By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen

When Ettore Messina rolled out a starting lineup of Milos Teodosic, Sonny Weems, Viktor Khryapa, Zoran Erceg, and Sasha Kaun last Thursday versus Real Madrid I got excited.  Had Messina found the perfect formula?  Is he just employing a lineup match-up to go against Real’s extra long starting lineup of Sergio Llull, Carlos Suarez, Rudy Fernandez, Nikola Mirotic, and Mirza Begic?  What is going on inside the mind of Messina?

When you have so much talent and size, figuring out the different ways to exploit match-ups and use different player skills sets to your advantage is tantalizing but difficult.  Messina has said this year that he always tries to find SWAT or emergency unit in his teams, to send in when the team needs to change the course of game.  This article is an exercise in figuring out what that lineup might be and what his overall best lineup is.  Because even when you have talent, as Coach Jonas Kazlauskas showed us last year, you need to know how to use it correctly.

Main Decisions

Viktor Khryapa at Small or Power Forward?

Versatile Viktor is the type of player that makes lineup questions like this happen.  Because he can do so many different things on the court and do them at multiple positions, he makes it possible to throw out different lineups to see how they’ll work because he can always be relied upon to keep them afloat.  The question is whether he is more effective with two bigs playing next to him or two wings?  As someone who routinely operates from the foul line extended or perimeter, he isn’t a conventional four but rebounds and defends like one.  This probably comes down to more who the other team is playing but I think in the end if it’s wing (probably Vladimir Micov) or a big (probably Zoran Erceg or Andrey Vorontsevich) they need to be able to shoot from deep and finish off Khryapa feeds.  All three are very capable.

Do you want a second Point Guard to play with Milos Teodosic so he can go off the ball more and guard a Shooting Guard?

With heavy minutes and offensive responsibility, it seems running a team can sometimes drain Teodosic of his scoring, creativity, and energy.  Because of his bigger frame and ability to score as well as he passes, if there is a suitable point guard to play with him, Messina will or already has tried it out.  Anton Ponkrashov has crawled into a shell of sacredness this season after getting some starts. Aaron Jackson has needed time to get comfortable in Moscow but has been shooting the ball well recently.  Finally Theo Papaloukas has looked decent as a old passing wizard but he’s just that, really old.  All three have been below par or mediocre options for most of the season but Jackson has the highest ceiling to contribute. If he can hit three’s, pester opponent points guards, and get the hell back on defense to stop fast breaks, there are minutes to be had.

Andrey Vorontsevich or Zoran Erceg?

Here we have two stretch big men who can really shoot and have been injured this year. Vorontsevich is shorter (2.04), can score off the dribble as he has been attacking more this year, and is a better rebounder, especially on the offensive boards.  Erceg  is taller (2.11) and shoots better and more often from deep (44% on four 3-point attempts per game).  Is CSKA looking to get a little more lineup flexibility or do they want a specialist near the top of his game?  Because CSKA already has such versatile players throughout it’s lineups, it seems a knockdown shooter like Erceg is the better option for now.

Sasha Kaun or Nenad Krstic?

Rim protector and finisher or back to the basket offensive big?  Last year and the early parts of this year it seemed the older, wiser Krstic was the answer.  He was close to unstoppable in single post coverage with his footwork and smooth mini-mid-range finishes.  The big difference, that has been increasingly clearer recently is that as masterful as Krstic is on offense, Kaun can be just as effective on defense.  And when switched to their weaker side of the court, Kaun is a better offensive player than Krstic is on defense, with a bonus that Kaun runs the fast break like a runaway train.  Add to it that Kaun has been playing his best basketball as of late and when you have the scoring weapons CSKA has, it’s a better luxury to have a shot swatting giant looking after everyone’s back.

Pick Your Lineup

New: Milos Teodosic – Sonny Weems – Viktor Khryapa – Zoran Erceg – Sasha Kaun

Minutes Played: 15
Point Scored: 39
Points Against: 22
+/-: +17

This is where the exercise starts.  You can look at all the different CSKA lineups used this season here.  In a limited sample size this one has been dynamite.  39 points in 15 minutes is bonkers scoring numbers.  They cruised to a quick double digit opening lead versus Real and really didn’t look back.  When Playoff or Final Four games are on the line, will this be the lineup used?

As @rodhig (who wrote about CSKA’s great play on Euro-Step this week) mentioned on Twitter, Real did a poor job of pressuring this lineup because there aren’t many ball handlers.  If Teodosic does get too much pressure he has Khryapa to run the offense through, although not much of a dribbler he is an amazing passer.  The wild cards are if Erceg can make shots and what can Weems create on offense versus a probably smaller shooting guard.  This lineup is insanely long though, has some perfectly matched skills sets, and might just be, Messina’s masterpiece.

