Five coaches who will be talked about in Euroleague circles this summer

With the Turkish Basketball Super League (BSL),  Liga Endesa ACB (Spain), Lega Basket Serie A (Italy) and LNB (France) nearing it’s conclusion in the next week or so, the European domestic basketball season is practically finished. While for some, this means a break from basketball. For others, (such as myself), it means scouring the European basketball hot stove and rumors over Twitter.

Unlike the NBA, the player hot stove Europe stretches from now-to-August. At the conclusion of the NBA Summer League, it becomes clear who is going to be playing on a NBA team in October, and who most likely is bound back to Europe or the D-League (Well, G-League I guess now). However, in June, the biggest news centers on coaches, especially when it comes to Euroleague jobs. Which coou coaches are in? Which coaches are out? Which rumors are true? Which ones are unfounded?

Of course, you could argue a lot of names will be discussed as possible hires (or fires). However, I have focused on five names European basketball fans should pay attention to this summer who will have an impact on a Euroleague club or two this summer. First though, let’s take a look at some coaches who barely missed the cut.

  • Ufuk Sarica, Besiktas: An underrated coach who took Besiktas to the BSL Finals, and has showed some fight against heavily favored Fenerbahce (though they are down 3-0, and with the promise of an empty arena for Game 4 due to fan sanctions, they most likely will be swept). He won the BSL with Pinar Karsiyaka in 2014, which got them their first Euroleague berth in club history. He’s an excellent X’s and O’s guy, and he gets the most out of his talent. He also will be the head coach for the Turkish National Team this summer as well. However, I don’t know if he has the kind of reputation yet for a job outside of Turkey.
  • Andrea Trinchieri, Brose Bamberg: Another season; another BBL title for Bamberg and Trinchieri. The Italian-Croatian head coach is one of the most brilliant offensive minds in Europe, and he is bound for a Euroleague A license job after succeeding with smaller clubs such as Bamberg and previously Cantu in Italy. However, he has apparently agreed to an extension with the German club, and Olimpia Milano, a rumored destination for Trinchieri, decided to go with former Hapoel Jerusalem and Siena coach Simone Pianigiani. Therefore, he’ll most likely wait at least one more year with Bamberg before making that jump to a bigger European club.
  • Ioannis Sfairopoulos, Olympiacos: So far, nothing has been mentioned yet, and his job seems safe, as the concern now is building the roster. However, the epic collapse to rival Panathinaikos in the Greek Basket League championship (they were up 2-1 and had Game 5 in Piraeus), as well as the lack of a Euroleague championship hasn’t exactly made his status sturdy by any measure. He’ll probably be the coach in October, but if he gets off to a slow start, don’t be surprised to see him as the first coach gone in the Euroleague.
  • Dimitris Itoudis, CSKA: Rumors began to spread after the Final Four that a collapse in the VTB finals would send Itoudis packing, especially with David Blatt formerly on the open market (more on that in a bit). However, Itoudis dispatched Khimki in convincing fashion, and he once again claimed the throne as one of the top coaches in Europe.

All right. Here are five coaches you will be hearing about this summer who will be having an impact on the Euroleague this summer.

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Sito Alonso (formerly of Baskonia)

The Spanish Alonso was let go by Baskonia this week, as the club decided it needed to go in a different direction. Coaches don’t last long in the Basque country, as Alonso was the club’s sixth coach since 2012. That being said, Alonso didn’t have a poor season by any means. The club finished second in the ACB with a record of 23-9 in the regular season, and seventh in the Euroleague with a record of 17-13, qualifying for the playoffs. However, the Vitoria-based club was swept by CSKA in the Euroleague, and was upset by third-seeded Valencia in the semifinals (including a loss at home in game 1). Despite the solid paper numbers, it wasn’t enough for Alonso to get another year as Baskonia’s head coach.

