Yesterday was a big day in European basketball. Fenerbahce, as expected, took a two-game lead over Besiktas in the Turkish BSL finals. Brose Bamberg won their third straight German title, and eighth domestic championship in nine seasons. And, Valencia pulled off a huge upset in Madrid to even the up the series in the ACB Liga Endesa finals.
However, all of those games deferred to the last big game of the day, which was the deciding Game 5 of the Greek Basket League championship between heated rivals Panathinaikos and Olympiacos in Piraeus.
If you follow European basketball (or just basketball in general) on Twitter, you probably heard about the incident in Piraeus that resulted in a wild, but dangerous ending. I will talk about that part later, and some of my own thoughts about the “ultra” culture.
However, I want to talk about the game first, for what PAO did seems to get lost in the discussion due to the events that happened in the last two minutes.
Make no mistake, what PAO did wasn’t easy. While PAO took care of games 2 and 4 in Athens, they struggled immensely all year in Piraeus. Going into game 5, they were 0-4 for the year on Olympiacos’ home turf, which also includes their matchup in the Euroleague. The Red and White’s extremely physical style of play proved to be difficult for PAO, as their 90’s New York Knicks approach to basketball seemed to throw PAO off rhythm, especially on the offensive end. With a Greek Basket title on the line, and the Olympiacos ultras going to be in full, ridiculous and intimidating force, it seemed unlikely that PAO would be able to pull off Game 5 and come back from a 2-1 deficit in the series.
And yet, PAO not only beat Olympiacos in Peace and Friendship stadium, but absolutely dominated the game from the five minute mark of the first quarter on. Olympiacos put up an early 11-3 lead, but the wheels came off for the defending champs after the hot start. Though Olympiacos led 17-14 in the first quarter, PAO won the second quarter 10-22 and then the third quarter 10-21 to go up 37-57, which was too insurmountable for the home team to overcome, as they lost 51-66 to the Athenian visitors.
One could credit PAO head coach Xavi Pascual for adjusting his offense in the critical game. A coach who depends on his big playbook and heavily patterned offense, Pascual ceded control to his ball-dominant point guards Nick Calathes and Mike James. Calathes and James hurt the Olympiacos defense all game long, whether it was in isolation, drive and kicks for open threes (especially to KC Rivers who hit three 3-pointers), or in the pick and roll. For the game, Calathes put a line of 12 pts, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, and James, the MVP for the game, put up a line of 11 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists, good for a game high PIR of 19. If you watch the highlights below, you will see Calathes and James come up time and time again making big plays on the offensive end.
On the defensive end, PAO took away drives and the paint from OLY and forced their rival to beat the Greens from deep. The strategy worked, as OLY shot 25 percent from beyond the arc on 28 shots. Add that with 12 turnovers committed (in comparison to PAO’s 7), and it made sense that PAO won by such a large, and comfortable margin. Center Ioannis Bourousis took away scoring opportunities in the paint from OLY, as he had two blocks, a steal, and neutralized Nikola Milutinov, Khem Birch and Patric Young in the block, as they only combined for 8 points combined.
The disappointment in the finals for OLY could somewhat be contributed to stars Vassilis Spanoulis and Georgios Printezis failing to come through in the big moments. One could blame fatigue or PAO’s depth and defensive focus just getting to them in the final game of the year. However, the fact of the matter is OLY depends on their top two stars to win, and when they don’t play well, the game become very difficult for the club, especially on the offensive end. Spanoulis went 2-for-11 from the field and had 4 turnovers, good for a PIR of 5 (9 points total). Printezis was even worse, as he went 2-for-14, scored only 4 points, and had a 0 PIR. A combined 13 points from your two biggest players is not a formula for success, and OLY learned that the hard way in the title game.
This season is a bit of validation for Pascual, who was fired last summer from Barcelona despite his history of success with the club. In his first season in Athens, Pascual won a Greek title (snapping Olympiacos’ title streak) and made the Euroleague playoffs as a 4 seed (19-11 overall) despite taking over after the season started. That is a stark contrast to Barcelona, who finished 11th overall in the Euroleague (12-18 overall), lost in the first round of the ACB playoffs, and is now looking for a new head coach after firing Georgios Bartzokas after one season.
I am still new to European basketball, as I have been following European ball on a regular basis for about 2.5 years now. When watching domestic leagues, it is refreshing to see how styles are different from country to country. The ACB is a more wide open style, with a bigger focus on offense and games being called more tightly. The Greek Basket league on the other hand is 80’s Big East Basketball: physical, no-holds barred, and not a lot called (and not just Olympiacos; I watched some AEK, PAOK, and Aris games and they all played the same way). I can appreciate both styles, as diversity in the game is always fun to see from a fan’s perspective.
However, the big difference between Europe and American NBA fans is the “ultra” culture. Though it’s pretty well-known in soccer circles, it does carry over to basketball, especially in Greece. In the last two minutes, with the game obviously going to end in PAO’s favor, the Olympiacos ultras showed their “dissatisfaction” with the result around the two minute mark, as evidenced below.
LAMENTABLE: Lluvia de bengalas y petardos de los aficionados del Olympiacos en la final de la Liga griega de basket. pic.twitter.com/Gv4AQcdqMc
For a fan that’s used to NBA fanbases, who switch their team allegiance depending on what club LeBron James is on, this was quite the sight. I mean, fireworks, flares, explosions and for a good 20-30 seconds, the players didn’t seem fazed, as if this was just normal for them. Even on Twitter, as I remarked my shock, I was brought back to earth by people quite familiar with the Greek basketball scene:
by greek sports standards it wasnt anything special..
