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…

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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.

ELJ’s “Key Five-And-One” Playoff Preview: Olympiacos (3) vs. Anadolu Efes (6)

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Two previews down; two to go. If you missed it or unaware of how these previews are formatted, check out part 1 of the preview (Real Madrid vs. Darussafaka) and part 2 (CSKA vs. Baskonia) so you’re caught up.

Okay, now onto part 3, the 3-6 matchup: Olympiacos Piraeus vs. Anadolu Efes Istanbul.

(Also, major H/T to YouTube user MyBasketballTV who uploads these awesome Euroleague player highlight videos that I mostly embed on here; please subscribe to him/her/them if you haven’t already.)

Vassilis Spanoulis

Nobody is more crucial to this Olympiacos team and their Final Four chances than Spanoulis, the long-time Greek point guard. At his best, he is the engine of this Olympiacos offense thanks to his versatile scoring ability, as well as flashy and spectacular passing and playmaking. Furthermore, Spanoulis is one of the craftiest players in the continent, able to draw fouls, and do the little things to get to the line and help Olympiacos earn extra shots as well as extra points.

In Round 2, the 34-year-old point guard demonstrated why he has been voted a Euroleague and Greek MVP, putting up a masterful performance in a 90-66 win over Anadolu Efes at home in Piraeus. He scored 17 points on 5 of 9 shooting from the field, dished 9 assists, had 3 rebounds and accumulated a PIR of 26, the highest for a winning club that week and the highest mark of the season for him. The dominating demonstration by Spanoulis earned him Euroleague MVP for the week, as showcased in the video below:

But, as great and legendary as Spanoulis can be (I mean, christ, the Euroleague made a special documentary on him and he’s still active in the league), he can be his own worst enemy at times. He can be a black hole if his shooting is not on, as well as a turnover machine, forcing unnecessary passes at seemingly poor times. And as of late, Spanoulis hasn’t really finished the year on a good note, which correlates strongly with Olympiacos’ poor finish (they finished 1-4 in their last 5 games). After putting up a PIR of 24 in a big 79-77 win in OAKA over Greek rival Panathinaikos in Round 8, Spanoulis hasn’t reached the 20 PIR mark since, and has only put up a PIR in double digits six times from Rounds 9-30. Those are not impressive marks considering how much he has the ball in his hands and is depended on for offense in Ioannis Sfairopoulos’ system.

Luckily, despite Spanoulis’ regression after a hot start (Rounds 1-8), they have been able to get over his cool down period. But, this will be a tough matchup for Spanoulis (vs. Thomas Huertel, who’s been one of the best point guards since February), and Olympiacos is dealing with many injuries as well. For Olympiacos to punch their Final Four ticket, they will need an early-season Spanoulis (or past-season, MVP-esque one) over the next three-to-five games.

Nikola Milutinov

After an injury in a Greek Basket League game on April 10th, Khem Birch will be a serious question mark this series for Olympiacos. That is a huge blow to Olympiacos’ front court, which has depended on him as a powerful rim runner and anchor to their defense, which has been one of the Euroleague’s best this season. While Patric Young has experience with this Olympiacos squad and offers the same kind of physicality as Birch, 22-year-old Serbian Nikola Milutinov will be the more important player in the post and could be the key difference this series, especially if Birch misses games or is not 100 percent.

Milutinov has surged as of late, with his strongest performance of the year coming in Round 28 against Real Madrid, whose front court is stacked with NBA-caliber bigs such as Gustavo Ayon, Anthony Randolph, Othello Hunter, Felipe Reyes, and Trey Thompkins. The Serbian rising star and 2015 first round “draft and stash” pick of the San Antonio Spurs put up a line of 18 points,4 rebounds, and a PIR of 24 (a season high) in 21 minutes of play (also tied for a season high). Milutinov, who formerly played for Partizan Belgrade before coming to Piraeus, has soft touch and good skills and touch around the rim for a near seven footer, as evidenced in this highlight video of his performance against Madrid below:

However, consistency has been a problem for Milutinov this season. He has five games this year where he posted negative PIR marks, and he can be a non-factor on the floor at times as well. In the last game against Efes, he barely played, logging less than three minutes before being primarily regulated to the bench. Unlike Birch, whose springy and physical, Milutinov is a more “to-the-ground” big, lacking the athleticism or physicality of the newly acquired Canadian center. With Birch’s status a game-to-game issue, Sfairopoulos is going to need to trust the young Serbian star with more minutes on the floor. And consequently, Milutinov needs to capitalize on that coach’s trust with a big series as well.

