A Quick Preview to the Winner League (Israel) Final Four

On Monday, June 12th, the 2017 Winner League (Israeli Basketball Super League) Final Four will tip off at Menorah Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv (home of Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv). What makes this field interesting is that the last four Winner League champions are represented: Maccabi Haifa (2013), Maccabi Tel Aviv (2014), Hapoel Jerusalem (2015) and Maccabi Rishon (2016). Considering the Final Four’s format is akin to the Euroleague and NCAA model, where it only takes two games to win the championship, any of the four clubs have a chance to add another title to their mantle.

Let’s break down each team and what their chances are to be hoisting that Winner League trophy at the end of the championship final.

(All stats from the quarterfinals and not regular season unless noted)

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Maccabi Rishon

Winner League regular season record:

17-16 (7th seed)

Quarterfinals:

Beat Hapoel Eliat (2nd seed) 3-2

Players to watch:

G/F Patrick Richard (14.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 13.0 PIR in QF), PG Cameron Long (10.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.6 apg, 11.6 PIR), PF Elishay Kadir (10.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.2 fouls drawn per game, 13.8 PIR).

What you should know about Maccabi Rishon:

Rishon are the defending champions, as they went from a 6 seed, 16-17 team entering the playoffs and went on a fairytale run to their first Winner League championship. Led by former Israel National Team (and now current Maccabi Tel Aviv) coach Arik Shivek, and regular season MVP Darryl Monroe (who averaged a league 25.0 PIR), the underdog club upset third-seed Maccabi Haifa in the quarterfinals 3-2, and then proceeded to upset second-seed Maccabi Tel Aviv 71-68 in the Semifinals, and then top-seeded Hapoel Jerusalem 83-77 in the final. Rishon’s Cinderella run displayed what can happen when a team comes in hot in the postseason, especially with the “one and done” Final Four format.

This season feels similar to last season in a variety of ways. Despite winning a Winner League title, the club wasn’t able to capitalize much on the success, as they went 17-16 in the regular season (only 1 game better than the previous year), fired Shivek mid-season, and finished as the 7th seed, seemingly heavy underdogs to the favored Hapoel Eilat. And yet, in a crazy, topsy turvy series, Hapoel Eilat, much like last season, punched their ticket to the Final Four once again by upsetting the two-seed in five games.

What are their chances to win the championship?

Unlike last season, Rishon doesn’t have that “star” player this year like they did last season with Monroe. Rishon struck out on imports Joe Jackson (who only played 2 games) and Maalik Wayns (who played 16). However, this playoff season, they have been led by the guard combo of Richard and Long, who averaged 14 ppg and 10.2 ppg, respectively in the series against Eilat. Additionally, power forward and Israeli national Kadir had a monster series as well, as he averaged 10.6 ppg on 74.2 percent shooting from the field.

Rishon is playing some of their best basketball this year under head coach Smulik Brenner, who has done a solid job after Shivek left the club during the year. That being said, the big question for Rishon is if they will be able to handle the athleticism and star power of Jerusalem. Jerusalem went 3-0 in the regular season against Rishon and won by margins of 20, 14, and 24 in those contests.

If Rishon wants to have a chance, they are going to have push the tempo, force turnovers (they averaged 6.6 in their quarterfinal series), control the glass (they averaged more rebounds than Jerusalem in the regular season; 38.1 to 34.9), and continue their hot shooting from beyond the arc (they shot 40 percent from 3 against Eilat). As much star power as Jerusalem, they have a tendency to coast or be unfocused at times, especially on the defensive end, an area that Rishon can exploit considering how well offensively they have been playing.

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Hapoel Jerusalem

Winner League regular season record:

19-14 (3rd seed)

Quarterfinals:

Beat Ironi Nahariya (6th seed) 3-2 (down 2-0 and won three straight games).

Players to watch:

SF Tarence Kinsey (14.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.0 spg, 16.6 PIR), Guard Curtis Jerrells (13.8 ppg, 1.4 spg, 4.4 apg, 14.4 PIR), Guard Jerome Dyson (10.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 10.2 PIR), PF Lior Eliyahu (8.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.4 apg).

What you should know about Hapoel Jerusalem:

Jerusalem gained a lot of popularity this off-season for signing Amare Stoudemire, who also owns a minority stake in the club. However, Stoudemire has somewhat limped to the finish, as he only played in three playoff games, and averaged 13.7 mpg in the playoff series against Ironi. That being said, this is an immensely talented squad beyond Stoudemire, led by Italian national and former Montepaschi Siena head coach Simone Pianigiani, who will be heading to Olimpia Milano at the conclusion of the season.

Tarence Kinsey, who played last year with Crvena Zvezda, has emerged as Jerusalem’s best all-around player this postseason. He average 14.4 ppg, and shot not only over 60 percent from 2-pt shots, but also on 3-pt shots as well. And if that wasn’t enough, he averaged 3.0 spg, a key reason why Jerusalem turned things around against Ironi despite facing a 2-0 deficit.

In addition to Kinsey (who averages 29.2 mpg), Pianigiani relies heavily on guards Jerrells (who averages a team high 34.8 mpg this postseason) and Dyson (who averages 23.8 mpg) and post players Eliyahu (27.4 mpg) and center Richard Howell (24.2 mpg). This is not a deep team by any means, and the fatigue certainly has certainly showed up on occasion not only in the regular season, but post-season as well (hence, why they went down 2-0, with both losses coming at home). Yet despite their lack of depth, Jerusalem’s top talent stacks up with any club in the Winner League.

What are their chances to win the championship?

Jerusalem is looking for revenge, as they were upset by Rishon in the championship a year ago, thus being denied a back-to-back title run. It will be hard for Rishon to handle the athletic and quick trio of Jerrells-Dyson-Kinsey, and Eliyahu has emerged as the team leader in the frontcourt as Stoudemire has struggled through injuries and fatigue. If Jerusalem can keep the pace slow, get in their pick and roll actions in the half court (Pianigiani is known to rely heavily on the pick and roll as a coach), and minimized the damage on the glass, then Jerusalem should be able to handle this contest easily.

One big issue for Jerusalem though, other than their rebounding disadvantage as explained earlier, is their porous free throw shooting this postseason. Jerusalem shot 54.4 percent from the charity stripe in their five-game season against Ironi, with awful performances coming from their post players: Eliyah shot 36.4 percent and Howell shot 36.8 on free throws. Even their perimeter players didn’t fare too hot in the series, as Dyson shot 53.3 percent on free throws in the series. This is key because it bit them in the butt in games 1 and 2, as they shot 51.7 and 42.9 percent from the line in their losses in games 1 and 2, respectively. They improved their percentages in games 3 and 4 (54.5 and 68.2 percent, respectively), which resulted in wins, but they regressed back in game 5 (50 percent). Luckily for them, the game was out of reach so it didn’t hurt them. But if Jerusalem wants to get their second title in three years, they have to be closer in free throw shooting to their season average (70.6 percent) and not their playoff one.