Yep. I still have a lot to learn about Greek, and perhaps even European, basketball in general.
Overall, even though I imagine this kind of stuff is going to be expected on my end in the Greek League, it shows how different and ugly “ultra” culture can get. Sometimes, as Americans, “ultra” culture can be seen as “wow, these fans are so much better than American ones” or “it’s like a college environment!” And yes, when the focus is on the games, the “ultras” can give off that impression to us “outsiders”. It’s easy to see the positive when you only look at the surface.
However, between this incident, and my viewing of a recent documentary “Forever Pure” which looks at the La Familia “ultra” fan base of Beitar Jerusalem, I definitely have a modified view of “ultra” culture. It’s not just a bunch of fans coming together to be loud and cheer. There’s deep politics to these groups, as “ultra” groups can be vessels for extreme politicians who know they can mobilize people and an agenda better at a sporting event than a rally. And unfortunately, these “ultra” politics sometimes can be racist and hateful. There can be violence. There can be demonstrations of slurs that would make most people in America cringe. I mean, take a look at some of the photos below:
Madness, pandemonium and insanity. Actually, this is just the norm for a road victory that ends an Olympiacos-Panathinaikos series. pic.twitter.com/izuPrxQrvA
Can you imagine if a scene like that broke out in America? Can you imagine what Adam Silver would do? Hell, could you imagine what senators would come out of the woodwork and claim that as an act of terror? Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and Jason Whitlock (or even Donald Trump, that ever-opportunistic bastard) would be spewing conservative nonsense for weeks. This made “Malice in the Palace” look like a middle school lunchtime scuffle.
I’m not referring to all Olympiacos fans as responsible for this incident. I know many Olympiacos fans and they are practical basketball people who don’t get wrapped up in the politics or antics of “ultra” culture (like the people who run Courtside Diaries who are good knowledgeable basketball people and excellent writers not to mention Olympiacos fans). And yet, honestly, my view of Olympiacos and perhaps Greek basketball clubs as a whole has changed because of this. I am not a fan of this shit in any sport, and it’s a big reason why I don’t embrace soccer as much as other people. This is not fandom. What happened was outright dangerous for everyone involved.
I love European basketball, and I do love the Greek game, and will continue to love both going forward. It’s physical, heated on the court and amongst fan bases, and when things are in control, the fan environments can be the best in Europe, maybe the best in the world. But it’s important to understand the depths of “ultra” culture, and it’s not always positive, and it shouldn’t always be duplicated. Even in America we see MLS fans try to “duplicate” this behavior in their own fan sections and stadiums without knowledge of what these “ultras” are really about, which isn’t always about the game, but rather politics.
I am not totally discouraging “ultra” culture. I know it can enhance the game experience. And I know it’s not just a basketball thing, as it is more pronounced in soccer. However, I got a new perspective on European basketball this weekend. There’s a dark side, a reality that isn’t really all that comfortable to witness. I have to admit, I felt uncomfortable watching the last two minutes of that game. I felt something horrendous was going to happen. I felt as if I was watching something from a movie, not a live game.
We shouldn’t feel that way when watching sport, especially basketball.
We should just enjoy the beautiful game. And we shouldn’t expect chaos because the road team won on a hated rivals home court. It shouldn’t be “well…it wasn’t that bad all things considered.”
But it’s going to be that way from now on. I am going to expect shit to go down now in certain matchups from here on out. And that’s sad considering how much I love European basketball.
It’s amazing how one event can scar or desensitize you so easily.
“When I came in June 1999 to Athens to join Panathinaikos, I could not have imagined that this would be my team, my family, my home for 13 years. In these 13 years, we had many beautiful moments, many celebrations, but also difficulties. We were always together as a great and true family.”
Panathinaikos has always been associated with legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic, and for good reason, really. The “Greens” from Athens have won the most championships (six) in the modern Euroleague era, and Obradovic during his 13-year tenure in Athens was responsible for five of them. Under the well-respected and fiery Serbian coach, Panathinaikos became one of Europe’s most recognized, and respected clubs, annually competing for Greek Basketball League championships, as well as Euroleague Final Fours and titles. Before Obradovic, the Greens were simply another Greek club in the European basketball climate, on the same level with Olympiacos, Aris and PAOK (who all made Euroleague Final Fours prior to Obradovic coming to Athens). Now, along with Olympiacos, they have become one of Europe’s elite clubs, able to afford and attract all kinds of talent worldwide, with the expectation that they will add to the “stars” (i.e. Euroleague titles) each and every year. Since Zeljko, “championships and nothing less” have been the expectation not just for fans, but the players and organization as well.
Unfortunately, for Greens fans, since Obradovic left to Turkey to take over Fenerbahce, the club has not been able to live up to the lofty expectations since their coaching messiah left in 2012. In the post-Obradovic era, Panathinaikos has not made the Final Four, and in that same time span, they have seen Greek rival Olympiacos make the Euroleague championship game in two of those years (with a championship in 2013 and a runner up finish in 2015). For a club that exerted their dominance so forcefully in the Euroleague for nearly 13 seasons in the 2000’s, this kind of regression has not only been disappointing, but somewhat unacceptable in the eyes of the organization and fanbase. Thus, with such dissatisfaction from their internal and external supporting base, there has come constant change, as the club has gone through multiple player and roster changes in the the last four seasons.
Despite the wild inconsistency of the last four seasons, Greens fans have reason to be optimistic. The upcoming 2016-2017 season, the fifth season in the post-Obradovic era, looks to be the most promising yet, as the club has assembled the kind of roster that can truly compete for a Euroleague Final Four berth, not to mention championship. How did the Greens get to this point? And what will make this season different from the previous four, which ended up in playoff disappointment?
