Three Thoughts about Fenerbahce from the Final Four

So, it’s official: Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul are the champions of Europe after their physical 80-64 victory over Greek power Olympiacos Piraeus. They are the first club from Turkey to win the Euroleague title in championship history, and this championship may have officially solidified Turkey as one of the top powers in European basketball circles (honestly, this has been the case for about a decade now, but Turkish basketball always seems to get overlooked by most general basketball fans and media). For Fenerbahce fans, this title a big deal, and I can’t help but feel happy for them, as they not only witness a Turkish club win the title on their home turf in Istanbul (always a good thing to win a championship in front of the home fans), but also exorcised some demons from last year’s debilitating championship game loss to CSKA Moscow in Berlin.

Anyways, as typical after any big moment in any sport, I have a few thoughts about the 2017 Euroleague champions as well as their run in the Final Four (not to mention postseason).

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Fenerbahce’s run to the title was historic in so many ways…

Yes, Fenerbahce is the first Turkish club to win the Euroleague title in Euroleague history.

Yes, they won the title as a No. 5 seed in the playoffs.

But, when you look at their whole postseason run, from tip-off of Game 1 of the playoffs in Athens to them hoisting the trophy in front of their hometown fans in Istanbul, their journey to the Euroleague crown is not only more impressive, but downright historic.

Even though they got the 5 seed in the last week of the season (thanks to Zalgiris upsetting Baskonia in Fernando Buesa to drop the Basque club to the 7 seed), their matchup with Panathinaikos was not exactly an easy one. PAO was one of the hottest clubs to finish the Euroleague regular season, as they won their last five games of the year. While much was made about Fenerbahce being fully healthy for the playoffs, people forget that PAO had also dealt with their own health issues in the beginning of the year. Much like Fenerbahce, PAO heading into the playoffs looked like a force to be reckoned with that not only was fully healthy (James Gist returning to the lineup was a big reason they went 5-0 to finish the regular season), but had finally seemed to gel under new coach Xavi Pascual. And that was not even considering that the first two games would be in OAKA in front of the rabid PAO fans, who had made OAKA one of the toughest venues in the Euroleague this season (with Belgrade and Piraeus being also in the mix).

And yet, Fenerbahce didn’t let PAO’s momentum or home court advantage get to them. They shut down the PAO offense in the second half of game 1 in a 71-58 victory, and then outgunned a desperate PAO team in game 2 80-75.  And, in front of their home fans in Istanbul, Fenerbahce took care of business and then some, not only beating PAO 79-61 to complete the sweep, but also clinching in such a defining (almost humiliating) way that it drove PAO’s ownership to make the players and coaches travel back to Athens by bus (roughly an 11 hour drive) as punishment.

In the semifinal, the Turkish club seemed to get the rotten draw, as they were schedule to take on the No. 1 seed Real Madrid, a club that definitely was the deepest and most talented in the Euroleague this season (not to mention featured the Euroleague MVP, Sergio Llull). Despite Madrid coming in as the Final Four favorites on paper (you could argue that the homecourt made Fenerbahce a favorite too), Fenerbahce owned the talented Spanish power, never relinquishing the lead at any point in their 84-75 win over Los Blancos.

And in the championship game? Despite going up against one of Europe’s premiere basketball powers and one of the Top-10 players in Euroleague history (Vassilis Spanoulis), the blue and yellow didn’t disappoint, capitalizing on a hot start (thanks to some solid outside shooting from beyond the arc, especially from Nikola Kalinic) and the rabid fans en route to their 16 point championship victory.

This was not an easy postseason by any means. One could argue that Fenerbahce faced three of the four best teams (beyond them of course) in the postseason, and yet they not only dispatched them all, but with little challenge.

People will remember Fenerbahce for being the first Turkish champions of the Euroleague. However, what Fenerbahce did was straight out of the 1995 Houston Rockets championship playbook, as their underrated legacy may be them displaying one of the most dominant Euroleague postseason runs ever for a seed without home court advantage (well…I guess the Final Four venue counters that title…but technically speaking they were always the under-seeded team for every round).

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Bogdanovic solidifies his stock as a NBA player…and maybe a Udoh comeback?

I have written about Bogdanovic before, and I felt he is as ready as ever to make the jump to the NBA, with this postseason solidifying his case. He earned All-Euroleague honors despite missing roughly a 1/3 of the Euroleague season, and was one of Fenerbahce’s most reliable players throughout the postseason. He went for 25-5-4 with a PIR of 35 in game 1 against PAO, and put up another sterling performance in game 2, putting up a line of 25-8-6 for another PIR of 35. While he regressed a little in the clinching game (10-8; 7 turnovers; PIR of 8), his overall series numbers (19.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4 apg, 62.5 percent shooting from 2-FG, 60 percent from beyond the arc, 26 PIR average) proved that he was Fenerbahce’s MVP during their playoff sweep over the Athenian power.

While Bogdanovic obviously took a back seat in the Final Four to eventual MVP Ekpe Udoh (more on that in a bit), the 24-year-old Serbian guard once again proved to be reliable and stellar on the Euroleague’s biggest stage: he averaged 15.5 ppg and 5.5 rpg and a PIR of 13.5. When Bogdanovic was on the floor, the Fenerbahce offense seemed to hum seamlessly, and his effort and tenacity for a guard on the glass and defensive end seemed to neutralize what is normally a physically Olympiacos team. Going into this year, there were many questions about Bogdanovic fitting in the NBA. Could he handle the physicality? Did he have solid enough skills to adjust to the competition? Could he be a starting-caliber guard?

This postseason and especially Final Four may have answered a lot of those questions. Yes, we will just have to wait and see for sure how Bogdan plays in the NBA, but right now, the future looks bright for him, especially if he makes the leap to Sacramento, where playing time should be ample.

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However, the underrated story this Final Four may be the resurgence of Udoh, who had been considered a couple years ago as a NBA bench warmer, not mention bust (he was the no. 6 draft pick in the 2010 NBA draft, famously picked ahead of players such as Greg Monroe, Gordon Hayward and Paul George; this was a big deal to Warriors fans until their resurgence under Mark Jackson/Steve Kerr). Udoh made some strides a season ago in his first season in the Euroleague, averaging 12.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 bpg and a PIR average of 16. However, Udoh didn’t really come into his own until the postseason, and even his breakout was questioned by some, as many debated whether he was more valuable than Jan Vesely (who missed considerable time down the stretch last year).

This season though, Udoh blew away any debate there was between him and Vesely. Udoh averaged 12.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.4 bpg, and a PIR average of 20.1, all dramatic improvements from a year ago, while playing more minutes to boot (31.2 to 27.8 in 2015-2016). He earned first team All-Euroleague honors, and was considered a snub for Euroleague defensive player of the year (which went to Baskonia’s Adam Hanga).

