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

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

-Rob Scott on this week’s Euroleague Adventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll find March 31st against UNICS Kazan.


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

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

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

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

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

Brose Bamberg and Crvena Zvezda surprising…but will it last?

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As the Euroleague season heads into Round 17, the performances of German club Brose Bamberg and Serbian club Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) Belgrade have certainly turned the heads of many Euroleague fans and experts. While both had good campaigns a year ago (Brose made the Round of 16; Red Star made a surprise playoff appearance where they were swept by CSKA Moscow), it was expected that these two would be battling to avoid the cellar in “revamped” 16-team Euroleague format. Both teams had lost key players in the off-season (Brose lost star scorer Brad Wanamaker to Darussafaka; Red Star lost explosive wing Quincy Miller and post mainstay Maik Zirbes to Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv), and didn’t necessarily replace them with any “big-name” signings. Thus, it was easy to dismiss that both teams would give some fight, but were far from serious contenders for a playoff spot.

And yet, here we are, with Red Star currently in the 7th position at 8-8 and Brose on their tail in the 9th position at 7-9. Both teams have won their last three games, each with quality wins over playoff-contenders on the resume in the recent stretch (Brose has beaten Olympiacos and Barcelona by double digits; Red Star did the same to Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow). Considering how wide-open the playoff situation is beyond Real Madrid, CSKA and Olympiacos, both under-the-radar clubs have to be taken seriously not only as playoff contenders, but perhaps Final Four dark horses to boot.

That being said, we are only one week into the second-half of the regular season. Are Brose and Red Star for real? Or are they simply riding hot stretches of play, about to be exposed in the coming weeks or toward the end of the season? Let’s take a look at both clubs, and their outlook over the remaining 14 regular season games in the Euroleague in 2017.

Melli and the Brose offensive machine.

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Niccolo Melli was named the Euroleague MVP for December and for good reason. After a buzzer-beating 90-88 loss to CSKA Moscow, Brose was 2-8 and in the Euroleague basement on December 1st. Since then, the Bamberg-based club has been 5-1, their lone blemish a loss to Real Madrid in the Spanish capital. And the spectacular play by Brose’ Italian star has been a major reason for the turnaround. Melli is averaging 13.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.2 apg on 55.6 shooting from the field, which includes a 57.5 true shooting rate. All this has helped Melli accumulate a PIR average of 20.3, not only the highest on the team (the closest is newcomer Fabien Caseur with 12.1), but also the second-best mark in the Euroleague (behind only UNICS’ Keith Langford).

Yes, Melli success’ has been largely responsible for catapulting Brose back into the playoff hunt. That being said, what this roster has been able to do despite the lack of “big-name” star power has also been a marvel to witness since week 10. Brose has become a three-point gunning team, similar to NBA clubs like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Though they are only 5th in the Euroleague in total 3-point attempts, they have made the 3-pointer an effective weapon. 37.5 percent of their points come from three-pointers, according to Overbasket.com, which is the top mark in the Euroleague. And furthermore, this has worked to the advantage of their overall offense, as evidenced by their points per field goal mark of 1.19, which is best in the Euroleague as well.

One of the most interesting aspects of this 3-point heavy assault is that it is mostly utilized when Melli is on the bench. Melli leads the team in MPG at 30.8 per game, and when he is on the court, 49.5 percent of their points come from 2-point attempts, and 36.3 percent come from beyond the arc, according to Overbasket. However, when he is on the bench, that 2-point percentage drops to 47.1 and 3-point attempt percentage rises to 41.5. Now, a higher share of points doesn’t necessarily mean success, but their 42.1 percent 3-point make rate with Melli off the floor shows how well head coach Andrea Trinchieri utilizes his lineups not only when his best player is on the floor, but resting on the bench as well.

Brose probably can light it up with anybody in the Euroleague on the perimeter. Darius Miller is averaging a team-high 13.3 ppg and is shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc, even though he has only started 8 games this year. Caseur, who served a reserve/complementary assignment on Baskonia’s Final Four squad a year ago, has emerged as a valuable shooting/point hybrid for the Euroleague’s lone German squad, as evidenced by his 10.3 ppg and 12.1 PIR. And lastly, Janis Strelnieks and Maodo Lo have also provided crucial spark to this Brose team as well on both ends of the court, both in the starting lineup and off the bench.

So the question is this: can Brose parlay their hot play as of late to a playoff spot? Right now, it’s hard to see them not unless they cool down considerably from the field, which is possible, as it did happen to them in the Round of 16 a year ago. As effective as their offense is, they still offer up some size and physicality to opponents, and against more bruising teams, Brose could find trouble not just scoring points, but pulling off wins. The recent return of Elias Harris helps with some of those issues, and Daniel Theis has stepped up big time this year, but they don’t have the post depth of clubs like Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, Real Madrid, or Baskonia.

And yet, maybe it doesn’t matter. Trinchieri has always been regarded as one of the finer coaching minds in Europe, and he has probably done his most masterful job yet. He has made this team one of the most effective offensive clubs in the Euroleague even though they don’t have that one “superstar” go-to guy (though Melli certainly is becoming that, if he’s not at that level already). This Brose team could have packed it in after losing eight of their first ten, but while clubs in similar positions at the time like Olimpia Milano and Galatasaray have seemed to fallen off by the wayside, Brose has become one of the scariest and most dangerous teams in Europe.

