It was easy to forget about how dominant CSKA Moscow was this season, especially leading into the VTB Finals against Moscow rival Khimki.
After all, considering their 2015-2016 campaign included a Euroleague and VTB title, this season could be considered a disappointment. They finished second in the regular season, looked shaky against Baskonia in the playoffs (though they did sweep), and they finished 3rd in the Euroleague Final Four, losing to underdog Olympiacos in the semifinals. For a powerhouse like CSKA, those results just aren’t enough.
And then there were all the other stories. The Milos Teodosic leaving to the NBA rumors. The whether “Dimitris Itoudis will be back as head coach” rumors. The rumors of David Blatt coming to replace him. Khimki’s epic comeback against Zenit St. Petersburg in the semifinals. Khimki’s Alexey Shved winning the VTB Regular Season MVP award.
There seemed to be all kinds of indicators that this would be series, that maybe CSKA would run out of gas, and Khimki, qualifying for the Euroleague with their semifinal win, would build on the momentum they achieved from their victory over Zenit. Milos would be distracted. Nando wouldn’t be able to handle the load himself. Itoudis would fold under the pressure of being on the “hot seat”. These were all stories that I thought would make this CSKA-Khimki finals a close and competitive series. Even the promos got me pumped that Khimki had a puncher’s chance of pulling the upset.
(Yes, I have no idea what the words say; I am not literate in Russian unfortunately.)
And yet, CSKA just slapped me and other doubters back into reality three games later.
This was not a series by any stretch of the imagination. This was complete and utter domination from start to finish. CSKA completed their 9-0 undefeated run through the VTB playoffs (they also swept Astana in the first round and then Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar in the semifinals) by beating Khimki by an average of 16.3 ppg. The combination of Aaron Jackson and Cory Higgins guarding Shved made the reigning VTB MVP a complete non-factor, as they limited him to 31 percent shooting from the field and a cumulative PIR of 23 for the series. It was the kind of performance that made the Golden State Warriors’ run in the NBA postseason look pedestrian in comparison.
While all the attention was on Shved and Teodosic, and for good reason, de Colo proved once again this VTB finals why he is one of the best guards in all of Europe. De Colo didn’t really impress in his tenure with the San Antonio Spurs, and there are always doubts amongst European basketball fans about the legitimacy of de Colo’s tenure so far with CSKA. Is he a MVP-caliber player because of or despite Teodosic? Some people will credit Teodosic’s big time shooting and playmaking as the reason why de Colo is successful: teams are more afraid of the Serbian wizard hurting them than the French guard.
De Colo bucked that theory in what was a magnificent series from beginning to end. In game 1, he scored 21 points, shot 57 percent from the field, put up an efficiency of 20 and had a +/- of 22. What is probably the most underrated aspect of de Colo’s game is his ability to draw fouls and get to the line. The 29-year-old guard did that in bunches in game 1, as he drew 7 fouls, and went 12-13 from the line. As for Teodosic? Well, he only scored 7 points and put up a PIR of 8 while shooting 25 percent from the field.
In game 2, Teodosic stepped up and his biggest game of the series, as Khimki actually made things close in the first half. He scored 23 points, on 8-of-11 shots from the field (73 percent), and posted a game-high PIR of 24. But once again, de Colo’s performance was also solid, as he scored 20 points, shot 7 of 13 from the field (54 percent), posted a PIR of 14, and drew a game high 6 fouls. While Milos got all the attention, you can see in the highlights below that de Colo did his share of damage in the series swinging game 2 win.
In the deciding game 3 CSKA victory, it was once again de Colo who shined brightest, as he scored 20 points, 6-of-12 from the field (50 percent), had 4 rebounds, 3 assists, put up a PIR of 19, and had a +/- of 34, a game high. Once again, Khimki threw all they could to stop the French national, whether it was Shved or Markel Brown or the “Russian Delly” Viacheslav Zaitcev, and yet it had no effect. De Colo proved once again that though he doesn’t have the personality or flair of teammate Teodosic, or perhaps even Khimki’s Shved, he’s the VTB’s best overall player, and there was no doubting that as he was awarded Final MVP during CSKA’s trophy raising ceremony on Khimki’s home turf.
And while it wasn’t the biggest story, one has to feel that Itoudis validated himself and his future as CSKA head coach. Itoudis, a disciple of Zeljko Obradovic (he was his top assistant when Obradovic was at Panathinaikos), has done nothing but succeed in his tenure with the “Russian Army” team. Three Euroleague Final Fours, three VTB titles, and a Euroleague championship. Yes, he does coach a club with the biggest budget in Europe (35 million Euros). However, big budgets don’t necessarily translate to automatic success. Real Madrid, who has the second-largest budget (27 million Euros), is in a dogfight with Valencia in the ACB Finals and was whooped by CSKA in the third-place game in the Euroleague Final Four. And Olimpia Milano had the sixth-biggest budget in the Euroleague (19 million Euros) and they finished in dead last in the Euroleague, and were bounced in the semi-finals of the Lega Basket Serie A playoffs.
The bottom line? Money helps, but you need the right coach to put it all together. Itoudis has done that in his three years in CSKA, and he should do that going forward as head man of CSKA in the next couple of years at least. And if CSKA decides to go “crazy owner” and let him go? Well, Itoudis will have his pick of the top jobs in Europe. And he will be successful, no doubt about it.
But even that Itoudis redemption story is secondary to de Colo. De Colo will be back in CSKA, and the roster will look a whole lot different for the most part. Jackson will probably be gone, as well as his running mate Teodosic. And yet, the CSKA train will keep humming. De Colo will keep making big time shots, getting to the line, and carrying this club to top-level success, even though we will try to think of ways to doubt him or lessen his accomplishments. Maybe we will say it’s “Itoudis’ coaching” or “Kyle Hines’ mentorship” next year as the reason why de Colo puts up another All-Euroleague campaign.
But let the highlights speak for themselves below…
Yep. It’s about time we put those doubts of de Colo as a superstar player in Europe back in our pockets where they belong.