However, what may have solidified Udoh as one of the best centers in Europe was his MVP performance in the two games against Real Madrid and Olympiacos. For the two-games in the Final Four, Udoh averaged 14 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 6 apg, 3.5 bpg, a PIR average of 32.5, while shooting 64.3 percent from the field and averaging over 37 minutes per game (40 minute quarters mind you for those who aren’t familiar with Euroleague rules).

Seriously. Those numbers are fucking insane. And to put up those numbers against Real Madrid (who have insane post depth thanks to Gustavo Ayon, Anthony Randolph, Felipe Reyes, Othello Hunter, and Trey Thompkins), and against the physical Olympiacos trio of Khem Birch, Patric Young and Nikola Milutinov (who all were primary reasons why Olympiacos sported the best defense in the league this year, according to defensive rating) is a major testament to Udoh’s growth and development as a player in his two years in Europe.

Which begs us to ask the question: can Udoh return to the NBA?

Can he? Yes, I think he can. Offensively, I don’t know if his game will translate, as I don’t think his post game or ability to play one-on-one in isolation in the post will be as effective in the NBA as it was in Europe. Big men tend to be a more limited stock in the Euroleague, and I don’t know if Udoh can be a double-double threat against the Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins or Karl Towns of the league.

However, what Udoh developed considerably with Fenerbahce was his defensive versatility, as he may be a more polished defensive player now than he ever was in his time in the NBA. Yes, we know about the block numbers, but Udoh’s ability to mesh in Zeljko Obradovic’s heavy-switching defensive system (on full display against Olympiacos; a key reason why they ran away with the game down the stretch) makes him a more valuable commodity in today’s NBA game. Udoh can guard 3 to 4 positions at the next level. It’s not quite Draymond Green-esque, but for a near 7-footer, that kind of ability is valuable to NBA teams.

Now, should Udoh go to the NBA? That one is more up for debate. Udoh is a star and beloved in the basketball-crazy city of Istanbul. What he makes in Fenerbahce probably will match what he will make in the NBA, and if not exactly, it will at least be in the ballpark. Udoh is a legitimate superstar here in the Euroleague. On the flip side, he is probably a bench guy, a 7th-8th man at best, in the NBA.

That being said, you never know. I didn’t think Alex Abrines or Tomas Satoransky would be going to the league last year either, and look how that turned out. Either way, Udoh will be entertaining some calls this off-season, and rightfully so. He deserves it. However, let’s hope for the Euroleague and Fenerbahce he decided to keep his star shining brightly in Turkey.

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What’s next for Obradovic?

We know Zeljko is in it for one more year at least. The idea of him winning a title in his home country of Serbia (the Final Four is in Belgrade next year) would be the cherry on top of his illustrious coaching career. What Obradovic has done is nothing short of legendary, not just in Europe, but in basketball coaching worldwide. Let’s take a look at his profile:

  • 9 Euroleague titles (1 with Partizan, 1 with Joventut, 1 with Real Madrid, 6 with PAO and 1 with Fenerbahce).
  • 16 appearances in the Euroleague Final Four (in addition to the teams above, he also made one with Benetton Treviso).
  • 14 domestic league championships (11 in Greece, 2 in Turkey and 1 in the old Yugoslav league).
  • 9 national cups (7 with PAO, 1 with Fenerbahce, 1 with Partizan).
  • 4 medals as head coach of the Yugoslavia national team (silver in 1996 Olympics, gold medals in 1997 Eurobasket and 1998 FIBA World championship and a bronze in the 1999 Eurobasket).

I mean…how can really any coach compete with those accolades, either in Europe or America? Zeljko probably is one of the greatest coaches in basketball history, up there with such legends as Red Aurebach of the NBA and Coach K of the college ranks.

But, let’s say after 2018…what is next for Zeljko? I don’t know if he has much longer in coaching. His fiery, wildly emotional style I imagine hasn’t been good on his health, and I don’t know if he has much gas in the tank, especially considering he’s probably reached the zenith as Fenerbahce coach.

Does Zeljko go into management? Perhaps ownership? Or…does he try to get some kind of job in the NBA, perhaps try to be a head coach?

The biggest knock on Obradovic is he’s too brash to be a NBA head coach, which may be true. I don’t know if he can yell at NBA players like he does in Europe. But, you can’t argue with his results and resume. Winning basketball, regardless of continent, means something. And if you can justify a successful college coach going to the league with no NBA experience, you certainly can (and should) hold the same standard for a successful European coach.

With European influence becoming more and more pronounced in the NBA player-wise, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that a NBA franchise may take a chance on Zeljko and see if his coaching style and philosophy can be successful in the league. Of course, this is probably something that’s two years away from happening at least (no way Zeljko gives up a shot at winning a Euroleague title in Belgrade). But it’s something to think about, and talk about in the meantime.

There will be a post-Fenerbahce life for Zeljko.

How that life will develop and will ultimately lead to though is to be determined…

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Ranking the field of the upcoming Euroleague Final Four

It’s been awhile since I have been able to post here on this blog, and I am rewatching the Euroleague playoffs this week to get myself reaquainted with the Euroleague (NBA Playoff season doesn’t help) as well as re-psyched up for the upcoming Euroleague Final Four. It could be the long layoff. It could be summer is approaching. Apologies for the long periods without posts or Tweets. Those who follow this blog should be used to it by now.

Anyways, we are almost a week away from the start of the Euroleague Final Four, one of the most underrated events in professional sports. Unlike the NBA, it’s single elimination, no best of five or sevens here. Win two games, and your team is the champion of Europe. Simple as that; no second chances until next year. For basketball fans who get numb to the postseason until the NBA Finals in June (especially this playoffs season, where it seems all but determined that we’re going to get a Warriors-Cavs rubber match), this kind of format is not only exciting, but a breath of fresh air. If you have not checked out the Euroleague Final Four before in years past, this may be the season to finally get acquainted with the Euroleague and European professional basketball scene.

In this quick preview, I am going to break down each of the four teams and rank them according to four categories:

  1. Talent
  2. Coaching
  3. Fan Attendance
  4. Intangibles

Okay, so let’s take a look at what the four clubs bring to the table when they arrive in Istanbul next week. While the field looks exactly like the one in 2015 in Madrid, the odds and outlook of the clubs is a lot different from the one which Real Madrid won in 2015.

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Olympiacos Piraeus

Talent: 4th of 4th

Olympiacos had the toughest road in the playoffs, as they were down 2-games to 1 to 6th seed Anadolu Efes going into Game 4 in Istanbul. However, thanks to the heroics of Vassilis Spanoulis, Olympiacos won two straight games, and punched their ticket to the Final Four, their fourth appearance in the last six seasons.

Unfortunately, this Olympiacos team may be the shakiest talent wise of the field. Olympiacos limped toward the finish, and as stated before, were on the brink of elimination until pulling off the huge road win in Istanbul in Game 4. The lone Greek representative relies heavily on the two-man combo of guard Spanoulis and forward Georgios Printezis, who earned first-team All-Euroleague honors this week. In the playoff series against Efes, Spanoulis averaged 17 ppg, 6 apg, and a PIR of 17.2, and his frontcourt mate Printezis, averaged 12.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg and a PIR of 14.8. Those two players were the only players for Olympiacos who hit the double digit PIR average mark for the club in the five-game series.

