ELJ’s “Key Five-And-One” Playoff Preview: CSKA Moscow (2) vs. Baskonia (7)

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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.

Milos Teodosic

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.

James Augustine

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.

Adam Hanga

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.

Shane Larkin

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.

Toko Shengelia

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

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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.

Euroleague First Trimester Awards

With 10 rounds down, the Euroleague regular season is officially 1/3 completed. While there are still 20 rounds to go until the playoffs, and teams still have pending roster/coaching moves to make to either maintain, improve, or turn-around their postseason hopes, the landscape in European professional basketball’s premier league is starting to get clearer.

So, to recap these first 10 games of the “new and improved” (and it really is improved; I dig this 30-round, 16-team format way more than the old “24-team Regular Season” and “Top 16” split season format), I will be handing out awards and honors from the first 10 games of this season. Yes, I know it’s early, and I imagine that many of these awards/honors will change over the course of the next 20 games. That being said, it is still important to recognize the Euroleague teams and individual players and coaches who have succeeded (and disappointed) thus far.

Best Team: CSKA Moscow

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As always, the premier Russian club has handled high expectations almost flawlessly. Nando de Colo was having another “MVP-esque” season, averaging 21 ppg and a PIR of 23.2 until his thigh injury sidelined him after seven games. However, even though they lost the reigning Euroleague MVP, they haven’t missed a beat, as Milos Teodosic has taken the sole mantle of leadership in de Colo’s absence. The Serbian is averaging 18.7 ppg, 8.2 apg and a PIR of 19.6.

While CSKA however has been the best team thus far over the first 10 games of the Euroleague campaign, their title will be threatened quickly over the next 20 games. Not only is de Colo out for a good period of time (he was expected to miss “several weeks”), CSKA’s depth is not nearly as dangerous as their title squad a year ago. After de Colo and Teodosic, nobody else has a PIR average over 10 except for Jeff Ayres, who has only played four games. Furthermore, the defense has looked shaky as of late in de Colo’s absence, as CSKA needed a buzzer beater to bail them out against last-place Brose Baskets Bamberg in a 90-88 win. CSKA ranks 11th in the league in points allowed, and though that’s not necessarily the best indicator of defensive effectiveness, it still shows that they aren’t quite elite in that category in comparison to offense (they lead the league in points scored).

With de Colo’s health, and CSKA’s supporting cast around Milos and Nando shakier than in seasons past, it could open the door for Real Madrid, who actually has a better points differential (+95 to CSKA’s +91) despite a worse record (7-3 to CSKA’s 9-1). Real has incredible depth, especially in the post, as Gustavo Ayon, Felipe Reyes, Othello Hunter and Anthony Randolph all offer different yet impactful skills to the table. Furthermore Sergio Llull is putting up a MVP-worthy campaign as the primary point guard with Sergio Rodriguez now in Philly, and Luka Doncic is turning into a budding point-wing superstar (and remember he’s only 17 years old). CSKA may be the best team now after 10 games, but Real could steal that title after Round 20, perhaps even sooner.

Runner up: Real Madrid.

MVP: Milos Teodosic, CSKA

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These past three games with Nando out of the lineup proves how important and effective Teodosic is to this CSKA team. Yes, de Colo is an essential part to this CSKA squad, and as stated before, an MVP-caliber player. However, I don’t know if they finish 9-1 after 10 games if Teodosic and de Color reverse roles. Teodosic is simply the unquestioned leader of this team, and at the point, he has been able to maximize his teammates’ effectiveness on the floor in ways that I don’t think any other Euroleague player today could, de Colo included. His combination of floor vision and offensive ability make him one of Europe’s most valuable commodities, and a key reason why CSKA will be gunning for another Final Four spot, and perhaps a successful defense of their crown.

That being said, Sergio Llull has been surging as of late, being the kind of playmaking guard that could make Los Blancos a “super-team” by season’s end. Llull is second in the league in PPG at 18.9 and also has 6 apg and a PIR average of 18.1. And he did this despite starting off the year atrociously from beyond the arc (he has gotten it up as of late, but it is still lackluster at 29.4 percent). The Teodosic-Llull MVP race will be interesting to follow throughout the Regular Season, as whichever team finishes the season with a better record could swing the MVP award for their respective point guard superstar.

Runner up: Sergio Llull

Most Entertaining Player: Keith Langford, UNICS Kazan

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Russian club UNICS Kazan is probably going to finish near the bottom of the Euroleague by season’s end, (and their 3-7 start doesn’t help many people think differently). However, despite their lackluster outlook and record, as well as home court attendance (watching UNICS home games are depressing considering the amount of empty seats; it resembles a women’s community college basketball game crowd), they sport one of the Euroleague’s most entertaining players in Keith Langford. The former Kansas Jayhawk leads the league in scoring average (23.2) and PIR average (24.2). And he is far from a one-trick pony, as he is also averaging 4.1 rebounds per game and 4.2 assists per game.

Plain and simple: the lefty scorer can do it all, and is not just key, but really the reason for any success UNICS has experienced and will experience this season. There won’t be a lot of highs this year for UNICS. Their appearance this season has all the signs of a “one and done” Euroleague team. That being said, the spectacular Langford makes this team somewhat competitive and worth watching on a week-by-week basis.

