Under-the-Radar: Musa of BIH and Vasiliauskas of Lithuania are Talents from Unlikely Places

Dzanan Musa of Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the top talents in Europe that comes from a country that isn’t exactly a basketball powerhouse.

When it comes to European basketball development, certain countries and clubs have a stronger reputation for developing talent than others. If you are from Serbia, you have a strong basketball talent history that includes players like Vlade Divac and Milos Teodosic. If you played for Real Madrid B (Real Madrid’s developmental team), you also played for a club that developed talent such Nikola Mirotic and Bojan Bogdanovic. Certain countries and clubs in Europe have a more illustrious history when it comes to producing basketball talent, and thus, there is higher attention on players from those countries and clubs when it comes to finding “the next big stars” in European basketball.

However, there is a tendency sometimes for talent to come from unexpected European countries and/or club programs. That is the case with two players who faced off against each other in the 2015 U16 FIBA European Championship last year: Dzanan Musa of Bosnia/Herzegovina, who played for Cedevita Zagreb during the Euroleague and ANGT, and Grantas Vasiliauskas of Lithuania who played for his home club of Alytus SRC during the domestic season, and on loan for Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius in the ANGT. Despite the fact that they did not come from a “power” country or club in the European basketball scene, these two versatile talents are rising up quickly in the youth scene, and could be major contributors to upper-level clubs in the next couple of years.

Let’s take a brief look at each player, as well as check out some of their highlights.

 

Dzanan Musa, Forward

Dzanan Musa not only played for Cedevita during the ANGT, but also spent some time with the senior club during the Euroleague season.

Country: Bosnia/Herzegovina; Club: Cedevita Zagreb; Height: 2.03 meters

2015/2016 ANGT Stats: 16.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 7.2 apg, 2.4 spg, 52.9 2-pt FG %, 40 3-pt FG % (5 games).

Bosnia and Herzegovina is developing as a country in basketball, but by no means are they up there with traditional “former-Yugoslavian” powers such as Serbia and Croatia. In the 2015 Eurobasket, BIH failed to get out of the group round, and only went 1-4 in group play, their lone win being a 1-point win over Israel. Granted, they do have some recent talent who have made a name for themselves in the global basketball scene as of late. Sharp shooting forward Mirza Teletovic of the Phoenix Suns, and formerly of the Brooklyn Nets, has carved out a good career in the NBA, and center Jusuf Nurkic seems to be following his lead with the Denver Nuggets, though he suffered some injuries that set him back a little last year.  Furthermore, guard Nihad Dedovic of Bayern Munich, Milan Milosevic of AEK Athens, and Elmedin Kikanovic of Alba Berlin, have represented the BIH well by playing for clubs that participate in the Euroleague and Eurocup scene. But if you go back further or look beyond those names, there is not a lot of extensive history of basketball players from Bosnia and Herzegovina making a major impact in Europe or in America.

Musa however seems to be the exception to that rule. Last summer, during the U16 European Basketball Championships, Musa earned MVP honors in leading Bosnia and Herzegovina to their first Gold Medal in any kind of FIBA competition (be in European or World). Musa averaged 23.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 6.3 apg for BIH and scored 33 points and had 8 rebounds and 7 assists in BIH’s 85-83 victory of Lithuania, who was playing the Gold Medal game in front of their home country fans in Kaunas.

During the tournament, Musa displayed a versatile and explosive game, as he is able to beat defenders off the dribble, but is skilled enough to step back and hit the mid-range and 3-point shot. If there is one word to describe Musa’s game it is “active”. Musa is a multi-tool players and a legitimate “triple double” threat that can carry a team, as was obvious last year with his home BIH squad. Check out the highlights below and see how Musa torched the competition during the U16 European Championship, especially against global powers like Lithuania in the Gold Medal game and Spain in the Semi-finals (he also scored 24 points in their 86-78 OT win).

Since the European championship, Musa has kept the momentum going after signing with Cedevita Zagreb. He put up a strong overall performance in the ANGT, averaging 16.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 7.2 apg, once again showing that multi-faceted ability that makes him so intriguing as a player against the best under-18 talent in Europe. However, his success and impact wasn’t simply limited to the ANGT, as Musa also appeared in 10 games for Cedevita during the Euroleague campaign. Though he only averaged 2.7 ppg, Musa was the ninth-youngest player in Euroleague history to make his debut, and he held up well considering he was only 16 years old and playing against some of the best veterans in Europe (in his debut he matched up against Olympiacos guard and Greek legend Vasilis Spanoulis).

Musa has the chance to be a real impact player not just in Europe, but abroad as well. He has a well-rounded game (he can create for others as well as himself), an excellent shooting stroke and the kind of competitive fire that can carry a team, even one that may not be as talented. Musa does have times where his game can be streaky. In the ANGT, he started off strong in the qualifying round with a 37 point performance against Bayern Munich and a 24 point performance against Partizan Belgrade, but he struggled to find his rhythm in the following 3 games, as he scored only 9 points in the final qualifying round game against Zemun Belgrade, 13 points against Spurs Sarajevo in the first Belgrade Final Round game, and zero in 9 minutes of play in a re-match with Partizan with a trip to the Finals in Berlin on the line (though an injury was a reason for his limited time).

Granted, while Musa couldn’t carry Cedevita to the ANGT Finals in Berlin, and didn’t have as strong a finish to the tournament as his start, he definitely displayed that he has the potential to be one of the best overall players and pure scorers in Europe. And furthermore, he’s doing it from a country whose national program has only been established since 1992.

Yes, Teletovic and Nurkic may be the figureheads for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s basketball program now, and rightfully so considering their status in the NBA. However, expect Musa to inherit their place on that mantle within the next five or so years.

 

Grantas Vasiliauskas, Forward

Grantas Vasiliauskas had a strong performance for Lithuania in the 2015 Euorpean Championships as well as the ANGT for Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius

Country: Lithuania; Club: Alytus SRC and Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius; Height: 2.00 meters.

2015/2016 ANGT stats: 14.7 ppg, 5 rpg, 3.7 apg; 47.5 2-pt FG%; 30.8 3-pt FG%.

Vasiliauskas comes from Lithuania, which is a pretty big hotbed when it comes to basketball talent. NBA players that have come from the county include Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors, Sarunas Marciulonis, formerly of the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors, Sarunas Jasikevicius, formerly of the Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors (not to mention numerous European clubs like Maccabi Tel Aviv, Barcelona, Fenerbahce, Zalgris, and Panathinaikos), and of course, Arvydas Sabonis, formerly of the Portland Trail Blazers. So, Vasiliauskas doesn’t exactly come from a less-developed basketball country like Musa.

