthermore, Dinamo Sassari, who participated in the Euroleague the past two seasons, will have to win in both rounds of qualification play to make it to the regular season group stage. They definitely were hit the hardest of the four Italian clubs who left the Eurocup out of fear of being banned in Serie A play.
  • The format is similar to the old Eurocup model, which has it’s positive and negatives (more teams participating, but less guaranteed exposure and games for teams in comparison to the newly-remodeled Euroleague and Eurocup models). As stated in a previous post, the competition is stronger than anticipated, but it’ll be interesting to see if the “favorites” (Strasbourg, Pinar Karsiyaka, Aris, etc.) will persevere to the playoffs and Final Four in this more cutthroat cup competition where there is less forgiveness when it comes to early losses. For FIBA’s CL to be taken seriously, they need big-time clubs to make it to the championship to get attention from basketball fans all over Europe. Unfortunately, this model is less conducive to making that happen in comparison to its competition (Eurocup), and that is a big risk for FIBA in their first year of this new “league”.

 

Eurocup adds four new clubs to make up for Italian defection

Days after the Eurocup officially announced its field, the four Italian clubs participating in the competition withdrew out of fear of sanctions and suspension from Serie A domestic play. This included Reggio Emilia, Cantu, Trento, and Sassari, as they ended up moving to the Champions League instead in order to avoid punishment (though they certainly took their time in doing so; it wasn’t confirmed that their four Italian clubs were out of the Eurocup officially until the recent Champions League field announcement).

The Eurocup didn’t wait long though to find replacements. Shortly after the Champions League announcement, the Eurocup announced the addition of four new clubs to take the place of the Italian defectors: Montakit Fuenlabrada of Spain, MZT Skopje Aerodrom of Macedonia, Lietkabelis Panevezys of Lithuania, and Volgograd of Russia. Fuenlabrada, who competes in the ACB Liga Endesa, and made the playoffs as a No. 8 seed last season, had some fun with their Eurocup announcement on Twitter:

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It is a bit sad to see that we will see three major European countries not represented in the Eurocup (France, Turkey and now Italy), which hurts the Eurocup’s position as the top second-tier competition in Europe. However, the addition of some new clubs to the mix should add some nice variety to the Eurocup field. MZT Skopje represents a country that has been underrepresented in major club competitions (Macedonia), and they could help get the country and its basketball federation a bit more recognition. Furthermore, Fuenlabrada proved to be a fun team in the ACB last season, led by Croatian standout Marko Popovic, and it’ll be intriguing to see if Popovic can have the kind of impact in the Eurocup this season like he did in the ACB a year ago.

The absence of Italian clubs in the Eurocup will be noted in 2016-2017, but the Eurocup rebounded nicely and quickly with these four additions.

Guard Ricky Hickman signs with EA7 Armani Milano

Former Maccabi Tel Aviv and Fenerbahce point guard Ricky Hickman announced that he will be signing with EA7 Armani Milano, a big signing for the Italian club that is coming off a Euroleague campaign where they did not qualify for Top 16 play.

Hickman represents another key move in what has been an active off-season for the defending Serie A champions. In addition to signing Hickman to take over point guard duties, they also kept star player Alessandro Gentile from going to the NBA (the Houston Rockets apparently had strong interest), and also signed Slovenian forward Zoran Dragic from Khimki and Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica from Panathinaikos. Not only are they favorites to retain the Serie A championship, but they could be dark horse contenders for the playoffs and perhaps Final Four with the strong quartet of Hickman, Gentile, Dragic and Raduljica.

After dominating the Euroleague in the early years of the “modern” format, only one Italian club has made the Final Four since 2005 (Montepaschi Siena in 2011). Milano, one of the strongest and most historic clubs in the Italian Serie A, has not made the Final Four since 1992, and one can imagine head coach Jasmin Repesa and the Milano organization and fans are eager to break both of those streaks in 2017. Milano still had to develop some depth and probably need to add a couple of pieces to make their frontcourt stronger around Raduljica, but so far this summer, Milano has done a lot to make their club stronger after such a down Euroleague campaign a year ago.

Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv signs forward Richard Howell

After the devastating injury to Quincy Miller, one of Maccabi’s premier signings this off-season, the Israeli powerhouse seems to have found a solution to their Miller situation. Richard Howell is on his way to the “Yellows” in Tel Aviv, via reports and this announcement on his Twitter. The 6’8, 25-year-old former North Carolina standout has played in the NBA as well as the D-League, and fortunately will be familiar with the club and the country, as he played last season with Ironi Nahariya in the Winner League, where he averaged over 15 ppg and 9.8 rpg. (Howell also played for Talk n Text of PBA in the Philippines last year, as pictured above.) Howell seems to be optimistic about going to Maccabi and Israel, as he had this to say on his Twitter:

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Howell is not as “pure” replacement for Miller of course. While he does help their frontcourt, he doesn’t have Miller’s ball handling skills, and is not the outside threat from beyond the arc that Miller is. He is more of an “around the basket” player, who relies on his athleticism and crafty, physical skills to generate points and garner boards on both the offensive and defensive end. That being said, he is a much better rebounder than Miller, and he will provide a nice physical combo for Tel Aviv when combined with Maik Zirbes, who plays in the same, “hard-nosed” style. Considering Maccabi was one of the worst rebounding teams in the Euroleague last season (they ranked near the bottom in defensive rebounding rate), their signing of Howell is a nice addition that should help make up for the loss of Miller somewhat.

Other “Tapas” of note…

  • Luke Harangody re-signs with Darussafaka Dogus: This was an expected move, as it didn’t seem like Harangody was sought after by many other European clubs or back home in the NBA, but this is good confirmation for head coach David Blatt. Harangody is a tough, crafty player who lacks natural athleticism but makes up for it with good footwork around the rim, and a “high-motor” on both ends of the floor. With Semih Erden gone to the NBA, Harangody will most likely be the “primary” player in the pivot for Darussafaka.
  • Real Madrid re-signs Andrés Nocioni: The “Los Blancos” juggernaut keeps getting bigger. After re-signing Jeff Taylor, they have also signed Dontaye Draper to help with point guard duties, and now have extended the Argentinian mainstay. Nocioni will be a peculiar fit, as the frontcourt is a lot more crowded with the addition of Anthony Randolph, and he could see more competition at the small forward with Taylor and teenage sensation Luka Doncic, who improved mightily last year. Nocioni will find his minutes, but he will be depended on less this upcoming year than in years past.
  • Kenny Gabriel close to signing with Olympiacos: With DJ Strawberry heading to Besiktas, Olympiacos is in need of athleticism on the wing. Olympiacos initially targeted former CSKA Moscow wing Demetris Nichols, but they have been unable to get a commitment from him as he is in discussion with some NBA teams still. In response, they have signed athletic wing Erick Green from the D-League, as well as Khem Birch to give them a boost of strength in the frontcourt. In their latest moves to get more athletic on the wing, Olympiacos has turned to former Pinar Karsiyaka forward Kenny Gabriel, who provides a similar skill-set to what Strawberry provided last season. Panathinaikos may have gotten a lot of the headlines this summer, but don’t count out their rival Olympiacos, who has made some shrewd moves to become more athletic this off-season.
  • Crvena Zvezda active with Ognjen Kuzmic and Jenkins signings: After losing Miller and Zirbes to Maccabi Tel Aviv, and parting ways with Tarence Kinsey, Red Star remained pretty quiet this summer as other Euroleague teams spent money left and right to boost their roster. While the club seems committed to building their club with local, Serbian talent, the past week has been the most active one of the summer for the surging Serbian club that made it to the Euroleague playoffs for the first time in club history. They signed Jenkins to replace Kinsey, a solid signing considering Jenkins is a more dynamic scorer than Kinsey, and he has familiarity with the Red Star club and environment (he played for them from 2013-2015), which should make his transition an easy one (the video of his sister reacting in awe to the Red Star “fans” in Belgrade remains one my favorites). The addition of Kuzmic also solidifies their front court, as the seven footer is the kind of presence that they need in the block on the offensive and rebounding end with Zirbes gone. It came a little later than expected, but Crvena Zvezda definitely seems primed to make another run to the playoffs, especially with this new combo of talent and coach Dejan Radonjic returning to Belgrade, a big victory for the club considering he was offered the position at Laboral Kutxa Baskonia this off-season.