Runners up: Milos Teodosic, CSKA; Nicolo Melli, Brose Baskets Bamberg.

Best Coach: Sito Alonso, Baskonia

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Yes, Dimitris Itoudis and Pablo Lasso deserve credit for making CSKA and Real Madrid, respectively, the best two teams in Europe. And yes, after the top-three teams (Fenerbahce being the third), it’s a crapshoot four-through-nine. However, while they are 6-4 and are still a bit unpredictable, Baskonia has been a pleasant surprise this season. And new head coach Sito Alonso deserves a lot of credit for making Baskonia a playoff contender thus far.

Remember what happened to the Final Four squad this offseason: They lost Darius Adams to China; Davis Bertans to the NBA; and Mike James and Euroleague MVP-runner up Ioannis Bourousis to Panathinaikos. Though they were able to keep Adam Hanga from the NBA (the Spurs own his rights) and ACB rival Barcelona, they replaced their core 2015-2016 roster with a lot of question marks, including former NBA players such as Andrea Bargnani and Shane Larkin, and Johannes Voigtmann, who was playing for Fraport in the FIBA Europe Cup, a third-tier club competition, a year ago.

However, Voigtmann and Larkin have been revelations, and though his minutes and impact is limited to preserve his health, Bargnani has also been effective as well. A lot of credit should go to Alonso, who has been able to create an offensive and defensive system that has not only gotten the most out of Baskonia’s new acquisitions, but also the mainstays from previous seasons. This is a different team from last year’s squad, but they have been effective because Alonso hasn’t tried to mold them into last year’s team either, which is a pitfall of many teams who experience success the previous season. Alonso has long been considered one of the brightest young coaches in the European club scene considering his junior national team success with Spain as well as head coaching experience with Dominion Bilbao and Joventut. However, if he continues to build upon the strong Euroleague start, his stock will be even higher than before by year’s end.

Honorable mention goes to Rami Hadar, who has done a sterling job after Erez Edelstein was fired after two games. Maccabi Fox is a flawed roster, with a lot of egos and not a lot of depth in the frontcourt. However, Hadar has adopted a full-court, push-the-tempo, small-ball philosophy that has helped Maccabi go 5-3 under his tenure thus far. However, as strong as Hadar’s start has been, it still is just a shade below in impressiveness in comparison to Alonso, who has outperformed expectations with this roster thus far.

Runner up: Rami Hadar, Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv

Most Surprising Player: Johannes Voigtmann, Baskonia

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To stay on the Baskonia bandwagon, Voigtmann probably has been the biggest surprise thus far in the Euroleague. Voigtmann played last season for the Fraport Skyliners, and his signing earned a lot less publicity than fellow center Bargnani, a former No. 1 NBA Draft pick who played for the Toronto Raptors, New York Knicks, and most recently the Brooklyn Nets. However, Voigtmann has proven to be the more effective replacement to Bourousis this season.

In nearly 25 mpg, Voigtmann is averaging 12.3 ppg and 7.3 ppg with a PIR of 17.8 (his total PIR is seventh-best in the Euroleague). He is shooting 68.8 percent on 2-pt FG, 42.3 percent on threes, and 78.8 percent from the line. Plain and simple: not many bigs this year have been as effective and efficient on the floor as Voigtmann this year. The pick and roll combo of him and Larkin (who is 13th in the league in PIR) will continue to give opposing Euroleague (and ACB) squads trouble over the next 20 games (as long as they stay healthy of course).

Some other surprise names for consideration are Nicolo Melli of Brose Baskets, who is third in PIR, and Derrick Brown of Anadolu Efes, who is fourth in PIR. However, both teams are not as good as Baskonia (though Efes is surging), and both weren’t as under-the-radar as Voigtmann (both played for their current squads a year ago).

Runners up: Melli and Brown.

Most Surprising Team: Anadolu Efes

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After starting 0-3, Efes is suddenly 5-5, coming off a big win on the road in Tel Aviv against Maccabi Fox. What makes this so surprising is Efes went kind-of-under the radar this offseason. Yes, they did hire Velimir Perasovic as head coach, who was coming off a final four appearance with Baskonia. But roster-wise what they did was tame in comparison to their Turkish rivals. Fenerbahce returned pretty much their whole squad from their Championship runner-up season, and Darussafaka and Galatasaray both signed many American players (Brad Wanamaker and James Anderson for Darussafaka; Russ Smith, Austin Daye, Jon Diebler, Alex Tyus, and Justin Dentmon for Galatasaray) who were expected to have a major impact on their respective teams. Add that with the loss of Dario Saric to the 76ers of the NBA, who had been Efes’ star player the past couple of years, and it appeared that Efes was on their way to being the fourth-best Turkish club in the Euroleague.

However, Efes, despite their winless start, has been surging. Derrick Brown has been one of the Euroleague’s best players (4th in PIR), and they also have gotten incredible impact from Tyler Honeycutt (11th in PIR), Bryant Dunston (16th in PIR), Thomas Huertel (53rd in PIR) and Cedi Osman (54th in PIR). There is some serious depth on this Efes roster, and Perasovic has proven that he may be one of Europe’s best coaches. Many people credited Baskonia’s success more to Bourousis rather than Perasovic a year ago. However, a year later, Perasovic has this Efes roster coming together, while Bourousis is struggling to have any kind of impact with Panathinaikos.