And make sure they stay there for a good stretch of time…
Onto part two of the ELJ “Key Five-And-One” Playoff Preview. If you missed out on part 1, check it out here, as I look at the key five players to the Real Madrid-Darussafaka series.
Now, let’s take a look at the 2-7 matchup between CSKA Moscow and Baskonia Vitoria-Gastiez.
Nando de Colo is the more polished player and scorer, but nobody is probably more important to his squad than Milos. When Teodosic is humming, swinging the ball around to open men, and hitting it from deep, you can almost guarantee a CSKA win, as has been the case on frequent occasion the past few seasons.
Teodosic leads CSKA in minutes per game at 29, and is also their leading assist man at 7.2 apg. Additionally, he also scores 16.1 ppg and has a PIR average of 17.5. While the latter mark is second to de Colo, Milos has gotten to his high marks mostly coming off the bench, as he has started only six games this season (mostly in de Colo’s absence, when he was out for a little bit in the middle of the year due to injury).
De Colo has been a consistent force, especially on the scoring end, and it is expected that de Colo will get his during this series. But nobody controls or orchestrates the CSKA offense more or better than Teodosic…and that has its positives and negative (though mostly positive). Teodosic has a flair for the dramatic, and can make beautiful passes and assists look effortless. At the same time, he can also turn the ball over with just as much ease, and his defensive effort can wane on occasion. Considering Baskonia has some high-effort guards in Shane Larkin, Jaka Blazic and Rafa Luz, Teodosic can’t lose his concentration in this series, as Baskonia will make him and CSKA pay if they allow Baskonia to score in transition off of turnovers.
But the bad news for Baskonia? Look below
34 points, 10 assists and a ridiculous 43 PIR in 112-84 beatdown of Baskonia in Round 9 in Moscow. Considering the first two games will be in Russia, I’m sure Baskonia is hoping they don’t see that Milos again in the playoffs.
Augustine comes off the bench for CSKA, much like Milos, and he may not be their best big (you could argue for Kyle Hines or Nikita Kurbanov). However, the CSKA newcomer has been a bit of a polarizing figure this year for the Moscow-power, and his performance in this series could not only determine a Final Four spot, but perhaps whether or not they repeat as Euroleague champs.
Coming over from a Khimki Moscow team that barely missed the Euroleague playoffs a season ago, Augustine has put up good numbers: he leads the team in rebounds at 4.5 per game and he is averaging 5.8 ppg on only 16:28 mpg. However, the biggest question mark with Augustine has been defense, as he has a reputation of getting exposed in the pick and roll or outmaneuvered in the block by more skilled post players in the Euroleague. This is a huge issue considering Baskonia’s depth and talent in the frontcourt. Will Augustine be able to handle Johannes Voigtmann, Ilimane Diop, Toko Shengelia, or Kim Tillie, who all do different things from the post position? Augustine has been inconsistent this year, but he has risen to challenge in big moments before, as evidenced by him hitting this big game winner against CSKA a few seasons ago.
CSKA utilizes their posts in many different ways, but without a doubt, they will need a prime Augustine in this series. If he gets brutalized on the defensive end by Baskonia’s weapons, it will put even more pressure on Milos, Nando, and the CSKA perimeter to have an even bigger series on both ends of the floor.
The Hungarian forward is most likely going to the NBA next year, probably following in the steps of former teammate Dairis Bertans who left to play for the Spurs at the conclusion of the 2016 campaign (the Spurs also own Hanga’s rights). It is fitting that Hanga may play with the Spurs next year, as Hanga is almost a “lite” version of San Antonio star Kawhi Leonard. Hanga is an incredibly athletic, defensive oriented wing that can nearly guard anyone on the floor, and when he’s on offensively, he can carry this Baskonia team to victory more often than not (much like Leonard with the Spurs).
Hanga has improved his offensive game from a year ago, much more comfortable as a scorer than he was during their Final Four campaign in 2015-2016. This year he put up a line of 10.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg and 2.3 apg, good for a 13.5 PIR average, the third-best mark on the team (behind Shane Larkin and Johannes Voigtmann who both had a PIR average of 14.9). That kind of triple-slash potential, along with his defensive prowess may have Spurs salivating that Hanga is indeed a Hungarian version of Leonard. But, Hanga’s scoring prowess can go hot and cold from game to game. He is only shooting 33.3 percent from beyond the arc and around 67 percent at the line, and he can be a “ghost” on the offensive end in some games, as evidenced in Round 30 where he scored only 6 points and put up a PIR of 3 in a crucial loss to Zalgiris that made them drop to 7th in the playoff standings.
But he’s also capable of games like below against Barcelona, where he put up 14 points, 3 assists and had a PIR of 21.
Which Hanga is going to show up? If the good, Leonard-esque Hanga does, Baskonia’s chances of pulling off a legendary upset, and making a return to the Final Four, will look a whole lot rosier.
Larkin’s first year with Baskonia has for the most part been a success. After relying on the two-headed combo of Darius Adams and Mike James a season ago, Baskonia took a flyer on the former Brooklyn Net and University of Miami star. So far, Larkin hasn’t disappointed: he is averaging 13.1 ppg, 5.7 apg and is tied for first on the team in PIR average at 14.9 (with Voigtmann). And with little depth at the point position (Nico Laprovittola and Rafa Luz offer some good things and effort, but are probably average to slightly below backup options), it makes sense that head coach Sito Alonso has relied so heavily on the first-year guard (29 mpg, a team-high).
Larkin is explosive, competitive, and not afraid of the moment. That was evident in Baskonia’s 79-78 win over CSKA at Fernando Buesa where Larkin not only hit an ice-cold go-ahead shot with about 30 seconds to go, but also stole the ball on the defensive end to seal the game. If you look at the clip below, it’s impressive how Larkin commanded the moment on the offensive end with the swagger and confidence of a Euroleague veteran.
Considering CSKA’s strength is in the backcourt, this series will be a challenge for Larkin. In addition to de Colo and Teodosic, Aaron Jackson and Cory Higgins are also solid perimeter players who undoubtedly will try to make Larkin’s life difficult on both ends of the court. Larkin has had mixed results against CSKA as well: despite hitting the game winner, he only had a PIR of 8, and for the most part was neutralized until the game’s closing moments.