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Maccabi Haifa

Winner League regular season record:

16-17 (8th seed)

Quarterfinals:

Beat Hapoel Holon (1st seed) 3-1 (won three straight games)

Players to watch:

PG John Dibartolomeo (22.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, 67.9 3-pt percentage, 22.7 PIR in QF), PF/C Kevinn Pinkney (10.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 18.3 PIR in QF), PG Gregory Vargas (10.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 6.3 apg in QF), PF Oz Blayzer (14.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 13.3 PIR in QF)

What you should know about Maccabi Haifa:

Haifa is a team who’s better than their record indicates. Yes, they were 16-17 during the regular season, but they had a +128 point differential, which was the second best mark behind Holon. Thus, this was probably a team that should have won 18-20 games, not one that only won 16 and had a losing record. (I talk about pythagorean W-L a bit in my previous post on Brose Bamberg who also had a differential between expected and actual record.)

Despite being the eight-seed, Haifa came out and utterly steamrolled the top-seeded Holon three-games to one. While the team got expected production from leading scorer Vargas, who averaged 10.3 ppg and 6.3 apg in the four-game series, it was the breakout of American point guard and University of Rochester product Dibartolomeo who ended up breaking the back of the top-seeded Holon. The young guard scored an incredible 22.5 ppg and shot nearly 68 percent from beyond the arc, all career numbers considering he only averaged 9.9 ppg during the regular season. Another breakout star was Pinkney, who averaged 13 ppg and 7.3 rpg in the four game series, while providing muscle and energy in the paint that neutralized the favored Holon.

What are their chances to win a championship?

Head coach Offer Rahimi coached under Mickey Gorka during their 2014 title run, so he understands the culture of this Haifa club and what it takes to win. Haifa plays an all-out style, as they don’t have the most size out of the clubs in the Winner League, but they can score buckets, push the pace, and get hot from beyond the arc. This has led to a high variance in their scores (hence the reason why they went 16-17), but it’s entertaining, and when they are feeling it, they can seem unbeatable.

Unfortunately, they will be facing a tough challenge in Tel Aviv, who also play a run and gun style and have a similar team composition, though Tel Aviv is slightly more talented and athletic on the perimeter. One of Tel Aviv’s weaknesses this year is on the glass, as they don’t rebound well, and don’t have the size to keep teams off the offensive glass either. Haifa thrives in this area, as they like to crash and get up second and third-chance attempts. Haifa will be giving away a lot of advantages to Tel Aviv, but if Haifa crashes the glasses, wins on 50-50 balls and can transition their hot shooting stroke, then they have a puncher’s chance to continue their Cinderella run to the Finals and perhaps into a championship.

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Maccabi Tel Aviv

Winner League regular season record:

19-14 (4th place)

Quarterfinals:

Beat Enei Herzliya 3-0

Players to watch:

Guard Andrew Goudelock (14 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.7 apg, 16 PIR in QF), Forward Victor Rudd (15.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 19 PIR in QF), Forward Quincy Miller (17.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 22.7 PIR in QF).

What you should know about Maccabi Tel Aviv:

I have already gone in length about Maccabi Tel Aviv’s playoff run in a previous post so I won’t go too much into this. But I will say that the combination of Arik Shivek’s arrival (though most likely temporary, as the courtship of David Blatt, whether they get him or not, is a sign that they are looking to upgrade with a big name hire) and Quincy Miller’s resurgence (after suffering through injury most of the year) has helped Maccabi turn a 180 after a season finish that included a 2-8 record in their last 10 games and the firing of Ainars Bagatskis (who was their third coach this year). That being said, this Maccabi team has been hot and cold all year and has gone through big ups and then tremendous downs with the various coaching changes this year (Rami Hadar and Bagatskis all had moments where it seemed like they would be the solution for the remainder of the season). So while this Maccabi team looks good now, that is no guarantee that they will continue such a performance in the Final Four.

What are their chances to win a championship?

Their matchup with Haifa is beneficial to the Winner League power. Haifa, as solid as they are, play a similar style to Tel Aviv, which doesn’t really exploit Tel Aviv’s weaknesses. In order to beat Tel Aviv, you need to be a solid rebounding team, you need to beat them in the post, and you got to make them play a half-court, slow it down game. Unfortunately, while Haifa is a slightly better rebounding team, but it’s not a considerable advantage, and it is debatable if Haifa can do those other two factors with any confidence. Tel Aviv won the season series 2-1, and when they did lose to Haifa, they were going through that horrid stretch where the club was embroiled with internal turmoil. Those days look to be gone (as of now).

If Tel Aviv does take care of business, it could result in a matchup with rival Jerusalem, who most likely will be looking for revenge after losing the Israeli Cup to Tel Aviv. While I have discussed about Miller before, one key to this series could be the offensive AND defensive performance of Andrew Goudelock. Goudelock missed considerable time to injury and was deemed less of a problem than Sonny Weems, who was released mid-season after a disappointing tenure in Israel. There is no question that Goudelock can put up buckets, as he has been known as one of the most dynamic one-on-one scorers in all of Europe. But he can be a black hole offensively at times, and can take plays off defensively as well, not necessarily a plus for a club that struggles with team defense in general.

And yet, this Final Four may be a “tryout” of sorts for Goudelock. Miller may have earned the second year of his contract with his quarterfinal performances, but Goudelock’s future seems less secure. Many have blamed him for the team’s inconsistencies, especially on defense. But, Goudelock, when motivated, can be a game-changing force, as he showed in past Euroleague stops as well as the NBA and D-League. If he can rekindle that force in the Final Four and lead the Blue and Gold to another title, it could result in him being back in Tel Aviv under the new coaching regime.

A disappointing Final Four performance though? Well, it’s safe to say his first season in Tel Aviv will be his last (much like Weems) if that should happen.

Three Thoughts about Fenerbahce from the Final Four

So, it’s official: Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul are the champions of Europe after their physical 80-64 victory over Greek power Olympiacos Piraeus. They are the first club from Turkey to win the Euroleague title in championship history, and this championship may have officially solidified Turkey as one of the top powers in European basketball circles (honestly, this has been the case for about a decade now, but Turkish basketball always seems to get overlooked by most general basketball fans and media). For Fenerbahce fans, this title a big deal, and I can’t help but feel happy for them, as they not only witness a Turkish club win the title on their home turf in Istanbul (always a good thing to win a championship in front of the home fans), but also exorcised some demons from last year’s debilitating championship game loss to CSKA Moscow in Berlin.

Anyways, as typical after any big moment in any sport, I have a few thoughts about the 2017 Euroleague champions as well as their run in the Final Four (not to mention postseason).

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Fenerbahce’s run to the title was historic in so many ways…

Yes, Fenerbahce is the first Turkish club to win the Euroleague title in Euroleague history.

Yes, they won the title as a No. 5 seed in the playoffs.

But, when you look at their whole postseason run, from tip-off of Game 1 of the playoffs in Athens to them hoisting the trophy in front of their hometown fans in Istanbul, their journey to the Euroleague crown is not only more impressive, but downright historic.