However, I do not imagine Alonso will unemployed for a long period of time. Alonso has a sterling reputation as a developer of youth talent, as he coached the Spanish U-20 team in 2013. One job he has been tied to is the vacant Barcelona job, where he was a candidate last season before it ultimately went to Georgios Bartzokas. Barcelona is going through a rebuilding process, as it is trying to restock its developmental teams, and try to build (relatively) within rather than hang their hat on veteran free agent talent (which has burned them the past couple of seasons). Alonso, with his youthful energy and Spanish coaching experience, could be the guy to fit that description perfectly.

(Update: Just after I posted this, Barcelona announces that they have hired Alonso. Hat tip to the comments below)

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Georgios Bartzokas (formerly of Barcelona)

Since we’re speaking of Barcelona, the next coach that will be discussed is former Barcelona coach Bartzokas, who was let go after a disappointing season where his club finished sixth in the ACB (22-10, behind Unicaja and Tenerife, clubs they usually are head and shoulders above budget-wise) and 12-18 in the Euroleague (11th overall). Bartzokas struggled to implement his style with an aging club, and multitudes of injuries didn’t help him either in his first and only season in Catalan country.

That being said, there are mixed opinions out there regarding Bartzokas’ ouster. Some felt it needed to happen, as he was just an emergency choice last year after Zalgiris head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius didn’t work out (and seems to be the case again this year, as Saras is re-signing with his home country club). Some though felt he was slighted, as he didn’t have the right mix of talent to really make his system work. An up-tempo, defensive-oriented coach, Bartzokas could be a good fit at clubs such as Baskonia (though it appears that they are going to go with former player Pablo Prigioni) or Maccabi Tel Aviv, who both play a fast-pace, but could use improvement in terms of keeping opponents from scoring the ball.

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Dusko Ivanovic (currently of Khimki)

Ivanovic is a Euroleague coaching veteran, as he has coached Baskonia, Barcelona and Panathinaikos to varying levels of success. He came on last year with the Moscow-based club, and this season, he got Khimki to finish second in the VTB, which qualified them for the Euroleague. Dusko is an animated coach, who gives a lot of freedom to his star players, and that helped Russian star wing Alexey Shved, who earned VTB MVP honors this year during the regular season.

Unfortunately, Ivanovic didn’t end the postseason in the most inspiring way. Khimki was absolutely throttled by Moscow rival CSKA in the Finals, as they were swept easily 3-0, and really were never close in any of the three games. If that wasn’t enough, guard Jacob Pullen put the Montenegrin coach on blast, saying this about the Khimki head man according to Sportando.

Without an A license, and only 1 wild card spot available in the Euroleague under the new format, Khimki can’t afford to go through any growing pains in their return to Europe’s top competition. Yes, Dusko got them back to the Euroleague, and he should be appreciated for that. But considering how this season finished, it’s entirely possible that Khimki may be looking for a replacement in the next week or so.

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Pablo Laso, (currently of Real Madrid)

A month ago, Laso was on the top of Europe when it came to coaches. His Real Madrid club finished with the best record in both the ACB and Euroleague, his best player (Sergio Llull) won the Euroleague MVP award, and they had made the Final Four, looking for their second Euroleague title in three years. However, since the Final Four in Istanbul, the wheels have just came off for the Spanish juggernaut. The club finished an uninspiring fourth, getting absolutely blasted in the third place game by CSKA. They have looked uninspired in the playoffs, as they went three games with 8th seeded Andorra in the first round, picked up the slack against Unicaja (won 3-0), but now are on the verge of one of the biggest upsets in ACB history, as they are down 2-1 to Valencia with Game 4 on Friday at Fuente de San Luis.

