Panathinaikos completes comeback; Olympiacos fans unravel; and the uncomfortable reality of ‘ultra’ culture

Yesterday was a big day in European basketball. Fenerbahce, as expected, took a two-game lead over Besiktas in the Turkish BSL finals. Brose Bamberg won their third straight German title, and eighth domestic championship in nine seasons. And, Valencia pulled off a huge upset in Madrid to even the up the series in the ACB Liga Endesa finals.

However, all of those games deferred to the last big game of the day, which was the deciding Game 5 of the Greek Basket League championship between heated rivals Panathinaikos and Olympiacos in Piraeus.

If you follow European basketball (or just basketball in general) on Twitter, you probably heard about the incident in Piraeus that resulted in a wild, but dangerous ending. I will talk about that part later, and some of my own thoughts about the “ultra” culture.

However, I want to talk about the game first, for what PAO did seems to get lost in the discussion due to the events that happened in the last two minutes.


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Make no mistake, what PAO did wasn’t easy. While PAO took care of games 2 and 4 in Athens, they struggled immensely all year in Piraeus. Going into game 5, they were 0-4 for the year on Olympiacos’ home turf, which also includes their matchup in the Euroleague. The Red and White’s extremely physical style of play proved to be difficult for PAO, as their 90’s New York Knicks approach to basketball seemed to throw PAO off rhythm, especially on the offensive end. With a Greek Basket title on the line, and the Olympiacos ultras going to be in full, ridiculous and intimidating force, it seemed unlikely that PAO would be able to pull off Game 5 and come back from a 2-1 deficit in the series.

And yet, PAO not only beat Olympiacos in Peace and Friendship stadium, but absolutely dominated the game from the five minute mark of the first quarter on. Olympiacos put up an early 11-3 lead, but the wheels came off for the defending champs after the hot start. Though Olympiacos led 17-14 in the first quarter, PAO won the second quarter 10-22 and then the third quarter 10-21 to go up  37-57, which was too insurmountable for the home team to overcome, as they lost 51-66 to the Athenian visitors.

One could credit PAO head coach Xavi Pascual for adjusting his offense in the critical game. A coach who depends on his big playbook and heavily patterned offense, Pascual ceded control to his ball-dominant point guards Nick Calathes and Mike James. Calathes and James hurt the Olympiacos defense all game long, whether it was in isolation, drive and kicks for open threes (especially to KC Rivers who hit three 3-pointers), or in the pick and roll. For the game, Calathes put a line of 12 pts, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, and James, the MVP for the game, put up a line of 11 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists, good for a game high PIR of 19. If you watch the highlights below, you will see Calathes and James come up time and time again making big plays on the offensive end.

On the defensive end, PAO took away drives and the paint from OLY and forced their rival to beat the Greens from deep. The strategy worked, as OLY shot 25 percent from beyond the arc on 28 shots. Add that with 12 turnovers committed (in comparison to PAO’s 7), and it made sense that PAO won by such a large, and comfortable margin. Center Ioannis Bourousis took away scoring opportunities in the paint from OLY, as he had two blocks, a steal, and neutralized Nikola Milutinov, Khem Birch and Patric Young in the block, as they only combined for 8 points combined.

The disappointment in the finals for OLY could somewhat be contributed to stars Vassilis Spanoulis and Georgios Printezis failing to come through in the big moments. One could blame fatigue or PAO’s depth and defensive focus just getting to them in the final game of the year. However, the fact of the matter is OLY depends on their top two stars to win, and when they don’t play well, the game become very difficult for the club, especially on the offensive end. Spanoulis went 2-for-11 from the field and had 4 turnovers, good for a PIR of 5 (9 points total). Printezis was even worse, as he went 2-for-14, scored only 4 points, and had a 0 PIR. A combined 13 points from your two biggest players is not a formula for success, and OLY learned that the hard way in the title game.