Even though they got the 5 seed in the last week of the season (thanks to Zalgiris upsetting Baskonia in Fernando Buesa to drop the Basque club to the 7 seed), their matchup with Panathinaikos was not exactly an easy one. PAO was one of the hottest clubs to finish the Euroleague regular season, as they won their last five games of the year. While much was made about Fenerbahce being fully healthy for the playoffs, people forget that PAO had also dealt with their own health issues in the beginning of the year. Much like Fenerbahce, PAO heading into the playoffs looked like a force to be reckoned with that not only was fully healthy (James Gist returning to the lineup was a big reason they went 5-0 to finish the regular season), but had finally seemed to gel under new coach Xavi Pascual. And that was not even considering that the first two games would be in OAKA in front of the rabid PAO fans, who had made OAKA one of the toughest venues in the Euroleague this season (with Belgrade and Piraeus being also in the mix).

And yet, Fenerbahce didn’t let PAO’s momentum or home court advantage get to them. They shut down the PAO offense in the second half of game 1 in a 71-58 victory, and then outgunned a desperate PAO team in game 2 80-75.  And, in front of their home fans in Istanbul, Fenerbahce took care of business and then some, not only beating PAO 79-61 to complete the sweep, but also clinching in such a defining (almost humiliating) way that it drove PAO’s ownership to make the players and coaches travel back to Athens by bus (roughly an 11 hour drive) as punishment.

In the semifinal, the Turkish club seemed to get the rotten draw, as they were schedule to take on the No. 1 seed Real Madrid, a club that definitely was the deepest and most talented in the Euroleague this season (not to mention featured the Euroleague MVP, Sergio Llull). Despite Madrid coming in as the Final Four favorites on paper (you could argue that the homecourt made Fenerbahce a favorite too), Fenerbahce owned the talented Spanish power, never relinquishing the lead at any point in their 84-75 win over Los Blancos.

And in the championship game? Despite going up against one of Europe’s premiere basketball powers and one of the Top-10 players in Euroleague history (Vassilis Spanoulis), the blue and yellow didn’t disappoint, capitalizing on a hot start (thanks to some solid outside shooting from beyond the arc, especially from Nikola Kalinic) and the rabid fans en route to their 16 point championship victory.

This was not an easy postseason by any means. One could argue that Fenerbahce faced three of the four best teams (beyond them of course) in the postseason, and yet they not only dispatched them all, but with little challenge.

People will remember Fenerbahce for being the first Turkish champions of the Euroleague. However, what Fenerbahce did was straight out of the 1995 Houston Rockets championship playbook, as their underrated legacy may be them displaying one of the most dominant Euroleague postseason runs ever for a seed without home court advantage (well…I guess the Final Four venue counters that title…but technically speaking they were always the under-seeded team for every round).

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Bogdanovic solidifies his stock as a NBA player…and maybe a Udoh comeback?

I have written about Bogdanovic before, and I felt he is as ready as ever to make the jump to the NBA, with this postseason solidifying his case. He earned All-Euroleague honors despite missing roughly a 1/3 of the Euroleague season, and was one of Fenerbahce’s most reliable players throughout the postseason. He went for 25-5-4 with a PIR of 35 in game 1 against PAO, and put up another sterling performance in game 2, putting up a line of 25-8-6 for another PIR of 35. While he regressed a little in the clinching game (10-8; 7 turnovers; PIR of 8), his overall series numbers (19.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4 apg, 62.5 percent shooting from 2-FG, 60 percent from beyond the arc, 26 PIR average) proved that he was Fenerbahce’s MVP during their playoff sweep over the Athenian power.

While Bogdanovic obviously took a back seat in the Final Four to eventual MVP Ekpe Udoh (more on that in a bit), the 24-year-old Serbian guard once again proved to be reliable and stellar on the Euroleague’s biggest stage: he averaged 15.5 ppg and 5.5 rpg and a PIR of 13.5. When Bogdanovic was on the floor, the Fenerbahce offense seemed to hum seamlessly, and his effort and tenacity for a guard on the glass and defensive end seemed to neutralize what is normally a physically Olympiacos team. Going into this year, there were many questions about Bogdanovic fitting in the NBA. Could he handle the physicality? Did he have solid enough skills to adjust to the competition? Could he be a starting-caliber guard?

This postseason and especially Final Four may have answered a lot of those questions. Yes, we will just have to wait and see for sure how Bogdan plays in the NBA, but right now, the future looks bright for him, especially if he makes the leap to Sacramento, where playing time should be ample.

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However, the underrated story this Final Four may be the resurgence of Udoh, who had been considered a couple years ago as a NBA bench warmer, not mention bust (he was the no. 6 draft pick in the 2010 NBA draft, famously picked ahead of players such as Greg Monroe, Gordon Hayward and Paul George; this was a big deal to Warriors fans until their resurgence under Mark Jackson/Steve Kerr). Udoh made some strides a season ago in his first season in the Euroleague, averaging 12.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 bpg and a PIR average of 16. However, Udoh didn’t really come into his own until the postseason, and even his breakout was questioned by some, as many debated whether he was more valuable than Jan Vesely (who missed considerable time down the stretch last year).

This season though, Udoh blew away any debate there was between him and Vesely. Udoh averaged 12.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.4 bpg, and a PIR average of 20.1, all dramatic improvements from a year ago, while playing more minutes to boot (31.2 to 27.8 in 2015-2016). He earned first team All-Euroleague honors, and was considered a snub for Euroleague defensive player of the year (which went to Baskonia’s Adam Hanga).

However, what may have solidified Udoh as one of the best centers in Europe was his MVP performance in the two games against Real Madrid and Olympiacos. For the two-games in the Final Four, Udoh averaged 14 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 6 apg, 3.5 bpg, a PIR average of 32.5, while shooting 64.3 percent from the field and averaging over 37 minutes per game (40 minute quarters mind you for those who aren’t familiar with Euroleague rules).

Seriously. Those numbers are fucking insane. And to put up those numbers against Real Madrid (who have insane post depth thanks to Gustavo Ayon, Anthony Randolph, Felipe Reyes, Othello Hunter, and Trey Thompkins), and against the physical Olympiacos trio of Khem Birch, Patric Young and Nikola Milutinov (who all were primary reasons why Olympiacos sported the best defense in the league this year, according to defensive rating) is a major testament to Udoh’s growth and development as a player in his two years in Europe.

Which begs us to ask the question: can Udoh return to the NBA?

Can he? Yes, I think he can. Offensively, I don’t know if his game will translate, as I don’t think his post game or ability to play one-on-one in isolation in the post will be as effective in the NBA as it was in Europe. Big men tend to be a more limited stock in the Euroleague, and I don’t know if Udoh can be a double-double threat against the Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins or Karl Towns of the league.

However, what Udoh developed considerably with Fenerbahce was his defensive versatility, as he may be a more polished defensive player now than he ever was in his time in the NBA. Yes, we know about the block numbers, but Udoh’s ability to mesh in Zeljko Obradovic’s heavy-switching defensive system (on full display against Olympiacos; a key reason why they ran away with the game down the stretch) makes him a more valuable commodity in today’s NBA game. Udoh can guard 3 to 4 positions at the next level. It’s not quite Draymond Green-esque, but for a near 7-footer, that kind of ability is valuable to NBA teams.

Now, should Udoh go to the NBA? That one is more up for debate. Udoh is a star and beloved in the basketball-crazy city of Istanbul. What he makes in Fenerbahce probably will match what he will make in the NBA, and if not exactly, it will at least be in the ballpark. Udoh is a legitimate superstar here in the Euroleague. On the flip side, he is probably a bench guy, a 7th-8th man at best, in the NBA.