Yes, it’s a long season, and on paper, there are some flaws. But the combination of Melli and Trinchieri’s coaching and system makes me confident that they’ll have a good shot to be one of the last eight teams remaining after round 30.

Red Star’s “ugly” but “potent” style of ball

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Unlike Brose, this Red Star team looks horrendous on paper. They are dead last in points per field goal ratio at 0.99, and they are worst in the Euroleague in true shooting rate at 45.8, both according to Overbasket. Their 74.5 points scored per games is the second-lowest mark in the Euroleague (only FC Barcelona is lower at 71.7). And lastly, young Serbian standout, Luka Mitrovic, hasn’t really recovered after missing most of last year due to injury, as he is averaging only 14 minutes per game, 3.1 ppg and a PIR of 1.9 despite starting 13 games.

And yet, how is Red Star, pretty much seen as an afterthought going into the year, competing for a playoff spot, and knocking off teams like Real and CSKA in sound fashion?

Mostly due to defense, a revitalized Ognjen Kuzmic and their bench.

Give a lot of credit to Dejan Radonjic and what he has been able to do with this Red Star club in the newer, more competitive Euroleague. Even though offensively has been a challenge, this team really earns its bread (i.e. wins) on the defensive end. Their 73.6 ppg allowed mark is best in the Euroleague, and they have been extremely potent as of late. They held high-scoring, superstar-laced squads like Real Madrid and CSKA to 70 and 67 points per game, respectively, in wins in Belgrade (which probably has been the toughest place to play in the Euroleague the past two seasons). And last week, despite playing on the road in a tough Kaunas environment, they held Zalgiris to 61 points, which included a 7-point first quarter for the Lithuanian club to start the game. With athletic perimeter defenders like Charles Jenkins, Stefan Jovic, and Branko Lazic making things tough on opposing guards up top, and post players like Kuzmic and Dangubic cleaning things up below, Red Star has emerged as one of the best, and most underrated defensive squads in the Euroleague. It’s not a pretty style of ball, and their offensive numbers can attest to that. If Brose is more like the Rockets and Warriors of today, Red Star is more like the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks of the Mid-90’s (i.e. brutal, tough, defensive-oriented basketball). However, Radonjic has given this team a defensive-mindset and focus, and that has not only helped the Serbian club emerge with an identity in Euroleague play, but also wins.

Speaking of Kuzmic, one could argue that he could be a “comeback player of the year” of sorts, similar to Ioannis Bourousis in Baskonia a year ago. Kuzmic was primarily stuck to the bench last season in Athens with Panathinaikos, especially down the stretch and in the playoffs after Sasha Djordjevic was fired. He averaged only 5.1 ppg on 48.7 percent shooting from the field, and played  a reserve role behind Miroslav Raduljica and James Gist. After losing front court star Zirbes to Maccabi in the off-season though, Red Star took a flyer on the former NBA player and Serbian national, and he has made the most of the chance. He is averaging 9.5 ppg on 57.1 percent shooting, 7.8 rpg, 1.1 spg and a team-high PIR average of 15.1. Once thought as burly and unsuited for the faster modern game, Kuzmic has been not only a force below, but especially in the pick and roll. While he only scored 8 points in over 14 minutes of play, he scored six points out of the gate off of pick and roll plays, which helped Red Star get off to a start they wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the game.

Kuzmic has seen a rejuvenation in his game, as has Jenkins, who returned to Belgrade after a short tenure with Olimpia Milano a season ago. However, what has also been remarkable is the effectiveness of their bench. Lazic, Milko Bjelica, Marko Guduric, Marko Simonovic, and Nate Wolters have all helped not only keep Red Star competitive games, but perhaps have helped their bench squad be more effective on the floor than the starting lineup. Simonovic is leading the team in scoring at 12.9 ppg. Wolters, a former South Dakota State Jackrabbit (got to shout out to my former home as much as I can) and Milwaukee Buck, has been effective at 37 percent beyond the arc, and is getting better from three-point land as he grows more accustomed to Europe. Bjelica and Guduric have their off nights (Bjelica is shooting a miserable 14 percent from three-point land), but they have showed some flashes of brilliance throughout the season. Much like Trinchieri, Radonjic has made the Red Star bench a genuine asset to this squad, even if it isn’t as pretty offensively as the Bamberg club.

Now, can Red Star make it to the playoffs in back to back seasons? Their defense is solid, yes, but they will need to get more consistent on the offensive end if they want to keep their position in the 7th spot. The addition of Deon Thompson from Galatasaray should help, especially in the post. Their horrendous offense at times though makes me more skeptical of this club as a playoff contender in contrast to Brose. That being said, their defense is already playoff-caliber, and Radonjic has demonstrated his playoff chops as a coach, not just this season, but last season as well. If they can improve just a little when it comes to putting the ball in the basket, that may be enough for this Serbian club to clinch a second-straight playoff berth down the stretch.