That being said, this will be Larkin’s first taste of the postseason as a professional, and it’ll be interesting to see if Larkin can rise to the moment like he did at times in the Euroleague regular season. Considering Baskonia’s lack of options at the point behind him, the Basque club’s Final Four future may heavily depend on Larkin’s adjustment to the playoffs.
Voigtmann may have the best numbers of any Baskonia big, but no post player is more important to this squad than Shengelia. The Georgian missed some time during the middle of the season to injury, and in that time span, Baskonia swooned, going 1-5 in Shengelia’s absence from Round 18-23. When Shengelia returned to the lineup in Round 24, Baskonia finished 5-2, and saved a playoff spot which looked in dire shape after a Round 23 loss to Anadolu Efes.
Unlike Voigtmann or off-season pickup Andrea Bargnani, who has missed most of the year due to injury (a blessing in disguise since Bargnani was such a defensive liability), Shengelia is a physical, rugged back-to-the basket post player. Yes, Shengelia can step back and hit the occasional three. However, where Shengelia really flourishes is in the blocks, as he is physical and crafty on both the offensive and defensive end, and gives this Baskonia team a sense of toughness that they miss when he’s not on the floor.
His physicality was on full display, as you can see in the video below, in a crucial Round 27 game on the road against Brose, and Nicolo Melli, an All-Euroleague-caliber player. Shengelia put up a line of 16 points, 12 rebounds and a PIR of 22 in a 96-71 victory in Bamberg that helped Baskonia secure a spot in the postseason.
Toko is playing some of the best basketball of his career this season with Baskonia, and they will need him to continue this hot stretch to take advantage of CSKA’s lack of depth in the frontcourt.
Series Wild Card: CSKA’s Backcourt vs. Baskonia’s Frontcourt
This series will be a contrast between two very different teams: CSKA has incredible depth in the backcourt with Milos, Nando, Jackson and Higgins, but they really lack a true go-to guy in the post; Baskonia on the other hand has so much versatility in the blocks, with rim runner Diop, the physical Toko, and Voigtmann and Kim Tillie who can beat you inside and out, but they lack playmaking beyond Larkin and Hanga.
So the question is, who’s going to give first?
Who wins this series could hinge on which of those two aspects cracks first. What if Nando shoots poorly? What if Milos is turning the ball over and giving up points off turnovers? What if Voigtmann is neutralized and made a non-factor? What if Toko gets in foul trouble?
My gut says Baskonia’s frontcourt is more likely to crack than CSKA’s backcourt, but we won’t know for sure until the games begin April 18th. As a fan, I’m pulling for Baskonia, but they’re going to need the frontcourt to be in full force to have a chance to return to the Final Four.
The eighth time was the charm for CSKA Moscow in 2016, as CSKA finally sealed the deal and won the Euroleague championship after eight straight appearances in the Final Four since their last championship in 2008 under former coach Ettore Messina (now with the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant). And though it is early in the off-season, CSKA once again is loading up their roster and making key moves, aiming once again to make the Euroleague Final Four in 2016-2017 (they have made it every to the Final Four every year since 2001).
And with that move, the chances of other Euroleague teams knocking CSKA Moscow from the top of the Euroleague just got a whole lot dimmer.
It was interesting how CSKA was able to re-sign their star point guard so quickly in the off-season, let alone to a 3-year extension. After two successful seasons with CSKA, which culminated in multiple MVP awards both in inter-continental as well as domestic play, there was some consensus that de Colo would try it again in the NBA, as some NBA teams, including the Brooklyn Nets, were interested in him at least coming out to Summer League to display how his talents have grown since he went back to Europe. De Colo was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 2009, but he instead signed and played with Valencia Basket for three seasons before coming to the States. When he did come to the NBA, he played two seasons with the Spurs and a season with the Toronto Raptors before signing with CSKA Moscow after the 2014 season.
There was some incentive for de Colo to come back to America: he is only 28 years old, still relatively young and in the prime of his career, and he is coming off his best European campaign yet. In VTB play, he helped CSKA cruise to another league title, this time over Unics, as he averaged 16.6 ppg, 4.6 apg and 3.0 rpg while playing 22.6 mpg and shooting 54.9 percent from the field and 39 percent from beyond the arc. However, his Euroleague play is what attracted the attentions of so many American scouts and general managers: he averaged 19.4 ppg, 5.0 apg, and 3.6 rpg while playing 27.2 mpg and shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 46 percent from beyond the arc. While CSKA was also loaded with other key contributors like athletic center Kyle Hines and wizard combo guard Milos Teodosic, the numbers above show not only why CSKA went 24-5 overall in Euroleague play and won the Euroleague championship, but why de Colo also made All-Euroleague first team in addition to his Euroleague and Final Four MVP awards.
Add that incredible year, as well as a more openness to acquiring and playing international players by most NBA teams (especially after the breakout of Kristaps Prozingis last season in New York), and de Colo seemed to be in the perfect situation to at least test the waters in the United States. However, whether it was CSKA’s offer, the chance to repeat as Euroleague champs, or the lack of attractive NBA destinations, de Colo not only will be back at CSKA next year, but for the next three seasons as well.
And while that may be disappointing to some NBA fans who wanted to see the French point guard get a better opportunity the second-time around in the NBA, his return should bolster the Euroleague overall next season. De Colo is a fascinating and exciting player to watch. At 6’5, he has the shooting acumen of a shooting guard, but he can create off the dribble not just for himself, but for his teammates as well like any sound point guard. And with his size advantage, de Colo is able to post up smaller point guards and take advantage in the post, which was the case many times last year, as there aren’t many point guards in the Euroleague (or in Europe in general) that have the combo of size and speed to match up with de Colo.
If there are any doubts about de Colo’s impact and his ability to come through on the big stage, reference his performance in the Final Four, as de Colo proved to be a nightmare for opposing teams en route to the championship. In the semi-final, CSKA and de Colo faced Russian rival Lokomotiv, who only allowed 100.2 points per 100 possessions, which was second best in the league by only .1 point. What did de Colo do? He scored 30 points on 11 of 18 shooting, and also had 4 assists as well. Take a look at his performance in the highlights below.