Derrick Brown

Much like Spanoulis, Brown has been a bit of a life force for this Efes squad this season. When he plays well, Efes hums on the court and looks like one of the Euroleague’s best teams. When his play wanes, Efes looks as beatable as any of the other non-playoff teams. For Efes to have a chance to pull off the upset, head coach Velimir Perasovic and this Efes team will need a big series from Brown.

The 29-year-old, 6’8 former Xavier Musketeer is an explosive player on both ends of the court. The lefty forward can drive the ball and score strongly around the basket thanks to his high-flying athleticism, but he can also pull up and hit the mid-range with ease. He has a great ability to block shots and initiate the Efes fast break off of turnovers, an area they excel in considering the bevy of athletic guards and forwards on their roster. Brown demonstrated this ability and then some in a masterful performance in Round 21 against Red Star, where he scored 20 points, had 11 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists and accumulated a PIR of 33 in a 86-72 win in Belgrade. The dominating performance on the road, in a hostile Kombank arena environment, earned Brown MVP of the week honors, as seen below.

Brown most likely will be matched up with forward Georgios Printezis, who has been Olympiacos’ most consistent (and perhaps best) player this season. Brown hasn’t been great this year against Olympiacos, as he has only put up PIR marks of 8 and 11 in both contests. For Efes to pull of the upset, they need their best and most dynamic player to step up and win the matchup against “King George”. If he doesn’t, the chips will be heavily stacked against the Turkish squad in terms of making their first Final Four since 2001.

Thomas Huertel

If Brown is Efes’ most important player, Huertel may be their most dynamic. Though he is a sixth-man off the bench, Huertel is the team’s primary playmaker, leading the team in assists at 5.8 apg. Huertel is a crafty playmaker, able to beat defenders off the dribble and find open teammates for good, high-percentage shots. But Huertel is no, Ricky Rubio-“pass first and second; shoot third” guard. He can get to the rim and can find his stroke from the outside, as evidenced by him shooting 51.8 percent on 2-point shots, and nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc, both solid marks from a point guard.

During the month of February, no player was more crucial to his squad than Huertel was to Efes during that month of play. Huertel averaged over 16 ppg and over 10 apg, good for a PIR average of 23 during that time span. His stellar play, which helped Efes get back in the playoff picture after a poor start to the season, earned Huertel MVP of the month honors, as seen in the video below:

The French guard doesn’t get as much attention at times because he shares point guard duties with Jayson Granger, who normally starts for this Efes squad. But Granger is more of a combo guard who is depended on for shooting and scoring, not as much for playmaking, like Huertel. Without a doubt, the matchup between Spanoulis and Huertel will be a fascinating one, and if Huertel can outduel the Greek Euroleague legend, that could mean not only a return to the Final Four for Efes, but a boost to Huertel’s stock as a player not only here in Europe, but abroad as well.

Tyler Honeycutt

Tyler Honeycutt is not the team’s best player. That honor probably belongs to Brown, or maybe Huertel. But there is no player that is more complete or well-rounded than Honeycutt, who has been a Draymond Green-esque player for this Efes squad. Honeycutt doesn’t average double figure points this year (only 9 ppg), and he has only started 1 game as well, but his 13.6 PIR is third-highest on the team, and that is due to his multi-faceted game on both ends of the court.

Just look at the other categories Honeycutt excels in: he averages 7.1 rpg, a team-high and 0.9 bpg, the second-best mark on the squad. But, he also averages 1.1 spg, also the second-best mark on the team. And he is primarily a wing player that can play four positions on the floor. If that’s not Draymond Green-esque, than I don’t know what is. He put on his best Green-like performance in Round 5 against Panathinaikos, as he scored 15 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and dished 4 assists, good for a game-high PIR of 28, as illustrated in the video below.