However, what makes Vasiliauskas different from other Lithuanian basketball players is the fact that he doesn’t come from a big program or town. He isn’t from Vilnius or Kaunas (the two biggest cities in Lithuania), nor is he in the systems of Lithuania’s premier clubs, like Zalgiris, Lietuvos (more on this later) or Neptunas. Instead, Vasiliauskas played for his hometown club of Alytus SRC, based in his home town of Alytus, which has a population of less than 55,000 residents, according to this feature piece on Vasiliauskas on the Euroleague web site. Vasiliauskas went under the radar in his home country by the major clubs, mostly because of where he lived, and the fact that his father was a champion rower, not basketball player.

However, while his background may be anonymous in Lithuania, his game certainly is not. Lietuvos sought the “under-the-radar” talent from Alytus, after his strong performance in the European Championships where he averaged 10.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 2.4 apg in 9 games, which included a 12 point-6 rebound performance in the championship against BIH. Vasiliauskas did not disappoint for the club based out of Vilnius, as he averaged 14.7 ppg, 5 rpg and 3.1 apg while averaging 29 minutes per game. Vasiliauskas’ best performance came in the qualifying round, where he averaged 16.7 ppg and put up a 25 point-9 rebound stat line against VEF Riga. Furthermore, he did have some strong performances against much better competition in the Final Round in Berlin, as he scored 15 points against ANGT runner-up Crvena Zvzeda and 15 points against Alba Berlin.

Vasiliauskas doesn’t have the dynamic scoring ability or explosiveness of Musa, but if there is one word to describe his game it is “consistency”. Vasiliauskas plays within himself on a regular basis, and displays a solid overall skill set that mirrors Musa’s, though he doesn’t have the ceiling that Musa has as a player. One of the most impressive aspects of Vasiliauskas’ game is his heightened-sense of awareness on the court. He finds open pockets of the defense naturally, which leads to a lot of easy baskets; has a nose for the ball on lose balls and on rebounds, both on the offensive and defensive end; and is a strong passer, able to hit cutting teammates through tight windows with relative ease. Check out his highlights below, and though he doesn’t blow one away like Musa, he certainly does impress with his consistency and overall skill set displayed.

If there is one issue with Vasiliauskas’ game is that his shooting isn’t consistent and still is in need of refinement. Most of the buckets we see for him in the highlight tape are finishes around the hoop (layups and dunks), and his lackluster shooting percentages (47.5 from 2; 30.8 from 3) during the ANGT display that he doesn’t have the kind of outside game to make opponents play him honest on the perimeter (teams can sag to stop his drive or push him off the block, which is where he seems to prefer to play in the half court: moving from high to low post and creating from where he receives the ball). Vasiliauskas’ shooting form looks good in terms of elbow positioning and footwork, but it appears that his release is a little slow, which may be a reason why he struggles to find a consistent stroke on the floor.

It will be interesting to see if the “small town” kid will find a bigger club to participate with next year. His impressive performance with Lietuvos has the big club (which finished second in the Lithuanian league at the senior level) thinking about buying him out from Alytus and developing him year-around, which would be crucial since he still has parts of his game that need work (mostly his shooting). However, they are not the only club in Lithuania with interest: defending Lithuanian champion and Euroleague participant Zalgiris is also thinking about buying his rights as well.

Vasiliauskas hasn’t necessarily hinted what club he is leaning toward, and he seems to not have ruled out staying with Alytus SRC for another year as well, though I think the need to face better competition will be better satisfied if he played with Lietuvos or Zalgiris. Whatever the young forward chooses, he is certainly rising in the radar of players to watch out for, not just in Lithuania, but in Europe as well. He probably doesn’t have the European superstar potential like Musa, and I don’t even know if he has the kind of game that would translate to the NBA. While he certainly has the maturity and intensity to perhaps compete at that level down the road, I just don’t know if he will develop the size and athleticism to match up against NBA players (Musa on the other hand has all those characteristics).

That being said, Vasiliauskas is a very talented player with a polished skill set and considerable upside that would be beneficial to a major European club’s current developmental team and senior team down the road. Don’t be surprised to see him starting or playing a primary bench role for a major club team in the Euroleague or Eurocup within the next 10 years.

Faded Star: Erez Edelstein and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv Looking to Bounce Back in 2016-2017

Gal Mekel (99) and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv are looking to rebound after a horrid 2015-2016 season

“I want to coach in the Euroleague. I think that is something that is missing in my career. Every coach wants to guide Maccabi. Every coach wants to coach in the Euroleague and so do I. I told the owners that I only want a contract for one year because I’m certain we’ll accomplish our goals.”

Erez Edelstein will be Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv’s 3rd head coach in less than a year. Even in European basketball, where coaching and player change is quite common, not to mention quick, this kind of turnover for the legendary club rings all kinds of alarms.

Just two years ago, in 2014, Maccabi was celebrating their 51st Winner League championship and their 6th Euroleague championship, despite entering the Final Four as heavy underdogs to CSKA Moscow (their semi-final opponent) and Real Madrid (their championship opponent). David Blatt was the hottest coach in the game, and Maccabi was the best story in European basketball, a classic case of how teamwork and determination could overcome tremendous money and talent. It was like the movie Hoosiers, only this time the story was taking place in Milan, Italy, not Indianapolis, Indiana.

Unfortunately, the luster of that 2014 Euroleague title for Maccabi has worn off quickly. Blatt left Maccabi to go to the United States to explore NBA opportunities (which eventually became the Cleveland Cavaliers head coaching position), and longtime assistant and former Maccabi player Guy Goodes took over the helm. There were some positives during Goodes first season: in the Winner League, Maccabi finished 27-6, won another Israeli Cup, and finished 16-11 in the Euroleague and qualified for the playoffs. Unfortunately, Goodes’ debut season was marred by some tremendous letdowns: Maccabi lost in the playoff semifinals to a 17-16 Hapoel Eliat team 3 games to 2, and they were convincingly swept in the Euroleague playoffs by Fenerbahce.

A disappointing end for Goodes and Maccabi in 2014-2015 only compounded to more frustration to start 2015-2016. Maccabi, playing in a difficult group with CSKA Moscow, Spanish club Unicaja Malaga, and German upstart Brose Baskets Bamberg, got off to a 1-3 start in Euroleague group play, the worst four-game start in Euroleague group play for the illustrious franchise in 17 years. And things only got worse domestically as well, as they started they year 3-2, which included an 88-83 loss to Maccabi Ashdod, a team that eventually went 9-13 in Winner League play.