And de Colo wasn’t finished that weekend either. In the championship game, CSKA faced Fenerbahce, who had the best defensive rating in the Euroleague last year at 100.1. (Remember, just .1 better than Loko!) And though de Colo was facing a tough, defensive Fenerbahce club, a seasoned coach who had won countless Euroleague titles before in Zeljiko Obradovic, and a well-traveled fan base from Turkey that packed the title venue in Berlin, de Colo didn’t miss a beat. The 28-year-old French national scored a team-high 22 points and had 7 assists and three steals in the 101-96 overtime victory. And though he and CSKA had some waves of inconsistency, de Colo came through when it counted in crunch time, as evidenced in the video of his performance below:
Is de Colo the best player in Europe? Right now, the argument is very tough to prove that he isn’t as of this moment. Yes, you could argue Ioannis Bourousis of Baskonia (Laboral Kutxa) probably has the most impact to his team, as Bourousis’ combo of post scoring, rebounding and leadership was a key reason why Baskonia made the Final Four. You could also argue that teammate Teodosic might be the most entertaining player, even if he doesn’t have de Colo’s consistency. And lastly, you could argue that Quincy Miller, who will be with Maccabi next season, has the potential to be the most dynamic player in the Euroleague next year, not only terms of scoring, but defense and athleticism as well. He was crucial to Crvena Zvzeda’s success last year, and being with a bigger club and around more talent in Maccabi could put him in the discussion of the best players in the Euroleague next year.
However, until it is proven otherwise, it is de Colo’s title to lose in 2016-2017 when it comes to who is “the best current player in Europe.” And that makes CSKA so scary next year. The idea of Teodosic and de Colo once again terrorizing opposing defense on the perimeter is going to be beautiful and entertaining for Euroleague fans to watch, and harrowing for opposing coaches who will be game-planning to try and stop that combination. And de Colo is just the tip of the iceberg: his ability to score and dominate opens things up for the other players. One of the reasons Hines was so successful was that he was able to finish baskets on put backs or off of easy passes because there was so much attention on de Colo and Teodosic. Would Hines have had the kind of big-time year, despite being under-sized as a center, if it weren’t for de Colo? Perhaps, but it would have been a lot harder to imagine.
The Euroleague once again will be competitive next year. Fenerbahce will be a strong team again if they retain a lot of their talent, and they undoubtedly will add some more unexpected pieces (like Ekpe Udoh last year). Anadolu Efes will be a much better squad next year with new head coach Velimir Perasovic coming over from Baskonia, (even though the future of Dario Saric is in doubt). Maccabi improved their roster and also got a new head coach in Erez Edelstein, and I expect that Greek powers Olympiacos and Panathinaikos will be much improved after disappointing Euroleague seasons.
However, CSKA is the team to beat and de Colo is the reason why. The 28-year-old reigning Euroleague MVP is so key to CSKA’s success and the fact that CSKA was able to re-sign him to three more years shows what kind of lengths financially the Russian power will go to keep their top place in the European basketball scene.
And even if you aren’t a CSKA fan, de Colo coming back is great for European basketball. It shows how far European basketball has come, and that being the best player in Europe is a title worth staying for and worth building upon when it comes to basketball legacy. Success in the NBA isn’t the only indicator of professional basketball success, and perhaps that is what de Colo is trying to do: show that being a legend in Europe is quite a title to have, and that you don’t need to be another Dirk or Tony Parker to validate your existence as a European basketball player.
I applaud de Colo for his decision, and I look forward to seeing him and Teodosic continue to tantalize basketball fans, and tear opposing guards up in the Euroleague next season.
One of the premiere and most anticipated games heading in week 1 had to be between CSKA Moscow and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv in Moscow. A rematch of the Final Four semifinal two years ago, where Maccabi pulled a stunning 23-12 4th quarter rally to upset the favored CSKA 68-67, CSKA killed the excitement early and also returned the favor and then some by beating Maccabi by 31 points (100-69) in what was the biggest blowout of week 1 in the Euroleague. While in some cases, the CSKA win is an indicator of how good this CSKA team may be this year, and how they are the early odds-on favorite to win the Euroleague title, it also demonstrated the issues this Maccabi squad will face this season. After a big off-season where they acquired big names such as former Los Angeles Laker and Clipper Jordan Farmar and VTB league stud Taylor Rochestie, as well as promoted top Croatian prospect Dragan Bender from the developmental league, many expected Maccabi to continue their annual string and run of competitiveness in the Euroleague, despite playing in a difficult Group D that also includes Darussafaka Dogus of Istanbul, Brose Baskets of Bamberg, and Unicaja Malaga in addition to CSKA. However, the lackluster performance on opening day exposed some major holes and issues that may present some difficult challenges for Maccabi when it comes to advancing beyond the second round.
The Cinderella Euroleague Run in 2013-2014
The 2013-2014 Maccabi squad was to European basketball what the “Hickory Huskers” were to Indiana high school basketball lore. After an 8-6 and 3rd place finish in their group in the second round, Maccabi pulled off a 3-1 upset over EA7 Emoporio Armani Milan in the quarterfinal to earn a surprise berth in the Final Four. After upsetting CSKA thanks to their miraculous 4th quarter of play, Maccabi carried on the momentum in the championship game, defeating the heavily favored, and star-studded Real Madrid 98-86 to earn their 6th Euroleague Championship in club history as well as finish the year 21-9.
The club relied on a hefty mix of wily veterans and hungry role players. Maccabi mainstays such as wings Yogev Ohayon and Guy Pnini were key as ever, but they also got solid years from fellow perimeter players such as David Blu (who retired shortly after winning the title), Joe Ingles (who parlayed his strong, multi-skilled performance that year into a contract with the Utah Jazz), Tyrese Rice (who left for more money and a bigger role in Moscow with Khimki the following year) and Devin Smith. Add that with the massive, but productive post presence of Sofoklis Schortsanitis and the strong post flexibility of Alex Tyus, and it makes sense that head coach David Blatt was able to lead Maccabi to a surprise Euroleague championship.