Honeycutt is a nightmare matchup for Olympiacos on both ends of the floor thanks to his superb athleticism, strong skill set, and long 6’8 frame. Olympiacos will have to find a way to neutralize him, which will be easier said than done, especially considering the former UCLA product can beat teams in so many ways on both offense and defense.

Series Wild Card: Can Olympiacos stop the bleeding?

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Olympiacos is team trending downward and fast. They lost sharp shooting Matt Lojeski late in the season, which has limited their outside shooting effectiveness as a team as of late. Birch may or may not play this series, and even if he does, he won’t be a 100 percent. Spanoulis hasn’t quite played as well down the stretch, and that is worrisome considering his age and the miles on his body odometer as a player. Erick Green, who looked mid-season like the boost Olympiacos needed to make the Final Four, has totally disappeared from the Olympiacos rotation for whatever reason. Other than Printezis and Kostas Papanikolaou, this team has been a mess during the last third of the season and goes into the playoffs as a bit of a wounded dog of sorts.

Which begs us to ask the question: can coach Sfairopoulos stop the bleeding and turn Olympiacos’ fortunes around?

Olympiacos will have the home court advantage. And they certainly have the playoff experience advantage over Efes. But there are a lot of question marks about this Olympiacos squad entering the playoffs, and Efes is no slouch. Perasovic took Baskonia to the Final Four last year. Huertel has some playoff experience during his time with Baskonia (when they were Laboral Kutxa). Efes beat Olympiacos just recently in Round 29, so this Turkish club knows they can match up with the Greek basketball power. And Efes can run and gun with the best, and that will test the depth of Olympiacos, which is looking a little sketchy at this moment.

Olympiacos will need to make a statement in game 1, a statement that the last third of the season didn’t mean shit, and they’re ready to prove why they finished third in the Euroleague and that they can add another Final Four to their illustrious history. I know Olympiacos fans are telling themselves this, and believe Spanoulis and Printezis will help turn around this Olympiacos ship.

Game 1 will tell…because if Efes’ surprises in the opening playoff game…well…fans of the Red and White might need to start planning for next season rather than next month.

Why Euroleague fans should hope Crvena Zvezda holds off Darussafaka for the last playoff spot

“It’s like picking between one of the signature clubs…the very essence of what makes European basketball what it is…and basically like the Mr. Burns’ family picnic.”

-Rob Scott on this week’s Euroleague Adventures

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After the last double-round week of the season, the Euroleague playoff picture is nearly complete. Anadolu Efes punched their ticket to playoffs with the combo of a massive road win in Kauans over Zalgiris in Round 27, and a derby upset over Fenerbahce in Round 28. While the seeding is still yet to be determined, Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow, Olympiacos, Fenerbahce, Panathinaikos, Baskonia and Efes are all making plans for Euroleague basketball beyond Round 30.

However, there is one spot remaining, and these final two weeks will be a battle between two clubs who faced off against each other in Round 1 (who will also meet up against each other in what could be a playoff, “winner-take-all” game): Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) of Serbia and Darussafaka (Dacka) of Turkey.

It is highly likely that most fans outside of Istanbul will (or should) be pulling for Red Star to hold onto the Euroleague’s final playoff spot (they currently have the inside edge as they sit at 15-13 in the eighth spot; Dacka is 9th at 14-14). With one the lowest payrolls in the Euroleague, Red Star favors playing young Serbian talent developed within their youth system rather than filling their roster with expensive veterans.  (Red Star has had one of the best U18 squads in Europe as of late; as they finished second in last year’s Adidas Next Generation Tournament and won their region again this year.) While this certainly didn’t win them a lot of headlines in the off-season from the European basketball media, it definitely helped win them over their fanbase, who could easily rally around a team that was populated primarily by their own countrymen, not always the case with European clubs. The approach has had its peaks and valleys of course, as head coach Dejan Radonjic has had to be patient this year in watching his young guys develop, especially on the offensive end (they started the year 4-7). But the core of young Serbians such as Stefan Jovic, Nemanja Dangubic, Marko Guduric, and Luka Mitrovic, playing along with more seasoned Serbian vets such as Ognjen Kuzmic, Branko Lazic, Marko Simonovic, and Milko Bjelica and foreign imports such as Charles Jenkins, Deon Thompson, and Nate Wolters has produced a club that has managed to be once again competitive with bigger clubs despite being dwarfed in terms of payroll and resources.