Well, let’s break down the road the Greens took to not only thrive this summer in the transfer market, but also set themselves up for success in 2016-2017.
Good on paper, but unable to follow through
After failing to make the Euroleague Final Four for a fourth straight season, and losing to CSKA Moscow in the playoffs, Panathinaikos decided to fire coach Dusko Ivanovic. After going through an interim coach for the remainder of the season (where they lost in the GBL finals 3-0), on June 30, 2015, the Greens tabbed Serbian Sasa Dordevic to be the new head coach for the 2015-2016 season.
Dordevic had the kind of resume that made the Greens faithful hopeful. In many ways, he was likened to a younger version of Zeljko: he was Serbian; had made his name as the Serbian National Team Head Coach (he led Serbia to a runner-up finish in the 2014 FIBA World Cup); and had a standout playing career for multiple clubs in Europe, with a brief spell in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers. On the other hand, Dordevic didn’t have much extensive club coaching experience like Zeljko, prior to his arrival in Athens, as Dordevic only had “cups of coffee” stints with Olimpia Milano in 2006-2007 and Benetton Treviso in 2011-2012. Nonetheless, the combination of his National Team coaching experience as well as his highly respected status as a player made the Panathinaikos club feel confident in tabbing Dordevic as their new coach.
The 2015-2016 roster was full of big-name Greek, European and American talent, and it looked like the kind of team Dordevic could be successful with right away in the Euroleague. At the point guard position, they had Nick Calathes, who came to Panathinaikos after a successful stint as a backup point guard with the Memphis Grizzlies, and the legendary Dimitris Diamantidis, who would be playing his last season professionally. On the wings they had former NBA player Sasha Pavlovic, American James Feldeine and Serbian Vladimir Jankovic to give them shooting and scoring. And in the post, they had the athletic and physical James Gist as well as Greek Antonis Fotsis in the power-forward position, and Serbian star and former Minnesota Timberwolf Miroslav Raduljica and former Golden State Warrior Ognjen Kuzmic. Though they were a bit of an older roster, Dordevic had the depth and pedigree to immediately be one of the most competitive clubs in Europe.
However, in week 1, the Greens lost on the road to first-time Euroleague participant, Pinar Karsiyaka, a club that failed to make it out of the 10-game opening round. * In many ways, that opening loss was a microcosm of the 2015-2016 season: so much potential, but nothing but “thuds” in the end.
(*Edit July 28th: As noted by a commenter below, the loss was actually to Lokomotiv Kuban, not Pinar Karsiyaka. Barcelona was the team that actually lost to Karsiyaka in round 1 of the Regular Season, which I confused Panathinaikos with. This is sort of fitting because they had a disappointing season as well and also fired their head coach by the end of the season as well. In comparison, Panathinaikos’ loss to Loko was not as bad considering Loko made the Final Four. But the loss was to a Loko team without Randolph, and it was Loko’s first game in club history in the Euroleague, so it was disappointing to an extent. Just not as bad as Barcelona’s to Karsiyaka.)
Panathinaikos rebounded from the opening week loss, as they went 6-4 and finished third in the division and qualified for the Top 16. While they avoided a massive letdown like other big name clubs such as Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv and EA7 Armani Milano, who failed to qualify for the next round, their third place finish in the group was a bit disappointing, considering the group was considered one of the weaker ones in the Regular Season round.
In the Top 16, Panathinaikos started to mold into form, as they went 9-5 and finished tied for second in their group with Lokomotiv Kuban (a team that finished first in their group in the opening round). Panathinaikos, which struggled with scoring and outside shooting, got a mid-season boost when they added Elliot Williams, a former NBA Draft pick, to be a wing combo threat. Taking minutes away from Pavlovic and Jankovic, the move proved to be beneficial, as Williams gave Panathinaikos an athletic threat on the offensive end that could create offense individually late in the shot clock.
During the Top 16 season, the Greens, with the addition of Williams, were statistically speaking one of the better teams in the Euroleague. They had the fourth-highest Net Rating in Top 16 play (higher than FC Barcelona and Baskonia, a Final Four participant), as well as the third-best defensive rating over the 14-game span (behind only Loko and Fenerbahce). And, under Dordevic, they moved the ball the best out of any team in the Euroleague (as evidenced by their 64.9 A/FGM rate tied for second in the Euroleague), not to mention crashed the boards effectively (as evidenced by their 32.4 offensive rebounding rate, third-best in Top 16 play).
So how come Panathinaikos failed to win a single game in their five-game playoff series against Laboral Kutxa Baskonia?
One of the main issues for Dordevic and this squad was their shooting inconsistency. Despite an elite defensive rating in Top 16 play, their offensive rating was around league average at 106.9 (10th in Top 16 play). Despite an elite assist rate, they didn’t shoot especially well from the field, and their players struggled to score or create offense in isolation situations (usually due to good pressure defense by opponents). Panathinaikos ranked 11th in eFG percentage in Top 16 play with a eFG% of 52.7, a pretty mediocre mark. This lack of effectiveness in shooting led to possessions where the Greens would have to force offense, which unfortunately led to a multitude of turnovers, as evidenced by their 19.8 turnover rate, second-highest in Top 16 play, behind only Crvena Zvezda.