This season is a bit of validation for Pascual, who was fired last summer from Barcelona despite his history of success with the club. In his first season in Athens, Pascual won a Greek title (snapping Olympiacos’ title streak) and made the Euroleague playoffs as a 4 seed (19-11 overall) despite taking over after the season started. That is a stark contrast to Barcelona, who finished 11th overall in the Euroleague (12-18 overall), lost in the first round of the ACB playoffs, and is now looking for a new head coach after firing Georgios Bartzokas after one season.

As Barcelona shuffles again for another head coach (and apparently being rejected by Sarunas Jasikevicius, who is apparently staying with Zalgiris), Pascual is once again on the top perch with the best coaches in Europe. Quite a turn of events in less than a year.


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I am still new to European basketball, as I have been following European ball on a regular basis for about 2.5 years now. When watching domestic leagues, it is refreshing to see how styles are different from country to country. The ACB is a more wide open style, with a bigger focus on offense and games being called more tightly. The Greek Basket league on the other hand is 80’s Big East Basketball: physical, no-holds barred, and not a lot called (and not just Olympiacos; I watched some AEK, PAOK, and Aris games and they all played the same way). I can appreciate both styles, as diversity in the game is always fun to see from a fan’s perspective.

However, the big difference between Europe and American NBA fans is the “ultra” culture. Though it’s pretty well-known in soccer circles, it does carry over to basketball, especially in Greece. In the last two minutes, with the game obviously going to end in PAO’s favor, the Olympiacos ultras showed their “dissatisfaction” with the result around the two minute mark, as evidenced below.

For a fan that’s used to NBA fanbases, who switch their team allegiance depending on what club LeBron James is on, this was quite the sight. I mean, fireworks, flares, explosions and for a good 20-30 seconds, the players didn’t seem fazed, as if this was just normal for them. Even on Twitter, as I remarked my shock, I was brought back to earth by people quite familiar with the Greek basketball scene:

Yep. I still have a lot to learn about Greek, and perhaps even European, basketball in general.

Overall, even though I imagine this kind of stuff is going to be expected on my end in the Greek League, it shows how different and ugly “ultra” culture can get. Sometimes, as Americans, “ultra” culture can be seen as “wow, these fans are so much better than American ones” or “it’s like a college environment!” And yes, when the focus is on the games, the “ultras” can give off that impression to us “outsiders”. It’s easy to see the positive when you only look at the surface.

However, between this incident, and my viewing of a recent documentary “Forever Pure” which looks at the La Familia “ultra” fan base of Beitar Jerusalem, I definitely have a modified view of “ultra” culture. It’s not just a bunch of fans coming together to be loud and cheer. There’s deep politics to these groups, as “ultra” groups can be vessels for extreme politicians who know they can mobilize people and an agenda better at a sporting event than a rally. And unfortunately, these “ultra” politics sometimes can be racist and hateful. There can be violence. There can be demonstrations of slurs that would make most people in America cringe. I mean, take a look at some of the photos below:

Can you imagine if a scene like that broke out in America? Can you imagine what Adam Silver would do? Hell, could you imagine what senators would come out of the woodwork and claim that as an act of terror? Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and Jason Whitlock (or even Donald Trump, that ever-opportunistic bastard)  would be spewing conservative nonsense for weeks. This made “Malice in the Palace” look like a middle school lunchtime scuffle.

I’m not referring to all Olympiacos fans as responsible for this incident. I know many Olympiacos fans and they are practical basketball people who don’t get wrapped up in the politics or antics of “ultra” culture (like the people who run Courtside Diaries who are good knowledgeable basketball people and excellent writers not to mention Olympiacos fans). And yet, honestly, my view of Olympiacos and perhaps Greek basketball clubs as a whole has changed because of this. I am not a fan of this shit in any sport, and it’s a big reason why I don’t embrace soccer as much as other people. This is not fandom. What happened was outright dangerous for everyone involved.