Red Star certainly doesn’t play the prettiest style of basketball in the Euroleague, as they rank second-to-last in offensive rating (only Barcelona is worse), and last in points per field goal, according to Overbasket.com. This is mostly due to the streakiness of Red Star’s offense, as well as their shooting, which is led by Simonovic, Jenkins and Wolters off the bench. When those three are hitting shots, they can beat anyone in the Euroleague. If they are not…well, it tends to be a rough night, as we saw in their last game against Barcelona, where Red Star posted a true shooting rate of 35.3 percent and 0.84 points per field goal (highlighted by Simonovic posting a 0.63 in that category). That is not to say Red Star is inept in putting the ball in the hoop. They have some players who can have big scoring nights and carry their team to victory, as Kuzmic, Simonovic, Jenkins and even Guduric (who played crazy well against Olympiacos) have proven. The unfortunate issue though is Radonjic and the Red Star fans have no idea where it’s coming from game to game (and if it will come at all).

So how has Red Star been successful? That can be mostly credited to Red Star’s defense, which ranks as one of the best in the Euroleague. They have allowed the fewest points per game at 73.3, just a shade better than Olympiacos, who is third overall in the Euroleague. Radonjic has his guys play incredibly hard on both ends, as they contest shots well, don’t give up easy baskets, and are able to switch for the most part pretty well off the pick and roll thanks to the all-around tenacity and sneaky athleticism of their players on the defensive end. Kuzmic has even become an average to slightly above defensive player with Red Star, something that was thought to be unthinkable last season when he played with Panathinaikos and was mostly regulated to limited minutes. As long as the offense is good enough, Red Star has come out victorious because of their stingy and tough defense. Case in point: If you look at their schedule this year, when they score more than 1.00 PFG, they are 13-2 this year (only losses came to CSKA in Moscow and Dacka in RD 1); when they score less than 1.00, they are 2-11. 1.00 is about average, so that just goes to show that when Red Star can muster “average” (not even good) offense, they will be on the winning side more often than not because they are so effective at preventing points on the other end.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been easy to muster “average” offense as of late, thanks to guard Stefan Jovic missing multiple games due to injury. Jovic, who is talked about as a target of Barcelona this off-season and is struggling with a nagging back injury, missed Rounds 24-27 and only played 3 minutes in a Round 28 loss to Barcelona. The result? A 2-3 record and some missed opportunities to clinch a playoff berth. Jovic’s statline isn’t impressive: he’s averaging 7.5 ppg and is shooting only 42.9 percent and 0.95 PFG. However, when he’s on the court, the offense hums, as their true shooting rate is 48.6 percent and PFG is 1.05 when he is on the floor. When he’s not? Their true shooting rate dips to 43.8 percent and PFG sinks to 0.95. Without a doubt, the health of Jovic down the stretch, and how much he plays, will be a big factor in Red Star’s playoff chances. His playmaking, passing, and ability to lead the offense in high-leverage situations makes Red Star a slightly above average offensive team when he’s on the floor, and considering their defense, that should be enough to get them in the postseason.

The only question is IF we’ll see him on the floor in the next two rounds. Unlike some injuries to key players this year (mostly Bogdan Bogdanovic of Fenerbahce), it has been hard to determine when Jovic will be back seeing major minutes again.

We’ll find March 31st against UNICS Kazan.


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While Red Star’s local talent and high energy crowd have made them the darlings of the Euroleague fan-o-sphere, Dacka may be their evil twin of sorts: they really haven’t been all that good until the past few years, after the wealthy Dogus group acquired their club, intent on making them a contender with traditional Turkish powerhouses such as Fenerbahce, Efes and Galatasaray. This season, qualifying despite the format downsizing from 24-to-16, there seemed to be signs of Dacka taking that step forward to become one of Europe’s elite clubs. They signed David Blatt, who coached the Cleveland Cavaliers for a season and a half (and took them to the NBA Finals). They acquired big-name American talent in Brad Wanamaker (coming off a solid season with Brose Bamberg) and James Anderson (who played last year with the Sacramento Kings); and they also picked up in the middle of the year, Ante Zizic, a Croatian national who was a highly lauded draft pick by the Boston Celtics in the latest NBA Draft. And lastly, after a 73-70 win in Belgrade (a very difficult thing to do considering those fans) in Round 1, it appeared Dacka was ready to make the transition into the upper division of the Euroleague after making the Top 16 a year ago.