That being said, you never know. I didn’t think Alex Abrines or Tomas Satoransky would be going to the league last year either, and look how that turned out. Either way, Udoh will be entertaining some calls this off-season, and rightfully so. He deserves it. However, let’s hope for the Euroleague and Fenerbahce he decided to keep his star shining brightly in Turkey.

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What’s next for Obradovic?

We know Zeljko is in it for one more year at least. The idea of him winning a title in his home country of Serbia (the Final Four is in Belgrade next year) would be the cherry on top of his illustrious coaching career. What Obradovic has done is nothing short of legendary, not just in Europe, but in basketball coaching worldwide. Let’s take a look at his profile:

  • 9 Euroleague titles (1 with Partizan, 1 with Joventut, 1 with Real Madrid, 6 with PAO and 1 with Fenerbahce).
  • 16 appearances in the Euroleague Final Four (in addition to the teams above, he also made one with Benetton Treviso).
  • 14 domestic league championships (11 in Greece, 2 in Turkey and 1 in the old Yugoslav league).
  • 9 national cups (7 with PAO, 1 with Fenerbahce, 1 with Partizan).
  • 4 medals as head coach of the Yugoslavia national team (silver in 1996 Olympics, gold medals in 1997 Eurobasket and 1998 FIBA World championship and a bronze in the 1999 Eurobasket).

I mean…how can really any coach compete with those accolades, either in Europe or America? Zeljko probably is one of the greatest coaches in basketball history, up there with such legends as Red Aurebach of the NBA and Coach K of the college ranks.

But, let’s say after 2018…what is next for Zeljko? I don’t know if he has much longer in coaching. His fiery, wildly emotional style I imagine hasn’t been good on his health, and I don’t know if he has much gas in the tank, especially considering he’s probably reached the zenith as Fenerbahce coach.

Does Zeljko go into management? Perhaps ownership? Or…does he try to get some kind of job in the NBA, perhaps try to be a head coach?

The biggest knock on Obradovic is he’s too brash to be a NBA head coach, which may be true. I don’t know if he can yell at NBA players like he does in Europe. But, you can’t argue with his results and resume. Winning basketball, regardless of continent, means something. And if you can justify a successful college coach going to the league with no NBA experience, you certainly can (and should) hold the same standard for a successful European coach.

With European influence becoming more and more pronounced in the NBA player-wise, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that a NBA franchise may take a chance on Zeljko and see if his coaching style and philosophy can be successful in the league. Of course, this is probably something that’s two years away from happening at least (no way Zeljko gives up a shot at winning a Euroleague title in Belgrade). But it’s something to think about, and talk about in the meantime.

There will be a post-Fenerbahce life for Zeljko.

How that life will develop and will ultimately lead to though is to be determined…

Euroleague Final Four “NBA Prospect” Watch: Milos Teodosic

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

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

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

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

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

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Milos Teodosic, CSKA

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

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

Why is Teodosic a NBA prospect?

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

What kind of player will Teodosic be?

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

What teams will/should he go to?

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

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

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

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

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Will NBA fans like him?

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

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

What do you predict for Teodosic in 2018?

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

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

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

Ranking the field of the upcoming Euroleague Final Four

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

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

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

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

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

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Olympiacos Piraeus

Talent: 4th of 4th

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

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

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

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

Coaching: 4th of 4th

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

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

Fan attendance: 2nd of 4th

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

Intangibles: 2nd of 4th

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

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CSKA Moscow

Talent: 3rd of 4th

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

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

Coaching: 2nd of 4th

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

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

Fan attendance: 4th of 4th

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

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

Intangibles: 4th of 4th

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

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

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Real Madrid

Talent: 1st of 4th

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

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

Coaching: 3rd of 4th

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

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

Fan Support: 3rd of 4th

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

Intangibles: 3rd of 4th

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

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

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Fenerbahce Istanbul

Talent: 2nd of 4th

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

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

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

And of course…Bogdan Bogdanovic is the truth.

Coaching: 1st of 4th

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

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

Fan support: 1st of 4th

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

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

Intangibles: 1st of 4th

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

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

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.

All of Ioannis’ Men: Baskonia’s Cinderella Run and the Challenge of Doing it Again

Despite modest expectations, Laboral Kutxa Baskonia was one of the best stories of the Euroleague in 2015-2016.

“Like a flash of lightning between the clouds, we live in the flicker” -Joseph Conrad

There really wasn’t a better story this year in the Euroleague than Greek center Ioannis Bourousis and Laboral Kutxa Baskonia’s run to the Euroleague Final Four. Baskonia, a basketball-centered club in the Basque capital of Vitoria, typically gets lost among other Spanish teams in the ACB Liga Endesa in terms of the global perspective. They are not as well-known among basketball fans beyond Europe because they do not have any big names or former NBA players on their current roster, and they do not have the major “Futbol” partner like Barcelona and Real Madrid. Yes, they have had some history producing players, as NBA players like Luis Scola, Jose Calderon and Tiago Splitter did suit up for Baskonia in the early 2000’s. That being said, in the past few years, Baskonia has remained a bit anonymous, usually getting passed over in the standings as well as the spotlight in the ACB and Euroleague by their Spanish counterparts in the east (Barcelona) as well as in the Spanish Capital (Real Madrid).

Going into this season, there were mixed opinions in terms of how Baskonia was going to perform in the Euroleague. Head coach Velimir Perasovic, a Croatian national in his first full season with the Basque club, had a young squad which included a bevy of quick, athletic and sharp shooting players who could play multiple positions. With such a roster, Perasovic decided to mold his team into a fast-paced, outside-shooting oriented team in the mold of successful NBA teams such as the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs in America, and Real Madrid in their home country. Darius Adams and Mike James were the kind of quick, combo guards who could hurt teams off the drive and from beyond the arc, and they had a strong collection of shooting guards and forwards such as Davis Bertans, Fabian Causeur and Jaka Blazic who could help stretch the floor and create space for Davis and James. And in the interior, while young, they had long, defensive oriented post players such as Illmane Diop, Kim Tillie, Darko Planinic, and Tornike Shengelia who could bring energy and hustle to make up for their lack of big game experience. And lastly, add Hungarian wing Adam Hanga, who could guard multiple positions on the perimeter, and Baskonia had the pieces of a promising, though relatively anonymous, squad for the 2015-2016 season.

However, the team was missing “big game” experience, and a couple of weeks before the season started, Baskonia signed Greek center Ioannis Bourousis from Real Madrid. At 32-years-old, the 7-foot, 270 pound Bourousis was coming off a year where he averaged around 11 minutes a game and took a back seat to Gustavo Ayon on the 2015 Euroleague champion team. After years of success with Olympiacos, EA7 Milano and Real Madrid, Baskonia was a bit of a project for him. Yes, they would need his presence and ability in the post, especially since Diop and Planinic, the two main centers, were still a couple of years away from being dependable, major minutes players. But Perasovic need Bourousis to mentor the young club, to be an example of what it took to be a major winning basketball club in Spain as well as Europe. Bourousis could have avoided the challenge, or not taken it seriously. After all, he was coming off a championship season and had a legacy in Europe that was already well-established. Instead, as displayed in this interview with him during the season, Bourousis accepted the challenge and made immediate inroads in developing the culture in Baskonia into a winning and professional one.