Blatt, a Princeton graduate and established as well as heavily respected European coach (he had coached Maccabi for years and also earned rave reviews in helping Russia to a bronze medal in the last Olympics), had built a solid, and battle-tested team that showed a strong resilience throughout the 2013-2014 campaign (they certainly took their lumps in the second round, and that may have helped them not just be overlooked going into the quarterfinals, but learn and improve upon their flaws). They averaged 79.5 ppg, and relied heavily on the 3-point shot, as evidenced by 36 percent of their total field goal attempts being from beyond the arc. However, they were efficient in their style of play, shooting 39.9 percent from beyond the arc and 54.4 percent on their 2 point attempts. Sure, his roster didn’t have the mainstream or higher-paid names of bigger clubs such as Real, CSKA or even Olympiacos, but they were still extremely productive, and better yet, they fit Blatt’s, perimeter-oriented, Princeton-influenced system perfectly, which sometimes can go a lot longer way than just pure talent (as demonstrated by Maccabi winning the Euroleague championship).
Guy Goodes and the honeymoon wears off for Maccabi in 2014-2015
After winning the 2013-2014 title, Blatt sought greener pastures and a higher pay day in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers. As his replacement, Maccabi hired Guy Goodes, a former Maccabi player (as well as general Israeli basketball player, as he played from 1985-2004 with various Israeli League teams) and assistant under Blatt from 2010-2014. Goodes’ familiarity with the Maccabi roster seemed to be a promising sign and major reason why they hired him, and with most of the talent back, and some key additions in dynamic point guard Jeremy Pargo and versatile forward Brian Randle, many expected Maccabi to make a serious run in their defense of their 2013-2014 Euroleague championship.
Unfortunately, the team never quite meshed under Goodes. Though they did finish 16-11 and made it to the quarterfinals, their Expected W-L (check basketball reference.com for what Expected W-L is, which is basically a Pythagorean W-L taking into consideration point scored and points allowed) was one of a sub. 500 team (specifically 13-14) and they were utterly dominated in getting swept by Fenerbahce Istanbul in the Euroleague quarterfinals. The team struggled with consistency from their roster, as they got solid seasons from Pargo and guard Devin Smith, as well as post players Randle and Alex Tyus, but they got an underwhelming campaign from Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who averaged only 14.2 mpg and 6.5 ppg and 2.3 rpg in 26 Euroleague contests. Considering he was such a big factor in their 2013-2014 title run, the lack of production from the longtime Greek standout did not help their cause much in the defense of the title.
Additionally, it never seemed like anyone really stood out for Maccabi other than perhaps Smith, who was not just the team’s leading scorer in Euroleague play at 15 ppg, but also leading rebounder at 6.1 rpg. For a forward, that is not a bad statline to have, but Smith was a guard, which proved to be a Catch-22 for Maccabi. Yes, he was an incredible player who played hard on both ends of the floor and had tremendous impact for Maccabi in 2013-2014 (and it was recognized, as he earned 2nd team All-Euroleague honors and made the All-Imports team along with Pargo). That being said, when your guard is your leading rebounder, that screams all kinds of alarms with the weakness and lack of physicality from your post players, and that is not a recipe for success. Goodes and Maccabi tried all different kind of combinations, and brought in some late additions such as Joe Alexander to boost their depth and versatility and size, but it just wasn’t enough. Maccabi chemistry-wise just seemed to be a shell of the Blatt-coached 2013-2014 team that never really felt like a serious contender, even though they made it to the playoffs.
Rebuilding again with big-name players and youth for 2015-2016
After the team’s disappointing sweep in the playoffs and the lack of production in 2014-2015, Maccabi let Schortsanitis go and replaced him in the post with 17-year-old Croatian super-prospect Dragan Bender and super-athlete Trevor Mbakwe. Bender has been a hot topic in all kinds of draft circles, as many scouts like his inside-outside ability, as well as his athleticism and maturity for a teenager playing at such high level with many long-time veterans. As for Mbakwe, he has been categorized as one of the strongest “athletic” talents in European circles, and has the potential for a breakout, as his offensive game, which has been slow to develop ever since his college days, has come a long way since he was at Minnesota.
The biggest veteran addition had to be Jordan Farmar, a former Los Angeles Laker and Clipper who was picked up to solidify the guard position along with Maccabi mainstays Smith and Ohayon as well as fellow newcomer and budding European player Taylor Rochestie (a former Washington State product under Tony Bennett), who was the leading Euroleague play scorer on Nizhny Novgorod last season at 18.3 ppg (Nizhny Novgorod was regulated to the Eurocup this season). Though Farmar has played the point guard position mostly in his career, he mostly likely will contribute as a wing/shooting guard in Goodes’ perimeter-based offense, especially with Ohayon seeming to have firm control over the point guard position and the heralded Smith on the other wing. That shouldn’t be too out of bounds for Farmar, as he played the point in Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense, where he ceded ball control to superstars like Kobe Bryant (as typical in Jackson’s version of the triangle). Farmar may not have the explosiveness of Pargo or Rice, two of Maccabi’s high-profile imports from the past two years, but he presents a long-range threat and veteran floor sense that should impact the offense for Maccabi, something that didn’t always happen on the offensive end of things for Maccabi in 2014-2015.
Either way, with a strong backcourt, a stronger emphasis on athleticism in the front court, and some improved depth, Maccabi on paper looks better than they did a year ago, and they are set up well for the future with their acquisitions of young talent like Mbakwe and Bender (however long Bender should stay). That being said, predictions and the preseason aren’t necessarily crystal balls, and despite some strong performances against EA7 in the NBA Global Games exhibitions, it all came crashing down for Goodes and the Maccabi squad in week 1 of the Euroleague season.