I love European basketball, and I do love the Greek game, and will continue to love both going forward. It’s physical, heated on the court and amongst fan bases, and when things are in control, the fan environments can be the best in Europe, maybe the best in the world. But it’s important to understand the depths of “ultra” culture, and it’s not always positive, and it shouldn’t always be duplicated. Even in America we see MLS fans try to “duplicate” this behavior in their own fan sections and stadiums without knowledge of what these “ultras” are really about, which isn’t always about the game, but rather politics.

I am not totally discouraging “ultra” culture. I know it can enhance the game experience. And I know it’s not just a basketball thing, as it is more pronounced in soccer. However, I got a new perspective on European basketball this weekend. There’s a dark side, a reality that isn’t really all that comfortable to witness. I have to admit, I felt uncomfortable watching the last two minutes of that game. I felt something horrendous was going to happen. I felt as if I was watching something from a movie, not a live game.

We shouldn’t feel that way when watching sport, especially basketball.

We should just enjoy the beautiful game. And we shouldn’t expect chaos because the road team won on a hated rivals home court. It shouldn’t be “well…it wasn’t that bad all things considered.”

But it’s going to be that way from now on. I am going to expect shit to go down now in certain matchups from here on out. And that’s sad considering how much I love European basketball.

It’s amazing how one event can scar or desensitize you so easily.

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Can Panathinaikos come back and snap Olympiacos’ streak? (And if they don’t, what next?)

As expected, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos are fighting for another Greek Basket League championship. Since the 1992-1993 season, either Panathinaikos or Olympiacos has been crowned champion of Greece, with the lone exception being in 2001-2002 when AEK won it. In that time span, Olympiacos has won the GBL title 8 times, while PAO has won it 15 times, with a string of dominance coming from 1998-2011 where they were crowned champions of Greece 13 times in 14 seasons (this was when legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic was coaching the Athenian squad).

However, Olympiacos has been the stronger team as of late, as the Red and White won the past two GBL titles, and currently holds a 2-1 series lead after a 64-62 comeback win over their Athenian rival in Piraeus. In the third game of the series (the GBL does a 1-1 home-away alternating format over a five-game series), PAO made a valiant effort to steal the road win in Piraeus, as they led with less than 3 minutes in the game. However, some big free throws by Serbian center Nikola Milutinov, and some key stops by Olympiacos ended up saving the game for home team in a physical, wild and intense contest, typical of what is expected in this Greek basketball rivalry. As you can see in the highlights below, this game was full of physicality, high emotions, and big moments; exactly what should be expected from a championship matchup.

The series in the two previous games have followed the same format: Olympiacos won game 1 at home in a 63-58 slugfest, while PAO won in OAKA 84-80 in a bit more faster-paced, offensive-oriented contest. It is quite clear how both teams needs to play in order to capture the GBL title: PAO needs to settle in their offense, shoot well, and push for more offensive opportunities through steals, turnovers and increasing the pace; Olympiacos wants to ugly it up, use their physical frontcourt to establish the tone, and open up their offense through the pick and roll.

In games 1 and 3, Olympiacos got to play their style. In game 2, it was PAO who dictated how the game was to be played. Thus, it’s not surprising the series sits at 2-1 in the favor of Olympiacos. And with home court advantage in this series, the signs may not be good for PAO, especially considering the lost opportunity in game 3.


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For Olympiacos, a third-straight GBL title would be a nice little consolation prize after falling short in the Euroleague Final Four championship game in Istanbul. A nice development has been from Milutinov, who has emerged as Olympiacos’ go-to post player this series. Khem Birch, who has been the glue to Olympiacos’ defense this year, has gradually faded out this series, as Patric Young, through his physicality and hustle buckets, has usurped Birch’s minutes in the rotation. In game 3, Young played 11 minutes and had 7 points, while Birch played only 3 (and only had 1 point).