Olympiacos’ Vassilis Spanoulis, Anadolu Efes’ Dario Saric, and Everyone Else; A Euroleague Group B Preview

The passionate and rowdy fans of Olympiacos will be expecting a 7th Euroleague title this season, which would be the most in Euroleague history.

If you read the Euroleague Group A preview, it sounds like Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul and Real Madrid seem to be head and shoulders above the competition in their group. But while they clearly are favorites, I would not under-estimate the potential of the other four in the group, especially Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade and Khimki Moscow, who all have enough interesting pieces on their respective rosters to provide more challenge than expected in the group. I can’t help but see anyone but Fenerbahce or Real Madrid emerging as the top dog from the group, but it will be a night-in, night-out slog for them, especially in the initial 10-game stretch. One team will be eliminated from the playoffs that would have qualified had they been in a different group.

Group B seems to be that “other” group. Olympiacos finished as the runner-up in last year’s Euroleague Final Four, and they return most of the horses that nearly got them a championship. Furthermore, Fenerbahce’s Turkish rival Anadolu Efes Istanbul also remains a contender thanks to another year of Dario Saric, who has Philadelphia 76ers basketball fans hoping and wishing he will make it to the states soon and in one piece. (I mean, you can’t keep tanking forever, right?) But other than that? EA7 Emporio Armani Milan added some interesting talent in former Purdue Boilermaker and Minnesota Timberwolf Robbie Hummel and Croatian big man Stanko Barac, but they still are a bit of an unknown quantity after their up and down campaign a year ago. And the remaining three clubs (Cedevita Zagreb, Limoges CSP and Laboral Kutxa Vitoria Gastiez) really appear to be lukewarm competitively without much high end talent or depth to compete with the top dogs of the group.

But, when you have one of the Euroleague’s best teams (Olympiacos) and most interesting players (Saric), it makes your group worth watching, even if it doesn’t have the competitive depth of some of the other Groups.

Vassilis Spanoulis (center with waving towel) remains Olympiacos’ best player and leader going into 2015-2016

When it comes to talking about Olympiacos, the discussion always starts and centers on standout Greek guard Vassilis Spanoulis. Spanoulis has been the catalyst for Olympiacos for quite a while, and he was crucial in helping Olympiacos to another Euroleague title appearance last season (which they lost 78-59 to Real Madrid; though to be fair, Madrid had the home court advantage). In 2014-2015, he averaged 14.4 ppg, 5.5 apg and a PIR of 14.4, all team-leading categories. When it came to usage in Olympiacos’ more methodical attack, no one was more important last year for Olympiacos than Spanoulis. Though he is a year older, the pressure and responsibility to carry this squad in the Euroleague will remain on him. How he plays will most likely reflect how well Olympiacos does this year and whether or not they will get another crack in the Euroleague Final Four.

Spanoulis is not just the face of Olympiacos basketball, but the face of Greek basketball as well. His time and contribution to the Greek National Team has been long noted, and it was a bit bittersweet for him and fans of his as this latest Eurobasket will be his last appearance for the Greek National Team (as profiled in this post by Euroleague Adventures). Furthermore, as noted in the EA post by Sam Meyerkopf, time is reaching an end for Spanoulis’ career, and his legacy is a bit mixed, as he has struggled to share the limelight with others (most famously in Panathinaikos; Olympiacos’ Greek club rival) as well as take care of the ball (he is known for being a turnover machine, as evidenced by his team-leading 3.1 TOPG last season, which kills his assist rate). But Spanoulis still can be a wildly productive and entertaining player, and that was on full display in the Euroleague final in 2013 where he absolutely torched Real Madrid for 22 in the Euroleague Final (all in the 2nd half). Check out the video and some of the shots he makes, especially at the 2:20 mark where his make from near half-court is the dagger that puts Real Madrid out for good.