But, this Dacka team just hasn’t lived up to the hype (or the hype the club wanted European basketball fans to believe). Other than Wanamaker and Zizic, nobody on this team has really performed all that well this year. They don’t seem to have much chemistry on the court, and while they certainly have a collection of talent like Anderson, Scottie Wilbekin, and Will Clyburn, they tend to thrive not so much within the offense, but more as individual 1-on-1 players. When they are on, sure it’s entertaining, but it hasn’t been consistent, and thus, not as fun to watch. It’s kind of shocking to see, especially when considering that Blatt, who made his name as a bit of an offensive wizard as a coach with Maccabi, has not been able to orchestrate much with this team (on both ends really, but glaringly on offense), despite some really talented pieces. Whether he’s making an adjustment back to Europe or trying to get over the “ISO-heavy” experience of coaching the LeBrons…(I’m sorry, Cavs) it’s safe to say it hasn’t really worked all that well for Dacka, and that Blatt hasn’t duplicated the success he had in Maccabi with Dacka in year one. (Rob Scott, Austin Green and George Rowland also reiterated this point more eloquently on their latest Euroleague Adventures Podcast.)

So take all that into consideration when it comes to rooting for Red Star or Dacka over the next two weeks. And take into consideration that Volkswagen Arena, where Dacka plays their home games, tend to be lifeless contests unless they are playing Fenerbahce or Galatasaray, who can have their fans flood the building (the Efes game was pretty lifeless). And take into consideration that Dacka’s status in the Euroleague is unknown, as Dogus is rumoured to become a primary sponsor of Fenerbahce next year, and make Dacka a “developmental” club to Fenerbahce that will primarily compete in the Eurocup next season. And take into consideration that if that regulation does happen, Wanamaker and Blatt are as good as gone, making this club a shell of its current self (and you can bet the fans will go as well).

It’s pretty simple. For newly christened European basketball fans like myself who are growing more in love with the European game everyday; for those seasoned Euroleague veteran fans and bloggers who want solid, exciting playoff basketball; for those who care about the health of the sport in Europe and it’s future; for those that cheer for the underdog not just in basketball, but any sport…the decision is really simple when it comes to whether or not Red Star or Dacka should claim the last playoff spot.

Let’s go Red Star…and let’s go Brose Bamberg (who play Dacka in Round 29). Let’s start planning for a playoff game in Belgrade by April 1st.

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.

gaziantep-basketbol-galatasaray

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.

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

“Make no mistake. I have won everywhere I have been…and I plan on doing the same here.”

When he was hired in May of 2014 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, David Blatt echoed those words to the media public. Blatt, was fresh of a Euroleague championship victory with Maccabi Tel Aviv over longtime European and Spanish power Real Madrid, and the Cavs, who had missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season, were looking for a refreshing voice to lead their team going forward. And it made sense for the Cavs to hire Blatt. Not only did he prove he could win at Maccabi, both in the Winner League in Israel and in the Euroleague, but he also found success as an international coach, leading Russia to a surprising bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics. For Blatt, the lure of coaching a NBA franchise was a lifetime challenge he coveted and desired, much like any coach who looks for the next “step up” in the coaching ladder. Cleveland, with the top draft pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, had some valuable young pieces like Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett at the time, and Blatt, who had a history of producing overachieving teams with limited talent, seemed to be like a good fit, and a breath of fresh air that the organization needed after retreads like Byron Scott and Mike Brown (again) failed in four playoff-less seasons Post-Lebron.