For the most part, the Spanish and European basketball critics felt Bourousis would make an impact, but they figured it would be a minor one at the most. Bourousis would put up better numbers and get a little more playing time from the previous year, and Baskonia would make the Top 16 and compete for a playoff spot, but most likely fall short. After all, how could a guy, who was coming off a reserve role, carry a team that hadn’t experienced major success on a domestic or inter-continental level since 2010 (when they won the ACB title), nearly six years ago?

Boy, did Bourousis and Baskonia prove their critics wrong.

Despite his age and reserve status a year ago, Ioannis Bourouris carried Baskonia to a magical season and had the best individual season of his career.

If you look on paper, Bourousis’ year in Baskonia doesn’t seem all that impressive: he didn’t start a game all year for the Basque club, and he only averaged 13.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg in ACB play and 14.5 ppg and 8.7 rpg in Euroleague play. However, then you take into consideration the 40 minute games in Europe and the fact that Bourousis only played 23 minutes per game in ACB play and 24.6 minutes in Euroleague play, and his impact becomes more noticeable. Quite simply, there was on player as efficient or more valuable to their squad in Europe than Bourousis.

Watching Bourousis play this year was like watching Vlade Divac during his glory years with the Sacramento Kings. Bourousis lacked any kind of athleticism and it was certainly possible that he had the lowest vertical on the team. He struggled to defend quicker players, and he was often exploited in the pick and roll when he switched on speedier point guards. But what Bourousis lacked in athleticism, he made up for in terms of skill set and basketball IQ. He dazzled fans and his team with dynamic moves in the post, as he killed opponents with excellent back to the basket moves, as well as a reliable jump hook and sweet fade away jumper in the mold of Dirk Nowitzki’s that buried teams time and time again in the block. When he didn’t score, his ability to see open teammates all over the floor led to easy buckets off the cut or open 3-point looks when defenses tried to collapse and double down on him. And Bourousis destroyed teams in pick and pop plays with Adams and James. If they tried to trap Baskonia’s quick guards, they were able to hit a popping Bourousis who would regularly damage defenses from the 3-point line (Bourousis shot 40.8 percent from three in ACB play and 38.8 percent in Euroleague play). If they tried to switch, Adams and James would get to the hoop with ease for the layup or the dunk. There probably was no more effective pick and roll combination in Europe than Baskonia’s Adams/James and Bourousis combo, and Bourousis was the key cog that made it happen, as his versatile skill set and pristine ability to read defenses made him one of the best offensive players in all of Europe last year.

As the season wore on, Bourousis seemed to come through in the biggest of moments, especially in the Euroleague. In a January 29th game against Barcelona, who had been 39-1 in their last 40 games on their home court in Top 16 play, Bourousis put up a sterling performance that displayed Baskonia was to be taken seriously in Euroleague play. In Baskonia’s 81-78 overtime victory, the Greek center scored a game-high 24 points on 9 of 16 shooting, had 8 rebounds, 3 assists and zero turnovers for a PIR of 28, which was the second highest mark for the week (behind only Tyrese Rice of Khimki’s 35, which he garnered against a lesser Zalgiris team in Moscow). Yes, Adams also had a strong game, as he scored 17 points and hit the game-tying 3 at the end of regulation, and Alex Abrines of Barcelona had a coming out party of sorts as he scored 21 points off the bench and nearly carried Barcelona to a come back win despite lackluster performances from their regular starters (Juan Carlos Navarro was shut out in 12 minutes of play and Justin Doellman only scored 5 points). But no player shined more in Europe and garnered more attention that day than Bourousis. After handing Barcelona their second loss at home in the Top 16 in their last 41 games, this much was clear going forward in the Euroleague: Baskonia was a force to be reckoned with, and Bourousis was the one to lead them.

The most endearing non-basketball moment from Bourousis though came when a reporter immediately after their win on the court asked him if he was “happy with his performance and the team’s win in the Top 16.” Bourousis, who came to install a sense of professionalism on this young squad, responded in the most work-man like way possible:

“I am not worried about how big this win is. All I am worried about is working hard and winning games.”

 

It was the kind of answer a veteran star of a veteran team would give, not one whose squad has been the routine underdog to other major European powers over the past half decade or so. And from that game and moment, Baskonia continued to play like a team who expected and knew how to win, and Bourousis continued to shine, proving that at 32 years old, he was one of Europe’s best players, if not best overall.

Throughout the season, Bourousis continued to raise his stock as a player week after week. He posted the highest PIR of any Euroleague player in 2015-2016 (44) in Week 2 of the regular season in a 96-89 overtime win over his former club Olympiacos. In the game, his marvelous performance included 28 points on 8 of 14 shooting, 12 rebounds, 3 assists and once again ZERO turnovers. Take a look at how Bourousis dominated the Greek power below in a monumental win Fernando Buesa Arena in front of a raucous Baskonia home crowd.

Over the course of the year, Bourousis was named sole Euroleague MVP of the week twice (Week 2 regular season and week 10 of the Top 16 in a crucial 98-83 win over Khimki Moscow) and shared MVP honors another two times (Top 16 Round Week 4 with Jan Vesely of Fenerbahce, and Top 16 Round 13 with Nando de Colo of CSKA Moscow). He also was named the Euroleague’s MVP for March, after averaging 18.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 2.8 apg in 27 MPG during a crucial stretch in the Top 16 which Baskonia qualified for the playoffs. And at the end of the year, Bourousis was named to the Euroleague All-First team, narrowly missing out on MVP honors to Nando de Colo (though Bourousis was named the ACB’s MVP a little bit later).

And all these accomplishments didn’t just stand out on their own, as Bourousis, in his professional, workman-like way, continued to lead the charge to Baskonia’s success in Europe. In the Top 16, Baskonia went 9-5 which included only 1 loss at home (to Olympiacos in round 2). In the playoffs, against Greek power Panathinaikos, a team that had former NBA players such as Sasha Pavlovic, Nick Calathes, and Elliot Williams as well as European and Serbian standout Miroslav Raduljica, Baskonia swept the Greek favorite, which included a defining 85-74 victory in Athens in the deciding Game 3. And to further show the development of Baskonia’s team? In the clinching Game 3, Panathinaikos shut down Bourousis, as he only scored 9 points. However, the team stepped up to cover him as Adams and James scored a combined 44 points to help them earn their first trip to the Final Four since 2008.

Bourousis didn’t have to carry his team individually in the playoffs, and that was a further sign of the legacy and leadership he left with his young Baskonia colleagues this season. He had led the way so much in the season to the point that he had instilled confidence in his team to step up on an off night for him on such a big stage. Would Adams and James stepped up in such a crucial moment of the playoffs without Bourousis’ mentoring? Perhaps, but I find it highly unlikely.