Yes, Efes is in the middle of the pack now, but Efes, with their combination of length and athleticism and offensive and defensive effectiveness, could be rising to the top not just by the end of the year, but by the end of round 20, the 2/3 mark of the season. And it wouldn’t be surprising to see Efes be challenging Fenerbahce for the title of the best “Turkish” club in the Euroleague by that point either, especially considering Bogdan Bogdanovic’s injury issues.

Most Disappointing Coach: Georgios Bartzokas, Barcelona

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I figured Bartzokas to be an interesting pick, considering he coached a mid-tier team in Lokomotiv Kuban (though he did take them to the Final Four) and didn’t have any experience coaching in Spain. However, I thought his recent Euroleague success, and the additions of Victor Claver from Loko and Tyrese Rice from Khimki Moscow, and the re-signing of Joey Dorsey would give Bartzokas a solid foundation to build a successful team in his debut year.

Well, Barcelona is still competitive, as they are 5-5 and coming off a much-needed win at home over Panathinaikos. However, Bartzokas has really struggled to find any kind of consistency and chemistry with this Barcelona squad thus far. Yes, Barcelona has been effective defensively, as they have allowed the least amount of points in the Euroleague this year. That being said, defense was always Bartzokas’ strong suit (his Loko team last year was one of the most effective defensive teams in the Euroleague). Offense was the question mark with him, and unfortunately, that question remains unanswered. Despite their low points allowed total, their point differential is -31, a sign that the defense may be a product of a slow pace to go along with their glaring issues when it comes to scoring the basketball. Considering that mark is the third-worst in the Euroleague, Bartzokas needs to make some adjustments if he wants Barcelona to be seen as a serious Final Four contender.

Granted, Barcelona has experienced a lot of bad breaks. Juan Carlos Navarro, Pau Ribas, Claver, and Justin Doellman have all missed significant time due to injury, and considering Bartzokas gives a lot of freedom to his players to create on the offensive end (he relied heavily on isolation plays and the pick and roll from Malcolm Delaney and post players Chris Singleton and Anthony Randolph), the lack of major talent on the floor s been a hurdle. That being said, Tyrese Rice has been solid this year (15.81 PIR), and he is the kind of dynamic guard that Bartzokas utilizes well (as he did with Delaney and Dontaye Draper a year ago). It will be interesting to see if Bartzokas will rely even more on Rice going forward, especially if he starts to feel the hot seat more as the season progresses.

Runner up: Ergin Ataman, Galatasaray

Most Disappointing Player and Team: Ioannis Bourousis and Panathinaikos

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I understood that Bourousis would probably regress and not duplicate the kind of MVP-season that he had last year with Baskonia. After all, that team really found lightning in a bottle, especially in Euroleague play.

Nonetheless, Bourousis has seriously regressed. In 2015-2016, Bourousis averaged 14.5 ppg and 8.7 rpg on 55 percent shooting from 2-pt FG, 38.3 percent from beyond the arc, and 81.1 percent from the line. This year? 8.9 ppg, 5 rpg, 42 percent 2pt FG percentage, 25 percent from beyond the arc, and 72.7 percent from the line. Last year, Bourouis was second in the league in total index rating. This year, Bourousis is tied for 54th in total index rating.

And honestly, Bourousis’ regression has been a bit of a microcosm of Panathinaikos’ team this year. Other than Nick Calathes, who has really bounced back after an off-year last season, (he is 8th in the league in index rating), and Chris Singleton (who has proved that he was as every bit important to that Loko team last year as Randolph), Panathinaikos has just struggled to mesh on the court, especially on the offensive end. Mike James, also from Baskonia, has struggled with injury as well as ineffectiveness, and KC Rivers hasn’t offered much else on the floor beyond points. Add that with injury to James Gist and inconsistency from James Feldeine and Demetrius Nichols (as well as others), Panathinaikos has been the personified mediocre. Considering the amount of money this organization spent this summer, that kind of title is not necessarily a badge of honor.

Yes, Pana may be on the upswing after making a coaching change early in the year (Argyris Pedoulakis and his lack of ability to coach an offense finally caught up to him). But, I am not sure if Xavi Pascual, the former Barcelona coach, is necessarily the right fit for this team. They have players who do well in free-flowing offenses (such as Calathes, Singleton and Bourousis), and Pascual is known for a heavily-structured attack, featuring lots of set plays. Already, we can see the struggles initially, as Pana and Pascual are trying to find the right balance and where to compromise on the offensive end (especially in Pascual’s case). Furthermore, much like Bartzokas in Spain, Pascual has little to no experience in professional basketball in Greece, let alone outside of Spain. Yes, Pascual is a big name with a lot of victories, but can he make the adjustment to the culture of not only the organization, but the faithful Athens fans? Bartzokas is going through his growing pains, and it’s showing that Pascual is going through his own as well.

The big question is if Pana will be patient enough to see it out with Pascual. Considering the expectations placed on this squad at the start of the year, and rival Olympiacos’ recent successes over them in Euroleague and domestic play, I guarantee that Pana management won’t have thick skin with Pascual or this team if serious progress isn’t shown in the next 10-15 games.

