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.

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

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

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

Sergio Llull

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

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

Anthony Randolph

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

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

Luka Doncic

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

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

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

Brad Wanamaker

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

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

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

Ante Zizic

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

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

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

Series Wild Card: David Blatt vs. Pablo Laso

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

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

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

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

We will know next week.

Unicaja and Joan Plaza Bounce Back; Pouring one out for Valencia

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Much like the NCAA National Championship, it was a grind-it-out, defensive oriented affair in Valencia in the deciding game of the Eurocup Finals. Despite Valencia’s tough home-court environment, Unicaja proved to be road warriors again, winning 63-58 in the deciding game on the road for the second time this postseason (they won game 3 in the quarterfinals against Bayern Munich). Unicaja was led by Eurocup Finals MVP guard Alberto Diaz, who scored 12 shots on 4 of 6 shooting, had two assists, and provided some great defense at the guard position throughout the series.

It was not a pretty contest by any means in the deciding game, as Diaz was only one of two players to reach double figures scoring for Unicaja (Jamar Smith being the other). However, the defense of Unicaja was the underrated star of the series, as Unicaja held Valencia to only 4 points in the deciding 4th quarter (though part of it was Valencia not making open shots; props to Mark Titus and his “if they don’t make shots, they don’t win” theory). The Malaga-based club also quieted two of Valencia’s best offensive players, Rafa Martinez and Fernando San Emeterio, throughout the series, and especially in Game 3, as Martinez scored 3 points on 1-of-7 shooting, and San Emeterio scored 7 on of 1-of-9 shooting (this also resulted in Martinez having an epic meltdown at the end where he got a technical for jawing with Nemanja Nedovic and made the game go on five minutes longer than it should have; I thought he was going to fight every Unicaja player on the floor). The big concern going into the series was if Unicaja would be able to handle the offensive precision and depth of Valencia, but in the most crucial moments, Unicaja’s perimeter defense, led by Diaz, Smith, Nedovic, Jeff Brooks, and Adam Waczynski, came up big and willed the underdogs to victory. As you can see in the highlights below, Brooks’ huge block on Martinez in the closing seconds was a moment that Malaga fans will remember for a long time.

The win helps Unicaja return to the Euroleague after a one-year hiatus. Unicaja was one of the more entertaining clubs in the regular season last Euroleague, thanks to Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who is now playing for the New York Knicks. However, they nose-dived a bit in Top 16 play, didn’t make the playoffs, and didn’t perform well enough in the ACB to generate an at-large berth, thus pushing them to the Eurocup for the first time ever this season.

Thankfully for the Malaga-based club, they didn’t have to spend too much time away from Europe’s top, and most lucrative competition.

The win also was a bit of redemption for head coach Joan Plaza, a fiery and intense coach who has also coached for Real Madrid and Zalgiris prior to arriving in Malaga. This is the second Eurocup title for Plaza, as he won one in 2006-2007 (then the ULEB Cup) with Real Madrid (in addition to an ACB title). However, he wasn’t able to build on that success for long in the Spanish capital. Lackluster finishes in the ACB and Euroleague in consecutive seasons after his dual-title campaign resulted in him being replaced by Ettore Messina, who achieved Euroleague Final Four success in Plaza’s wake, thus dwarfing Plaza’s Madrid legacy in the record books a bit.

However, Plaza bounced back this year with Unicaja, and it is a bit satisfying to see on Plaza’s behalf. He gets forgotten in Spanish coaching circles among fans as of late, as he doesn’t have the credentials of a Messina, former Barcelona and current Panathinaikos coach Xavi Pascual or Pablo Laso, the current Madrid coach. And there was some speculation on how long he would stay in Malaga after being demoted to the Eurocup this season. Despite all that, not to mention not having home court advantage or Dejan Musli, who was lost to injury prior to the Finals, Plaza was able to add another championship to his underrated legacy. You could see in the interview below how much the victory meant to him, and how much he knew it meant to the community of Malaga as well.

Good for you Joan. We need more of your profanity-laced timeouts in the Euroleague.