Olympiacos doesn’t have the best depth, but they did get some bounce back performances from post Khem Birch, who posted a PIR average of 8.4, and 6.2 ppg, 5 rpg, and 1.2 BPG in just under 18 MPG, and guard Erick Green, who averaged 10.2 ppg on 38.1 percent from beyond the arc. Both players were non-factors down the stretch in the regular season, and it was comforting for Olympiacos fans to see them appear again after being relative no-shows during late-March and early-April.

One advantage Olympiacos will have over CSKA is in the post with the trio of Printezis-Birch and center Nikola Milutinov, who averaged a team-high 1.4 bpg against Efes. Milutinov is not a scoring threat, but he adds depth to the Olympiacos front court, which will be tough for the thin CSKA frontcourt to handle in their semifinal matchup. Add that combo with the stretch four  and small ball possibilities with Kostas Papanikolaou, and this could be the factor which could propel Olympiacos to an upset victory and a return to the championship game.

Coaching: 4th of 4th

Ioannis Sfairopoulos is a solid coach, but he hasn’t won a Euroleague title as a head coach, which is something he’s missing in comparison to the other coaches in the field. Sfairopoulos puts an enormous trust in Spanoulis to run the offense, who can be a turnover machine on occasion. However, that trust does pay off, for even though Spanoulis can turn a game away, he can also win it with big plays and big shots in isolation. Sfairopoulos deserves some credit for creating a culture where that kind of freedom on offense from star players is not just allowed, but encouraged.

This ranking is less a dig on Sfairopoulos and more an indicator of how good the coaching will be in this Final Four. Perhaps, if Olympiacos can make an underdog run, I’ll feel silly for ranking Sfairopoulos so low initially.

Fan attendance: 2nd of 4th

Olympiacos fans typically travel well, and the fact that the Final Four is only 11 hours away bodes well for Olympiacos in terms of getting fan support. The only thing keeping them from being No. 1? Fenerbahce unfortunately. Thankfully for Olympiacos, they should have the fan advantage in their semi matchup with CSKA, meaning the Red and White don’t have to worry until the Championship game.

Intangibles: 2nd of 4th

They have Spanoulis. They have Printezis. They seem to have finally gotten to somewhat full strength after struggling with injuries during the last third of the season. And, Olympiacos this year has always seemed to rise up to the moment, which makes them terrifying in a single elimination tournament. They undoubtedly are the underdog going into the Final Four, but with their fan support and big-game experience (especially from Spanoulis and Printezis), they could surprise a lot of fans and experts Final Four weekend, especially considering they have the least to lose of the four teams.

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CSKA Moscow

Talent: 3rd of 4th

Depth-wise, CSKA and Olympiacos are close: Olympiacos has the edge in the frontcourt; CSKA out-does Olympiacos in the backcourt. Seriously. CSKA has two of the best guards in Europe in Nando de Colo and Milos Teodosic, and those two alone make me more confident in the Russian club in this matchup. But if you look at the CSKA perimeter a bit deeper, and it’s easy to forget how key Cory Higgins was in the playoffs against Baskonia, as he averaged 13.7 ppg on 60 percent shooting from beyond the arc in the sweep over the Basque club. Add the two-way versatility of Aaron Jackson, who averaged 8.3 ppg and 4 apg in the playoffs, and CSKA should prove to be a handful for the Greek representative.

The big issue will be if CSKA can handle Olympiacos’ physicality in the paint. They face a more “finesse” team in Baskonia in the playoffs, as their post players (mostly Johannes Voigtmann and Tornike Shengelia) hovered mostly in the mid-range. That won’t be the case in the Final Four, as Birch, Milutinov and Printezis can bang with the best in Europe. It will be interesting to see if James Augustine, Kyle Hines and Andrey Vorontsevich (and perhaps Victor Khryapa) will be able to hold their own against the Red and White frontcourt. If they do, that would go a long way in terms of helping CSKA repeat as Euroleague champions.

Coaching: 2nd of 4th

Dimitris Itoudis is a disciple of Zeljko Obradovic and it shows: he shares his mentor’s intensity and knack for full-court pressure defense. But, Itoudis is a bit more creative on the offensive end, as he prefers a perimeter based approach that constantly puts the ball in the hands of playmakers like Nando and Milos. While most would say Obradovic would do the same, I doubt Obradovic could tolerate the ups and downs of a player like Milos.

Itoudis is an outspoken leader (he called out the CSKA fans after lackluster attendance in the playoffs), connects well with his players (he has helped keep a team consistency throughout his tenure) and has proven himself at the Euroleague stage in his three seasons with the Moscow-based club (he is averaging 25 wins a year). Combine those intangibles with his basketball knowledge and acumen, and it’s easy to see why Itoudis ranks as the second-best coach of the Euroleague Final Four field.

Fan attendance: 4th of 4th

CSKA will have big name fans there. They will have the lower levels and courtside seats taken for. But in terms of overall fan attendance? Forget about it. CSKA is one of the best basketball clubs in Europe, with one of the most entertaining players in Europe (Milos) who’s most likely gone to the NBA next year (fingers crossed for the Kings). And yet, their home arena is nearly half-empty during the playoffs and is as quiet as an Orthodox church.

Yeah, don’t expect this team to be depending on the CSKA faithful next week.

Intangibles: 4th of 4th

I don’t feel like this CSKA team is going in with good momentum. Though they swept Baskonia, the Basque club had opportunities to win each game late in the fourth quarter. The frontcourt is going to have trouble against these other three teams who have tremendous depth in the post. Milos seems to have one foot out the door in terms of leaving Europe for the NBA, and I could see him having  a down Final Four with that weighing on his mind. And repeating as Euroleague champs is tough, and every non-CSKA fan coming to Istanbul (basically 95 percent of the fans in attendance) will be cheering for CSKA, the Goliath, to go down, whether it’s in the Semis or Finals.

Yes, CSKA has been a well-oiled machine all season long. But, in a one-game playoff against any of these clubs? Well…maybe against Olympiacos their odds are solid, simply because of their advantage in talent. But in the championship? Against Fenerbahce in front of their home fans (and looking for revenge)? Against the crazy depth of Real Madrid? The championship outlook for CSKA doesn’t appear so hot unfortunately.

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Real Madrid

Talent: 1st of 4th

This Real team is seriously like 13 deep. At point, they have the All-Euroleague first team Spaniard Sergio Llull (who may be the Euroleague Regular Season MVP as well). They also have a second-team All-Euroleague player in center Gustavo Ayon, who may not be even the most talented post player on their roster (I go with Anthony Randolph in that category). They have the biggest prospect in Europe, and the winner of the Rising Star award in Slovenian wing Luka Doncic. And they have veteran presence and experience on this roster with Rudy Fernandez and Felipe Reyes.