As for Milutinov, despite being only 22 years old, he has emerged as Olympiacos’ second-best frontcourt player (behind only Georgios Printezis) and practically saved the game for Olympiacos.  In 25 minutes of play, he scored 14 points, grabbed 5 rebounds and posted a PIR of 20, which was a game-high. Furthermore, Milutinov was a key reason why PAO struggled to score in the paint, as they shot only 12-32 from 2 point shots, and took almost as many 3 point shots as 2 pointers (27 3-pt attempts). And lastly, Milutinov and the Olympiacos frontcourt made it difficult on Chris Singleton and James Gist, who posted PIR totals of 5 and negative-1, respectively in game 3.

How PAO can handle the Olympiacos frontcourt in game 4 (and perhaps game 5 if they win in OAKA while facing elimination) will be a key factor in whether or not Xavi Pascual’s squad can pull of the comeback. Because, when it comes to the perimeter, PAO probably holds the edge. Vassilis Spanoulis hasn’t been a 100 percent this series, as he sat game 2, and was held relatively in check in game 3 with only 5 points and a PIR of 7. Spanoulis and other perimeter players such as Evangelos Mantzaris, Thomas Zevgaras, Erick Green and Ioannis Papapetrou have showed trouble at times trying to slow PAO’s perimeter offense. After a relatively quiet game 1, Nick Calathes has been a consistent machine, helping PAO in other categories than just scoring. KC Rivers had a big game 1 where he scored 16 points. Mike James has been the kind of explosive guard that has not only given PAO a boost off the bench, but has given the Olympiacos defense fits. And they have gotten some good contributions from Nikos Pappas, who parlayed a 16 point, 20 PIR performance in game 2 to a starting role in game 3, and Kenny Gabriel, a combo forward who stretches out Olympiacos, and provides PAO with some spot up shooting as well as defensive versatility.

When PAO gets out, pushes the ball, or is able to get the ball moving quickly out of their sets, they look like a championship team. But, as Olympiacos has done to many teams this year both in the Greek Basket League, when things get physical, the PAO offense stagnates, and things tend to result into poor, low-percentage ISO situations. That is evidenced in the box score, as Olympiacos has won the assist battle every game in this series by far, a sign that Olympiacos is playing better team basketball on the offensive end than their opponent. If PAO wants to win, that differential has to be closer, and they need to get into their offense quicker to make it happen. Too many times, PAO wastes time off the clock trying to get in their sets, and it often works to their detriment, resulting in bad or rushed shots or forced ISO situations late in the shot clock.

One question that could determine whether or not PAO can keep this series alive is whether or not Ioannis Bourousis will be able to play. Bourousis went down hard with an injury in game 3 and did not return, only logging 14 minutes of play. Maybe Pascual was just trying to be safe, but Bourousis is the only player with the size, physicality and skill to match up well against the Olympiacos bigs. “Small ball” with Singleton and Gist has done okay at times, as it allows PAO to push the pace a little bit more and stretches out the Olympiacos defense, thus opening up more lanes for PAO offensively. However, they struggle to match with the muscle of Milutinov-Young-and Birch in the paint, and they don’t offer Bourousis’ low-post scoring ability as well. If Bourousis is out in game 4, that could be the difference in terms of Olympiacos capturing another title.


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Olympiacos and PAO are two teams in different situations, despite the fact that they remain (and will remain) at the top of the Greek basketball world. Olympiacos has been the model of consistency in GBL and Euroleague play. They have been a team of continuity, as Ioannis Sfairopoulos has been the coach since 2014, and they have surrounded star players Spanoulis and Printezis with similar player each and every year. Yes, Olympiacos will probably lose some players from this Euroleague runner-up squad over the summer (Milutinov is now suddenly a hot prospect, and with the Spurs owning his rights, they may bring him over if they can negotiate a buy-out). But, Olympiacos will find the right replacements who will fit into Sfairopoulos’ system and the GBL and Euroleague success will keep on humming for the Red and White.