 

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Not living in Spain or having much access to ACB games (other than random YouTube uploads), I did not have much familiarity with this Valencia team leading up to this Eurocup playoffs. However, once I started watching the Eurocup, Valencia was one of the teams I fell in love with quickly.

American Luke Sikma and Romain Sato were a couple of my favorite players when they were in college, and it was nice to not only see them again, but still being just as effective as professionals in Europe. I remembered Sikma being an efficiency machine in the WCC when he played at the University of Portland, and I have fond memories of Sato torching A-10 foes from beyond the arc when he played at Xavier. Neither has changed much in terms of game. Sikma remains a versatile and efficient post player, and Sato is the hot-hand off the bench that could swing momentum for this Valencia club at any given moment.

But while I had some prior fondness for Sikma and Sato, I grew to appreciate all of head coach Pedro Martinez’s Valencia squad with each and every playoff game. I loved Rafa Martinez’s heat-check 3’s and abrasive personality that made Sasha Vujacic look like a choir boy in comparison. I sunk in the in-depth post moves and beard of Bojan Dubljevic, who was probably Valencia’s best player this series (he had 16 points, 6 rebounds and a game high 19 PIR in Game 3). San Emeterio and Joan Sastre were crafty wings, who gave up many athletic disadvantages throughout the playoffs (especially in the last two rounds against Unicaja and Hapoel Jerusalem), but were able to be effective on the offensive and defensive in positive ways for this Valencia club.

And the fans? Well, when things were going well, as they were in Game 1 of the Finals, you could appreciate how turned up they got, often times boosting their team on the floor.

Valencia was like that good college team that didn’t have five-star recruits, or one tremendous star player, but relied on great chemistry and depth to win games. Martinez played a 10-plus rotation where multiple guys received double-digit minutes, even in the postseason, something that seems crazy to think about it in retrospect (whether its college or NBA, most teams are playing an 8-man lineup). And Martinez, while intense, always seemed focused in the moment, looking more like a seasoned college coach than the professional one you would see in the NBA (though to be honest, I would say Euroleague coaches are closer in spirit to college ones than NBA).

If I had to compare Valencia to any college basketball team, it would be a Gonzaga, of sorts: good, but not great players; a head coach who isn’t necessarily as widely-heralded as others in Europe (he had a lot of success with Gran Canaria as well); and a small, but rabid fanbase that makes Fuente de San Luis one of the more underrated (and perhaps toughest) venues in Spain, maybe Europe.

I am happy for Unicaja and Plaza. I am happy that more basketball fans will get to see Alberto Diaz in the Euroleague next year. The Malaga fans are some of the better ones you will see in European basketball circles.

But I wanted to see Valencia a bit more. I wanted to see the “Pedro-ball” and Rafa Martinez going at it with CSKA’s Milos Teodosic in a “who has the better half-assed beard and is more combative” contest. I wanted to see a potential Zalgiris Kevin Pangos and Sikma cross-match, akin to their Gonzaga-Portland days in the WCC.

However, with the cap of country teams in the Euroleague at four (meaning there can’t be more than four teams from one country), it is probably all but certain that Valencia will be back in the Eurocup in 2017-2018 (along with Malaga, Real Madrid, Baskonia and Barcelona will most likely be in the Euroleague; Barcelona was not good this year, but they have an A license).

Pour one out for Valencia. Let’s hope they show more Eurocup games (other than just the playoffs) next year on Euroleague TV.

Barcelona and Baskonia Place Postseason Hopes on Latin American Transfers

Mid-season transfers, much like any professional sport be it here in America or Worldwide, tend to be common fare. For some Euroleague clubs, the risk of perhaps disrupting team chemistry on and off the court is well worth it, especially if it can help a team solidify or boost their playoff and Final Four chances. At this time of the year, with some teams’ playoff chances fading faster and faster with each coming week, the need to make a drastic change in the roster now can feel urgent, not just to salvage the season, but also one’s status for next season.