Let’s just be honest. Yes, there are a lot of good teams in the Euroleague. The four in the field really were the best four in Europe due to their talent, chemistry and depth. But when it comes to roster depth, size and versatility, Real tops them all. No question about it.

Coaching: 3rd of 4th

Pablo Laso is an accomplished coach. He has won multiple ACB titles, and won a Euroleague championship in 2015. But, like many coaches in Spain, he relies way too much on a deep rotation, even in the postseason. Playing 12-13 guys an even amount of minutes works in the Regular Season, especially when you’re juggling ACB (the best domestic league in Europe) and Euroleague competition. But the Euroleague Final Four is the pinnacle. Randolph needs to play big minutes. Llull needs to be on the floor. Doncic needs to be given rope. And yet, players will come out earlier than they should, because of this trend in Spain to play “more players” in the rotation.

Maybe Laso will adjust. But coaches are a creature of habit, and I have a hard time seeing such an adjustment from Laso, even in a single elimination format such as the Final Four.

Fan Support: 3rd of 4th

Real Madrid fans are loyal. They are definitely a top-5 fanbase in the ACB (I prefer Baskonia’s fans over Real’s, but they are at least better than El Clasico rivals Barcelona). But, while they do have their ultras and dedicated fans who chant all game, home contests tend to be more like NBA regular season affairs in Madrid. Fans cheer for big plays, but for the most part are pretty low key when the action dies down a bit. They would be akin to San Antonio Spurs fans or Los Angeles Lakers faithful. They recognize greatness, have their super loyal supporters, and can get loud when the game is on the line. But will they travel to Turkey? Will they be as crazy as the Red and White Ultras or Blue and Yellow Fener fans? That’s a lot harder to imagine.

Intangibles: 3rd of 4th

I really believe Real Madrid is the best team in Europe. If the Final Four was a seven-game series like the NBA playoffs, no question Madrid would be leaving Istanbul as champions of Europe. They are so fun to watch, have a roster that would probably finish better in the NBA than the Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns, and can beat opponents in so many ways on both ends of the court.

But, that game 2 loss to Dacka…I still can’t get over it. Real clearly was the better team than Dacka in that series (Dacka’ s offense basically consisted of Brad Wanamaker ISOs and Ante Zizic putbacks). This should have been the easiest sweep of the playoffs and yet Real still dropped one to the Turkish upstart and in Madrid nonetheless. That game has just scarred my excitement about Real’s title chances, and considering their first game will essentially be a true away game against Fener, it just seems tough for me to see Real build up any momentum this Final Four.

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Fenerbahce Istanbul

Talent: 2nd of 4th

Some people may think I’m crazy putting Fenerbahce over Olympiacos and CSKA here. “They finished fourth! How can you say their talent is better than Olympiacos or the defending champs?” Well…let’s take a look at a few things:

  • Fenerbahce dealt with injuries a lot this year. Nearly every key player to this team missed time at some point this year. If this team was fully healthy, they would have finished 1st or 2nd, most likely ahead of CSKA.
  • Bogdan Bogdanovic is the truth…case in point? He was voted a first team All-Euroleague player despite playing in only 20 regular season games. That’s respect. Plain and simple. (And he proved that with his straight up killer performances in OAKA in the playoffs against Panathinaikos, who was the hottest team in the Euroleague going into the playoffs.)
  • This team has great chemistry and can pick one another up when they slack. Jan Vesely has declined the past couple of years, and yet you don’t notice it because Ekpe Udoh has become perhaps the Euroleague’s best post player on both ends. Luigi Datome and Nikola Kalinic have been interchangeable combo forwards, capable of stretching opposing defenses (by playing small ball 4) and having big scoring outputs any given night. If Bogdanovic has an off night, Kostas Sloukas and Bobby Dixon can pick up the slack. This team just plays well with each other, and though they do not have Real’s depth, they probably have better chemistry on both ends when fully healthy, which they have been this postseason.

So yeah. There’s a lot of reasons to like Fenerbahce’s roster.

And of course…Bogdan Bogdanovic is the truth.

Coaching: 1st of 4th

Zeljko Obradovic has won 8…fucking…Euroleague championships. He has turned Fenerbahce into one of the true powerhouse clubs in Europe.

Yeah, there is no competition here. Let’s move on.

Fan support: 1st of 4th

The Canaries will be in full force for this Fenerbahce team in Istanbul. This is the dream scenario really: a Final Four appearance in their home city. These fans get lit already for Turkish BSL games. Banvit-Fenerbahce can get crazy with the ultras. A semifinal rematch against Real Madrid, who beat Fenerbahce in their first ever Final Four appearance in 2015? A possible rematch from the 2016 title game against CSKA?

This Istanbul Fenerbahce crowd will be beyond lit for the semi final (and hopefully championship) game. And that “lit-ness” is going to give Fenerbahce an advantage on the that no other team in the Final Four field will match…not by a longshot.

Intangibles: 1st of 4th

Fenerbahce seems to be a team of destiny. The Final Four being in Istanbul. The crazy last round which had them go from 7th to 4th. Bogdanovic going nuts in OAKA. Udoh making All-Euroleague first team with Bogdanovic. The chance to be the first Turkish club in Euroleague history to win a Euroleague championship (and do so in their home country). Playing in front of one the most rabid basketball fan bases in all of Europe.

Fenerbahce has so much going for them as they head into the Final Four. They are the favorites, even if they may not look so on paper. In all honesty, it would be a miracle of God to NOT see Obradovic and the Fenerbahce team at the podium at center court holding up the trophy and covered in blue and yellow confetti on May 21st.

ELJ’s “Key Five-And-One” Playoff Preview: Olympiacos (3) vs. Anadolu Efes (6)

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Two previews down; two to go. If you missed it or unaware of how these previews are formatted, check out part 1 of the preview (Real Madrid vs. Darussafaka) and part 2 (CSKA vs. Baskonia) so you’re caught up.

Okay, now onto part 3, the 3-6 matchup: Olympiacos Piraeus vs. Anadolu Efes Istanbul.

(Also, major H/T to YouTube user MyBasketballTV who uploads these awesome Euroleague player highlight videos that I mostly embed on here; please subscribe to him/her/them if you haven’t already.)

Vassilis Spanoulis

Nobody is more crucial to this Olympiacos team and their Final Four chances than Spanoulis, the long-time Greek point guard. At his best, he is the engine of this Olympiacos offense thanks to his versatile scoring ability, as well as flashy and spectacular passing and playmaking. Furthermore, Spanoulis is one of the craftiest players in the continent, able to draw fouls, and do the little things to get to the line and help Olympiacos earn extra shots as well as extra points.