The horrid start combined with the deflating finish the previous season was more than enough in Maccabi’s management’s eyes to part ways with Goodes.

After firing Guy Goodes, Maccabi hired Croatian Zan Tabak to right the ship…unfortunately, his performance wasn’t good enough.

After failing to lure Edelstein (more on this later) and Lithuanian legend Sarunas Jasikevicius (who eventually took over home club Zalgiris Kaunas after a mid-season coaching change), Maccabi settled with Croatian Zan Tabak, a former NBA and European player who had 20 years of playing experience professionally. However, while Tabak certainly had his merits as a player, his coaching experience was questionable, as his previous jobs included Sant Josep Girona and Trefl Sopot in Poland, Baskonia (Laboral Kutxa) in Spain, and Fuenlabrada of Spain, a mid-tier ACB squad. With the exception of his tenure in Baskonia, Tabak really didn’t have the kind of preparation or experience to handle the magnitude of a job like Maccabi, especially in mid-season.

There were some bright spots of course in Tabak’s campaign. They finished 3-3 in Euroleague play, and had some strong performances, especially in his first game as coach where they lost a heart-breaker to CSKA Moscow 88-82 (Maccabi led during most of the game). Maccabi also won another Israeli Cup, and finished the year 19-3 overall in Winner League play (they went 16-1 under Tabak).

Unfortunately, much like Goodes’ first year, Maccabi struggled at the end, as they were upset in the semifinals by Maccabi Rishon, a team that finished 11-11 in Winner League play. That finish was further compounded with a disappointing 2-4 performance in Eurocup play and not qualifying for the next round of the Eurocup, even though the competition was a far step down from what they had faced earlier in Euroleague play.

Hence, with these two major negatives glaring on his resume, Tabak had the chips stacked against him in terms of coming back the following year, and that was proven to be true after Maccabi decided to part ways with him in June.

With all this turmoil and overreaction, it seems crazy that anyone in their right mind would want to coach Maccabi. One mistake, and you’re looking for another coaching job the next day.

But, Edelstein seems to be more than up for the challenge.

Edelstein’s National Team coaching experience in the Eurobasket 2015 should bode well for Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2016-2017

Edelstein is a bit of an antithesis of the previous two coaches. Goodes was a Blue and Gold lifer, who had not only spent considerable time as an assistant coach, but also played for Maccabi for eight seasons in the 90’s. As for Tabak, he was a legendary European player of sorts, who had a NBA playing pedigree, which included stints with teams such as the Toronto Raptors and the Houston Rockets. He also had performances like the video below, which shows the potential he could have had as a player in the NBA if a few more breaks went his way:

As for Edelstein, he doesn’t have extensive Maccabi ties, as he has never been in the organization as a player or even assistant coach. And unlike Tabak, he wasn’t a legendary player with an extensive resume that spans over multiple teams and continents.

But, Edelstein possesses something that neither of those previous Maccabi coaches had: success as an Israeli National Team coach.

In the Eurobasket 2015, Edelstein led the Israeli team to a 3-2 mark in group play, which was good for second in the group and qualified them for the round of 16. Though Israel was beat soundly by Italy in the elimination round 82-52, Edelstein and his squad finished 10th in the tournament overall, their best finish in European competition since 2005, when they finished 9th.

Furthermore, Israel also experienced some good wins in last summer’s Eurobasket, including a 75-73 nail-biter over Poland, a team with NBA player Marcin Gortat and college star Przemek Karnowski of Gonzaga. You can see in the video not only  how Israel was able to score and create offense despite Poland’s massive size advantage in the paint, but how big the Israeli win was in terms of helping their country get more recognition on the mass European stage.

Edelstein is definitely a coach who gets the most out of his talent, not to mention manage it quite well. Despite some considerable size disadvantages in comparison to some of their opponents, Israel was able to neutralize it by running a free-flowing offense that included a lot of outside shooting not to mention some good ball movement, as well as dribble drive action. What was impressive during the tournament was how Edelstein utilized talent on his squad like Gal Mekel and Omri Casspi. Edelstein ran a lot of plays to set up his two talented perimeter players, and it paid off on frequent occasion. Casspi scored 16.8 points per game and shot 47.1 percent from beyond the arc. As for Mekel, he averaged 15.8 points per game and a team-leading 4.6 assists per game, while also shooting 54.5 percent from the field. That should be comforting to know for Maccabi fans that Edelstein knows how to utilize his talent on his roster, and it is even more promising since Mekel will be back with Maccabi next year.

Edelstein preaches ball movement, as evidenced during the Eurobasket where eight Israeli players averaged two or more assists per game. That is something that will fit in well with this Maccabi team, as they ranked 6th in the Euroleague in assists-to-field goals made ratio. Thus, with that kind of mindset already in place, and a couple of key players already familiar with Edelstein’s system and philosophy from the Eurobasket (Yogev Ohayon also played with the Israeli team in the Eurobasket as well), Edelstein should be able to transition seamlessly with the team during off-season workouts.

Trevor Mbakwe (right) was one of those players who didn’t live up to the hype in his first year with Maccabi.

One of the reasons Edelstein did not want to join this Maccabi team mid-year last season was due to the fact that he didn’t think the talent on the roster could be successful. In many ways, he was right and he made the sound decision to wait until the end of the year to see if the job was available again.

In many ways, one could not fault Tabak for the job he did, as the roster was flawed in its composition from the beginning. Many of Maccabi’s off-season signings proved to be disappointments, including Jordan Farmar, whose second stint was hardly worth remembering. Farmar simply didn’t fit in this team, and he didn’t have the kind of “creation” and “penetration” abilities like previous points guards Jeremy Pargo (last season) and Tyrese Rice (the year before during their championship season). Not only did Farmar merely average 8.9 ppg on 20.3 mpg, but he also was second worst on the team when it came to plus/minus in Euroleague play, only above 17-year-old Dragan Bender, who barely played during the Euroleague competition.

However, Farmar was not the sole culprit of Maccabi’s failures in 2015-2016. Maccabi failed to really get anything substantive from their post acquisitions, including Trevor Mbakwe and Ike Ofoegbu, who proved to both be extremely limited offensively, and Arinze Onuaku, who was not only limited to put backs and layups around the paint, but struggled immensely in pick and roll defense (as evidenced by his negative-3.4 plus/minus mark, fourth worst on the team). And though Brian Randle posted some good offensive numbers, 8.9 ppg on 60 percent eFG%, his lack of strength on the rebounding end was evident night in and night out.