In the Final Four, Baskonia ran out of gas unable to carry the magic from the Top 16, though they were certainly close and showed flashes of making a miracle championship run. In the semifinal, they were unable to stop a furious Fenerbahce comeback led by Bojan Bogdanovic and Gigi Datome, whom both led the Turkish power to win 88-77 in overtime, helping Fenerbahce to a 16-5 scoring difference in the overtime period. But despite the loss, the performance was typical of what Bourousis did all year: 22 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists and a game high PIR of 24. Even in a loss on the biggest stage in European basketball, Bourousis failed to disappoint by hitting several big shots (though not enough unfortunately), as evidenced in the highlight compilation below:

In many ways, it was a shame Bourousis was not named the Euroleague MVP. Yes, de Colo won a championship with CSKA, and yes he had his share of highs this year, as well as importance to CSKA finally getting over the hump after numerous Final Four chokes. But, no player in Europe was more entertaining than Bourousis. No player did more to change his team’s fortunes this year than Bourousis. Nobody had more impact or inspired or led his team better throughout all the rounds of the Euroleague than Bourousis. Yes, de Colo has a Euroleague championship, but CSKA is getting to the Final Four still without him. They have Milos Teodosic still, who would make up his absence. But Baskonia? Are they making it to their first Final Four in eight years without Bourousis? Are they getting out of the Top 16 or even Regular Season without Bourousis? It is a shame that the Euroleague committee didn’t recognize what Bourousis did for this team this year and didn’t give him the Euroleague MVP award.

And I am not alone in this thought either. I’ll also let this nice highlight “MVP Campaign” video further show why Bourousis was deserving of the Euroleague’s top individual honor.

Bourousis has about as much beef with the Euroleague as LeBron James does for not getting any MVP consideration this year. That’s how good Bourousis’ campaign this year was.

Baskonia head coach Velimir Perasovic had the right temperament and strategy to maximize the talent on this Baskonia roster.

One of the aspects of Baskonia’s Cinderella season that gets lost in the Bourousis hype is the job that Perasovic did. While most coaches would be out in the forefront of such success, Perasovic, with his quiet demeanor, seemed to shy from the spotlight and let it focus more on his Greek superstar as well as his young and upcoming players. But even though he was not in the forefront media-wise like Zeljko Obradovic from Fenerbahce or Dimitrios Itoudis from CSKA (though they get a lot of attention for their fiery personalities), Perasovic was just as crucial to his team’s success like the coaches listed above.

For starters, convincing Bourousis to not only come to Baskonia, but take the role he did was not an easy task. After all, as mentioned before in this post, Bourousis was coming off a title, and had settled into his role as a reserve in Real Madrid. To convince him to not only play more minutes, but be a crucial part of this team was a risk that not many European coaches would take, especially with the fight to stay in the Euroleague an annual slog. And yet, not only did Perasovic convince Bourousis to be a valuable mentor on this team, but he was able to put him in the position to have arguably the best season of his career. Just a year ago, European basketball fans thought Bourousis was on the verge of retirement. Now nearly a Euroleague and ACB campaign later, thanks to Perasovic and his style of coaching and offensive system, Bourousis has rejuvenated his career, so much so that there is talk about San Antonio trying to bring him to the states.

That being said, Bourousis is just the tip of the iceberg. One of the major things that happens in Euroleague play, especially during the Top 16 when teams are positioning themselves for playoff spots, is the tinkering of rosters, through mid-season loans and acquisitions. Panathinaikos added wing Elliot Williams. Real Madrid added sharpshooter KC Rivers from Bayern Munich. Crvena Zvezda added guard Tarence Kinsey. It’s what European teams do to try and get a late push in their run to the playoffs and hopefully a Final Four.

Unfortunately, the mid-season additions don’t always work, and have mixed results. They can mess with team chemistry, and sometimes the talent doesn’t respond well in their new environment. Much to Perasovic’s credit, he pretty much kept and played the same roster and rotation from Round 1 of the Regular Season all the way to the 3rd place game of the Final Four. He continued to start young players like Diop and Planinic at center over Bourousis to help boost their confidence, and he showed faith in his young perimeter players like Blazic, Shengelia and Bertans who are all 25 and under. Not a lot of coaches would show the kind of roster faith that Perasovic did this season Baskonia. Most would have resorted to a veteran free agent from a lesser-tier club to solidify their playoff chances. But by maintaining roster consistency, Perasovic’s Baskonia squad developed game-by-game as a team, and ended up playing their best basketball by the end of the season because they had played so much together and consequently, matured as a team in the process.

And lastly, the style Baskonia played under Perasovic was a bit unorthodox, but proved to be entertaining and effective. They weren’t exactly the best shooting team, as their 52.3 eFG percentage was exactly league average for the year. Furthermore, they weren’t exactly a great “ball movement” team, as their 52.9 assist rate was lowest in the Euroleague (and this is out of 24 teams). And lastly, they didn’t generate a whole lot of second chance shots, as their offensive rebounding rate was 7th lowest in the league (of the six others, only Brose Baskets Bamberg made the Top 16). Combine all those factors with an offensive rating of 105.5 (11th best; below non-playoff teams like Khimki, Anadolu Efes and Brose Baskets) and one could ask this: how did Baskonia experience so much success?

The keys to Baskonia’s sterling season could be credited to Perasovic’s focus on pace, the high ball screen, the 3-point shot, and a defense that put a premium on NOT fouling. Let’s break down each point:

  • Baskonia had the second fastest pace in the league at 75.5 possessions per game, which was only .1 possession lower than Strasbourg  (who only played 10 games because they didn’t qualify for the Top 16). This emphasis on pace led to quick shots and more possessions. Because they generated quick shots, this resulted in less assists, hence why their assist rate was so low. But, on the flip side, though their assist rate was low, (the bane of every “traditional” coach who believes in Norman Dale basketball), they also had a low turnover rate, which was 10th lowest in the Euroleague, due to their ability to get shots up early in the shot clock.
  • Another reason their assist rate was so low was that Perasovic really focused the offense on his his points James and Adams as well as Bourousis through the high ball screen. This led to a lot of dribbling, and thus, not a lot of chances for assists. But the high ball screen was so effective because Adams and James could take advantage on switches and either finish at the rim or kick out to open shooters on the perimeter, or they could hit Bourousis on the roll or especially the pop beyond the arc. Perasovic also let them freelance from the high ball screen and didn’t call many set plays due to his emphasis on keeping that quick pace, which was much different from their competition, especially clubs like Barcelona and Loko, other playoff teams who ranked in the bottom five when it came to fastest pace.
  • The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets aren’t the only professional teams in the world that relies on the 3 ball, as Baskonia made the 3 a key part of their game in 2015-2016. Their 3-pt attempt to field goal attempt was 0.41, fourth highest in the league, and they could do so with knock down shooters like Bertans and Bourousis. Another thing interesting about the 3-point shot was that they put a premium on defending that shot as well. Their opponent 3FGA/FGA was 0.32, the lowest rate in the Euroleague. And hence, while Baskonia hurt teams with the 3-point shot, they weren’t allowing others teams to do so, and by doing that, they put themselves in many possessions exchanges where they were trading 3’s for 2’s, which has proven statistically to have value over the long course of a game and/or season.
  • And speaking of defense, another interesting aspect of their defense was how they did not foul a lot or allow opposing teams to get to the line. Baskonia actually had the eighth-highest FTA/FGA ratio in the Euroleague, which was usually due to their fast guards and athletic wings like Hanga getting to the rack off the high ball screen. But, on defense, Baskonia actually had the seventh-lowest rate in the Euroleague in Opp FTA/FGA, meaning that they weren’t fouling and letting opposing teams get easy chances for points at the free throw line. This is a sound strategy and a credit to Baskonia’s defensive discipline, as they relied on contesting shots on defense getting rebounds off of missed shots, rather than relying on steals or blocks, which have a higher risk when it comes to fouling. But that wasn’t to say they completely abandoned “high risk” defense, as they were in the top-10 in both fouls and blocks, which again is credit to their defensive discipline. Perasovic and the Baskonia players deserve a lot of credit for this, and that was especially evident in their 101.1 defensive rating, third best in the league, and 48.8 opponent eFG percentage, which was best in the league. Bourousis and Baskonia was known for their ability to score and play up-tempo, but their defense was underrated all year, and was one of the key reasons why they made the Euroleague Final Four.