It sounds crazy to see a coach go from the title of “best in Europe” to “possibly jobless” in less than a month, but this is Real Madrid, and the standard is incredibly high in the Spanish capital. The roster is one of the best-paid in Europe, and is chock full of former NBA stars (Ayon, Randolph, Fernandez, Nocioni for example). A domestic title should be the minimum expectation, and it’s entirely possible that Laso might not even accomplish that. Laso is a solid tactician, but he has come under fire for his stubbornness with rotations, and his inability to connect with the non-Spanish players on this roster. It’s possible that if they fall victim to Valencia, Los Blancos could upgrade this summer with a coach who is not only more adventurous rotation-wise, but also stronger in terms of relating better to the diverse roster. Maybe a return for Ettore Messina (who hasn’t found a NBA job despite being an assistant for a good while) or a Spanish welcome for…David Blatt?

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David Blatt (currently of Darussafaka)

Blatt apparently turned down a 3-year offer from Maccabi Tel Aviv, a club he won a Euroleague title with in 2014. For now, he says he is staying in Istanbul with Dacka, even though they will be regulated to the Eurocup next year after primary sponsor Dogus Group jumped ship to Fenerbahce. The reasoning behind Blatt’s decision to reject Maccabi’s lucrative offer? Blatt wants to return to the NBA after next year, and he only has 1 year left on his contract with Dacka. After next season, he will be free to negotiate with NBA teams without worry of a buyout. That wouldn’t be the case if he returned to Tel Aviv (where there would be some buyout agreement, due to it being a three-year deal; I can’t imagine MTA would give him an out where he could leave scott-free after all the turmoil they’ve experienced since he left).

But, as with all things in the European basketball scene, what is true today doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be true tomorrow. Blatt, despite his pledge of commitment to Dacka, could change if the right offer comes up. What if Madrid offers him the head job with a low buyout after 1 season? What if Khimki lets go of Dusko and offers Blatt a 1-year deal, since they are only guaranteed to be in the Euroleague for that timespan? (Blatt coached the Russian National team and was rumored for the CSKA job if they parted ways with Itoudis.) I know Blatt says he’s going to be with Dacka in 2017-2018, but I can’t imagine Blatt is done listening to any possible offers that might come up this summer.

Euroleague First Trimester Awards

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

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

Best Team: CSKA Moscow

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

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

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

Runner up: Real Madrid.

MVP: Milos Teodosic, CSKA

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

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

Runner up: Sergio Llull

Most Entertaining Player: Keith Langford, UNICS Kazan

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

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

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

Best Coach: Sito Alonso, Baskonia

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

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

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

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

Runner up: Rami Hadar, Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv

Most Surprising Player: Johannes Voigtmann, Baskonia

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

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

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

Runners up: Melli and Brown.

Most Surprising Team: Anadolu Efes

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

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

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

Most Disappointing Coach: Georgios Bartzokas, Barcelona

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

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

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

Runner up: Ergin Ataman, Galatasaray

Most Disappointing Player and Team: Ioannis Bourousis and Panathinaikos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Georgios Bartzokas be the right coach for Barcelona?

Georgios Bartzokas is officially the new head coach of Barcelona; they are hoping he’ll be celebrating like this (his Euroleague title with Olympiacos in 2013) in the near future.

Finally…all the turmoil, rumors, and reports are over. FC Barcelona finally has a coach, and it isn’t Sarunas Jasikevicius or Sito Alonso (who ended up taking the Laboral Kutxa Baskonia job…more on that in a separate post). After a lengthy process to figure out Xavi Pascual’s replacement, Barcelona management settled on Greek national Georgios Bartzokas, most recently the head coach of Lokomotiv Kuban of Russia.

Bartzokas is an interesting hire by Barcelona management after a multiple week process that felt much longer. He doesn’t have the playing pedigree of Jasikevicius, nor does he have Alonso’s youth or deep ties within the Spanish basketball system. Despite not having those characteristics, Bartzokas has been a successful head coach, as he won a Euroleague title in 2013 when he was head coach of Olympiacos and led Loko to their first ever Final Four as well as a third place finish last season (in the club’s second appearance in the Euroleague ever). There is no question that the 51-year-old Athenian head coach can make teams competitive at the highest level of play in Europe, but is he the right fit for the Catalan club, and can he bring the kind of success (ACB and Euroleague titles) that evaded previous head coach, Xavi Pascual, the past couple of seasons?