As for PAO, they are at a bit of crossroads in terms of where they go in terms of building their team for 2017-2018. There’s no question that this season was for the most part successful. Despite injury issues, an early coaching change, and some roster shakeups (Alessandro Gentile being the prime one), they finished 4th in the Euroleague with a 19-11 record, and finished with a 25-1 regular season mark in the GBL, all sterling accomplishments. But then again, this is PAO. For these fans and management, only championships are acceptable, nothing less. That was on full display in the Euroleague playoffs after the club got swept by Fenerbahce in game 3 in Istanbul, as team president Dimitrios Giannakopoulos made the team take the bus back from Istanbul to Athens rather than travel back by plane. The expectations are extremely high for this team considering the money they spend on payroll, and if PAO falls to their hated rival once again, it is expected that more changes will be made to this roster over the summer.

That being said, one has to wonder if the bus incident will have lasting effects on this PAO squad this offseason. Four players (Antonis Fotsis, Kenny Gabriel, Chris Singleton and Mike James) refused to get on the bus, and the effects are still somewhat felt from the incident. Fotsis is no longer on the team, and Gabriel, Singleton, and James all could leave this off-season, opting for a new basketball home without the headaches caused by ownership. And if they do leave, one can imagine that the “recommendations” from these three to other American players about playing for PAO management will probably be “less than stellar”.

So, it will be an interesting dilemma for PAO this summer. Of course, a championship could change all that. If PAO pulls off the comeback and wins the GBL title, maybe everybody is back, and they can build on this for next season, with a healthy James and Gist available from the start rather than in the last third of the season. Maybe Pascual will have a full offseason and get this club to fully understand and buy into his philosophy in the preseason rather than on-the-fly. PAO has the money. It has the fanbase. And in reality it has the players and coach. Management and ownership just need to trust in these factors to allow this club to be successful.

A GBL title would help PAO ownership be more patient, more trusting. But another loss? Another defeat to the Red and White from Piraeus? Another image of Kill Bill holding up the GBL trophy?

Well, we’ve seen what happened before in Istanbul…who knows what could happen if PAO loses in Athens in Game 4.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barcelona is a bit of a mess right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stagnating in Spain: Where Does Barcelona Go from Here?

For the second straight year, Tomas Satoransky (13) and FC Barcelona came up short in the Euroleague and ACB.

“It’s clear that we didn’t know how to take advantage of the home-court advantage we had to close the series. We had that opportunity in the fourth game, after winning the second one here, but like today, we couldn’t make shots in the last quarter. It has been a beautiful series, as I said, and we had our options to win it.” –Xavi Pascual after their Euroleague Game 5 loss to Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnador

For the second straight year, proud European basketball club FC Barcelona will not be hoisting any major trophies this year, and there are major questions that need to be answered this summer when it comes to the future of this Spanish basketball power. In the Euroleague playoffs in late April, despite a 2-1 series advantage with Game 4 at home, the Catalan franchise fell 3 games to 2 to Russian club Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnador (a club that was playing in the Eurocup a year ago) for the remaining Final Four spot in Berlin. The loss marked the second year in a row Barcelona failed to get out of the playoff round in the Euroleague, a rare and remarkable occurrence since they had only missed the Final Four once from 2008 to 2014 (in the 2011 playoffs they lost to Panathinaikos 3-1).

Things did not fare much better in the ACB league in Spain. Sure, one could say that the season overall turned out to be a success in the Liga Endesa. Barcelona had the best regular season record at 29-5, and they made quick work of a scrappy Fuenlabrada team in the first round, 2 games to 0, and in the second round, outlasted a strong Laboral Kutxa Baskonia team that had made the Euroleague Final Four, 3 games to 1. Furthemore, according to Eurobasket.com’s Top 100 Club ratings, Barcelona ranks No. 3 in the World behind only Euroleague championship participants CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce Istanbul, respectively.