 

Due to the Euroleague’s free-market structure, it will be hard for Baskonia to duplicate moments like this, taken after they qualified for the Final Four.

The combination of Bourousis’ career renaissance, the young roster gelling over the course of the season, and Perasovic’s fine job coaching this eclectic group of talents made this year extremely special for Baskonia and European club basketball fans across the globe. And yet, as wonderful as this season was for the Basque club, it will be difficult to duplicate next year. After such as successful season, Turkish power Efes came calling and was able to lure Perasovic with a major deal to coach their squad next year. Adams is back in America, added to the Spurs’ Free Agent camp, and looks less likely to be back with Baskonia next season, with the same looking to be true of James. And Bourousis’ future seems a bit murky, as it is likely that a big name European club will throw a lot of money at him if he decided to not make the jump across the pond to the NBA. Just like that, in a matter of weeks, Baskonia’s dream season seems to be just that: a one-time dream, not the foundation for something special.

And that is the challenge with smaller European clubs like Baskonia: it is hard for them to build something sustainable on an annual basis because they cannot compete in Europe’s free market player economy. Rich clubs like Efes can woo their coach with bags of money. Traditional powers like Olympiacos, or Real Madrid, or Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv can outspend them for their own players. The NBA will always be the primary option, especially for American players, if the opportunity presents itself. That is the reality for Baskonia, and though they are not alone in this system, it is a bit more painful because they have a fanbase that really is basketball-crazed. If the financial caps and confines in the NBA were present in Europe, Baskonia would have the chance to develop into a club like the San Antonio Spurs, a small market team that can compete due to good player development and shrewd player acquisition. But, in the current European landscape, they are forever building their club year-to-year, hoping for home run seasons like this past one.

So, we probably won’t see another season like 2015-2016 from Baskonia for a while, though they are better suited to catch lighting in a bottle sooner than most in the European landscape (they are in Spain, a major country and in probably the best domestic league in Europe in the ACB, all factors which help their chances in acquiring talent). Bourousis’ Baskonia tenure most likely will be a one-year show, and most likely he’ll be dazzling for another European club next year. Hopefully, the young talent that got valuable minutes and playing experience this year will parlay that into bigger roles in 2016-2017 and keep the team competitive in the ACB and Euroleague, though I do wonder if a new coach will want to keep the same core intact.

It’s the cruel nature of European basketball: the big teams feast and continue to get fat year after year while the others fight for scraps, and Baskonia, though not on the lower end, probably is closer to the latter than the former. But we shouldn’t forget this season from Baskonia. We shouldn’t forget about their Final Four run, Bourousis’ unofficial Euroleague MVP, the sensational plays of guards Adams and James, and the stoic nature of Perasovic on the sideline.

It’s teams like Baskonia that make the Euroleague worth following, especially for newer American fans like myself.

Will Barcelona or Lokomotiv Take the Last Final Four Spot?

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After today’s slate of games, we now know who three of the four Euroleague Final Four participants will be on May 13th: Fenerbahce Istanbul, Laboral Kutxa (Spain) and CSKA Moscow. All three squads swept their opponents (with each one winning the decisive game on the road) in their respective series, and can begin the celebration and preparation for the Final Four event in a couple of weeks.

However, there is still one spot to be determined and that is being decided between long-time Spanish power FC Barcelona and the relatively Euroleague novices Lokomotiv Kuban from rural Russia. After their 82-70 Game 3 win in Spain, Barcelona is one game away from punching their ticket to Berlin for a chance at the Euroleague championship, but don’t count out Lokomotiv, the higher seed going into the series, who holds home court advantage should they be able to equalize and win on the road in Game 4 on Thursday.

Let’s take a look at each team and what is on the line for the in a crucial Game 4 later this week.

 

Barcelona Looking to Finish Strong

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Barcelona has had one of the weirder seasons in their history this year, as they haven’t found much consistency in terms of wins and losses. Statistically speaking, Barcelona has been one of the strongest teams, as they are the fourth-best team in the Euroleague this year in terms of net rating over the full season (6.8), but only had a 14-10 record through the Regular Season and Top 16 to show for it. Despite some big wins in the year over teams like Lokomotiv and a Top 16 season sweep over Spanish rival Real Madrid, they also had head scratching losses to Pinar Karsiyaka in the Regular Season opener and to Brose Baskets Bamberg during the Top 16 (a team they later beat by almost 20 in the second to last game of the year). In fact, due to all this inconsistency (they finished the Regular Season with three straight losses and lost five of their first seven in Top 16 play), it took until the final week of the Top 16 for Barcelona to clinch a playoff berth, as their win over Lithuanian power Zalgiris Kaunas on the road (and they were down at halftime) earned them one of the final playoff spots.

However, despite their meager record, this Barcelona team is loaded and peaking at the right time, though they certainly have their issues that could rear their head in the Final Four should they win on Thursday. First off, Barcelona has playoff leadership and experience with Juan Carlos Navarro being their primary option on the perimeter, along with complimentary wings players like Alex Abrines, Tomas Satoransky and Pau Ribas, who have been effective as of late, especially in the Top 16 and Playoff rounds (Abrines shot 6 of 10 from beyond the arc and scored 25 points total). In the post, Justin Doellman, a former Xavier product, has proven to be an excellent stretch 4 type, and they have depth in the post with Ante Tomic, Samardo Samuels and Joey Dorsey, whom they acquired during the Top 16 round. Dorsey especially has given Barcelona a physical presence, as his ability on the glass (his 16.8 percent offensive rebounding rate is second best in the Euroleague this year behind only Trevor Mbakwe of Maccabi Tel Aviv) and ability to body up opposing teams’ centers has made him an invaluable member of this Barcelona squad despite his relative lack of experience with the team and in Europe in general.

However, Dorsey hurt himself in Game 1, and his status seems to be questionable going forward as he missed games 2 and 3 in the playoffs. This hasn’t hurt Barcelona too badly, as their post depth, hot outside shooting, and the lack of a physical presence in the post or much post player depth in general from Loko has helped Barcelona be effective in his absence. That being said, the 3 final four teams have excellent players in the post, especially Fenerbahce, which is seeing a resurgence from newly acquired Ekpe Udoh, who has stepped up after Jan Vessley was lost for the season due to an Achilles injury in the Top 16 round. If Barcelona makes it to the Final Four and doesn’t have the services of Dorsey, it could make things very difficult in terms of having a serious shot at the Euroleague crown.