In Round 2, the 34-year-old point guard demonstrated why he has been voted a Euroleague and Greek MVP, putting up a masterful performance in a 90-66 win over Anadolu Efes at home in Piraeus. He scored 17 points on 5 of 9 shooting from the field, dished 9 assists, had 3 rebounds and accumulated a PIR of 26, the highest for a winning club that week and the highest mark of the season for him. The dominating demonstration by Spanoulis earned him Euroleague MVP for the week, as showcased in the video below:

But, as great and legendary as Spanoulis can be (I mean, christ, the Euroleague made a special documentary on him and he’s still active in the league), he can be his own worst enemy at times. He can be a black hole if his shooting is not on, as well as a turnover machine, forcing unnecessary passes at seemingly poor times. And as of late, Spanoulis hasn’t really finished the year on a good note, which correlates strongly with Olympiacos’ poor finish (they finished 1-4 in their last 5 games). After putting up a PIR of 24 in a big 79-77 win in OAKA over Greek rival Panathinaikos in Round 8, Spanoulis hasn’t reached the 20 PIR mark since, and has only put up a PIR in double digits six times from Rounds 9-30. Those are not impressive marks considering how much he has the ball in his hands and is depended on for offense in Ioannis Sfairopoulos’ system.

Luckily, despite Spanoulis’ regression after a hot start (Rounds 1-8), they have been able to get over his cool down period. But, this will be a tough matchup for Spanoulis (vs. Thomas Huertel, who’s been one of the best point guards since February), and Olympiacos is dealing with many injuries as well. For Olympiacos to punch their Final Four ticket, they will need an early-season Spanoulis (or past-season, MVP-esque one) over the next three-to-five games.

Nikola Milutinov

After an injury in a Greek Basket League game on April 10th, Khem Birch will be a serious question mark this series for Olympiacos. That is a huge blow to Olympiacos’ front court, which has depended on him as a powerful rim runner and anchor to their defense, which has been one of the Euroleague’s best this season. While Patric Young has experience with this Olympiacos squad and offers the same kind of physicality as Birch, 22-year-old Serbian Nikola Milutinov will be the more important player in the post and could be the key difference this series, especially if Birch misses games or is not 100 percent.

Milutinov has surged as of late, with his strongest performance of the year coming in Round 28 against Real Madrid, whose front court is stacked with NBA-caliber bigs such as Gustavo Ayon, Anthony Randolph, Othello Hunter, Felipe Reyes, and Trey Thompkins. The Serbian rising star and 2015 first round “draft and stash” pick of the San Antonio Spurs put up a line of 18 points,4 rebounds, and a PIR of 24 (a season high) in 21 minutes of play (also tied for a season high). Milutinov, who formerly played for Partizan Belgrade before coming to Piraeus, has soft touch and good skills and touch around the rim for a near seven footer, as evidenced in this highlight video of his performance against Madrid below:

However, consistency has been a problem for Milutinov this season. He has five games this year where he posted negative PIR marks, and he can be a non-factor on the floor at times as well. In the last game against Efes, he barely played, logging less than three minutes before being primarily regulated to the bench. Unlike Birch, whose springy and physical, Milutinov is a more “to-the-ground” big, lacking the athleticism or physicality of the newly acquired Canadian center. With Birch’s status a game-to-game issue, Sfairopoulos is going to need to trust the young Serbian star with more minutes on the floor. And consequently, Milutinov needs to capitalize on that coach’s trust with a big series as well.

Derrick Brown

Much like Spanoulis, Brown has been a bit of a life force for this Efes squad this season. When he plays well, Efes hums on the court and looks like one of the Euroleague’s best teams. When his play wanes, Efes looks as beatable as any of the other non-playoff teams. For Efes to have a chance to pull off the upset, head coach Velimir Perasovic and this Efes team will need a big series from Brown.

The 29-year-old, 6’8 former Xavier Musketeer is an explosive player on both ends of the court. The lefty forward can drive the ball and score strongly around the basket thanks to his high-flying athleticism, but he can also pull up and hit the mid-range with ease. He has a great ability to block shots and initiate the Efes fast break off of turnovers, an area they excel in considering the bevy of athletic guards and forwards on their roster. Brown demonstrated this ability and then some in a masterful performance in Round 21 against Red Star, where he scored 20 points, had 11 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists and accumulated a PIR of 33 in a 86-72 win in Belgrade. The dominating performance on the road, in a hostile Kombank arena environment, earned Brown MVP of the week honors, as seen below.

Brown most likely will be matched up with forward Georgios Printezis, who has been Olympiacos’ most consistent (and perhaps best) player this season. Brown hasn’t been great this year against Olympiacos, as he has only put up PIR marks of 8 and 11 in both contests. For Efes to pull of the upset, they need their best and most dynamic player to step up and win the matchup against “King George”. If he doesn’t, the chips will be heavily stacked against the Turkish squad in terms of making their first Final Four since 2001.

Thomas Huertel

If Brown is Efes’ most important player, Huertel may be their most dynamic. Though he is a sixth-man off the bench, Huertel is the team’s primary playmaker, leading the team in assists at 5.8 apg. Huertel is a crafty playmaker, able to beat defenders off the dribble and find open teammates for good, high-percentage shots. But Huertel is no, Ricky Rubio-“pass first and second; shoot third” guard. He can get to the rim and can find his stroke from the outside, as evidenced by him shooting 51.8 percent on 2-point shots, and nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc, both solid marks from a point guard.

During the month of February, no player was more crucial to his squad than Huertel was to Efes during that month of play. Huertel averaged over 16 ppg and over 10 apg, good for a PIR average of 23 during that time span. His stellar play, which helped Efes get back in the playoff picture after a poor start to the season, earned Huertel MVP of the month honors, as seen in the video below:

The French guard doesn’t get as much attention at times because he shares point guard duties with Jayson Granger, who normally starts for this Efes squad. But Granger is more of a combo guard who is depended on for shooting and scoring, not as much for playmaking, like Huertel. Without a doubt, the matchup between Spanoulis and Huertel will be a fascinating one, and if Huertel can outduel the Greek Euroleague legend, that could mean not only a return to the Final Four for Efes, but a boost to Huertel’s stock as a player not only here in Europe, but abroad as well.

Tyler Honeycutt

Tyler Honeycutt is not the team’s best player. That honor probably belongs to Brown, or maybe Huertel. But there is no player that is more complete or well-rounded than Honeycutt, who has been a Draymond Green-esque player for this Efes squad. Honeycutt doesn’t average double figure points this year (only 9 ppg), and he has only started 1 game as well, but his 13.6 PIR is third-highest on the team, and that is due to his multi-faceted game on both ends of the court.

Just look at the other categories Honeycutt excels in: he averages 7.1 rpg, a team-high and 0.9 bpg, the second-best mark on the squad. But, he also averages 1.1 spg, also the second-best mark on the team. And he is primarily a wing player that can play four positions on the floor. If that’s not Draymond Green-esque, than I don’t know what is. He put on his best Green-like performance in Round 5 against Panathinaikos, as he scored 15 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and dished 4 assists, good for a game-high PIR of 28, as illustrated in the video below.

Honeycutt is a nightmare matchup for Olympiacos on both ends of the floor thanks to his superb athleticism, strong skill set, and long 6’8 frame. Olympiacos will have to find a way to neutralize him, which will be easier said than done, especially considering the former UCLA product can beat teams in so many ways on both offense and defense.