But regular season records and preliminary ACB playoff rounds do not matter with the Catalan basketball fans. Much like the New York Yankees of Major League Baseball, the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA or even their own futbol franchise, what matters at the end of the day are championship trophies. There are no such things as moral victories or consolation prizes with a fanbase that demands the highest degrees of success on an annual basis.

And once again, for the second straight year, Barcelona fell to their Clasico rivals Real Madrid.  After Barcelona’s thrilling Game 1 victory at home 100-98, Real Madrid cruised to the three straight victories in the Liga Endesa Finals, outscoring their rivals by a combined 44 points over the three-game span. The loss was particularly humbling for the Catlan squad considering their ACB first place finish in the regular season as well as stronger performance in the Euroleague, where they had a better record in the Top 16 (8-6 to Real Madrid’s 7-7 mark in Top 16 play) and Playoffs (Real Madrid was swept by Fenerbahce).

And now, after a second straight season where Barcelona fell short to their rivals in a myriad of ways (in 2015 Real Madrid not only swept the Finals series, but Barcelona also had to watch Real Madrid hoist the Euroleague championship trophy), a massive wind of changes seem to be brewing in the Eastern Spanish countryside. Already, Barcelona General Manager Joan Creus has stepped down from his position, and there are circulating reports that former Barcelona and NBA player and current Zalgiris Kaunas coach Sarunas Jasikevicius is expected to take over as the new head coach.

Nothing is official in the latter’s regard of course, as Xavi Pascual, who has been the head coach since 2008, is still officially the coach of Barcelona despite another disappointing season. Nonetheless, things have stagnated for the Spanish basketball power, and it is clear amongst basketball fans that all kinds of changes need to be made, not just in terms of coaching, but talent as well.

Head Coach Xavi Pascual couldn’t finish the job the past couple of years in Barcelona, and, despite a history of success in his eight-year tenure, could be on his way out.

Pascual has been the head coach of Barcelona since 2008 and probably has had one of the most successful tenures of any coach in Europe in that time span. In his coaching career, they have won four ACB Championships, and have been runner up in seasons when they have not won it all domestically. In the Euroleague, he led them to a 2009-2010 championship, and has seen his club participate in the Final Four on four other occasions (2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014). He is a four-time ACB coach of the year award winner as well as a Euroleague coach of the year winner in 2010 when Barcelona won the Euroleague Championship over Olympiacos. Quite simply, it would be hard-pressed to find a whole lot of others coaches in Europe that have been as accomplished as Pascual as of late.

Unfortunately, the past two seasons haven’t been kind to him, as Pascual has been widely criticized for his coaching style and strategy which have included an emphasis on methodically playing in the half court, and an over-reliance on aging veterans past their prime. Despite other Spanish clubs like Baskonia and Real Madrid pushing the pace and producing an exciting brand of up-tempo basketball to various success, Pascual employed a much slower pace this past season that involved draining the shot clock and putting less of an emphasis on transition. In the Euroleague, Barcelona was the slowest team in the Euroleague Top 16 in pace at 70.4 possessions per game (in comparison, Baskonia ranked third-fastest at 74.7 and Real ranked sixth-fastest at 73.4). While that was not necessarily a bad thing (Barcelona’s net rating was actually better at 3.6 than Baskonia’s 1.9 and Real’s 0.1 in Top 16), it didn’t endear them to general European basketball fans who were used to seeing much more exciting styles of play from other Spanish squads in Europe’s premier club competition.

And the slow pace wasn’t the sole wort for this Barcelona squad this season aesthetically. Pascual emphasized a rather conservative defensive approach, as his teams tended to rely heavily on zone looks against much better competition and de-emphasized producing turnovers (they had the 6th-lowest opponent turnover rate in the Top 16) and blocking shots (they had the fourth-lowest block rate in the Top 16). The rather risk-averse approach had its advantages, especially if opposing teams were not shooting well from the outside. That being said, if players or teams got on hot shooting streaks (as evidenced by Loko’s Anthony Randolph and his 28 point on 11 of 17 shooting performance in Game 4 of the playoffs), Barcelona found themselves on the losing end, sometimes badly, because they didn’t have the kind of defensive system that would generate extra turnovers and extra possessions necessary to produce big-time comebacks.