The perfect storm of offensive and defensive issues against CSKA Moscow
To say CSKA Moscow beat Maccabi is probably the understatement of the Euroleague season so far. The Russian power’s 100-69 dispatch of Maccabi not only proved how good CSKA could be this season, but the glaring issues that Maccabi needs to solve offensively and defensively in a Group that is no slouch with competitive teams like Unicaja Malaga and Brose Baskets also competing for the four spots to get into the next round of play. If Goodes’ team plays this week against Unicaja like they did against CSKA Moscow, they could easily be 0-2 and looking at a very large deficit in terms of point differential for the remainder of the regular season.
Let’s start out with the defense for Maccabi which really struggled, especially in their pick and roll communication. While Bender looked like a 17-year-old playing his first game in the Euroleague, he did some good things, especially on the offensive end. If Maccabi wants to be successful, Bender will be a big reason why. He gives them the kind of offensive versatility they simply can’t get from Mbakwe or Arinze Onuaku, a reserve center. (Though he is on a limited contract, and with the signing of Ike Ofoegbu just this week, I think Onuaku’s days could be numbered, especially since Randle will be coming back after sitting out game 1.) That being said, his defense (as well as the Maccabi perimeter defense) is a work in process, especially when defending the pick and roll. There were times where he was in no man’s land on the pick and roll and sagging way too off the kind of players you cannot sag off of, which opened up easy, lately contested shots beyond the arc. On the pick and roll, a lack of communication from the perimeter players, and Bender’s tendency to be non-committal in the lane before the pick and roll play developed either led to a lot of open jump shots, or easy drives to the lane for layups and dunks. When you play that kind of hesitant defense, as Bender showed, good teams like CSKA are going to shoot over 60 percent from the field, like they did last week.
However, I am not putting this all on Bender. He is still young and a project and still 17 years old. Playing in the Euroleague is tough for the wiliest of vets, and for Bender to be showing some production in game 1 is a promising sign. Furthermore, I think a lot of his defensive issues stemmed from hesitation and the mismatches CSKA threw at Maccabi rather than Bender’s natural defensive ability, which I think is good to at least above-average due to his size, length and athleticism.
Even though this possession doesn’t feature Bender, this progression is a prime example of Maccabi’s issues with guarding the pick and roll. (In this possession is Onuaku and Mbakwe, who performed pretty terribly together on the court; they probably had the lowest plus-minus of any Maccabi post combo.)
As you can see, this pick and roll starts pretty typical. CSKA’s post sets the high ball screen, Onuaku sages a bit, Mbakwe slides to play some help defense and the guard (in this case Rochestie) plays the point initially tight. But if you look at the play before, you can see that the miscommunication is already starting.
The play started with a Teodosic dribble hand off, and Rochestie and Farmar (who initially guarded Teodosic) were supposed to switch. But as you can see from the picture above, it doesn’t seem that Farmar knows there is a switch so they are both chasing the CSKA player who has just received the handoff. This leaves an overplay on the left wing side, which forces Onuaku to sag because there are already two defenders on the ball handler (the defender who is staying on his man after the hand off is going over the screen).
After the screen, Farmar who initially stayed realizes he needs to switch, especially considering how much of a sniper Teodosic is from beyond the arc. So he changes directions and sprints out to try and recover. Rochestie and Onuaku are forced to play the pick and roll, but, because Onauku played the pick and roll so soft initially, he really didn’t get a good “feel” on the screener and you can see him up top (Hines) having a lot of space to make his way to the basket. Mbakwe should help and be closing the lane here, but because Farmar, who didn’t switch initially, changed his mind, Mbakwe isn’t in prime help position. If the defender had kept his responsibility originally, Mbakwe probably would have closed this pick and roll lane sooner. But, because there was such last-minute communication, he leaves the lane open because he thought Farmar would have it.
And CSKA takes advantage. Onuaku and Rochestie are sucked in the pick and roll, and Mbakwe is way too late on the help. Hines gets the open pass and is able to throw it down for easy points. There has to be better communication than that when defending the pick and roll. You cannot do last-second toggling between staying and switching on a player in the pick and roll. That leads to easy possessions and points for the offense, as evidenced above.
On offense, Goodes still prefers a perimeter-oriented lineup like his predecessor Blatt. But, understandably, he wants to utilize the depth and talent of his post players. However, the problem is that his post players are a bit raw and unrefined on the offensive end, and because of this, they have a tendency to freelance in bad ways and kill Maccabi’s spacing, which causes shots to be more difficult than they should be. Take a look at possession where Farmar passes to Pnini coming off an Onuaku baseline screen.
The screen is not the best, but the play idea is sound. The baseline screen with the pass to the corner can free up the easy shot for the high percentage corner 3 pointer, a post pass to take advantage of a 1 on 1 mismatch in the block, or open up lanes for dribble penetration. That is…as long as the spacing is sound on both ends. But look at Mbakwe in the opposite post. He is drifting toward the low block instead of getting to the short corner or better yet, arc. And it only gets worse from there.
Pnini decides to drive, which is not a bad idea since they don’t switch off the screen. But look what Mbakwe does: he drifts down the low block. This is bad for all kinds of reasons. First off it shrinks any spacing and basically leads the defender right into the play. You can see there are 3 defenders around the rim now, taking away any easy shot possibility Pnini may have. And second, not only are there 3 defenders in the post, but 2 players are being fronted in the post as well, taking away any kind of pass for Pnini on the drive. So, Mbakwe’s decision not only took away Pnini’s driving lane, but also any passing bailout options, since all the Maccabi players are effectively covered on this drive.
And this is what happens:
A tough fade-away, easily-contested jumper. That is not good offense and the spacing was a key contributor to that. While Goodes may want to utilize his deep front court, he needs to put in the right combinations so they’re not shrinking the lanes like Onuaku and Mbakwe did on frequent occasion last week.
Do Maccabi Fans need to worry?
Goodes is a fan favorite because of his history as a player, but he hasn’t really satisfied the masses on the court after taking over for Blatt. Unlike Blatt, Goodes seems a little overwhelmed strategically, and that was on full display against CSKA. Instead of focusing on spacing the floor with his talented perimeter players, he frequently used 3-out, 2-in lineups that seemed to do more harm than good (especially with Onuaku and Mbakwe). The silver lining in all of this is that Randle was out last week and is expected to be back for Unicaja, and Ofoegbu will be a better fit for what Goodes wants to do than Onuaku, who just seems like a square peg in Maccabi’s round hole offense. Add that with Bender more likely to be comfortable with a game under his belt and against a less high profile opponent, and Maccabi certainly can bounce back after such an embarrassing defeat.