Of course, Blatt didn’t expect to be a head coach so quickly in the NBA: when he stepped down originally from Maccabi Tel Aviv, he appeared to be headed as an assistant to Golden State or Minnesota to situate himself with the NBA game, similar to Ettore Messina before him, who became an assistant with the Lakers and then Spurs after a successful tenure with CSKA Moscow. (Apparently, Steve Kerr wanted Blatt badly and it seemed to be a done deal until Cleveland called and interviewed him.) Nonetheless, he was given the opportunity as NBA head coach, and Blatt wasn’t going to turn it down, even if he was not as familiar with the American game like the European one. However, with his Princeton-influence, strong defensive mentality, and fiery personality, Blatt looked like he would have some success, and would make the necessary adjustments over time to become a successful NBA head coach. After all, he was going to coach the Cavs, who had suffered mediocrity since Lebron James left town. Just getting them into playoff contention would be enough; a playoff berth, even as an 8 seed, would be cause for celebration and validation of his hire.

And then less than two months later, this happened.

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

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

To be fair, Blatt never asked to coach Lebron and Lebron probably would have never asked Blatt to coach him either. Blatt was coming to coach a young team, one that was going to be led, in his mind, by No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and former No. 1 pick Irving and supported by Thompson and Bennett (oh yeah…I forgot Bennett was a former No. 1 pick too…somehow) in the block. In Blatt’s mind, his young guys would grow into his system, be used to his authority and demands, especially considering Wiggins and Irving had been used to demanding coaches in college like Bill Self at Kansas and Coach K at Duke (Wiggins and Irving, respectively). And though Blatt had not really achieved anything in the American game as far as coaching, that was going to be fine: neither had any of the young players on the Cavs.

However, with Lebron now on board that all changed. After Summer League, Wiggins was traded to Minnesota along with Anthony Bennett and some other pieces for Kevin Love, a NBA Veteran and All-Star. Now, the hope in Cleveland, with the Big 3 of Lebron, Kyrie and Love wasn’t just to make the playoffs, it was to win the Eastern Conference AND a NBA Championship. Blatt of course didn’t back down from the challenge, but in retrospect, I don’t think he realized the magnitude of media scrutiny as well as intensive player ego management that would haunt him for his one-and-a-half season stint in the city of Cleveland.

On paper, there is not much you can argue with when it comes to Blatt’s tenure. He went 83-40, including 53-29 in his first season with the Cavaliers, leading them to an Eastern Conference Championship, as well as 2 wins in the NBA Finals, the first two wins ever in Finals history for the franchise. He also did this without Kevin Love throughout most of the playoffs, and without Irving from games 2-6 of the Finals, as well as some games during the playoffs. This year, the Cavs started 30-11 and Blatt had them as one of the better teams in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency this season (they were 3rd and 10th in those categories this year).

Usually, with any other team in the NBA, there would be talk of an extension after a 30-11 start. But this was Cleveland, and “Lebron’s” Cavs, and while one couldn’t argue with the record, the marriage between Blatt and Lebron and the Cavs never really felt stable over the one-and-a-half year time. Let’s just take a look at some of the issues that plagued Blatt as the Cavs’ head coach:

  • People questioned Blatt’s authority on the team, as Lebron had grown a reputation for tuning out or overruling Blatt during timeouts and play calls.
  • There was widespread consensus on the team that Tyronn Lue was more respected and listened to on the coaching staff from the players; what makes this more awkward is that Lue was a finalist for the Cavs job, though Lue on frequent occasion has gone out of his way to say he didn’t agree with Blatt’s firing.
  • There were reports that Blatt seemed to be overwhelmed by big moments, as he froze up and panicked when diagramming plays during timeouts during crucial stretches of the playoffs (the Chicago series having several reported instances of this).
  • Blatt treated other Cavs players differently from Lebron during practice, as he would go out of the way to criticize role players while not saying anything to Lebron, even if James was the main culprit of the mistake.
  • The media and Blatt did not get along, as Blatt chastised the media with sarcastic answers and patronized their questions during press conferences and interviews.

As with anything, some of those were true to an extent and some were most likely overblown. As stated in the last point, Blatt and the media did not get along well, and with Lebron a superstar in the NBA, and being an “Ohio Native,” it was obvious what side the local media (and many cases national media) would side with, and thus Blatt never seemed to get any kind of positive momentum in the public eye during his coaching tenure. And hence Blatt, a four-time Israeli coach of the year, a Russian Federation coach of the year, and a Euroleague coach of the year, not only was let go by the Cavs, but his legacy in America is somewhat tainted, as he is known for being successful as a NBA coach “only because of Lebron.”