Already, we have seen mid-season additions such as Alessandro Gentile with Panathinaikos, Dominic Waters with Olympiacos, Ante Zizic with Darussafaka, and Deon Thompson with Crvena Zvezda provide much needed depth and production to their new clubs (and that isn’t including Anthony Bennett, who could be a tremendous boom or bust for Fenerbahce). FC Barcelona and Baskonia are hoping post Vitor Faverani, and guard Nicolas Laprovittola, respectively, will continue that trend of mid-season transfers being positive additions in 2016-2017, especially considering both teams’ playoff states are far from being certain going into week 18.

Let’s take a look at what each player will provide their respective club, and if this will affect their playoff chances in a positive or negative fashion in the second half of the season.

Barcelona Banking on Brazilian Boost (On Offense…)

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(And yes, I was purposefully trying to get a four letter alliteration…sorry grammar and AP style nerds!)

Barcelona basically traded posts, essentially, as they signed Vitor Faverani from UCAM Murcia, and released Joey Dorsey to make room for the Brazilian national. Management’s decision to let go of Dorsey was probably not an easy one: they signed him to a two-year contract extension this off-season, and he is the team’s (and perhaps the Euroleague’s) best rebounder, according to rebounding rate. However, Dorsey has not only struggled to stay on the court due to injuries (which has caused all kinds of hoopla on Twitter; Dorsey claims that the Barcelona medical staff neglected treating him for a lot of issues, which in his eyes, sabotaged his season), but also has failed to help a struggling Barcelona team put points on the board. He averaged only 5.5 ppg on 54.8 percent shooting in 17 mpg (and he was dismal at the line, shooting around 54 percent). Considering his athleticism, strength, and the lack of depth in the frontcourt, head coach Georgios Bartzokas and Barcelona expected much more from him in the beginning of the year, and it makes sense they decided to cut their losses now considering they are still in the playoff hunt, and can’t afford many more losses.

With Dorsey gone, in his place comes Faverani, who had a cup of coffee with Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv last season (he played two games) before spending the past year and a half in Murcia with UCAM. Faverani is the opposite of Dorsey: he doesn’t offer the intimidating presence, but he makes up for it with a deft skill set on both the offensive and defensive end. Last season, UCAM was boosted by the high-low combo of Faverani and Argentinian “Wunder-Guard” Facundo Campazzo, who helped UCAM to a 18-16 record, and a 7th place finish in the Liga Endesa (which produced a very entertaining first round series between them and Real Madrid, which Madrid won 2-1 in a best of three round). There was a lot of hope that with another year together, and a spot in a weakened Eurocup competition (due to the defections of many clubs to FIBA’s Champions League), that Faverani, Campazzo, and UCAM would be a dark horse of sorts this year.

Unfortunately, the change in coaching staff from Fotis Kasakaris (who left for Lokomotiv Kuban; and was fired mid-season, ironically) to Oscar Quinatana has not been kind: neither Campazzo (turnover and shooting issues) nor Faverani has been as effective this year, and currently UCAM sits at 5-11 in the Liga Endesa and 1-2 in the Top 16 round of the Eurocup.

However, UCAM’s loss may be Barcelona’s gain. Faverani adds much needed scoring to a frontcourt that has been plagued by injury and ineffectiveness. In addition to Dorsey’s issues, Barcelona has struggled to get anything in the post beyond Ante Tomic, who is their main frontline scorer, as he is averaging 10 ppg, 4.9 rpg and has a team leading 13.7 PIR per game. Justin Doellman, who has gone through injury issues himself like Dorsey, has been primarily regulated to a jump shooting stretch-four when he is on the floor (he has only appeared in 11 games). Additionally, newcomer Victor Claver has been a slightly better, but different version of Doellman, as the Spaniard has had more of an effect on defense and on the glass (4.4 to Doellman’s 2.6 rpg), but scores less than Doellman (5.5 to Doellman’s 6.9 ppg).

Those are not good signs for an offense that ranks in the bottom of the Euroleague not only in terms of points scored (71.4 ppg), but also in point-differential (their -58 point differential is third-worst, ahead of only Galatasaray and Olimpia Milano) and offensive efficiency (their 90.9 rating is worst in the league). However, there is hope that the 28-year-old Brazilian forward will help improve those numbers during this week 18-30 stretch.