In fact, though Maccabi did a good job crashing the glass, as their 33.7 offensive rebounding rate was second-best in the Euroleague, they struggled to keep opponents off the glass themselves, as their 67.9 defensive rebounding rate was second-worst in the Euroleague. Maccabi actually defensively was not all that bad, as they were a Top-5 team when it came to opponent effective field goal percentage (51.7 percent). However, the fact that they couldn’t keep opponents off the glass and gave up numerous second chance opportunities did them in time in and time again, and that was usually due to their bigs not getting in good rebounding position or having the strength to keep opposing post players at bay.

While Edelstein was the big hire of the off-season, Maccabi has made tremendous strides in terms of upgrading the roster. They made an immediate splash this summer by acquiring center Maik Zirbes, a rebounding force, and forward Quincy Miller, an inside-outside threat, from Crvena Zvzeda. Add that with the acquisition of guards Sonny Weems of the 76ers (and formerly CSKA Moscow) and DJ Seeley of Gran Canaria, and Maccabi definitely made a commitment to become more athletic and stronger with their roster on the floor. Furthermore, with the acquisition of these three new faces, as well as full seasons of Mekel (who didn’t join the team until mid-season after Euroleague group play), combo wing Sylvan Landesberg, and forward Itay Segev (who came in strong as a starter toward the end of last year despite playing as a 20-year old), Maccabi should be primed to not only outperform last year’s results, but perhaps make a dark horse run to the Final Four. Maccabi was not that far off from making the Round of 16 last year, and they showed glimpses of being a good team in Euroleague, Eurocup and Winner League play, but they just seemed to run out of gas at the wrong times. The depth they have next year will not only prevent that, but should help them be the most successful Maccabi squad since 2014.

Now, how successful will that be? It is hard to determine, since there are a lot of players with futures in doubt. Will Mbakwe and Randle be back, not to mention Devin Smith, who has been a rock for this team for years? Will there be enough touches for new players such as Miller, Weems, and Seeley, who have tended to be high-usage players in their previous stops? Can Zirbes and Segev and whoever else is playing in the post, solve Maccabi’s rebounding woes from a year ago? And lastly, can Mekel, (who most likely will the starting point guard next season), an Israeli who is playing with his home country’s most popular and successful team, reinvigorate this proud franchise, not to mention his own professional career?

Quincy Miller (30) and Maik Zirbes (33) are new signees who will be key to Maccabi success next year.

There are a lot of questions for Edelstein to answer and unfortunately, he will have to do it in a quick amount of time. However, like he said in his opening interview after being hired, he knows the pressure that comes with this position and he expects to accomplish great results in a limited amount of time. It’s why he took the job, and why he only wanted a one-year contract: there is no “rebuilding” with Maccabi Tel Aviv. You either produce results or you get out and they find another person.

But to be fair, this is the strongest a Maccabi team has looked for a long time, even stronger perhaps on paper than the 2014 team that won a championship. If Taylor Rochestie and Smith are back, they will have considerable scoring on the perimeter to go along with their new signings, not to mention longtime reserves such as Ohayov and Guy Pnini. While there are some questions on the block, Zirbes will be one of the strongest post players that they have had since Big Sofos a couple of years ago, as Zirbes, though not the most finesse player, is the kind of banger that can keep other teams from pushing around Maccabi in the paint. Hopefully that kind of attitude will rub off on Segev and whoever else Maccabi brings back or acquires to solidify their post depth (whether it’s Randle, Mbakwe or someone else).

2016-2017 will be a critical year for Maccabi. A new coach and a new format with less teams in the Euroleague means it’s more critical than ever for Maccabi to perform. They have the kind of coach with excellent experience who has been saying the right things to demonstrate that he is “all in” in terms of making Maccabi a winner again. They also have added the right kind of pieces roster-wise, showing that management is willing to spend whatever it costs to make this team better. And they have the motivation, as this franchise is hungry to show that the last two years were a blip on the radar, and that they are ready to return to their rightful illustrious place in the European basketball scene.

Now, it’s just a matter of all those factors melding together. Let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later.

David Blatt, Darussafaka and Istanbul: A Respected Coach’s Rocky and Quick Road Back to Europe

“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.

And then less than two months later, this happened.

Who would have thought that it would be the beginning of Blatt’s long, painful, and frustrating march back to Europe?

The relationship between Blatt and Cavs star Lebron James seemed strained and doomed from the start.

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 was widespread consensus on the team that Tyronn Lue was more respected and listened to on the coaching staff from the players; what makes this more awkward is that Lue was a finalist for the Cavs job, though Lue on frequent occasion has gone out of his way to say he didn’t agree with Blatt’s firing.
  • 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.

Former coach Oktay Mahmuti wasn’t the coach to help Darussafaka surpass other Turkish rivals like Efes and Fenerbahce

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.

Already in his comfort zone in Europe, Blatt talked to European prospects at the Adidas Eurocamp this summer.

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.

Will the Euroleague Changes and Issues with FIBA Have a Negative Effect on European Basketball?

cska-moscow-champ-euroleague-final-four-berlin-2016-eb15

Though the Euroleague season is well over (With CSKA Moscow claiming the trophy in a thrilling overtime win over Fenerbahce Istanbul), there hasn’t been any lack of excitement or headlines surrounding the Euroleague competition as it prepares for the upcoming 2016-2017 season. Most of the attention however has been of the controversial variety, especially with the change of the season format, as well as the Euroleague’s issues with FIBA, who is trying to create their own major club competition for the first time since the FIBA Suproleague in 2001.

In terms of the first point, the Euroleague will be making some major changes to their competition, as they will do away with their multi-round format and instead go to a longer, more-traditional regular season model. Traditionally, the Euroleague first round is only 10 games long, with 24 teams split into 4 groups. After the 10 game season, the Top 16 teams (top 4 in each division) advance to the second “Top 16” round while the remaining 8 teams get regulated to the Eurocup (the second-tier league in Europe) for the remainder of the season. In the Top 16 round, the teams are split into two groups and compete in a round-robin format over a 14-game schedule. At the conclusion of this slate of games, the best four teams in each group advance to the playoffs for a Best of 5 series. The winners of those playoff series then advance to the Final Four, where it is single elimination from there.