The fact that Pana is at this point of desperation and panic is disappointing, because I figured Pana to be one of the more enjoyable teams in the Euroleague this year, especially after they acquired a rejuvenated Bourousis. Instead, they have seemed to be one of the more dysfunctional ones both roster and coaching wise.

Runner up: James Anderson, Darussafaka (player); Galatasaray (team).

After Final Four season, Laboral Kutxa Baskonia starts from scratch

Adam Hanga is one of the few players left from the Laboral Kutxa Baskonia squad that made the Euroleague Final Four a year ago.

The 2015-2016 season was safe to say a surprise “dream season” for Basque club Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, especially in Euroleague. As stated before on this blog, Baskonia was led by Ioannis Bourousis, a Greek center signed late in the off-season who ended up earning first-team All-Euroleague and All-ACB honors, in addition being named ACB Liga Endesa MVP. (He also was in close consideration for the Euroleague MVP with eventual winner Nando de Colo of CSKA Moscow). Bourousis, a bench warmer with Real Madrid in 2014-2015 whom many thought was in the twilight of his career, proved to be the life force of this Baskonia team during their impressive Euroleague run. He was one of the best rebounders in the league, a versatile scorer who could hurt teams in the block or on the perimeter, and defensively, though not incredibly athletic, he used his big frame and instincts to take away easy baskets from opposing players. And in addition to his individual skills, it became obvious week after week how Bourousis’ veteran presence and leadership was appreciated and respected from his teammates, as Baskonia saw career years from point guards Darius Adams and Mike James, as well as strong campaigns from wing players such as Fabien Causeur, Davis Bertans and Adam Hanga. Bourousis may not have been named the Euroleague MVP, but no one player was more crucial to Baskonia’s Final Four run than the Greek center.

However, as the Euroleague season gets closer to starting, the “dream season” of Baskonia is merely a memory. Not only is Bourousis gone, back in his home country playing for Panathinaikos, but most of the roster had departed as well. James is in Athens with Bourousis (James actually signed first with Panathinaikos and was key in recruiting the Greek star, who also was in negotiations with some NBA teams this summer), Adams signed with a team in China, Causeur went to Brose Baskets Bamberg in Germany, and Bertans earned a contract with the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA. And if that was not enough, head coach Velimir Perasovic left early in the off-season, accepting a deal to be the new head coach of Anadolu Efes, a club looking to compete after big off-seasons by BSL rivals Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Darussafaka. Unlike other Final Four teams such as CSKA and Fenerbahce, who were able to keep most of their crucial players, Baskonia is starting from scratch, still piecing together their roster even as of this moment. That kind of rebuilding approach of course isn’t the most surefire path to success, especially when a team reached the heights Baskonia rose to last season in the Euroleague.

That being said, if there is any club that can overcome the odds and buck expectations, it’s Baskonia.

Many European basketball fans forget how under the radar Baskonia happened to be in October of the Euroleague season a year ago. Adams and James were relatively “no-name” guards, and Bourousis had warmed the bench behind Gustavo Ayon and Felipe Reyes in Madrid a year earlier, making his signing a head-scratcher (there probably was more enthusiasm for Sofoklis Schortsanitis’ arrival in Crvena Zvezda, where he barely lasted) . The Latvian Bertans was coming off a knee injury he suffered in the tail end of the 2015 season, and the Hungarian Hanga had played most of the 2015 season on loan with the Italian club Sidigas Avellino of Lega A. There was a lot of roster question marks with this Baskonia team at the start of the 2015-2016 season, and the fact that they opened the 10-game Regular Season with a group that included Olympiacos, Olimpia Milano, and Anadolu Efes didn’t help fans’ uneasiness either (considering going in they were probably thought of as the 4th best team in that group by many experts).

And yet, we know how the story went in 2015-2016. Baskonia management showed the fanbase and Euroleague followers that they knew what they were doing, and they had a Final Four and an Executive of the Year award for Jose Antonio Quejarata to prove it. So, yes, Baskonia probably lost more of their roster than management or the fans wanted. Yes, they lost a solid head coach to a Euroleague competitor. But they’ve gone through this song and dance before. So another Final Four campaign is in the works, right?

Well…that may be a tougher task this time around, but Baskonia has some potential, and it starts with their new head coach.

Baskonia hopes that Spanish head coach Sito Alonso, formerly of Dominion Bilbao, will bring a youthful energy that will help develop their younger players as well as keep them competitive in ACB and Euroleague play.

The new man in charge of this Baskonia club is Sito Alonso, the former Dominion Bilbao coach who was rumored as a candidate for the vacant Barcelona job this summer. Alonso did not go to the Catalan club, but he did earn the Basque club position which may have been a better fit for him anyways. Alonso is known to be a developer of young talent, as he coached the Spanish Under-20 team to a bronze medal in the 2013 European U-20 Championships, and was also a Spanish National Team assistant on the 2014 FIBA World Cup team. In terms of club experience, he doesn’t exactly have extensive Euroleague experience, as he has only coached 1 team in the Euroleague, DKV Joventut in 2008-2009, where they went 4-6 and failed to make it to the Top 16. However, he has proven to be successful in Eurocup competition, as he helped Joventut win a Eurocup championship in 2008 (which helped them qualify for the Euroleague), and he went 11-5 with Bilbao a season ago in the Eurocup (which made up for their disappointing ACB campaign where they missed out on the playoffs to Fuenlabrada on a last second shot on the last day).