First off, Faverani is a skilled big with good touch around the rim. Faverani averaged 11 ppg on 55.6 percent shooting this year in Eurocup play, and 9.7 ppg on 56.8 percent shooting in the Liga Endesa. Those numbers are down of course from the 10.5 ppg and 61.5 percent shooting clip he put up in the Liga Endesa last season, but it still demonstrates that Faverani can be a productive player in the post on the right team. Considering that Barcelona struggles to get consistent scoring from anyone on the roster beyond Tomic and guard Tyrese Rice (who has had his own inconsistency issues this season as well), Faverani certainly will have the opportunities and chances to have an impact.

Now, the one knock on Faverani is that he’s not an explosive athlete. He relies on his crafty skill set to score baskets, and even his made shots can be painful to witness on occasion. Faverani had some good outings in his short stint in the NBA with the Boston Celtics in 2013-2014, but even in the highlights below, he can lacks grace and fluidity on occasion in his offensive game. Nearly three years later, it hasn’t gotten much better, but at least he has been able to use his experience to make up for these shortcomings.

The one positive about Faverani’s arrival is that he shouldn’t affect this team defensively, which has not only been the key reason why they have stayed in the playoff race, but also a calling card of Bartzokas as a coach. Faverani is tough and doesn’t give up easy baskets around the rim, and he is also a much wiser defender than Dorsey. It was common to see Dorsey get in foul trouble, unable to harness his aggressiveness or frustration consistently (a knock he has had ever since his days in college at Memphis). Faverani still is a tough, and aggressive player, but he is much better in terms of playing defense without fouling in comparison to Dorsey. Not only will this help keep Barcelona’s defense humming down the stretch, but it will also provide dividends on the other end of the court: the more Faverani is playing, the better chance their offense will have from escaping the garbage dump they currently sit in now by the end of the season.

Faverani might not single-handily save the season for Barcelona. They still have to get past Brose Bamberg, UNICS, Efes, and Red Star, not to mention hold off Maccabi, which still has a puncher’s chance with the trio of Sonny Weems, Andrew Goudelock, and Quincy Miller. That being said, trading Faverani for Dorsey is a positive upgrade for Bartzokas’ squad, as they improve considerably on offense without sacrificing too much on the defensive and rebounding end (though Faverani is not quite the rebounder Dorsey was; but then again, few in the Euroleague were).

Laprovittola adds depth at the point for Baskonia

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He’s been dubbed the next “Manu Ginobili” by some. Some have even ventured as far as calling him the “Argentinian Steph Curry” thanks to his sweet and streaky shooting stroke. However, after a brief 18-game stint with the San Antonio Spurs, Nicolas Laprovittola returns to Europe, this time with a Baskonia squad that is hoping to return to the Final Four.

The addition of Laprovittola is just the latest move by Baskonia management to add depth to the point guard position behind Shane Larkin. Though Larkin has performed well, he is still in his first year in Europe and in the Euroleague, and he has had some performances that have left more to be desired as of late. Against Panathinaikos and star player Nick Calathes, Larkin really struggled, as he had only 6 points and 6 turnovers in a narrow 69-68 loss. While Rafa Luz has given some nice hustle and defense, his physical limitations and lack of production on offense have been a big reason why Baskonia has been so active during the year in finding another guard to relieve Larkin off the bench.

Baskonia made some big news before the new year to address this issue by signing Baskonia legend (during the Tau Ceramic days) Pablo Prigioni in early December. However, the hero’s homecoming was short-lived, as Prigioni, 39-years-old and struggling with injuries, only played 3 games in a Baskonia uniform before announcing his retirement. After a disappointing loss to Darussafaka on the road, the Basque club wasted little time to replace Prigioni by signing Laprovittola not long after he was released by the San Antonio Spurs.