Of course, Pascual hasn’t necessarily been this kind of coach, as if you look in years past, he has always been around league-average when it comes to pace. Hence, this year may have been an anomaly. But why? Well, it’s hard to play up-tempo with an aging roster that not only struggled through various injuries, but also couldn’t compete with quicker and more athletic teams.

Which leads us to our next issue: the roster change needed in Barcelona. Despite his legendary status, Juan Carlos Navarro suffered a horrific season by all accounts. At 36-years-old, Navarro doesn’t have the speed and athleticism anymore to compete with Europe’s top guards and wings. Additionally, his shot also deserted him, especially in Euroleague play. In the Euroleague, Navarro shot only 44 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from beyond the arc, some of the worst percentages of his playing career. The combination of his age and poor shooting was a reason he played under 20 minutes a game in Euroleague competition and sat out during key stretches of many big games. In ACB league play, Navarro wasn’t much better, and he was utilized less, as he shot only 35 percent from beyond the arc, and 42.7 from the field. Hence, after such a regression this season, it made sense why Navarro only played 17.8 minutes per game, and was replaced in the rotation by younger wings such as Pau Ribas and Alex Abrines.

But Navarro wasn’t the only one who failed to live up to expectations. Carlos Arroyo, a former NBA guard with the Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and Miami Heat failed to live up to his billing as he struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness to only average around 15 minutes per game in both ACB and Euroleague play. Guard Brad Oleson was a mess in Euroleague play, as the usually reliable outside shooter, shot a disastrous 26.7 percent from beyond the arc, and had the lowest PIR of any player that averaged 10 or more minutes on the team at 2.6. And Ante Tomic, who was deemed the center of the future for Barcelona after signing a three-year extension last June, struggled to have any kind of impact, as he averaged a paltry 10.9 ppg and 5.4 rpg in about 20 mpg and 0.95 points per possession. To make matters worse, he was a liability on defense who was subbed out in favor of backups Samardo Samuel, Shane Lawal and Joey Dorsey, who often needed to make up for his defensive shortcomings.  Tomic was often exploited by opposing guards in the pick and roll as he was neither quick enough to switch or consistently hedge and recover, and his block rate of 0.8 percent was lower than guards Alex Abrines, Tomas Satoransky and even Carlo Arroyo. In all honesty, that is pretty lackluster, if not embarrassing, for a seven footer who was once a NBA Draft pick.

One could sum up Barcelona’s roster in three words: old and fragile. In the ACB, where there is a much bigger talent gap between the top teams (Barcelona, Real, Valenica, Baskonia, etc.) and the rest, it worked out okay, until the championship against Real of course. But in the Euroleague, where the competition is much better week after week, Barcelona just couldn’t keep up, and it made sense that they fell to a Loko team that had little history of success in the Euroleague prior to this season. Experience is important, but experience can’t make up for lost shooting, an inability to consistently defend the pick and roll and being muscled out by more athletic and physical opponents. And not only did that happen against Loko in the playoffs, but throughout the Euroleague campaign, especially in losses to Khimki Moscow, Baskonia, Zalgiris and Olympiacos in the Regular and Top 16 season. Barcelona just looked like a team over the hill, that had to rely on miracle shooting or lackluster execution from their opponents to pull out victories.