Alonso, who is only 40 years old, provides a fresh perspective to this Baskonia squad that was used to the veteran presence of previous coach Perasovic a season ago. One of the interesting aspects about Alonso’s hire is the fact that he is only the second Spanish coach hired by Baskonia in the past 11 years since Pedro Martinez and Natxo Lezkano split duties in 2005 (the other Spanish coach was in Ibon Navarro in 2014-2015), so his Spanish roots, both personally and in the coaching profession (he hasn’t coached a club outside of Spain) will help the local fan base endear to him immediately. Furthermore, what will make or break Alonso’ tenure is how he will utilize the young talent on this Baskonia team, as player development has been his calling card in his coaching career thus far. As of this moment, Baskonia has four players under 25 years old on this roster that will be featured in the rotation: Ilimane Diop and Tornike Shengelia, who both return from last year; and newcomers Johannes Voigtmann from Germany and Rafael Luz from Brazil. Diop and Voigtmann will add depth in the center position behind newcomer and former NBA No.1 pick Andrea Bargnani, who is most likely the projected starting center. Diop did well as a starter mid-season, benefiting from the extra minutes due to Bourousis’ preference for coming off the bench. Diop is athletic and has strong shot-blocking skills, but he still needs to improve his offensive skills (his back to the basket game was limited) and get stronger to help him battle defensively and on the boards against opposing Euroleague and ACB centers. Voigtmann comes from FIBA Europe Cup Champion Fraport Skyliners, where he succeeded in the BBL as a BBL Rising Star and Most Improved player winner in 2015, and All-Star in 2015 and 2016. Voigtmann, who averaged 11.4 and 5.5 rpg in the BBL a year ago, will be the kind of young big who should benefit from Alonso’s tutelage, though he may go through some growing pains considering the improvement in competition from the BBL and Europe Cup to the ACB and Euroleague, respectively.

Alonso’s most interesting work though may be with Shengelia and Luz, who play power forward and point guard respectively. Shengelia only played 9 Euroleague games a season ago with Baskonia, and though he put up decent averages, (9.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) in limited minutes (17.8 mpg), his contributions were small in comparison to other players on the Baskonia roster. Furthermore, Shengelia also carries some personal baggage that Alonso was exposed to as coach of Bilbao. In 2015, Shengelia and Bilbao player Dejan Todorovic were involved in a massive fight on court that resulted in a five-game suspension. There was a lot of finger pointing in terms of who was at fault that resulted in a lot of bad blood between the clubs. Whether or not former Bilbao coach Alonso and Shengelia can bury this hatchet will be crucial, especially considering Shengelia will play such a key role for Baskonia this upcoming season.

As for Luz, the 24-year-old Brazilian point guard comes over from Brazilian powerhouse Flamengo, which won the domestic league championship a year ago. Luz is familiar with the Spanish club scene, as he signed originally with Unicaja in 2007. However, he mostly played on loan to other clubs during his tenure with Unicaja, and this will be the first time he will gain major playing time at the major European level in his career. Luz has flair and potential as a point guard averaging 7 ppg and 4.1 apg a year ago in Brazil. Furthermore, he will benefit from Alonso’s mentorship, as he has strong experience developing point guards, as evidenced by nurturing current NBA player Ricky Rubio during his early years in Joventut.

Andrea Bargnani is coming off a poor season with the Brooklyn Nets; Baskonia is hoping he can rekindle himself as a player in Europe and in the Euroleague.

Alonso will likely have the most impact as a coach on the young players on this roster. However, as with any Euroleague team, the goal is still to win and make the Final Four, even if the odds may be against them. For Alonso to do that, he will have to rely on former NBA players Bargnani, the projected starting center, and Rodrigue Beaubois, the projected point guard who played last year with Strasbourg and formerly played with the Dallas Mavericks.

The Bargnani acquisition has been one that has garnered equal praise and criticism. Many find the deal akin in situation to the Bourousis signing a year ago: a late unexpected signing of a player coming off a down year. Some though think the comparison is a stretch, and that Bargnani is on the wrong end of his career, and isn’t the kind of center who can have the impact that Bourousis had a year ago. Rob Scott, who writes for Euroleague Adventures, had this to say about the Bargnani signing in a tweet:

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Scott has a good point about Bargnani, as the Italian center has struggled to stay healthy and effective when on the court in the past five seasons. Since his career year in 2010-2011 in Toronto where he played 66 games, and averaged 21.4 ppg and 5.2 rpg, it has been mostly downhill for the former No. 1 pick, the first European player to ever be drafted in that slot. He has only played more than 40 games twice since 2011 (42 games with the Knicks in 2013-2014 and 46 games with Nets last season), and he has only had a Win Shares total over one twice as well (2.2 in 2011-2012 with Toronto and 1.5 with the Knicks in 2013-2014). Last season in Brooklyn, a team that played to their low expectations in the pre-season, Bargnani failed to have much impact at all for the Nets, as he only averaged 6.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg, and a career low 13.8 mpg. The writing seemed to be on the wall for Bargnani’s NBA career, as he was passed up in the rotation late in the year by youngsters Chris McCullough and Thomas Robinson, a bad sign for a veteran in a contract year trying to earn his keep in the NBA.