One of the big reasons the Greens shot ineffectively from the field relative to their competition was due to their lack of confidence in shooting beyond the arc. Panathinaikos tied for the second-lowest 3PA/FGA rate (0.34) in Top 16 play, and that low number was mostly due to their 34.1 3FG percentage, which was fourth lowest in Top 16 play. Because they didn’t have a knockdown shooter, outside some occasional streaks from Diamintidis, this forced them to constantly pass around for shots or get things into the post to Raduljica or Gist. This worked a lot of the time because guards like Calathes were effective at creating offense, and Raduljica was a talented low post scorer. But when they faced good defenses that took away passing lanes with pressure defense or didn’t give them a lot of second-chance opportunities, the Panathinaikos offense would stagnate and get down-right ugly, leading to a lot of losses and deflating performances that didn’t inspire confidence in the Greens faithful.
Dordevic didn’t do a bad job by any means. While the Greens had some big names, it was obvious that many of them didn’t have the skills that matched their names anymore. Despite their NBA pedigree, Pavlovic and Calathes were two of the clubs most ineffective scorers, as evidenced by their 0.82 and 0.77 PPP (points per possession) rates, respectively. And Raduljica, though a big name and a talented offensive player around the rim, didn’t exactly provide the rebounding they needed in the post to play him big time minutes (his 13.0 rebounding rate wouldn’t have even put him in the Top 30). And thus, Dordevic did all he could to make this team successful, which was a playoff berth and not much more.
But as stated before, playoff berths aren’t good enough. After Baskonia completed their sweep in Athens, Dordevic was let go and former Panathinaikos head coach Argiris Pedoulakis took over for the remainder of the season and re-signed for the 2016-2017 season.
Building the Greens with “proven” talent
After a season where they relied on “NBA” names and Serbian talent to mesh with their Serbian coach, the Greens have undergone a different approach: going after players who have been recently successful in the Euroleague. This off-season, with the exception of maybe Real Madrid (though time will tell if their three bigs: Randolph, Ayon and Thompkins will mesh together), Panathinaikos probably had the best offseason of any Euroleague participant when it came to roster acquisitions. Let’s take a look at each move they made this summer.
Signed point guard Mike James from Baskonia: James gives them an explosive threat off the bench, similar to his role behind Darius Adams in Baskonia. Calathes is a deft passer, but he doesn’t have the ability anymore to really play in isolation and get to the rim to score. James on the other hand does, as he thrives in such situations and can get to the rim and throw it down against lesser defenders.
Signed Chris Singleton from Loko: Singleton and Gist will give Panathinaikos one of the most physical stretch-4 combos in the league. Singleton is a physical player with the ball, as he is able to bang posts or smaller wings off of mismatches in the post, or he is able to clear out in ISO situations, get space and hit the mid-range and occasional 3. Defensively, he is not the most pure rebounder, but for a guy of his offensive skill set, he holds his own on the glass, especially offensive end (he had an 11.0 offensive rebounding rate last year). With Gist, Singleton gives Panathinaikos to play small ball (put Singleton at the 5) or give them depth should Gist get into foul trouble.
Signed Ioannis Bourousis from Baskonia: Without a doubt the best signing this off-season of any Euroleague club, period. Bourousis is the reigning ACB MVP, and was a first-team All-Euroleague player, who had the second highest PIR in the Euroleague last season (behind only Euroleague MVP Nando de Colo). Bourousis led Baskonia to their first Final Four in nearly 10 years, and helped mentor a young squad to exceed most people’s expectations (many figured Baskonia to be a Top 16 participant at best). Bourousis had the second highest rebounding rate (19.1) of any player in the Euroleague last season (behind only Barcelona’s Joey Dorsey, who played nearly 570 less minutes than Bourousis), and was one of the Euroleague’s most effective scorers with a True Shooting percentage of over 61 percent. To put it bluntly: no player was more valuable this off-season than Bourousis, who had proven his worth last year as a multi-talented big in the mold of Vlade Divac. And despite serious NBA offers, Bourousis returned to his home country to play for Panathinaikos. The addition of Bourousis, who is coming of a season where he experienced a career renaissance, automatically puts the Greens in the Final Four conversation.
Signed KC Rivers from Real Madrid: If Bourousis put them in the discussion, Rivers solidifies their status as Final Four favorites. The biggest issue for the Greens a season ago was shooting, and Rivers helps that issues immensely, as he automatically becomes the Greens most effective and reliable 3-point shooters. Rivers also comes from a winning pedigree, as he was a key cog of the 2015 Euroleague champion Real Madrid squad. In terms of his shooting prowess, Rivers thrives behind the arc, as evidenced by his 41.1 percent rate from beyond the arc in 2015 with Real Madrid, and his 44.2 rate in BBL play with Bayern Munich last season. Though he did drop to 37.1 in EL play with Madrid after being acquired from Bayern Munich through transfer during Top 16 play, his dip was most likely due to the fatigue of playing with multiple clubs in 2015-2016. Expect his rate to climb back into the 40 percent range, and if it does, Panathinaikos will have the shooting that will make them a more well-rounded squad offensively than a season ago.
How does Panathinaikos put this all together?
As we have seen in the past from many Euroleague teams, sometimes the biggest names don’t equate to “most successful.” The Greens have gotten off to a good start by acquiring players who address specific needs from a year ago: James gives them instant offense off the bench, Singleton gives them toughness to complement Gist, Bourousis gives them playmaking and rebounding from the post, and Rivers gives them shooting. Pedoulakis will have a much easier time with this squad offensively than the one a year ago during his interim stint, which had to work so hard through their sets to create offensive opportunities against good defenses.