Double PG’s: Milos Teodosic – Aaron Jackson – Vladimir Micov – Viktor Khryapa – Sasha Kaun

Minutes Played: 20
Point Scored: 56
Points Against: 28
+/-: +28

Now we walk into, statistically, the best +/- lineup this year.  They’re also scoring at an insane rate with Teodosic off the ball a little, having the offense run through mostly Khryapa and occasionally Jackson.  Teodosic ends up with 20 points and Khryapa seven assists in these 20 minutes played.  At first glance “Best Lineup” doesn’t pop off the screen but a lineup where your two no question best players (Teodosic and Khryapa) skills are highlighted extremely well, only means good things.  Adding in Theo Papaloukas to help create even more scoring possibilities as a substitute for Jackson is a possibility too.  So in an experiment to find the best lineup is the question really, who are the players that fit best with Teodosic and Khryapa?

Without Khryapa: Milos Teodosic – Sonny Weems – Vladimir Micov -Andrey Vorontsevich – Nenad Krstic

Minutes Played: 15
Point Scored: 26
Points Against: 12
+/-: +16

This is not CSKA’s best lineup.  Viktor Khryapa isn’t in it.  But it’s interesting to see how they can maneuver without Khryapa in.  12 point against in 15 points is pretty staggering even in a small sample size.  It seems even with Krstic and Teodosic’s defensive short comings, Weems, Micov, and Vorontsevich are so long and disruptive that CSKA can switch every screen and all those guys can play/guard the two, three, and four spots.  Add in Aaron Jackson and Sasha Kaun at the one and five spots and then you might be looking at a cruel defensive lineup CSKA can throw out when Khryapa or Teodosic need breathers.

Twin Towers: Milos Teodosic – Sonny Weems – Vladimir Micov – Nenad Krstic – Sasha Kaun

Minutes Played: 43
Point Scored: 87
Points Against: 80
+/-: +7

The twin towers lineup has been used pretty frequently and started a handful of games for Messina.  But in a world where playing two traditional bigs next to each other is fading farther and farther away, having two centers can often hurt you in a now faster game.  With Krstic ability to work in the mid-range and high post it makes the option possible against bigger lineups, but Krstic is averaging (per 28 minutes) seven less points and shooting 12% worse from the field when playing power forward.  If CSKA needs to go big or find ways to play without Khryapa in the game, this is a possibility, but Krstic gets worse when he’s dragged too far from the hoop (only two at the rim attempts in this lineup), making Erceg and Vorontsevich better power forward compliments to Kaun.

SWAT: Milos Teodosic – Sonny Weems – Vladimir Micov – Viktor Khryapa – Sasha Kaun

Minutes Played: 37
Point Scored: 79
Points Against: 67
+/-: +12

Earlier this year Messina discussed his idea of a SWAT lineup:

“Another important issue, and this is something I’ve been very careful with throughout my career, is picking my “SWAT team” – an emergency unit deployed when thing don’t look good in a game. It doesn’t just mean having your five best players on the floor together. It could be three top guys and two players who just can get thing done under pressure and the threat of losing and know how to avoid mistakes. If I’m able to find my SWAT team quickly, it could save us some rough games. (Sports.ru)”

My thinking, this might be that very lineup.  These are five guys that Messina really trusts, with Khryapa, Micov, and Teodosic being at the front of that line.  So much ball sharing going on, in 37 minutes on the floor together this lineup has 20 assists.  You have Teodosic and Khryapa threading passes to open teammates or creating for themselves when open.  Weems and Micov are both very good defenders while Micov is more a spot-up shooter and passer on the offensive end with Weems slashing and scoring off the bounce.  Then to protect it all is the fortress of Kaun waiting to dunk or block a shot in the background.  A fortress that during these 37 minutes leads this group in scoring with 23 points.  If Kaun is scoring at that rate, meaning you can’t leak out help defenders to the perimeter, it gives these shooters space to work with.  Space they will take full advantage of.

Beauty equals Micov to Teodosic to Kaun:

Final Conclusion: Micov or Erceg?

With such a deep and talented roster there are so many different lineup configurations that “best”, is a term that can only really be used correctly when the opponent and match-ups are known.  It seems to me though, as the season sprints to the finish line, rotations get tighter, and certain lineups really start to be counted upon more.

For Messina, a season’s worth of tinkering now needs to be rolled out into a final plan.  So when the season is on the brink the best lineup will look something like Teodosic, Weems, Khryapa, Kaun, and add in your choice of Micov or Erceg.  The core four is set and depending upon their play, one of those two willing shooters will be added in.  Since this roster is so insanely versatile, you get to decide between a wing or big to add in because everyone else can slide around.  I started off looking at positional match-ups and ended up deciding more on who fills the role better.  As much as I want to take the tall lethal shooting weapon in Erceg, Micov shoots 47% from three to his 44%, and has done it in almost double the attempts.  So he can play Erceg at Erceg’s game and then brings more to the table with his ball movement and defensive capabilities.  This also allowed Khryapa to work the power forward spot where he is a bit more comfortable matching up against a slightly bigger player rather than slightly quicker player.

Whatever Messina’s lineup picks are, it’s fun to ponder and will become increasingly important when London comes calling.  Check your calendars, we’re almost under a month away. 

All stat work is provided by In-The-Game.Org. Go check it out.