Series Wild Card: Can Olympiacos stop the bleeding?

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Olympiacos is team trending downward and fast. They lost sharp shooting Matt Lojeski late in the season, which has limited their outside shooting effectiveness as a team as of late. Birch may or may not play this series, and even if he does, he won’t be a 100 percent. Spanoulis hasn’t quite played as well down the stretch, and that is worrisome considering his age and the miles on his body odometer as a player. Erick Green, who looked mid-season like the boost Olympiacos needed to make the Final Four, has totally disappeared from the Olympiacos rotation for whatever reason. Other than Printezis and Kostas Papanikolaou, this team has been a mess during the last third of the season and goes into the playoffs as a bit of a wounded dog of sorts.

Which begs us to ask the question: can coach Sfairopoulos stop the bleeding and turn Olympiacos’ fortunes around?

Olympiacos will have the home court advantage. And they certainly have the playoff experience advantage over Efes. But there are a lot of question marks about this Olympiacos squad entering the playoffs, and Efes is no slouch. Perasovic took Baskonia to the Final Four last year. Huertel has some playoff experience during his time with Baskonia (when they were Laboral Kutxa). Efes beat Olympiacos just recently in Round 29, so this Turkish club knows they can match up with the Greek basketball power. And Efes can run and gun with the best, and that will test the depth of Olympiacos, which is looking a little sketchy at this moment.

Olympiacos will need to make a statement in game 1, a statement that the last third of the season didn’t mean shit, and they’re ready to prove why they finished third in the Euroleague and that they can add another Final Four to their illustrious history. I know Olympiacos fans are telling themselves this, and believe Spanoulis and Printezis will help turn around this Olympiacos ship.

Game 1 will tell…because if Efes’ surprises in the opening playoff game…well…fans of the Red and White might need to start planning for next season rather than next month.

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.

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

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

-Rob Scott on this week’s Euroleague Adventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll find March 31st against UNICS Kazan.


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

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

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

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

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

Has Bogdan Bogdanovic become Fenerbahce’s most important player (and is he ready for the NBA)?

So, it’s been a while (two months roughly) since I have posted on here. I know. A lot has happened in the Euroleague. I haven’t been completely in the dark, even if my Euroleague Jam Twitter has suggested otherwise. I have still been watching games, though not with as much frequency as in the start of the season (I blame my coaching responsibilities for that).

But anyways, I have been getting the Euroleague writing itch again, and I have some free time on my hands as well. I figured writing sporadically about Euroleague basketball is better than not writing at all. So, I decided to write this post about Bogdan Bogdanovic and his impact on Fenerbahce as well as the potential of him going to the Sacramento Kings this off-season. (As I am a Kings fan and I know many Kings fans who are interested to see what his potential will be, especially since the Kings are rebuilding after trading DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins.)

So let’s take a look at Fenerbahce and Bogdanovic after his most recent performance from round 25.


bogdanovic-dacka

Fenerbahce lost 79-74 to Baskonia in Istanbul, in a surprising upset that solidified Baskonia’s playoff status a bit as we head into this final five game stretch. The game was a bit of a letdown for a Fenerbahce team that has been playing well lately, as evidenced by them winning six out of their previous seven before the Round 25 loss. Granted, Fenerbahce was playing short-handed, as Ekpe Udoh was ruled out for the game due to precautionary reasons, and it was obvious that his presence in the post was greatly missed. (Anthony Bennett, who started in place of Udoh and played in the most extensive stint of his Euroleague career, didn’t perform badly, but didn’t exactly duplicate Udoh’s production.)

If there is one silver lining from the game, it may be the continued development of combo guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, who may have solidified his title as Fenerbahce’s “star” player going forward. Bogdanovic played a game-high 34 minutes and scored 26 points on 7 of 10 shooting from 2-pt land and 2 of 5 from beyond the arc. He also added 8 assists and finished with a PIR of 26, which was a game high for both teams. While his impressive output came in a loss, that shouldn’t take away from what Bogdanovic not only did against Baskonia, but has done since he returned from injury in week 16. After missing extensive time, and taking it easy in 11 minutes against Olimpia Milano (in which he scored 0 points and took only two shots), Bogdanovic not only has returned to the productive form that was expected of him going into this year, but has perhaps surpassed that as well.

If you look at his game log, Bogdanovic has stepped up as Fenerbahce’s go-to perimeter player (and perhaps player in general) since round 21, where he struggled immensely in a 12 point, 2 of 11 shooting performance against CSKA Moscow (though his team won 77-71). He bounced back with a 15-point, 18 PIR performance in a tough loss to Turkish rival Darussafaka, but really came on the stage in huge wins over Euroleague Final Four contender Olympiacos and playoff-bubble team Zalgiris in consecutive weeks. In a 67-64 comeback win over a tough, defensive-minded Olympiacos squad, the 24-year-old Serbian scored 27 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field (3-of-5 from beyond the arc) to go along with 3 rebounds, 4 assists and a PIR of 29. If you watch the highlights below, it is quite a sight to see Bogdanovic battle for points against the tough Olympiacos defense, which may be the best in the Euroleague. The Piraeus-based club certainly put their pounding on him, but time and time again, especially in the fourth, Bogdanovic came up with crucial buckets, and willed them to a huge season-defining win.

His performance against Zalgiris was a bit more subtle, as he only played 21 minutes and scored 14 points on 4 of 7 shooting (2 of 3 from beyond the arc), but he did accumulate 7 steals as well as a PIR of 26 (only 1 point behind Udoh, who was the leader in PIR) in Fenerbahce’s 76-67 win. Put that together with his latest performance in round 25, and it is safe to say that this Fenerbahce team will be relying heavily on Bogdanovic down the stretch, not to mention depending on him to carry them to the Final Four. That is not an easy thing to say, especially considering this team has two All-Euroleague players (Udoh and Jan Vesely), and a former NBA player and Euroleague playoff stud (Luigi Datome) still on their roster. But after what he has done the past five games, there has been no one more productive for Fenerbahce, not to mention nobody else who matches up better head to head against the top playmakers from Final Four favorites CSKA (Milos Teodosic and Nando de Colo), Real Madrid (Sergio Llull and Luka Doncic) and Olympiacos (Vasilis Spanoulis).


NBA: NBA Draft

Without a doubt, at this moment, Bogdanovic is thinking about how he can help Fenerbahce win a Euroleague title, which has just escaped their grasp the past couple of seasons (they have made the Final Four the past two seasons but finished fourth and second, respectively). Nonetheless, the big question for many basketball fans in general is if Bogdanovic will go the NBA, specifically the Sacramento Kings, who own his rights. The fit in Sacramento is fascinating mainly because it’ll be interesting to see if Bogdanovic can play the point guard position at the NBA level. While Bobby Dixon technically is the point on the team, Fenerbahce coach Zeljko Obradovic has opted to designate Bogdanovic as the main ballhandler in the past five or so weeks, and instead have Dixon play more off the ball. It was a bit of a risk to move a guy who primarily played the wing last season to the point position, but it has has paid off on both ends. Dixon has been able to utilize his strengths as a catch-and-shoot player from beyond the arc, and Bogdanovic has been able to create offense more off the drive not just for himself, but for his teammates as well (as evidenced by his 8 assists against Baskonia).