Furthermore, one of the more underrated developments of their signings was their ability to find guys who meshed together chemistry-wise. James and Bourousis were close teammates in Baskonia, and they are likely to continue that on and off-the-court camaraderie in their new surroundings in Greece. Rivers is a proven professional who has fit in with any club he has gone due to his role as a specialized shooter, and athletic defender. And Singleton has embraced the European lifestyle and game after coming over from the NBA, as he is the kind of emotional player that will thrive from the energy of the Greens’ rabid fanbase. So, a lot of credit has to be given to the Panathinaikos management: they took the time to not only find the right talent and skill fits to this roster, but also the right personalities that should mesh easily with the current players on this roster.
Of course, these four new players can’t do it all. They need Calathes to improve his efficiency as a playmaker and scorer (which should be easier with more options around him). They need their young Greek talent such as Vasilis Charalampopoulos and Nikos Pappas to step up and earn more minutes after being regulated to the bench mostly in 2015-2016. Fostis and Jankovic need to step up after mostly regression seasons a year ago. The new talent will certainly be a boost on their own individual merits. But if the returning players on this Greens squad can also improve and bounce back from a year ago, then the new talent added will be amplified even more on the court, meaning a special year for this Panathinaikos squad.
Pedoulakis has been the coach of the Greens before, so he knows the expectations in Athens: win a Championship or else. However, he has the talent to do it, and in the new Euroleague format, with a longer season, he also had the kind of depth that will help them be a competitor throughout the course of the Euroleague and GBL seasons. Yes, injuries happen. Yes, regression seasons happen. But on paper, this Panathinaikos squad is ready to compete for another Euroleague crown.
Can the Greens get the first Euroleague title in the post-Obradovic era? Well, if the chips fall right (and we won’t know that until the games start), 2017 looks to be a prime opportunity for Panathinaikos to get lucky number seven.
“Like a flash of lightning between the clouds, we live in the flicker” -Joseph Conrad
There really wasn’t a better story this year in the Euroleague than Greek center Ioannis Bourousis and Laboral Kutxa Baskonia’s run to the Euroleague Final Four. Baskonia, a basketball-centered club in the Basque capital of Vitoria, typically gets lost among other Spanish teams in the ACB Liga Endesa in terms of the global perspective. They are not as well-known among basketball fans beyond Europe because they do not have any big names or former NBA players on their current roster, and they do not have the major “Futbol” partner like Barcelona and Real Madrid. Yes, they have had some history producing players, as NBA players like Luis Scola, Jose Calderon and Tiago Splitter did suit up for Baskonia in the early 2000’s. That being said, in the past few years, Baskonia has remained a bit anonymous, usually getting passed over in the standings as well as the spotlight in the ACB and Euroleague by their Spanish counterparts in the east (Barcelona) as well as in the Spanish Capital (Real Madrid).
Going into this season, there were mixed opinions in terms of how Baskonia was going to perform in the Euroleague. Head coach Velimir Perasovic, a Croatian national in his first full season with the Basque club, had a young squad which included a bevy of quick, athletic and sharp shooting players who could play multiple positions. With such a roster, Perasovic decided to mold his team into a fast-paced, outside-shooting oriented team in the mold of successful NBA teams such as the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs in America, and Real Madrid in their home country. Darius Adams and Mike James were the kind of quick, combo guards who could hurt teams off the drive and from beyond the arc, and they had a strong collection of shooting guards and forwards such as Davis Bertans, Fabian Causeur and Jaka Blazic who could help stretch the floor and create space for Davis and James. And in the interior, while young, they had long, defensive oriented post players such as Illmane Diop, Kim Tillie, Darko Planinic, and Tornike Shengelia who could bring energy and hustle to make up for their lack of big game experience. And lastly, add Hungarian wing Adam Hanga, who could guard multiple positions on the perimeter, and Baskonia had the pieces of a promising, though relatively anonymous, squad for the 2015-2016 season.
However, the team was missing “big game” experience, and a couple of weeks before the season started, Baskonia signed Greek center Ioannis Bourousis from Real Madrid. At 32-years-old, the 7-foot, 270 pound Bourousis was coming off a year where he averaged around 11 minutes a game and took a back seat to Gustavo Ayon on the 2015 Euroleague champion team. After years of success with Olympiacos, EA7 Milano and Real Madrid, Baskonia was a bit of a project for him. Yes, they would need his presence and ability in the post, especially since Diop and Planinic, the two main centers, were still a couple of years away from being dependable, major minutes players. But Perasovic need Bourousis to mentor the young club, to be an example of what it took to be a major winning basketball club in Spain as well as Europe. Bourousis could have avoided the challenge, or not taken it seriously. After all, he was coming off a championship season and had a legacy in Europe that was already well-established. Instead, as displayed in this interview with him during the season, Bourousis accepted the challenge and made immediate inroads in developing the culture in Baskonia into a winning and professional one.
For the most part, the Spanish and European basketball critics felt Bourousis would make an impact, but they figured it would be a minor one at the most. Bourousis would put up better numbers and get a little more playing time from the previous year, and Baskonia would make the Top 16 and compete for a playoff spot, but most likely fall short. After all, how could a guy, who was coming off a reserve role, carry a team that hadn’t experienced major success on a domestic or inter-continental level since 2010 (when they won the ACB title), nearly six years ago?
Boy, did Bourousis and Baskonia prove their critics wrong.
If you look on paper, Bourousis’ year in Baskonia doesn’t seem all that impressive: he didn’t start a game all year for the Basque club, and he only averaged 13.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg in ACB play and 14.5 ppg and 8.7 rpg in Euroleague play. However, then you take into consideration the 40 minute games in Europe and the fact that Bourousis only played 23 minutes per game in ACB play and 24.6 minutes in Euroleague play, and his impact becomes more noticeable. Quite simply, there was on player as efficient or more valuable to their squad in Europe than Bourousis.