After all, as stated before in one of my previous posts, in Barcelona, it’s “championships or bust.” Consolation prizes aren’t a reality with the Catalan faithful, and it will be fascinating to see how Bartzokas will be able to transfer the success he had with Loko last year to Spain, but this time, under much more cutthroat circumstances.

Bartzokas has found Euroleague success as a coach, first with Olympiacos in 2013 and last year with Loko.

Bartzokas came onto Barcelona’s radar late, as it seemed in mid-June, Bartzokas was going to honor his contract with Kuban for at least one more season, according to a report from Sportando. And honestly, it didn’t seem to matter at the time, as Saras seemed to be a shoo-in for the Barcelona job once Pascual officially was let go (which happened a couple of weeks later). But, as we learned before, Jasikevicius wasn’t eligible for the position due to ACB rules, and in early July, after the Alonso reports proved to be erroneous, Barcelona was still without a head coach.

And surprisingly, things also changed dramatically for Bartzokas in Krasnodar.

Despite pledging his allegiance, the outlook for Lokomotiv Kuban looked quite bleak for 2016-2017. While Loko had a banner year in the Euroleague with their surprise Final Four run, their domestic season wasn’t as successful. In the VTB United League, Loko finished an underwhelming fifth, and were promptly swept by Khimki Moscow 3-0 in the playoffs. Because of the disappointing finish, the club didn’t earn the B license out of the VTB to qualify for the Euroleague (that went to Unics, who finished second to CSKA Moscow), and they missed out on the lone wild card spot to Darussafaka Dogus of Turkey. With new condensed format of the Euroleague, Loko was left out of the field of 16, and regulated to Eurocup, a harsh reality to stomach for Bartzokas and the organization after they ousted Barcelona in the playoffs months earlier.

And because of the regulation, it became less of an incentive for ownerships to pay top dollar to keep players, and star players began to look and find contracts elsewhere. Malcolm Delaney headed to the NBA where he signed with the Atlanta Hawks. Versatile big man Anthony Randolph ended up signing a two-year deal with Real Madrid. And though they haven’t signed anywhere else yet, Victor Claver and Dontaye Draper have made it known that they are not returning with Loko next season. And thus, it made sense for Bartzokas to look elsewhere despite pledging his commitment nearly a month earlier. Loko looked to be a rebuilding job in 2016-2017, and quite a big one in Europe’s second-tier competition. That’s not what Bartzokas signed up for when he said he would “honor” his contract, and when Barcelona came along with an offer, he took it gladly, knowing that the Loko job would be more risk than it was worth.

Bartzokas is a different kind of hire for Barcelona, and the Barcelona job is a different one as well for Bartzokas. Previous head coach Xavi Pascual was a Barcelona-lifer of sorts, as he got his start coaching the B team in 2004, and then spent a couple of seasons as an assistant to Dusko Ivanovic before taking over in 2008 after Dusko was fired. Bartzokas on the other hand, has no experience coaching or playing in Spain, and his only basketball experience outside of his home country of Greece came last year with Loko, and that was in Russia, where the VTB and Russian Domestic scene is not as strong as the ACB. For Barcelona, one of the top clubs in the ACB, the Bartzokas hire is a bit of an experiment, as the coaches they have hired in the past had experience in Spanish basketball as a player or coach.

But, if there is one thing the Athenian coach can do it is win and win quickly. Bartzokas took over Olympiacos in 2011, and promptly won a title in 2013, beating CSKA Moscow in the semifinal and Real Madrid in the championship game by double digits. After an underwhelming season in 2014-2015, when Loko went undefeated in the Eurocup regular season, but choked in the quarterfinals, Bartzokas led Loko to a dream Euroleague season which not only included a trip to the Final Four, but also a dramatic comeback in the playoffs, where despite being down 2-1 in the series and facing elimination in Game 4 in Barcelona, they won two straight games to punch their ticket to Berlin. Bartzokas’ basketball acumen, as well as cool demeanor, especially in big games, has served him well in his coaching career, as he has installed immediate success in every place he has coached so far.