The 26-year-old Argentinian is an impressive mid-season pull. While he is not as flashy as fellow countryman Campazzo, he is certainly a more consistent and efficient shooter. Laprovittola shot 37 percent from beyond the arc with the Spurs this season despite barely seeing time on the floor (he only averaged 9.7 mpg). However, there were times where Laprovittola showed flashes of potential when he received extended minutes: against the Clippers on November 5th, he played 22 minutes, and scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc to go along with 5 assists. He also put up a similar performance against Minnesota on December 6th, where he played 21 minutes, scored 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting and 2-of-3 from beyond the arc. Unfortunately, though for the Argentinian, those moments were few and far between, and it makes sense considering his 3rd-PG status that the Spurs let him go to find greener pastures in Europe.

And luckily for Baskonia, that greener pasture for the free agent guard happened to be in Vitoria.

As you will see from his highlights below, Laprovittola brings a much needed skill set to this Baskonia squad. They have been solid in the post thanks to Johannes Voigtmann, Tornike Shengelia, and Kim Tillie; and on the wings with Adam Hanga and Chase Budinger. Along with Larkin, Laprovittola could prove to be a missing piece to the Baskonia puzzle: he offers up much needed outside shooting (they score a lot less from beyond the arc this season than a year ago) as well as playmaking, which they struggle to get when Larkin is not on the court. I don’t know if Laprovittola will live up to that Manu or Curry hype, but it is easy to see him being productive immediately for Baskonia under coach Sito Alonso, who has already done a hell of a job coaching this diverse bevy of talent thus far.

Unlike Barcelona, who is just fighting for a playoff position, Baskonia is probably safe in terms of finishing in the Top-8 by the end of Round 30. They currently are 11-6 and sit in fourth place now, one game ahead of Panathinaikos and Fenerbahce, who are tied for 5th at 10-7. Barring a major collapse or a huge rash of injuries, Baskonia fans can look forward to Euroleague playoff basketball in the Spring.

However, the goal for Baskonia is not to just get to the playoffs, but make it back to the Final Four. With the point guard issues surrounding this team, as well as Andrea Bargnani’s health a major question mark, this team needs to solidify their rotation a bit if they want to keep themselves in this Final Four discussion. Pana certainly is getting better not just with the arrival of Gentile, but also due to Mike James, who is finally healthy, and coach Xavi Pascual getting more comfortable coaching this team. Fenerbahce could also see a big boost with the arrival of Bennett. Hence, it makes sense to see Baskonia make a move to keep up with those two clubs who are coming up quick on Baskonia’s heels in the standings.

Now, will Laprovittola be an impact player? It’s hard to tell. He played so little this year with the Spurs, he has no Euroleague experience, and the clubs he played for (Lietuvos Rytas of Lithuania and Estudiantes of Spain) weren’t necessarily “spotlight” teams by any measure. Without a doubt, other than his stint in the NBA, this will be the most pressure Laprovittola has faced on a professional level. Will he be able to handle it?

We’ll know for sure  whenever he dresses in that Baskonia uniform and steps on the court (I doubt considering the circumstances he’ll be ready for this round’s Euroleague’s games). That being said, this signing definitely has thrust Baskonia into the list of Euroleague teams worth following closely for the remainder of the regular season.

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.

EuroBall and Beatz: “El Chacho” and “Baby Blue” by Action Bronson

This is the first part of a series called “EuroBall and Beatz” where I highlight a Euroleague player’s highlight MixTape and a song from an up and coming musical artist or act. Check the page on the header to see the complete collection of posts in this series.

That is not a homeless guy or the lead singer from Bon Iver…that is El Chacho, and safe to say European basketball fans’ loss will be the NBA’s gain (hopefully…)

“El Chacho” Sergio Rodriguez “Euroleague Stars” Mix

If there is one player I’m going to miss greatly in the Euroleague next year, it is “El Chacho” Sergio Rodriguez from Real Madrid. In many ways, Chacho was the Euroleague and ACB’s answer to former Sacramento King and Memphis Grizzly (and Orlando Magic and Miami Heat if you want to be semantic) point god Jason Williams, only Spanish-speaking, a bit smaller, and a whole lot more hipster with that killer beard of his. (Seriously, that beard is dope; he looks like a logger from Western South Dakota, only instead of cutting trees up with an ax, he’s cutting defenders up with slick handles, and no-look passes).