Watching Bourousis play this year was like watching Vlade Divac during his glory years with the Sacramento Kings. Bourousis lacked any kind of athleticism and it was certainly possible that he had the lowest vertical on the team. He struggled to defend quicker players, and he was often exploited in the pick and roll when he switched on speedier point guards. But what Bourousis lacked in athleticism, he made up for in terms of skill set and basketball IQ. He dazzled fans and his team with dynamic moves in the post, as he killed opponents with excellent back to the basket moves, as well as a reliable jump hook and sweet fade away jumper in the mold of Dirk Nowitzki’s that buried teams time and time again in the block. When he didn’t score, his ability to see open teammates all over the floor led to easy buckets off the cut or open 3-point looks when defenses tried to collapse and double down on him. And Bourousis destroyed teams in pick and pop plays with Adams and James. If they tried to trap Baskonia’s quick guards, they were able to hit a popping Bourousis who would regularly damage defenses from the 3-point line (Bourousis shot 40.8 percent from three in ACB play and 38.8 percent in Euroleague play). If they tried to switch, Adams and James would get to the hoop with ease for the layup or the dunk. There probably was no more effective pick and roll combination in Europe than Baskonia’s Adams/James and Bourousis combo, and Bourousis was the key cog that made it happen, as his versatile skill set and pristine ability to read defenses made him one of the best offensive players in all of Europe last year.
As the season wore on, Bourousis seemed to come through in the biggest of moments, especially in the Euroleague. In a January 29th game against Barcelona, who had been 39-1 in their last 40 games on their home court in Top 16 play, Bourousis put up a sterling performance that displayed Baskonia was to be taken seriously in Euroleague play. In Baskonia’s 81-78 overtime victory, the Greek center scored a game-high 24 points on 9 of 16 shooting, had 8 rebounds, 3 assists and zero turnovers for a PIR of 28, which was the second highest mark for the week (behind only Tyrese Rice of Khimki’s 35, which he garnered against a lesser Zalgiris team in Moscow). Yes, Adams also had a strong game, as he scored 17 points and hit the game-tying 3 at the end of regulation, and Alex Abrines of Barcelona had a coming out party of sorts as he scored 21 points off the bench and nearly carried Barcelona to a come back win despite lackluster performances from their regular starters (Juan Carlos Navarro was shut out in 12 minutes of play and Justin Doellman only scored 5 points). But no player shined more in Europe and garnered more attention that day than Bourousis. After handing Barcelona their second loss at home in the Top 16 in their last 41 games, this much was clear going forward in the Euroleague: Baskonia was a force to be reckoned with, and Bourousis was the one to lead them.
The most endearing non-basketball moment from Bourousis though came when a reporter immediately after their win on the court asked him if he was “happy with his performance and the team’s win in the Top 16.” Bourousis, who came to install a sense of professionalism on this young squad, responded in the most work-man like way possible:
“I am not worried about how big this win is. All I am worried about is working hard and winning games.”
It was the kind of answer a veteran star of a veteran team would give, not one whose squad has been the routine underdog to other major European powers over the past half decade or so. And from that game and moment, Baskonia continued to play like a team who expected and knew how to win, and Bourousis continued to shine, proving that at 32 years old, he was one of Europe’s best players, if not best overall.
Throughout the season, Bourousis continued to raise his stock as a player week after week. He posted the highest PIR of any Euroleague player in 2015-2016 (44) in Week 2 of the regular season in a 96-89 overtime win over his former club Olympiacos. In the game, his marvelous performance included 28 points on 8 of 14 shooting, 12 rebounds, 3 assists and once again ZERO turnovers. Take a look at how Bourousis dominated the Greek power below in a monumental win Fernando Buesa Arena in front of a raucous Baskonia home crowd.
Over the course of the year, Bourousis was named sole Euroleague MVP of the week twice (Week 2 regular season and week 10 of the Top 16 in a crucial 98-83 win over Khimki Moscow) and shared MVP honors another two times (Top 16 Round Week 4 with Jan Vesely of Fenerbahce, and Top 16 Round 13 with Nando de Colo of CSKA Moscow). He also was named the Euroleague’s MVP for March, after averaging 18.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 2.8 apg in 27 MPG during a crucial stretch in the Top 16 which Baskonia qualified for the playoffs. And at the end of the year, Bourousis was named to the Euroleague All-First team, narrowly missing out on MVP honors to Nando de Colo (though Bourousis was named the ACB’s MVP a little bit later).
And all these accomplishments didn’t just stand out on their own, as Bourousis, in his professional, workman-like way, continued to lead the charge to Baskonia’s success in Europe. In the Top 16, Baskonia went 9-5 which included only 1 loss at home (to Olympiacos in round 2). In the playoffs, against Greek power Panathinaikos, a team that had former NBA players such as Sasha Pavlovic, Nick Calathes, and Elliot Williams as well as European and Serbian standout Miroslav Raduljica, Baskonia swept the Greek favorite, which included a defining 85-74 victory in Athens in the deciding Game 3. And to further show the development of Baskonia’s team? In the clinching Game 3, Panathinaikos shut down Bourousis, as he only scored 9 points. However, the team stepped up to cover him as Adams and James scored a combined 44 points to help them earn their first trip to the Final Four since 2008.