For Barcelona, hiring a coach who could produce a quick-turn-around is exactly what they needed, especially with their rivals in Madrid dominating not only them, but the ACB the past couple of seasons.

Athletic defenders like Randolph (left) and Chris Singleton (right, 1) were key to Bartzokas finding defensive success in Loko.

What has made Bartzokas such as successful coach is his emphasis on defense. Last season, Loko was one of the best teams defensively in the Euroleague, as their 100.2 defensive rating was the second best mark over the full season (and only .1 behind Fenerbahce Ulker). However, Loko really found their groove defensively when Top 16 play began, when they fully had their roster intact (Randolph only played 60 minutes total in Regular Season play). In Top 16 play,  Loko’s defensive rating was 98.4, 3.1 points better than the second best mark (Fenerbahce), and their net rating of 11.4 was also the best in the league in the Top 16, even better than eventual champion CSKA Moscow (who had a 10.0 mark). Once Bartzokas had all his horses (mostly Randolph), Loko was one of the toughest teams to beat on a night in-night out basis, and Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy was a big key to that tremendous success in the Top 16.

Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy really is nothing spectacular. He emphasized strong, man-to-man defense, with little switching, and an emphasis on stopping the drive as much as possible. On the backside, Loko usually sagged their defenders to create help more than typical from most squads, which is characteristic of many Pack Line defenses. Take a look at how Loko is positioned on this possession against Barcelona in the playoffs.

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See Claver on the weakside sagging heavily toward the paint, which was a heavy part of Bartzokas’ philosophy last season: force teams to beat them from the outside. However, one reason Bartzokas was able to do this because Loko did two things well: 1.) utilize their length and athleticism and 2.) play extremely hard in half court defense. Loko was a cohesive unit on the floor defensively, and Bartzokas deserves a lot of credit for maximizing the talent on his roster on this end.

Bartzokas didn’t utilize a lot of full court presses or traps in the half court, mainly because he didn’t need to. He had length and athleticism advantages defensively at nearly every position. Delaney was a big point guard who could body up most opposing point guards with ease, and he was strong enough to play through screens and blow up opposing pick and roll plays. And Delaney’s backup, Draper, was a small bundle of muscle who didn’t have Delaney’s height, but had the same kind of strength-speed combo to either frustrate opposing guards or play through screens easily. Claver was a versatile defensive player who had the size to play opposing fours, but also the speed and length to hound and frustrate wings as well (he could sag this low on this possession because if Barcelona did skip it, he had quick enough reactions and athleticism to recover and break down and properly contest the three pointer or prevent the drive). Ryan Broekhoff didn’t have the athletic gifts of some of the other players in the starting lineup (mostly Claver or Randolph), but he played EXTREMELY hard on the defensive end. One could say Broekhoff was the glue that kept this squad together. A defender who didn’t give as much effort may have put Loko in situations where his teammates would be compromised more defensively. However, because of Broekhoff’s effort, and his ability to play through screens and guard multiple positions (he could guard guys on the perimeter or post depending on the situation), his teammates were able to play in their comfort zone and not worry about frequently having to help on breakdowns, which consequently made them more effective defenders, and thus, a more effective defensive team.