For those American fans unfamiliar with European basketball, think of this format as the World Cup meets old-school first round of the NBA playoffs with the NCAA Final Four. It’s a bit batshit and it can cause some weird-ass moments like this due to the Euroleague’s controversial “scoring margin” procedure (similar to soccer), but it does provide for some interesting drama with each game’s importance so magnified for advancement.

However, the main issue with this format is that Europe’s most recognizable and lucrative teams may not always make it past the first round, which was mostly evident this year. Due to lackluster performances and some organizational turmoil, A License teams (established clubs who participate in the Euroleague regularly due to their massive status in the club scene) such as EA7 Emporio (from Milan, Italy) and Maccabi Fox (from Tel Aviv, Israel) missed the Top 16, and thus, the Euroleague lost a considerable amount of their fanbase after the first round due to their “off years”. This was a big blow especially since both these teams have popular appeal beyond their home countries (especially in the case of Maccabi), and it’s a lot harder for general Euroleague fans to get excited for teams that don’t necessarily have much Euroleague history not to mention aren’t guaranteed to be back the following season (as was the case with teams such as Cedevita Zagreb from Croatia and Khimki Moscow from Russia, both teams who will not be participating in the Euroleague next year).

Thankfully, the new format will solve some of those “fan” issues listed above. As detailed in the Euroleague’s 10-year agreement with IMG, the “condensed” 16-team format (from 24) and extended regular season schedule (30 rounds instead of the combined 23 rounds from rounds 1 and 2), the Euroleague now will have a more established league that guarantees longtime and well-known clubs will be on the international stage longer for the benefit of European basketball fans (not to mention these clubs’ fans who generate a lot of revenue). This new format also benefits the fans because fans will get to see their clubs play all the top teams, which wasn’t necessarily the case in the past format. If a team got bounced early, fans might not have seen them play a fellow country rival or another big-time European club. But, with the extended schedule, every one of the 16 teams will play one another, which will generate better match ups during the regular season, while still keeping the same competitive spirit that makes the Euroleague so unique.

Of course, one of the drawbacks with the creation of this new format means there will be 8 less teams playing in the Euroleague, which makes it a bit of a bummer for the smaller clubs, as well as basketball fans who appreciate the underdog. The wild card slots have reduced from 4 to 2, which means underdog stories like Lokomotiv Kuban this year, who were playing in the Eurocup a year ago and made it to the Final Four this season despite being a wild card, will be a lot less likely. Also, with A license teams less likely to see changes in its composition (i.e. lose their license and not participate in the Euroleague), it also means that international fans will not be able to see European clubs aside from the usual powerhouses like Barcelona, Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow, and Maccabi. In my case, it was disappointing that after the first round I was not able to follow other Euroleague teams such as CSP Limoges (from France) and Stelmet Zielona Gora (from Poland) after they were bounced from the first round. With this new format, I will be hard pressed to see them at all, let alone 10 games of them.

That being said, while the limited amount of teams hurts the more “under-the-radar” clubs, it does strengthen the Eurocup, the ULEB (Union of European Leagues of Basketball) and second-best competition in Europe (the winner of the Eurocup advances the next year in the Euroleague). The Eurocup will now follow the format of the old Euroleague with the multi-round format, and with the addition of more teams next year who probably were good enough to compete in the Euroleague, the Eurocup will undoubtedly be more competitive, and hopefully this could generate interest in the Eurocup being televised more since the quality of the competition has increased. For international fans like myself, the lack of any television coverage of the Eurocup keeps it from being followed or covered more closely, but an increase of good teams could change that, as better games will make it more exciting and desirable to basketball fans who want to see other competition outside Europe’s main league.

argentina-lithuania-130829-670

The changes in format however to the Euroleague and Eurocup however has produced a lot of ill will though as of late with FIBA, who is trying to get back into the European club scene with the creation of their own league: the FIBA Champions League (named after the FIFA counterpart). FIBA has been trying to get back into the European club scene ever since FIBA lost the rights to the competition after the 2000 season, when the clubs formed their own league independent of FIBA through the Euroleague Basketball Company. Because FIBA did not have any copyright on the “Euroleague” name, this organization was able to get away with it, and thus FIBA lost its main source of competition revenue outside their international competitions such as the European championship (now called Eurobasket) and World Championship (now called World Cup) just to name a few. However, considering international competitions are limited to a bad time for basketball on the calendar (the summer months after all club competitions have ended) and aren’t annual events, they are definitely far less lucrative then the club competition scene now under the guidance of the EBC.

FIBA over the past couple of years had been looking to lure some top clubs back to FIBA with the creation of the Champions League, but after the 10-year deal with IMG, getting any top clubs was out of the question. So, it appeared that FIBA, to keep some kind of good will with the EBC in order to preserve their own international competitions, was going to settle with being the “second-tier” league, perhaps replacing or competing with the Eurocup. However, while there seemed to be some interest early-on, and even some agreements, it appears FIBA will be on the outside-looking-in when it comes to building this new competition, as many of the teams that FIBA was desiring look to be participating in the ULEB’s Eurocup rather than FIBA’s Champions League.

As expected, FIBA did not take this lying down. They threatened to suspend and not allow countries who will participate in the Eurocup and even Euroleague to participate in their international competitions such as the Eurobasket, which is due in 2017. This included power countries such as Spain, Serbia, Greece, Israel and even Italy, who lost their duties hosting the 2017 Eurobasket due to this controversy over club participation. However, despite FIBA’s power moves, they have not been able to have much impact, as a Munich judge ruled an injunction that prevented FIBA and FIBA Europe from sanctioning these countries and clubs for joining the Eurocup instead of the Champions League. Hence, no suspensions have been given out, though FIBA is working to see if it can reverse the injunction in the near future.

With all these changes lurking for 2016-2017 as well as the ongoing controversy between the EBC/ULEB and FIBA, it will be interesting to see how things will pan out not just going into next year but once the 2016-2017 campaign begins in October as well. It is understandable to see FIBA’s frustration. As a global governing body, the lack of any kind of presence any more in the professional basketball scene beyond international competition has really hurt them from having the kind of impact FIFA enjoys in soccer. It’s bad enough FIBA really has little to no influence in the world’s strongest league (the NBA), but to have no influence in the second-strongest league in the world (the Euroleague) makes it even more painful. FIBA knows that having the Euroleague and Eurocup control would go a long way to strengthening their power as a global sporting federation, especially with online streaming’s ability to reach audiences not just in Europe, but all over the world. The Euroleague brand is greater than ever before on a global scale. Basketball fans want to watch more Euroleague, see possible “prospects” in action that will be making their way to the NBA. Euroleague TV’s launch this last year has proven that the Euroleague doesn’t need to be “lumped in” with FIBA and other club competitions (as was the case when it was with Livebasketball.tv) to be lucratively successful.