If there is anything to keep an eye on against Unicaja, it will be their defensive communication, especially against the pick and roll. CSKA is a team loaded with talent, so its not surprising that they made them pay for their errors on the defensive end. I will not be surprised to see CSKA beat more teams by 30 this year at home. But, Unicaja is not CSKA talent-wise, and in interviews, improving the defense seemed to be a priority for Goodes and his team in practice. It’ll be interesting to see if Goodes and Maccabi make the proper adjustments, and will be more sound in their communication and defensive responsibilities. If they do, then this CSKA game might a blip on the radar. If they continue to struggle, and let Unicaja do easy work around the rim like CSKA (and it’s possible with post players like Richard Hendrix and Fran Vasquez who can do serious damage for Unicaja), then maybe opening week is a sign of a long season to come for Maccabi and their fans.
Last year, Lokomotiv, who had been demoted to the Eurocup after failing to get out of the second round in the regular season the previous year, started off 2014-2015 scorching under first year coach Sergey Bazarevich, who assembled primarily an American-laden roster. Relying on players such as point guard Aaron Miles, wings Derrick Brown and Malcolm Delaney, and former lottery pick Anthony Randolph, Lokomotiv crusied through their group, going 10-0 and led all teams in point differential (+142) after the regular season ended. With their combo of elite talent as well as strong depth (they also got solid contributions from bench players such as Richard Hendrix, Krunoslav Simon and Nikita Kurbonav), it seemed like Bazarevich had assembled the kind of roster that would cruise to a Eurocup championship.
Things continued as usual in the Round of 32, as Lokomotiv dispatched Valencia of Spain, Asesoft Ploiesti of Romania and Nancy of France with ease, finishing 6-0 in their group with a point differential of +76. In the knockout stage though, they struggled to find the rhythm that made them the B Division’s best team all season. In round 1 of the Knockout stage against Brose Bamburg, they only won the initial game 80-78, a far cry from the dominance they displayed in the first two rounds of Eurocup play. Then, things just fell apart in round 2 against fellow Russian club UNICS. After winning the first game 87-78, Lokomotiv unraveled in the second game, losing 79-58. The 21-point differential resulted in a 157-145 combined score, and instead of advancing to the championship, they were out in the second round, forced to watch the rest of the knockout round from Krosnador. It was the only loss all season for Lokomotiv, but it was so damaging that it ended their season prematurely and put a damper on what was a superb campaign.
Back in the Euroleague, but Cleaning House
In recognition of their dominance, Lokomotiv earned license to the Euroleague as a wild-card participant for 2015-2016. Knowing that this is a crucial year, the Krosnador-based club cleaned house , letting nearly everyone but Delaney and Randolph (though his status is in the air as he did not play in Game 1) go as well as head coach Bazarevich after only one season (though he did go 19-1 in Eurocup play). Now installed as head coach is Greek national Giorgios Bartzokas who coached Olympiacos from 2012-2014 and led them to a Euroleague title in 2013 and earned Euroleague coach of the year honors that season as well.
As expected, Lokomotiv added a lot of athletic-American based talent, with the standout being Chris Singleton, who has played in the NBA and mostly spent time in the D-League last season (he played for the OKC Blue, the Thunder’s developmental program). However, there is also a lot of local, though older, talent on this roster, including Spaniard Victor Claver (who helped lead Khimki to a Eurocup championship last season) and Ukranian Kyrylo Fesenko, who has played in the NBA with the Utah Jazz and played last season with VTB squad Avtodor Saratov. Though not possessing as many big-names or as much high-end talent as a year ago, it is obvious that they are hoping that the mix of athleticism, veteran talent, and an established Euroleague coach will be the recipe for success in 2015-2016.
Starting Slow, but Finishing Strong against Panathinaikos in Game 1
One has to think that Bartzokas had a little extra motivation for this game, as he coached for Panathinaikos’ rival for 3 seasons. However, Lokomotiv struggled out of the gate, as they were down 21-17 and looked a little out of sorts as a team, struggling to find the right rhythm with the newly revamped roster. But in the 2nd quarter, they hit their stride, as they outscored the Greek power 28-20 in the second quarter to take a 45-41 lead into halftime.
After trading punches in the 3rd quarter, and the game 63-61, things looked prime for Panathinaikos to make a run and pull off the road win in the season opener. However, thanks to the athleticism of Singleton, the strong perimeter defense of Draper and Delaney, an efficient shooting night from Claver (he scored 13 on 5 of 6 shooting, including 2 of 3 from beyond the arc), and inspiring post play off the bench from Fesenko, who finished with 8 points on 4 of 7 shooting and 7 rebounds in less than 15 minutes of play, Lokomotiv outscored Panathinaikos 18-9 in the 4th and won 81-70 in a game that was a lot closer than the final score indicated.
What sealed the deal for Lokomotiv in the 4th was the strong perimeter defense, thanks to their athleticism and length on the wings. Panathinaikos, led by newly acquired guard Nick Calathes, relies heavily on the 3-point shot, as evidenced by their 22 attempts (36.7 percent of their total field goal attempts). However, beyond Calathes (who shot 2 of 4 from beyond the arc) and Dimitris Diamantidis (who shot 3 of 5), the rest of the squad shot poorly, as evidenced from their 2 of 13 mark from 3-point land (including Sasha Pavlovic, a long-time NBA player who shot 0 of 4), good for 15 percent (Panathinaikos shot 31.8 percent from 3-point land, not good considering their emphasis on the 3-point shot offensively). That low percentage is a credit to the Lokomotiv perimeter defenders and Bartzokas’ aggressive defensive principles, as Panathinaikos simply didn’t have a lot of open looks, especially in the 4th quarter with game on the line.