If Bogdanovic can make it to the NBA as a point guard (or at least a hybrid guard capable of playing it in limited doses), it will make his arrival in Sacramento much more exciting. As a shooting guard prospect, Bogdanovic is simply okay. A lot of NBA and Kings fans will be eager to want to compare him to Peja Stojakavic, since they are both Eastern European shooters who blew up Europe thanks to their scoring and shooting. However, Bogdanovic doesn’t have the height or shooting prowess of Stojakovic, so to make that comparison is unfair and unrealistic. That being said, Bogdanovic can create his own shot a lot better than Peja, and him getting more experience as a point guard on this Fenerbahce team makes the outlook of him perhaps playing a hybrid point in the NBA much more realistic.

He is going through his growing pains of course. He did have five turnovers last week, and I do not think he will have the passing prowess of a Sergio Rodriguez or Ricky Rubio by any means. However, he is a polished offensive player on many ends. He looks in control when he takes it to the rim. He can beat sagging defenders with his three point shot. And his vision is getting better, especially in the half court. His defense will be an issue, especially considering the athleticism of today’s point guards in the NBA (it’s tough to see him guard a Kyrie Irving or John Wall or Rusell Westbrook). It’s questionable if he’ll have the speed to keep up at that position on a full-time basis (which is why I think he is more of a hybrid). That being said, offensively he definitely has the potential to be an interesting point guard prospect who can really stretch opposing defenses thanks to his shooting and overall offensive polish, as one can see in this video below:

For the Kings, Darren Collison will be a free agent after this year, and Ty Lawson may be on his way out now after his latest brush with the law. That leaves huge gaps at the point guard position for the Kings, and they most likely won’t get a high enough pick in the draft to nab Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball, nor would they have enough money to lure a quality free agent point guard. Thus, with the Kings in full rebuild mode after trading their star player, Cousins, it seems logical that the Kings should take a flyer with Bogdanovic. Yes, him being a NBA point guard isn’t a slam dunk by any means. Can he adjust to other NBA point guards from the competition in Europe? That is hard to project accurately. But Bogdanovic isn’t just a spot-up shooter. He has a more diverse offensive game than that, and he has showed it in the Euroleague, becoming Fenerbahce’s most dependable player down the stretch.

It will be interesting to see if the Kings and head coach Dave Joerger will give him the kind of chance in Sacramento in 2018 that Fenerbahce and Obradovic has given him in Istanbul in 2017.

 

Anthony Bennett, Fenerbahce, and the Challenge of Ex-NBA’ers in the Euroleague

In some stunning news, European basketball reporter has this to tweet on Thursday night:

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Bennett, the No. 1 draft pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2013 NBA Draft who was famously drafted over Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo, C.J. McCollum, and Rudy Gobert, has not quite had the professional career he probably envisioned when he left after one year at UNLV. He has struggled through injuries and being effective on the court, which has resulted in him playing on four NBA teams (Cavs, Timberwolves, Raptors, and most recently nets) in his short four-year career. After getting released by the Nets and with little interest from NBA teams, the Canadian hybrid-forward opted for a roster spot in Europe (well…Turkey to be specific) instead of signing with a D-League team.

The decision is a peculiar one. Bennett has struggled to find a position on the court in the NBA. At 6’8, he isn’t exactly tall enough to play the power forward or center position full time, but on the flip side, he doesn’t exactly have the three point shooting prowess or athleticism to play the small forward either. In today’s NBA, where shooting and height is not just a premium, but almost a necessity when building a roster, Bennett’s tweener skill set simply didn’t mesh, and it was not surprising that the former top pick was primarily regulated to the bench or on assignment in the D-League at various points with various teams throughout his NBA career.

However, the idea of playing in Europe should be enticing for Bennett. Considering quality big men tend to be rarer in European basketball than the NBA, it is possible to see Bennett become more valuable and hence, have a chance to be more productive. After all, Ekpe Udoh, a former lottery pick of the Golden State Warriors who had a lackluster NBA career, has become not only an All-Euroleague player, but a borderline Euroleague MVP candidate this season as well. Bennett probably sees this, and at 23-years-old, probably hopes for an opportunity for redemption like Udoh.

So, it makes sense on paper that Bennett signed with Fenerbahce. He wants a career bounce-back like Udoh, why not sign with Udoh’s club?

The question, however, is this: will Bennett fit on this Fenerbahce team?


Fenerbahce going into this season was a favorite to make a third-straight appearance in the Euroleague Final Four. They basically returned everyone from last year’s runner-up team, and they also added the athletic James Nunnally, who played with Italian club Avellino last season. Along with CSKA Moscow (who also returned a ton of talent) and Real Madrid (who returned their core of talent beyond Sergio Rodriguez, and also added All-Euroleague center Anthony Randolph), Fenerbahce looked like a Euroleague championship favorite, especially considering the Final Four was going to be on their home turf in Istanbul.

However, this season has not gone as expected. Bogdan Bogdanovic has missed multiple games due to injury. They have not gotten as much consistency from their roster beyond Udoh and breakout star Kostas Sloukas (who has emerged as their go-to perimeter scorer in Bogdanovich’s absence). And their defense, a staple of legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic (who has won Euroleague titles with Partizan and Panathinaikos), has been wildly inconsistent, as they do not seem to have the kind of cohesion and communication that made their defense so stout the past two seasons. And all these issues are amplified when one takes a look at their record: 10-7, 5th in the standings, with a negative-9 point differential.

Hence, Fenerbahce needs a spark for this second-half, especially after their most recent 75-73 loss to Crvena Zvezda in Belgrade (Red Star swept the season series from Fenerbahce, which included a double digit win over the “Yellow Canaries” in Istanbul; I’m sure this infuriated Serbian national and former Partizan coach Obradovic to no end). And Bennett could provide a spark because Fenerbahce’s biggest weaknesses this year has been physicality and depth in the post.

Now, one might think Fenerbahce should be set in the paint. They have two All-Euroleague frontcourt players in Udoh and Jan Vesely (another former NBA lottery pick bust), former Atlanta Hawk Pero Antic, and Serbian Nikola Kalinic, who has been productive this season while averaging over 24 MPG and 7.4 ppg. However, despite their depth on paper, Fenerbahce’s frontcourt hasn’t really delivered beyond Udoh. Vesely hasn’t been the dominant force that he once was in Fenerbahce’s past couple of seasons (this is probably due to Udoh, who has emerged as Fenerbahce’s go-to post player after Vesely went down with injury in the second half of last season). Antic has gradually been phased out of the lineup, as he is averaging only 14 mpg, and earned a DNP in their last contest again Red Star. And while Kalinic is a talented scorer and athletic post, he can get into foul trouble, and he doesn’t necessarily have the bulk to bully himself against more physical posts in the Euroleague.