Unfortunately, this jockeying for “club basketball” coverage in some people’s minds has done European basketball more harm than good in the long run. Michael Long of Sports Pro Media, remarked this in his post examining the creation of the Champions League and its impact on European basketball:

What is certain, however, is that the creation of a second continental competition would appear a major step back for basketball in Europe. Some would argue that the introduction of a dual system would be disastrous, creating a situation reminiscent of 16 years ago when Fiba’s Suproleague survived just one season competing alongside the Euroleague that would subsequently replace it. Certainly, the European market at that time could not sustain two rival basketball competitions. Many doubt whether it can today

It does feel like in the quest for garnering control, both leagues may do more harm than good for European basketball in general, as Long points out above and in his article. After all, as mentioned in the Sports Pro Media piece, without the participation of 11 of the best European clubs teams, it will be hard to imagine the Champions League be better than a second-tier club competition in Europe, thus making FIBA’s endeavor seem like a waste of time, not to mention resources. At the same time, it would be nice to see if the Euroleague could show more cooperation toward unifying professional basketball in Europe, and perhaps by giving FIBA primary involvement in the “secondary” league, that would lessen tension between the two organizations, and not jeopardize international competition, which is important and special, especially when it comes to the World Cup and Eurobasket.

Of course, who knows what either sides wants. Maybe a “secondary” competition isn’t enough for FIBA. Maybe the Euroleague is not interested in preserving or growing international competition. After all, the NBA, the world’s premiere basketball organization, gets away with little FIBA involvement, and perhaps the Euroleague is trying to follow the same mold of finding success while being independent of its governing body (though to be fair, the NBA doesn’t have the kind of conflicts with FIBA Americas that the Euroleague and FIBA Europe has).

Whatever happens though between the Euroleague and FIBA Europe, the fate of European basketball, not just with clubs, but perhaps overall, will be going through some major changes this upcoming 2016-2017 season. A lot of questions that could have a strong impact on basketball in the continent will be decided: Will FIBA still have the Champions League running? Will the Euroleague’s new format resonate better with fans rather than the traditional method? Will the Eurobasket 2017 be hindered by lack of participation from some Europe’s traditional powers?

It will be interesting to see how fate will unveil itself to European basketball by the 2016-2017 season.

Can Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul Steal the Crown from Real Madrid? A Euroleague Group A Preview

Bogdan Bogdanovic (blue left) and Jan Vesely (blue right) are key to Fenerbahce preventing Sergio Rodriguez (13, white) and Real Madrid from repeating as Euorleague champions.

Without a doubt, Group A in the upcoming 2015-2016 Euroleague season seems to be a “Group of Death” of sorts. All six teams have the horses to make a run to and in the Euroleague playoffs, but only four will come out advancing after the initial 10-game round-robin slate, as customary in the Euroleague first round. There will not be any “gimme” games in this group, which makes this group a “must-watch” for Euroleague fans on a nightly basis.

To look at a few teams briefly, Khimki Moscow won the Eurocup last year, and earned promotion to the Euroleague thanks to star point guard and former Euroleague champion (during his time with Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv) Tyrese Rice, who returns to the Khimki squad this season. FC Bayern Munich added some valuable pieces to their roster, including KC Rivers, who brings a championship pedigree after a reserve role with Real Madrid last season, as well as post man Deon Thompson, a former member of the Munich squad two years ago who split time between Hapoel Bank Yahav Jerusalem of Israel and the Liaoning Jiebao Hunters of China in 2014-2015. And lastly, Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade will be a dark horse of sorts, as they have one of the toughest home crowds in Europe, and they added legendary Greek center Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who had spent the past couple of seasons as the main post player for Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, especially during their championship season in 2013-2014.

But while the three above all have shots for second round and beyond dreams (as well as Strasbourg, who have an established coach in Vincent Collett, though to be frank, I see them as a bit of a longshot in this group, and sense them struggling a little bit more in their promotion than fellow recently promoted Euroleague squad Khimki), the heavy favorites in this group will be defending Euroleague champion Real Madrid and Spain and Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul of Turkey, who appeared in the Euroleague Final Four. I have already chronicled Real Madrid a little bit on this blog before, but I really think that with Fenerbahce’s recent success, as well as impressive off-season, the defending champions could not only have serious competition in their group, but perhaps deep in the playoffs as well from Turkey’s premiere basketball club.

Fenerbahce Celebrates after sweeping defending Euroleague champion Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Playoffs to earn a spot in the Final Four.

Last year was a banner campaign for Fennerbahce, as they went 8-2 in group play and 11-3 in the second round. Their 19-5 overall record in the first two rounds included two wins over Olympiacos (who ended up finishing as runner-up) and EA7 Emporio Armani Milan, and an impressive victory of CSKA Moscow, another Final Four participant not just last season, but the season before as well. In the quarterfinals in a best of five format, Fenerbahce cruised on their home floor against Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv with an 80-72 victory in Game 1 and an 82-67 win in Game 2. On Maccabi’s home floor, Fenerbahce displayed their meddle, winning a tense pressure-filled contest on the road 75-74, much to the disappointment of the Israeli home crowd. As you can see in the highlights below, despite the raucous home crowd, and the tough, desperate play from Maccabi to stave off elimination, Fenerbahce got big time performances and shots from players such as center Jan Vesely, and guards Bogdan Bogdanovic and Andrew Goudelock to propel them to the clinching Game 3 victory.

Though they fell to Real Madrid 96-87 in the Final Four game, as well as CSKA Moscow in the 3rd place game, the Final Four appearance, their first in their history of participating in the Euroleague, was a strong accomplishment for the Turkish basketball club. They showed that not only should they be taken seriously as a team at the domestic level in Turkey, but also throughout European basketball circles in general.

Last season, Fenerbahce was led by spark plug guards Goudelock and Bogdanaovic, who scored 17 and 10.6 ppg, respectively, as well as lanky, versatile forwards such as Vesely and Nemanja Bjelica, who scored 11.2 and 12.1 ppg and grabbed 5.4 and 8.5 rpg, respectively. Opposing teams struggled against Fennerbahce’s athleticism and up-tempo style, as they looked to push the ball on the offensive end in order to score in the fast break, and showed a lot of full and half court pressure defense techniques throughout the season to generate turnovers and easy points. Though they didn’t have the depth of some of the best teams in the Euroleague, they were a well-coached squad under Željko Obradović, and his coaching style and ability to maximize the talent of his roster was a big reason why the club reached the Euroleague Final Four for the first time in history.