Nonetheless, while Spanoulis will be a critical part of the team, they will need help if they want to finish the job and earn another Euroleague championship to their trophy case. Olympiacos has done that adding a lot of young, athletic talent in Patric Young (formerly of the University of Florida) and Daniel Hackett (a former USC Trojan who played for EA7 last year and the Italian national team in the most recent Eurobaket). If the newly acquired talent can provide Olympiacos a spark (along with Spanoulis continuing his strong play), then their chances of a 7th Euroleague Championship could strongly be within their grasp.

Dario Saric is one of the most interesting players in the Euroleague due to his importance to Anadolu Efes as well as the Philadelphia 76ers who drafted him in 2014.

In Group B, no player is more fascinating the Croatian Dario Saric. Saric was famously drafted No. 12 by the Magic in the 2014 NBA Draft and traded to Philly, though Philly knew full well that Saric wouldn’t be coming to the States for at least two years. Despite that, he remains a centerpiece for the Sixers future, and how he performs for Efes and in the Euroleague will be a sign whether General Manager Sam Hinkie’s gamble and “rebuilding” plan was worth it for the Sixers organization. It’s fascinating to see so much hope and pressure on a guy who most American basketball fans have never seen before.

But, if last year was any indicator with Efes, then it is easy to see why the Sixers organization has been enamored with Saric. As a 20-year-old in his first full European club campaign, Saric averaged 9.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.4 apg and a PIR of 12.6 in 27 games for Efes. And Saric did this despite being a clear 2nd-3rd option behind Nenad Kristic and Stephen Lasme, and on a team whose style of play was more methodical (they averaged 75.3 ppg) and expected more physical play out of their taller post players.

However, veterans Kristic and Lasme are both gone, so Saric now inherits the mantle as the premiere post player for Efes. Saric offers a balanced, inside-outside skill set, and displays strong athleticism and footwork for a player 6’10. He was tabbed the 2013 FIBA Europe Young Man’s player of the year, and has built a tremendous reputation for his performance in International competition as well as a strong work ethic and intensity for such a young player. Just check out this “Focus On” profile him below, and not only do his passing and scoring skills jump out at you, but his composure and maturity for a 20-year-old (actually 19 at the time of the interview).

Efes doesn’t have a lot of big time names on their roster beyond Saric, so it’ll be interesting to see who will step up around him for Efes this season. Alex Tyus could be an interesting pickup, as he saw some valuable time for Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv the past 3 seasons, and was another member of their 2013-2014 Euroleague championship squad. Whoever becomes the main complementary player(s), the attention and high expectations will still be on Saric to help Efes make a playoff run to the Final Four (they have made it twice in club history, finishing 3rd both times). If he makes a big leap (and all signs are pointed to one) then not only expect Efes to succeed, but Sixers fans to be clamoring heavily for him, especially as they are expected to go through another rough season.

Robbie Hummel of EA7 dunks the ball past Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv defender Dragan Bender in Game 1 of the Euro Classic in Chicago, which Maccabi won 85-79. EA7 won Game 2 at Madison Square Garden 76-72.

Of the four remaining teams, EA7 has the best chance to make some noise, especially with the additions of perimeter scorers Robbie Hummel and Charles Jenkins, who should boost the consistency of the offense, something that EA7 struggled with at times last year. Also, they return Alessandro Gentile, who performed well for Italy at the FIBA Eurobasket (which the Italians finished 8th) and averaged 14.3 ppg last year for EA7. These three along with Oliver Lafayette, who averaged 6.8 ppg for Olympiacos last year, should provide EA7 with a solid backcourt. How their front court progresses though is a question, and it will be interesting to see who steps up in the post to help free things up for their talented perimeter players. Being one dimensional (i.e. relying on their perimeter players) may get them to the second round, but not much further than that against deeper and more balanced squads.

Cedevita Zagreb doesn’t feature a lot of big names with mainstream basketball fans, but one: Jacob Pullen, the former Kansas State Wildcat. Pullen averaged 14.3 ppg for Basket Brindisi of the Italian League last year, and also has Euroleague experience from a stint with FC Barcelona a couple of years ago. It’ll be interesting to see if Pullen can help lead Cedevita to the second round and garner the fourth and final group spot, especially with Limoges CSP and Laboral Kutxa featuring mostly young, countrymen-heavy rosters, usually a sign of a rebuild for the club.