For any basketball coach, being typified in such a way is not only an insult to the work and sacrifices one makes to be a head coach (as is especially true with Blatt who really had to work hard to get every head coaching job he earned, especially in Europe), but also a death stamp of sorts when it comes to future jobs. Just look at Mike Brown, who cannot get another head coaching position in the NBA after failing in Cleveland a second time (granted without Lebron, but it confirmed the “cannot win without a superstar” talk).

It really is unfair. It’s one thing if Blatt had no coaching experience. It’s one thing if he came to the States openly wanting to coach a Lebron James-led team. It’d be one thing if he wasn’t a four-time Israeli coach of the year, a Russian Federation coach of the year, and a Euroleague coach of the year as recently as two years ago.

But here we are…after 123 NBA games, David Blatt is going to Turkey.

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

Darussafaka is a totally different landscape than Blatt’s previous European stop, Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel. Of course, there is a cultural change that Blatt will not only be making from America, but his last experience in Europe. Blatt is Jewish and Israel is primarily a Jewish state, so Blatt fit in very well not just in the organization and city of Tel Aviv, but the culture of Israel as well. On the contrary Darussafaka is located in Turkey, primarily a Muslim country. And hence, it will be interesting to see how a mostly Muslim fanbase will react to a Jewish coach leading their team, though I think Blatt understands there may be some bias against him due to his cultural background. (And to be fair, Istanbul has really grown as a city and is more progressive than most Muslim-majority countries; simply look at many of the non-Muslim Europeans and Americans on clubs in the Turkish Basketball League).

And yet geographic culture is not the only issue; there is also a difference in basketball culture from Maccabi as well. Last season was Darussafaka’s first season in the Euroleague, and the club only has a modest history of success. The last time the club won the Turkish Basketball League Championship was in 1962 (and the other time was in 1961) and from 2010-2013, the club was regulated and participated in the Turkish League’s second division. And honestly, it makes sense that Darussafaka has struggled to be in the limelight: they share the same city with other bigger clubs like Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Efes, three traditional Turkish powerhouses with fervent fan bases and wealthy ownership groups (and who will also be participating in the Euroleague next year; Galatasaray missed last year, but will participate again after winning the Eurocup last season).

However, in 2013, Dogus Holding (a financial conglomerate based out of Turkey) bought the club and has made an effort to help Darussafaka compete with the traditional basketball powers based out of Turkey. It started with hiring of long-time Turkish coach Oktay Mahmuti, who had coached other Turkish clubs like Efes and Galatasaray to various degrees of success (he also coached Italian club Bennetton Treviso).  In 2014, Darussafaka won the Turkish Second Division and were promoted back to the first-division domestic league. And the following year, they finished 3rd in the Turkish Division and qualified for the Euroleague as a wild card.

This season was a bit of an up and down campaign for Oktay in his third year. Despite it being the first year in club history in the Euroleague, Darussafaka qualified for the Round of 16, ousting long-time power Maccabi in the their group to do so for the final spot. However, the Round of 16 was far less kind as Darussafaka missed the playoffs by going 5-9 and finishing 6th in their division, also behind Turkish rival Efes, who went 7-7 (though as consolation, Darussafaka did finish better than Cedevita Zagreb of Croatia and Unicaja Malaga of Spain).

Domestically in the BSL (the Turkish Basketball League), the results were a little more disappointing. Darussafaka finished fourth in the regular season standings at 20-10 and were ousted in the semifinals by Efes convincingly 3-0. Though there had been considerable steps taken by Oktay and his club since his hire, Oktay didn’t exactly generate the most excitement out of Turkish basketball fans as well as the Darussafaka fan base, which is run by new owners to the European basketball scene who are more akin to the “tech” owners that we see in the NBA today like Robert Pera of the Grizzlies and Vivek Ranadive of the Kings.