This year, Fenerbahce re-loaded in a big way. Though they did lose Goudelock and Bjelica, two key contributors from a year ago, they filled in the gaps with a lot of veteran talent, many who had contributed in the NBA just recently. This off-season, the Turkish club signed Pero Antic (most recently of the Hawks), Ekpe Udoh (most recently of the Clippers and a Top-10 NBA Draft pick) and Luigi Datome (most recently of the Boston Celtics). All those signing are a huge boost to Fenerbahce’s Euroleague hopes, as all those players were such key contributors to NBA teams as recently as last season (especially Antic, who seemed to be a bit of a fan favorite in Atlanta). With the exception of maybe Real Madrid, it’s hard to imagine a fellow Euroleague team that sports the kind of veteran pedigree that Fenerbahce possesses. Add that with another year of the core of Bogdanovic and Vesely (who has looked tremendous in Europe after flaming out in the NBA as a former lottery pick), and it’s easy to see why Real Madrid could have their hands full in Group play.

Real Madrid certainly has the championship experience and a strong core built around their veteran home-country perimeter players such as Sergio Llull, Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez. Furthermore, as defending champs and a former Euroleague player himself, it’s hard to imagine Pablo Laso not having Real Madrid ready for not just their upcoming games against Fenebahce, but the Euroleague in general. That being said, the depth of Fenerbahce, especially in the post will present quite a challenge to Real Madrid. While they do have veteran Felipe Reyes, Gustavo Ayon and the recently added Trey Thompkins, it is hard to see them really matching up with the NBA veteran posts Fenerbahce has in Antic, Udoh and Vesely. And as stated before, nobody has seen a career revitalization in Turkey like Vesely. Seen as soft, passive and ineffective, Vesely has developed a lot of toughness and explosiveness in Fenerbahce that has helped his game immensely. In the most recent FIBA Eurobasket, Vesely proved to be the catalyst for an overachieving Czech Republic team that made it to the quarterfinals, and showcased himself as one of the best players in the field, as he flashed the athleticism and intensity that was hardly seen during his time in the NBA. If you check out high highlights below, it is scary to think what Vesely could be capable of in year 2 with Fenerbahce.

Group A has a lot of interesting stories and a lot of interesting teams that should be entertaining to watch and follow. But make no mistake about it: the number 1 spot out of the group will be battled between Fenerbahce and Real Madrid. It is still tough to pick against Madrid. Rodriguez and Llull are two of the best point guards in Europe, and have the capability to not just play, but succeed today in the NBA, and the chemistry this Real Madrid squad has simply cannot be matched by any other team in the Euroleague. One cannot overlook the importance of returning a majority of your squad from one year to the next, especially when the previous year resulted in a Euroleague title.

But, as we know not just from the Euroleague, but basketball and sports in general, repeating is tough. And this Group does Real Madrid no favors. Fenerbahce may have been elated with their Final Four appearance last year, but they are looking to go beyond a 4th place finish this year, and they have signed the talent necessary to prove that last year was no fluke. It’ll be interesting to see if their newly acquired horses will help them overcome an experienced Madrid squad, and result in their first Euroleague title in 2015-2016.

Luka Doncic and Why Real Madrid Can Continue Its Dominance Over Europe

With (left-to-right) Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Llull and Sergio Rodriguez back, Real Madrid will be the heavy favorite in the Spanish ACB Liga as well as the Euroleague

The Golden State Warriors were widely known for their dominating 2014-2015 campaign. Not only did they beat a Lebron James-led Cavs team (or should I say just Lebron James…with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love out a good chunk of the playoffs, the Cavs were running on fumes by Game 4 of the Finals, James included), but the Warriors also finished first in terms of record (67-15), SRS (10.01), Pace (98.3 possessions per game) and Defensive Rating (101.4 points allowed per 100 possessions), and finished second in terms of offensive rating (111.6 points scored per 100 possessions). In terms of dominating from start-to-finish, the Warriors arguably had one of the most complete seasons in the history of the NBA. And, with a young core led by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes, the Warriors are expected to dominate the NBA for years to come, barring injury.

As the Warriors were dominating here in the states, another team was dominating the basketball landscape in Europe: Real Madrid. The Spanish basketball club put up a historic season of monumental proportions as they not only won the Spanish Liga ACB title over rival Barcelona, but they also took the Copa del Rey, the Supercopa de Espana de Baloncesto and finally a Euroleague championship over the Greek club Olympiacos, Madrid’s first Euroleague title in over 20 years. The historic run not only produced what was effectively known as a “quadruple crown” in Spanish basketball circles, but also a 35-8 record in Liga ACB play and 24-6 record in Euroleague play, good for a 59-14 record overall for the 2014-2015 season. Madrid proved to be a balanced and dominating juggernaut on the court for opponents, as they averaged 97.8 ppg and allowed only 87.4, good for a difference of positive-10.4 ppg.

Head Coach Pablo Laso, a former Madrid player, has done an incredible job shaping Madrid into a powerhouse after years of falling short and underachieving to their Barcelona rivals (much like in soccer ironically). Laso has won 2 ACB titles, 2 Copa Del Rey championships, 3 straight Supercopa titles, and just recently the Euroleague title last season since being hired in 2011. (Ironically, he could have two Euroleague title under his belt had his team not blown the championship to a scrappy, David Blatt-coached Maccabi Tel Aviv team in 2014.) Thanks to his tutelage, and some excellent, local Spanish basketball talent staying in country to play for the local club such as Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, Felipe Reyes and Sergio Llull, Madrid is enjoying one of the best periods in the history of its basketball club, and looks to continue that trend in 2015-2016.

And if that’s not enough, the reigning “quadruple crown” champions could be even better in 2015-2016 and beyond. Why? Not only do they return a majority of their championship squad from a year ago who are in the prime of their careers, but they also have a young 16-year-old Slovenian phenom waiting in the wings named Luka Doncic.

Why Luka Doncic is such a big deal

Luka Doncic (17) a 16-year-old phenom from Slovenia could be the difference-maker for a Real Madrid “Quadruple Crown” repeat.