Bourousis didn’t have to carry his team individually in the playoffs, and that was a further sign of the legacy and leadership he left with his young Baskonia colleagues this season. He had led the way so much in the season to the point that he had instilled confidence in his team to step up on an off night for him on such a big stage. Would Adams and James stepped up in such a crucial moment of the playoffs without Bourousis’ mentoring? Perhaps, but I find it highly unlikely.
In the Final Four, Baskonia ran out of gas unable to carry the magic from the Top 16, though they were certainly close and showed flashes of making a miracle championship run. In the semifinal, they were unable to stop a furious Fenerbahce comeback led by Bojan Bogdanovic and Gigi Datome, whom both led the Turkish power to win 88-77 in overtime, helping Fenerbahce to a 16-5 scoring difference in the overtime period. But despite the loss, the performance was typical of what Bourousis did all year: 22 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists and a game high PIR of 24. Even in a loss on the biggest stage in European basketball, Bourousis failed to disappoint by hitting several big shots (though not enough unfortunately), as evidenced in the highlight compilation below:
In many ways, it was a shame Bourousis was not named the Euroleague MVP. Yes, de Colo won a championship with CSKA, and yes he had his share of highs this year, as well as importance to CSKA finally getting over the hump after numerous Final Four chokes. But, no player in Europe was more entertaining than Bourousis. No player did more to change his team’s fortunes this year than Bourousis. Nobody had more impact or inspired or led his team better throughout all the rounds of the Euroleague than Bourousis. Yes, de Colo has a Euroleague championship, but CSKA is getting to the Final Four still without him. They have Milos Teodosic still, who would make up his absence. But Baskonia? Are they making it to their first Final Four in eight years without Bourousis? Are they getting out of the Top 16 or even Regular Season without Bourousis? It is a shame that the Euroleague committee didn’t recognize what Bourousis did for this team this year and didn’t give him the Euroleague MVP award.
Bourousis has about as much beef with the Euroleague as LeBron James does for not getting any MVP consideration this year. That’s how good Bourousis’ campaign this year was.
One of the aspects of Baskonia’s Cinderella season that gets lost in the Bourousis hype is the job that Perasovic did. While most coaches would be out in the forefront of such success, Perasovic, with his quiet demeanor, seemed to shy from the spotlight and let it focus more on his Greek superstar as well as his young and upcoming players. But even though he was not in the forefront media-wise like Zeljko Obradovic from Fenerbahce or Dimitrios Itoudis from CSKA (though they get a lot of attention for their fiery personalities), Perasovic was just as crucial to his team’s success like the coaches listed above.
For starters, convincing Bourousis to not only come to Baskonia, but take the role he did was not an easy task. After all, as mentioned before in this post, Bourousis was coming off a title, and had settled into his role as a reserve in Real Madrid. To convince him to not only play more minutes, but be a crucial part of this team was a risk that not many European coaches would take, especially with the fight to stay in the Euroleague an annual slog. And yet, not only did Perasovic convince Bourousis to be a valuable mentor on this team, but he was able to put him in the position to have arguably the best season of his career. Just a year ago, European basketball fans thought Bourousis was on the verge of retirement. Now nearly a Euroleague and ACB campaign later, thanks to Perasovic and his style of coaching and offensive system, Bourousis has rejuvenated his career, so much so that there is talk about San Antonio trying to bring him to the states.
That being said, Bourousis is just the tip of the iceberg. One of the major things that happens in Euroleague play, especially during the Top 16 when teams are positioning themselves for playoff spots, is the tinkering of rosters, through mid-season loans and acquisitions. Panathinaikos added wing Elliot Williams. Real Madrid added sharpshooter KC Rivers from Bayern Munich. Crvena Zvezda added guard Tarence Kinsey. It’s what European teams do to try and get a late push in their run to the playoffs and hopefully a Final Four.
Unfortunately, the mid-season additions don’t always work, and have mixed results. They can mess with team chemistry, and sometimes the talent doesn’t respond well in their new environment. Much to Perasovic’s credit, he pretty much kept and played the same roster and rotation from Round 1 of the Regular Season all the way to the 3rd place game of the Final Four. He continued to start young players like Diop and Planinic at center over Bourousis to help boost their confidence, and he showed faith in his young perimeter players like Blazic, Shengelia and Bertans who are all 25 and under. Not a lot of coaches would show the kind of roster faith that Perasovic did this season Baskonia. Most would have resorted to a veteran free agent from a lesser-tier club to solidify their playoff chances. But by maintaining roster consistency, Perasovic’s Baskonia squad developed game-by-game as a team, and ended up playing their best basketball by the end of the season because they had played so much together and consequently, matured as a team in the process.
And lastly, the style Baskonia played under Perasovic was a bit unorthodox, but proved to be entertaining and effective. They weren’t exactly the best shooting team, as their 52.3 eFG percentage was exactly league average for the year. Furthermore, they weren’t exactly a great “ball movement” team, as their 52.9 assist rate was lowest in the Euroleague (and this is out of 24 teams). And lastly, they didn’t generate a whole lot of second chance shots, as their offensive rebounding rate was 7th lowest in the league (of the six others, only Brose Baskets Bamberg made the Top 16). Combine all those factors with an offensive rating of 105.5 (11th best; below non-playoff teams like Khimki, Anadolu Efes and Brose Baskets) and one could ask this: how did Baskonia experience so much success?