Fenerbahce is hoping that Bennett will solve those physicality issues in the post. In college, Bennett mostly found success around the rim, on the glass and around the rim. Yes, he was undersized, but he looked more comfortable in the block as a four in college, which he never really got a chance to do due to the length he gave up to opposing frontcourt players in the NBA. Fenerbahce did not sign Bennett because they need shooting. They didn’t sign him because they needed athleticism. They need him because they need somebody to bang on the glass and on defense, and show some scoring touch around the basket beyond Udoh. Fenerbahce has struggled most against teams that play physical: they were swept by Red Star, and have lost to Baskonia, Olympiacos and Panathinaikos, who all have good, aggressive post players. They are hoping Bennett will help equalize their chances against those teams, especially since those are the kinds of teams whom they will be fighting against down the stretch for a Final Four spot.

Bennett won’t be given an easy opportunity. He most likely will be competing with Antic for the remaining minutes in the block behind Udoh, Vesely, and Kalinic. Antic most likely will lose out because he really doesn’t offer the skill set they need: he’s not athletic, he’s not very good defensively, he plays more on the perimeter, and his rebounding is paltry at best (2.6 per game this year). Antic made his name in the NBA as a stretch-4 who could shoot well beyond the arc, and he is doing okay in that category by shooting 36.6 percent per game. But with Bogdanovic back in the lineup, and Udoh the primary offensive frontcourt player, shots are few in number, and Antic isn’t really high enough in priority to merit more. They don’t need more scoring from the outside, and unfortunately, that’s all really Antic gives this Fenerbahce team.

And if you look at the numbers, it is obvious that Bennett gives Fenerbahce the skill set that they are sorely missing with Antic on the floor. Bennett was shooting 56.8 percent on two-point field goals with Brooklyn this year. His per 36 numbers are solid: 15.7 pp36m, 10.6 rp36m, and only 1.6 turnovers per 36 minutes. And while playing more physical in the paint in comparison to his early years (where he was forced to play more small-forward with the Cavs), he has been able to be physical without fouling, as evidenced by the 2.5 fouls per 36 minutes. Yes, those are just projections, and per 36 minute statististics need to be taken with a grain of salt. However, he has showed glimpses of breaking out as of late. He may never be a No.1 status player, but he certainly has the opportunity to still be a really good basketball player, especially when you watch some of the highlights from him below:

Fenerbahce is not expecting a NBA All-Star or future Hall-of-Famer, as some Cavs find did when they drafted him No.1 overall (okay…nobody was thinking that even on draft night, but still he was drafted first). Rather, they are hoping that with more minutes and more playing time, Bennett will not only become closer to the player he was at UNLV, which would help rebound his career, but he will also solidify their playoff and thus, Final Four chances.


This should work, right? Bennett has something to prove. He has a skill set that could be more effective against less-elite frontcourt players. He is going to a good team with a widely-respected and successful coach. He should fit, right?

It should…but we have seen American flopping in the Euroleague before.

While you could point to the Udoh success story, you could also look on the flip side with Galatasaray, as Americans like Russ Smith and Austin Daye haven’t had the impact basketball fans thought they would enjoy in the Euroleague this season. It’s actually quite common, and any Euroleague expert who know more than I do (which is a lot) can attest to it: American players come in thinking “oh, it’s Europe; i’ll dominate easily”, only for them to leave the continent with their tail between their legs.

Because in reality, the Euroleague is NOT the D-League. European clubs do not care about American players’ development nor their desire to get to the NBA. They are not there to make players into better “prospects”. European coaches have the same mindset as NBA or even college coaches: they coach to “win games”. If a player is not helping them win games, they will part ways with them quickly. The stakes are too high in the Euroleague. There aren’t the number of games in Euroleague as there are in the NBA. And with a club’s spot in the Euroleague annually on the line (much like European soccer), organization’s patience is thin with players if they aren’t producing. That’s why you don’t see the Sixers exist in a European form in the Euroleague. Because a team that “tanks” would see themselves in the Eurocup or Champions League or FIBA Europe Cup rather than the Euroleague, and that difference is huge in terms of revenue. Every game is important in the Euroleague, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable to watch on a game-to-game basis in comparison to its NBA counterpart (though I still love the NBA regular season it just doesn’t have that Euroleague competitive spirit until the playoffs).

And that is the reality Bennett, and future American imports in general, face when they come to Euroleague squads. Some have recognized it, like Udoh. Some have not, like Smith. It will be interesting to see if Bennett can make that adjustment. Yes, Fenerbahce fans will have hope for him, as a former No. 1 pick and NBA player. But ultimately, what they, and Obradovic, will care about ultimately is what Bennett will do for this Fenerbahce team NOW. If he produces, he will be as beloved as Udoh this year, who has put his NBA failures behind him and has carved out a nice career with one of Europe’s best clubs. If he doesn’t, he will be just as discarded in Europe as he was in North America. His pedigree will be even more useless, because ultimately, what doesn’t matter to fans is what a player did in America. It’s what they do in the continent, in the Euroleague, in front of their own eyes. All-American or All-Conference or Ken Pomeroy POY awards don’t mean jack shit to them (Smith can attest to this).

For many ex-NBA players who come to the Euroleague, this is hard for them to understand. It’s hard for them to play for fans who don’t care or even know what they did in college or in their limited time in the NBA or D-League. Some players get away with it in the NBA because they have that fan base that pulls for them from their days back at Kansas, or North Carolina or Gonzaga. In Europe? Forget about it. The best American Euroleague players tend to be the ones who worked the hardest in college, who went under the radar and under-appreciated. It’s why guys like Daniel Hackett and Alex Tyus carve out a long-lasting careers. They had to earn their spot in their college careers against more highly-recruited and lauded players on an annual basis. And that mindset transitioned and served them well in Europe, where the stakes are even more cutthroat considering the money and expectations put upon American players by organizations, coaches and fans.

Will Bennett be able to do that? Udoh did. And Fenerbahce is hoping they will strike gold twice: invest in a deemed “NBA Bust” who revitalizes their career and makes the club better as a result. It will be interesting to follow, especially Bennett’s relationship with Obradovic, who is not exactly the most “nurturing” kind of coach. Obradovic is intense and competitive, and if Bennett doesn’t adjust, it is plausible that Bennett could be quickly out the door. With only 13 weeks left in the regular season, Zeljko has no time to be patient with anyone, let alone a former “NBA Bust.”

For Bennett, this is a last shot of sorts. Maybe he is doing this to gain good graces again amongst NBA front office members. Maybe he is doing this because he wants a fresh start where nobody will hang the “Greg Oden” label over his head. Maybe he is doing this because he wants to play and win and Fenerbahce gives him the best shot to be a part of a championship squad.

Only Bennett knows for sure why he’s packed his bags for Europe. The rest of us will just have to wait and see.

Welcome to Istanbul and the Euroleague, Anthony. The clock is ticking…