Bargnani surprisingly is only 31 years old despite playing 10 seasons in the NBA. However, he struggled to find a position in the States, not quite quick or agile enough to be a 3 or 4, but not physical or strong enough to play the 5. He has regularly put up paltry rebounding numbers for a big (his career average is 4.6 rpg) and defensively, he has proven to be a liability time and time again. He isn’t the kind of physical shotblocker that can guard the rim well, and he frequently gets lost and taken advantage of in pick and roll defense. Now there may be some room for optimism in 2016-2017 with Baskonia. Bargnani will face less quality bigs in the Euroleague than he did in the NBA, he can still shoot it from beyond the arc well for a 7-footer (he’s a career 35.4 percent 3-pt shooter and two seasons ago with the Knicks he shot 36.6 percent from beyond the arc), and perhaps being back home in Europe will be a breath of fresh air after years of ridicule in America for failing to live up to his No. 1 status. At the end of the day though, Bargnani remains a bigger risk than Bourousis a year ago, as he isn’t the same player (Bourousis is a much better rebounder and defender), making the potential of this pickup quite murky for this Baskonia squad.

Baskonia also picked up headlines by signing Beaubois, who averaged 11.6 ppg and 2.3 apg in 24 mpg in Euroleague play a year ago with Strasbourg, who finished runner up in the LNB and Eurocup in 2016. Beaubois is a dynamic player, more of a shoot-first combo guard than a pure point. At 6-feet, 2-inches, Beaubois has a strong frame for a guard, and can use that to his advantage, especially from beyond the arc. He shot 37 percent from 3-point land in Euroleague play a year ago, and he depends on that shot greatly, as evidenced by his 0.43 3PA/FGA rate. That being said, Roddy can be his own worst enemy at the times, as he has a tendency to over-dominate the ball on the offensive end, and sometimes sink a team when his shot is not on. Last year, his touches per game was highest on the team at 13.02, not necessarily great considering his points per possession was 0.89, which is 0.11 lower than average. For Beaubois and Baskonia to be successful, they will need the Beaubois of 2011-2012, where he had his best season as a professional, averaging 8.9 ppg and 2.9 apg while producing a PER of 15.3 and a Win Shares total of 2.2 with the Dallas Mavericks. During that season, Beaubois played within Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle’s system, and looked to produce for the team and not just himself, which benefited the Mavs and his professional outlook.

Unfortunately, since returning to Europe, he has played a bit more selfishly much to the detriment of his team, and himself (he has become less efficient and effective playing this way). There were times his individual play helped lead Strasbourg to big wins, but there were also times where his inefficient play got in the way of what head coach Vincent Collet was trying to do on the court. Channeling the “good” and “efficient” Beaubois may be one of Alonso’ biggest challenges going into this season, especially considering the depth issues of Baskonia as of this moment, which may enable Beaubois to be more “selfish” offensively.

Baskonia is banking on a big year from Roddy Beaubois, who’s coming over recently from Strasbourg.

Alonso doesn’t have the greatest hand dealt to him in comparison to his Euroleague competition, but the cupboard isn’t bare. There’s potential for Alonso to utilize Bargnani in a way that will allow him to play more in his comfort zone (on the perimeter from beyond the arc), and assign his younger bigs (Diop, Voigtmann, Shengelia) to take care of the “dirty work” (rebounding, post defense, etc.). If Beaubois focuses more on “team” offense rather than “individual” scoring, he and Hanga and Jaka Blazic could be an effective starting trio on the perimeter. Kim Tillie is a proven power forward that could provide valuable production and mentorship to the younger post players, and Luz could breakout under Alonso, who has been successful developing Spanish point guards with previous clubs.

There certainly is potential for success. At the same time though, there is a lot of potential for things to go south. After all, expectations are high for the club not only due to their Final Four run a year ago, but also due to the fact to the more competitive structure of the new 16-team Euroleague format which will be incorporated starting this year. Already, we have seen another Euroleague mainstay (Unicaja) become a victim of the new format after a sub-par year a season ago. While Baskonia is in better financial and competitive shape than the Malaga-based club, it serves as a reminder of what lack of Euroleague success can do to a club, even if it is only for a small stretch of time.

The pressure will be on Alonso and Baskonia in 2016-2017, especially in the Euroleague. Can Alonso put these awkward and eccentric pieces together to produce a successful squad? Or are the pieces too flawed and broken to work out in the end? Is this rebuilding project perhaps just too much, and the magic of that “rebuilding” job in 2015-2016 just a miracle that won’t be seen again?

There is still time in the off-season to add pieces, but you can bet Alonso, his staff and Baskonia management, are doing all they can now to make sure that their plan can work by October.

Saras is Staying with Zalgiris, which Might Be the Best Move for Both

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Sarunas Jasikevicius will be facing off against Real Madrid’s Pablo Lasso next year, but only in the Euroleague with Zalgiris, not the ACB with Barcelona.

This summer’s drama centering on FC Barcelona’s head coaching position for next year had the storyline of a  tumultuous soap opera, with the kind of twists and unexpected changes one would expect from a M. Night Shyamalan film, not a basketball  managerial change. Let’s take a second to recap everything that happened which led to Sarunas Jasikevicius going from “likely” Barcelona head coach, to being back with his hometown Zalgiris club in a couple of weeks.

