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.

spanoulis

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.

14942707809776

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.

TECNYCONTRA ZARAGOZA - REAL MADRID

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.

panathinaikos-fenerbahce-bogdanovic-1

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.

Advertisements

ELJ’s “Key Five-and-One” Playoff Preview: Real Madrid (1) vs. Darussafaka (8)

anthony-randolph-real-madrid-eb16

We have five days until the Euroleague playoffs officially begin. Instead of just doing a traditional, all-out analysis on each series, I instead am going to highlight the five key players to each series. Plus, at the end, I will choose one “wild card” factor that could impact the respective series. Hopefully, this gives the playoff preview a different flavor from the rest of the previews out there (not that there is anything wrong with other previews; just want to do something different).

Okay let’s begin with our “Key Five” of the 1-8 matchup: Real Madrid vs. Darussfaka.

Sergio Llull

The likely Euroleague MVP favorite, a solid series from Llull will be required for Los Blancos to move onto the Final Four after missing out last season (they were swept handily by Fenerbahce last year in the playoffs). There are not many players as entertaining in Europe as Llull. The free-shooting, Red Bull chugging, do-everything point guard for Madrid was a key reason why they finished with the best record in the Euroleague at 23-7. While Llull has always excelled as a scorer, his  improvement this year in playmaking, ability to create for his talented roster, and knack for coming through in the clutch has elevated him from “local folk hero” to “European superstar who should be in the NBA” levels.

Llull is averaging a team-high 16.9 ppg, 5.9 apg and 16.7 PIR per game for Los Blancos, and he won multiple MVP of the weeks throughout the season. Thus, it is safe to say that Dacka point guard Scottie Wilbekin will have his hands full trying to contain this Spanish energizer bunny.

Anthony Randolph

Randolph led Lokomotiv Kuban (a team that played in the Eurocup this season) to a Final Four in 2015-2016, his coming out party occurring in the playoffs against Barcelona in Games 4 and 5. This year, Randolph made the trek west to Madrid to play for a loaded Real Madrid roster, and the former NBA lottery pick hasn’t disappointed. He averaged 10.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1 bpg, and a 13 PIR per game despite averaging a little over 20 mpg in the Euroleague (mostly due to Madrid’s crazy depth in the frontcourt). Randolph had probably his biggest performance in Round 28, where he was named MVP of the Week after a 21 point, 4 block performance in a road win in Piraeus over Olympiacos, as evidenced in this video below.

Randolph is on the verge of a three-year extension with Real Madrid, with at least one guaranteed in Spain (he could opt out for a NBA contract in his last two years). And it would be worth it, especially if Randolph continues his hot play and leads Madrid to their second Euroleague title in three seasons.

Luka Doncic

The Slovenian boy wonder has made tremendous leaps as a player in year two with Real Madrid. Despite a primary bench role, Doncic has become one of Madrid’s most important players, both in Euroleague as well as ACB play. And that is incredible when you think about it: he’s only 18 years old (was 17 through a good part of this year), and he plays with former NBA players such as Randolph, Gustavo Ayon, Andres Nocioni, Rudy Fernandez, Jeff Taylor, and Trey Thompkins (I’m sure Jaycee Carroll had a cup of coffee with a NBA team too, but I’m too lazy to research it now). Doncic is probably Real Madrid’s most balanced player, as he is a triple-double threat every time he steps on the floor. And that is impressive potential in the Euroleague, where unlike the NBA (where triple doubles are becoming more and more common fare thanks to Russell Westbrook’s skills) triple-doubles are incredibly rare occurrences (there have only been six triple-doubles in Euroleague history, with the last one being done by Nikola Vujcic of Maccabi Tel Aviv during the 2006-2007 season).

During a MVP of the week performance, Doncic nearly put up the 7th triple double in Euroleague history with a 10 point, 11 rebound, 8 assist performance against Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv in Round 17. Not bad for a teenager, as you can see below.

Dacka doesn’t exactly have the strongest bench in the Euroleague, so it’ll be interesting to see if the wings of Dacka will be able to handle the Slovenian teenage prodigy. If they struggle to, you can almost guarantee that this will be a short series.