Rodriguez isn’t exactly young at 30 years old, but his career has gone through a bit of revitalization after coming back to Spain from the NBA in 2010. In that time span, he has primarily played for Real Madrid, and in addition to tantalizing fans (and like, on the cusp of erotically tantalizing…just kidding…or am I?) with his assortment of killer crossovers, sensational passes, and crazy, streaky shooting, he also has helped kept Real a power on the European and Spanish scene. He has been a 3-time All-ACB player (2014-2016), a Euroleague MVP (2014) and an All-Euroleague 1st team player (2014) and led Real to a Euroleague title in 2015. And he’s done this despite the presence of Sergio Llull, another high-profile, high-usage Spanish guard, who more or less plays the same position (Llull is more of a point guard who focuses on shooting and scoring rather than El Chacho, who focuses more on playmaking; but they are essentially both point guards).

The most endearing part of El Chacho’s legacy in this latest go-around in Europe is that he doesn’t seem to worry about the media or the spotlight (seriously, how many players would defer the “attention” to another player on a team as big as Real Madrid?). Instead, he’s all about letting his game on the court do the talking and creating magnificent play on the court. He’s like an Andy Warhol, but instead of Campbell Soup and Madonna postmodern paintings, and canvases, El Chacho stupefies audiences (and opponents) in the pick and roll and with floaters at the rim. There were glimpses of this kind of “El Chacho” when he played in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings, but it hasn’t been until the last few years or so in Real that El Chacho really has been given the freedom on the court from head coach Pablo Lasso to stretch out his wings and fly as a point guard savant.

I know that some basketball fans aren’t as pumped about his arrival. People will point that he’s 30, and that he didn’t succeed in the NBA the first time, and that the Euroleague isn’t the same as the NBA. Yeah, we get it. The Euroleague and European basketball isn’t the same as the NBA. But you know what? El Chacho will have a better coach in Brett Brown that will allow him to play more freely than he was allowed to in Nate McMillan’s “boring ass” offensive system in Portland. (Seriously Larry Bird…you fire Frank Vogel for not running a “fast offense” and you then hire Nate “I’m so fucking boring, let’s see how many Isos I can run for Brandon Roy even though he is clearly 75 percent healthy” McMillan? Good luck!) He will be going to a team that is used to misery; and TJ McConnell, Kendall Marshall, and Ish Smith at point guard; and the mindset that they won’t be competitive for at least another 2-4 years. Just imagine the joy El Chacho will bring with his passes, his crossovers, his crazy step backs from feet beyond the arc? Forget “the Process”. Sixers fans will be making all kinds of “El Chacho” chants instead of their usual “Trust Sam Hinkie” ones (which they can’t do anymore anyways, because you know, he’s fired).

Maybe El Chacho wasn’t the best player on his own team that past few years (you could argue Llull or Gustavo Ayon would take that honor). But he was the most fun and entertaining, and did so in a joyful, playful, but humble way. Damn it, Philly. You better appreciate it him for who he is and what he brings on a nightly basis, because you know Spanish and Euroleague fans will be aching for his spectacular skill set by November, maybe sooner (myself included).

 

Action Bronson is a musical savant who entertains audiences in a multitude of ways (like El Chacho) and has a really awesome, gnarly beard (also like El Chacho!)

Action Bronson (feat. Chance the Rapper)-“Baby Blue”

To stay on the theme of “Savants with Beards”, the beatz portion will focus on Action Bronson’s track “Baby Blue” which features Chicago-based hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper, who’s like the biggest fucking thing in rap music right now. I mean, honestly, Chance right now is like at “Pokemon Go” levels with his latest rap album “Coloring Book”. The album and his status spit so much fire, that you have all kinds of hipsters, rap critics, and twitter folks losing their shit every time the song is added to a public playlist on Spotify or is played in a coffee shop or hookah bar beyond 7 p.m. on a weekend evening.