And the jewel of Bartzokas’ defensive strategy was Randolph who did everything defensively. He could block shots with ease around the rim, but he was also quick enough to hedge and recover off the ball screen, or switch in a pinch (which didn’t happen very often). And Chris Singleton off the bench provided the same kind of defensive ability, though Singleton was a bit more on the physical side (though not as quick as Randolph). As one can see, all these pieces put together put up a strong defensive force that proved to be difficult for opponents to score on. The only times Loko gave up points was usually due to mental lapses on their own end. As talented and effective as Randolph was, there were times he broke down defensively in transition, as he sometimes tended to jog back down after a turnover or missed shot, which led to easy buckets in transition for opponents. But for the most part, Bartzokas had this Loko team a well-oiled machine on the defensive end, and installed a strategy that proved to be effective all-season long in the Euroleague.

Of course, it is to be expected that Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy will adjust with Barcelona in some ways. While he will be able to play a similar way on the perimeter with long wings such as Alex Abrines, Stratos Perperoglou, and Pau Ribas, Ante Tomic in the post is a much stiffer-moving defender who can’t recover or switch or block shots like Randolph. However, there is one weapon on the roster that Bartzokas most likely will utilize more, especially on the defensive end, and that is Shane Lawal. Lawal doesn’t have the offensive gifts of Randolph, but defensively, he mirrors Randolph’s profile nicely. Lawal is a long, athletic defender who can roam and fight through screens, and he looked like he was on the verge of breaking out for Barcelona before a midseason injury sidelined him for a while. Expect Bartzokas to utilize Lawal more, especially since he will fit into Bartzokas’ conservative man-to-man strategy that emphasizes strength and length to prevent baskets. The only issue for Bartzokas to address is defense from the point, as Juan Carlos Navarro isn’t the kind of defender that will fit into what Bartzokas liked to do with Delaney and Draper last season, and Tomas Satoransky isn’t going to be with Barcelona next year, but instead in the NBA (he would have fit better due to his large frame). It’ll be interesting to see if Barcelona management will add a point guard through transfer this offseason in the kind of athletic mold of Delaney and Draper to fit into Bartzokas’ defensive system in year one in Barcelona.

Bartzokas relies heavily on his star players offensively, as evidenced by Anthony Randolph’s 32.1 usage rate last year with Loko.

Offensively, it is a bit of a different story for Bartzokas, as this is where he will most dramatically differ from his predecessor. Pascual was known for being a great basketball mind, who relied on a heavy playbook and liked to call multiple actions and sets in the half court. Bartzokas is the opposite, as he prefers a hands-off approach and allows for a more free-flowing offense that relies more on isolation and getting the ball to 1 or 2 scorers and depending on them to make the offense work.

Last season, Bartzokas relied heavily on Randolph and Delaney, as they generated most of the offense for Loko, especially in the half court. Randolph led the team in usage rate at 32.1 perecent, a mark that was also highest in the Euroleague last season as well. A lot of the time, Bartzokas offense was simply get the ball to Randolph and let him do his thing, and considering how versatile and athletic a scorer Randolph was, it worked most of the time. When Plan A (get it to Randolph) didn’t work, it usually delved into Plan B which was get the ball to Delaney, who had the second highest usage rate on the team at 22.9 percent. And off the bench, Singleton proved to be a Randolph-lite, as his usage rate was 21.9 percent.

When it worked, it was a sight to behold. No better example was Game 4 of the playoffs, when Anthony Randolph went straight “LeBron James”-mode and won the game himself and kept Loko alive despite facing elimination on the road. Check out his highlights below and how heavily Loko relied on him in their sets (as well as Delaney, who set up a lot of Randolph’s buckets).

There really wasn’t anything groundbreaking with what Randolph, Delaney and even Singleton did on the court strategically. They got the ball, they either drove and finished (mostly in the case of Randolph and Singleton) or drove and created for others (mostly in the case of Delaney). It was simple, but it was effective and it was tough for teams to guard at times, especially when one player was hot, it usually opened up shots for others as well. And this isn’t something exclusive to Loko, as Bartzokas preferred this philosophy with Olympiacos as well, as Vassilis Spanoulis had a usage rate of 29.3 during their Championship run in 2013.