Lokomotiv doesn’t have a lot of pure size in the post (Fesenko is their only 7 footer and they don’t start anyone over 6’9; that being said, they have three 6’10 players in Igor Kanygin, Nikita Balashov and Nikita Zverev, but they are young, with Kanygin and Zverev 21 and Balashov 24, and raw, as they didn’t dress on the active roster for the game), but their aggressiveness and ability in the post was evident on the rebounding end. They out-rebounded the Greek club 42-26 total, and 12-8 on the offensive end (which is one of Dean Oliver’s four factors to winning a basketball game). With Lokomotiv getting plenty of second chances, and preventing the smaller, less physical Panathinaikos squad, it makes sense that Lokomotiv generated more 2 point field goal attempts (44-38) and shot a better 2 pt FG percentage (54.5 percent to 47.4 percent), which contributed greatly to their victory (as eFG percentage is the strongest portion of the 4 factors; eFG percentage accounts 2-pt and 3 pt FG percentage and Lokomotiv shot better in 3-point percentage as well).
(In a tangent central to Panathinaikos, Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica had only 5 total rebounds, the same amount as Calathes, and no offensive boards; those numbers need to improve if they want to be more serious contenders this Euroleague season).
Can Lokomotiv Build on the Momentum from this Win?
There is no question that this is a solid Lokomotiv squad. Their group isn’t easy, but they have the talent and coaching to compete with favorites in the group such as Panathinaikos, FC Barcelona and Pinar Karsiyaka. Singleton is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenders on the perimeter, as he can shoot over and post up smaller wings, but he has the speed to beat bigger and slower wings to the rack. Claver is a proven vet, whose ability to stretch out more traditional power forwards and shoot well from beyond the arc makes up for his lack of rebounding and physicality. And Fesenko is a solid bench option, though his stamina issues will probably prevent him from starting over Ryan Broekhoff (though his 4 point, 4 rebound, 3 turnover game certainly wasn’t encouraging).
When Lokomotiv is in the fast break and using their athleticism, they may be one of the best teams in Europe, especially with Delaney, Singleton and Claver on the floor. But taking care of the ball may be an issue for this squad, as they made a lot of errors, turning the ball over 18 times, 3 more than Panathinaikos in the game. A lot of their turnovers stemmed from Lokomtoiv relying too much on isolation plays as well as lack of communication off the pick and roll as well as limited ball movement (which stemmed from the communication issues). Singleton will most likely be their best player considering his scoring ability (he led the team with 16 points) and multiple ability skill set (he had 9 rebounds, including 4 offensive boards and two blocks). But, there were times when the pick and roll that featured him stagnated, because there was a lack of communication and chemistry when it came to responsibilities on the initial ball screen.
Let’s take a look at a possession which was an early microcosm of their early struggles, poor communication and lackluster choices in the offense.
Singleton begins the play from up top. He looks to pass the ball to the wing to set up the side pick and roll play, a staple of professional basketball. But after he passes it, look what happens on the play as he goes to set the ball screen.
He sets the screen and the other post (Zubkov) doesn’t initially see it, and they are unsure who is supposed to be setting the screen here. Look at the congestion this causes. The wing (Bykov) doesn’t know where to dribble to because he doesn’t know who has the screen responsibility, and 3 Panathinaikos defenders are in the area taking away any free lanes to the hoop. The pick and roll is a free-flowing offensive staple, but when there is lack of communication when it comes to ball screen responsibility, then it kills time, congests the lane, and makes things easy for the defense (since they don’t have to move much because everyone is so close together).
And then this happens. Because the defense senses the hesitation, they hedge the screen well, and Zubkov can do is give a halfhearted screen that is more of a push than anything. Bykov was lucky he got out of this and was able to find Singleton with the lag pass, because there was a strong possibility he could have gotten trapped here (which Sasha Pavlovic is trying to do on the right).
After the lag pass to Singleton, Singleton dribble handoffs to Draper on the opposite wing and then does another ball screen. This one is much better and shows much better communication and awareness by the Lokomotiv players on the floor. Draper has much more room to dribble penetrate to the rack and he has a matchup advantage with the much bigger defender switching off the screen. As expected, Draper gets to the rack area, where Calathes has to help stop dribble penetration (along with Pavlovic, in the bottom left, who doesn’t need but sags in anyways).
Draper then fires it into the corner for Delaney who is sitting wide open for what should be a high-percentage 3-point attempt. Now, this should be a successful corner 3 but look what inexplicably happens next.
Delaney instead swings it back to Bykov who takes a contested 3. Though Delaney is covered in the image here, on tape, he had enough time to hit the corner 3, as Pavlovic, in the image above this one, had his back to Delaney and would have had a difficult time to block or contest the shot. Delaney was a 36 percent shooter from beyond the arc in Eurocup and VTB play last season. Passing on that shot really is unacceptable, especially considering Bykov’s defender was a lot closer to him than Pavlovic was to Delaney.
Despite this lackluster and frustrating to watch possession, it was still the first game, and you have to remember that this squad is pretty much entirely new from a year ago. Add that with a coach who is in his first year in the club, and growing pains, as seen in the possession above, are inevitable. That being said, this Lokomotiv team has the potential to not just make it to the second round, but maybe be a dark horse to go further (how much though, I don’t know). Singleton is a real building block for them, and they can match player to player with any club in the Euroleague. Furthermore, if Randolph does come back and play with the team, they will be even deeper and more dangerous, as Randolph, while a volatile personality, is multi-purpose talent who can take advantage on the perimeter and in the post when he is on and focused.
The main question with this team is chemistry, not talent. Can they mesh? Can they adjust to Bartzokas’ system and coaching style? Can they come together and finish strong at the end of the year and not fade like they did in the Eurocup a year ago? There certainly are a lot of questions surrounding this Lokomotiv team, who is facing a “win or go back to the Eurocup” situation and don’t have the kind of market or fanfare of CSKA Moscow or even Khimki (who is also in Moscow). Nonetheless, a win in the Euroleague, especially over an established club like Panathinaikos, is a promising sign for the second-round chances (Barcelona and Stelmet Zielona Gora can’t boast the same feat in their group) and should build some confidence for their remaining 9-game slate in the regular season.