But this isn’t about Lil Chano from 79th, this is about Bronson, an artist in the current rap game now like El Chacho is in the world of basketball. Bronson (a former high-end restaurant chef turned self-made hip hop lyricist) and his style harken back to that intense 90’s hip-hop scene that really developed general music fan’s opinions and educated them how rap could be a diverse, deep, and legitimate musical art form. His rap reminds you of a cross between old Wu Tang, Nas, and Biggie with some Fat Joe or Big Pun stylings slightly mixed in. It’s definitely loud, blunt, and in your face, kind of like Action Bronson’s presence himself, who definitely sticks out with his large frame, Brooklyn Hipster-chic wardrobe (he is from Queens, New York) and bushy, dope-ass beard. (He has to hold his facial locks while eating sometimes, as evidenced on his own show on Munchies, appropriately named “Fuck, That is Delicious”, which is by the way, fucking awesome).

And that’s what makes this collaboration with Chance such a refreshing tweak to Action’s musical style: Chance is not the kind of intense, “I’m gonna fuck you up if you jack with me” rapper that Action is, and that really balances “Baby Blue” out. Chance is really chill as fuck as a rapper in his music, and to be perfectly honest, somewhat joyful in his style (not to say he doesn’t have edge; but let’s be honest here, there are a lot of God and church influence in “Coloring Book”; nihilism is something Chance ain’t down with). And with his more “upbeat” influence, it blends well with Action’s brash approach, creating a dope track that is worth jamming to on multiple occasions.

Action Bronson and El Chacho. Two bearded artists who are killer at their craft and probably don’t get the appreciation they deserve at times in their respective fields.

We need to get these two together, with Action wearing a Philly “El Chacho” jersey in a Snapchat or something soon. Maybe when El Chacho gets more situated to East Coast Philly life of course; I’m sure he’s focused more on working with Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor in the pick and roll, not hanging with hip hop artists who are filming restaurant shows on Vice on the side.

But give it a couple of months. And keep an eye on that “Rodriguez” jersey on the Sixers NBA Store. And see what Action Bronson does…(I can hope, right?)

Euroleague Retro: Raul Lopez, Guard, Spain

Point guard Raul Lopez, who just retired after this last season with Bilbao, will have a legacy as one of Spain’s most dynamic guards.

One feature I would like to post on this blog are pieces that contain highlights and some brief write-ups on former Euroleague stars that are not or barely familiar with American basketball fans. As displayed by this latest draft and free agency period, it is obvious that the influence European basketball has on the NBA (and vice versa) is greater than ever. A lot of the negative biases NBA fans, front office and media members had in the past about European players and teams has started to fade more and more each year, especially with European veteran stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker and newer stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo succeeding in the league, (and that’s just naming a few). And because of this “European Influence” the game of basketball here in America is more diverse and entertaining than ever.

However, what about the stars who never made it to the United States or the ones who only played here briefly? What about the teams who dominated the Euroleague that never got the recognition they deserved in the United States? What about the coaches who not only were successful in Europe, but also influenced the game so much that their contributions have influenced the NBA and American game?

That is what Euroleague Retro is about, and to begin the series, I am going to take a look at a dynamic point guard who just played his last season: Raul Lopez of Spain.

A brief outline of Lopez’s career

Lopez played briefly for the Utah Jazz for two seasons before heading back to Europe.

Lopez is probably one of the most dynamic point guards to ever come out of Spain. Considering that’s a category that also includes NBA players like Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio and Euroleague stars like Sergio Rodriguez, Sergio Llull, and Juan Carlos Navarro, that is quite the statement. However, Lopez’s legacy in Spain is one that should be remembered for years to come, as he helped break ground and set the mold for Spanish point guards who came, after him, especially Rodriguez, Llull and Rubio.

Lopez played nearly 19 seasons between Europe and the United States. He started out his career DKV Joventut from 1997-2000. After a breakout season with Joventut where he averaged 10.1 ppg, 2.8 apg and 23.7 mpg while shooting 51.5 percent from the field in 34 games in the ACB, he transferred to top Spanish club Real Madrid, where he played from 2000-2002. He had one of his best seasons in the Euroleague in 2000-2001 (his first Euroleague appearance) where he averaged 8.3 ppg and 3.3 apg in 13 Euroleague games with Real Madrid. After a solid first season with Los Blancos, there were a lot of high expectations for the 2001-2002 season for Lopez, but a knee injury derailed him and limited him to 4 games in the Euroleague, and only 14 games in ACB play.