At 16 years old, no European player has garnered this much hype since Ricky Rubio debuted as a 14-year-old. A native of Slovenia, Doncic has made quick headway in the Real Madrid system, as he helped lead the U18 squad to a Spanish League championship, as well as an Adidas Next Generation Tournament championship. At six-feet, six-inches, Doncic has the skills of a point guard, with the scoring and rebounding ability of a small forward. In the final game of the Adidas Next Generation tournament against Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade, he dropped 14 points and 5 assists and nabbed 11 rebounds in the 73-70 championship win. With his impeccable frame, scouts and basketball blogs have been raving about Doncic’s potential not only in the Spanish and Euroleague, but perhaps in the NBA in the near future as well.

What makes Doncic so special is the completeness of his game. He has the size of a wing, but it is obvious that he enjoys making plays with the ball in the mold of a point guard. While at times scouts have noted that Doncic can be a bit reckless with the ball (in the championship game against Cverna Zvezda, he did have 7 turnovers, so that downs his assists totals a bit), he certainly has the potential to make the big highlight and game-changing play. Take a look at some of his highlights from the Spanish U18 Championship against Juventut, and it’s amazing how Doncic can break down defenses and make no-look passes on the fly.

As you can obviously see, there are a lot of flashes of Rubio in those highlights above. The only difference though is Doncic has a few inches on the former Spanish phenom and current Minnesota Timberwolf.

Of course, Doncic is still far from a polished product and he played mostly with the Real Madrid B team a year ago. While he performed admirably with the B-squad averaging 13.5 ppg and shooting almost 57 percent on 2-point shots, his 3-point shot is in need of work. He only shot 33 percent in the Adidas Next Generation Tournament, and in the B-League, he shot 29.5 percent from beyond the arc on 139 shots. Considering he only shot 116 2-point shots with the Real Madrid B-team, the frequency and lack of efficiency beyond the arc is worrisome. One of the big knocks against Rubio was he struggled and continues to struggle to produce any kind of range as a shooter, which has limited his ability to penetrate and create offense, his main value. Unless Doncic makes some strides with his shooting, the same fate could be awaiting the Slovenian as well, especially as Doncic will be starting the year with senior team and will be facing much better defenses and more physical and veteran players.

That being said, Doncic could be a key cog to this already deep Madrid team. Madrid is loaded at the point with incumbents Llull and Rodriguez (who I personally like and think has grown a lot since a bit of a disappointing campaign in the NBA; he was one of my favorite players to watch in the Eurobasket and in last year’s Euroleague Final Four), and yet Doncic is expected to make an impact on this Madrid squad, which is saying a lot about Doncic’s potential. Maybe Doncic thrives, or maybe he finds his way back to B-squad to develop as a primary starter a little bit more. Unfortunately, he is an 8th-10th player in the depth chart at this point, so minutes and opportunities won’t be plentiful for him, especially considering Madrid brings back so much of the core from last year’s squad.

Nonetheless, at 16-years-old, the future looks bright for Doncic and Madrid next season with his size, skill set and growth as a player from a year ago. Doncic has serious potential, and potential to contribute immediately despite his youth. I cannot see him not having any impact next year with the senior. He is simply too talented and too special a player. And how much impact he has could be a swinging factor in terms of whether Madrid successfully defends the title or suffers a post-championship hangover. Having two good point guards in Llull and Rodriguez is one thing, but a third makes them deeper and more dangerous on the perimeter than any team in Spain or Europe in general. It’ll be interesting to see how much Laso will depend on him and utilize him on a squad that has such high, championship-caliber expectations in 2015-2016.

The depth on this Madrid squad is incredible…and Laso knows how to use it

Madrid will return both their main post players (Gustavo Ayon, formerly of the Magic and Hornets; and Felipe Reyes), Fernandez, Llull (who spurned an offer to come to the Rockets this off-season), Rodriguez, former NBA player Andres Nocioni, and Lithuanian sharpshooter Jonas Maciulus, who is coming off a hot shooting performance in the Eurobasket that carried Lithuania to the championship game (where they lost 80-67 to Spain). Furthermore, in addition to Doncic, Madrid also signed former Georgia Bulldog and LA Clipper Trey Thompkins, who played last year for Nizhny Novgorod and averaged 14.5 ppg in Euroleague competition.

Without a doubt, Madrid is the deepest and most talented team in the league. No other team in the ACB Liga or Euroleague can sport the kind of 1-12 roster that Madrid sports, not by a long shot. Add in the valuable experience Spaniards such as Fernandez, Rodriguez, Llull, Reyes and Guillermo Hernangomez received in their Eurobasket championship run (as well as Maciulus breakthrough with Lithuania), and Madrid’s roster will be brimming with conference by October, where they will tip-off their season against Khimiki Moscow.

But all the talent in Europe can be self-destructive if not utilized properly. Egos and lack of team chemistry can sink even the most juggernaut of squads both in Europe and here in the United States. (Remember the Nash-Howard-Bryant Lakers from a few years ago?). Laso though has proven to be a master strategist and manager, as he not only has gotten the most from his talented roster, but he efficiently manages minutes throughout his squad. Last year, Sergio Llull averaged the most minutes at 27.5 mpg, but only two other players (Fernandez and Rodriguez) averaged more than MPG. The fact that Laso is able to distribute those kind of minutes while still being competitive is a testament to the kind of team he has built in Madrid. Yes, they are talented, but everyone on the roster has bought in to what Laso is preaching, and it has paid off. You cannot argue with four major European championships in one year.

It’s funny. Not only did the Warriors win by utilizing their depth in the NBA championship, but Madrid did too en route to dominating the European basketball scene in 2015-2016. Maybe playing more guys isn’t such a bad thing?

Final thoughts on Madrid in 2015-2016

This Madrid team has re-loaded and is the odds-on favorite in the ACB Liga as well as the Euroleague. Add that with excitement surrounding Doncic and him starting the year on the senior squad, and this Madrid should not only be followed closely in Spain, but throughout Europe and maybe worldwide as well. Winning the Euroleague back-to-back is no easy chore, especially with so many rich, European teams (like rival Barcelona, Olympiacos and CSKA Moscow) re-loading every year with the hope they can make a run to the Final Four, where it can be anyone’s championship (no seven game series here in the Euroleague). But that being said, it’s hard to think, with the depth of talent and experience Madrid sports again going into 2015-2016, that another team in Europe will be able to knock them off from the top mantle.

Madrid could be in the middle of a dynasty-making process, and that alone should generate some attention of hardcore basketball fans here in the states. There is a lot of special things going on in Spain with this Madrid squad from the players (Doncic especially) to the lofty challenge the team faces in dominating Europe again, but with a bigger target on their back.

Reserve your Live Basketball.tv Global Pass now. This 2015-2016 Madrid squad will make the subscription worth it alone if you are passionate about basketball.