Brad Wanamaker

Wanamaker has sneakily become a dark horse candidate for MVP this year. While a lot was made about James Anderson’s decision to turn down a player option from the Kings to sign with Dacka instead, Wanamaker has been the Turkish club’s best signing. Wanamaker, a likely All-Euroleague selection, has been outstanding, especially during the last part of the season where basically carried Dacka to their first Euroleague playoff berth. Head coach David Blatt has transitioned his NBA experience with Dacka this year, and has given Wanamaker the kind of Iso-heavy reign that he gave LeBron James in his one-and-a-half year stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. And Wanamaker hasn’t disappointed, as evidenced by his 16.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.7 apg, 17.5 PIR per game line while averaging a team-high 32:56 mpg.

Wanamaker also had one of his biggest performances in Round 29, as he helped fuel a comeback on the road in Bamberg that kept alive Dacka’s playoff hopes. Wanamaker scored 30 points, had 6 assists and put a PIR of 34 in a key win that helped set up their crucial “winner take all” matchup with Red Star in Round 30 (which Dacka won).

Dacka will have a lot of factors going against them in this series, with Madrid’s depth and home court advantage being the primary ones. However, for Dacka to have a chance to pull off the upset, they will need Wanamaker to keep pulling off his “LeBron act” in this series.

Ante Zizic

Since arriving in January, Ante Zizic has been Dacka’s best and primary front court player, giving them the kind of balance they didn’t quite have when Semih Erden was their starting center. In Euroleague play, Zizic is averaging 8.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg, and a PIR of 12.2 in 16 games, while averaging nearly 22 mpg. The 20-year-old Croatian has generated a lot of buzz not just in Europe, but internationally as well, especially considering he was a first round pick of the Boston Celtics in last year’s draft.

Zizic is no stranger to big games, as he had his best performance against Turkish Derby rival Anadolu Efes in Round 19. Against Efes, Zizic scored 16 points, had 18 rebound and posted a PIR of 25. It was obvious, as one can see below, that Efes and head coach Velimir Perasovic just had no answers for the Croatian rising star (though Efes did win 93-81).

The Dacka front court is going to have issues against Madrid’s depth and versatility in the post. Zizic will have his hands full for sure, and it will be difficult for him to experience the wave after wave talent he will face in this series. If Zizic avoids foul trouble, and can step up like he has showed at times this year, then perhaps he can not only fuel a Dacka upset, but will come to the NBA sooner than expected.

Series Wild Card: David Blatt vs. Pablo Laso

Coaching will be a big deal this series. Blatt has a legendary status in Europe thanks to his 2014 title with Maccabi Tel Aviv, but his arrival in Dacka has received mixed reaction. Some have felt that he has disappointed, relying too much on the ISO ball that he utilized in the NBA. Some on the other hand have felt that he has done a good job, helping Dacka become more on the radar in the highly top-heavy European basketball scene. Whatever your thoughts are, it cannot be denied though that Blatt can be one of the more entertaining coaches to watch thanks to his fiery personality.

Laso on the other hand has been one of the best basketball minds in Europe for a while now. Though he doesn’t have the global celebrity of Blatt, Laso has one multiple ACB title, and a 2015 Euroleage championship with Real Madrid. This year may have been Laso’s most impressive campaign yet, as he has been able to manage the depth and egos of this Los Blancos team well in both domestic and European play.

Laso is no “quiet personality” though, as evidenced below:

It will definitely be entertaining to see what both coaches will do this series? Will Blatt out-scheme Laso? Will Laso demonstrate why he should be considered the best coach in Europe and dispatch Blatt and Dacka with ease?

We will know next week.

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.

shane-larkin-baskonia-vitoria-gasteiz-eb16-620x400

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.

andrew-goudelock-maccabi-fox-tel-aviv-eb16-1024x512

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.

luka-doncic-celebrates-real-madrid-eb16-92332

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Luka Doncic is such a big deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts on Madrid in 2015-2016

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

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

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