The biggest pitfall for Oktay in his tenure in Darussafaka was his defensive-oriented style of play, and his teams lack of ability to generate consistent offense. Granted, that has been Oktay’s calling card in his coaching career, and he did a decent job at it with Darussafaka last year, as their 102.8 defensive rating was actually 5th best in the Euroleague last season. However, the offense was not just boring, but borderline atrocious, as they posted an offensive rating of 99.2, which was seventh-worst out of all Euroleague teams last season. This led to a negative efficiency difference rating of minus-3.6, which put them below average and barely over Bayern Munich (minus-4.0) and Maccabi (minus-4.8), two teams who didn’t even qualify for the Round of 16.

With the combination of an ineffective, lackluster offense and rather mediocre attendance numbers (Darussafaka was 5th lowest in the Euroleague when it came to home attendance), it made sense that a change was deemed essential by ownership. Oktay was a consistent force and was going to keep them competitive as the head coach. However, with only 16 teams now qualifying for the Euroleague starting in 2016-2017, Darussafaka not only needed a big name who would help Darussafaka make the transition from a “B-quality” team to an “A-quality” one. Oktay wasn’t going to give them that, and Oktay wasn’t going to help them attract bigger names on their roster as well.

And that is where Blatt comes in.

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

Apparently, Darussafaka was in talks with Blatt in April and had made him an offer around that time. However, Blatt wanted to test the NBA coaching waters, as he interviewed for vacant NBA jobs such as the Knicks one (apparently his desired choice), the Kings position (his second choice) and the Rockets job. After all three jobs went to other candidates, and not impressed by other offers (there were rumors that Blatt was asked to come back to Maccabi, but he passed on the offer), Blatt signed with Darussafaka, impressed by their commitment from ownership and management (he has a multi-year contract worth around 3 million euros per year), and motivated by the chance to build something special in Istanbul.

The cupboard certainly won’t be bare next season for Blatt. Darussafaka has a nice collection of American talent such as returning scorer Scottie Wilbekin, former Notre Dame star Luke Harangody, Reggie Redding, Jamon Gordon, and Marcus Slaughter; European talent such as Georgian Manuchar Makroishvili and Serbian Milko Bjelica; and domestic talent such as former Celtic Semih Erden and Emir Preldzic. And with Blatt now on board, it will be interesting to see what kind of other talent Darussafaka will be able to attract this off-season, especially considering Blatt’s European success and NBA experience (despite all the issues, he did still win an Eastern Conference championship, which is more of an accomplishment than a lot of NBA coaches not to mention current European coaches). It is to be expected that Darussafaka will be able to attract another name or two during this signing and transfer period.

Blatt has never shied himself away from a challenge and that certainly is evident in Darussafaka, though of a different sort. With Maccabi and Cleveland, he had to manage big expectations, and he was able to be successful with such lofty goals placed upon him from upper management. Darussafaka is a different challenge. The history isn’t there like Maccabi, nor is the superstar there like in Cleveland. Darussafaka’s most successful season was arguably last year, and yet, they fired their coach. If anything, this situation feels more like a Memphis Grizzlies or Sacramento Kings scenario rather than the Cleveland one he faced in the NBA (unrealistic expectations combined with a “no-so-elite” team).

And yet, this current job in Istanbul, might be more in Blatt’s wheelhouse. He relishes being the underdog and surprising people. He has done it in his coaching career countless times. He won an Italian League title with Benetton Treviso, even though they were one of the more under-the-radar teams in Italy. He upset two powers in the Final Four in CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid during his 2014 Euroleague title with Maccabi. And he led Russia, who had fallen off the global stage after the break up of the Soviet Union, to not only a 2007 Eurobasket title, but a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics, despite coming into each of those tournaments as heavy underdogs.

This is exactly the kind of coach Darussafaka needs. They need someone to help charge fan interest in Istanbul in their club. They need someone to utilize their talent to their maximum ability. They need someone that can help them go toe-to-toe with Turkey’s best clubs, not an easy task after Fenerbahce was one quarter away from nearly winning the Euroleague championship.

Yes, Darussafaka has not played a game yet, but they are a team that should be watched during the 2016-2017 domestic and Euroleague season.

Blatt and Darussafaka seem like a perfect match.

I just wonder how long this tenure in Turkey will be before the NBA starts calling again.