The keys to Baskonia’s sterling season could be credited to Perasovic’s focus on pace, the high ball screen, the 3-point shot, and a defense that put a premium on NOT fouling. Let’s break down each point:
Baskonia had the second fastest pace in the league at 75.5 possessions per game, which was only .1 possession lower than Strasbourg (who only played 10 games because they didn’t qualify for the Top 16). This emphasis on pace led to quick shots and more possessions. Because they generated quick shots, this resulted in less assists, hence why their assist rate was so low. But, on the flip side, though their assist rate was low, (the bane of every “traditional” coach who believes in Norman Dale basketball), they also had a low turnover rate, which was 10th lowest in the Euroleague, due to their ability to get shots up early in the shot clock.
Another reason their assist rate was so low was that Perasovic really focused the offense on his his points James and Adams as well as Bourousis through the high ball screen. This led to a lot of dribbling, and thus, not a lot of chances for assists. But the high ball screen was so effective because Adams and James could take advantage on switches and either finish at the rim or kick out to open shooters on the perimeter, or they could hit Bourousis on the roll or especially the pop beyond the arc. Perasovic also let them freelance from the high ball screen and didn’t call many set plays due to his emphasis on keeping that quick pace, which was much different from their competition, especially clubs like Barcelona and Loko, other playoff teams who ranked in the bottom five when it came to fastest pace.
The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets aren’t the only professional teams in the world that relies on the 3 ball, as Baskonia made the 3 a key part of their game in 2015-2016. Their 3-pt attempt to field goal attempt was 0.41, fourth highest in the league, and they could do so with knock down shooters like Bertans and Bourousis. Another thing interesting about the 3-point shot was that they put a premium on defending that shot as well. Their opponent 3FGA/FGA was 0.32, the lowest rate in the Euroleague. And hence, while Baskonia hurt teams with the 3-point shot, they weren’t allowing others teams to do so, and by doing that, they put themselves in many possessions exchanges where they were trading 3’s for 2’s, which has proven statistically to have value over the long course of a game and/or season.
And speaking of defense, another interesting aspect of their defense was how they did not foul a lot or allow opposing teams to get to the line. Baskonia actually had the eighth-highest FTA/FGA ratio in the Euroleague, which was usually due to their fast guards and athletic wings like Hanga getting to the rack off the high ball screen. But, on defense, Baskonia actually had the seventh-lowest rate in the Euroleague in Opp FTA/FGA, meaning that they weren’t fouling and letting opposing teams get easy chances for points at the free throw line. This is a sound strategy and a credit to Baskonia’s defensive discipline, as they relied on contesting shots on defense getting rebounds off of missed shots, rather than relying on steals or blocks, which have a higher risk when it comes to fouling. But that wasn’t to say they completely abandoned “high risk” defense, as they were in the top-10 in both fouls and blocks, which again is credit to their defensive discipline. Perasovic and the Baskonia players deserve a lot of credit for this, and that was especially evident in their 101.1 defensive rating, third best in the league, and 48.8 opponent eFG percentage, which was best in the league. Bourousis and Baskonia was known for their ability to score and play up-tempo, but their defense was underrated all year, and was one of the key reasons why they made the Euroleague Final Four.
The combination of Bourousis’ career renaissance, the young roster gelling over the course of the season, and Perasovic’s fine job coaching this eclectic group of talents made this year extremely special for Baskonia and European club basketball fans across the globe. And yet, as wonderful as this season was for the Basque club, it will be difficult to duplicate next year. After such as successful season, Turkish power Efes came calling and was able to lure Perasovic with a major deal to coach their squad next year. Adams is back in America, added to the Spurs’ Free Agent camp, and looks less likely to be back with Baskonia next season, with the same looking to be true of James. And Bourousis’ future seems a bit murky, as it is likely that a big name European club will throw a lot of money at him if he decided to not make the jump across the pond to the NBA. Just like that, in a matter of weeks, Baskonia’s dream season seems to be just that: a one-time dream, not the foundation for something special.
And that is the challenge with smaller European clubs like Baskonia: it is hard for them to build something sustainable on an annual basis because they cannot compete in Europe’s free market player economy. Rich clubs like Efes can woo their coach with bags of money. Traditional powers like Olympiacos, or Real Madrid, or Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv can outspend them for their own players. The NBA will always be the primary option, especially for American players, if the opportunity presents itself. That is the reality for Baskonia, and though they are not alone in this system, it is a bit more painful because they have a fanbase that really is basketball-crazed. If the financial caps and confines in the NBA were present in Europe, Baskonia would have the chance to develop into a club like the San Antonio Spurs, a small market team that can compete due to good player development and shrewd player acquisition. But, in the current European landscape, they are forever building their club year-to-year, hoping for home run seasons like this past one.
So, we probably won’t see another season like 2015-2016 from Baskonia for a while, though they are better suited to catch lighting in a bottle sooner than most in the European landscape (they are in Spain, a major country and in probably the best domestic league in Europe in the ACB, all factors which help their chances in acquiring talent). Bourousis’ Baskonia tenure most likely will be a one-year show, and most likely he’ll be dazzling for another European club next year. Hopefully, the young talent that got valuable minutes and playing experience this year will parlay that into bigger roles in 2016-2017 and keep the team competitive in the ACB and Euroleague, though I do wonder if a new coach will want to keep the same core intact.
It’s the cruel nature of European basketball: the big teams feast and continue to get fat year after year while the others fight for scraps, and Baskonia, though not on the lower end, probably is closer to the latter than the former. But we shouldn’t forget this season from Baskonia. We shouldn’t forget about their Final Four run, Bourousis’ unofficial Euroleague MVP, the sensational plays of guards Adams and James, and the stoic nature of Perasovic on the sideline.
It’s teams like Baskonia that make the Euroleague worth following, especially for newer American fans like myself.