  • On June 23rd, news leaks that Saras has reportedly agreed to terms with Barcelona about taking over the head coach position next season. The news is awkward because head coach at the time Xavi Pascual has not been given any notification about his standing for next year, and it has literally been one day since Barcelona lost the ACB Liga Endesa Finals to rival Real Madrid.
  • Later that day, general manager Joan Creus announces that he will be stepping down from his position at Barcelona.  The news is a bit expected, considering Barcelona’s two-year slide in both the Euroleague as well as ACB (as I wrote about earlier). But, there is still no word on Pascual, and no immediate GM is named as a replacement.
  • On June 28th, Barcelona and Pascual officially part ways, with Pascual delivering a press conference making his announcement later that day. In the press conference, Barcelona ownership state their desire for a “new model” when it comes to building their team, which explains the ouster of Creus and Pascual.
  • Around June 28th-29th, rumors start to surface that Saras might not be eligible to be the head coach of Barcelona due to a rule in the ACB that prohibits coaches with less than two years of club coaching experience from coaching teams in the Liga Endesa. While there is no official word yet, the likelihood of Saras coaching in Spain grows more dim.
  • In a surprise development, on June 30th Barcelona names 40-year-old Sito Alonso, formerly of Bilbao Basket, as the new head coach of Barcelona. Considering Bilbao did not make the Liga Endesa playoffs last season, and with other experienced candidates like Andrea Trinchieri of Brose Baskets Bamberg and Giorgos Bartzokas of Lokomotiv Kuban available, the club’s decision to go with the young Madrid-born coach was a surprise.  Additionally, Aito Reneses, who coached Barcelona from 1985 to 2001, was named the team’s new Technical Director. As it turns out, the ACB coaching rule was indeed the reason for Saras not taking over the head coaching position.

Without a doubt, I am sure all of this was disappointing for Saras, whose stock as a coach was riding pretty high after he led Zalgiris to a Lithuanian championship in his first season as head coach. After all, he was a former Barcelona player, and the chance to coach one of Europe’s best squads in not only the best European competition, but also the best domestic league (ACB) I’m sure was an opportunity Saras had been dreaming of after he hung up his jersey and retired as a player. That being said, while the Barcelona opportunity didn’t come to fruition as he may have hoped, another year with Zalgiris may be the best thing going forward not only for the Lithuanian club, but his development as a coach. Let’s go over a few reasons why Sara is best served staying in Kaunas for at least one more year.

Saras still needs some time to develop as a coach in European competition.

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Though Saras did well with Zalgris in the LKL, he still needs to develop as a coach in Euroleague play.

Saras has definitely proven himself domestically as a coach in Kaunas. When he took over the reigns at Zalgiris for Gintaras Krapikas on January 13th, Saras led Zalgiris to a 24-3 mark for the remainder of the Lithuanian season, playoffs included. Zalgiris found a rhythm with Saras as coach which emphasized a faster tempo and a more wide-open, higher-scoring offense, as they scored over 100 points three times in that 27 game span (rather than only once under Krapikas). In 47 Lithuanian games, Zalgiris averaged 85.9 ppg, shot 55.9 percent from the floor and 39.3 percent from the field, and limited their opponents to 70.2 ppg (a difference of 15.7 ppg in favor of Zalgiris). No question Zalgiris was head and shoulders above their domestic competition, and Saras should be credited for helping Zalgiris prove that they were Lithuania’s best team on a game-in and game-out basis in the LKL.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Saras in the Euroleague, as Zalgiris struggled to compete against Europe’s top clubs, especially in the Round of 16. When Saras took over, Zalgiris was 0-2 in Top 16 play, which included a 21-point blowout at home to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia in Round 1, and an even worse 33 point blowout to Brose Baskets Bamberg in Germany. Things unfortunately didn’t get much better though for Zalgiris, as they went 2-10 under Saras in Top 16 play, and finished in last place not only in their group, but overall as well.

Zalgiris struggled immensely against European competition, as they had a difficult time competing with longer, more athletic opponents on both the offensive and defensive end, didn’t have the kind of speed on the perimeter to handle quick guards or beat opponents off the dribble (which resulted in them adding Jerome Randle at point, though his addition was too little, too late),  and didn’t exactly shoot well enough to keep defenses honest. This all accumulated into mediocre numbers in Euroleague play: in 14 games, Zalgiris was outscored by 172 points, shot only 47 percent from 2-point land, and an even worse 32.8 percent from the three. They also finished poorly in a lot of advanced categories in Top 16 play including last in net rating (minus-16.2), effective field goal percentage (45.5) and 3PA/FGA (0.26), second-to-last in opponent field goal percentage (56 percent; only Unicaja was worse), and third-to-last in opponent turnover percentage (16.1 percent). Statistically, it made sense why Zalgiris finished in the bottom of Top 16 play, as it is further evidence how overwhelmed the Lithuanian representative was against Europe’s top clubs.