Unfortunately, when things stalled offensively for Loko, or if they couldn’t get the ball to Randolph or if Delaney wasn’t hitting his shots or finding room to drive or if Singleton was on one of his cold streaks, the Loko offense could get downright ugly. Poor turnovers from horrendous possessions led to easy baskets for the opposition on a more-than-desirable basis. Loko actually had the seventh highest turnover rate in Top 16 play, and their lack of ability to take care of the ball consistently would transfer to a lot of blown leads for the Krasnodar-based club. Yes, they would come back a lot of the times, as one of those three or another like Claver, would get on a hot streak to rescue them. However, Bartzokas’ simple offense sometimes proved to be Loko’s own worst enemy, as they didn’t play well in the pick and roll, nor did they have a lot of effective secondary plays to hang their hat on in the half court when the isolation wasn’t clicking.

Establishing an offense will be much a bigger challenge for Bartzokas in Barcelona than defense, and ultimately that will make or break his tenure with his new club. With Satoransky gone, and no new signing to take over his position (yet), it will be interesting to see who will step up and be that “primary” isolation playmaker that will succeed under Bartzokas. With Olympiacos, it was Spanoulis as well as Dimitris Diamantidis. With Loko, it was Delaney and Randolph. Three-four years ago Navarro could have handled that role, but he isn’t the shooter or shot creator he once was, as evidenced by his sub-par campaign last season. Tomic is an effective scorer around the block, but he is effective in the pick and roll (not one of Bartzokas’ go-to’s) and really can’t create much off the dribble. And wings such as Perperoglou, Abrines and Ribas have been more “secondary” offensive threats in the past, not necessarily primary offensive options (though that could change with Bartzokas giving them more responsibility and leash). Bartzokas most likely will adjust his offensive philosophy to play more to his roster’s strengths, as he most likely will try to find a middle ground between Pascual’s old system and his own for the short term until they get more talent tailored to his liking. Nonetheless, it’ll be interesting to see who will step up and be that “main” guy, as Bartzokas has leaned on that “primary” player in his coaching stops thus far.

Bartzokas seemed to get the most out of his players in Loko; will that carry over in Barcelona?

The pressure to win in Barcelona is more than ever, and Bartzokas knows he is not stepping into an easy job. Pascual was a misnomer for a European coach, as he actually stayed a long time in Barcelona, something that is not typically seen from coaches in the “impatient” basketball management world of European club basketball. However, he had success. He took Barcelona to Euroleague Final Fours and won ACB titles, and he didn’t the last two years, which is why he is gone. Bartzokas has done the same: he has won a Euroleague title and been to two Final Fours, but doing so in Greece and Russia is a lot different from doing it in Spain, probably the most high-profile country in Europe when it comes to Euroleague and domestic league success.

If there is one thing positive about Bartzokas’ outlook it is that Barcelona is trying to change how they “build” their team, so Bartzokas will have some leash if he doesn’t make the Euroleague Final Four or win an ACB title in year one. However, a bottom-out season (i.e. a fourth or lower finish in ACB play or not qualifying for the playoffs in the Euroleague) won’t save him, nor would two years without a championship. This isn’t a one-year audition, but the pressure to perform at the highest level certainly is going to be expected from the Catalan faithful

Bartzokas won’t be able to play the same exact kind of ball he did in Loko next season and how he adjusts his style, which differs from Pascual in so many areas, will be something to behold next year. Will it work? Will Bartzokas find the right compromise in styles offensively and defensively? Will he get some talent toward the end of the summer or start of the year that will allow him to do what he is accustomed to doing? (There were reports that Barcelona was trying to make a late push for Randolph before he ended up signing with Madrid.)

Bartzokas can’t waste much time though to figure out these issues. Real Madrid has dominated their El Clasico rivals the past two seasons, and that is a wound that gets deeper and deeper with every Real championship and win in the ACB and Euroleague.

If that competitive status with their rival doesn’t change quickly, it is not difficult to imagine who the fans’ scapegoat will be.