Another issue with Barcelona is their point guard play, as the squad hasn’t relatively gotten much from Carlos Arroyo, who was expected to be a playmaking catalyst for this squad. Arroyo only played little over 5 minutes in Game 3, and he only averaged 14.6 minutes in 7 games during Top 16 play, a downgrade from the 18.6 mpg he was seeing  during the 10-game regular season. This puts more pressure on Satoransky, who is the team leader in assist rate over the full season, and Ribas, who was 2nd in assist rate during the Top 16 round. Both those two are effective, but they do not have the dynamic athleticism that other Final Four teams have, and that could present issues, especially if Barcelona cannot transition their hot shooting from the playoffs to the Final Four (should they close it out).

Head Coach Xavi Pascual has done a phenomenal job considering the circumstances his team has faced this year, especially early on when they looked like they would miss the playoffs. He has a methodical, half-court oriented approach, as evidenced by their 70.3 pace this year, which is the slowest rate of any Euroleague team this season. However, that has been effective in the playoffs, as they have gotten Loko to play out of sorts in the slower pace of the last three games. Furthermore, his defensive plan has worked, as he has held the 3-point chucking Loko squad (their 0.48 3PT/FGA rate was highest in the Euroleague this year) in check, as evidenced by their 21.7, 33.3 and 28.6 percentages from beyond the arc, which are all below their season 3-point average of 36.6 percent. For Barcelona to close this out on Thursday, Barcelona has to continue to follow Pascual’s plan of relentlessly hounding Loko’s shooters and force them to win in the post, which is not exactly a strength of Loko’s on the offensive end.

 

Loko looking to make a comeback

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Loko has been one of the most balanced teams in Euroleague play this year. They are the top team in the league in net rating at 11.4, higher than even fellow Russian squad CSKA Moscow, who has been far and away the most dominant team over the course of the entire season. Loko’s heavy 3-point attack on offense, and risk-taking and aggressiveness on defense (their 10.8 steal rate leads the league) has been a key reason why Georgios Bartzokas’ squad went 17-7 in the regular and Top 16 season combined.

Bartzokas can thank the two-headed combo of point guard Malcolm Delaney and Forward/Center Anthony Randolph for Loko’s success, especially during the Top 16 round. Everything runs pretty much through those two, as they lead the team in possessions per game with 15.89 and 15.8, respectively (the next highest rate is Chris Singleton with 9.25, and Singleton primarily comes off the bench). When those two are on, Loko has proven to be one of the toughest teams to play in the Euroleague on a nightly basis.  Delaney is the classic hybrid point guard, who can score at will as well as create offense for his teammates. His 2.08 assist to turnover rate is tops on the team, and over half of his shots come from beyond the arc (0.52). Add that with a strong true shooting percentage (60.1 percent) and a surprising defensive rebounding rate for a point guard (10.9) and it makes sense why Delaney is so crucial to Loko’s success. Delaney plays all out and is their engine on the floor on both ends, which makes sense why he leads the team in minutes during the playoffs (106). In the playoffs, Delaney is certainly doing his share to will Loko to a Final Four berth, as he leads the team in minutes, and is showing his effectiveness on the offensive end by scoring 1.03 PPP and posting a highly respectable 5.00 Assist to Turnover rate.

Randolph is second on the team in minutes, and is also a unique talent who has been critical to Loko’s success. Randolph isn’t always efficient: his 45.2 effective field goal percentage is not good, especially when you consider his 32.2 usage rate, which is tops on the team. Furthermore, a knock that has dogged him from his days at LSU is Randolph’s inconsistent motor on the floor, and that continues to be an issue. Randolph doesn’t bang down low with opposing bigs (his 2.8 offensive rebounding rate really is just flat out pathetic for a near seven-footer), and he has spurts where looks unfocused and disinterested, which leads to lapses on defense and the killing of ball movement and spacing on offense. With Dorsey out, one would think Randolph would be making his bread on the block and with his back to the basket to take advantage of Barca’s less physical post players. Instead, he settles in the mid-range and tries to create offense off the dribble, which seems to bail out Barcelona’s defenders, who don’t have the physicality of Dorsey.

That being said, Randolph, when he’s on, is not just the most dangerous player on Loko, but perhaps in Europe. On the defensive end, he is Loko’s best post defender, as evidenced by his 4.2 block rate. Offensively, he has a decent and versatile touch around the rim (though he probably settles for fade away mid-range shots too often), but he can also step back from beyond the arc and shoot with some effectiveness, as he did game 2 where he shot 40 percent from beyond the arc. He is also an effective free throw shooter, as his 76.8 free throw percentage is pretty solid for a big man, and his 10.3 assist rate shows that he can also create offense from the post for his teammates. Randolph has the tools and skills to really dominate in this series, but he has to flip on the switch and get more physical, or Loko will be most likely heading back home for the Euroleague season after Thursday.

Loko does have some good supporting players that can help turn things around for Bartzokas’ squad. Singleton, who started out the regular season as a starter before Randolph arrived in the Top 16 round, is very much like Randolph, though a bit less skilled (however he makes up for it by being more physical than Randolph, especially on the offensive glass). Also Ryan Broekhoff and Victor Claver are effective “glue” stretch players (not quite guards, but not quite pure posts) who are highly efficient despite their relatively low usage rates, as they lead the team in Points Per Possession at 1.14 and 1.09, respectively. But make no mistake, if Loko wants to win two in a row and punch a historic first trip to the Final Four, then they will need more effective production from Delaney, and especially Randolph, who has to take advantage in the post with Dorsey either absent or not 100 percent. If Randolph can do that, and if Delaney can continue his hyperactive production as the team’s  main playmaker, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Loko can win two in a row against Barcelona.

Final Verdict?

I am pulling for Loko, though having to win one in Barcelona to force game 5 seems like a tall task. As much I respect Pascual for the job he’s done turning this team around in time for the playoffs, Barcelona has been to the Final Four before countless times. While that may be good for Spain, who would like to have two teams on the big European stage May 13, I do not think Barcelona is built all that well to compete for a title against the likes of Fenerbahce or CSKA Moscow. A healthy Dorsey gives them a better shot, but I do not think they can keep shooting like they are against Loko in the Final Four and I don’t know if their post players can compete with Fernerbahce nor do I think their guards could compete with CSKA Moscow.

Now, does that mean that I think Loko will do much better? No, not at all. In fact, I think Loko would be an auto 4th place finisher should they make it to Berlin. However, they have been a nice story this year, as they were regulated to the Eurocup, Europe’s second-tier league, a year ago, and have really impressed in Bertzokas’ first year at the helm. Yes, they are a bit too dependent on Delaney and Randolph, but they are an entertaining squad, and it would be good to see them on the big stage, especially considering they are one of the more rural teams in the Euroleague, and their contests have a “small town” feel to them. Them making the Final Four would be akin to Hickory High in “Hoosiers”…

Unlike the Huskers however, Loko would not win it all. Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good story though, not to mention a foundation and marketing tool to build on for next year in terms of upgrading their talent for the future.