And thus, as good as Saras’ Lithuanian League debut was, he still has a lot to prove in the Euroleague. With a full offseason under his belt, and a little more input in the roster composition (Zalgiris loses Randle, but they will return Renaldas Seibutis and Robertas Javtokas) however, I think Saras can really prepare his team properly for the upcoming Euroleague season. They still need some quicker guards on the perimeter, and they do need to emphasize the outside shot better to open things up against the superior European competition. However, these are issues Saras can work on over a long period of time rather than having to fix them quickly week-to-week. And by helping Zalgiris perform better in the Euroleague, he will prove himself enticing to other European clubs who undoubtedly will be looking for new coaching positions for the 2017-2018 season.

Barcelona is a bit of a mess right now.

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Barcelona still has a lot of questions roster-wise, and that would be difficult for Saras to handle in his first full year as a club head coach.

A new GM and a new coach are a couple of the issues resolved this off-season for the Catalan club, but the roster still leaves a lot to be desired. Barcelona hasn’t signed anyone of note this offseason, and though ownership prefers a roster built from the “inside” of their organization (hence going with the younger Alonso as coach), Barcelona will still be relying on veterans like Navarro and Tomic it seems to be carrying them somewhat next year. That is fine if this was a few years ago, when Navarro was one of Spain’s and maybe Europe’s best guards. However, he is coming off one of his worst seasons, and at age 36, he isn’t likely to get better anytime soon. And to make matters worse, he is also blocking key players like Pau Ribas and Alex Abrines, younger players with more upside, from getting more minutes.

While I believe Saras is going to be a good coach with whatever club he coaches in the future, whether it’s Zalgiris (I think Zalgiris will improve in 2016-2017 Euroleague play now that Saras is coaching the team from the start) or another bigger club in the future. But I do not think Barcelona next year would have put him in a situation to really succeed. What are they going to do to build around Tomic, a limited defensive player, in the post? How are they going to replace Justin Doellman, an inconsistent player, but capable of stretching teams and being a force from beyond the arc?  Are they going to stay with Carlos Arroyo and Tomas Satoransky as the points? And if so, how are they going to hide Arroyo’s shooting and defensive inefficiencies?

I know the prestige of going to Barcelona was a huge incentive for Saras to leave Kaunas. That being said, I think the Spanish Coaches’ Association’s rules worked to Saras’ favor as I think this would have been a difficult job to undertake next year, especially considering the questionable roster composition and astronomical expectations from fans in both domestic and Euroleague play. Zalgiris is a much better situation roster-wise (he is familiar with the talent, and they have a lot younger players as well) and the expectations won’t be so unreasonable. After all, Pascual was one of the best coaches in Barcelona history, and after two seasons where they didn’t win any trophies, he was given the boot. It is possible that Barcelona may do even worse next year, which would put even more pressure on him in terms of keeping his job beyond a year, and that would be an unfair position for Saras, especially in his first full year as a club head coach.

The younger, majority-Lithuanian roster will give Saras a chance to build something special with Zalgiris.

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Paulius Jankunas is a key Lithuanian talent that could help Saras succeed in Kaunas with a young, mostly-Lithuanian roster.

Unlike Barcelona, Zalgiris is a relatively young roster, filled with Lithuanian talent. Currently, there are only four players over the age of 30 on the Zalgiris roster, and they have some good young talent in the roster in Brock Motum, Edgaras Ulanovas, and Leo Westermann, who is coming over from Limoges. Also, the return of Paulius Jankunas will be a good player for Zalgiris to build around, as he offers a veteran presence, as well as excellent production, as evidenced by his 12.3 ppg and 6.2 rpg on 54 percent shooting in Euroleague play.

There is something to say about building a club around talent from their home country. Crvena Zvezda not only did that last year to success (they made the playoffs), but also looks to be doing that next season, as they let imports such as Quincy Miller and Maik Zerbes walk to allow their young Serbian talent like Luka Mitrovic and Nemanja Dangubic to grow together for their home club. Zalgiris could do that next year, and the fact that they are led by a Lithuanian playing legend like Saras will be a huge intangible that could help Zalgiris outperform expectations.

And that makes Zalgiris a special scenario next year. If Saras gets his team to the playoffs in Barcelona but not the Final Four, that would be a bit of a disappointment, especially considering they want a “championship” each and every year in every league they participate in. On the flip side, if Zalgiris makes the playoffs under Saras next year, then that would be cause for celebration and excitement, especially considering Zalgiris hasn’t made the Final Four since 1999, when they won the Euroleague title. Lithuanian fans will be pushing and cheering for Zalgiris to succeed because of the home country investment in the club, both in terms of coaches as well as players. There wouldn’t be that same kind of fanfare in Barcelona, especially considering their history of dominance. They won’t be supporting their club if they hit a rough spot. Instead, they would be calling for the coach’s head.

So that’s what I’m hoping for next year with Saras: he builds this young club up, they generate some excellent chemistry throughout the season due to their combination of youthful and Lithuanian talent (easier to do with the longer regular season format), and they do what Crvena Zvezda did and make a surprise run to the playoffs, where anything can happen in five games. Maybe the exit out early like Red Star or maybe they make a run to the Final Four like Lokomotiv Kuban. Either scenario would be cause for celebration in Kaunas.

However, if they do the latter, not only will Saras cement his status as one of the most coveted coaches in Europe, but he will also further his legacy in European basketball. Only this time it will come as a coach, not a player.