Yes, Barcelona had a mediocre roster, but that wasn’t to say that there wasn’t hope or some youth on the team. Abrines, Satoransky and Ribas were all young players who had pretty good seasons, and looked capable of carrying this team in ways Navarro, Oleson and Arroyo couldn’t. But, Pascual, being a veteran coach, couldn’t seem to part with his veteran players in the lineup, even though all indication statistically said he should have. As detailed in this excellent piece from Rob Scott of Euroleague Adventures, Pascual’s reliance on Navarro and Oleson, over younger and more effective players like Abrines and Ribas, especially in key games, could be one of the reasons for his departure. Here’s an eloquent piece that sums up Scott’s point about Pascual:

Pau Ribas was supposed to be the marquee signing of the summer, but he was underused as Pascual refused to let go of Navarro and Oleson, even Arroyo. The stubborn commitment to ‘his guys’ is probably great for motivation, and every indication is that his players love him. But there must be a point at which the team makes a clean break with the past. It looks like that has just begun

 

After half a season and a Lithuanian championship with Zalgiris, Jasikevicius could be the coach to turn around fortunes at Barcelona immediately.

Not a lot of players seem to be safe on this Barcelona roster going forward, not even Justin Doellman a big signing a couple of seasons ago from Valencia, who averaged 9.6 ppg and shot 43.5 percent from beyond the arc in Euroleague play, and 11.9 ppg in the ACB this past season. At 31 years old, Doellman isn’t exactly in that boat of Navarro and Arroyo age-wise, but his style of play (more of a stretch 4 who excels as a spot up shooter) and lack of agility and gifts defensively don’t fix the glaring flaws Barcelona has in terms of speed and athleticism. Doellman, much like other import Samardo Samuels, may not have been a part of the problem in 2015-2016 for Barcelona, but he doesn’t seem like he would be part of the solution in the future either, as what he brings to the table could easily be replaced by someone currently on the roster or another signing.

Pascual returning is probably a miracle (if not impossible really considering the “leaking” of these reports about him going), and all indications seem to point to Jasikevicius being the guy to help Barcelona get out of this “stagnation period” Barcelona has been in the past couple of seasons. Jasikevicius would be an interesting hire, as he certainly is a big name due to his time as a player not just in Barcelona, but all over Europe including Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, Panathinaikos, and Zalgiris. However, he only has been a head coach for about half a season, and while he did lead Zalgiris to a Lithuanian Championship, his team didn’t particularly do well in the Top 16 under his watch, as Zalgiris went 2-12 in the Top 16, which was the worst record of any team in that round, and had a net rating of minus-16.2, which was also the worst mark of any team in the Top 16 in that category. Granted, Zalgiris was at a much bigger talent disadvantage than the competition (Paulius Jankunas was really the lone bright spot of that club last year), and by the time Saras took over Zalgiris in January, they already were on the outside looking in when it came to a playoff berth. Hopefully for Barcelona’s sake, Jasikevicius has grown as a coach (and his Lithuanian Championship was a step in that direction) and learned some things from his “trial by fire” with Zalgiris that will help him avoid mistakes that led to such a poor record and net rating in the Top 16 last season.

At the very least, Jasikevicius will bring a more “up-tempo” style (Zalgiris was around league average in pace at 72.8) and he will bring a much fiery personality to a club that seemed to grow fatigued with Pascual’s more “subdued” and “political” demeanor. Pascual will not be easily replaced, especially when one reflects back about his eight years as coach there, and the multitude of awards, both team and individual, he accumulated with Barcelona. That being said, Jasikevicius is a fresh, but familiar face that should help bring the kind of new energy on the sideline this club needs to compete again with Real Madrid.

Of course, a team can only go so far with coaching. The talent needs to upgrade if Barcelona wants to be more competitive. Satoransky, Abrines and Ribas are a good core, Stratos Perperoglou and Alexander Vezenkov could grow into their roles, and maybe Tomic can rebound after a season of regression. However, Barcelona needs to get more athletic on the perimeter, and stronger and more physical in the post, and it will be interesting to see what Barcelona’s new GM will do to address both those issues.

Because a third-straight season of deference to Los Blancos in ACB and Euorleague play?

Well…that may be too much to take for Catalan basketball fans.