Despite coming off injury, Lopez made the transition to the United States, playing for the Utah Jazz, who drafted him 24th overall in the 2001 draft. However, due to his meniscus tear in 2002 with Real Madrid, he had to sit out the entire 2002-2003 season with Utah to recover. When he did appear in the United States with the Jazz, Lopez didn’t necessarily have the same bounce and explosiveness that he displayed earlier in his career in Spain, and thus, he found it difficult to find a regular spot. His best NBA season was his debut year in 2003-2004, where he played all 82 games as a primary backup to starter Carlos Arroyo, and averaged 7 ppg and 3.7 apg while averaging 19.7 mpg.

Unfortunately, Lopez was unable to maintain that momentum and after an uneven season with Utah in 2004-2005, and being traded to Memphis and cut in the off-season, Lopez decided to end his NBA career after only playing two seasons.

After leaving the NBA, Lopez bounced around as a bit of a journeyman of sorts. He had a great comeback season in 2005-2006 with the now defunct CB Sant Josep Girona 10.2 ppg and 2.8 apg while shooting 55.5 percent from the field and averaging 24.2 mpg in 37 ACB games, which solidified that he could be an impact player again in his home continent. From there, he played three more seasons for Real Madrid from 2006-2009 before going to Russia to play for Khimki Moscow for two seasons from 2009-2011, where he served primarily as a role player (he didn’t average more than 18.4 minutes per game in his two seasons there).

Once his tenure in Moscow finished, the call to come back to Spain came in the form of him suiting up for Bilbao Basket in Basque country. Near the end of his career, Lopez finished his career on a high note, playing four seasons with Bilbao while competing in both the ACB as well as the Euroleague (2011-2012) and Eurocup (2012-2016). Though he certainly wasn’t the kind of star player with Bilbao like he was with Joventut and Real Madrid (the first time), he offered excellent shooting, some spectacular playmaking ability, and a strong veteran presence for the younger players on the club.

In 95 games of Euroleague play, Lopez averaged 7 ppg, 2.8 apg, and 1.1 apg while shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from beyond the arc. In 61 Eurocup games, he averaged 6.8 ppg, 3 apg, while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and a ridiculous 47.2 percent from three.

Why Lopez is worth remembering 

Lopez was a dynamic player who proved to be a fan favorite, especially in his last spot with Bilbao.

Lopez was just a dynamic point guard overall. Yes, his ppg and assist numbers may make people think twice about his legacy, and he was kind of a weird hybrid between a point and a combo guard, who didn’t really focus on one thing at his position (he didn’t focus solely on scoring or passing, but tried to balance both). However, what Lopez did on the court went beyond his stats. He played with incredible creativity and panache. He displayed strong handles for a point guard his size as well as an excellent shooting stroke, especially from beyond the arc. And he paved the way for a lot of Spanish and European point guards during the mid-2000’s. He may not be a first-tier Euroleague legend in the mold of a Sarunas Jasikevicius or Drazen Petrovic, but if there are second-tier Euroleague legends who probably go unnoticed in the greater basketball community, Lopez would be on that list.

It is a shame Lopez retired, but after 19 years of basketball, it probably was his time. Spanish basketball fans, especially in Basque country, have been lucky the last four years to see a true basketball artist create on a nightly basis against ACB as well as Eurocup and Euroleague competition, and they will miss him dearly, even if he didn’t provide any big moments or championships with Bilbao. Lopez was a basketball savant, and he deserves proper recognition, regardless of how his numbers or paper profile looks.

Video Highlights of Lopez

Raul Lopez Tribute (from user Jordi Pla)

Raul Lopez: Puro Talento (from official ACB YouTube profile)

Nightly notable: Once again, Raul Lopez (from Euroleague YouTube profile)