PODCAST: Randolph Goes Loko and Euroleague Playoff Goodbyes

After watching an Overtime classic between Lokomotiv Kuban and FC Barcelona, Sam Meyerkopf and Rob Scott chat about the Game 4 that was plus say goodbye to Euroleague Playoff teams that have been eliminated.  Holy Anthony Ramdolph and we’ll see everybody for Game 5 in Krasnodar!

 

 

 

You can check out our full SoundCloud stream and download the podcast on iTunes

Lokomotiv Derailed: Barça Shoots Back

Lokomotiv Kuban isn’t a normal Euroleague club. As I’ve written before, they have embraced a quirky identity that revels in being a little off the beaten track. They’re not the first club to use traditional folk dancers as a pre-game hype track, but in Krasnodar, there’s a girl twirling a pair of swords. It’s the kind of display that says ‘welcome, we’re friends… but we could kill you.’Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 22.49.49The sharpest blade wielded in the ‘Basket Hall’ this season was defense. Georgios Bartzokas has his defenders switch as quickly and effectively as the daggers in the hands of those dancers. That is, until Game Two, when Xavi Pascual could be forgiven for feeling a little smug.

What is it that… you do here?

Even though they sit top of the ACB at 25-2 and 1-1 in a Euroleague playoff series, there’s been a weird absentee vibe from Barcelona this season. A lot of the time they seem to have played with the attitude of a guy who hits the snooze on his alarm clock with a sigh, briefly considers phoning in sick to work, but decides to just go in anyway but do the bare minimum.

Not so on Friday night in southern Russia. They drained 16 of 26 three pointers, piling on 92 points against by far the best defense in the Top 16. Lokomotiv scored the same 66 points that they did in Game 1. That was a 5 point win, but Barcelona took the second by 26. In 40 minutes, Barcelona managed to puncture what looked like an impregnable rearguard.

One way to get the upper hand over a tough half court defense is to get points in transition. Loko were sloppy in possession early in Game Two and Barça jumped all over it. Pascual is pigeonholed as a walk-it up kind of coach but Satoransky stole an errant pass and took off for a layup. Doellman grabbed a defensive board and instantly Perperoglou took the outlet and raced down the floor, drawing a foul. Bartzokas had to call timeout, down 11-5.

As Loko’s offense could only create one contested jumper after another, Barça’s shooting let them run away with the game. It’s really hard to win if the other team makes 16 threes. Was it just a hot streak, or has Pascual picked the lock that nobody else could manage?

Screen test

Not all of the three-pointers were the result of defensive breakdowns. Some were contested and some were off long rebounds or random breaks. But otherwise, Barça did some clever stuff:

The smartest thing they did was to use weakside action and second screens to make it harder for Lokomotiv to react even with a quick switch, or little wrinkles like guards screening for each other, but there was usually more than one pick that the defense had to read and react to.

Loko defenders did their best to rotate but the passing and screening was so well timed that it was really tough to shut things down. Very few of the shots were wide open, but Barça managed to prise open the door just enough.

The clips above show how they kept the Loko defense moving, but they also hit contested shots at a really high clip. By my count there were five heavily contested threes where the defense couldn’t really have done any more. Navarro threw in a couple, off-balance, that recalled his old nonchalance.

Barça likely won’t hit those kind of shots at one hundred percent for the rest of the series, but the volume of threes given up should concern Bartzokas as he picks his team up from a blowout loss. Randolph did protect the rim pretty well, stuffing Samuels and Tomic, but it won’t be much help if they can’t close off the perimeter.

The other problem for Loko is that Barça’s defense was completely on point. Other than a quick burst from Malcolm Delaney in the first quarter, the visitors gave away nothing. Everything was contested, it was so tough to get penetration that face-up jumpers were the only option. It’s a big risk because Anthony Randolph never met a mid-range jumper he didn’t like, and Pascual will be happy enough for him to shoot Loko out of the series.

There’s no reason why Bartzokas can’t adjust, and I’m sure the film sessions will have been intense. Switching defense has been their signature but they have clever, committed players who are bought into working their asses of on that end. But Pascual has shown in the past that his most potent weapon is the ability to throw in mid-series adjustments. It wouldn’t be the first time that the wily old fox has thrown an opposing coach off the scent.

@robscott33

 

CSKA Exhales, Escapes With 2-0 Lead

Crvena Zvezda backed in to this series with three straight losses to finish the Top 16. You can now make that five in a row as they left Moscow empty handed, but they regained a whole lot of respect and credit from the first two games of their series with CSKA Moscow.

They had one objective from the opening pair of games – go back to Belgrade with at least a split. They came within a few seconds of getting that, and forcing a nervous CSKA team to head to Serbia, and 20,000 Delije fanatics, under extreme pressure.

Considering how Crvena Zvezda came into the series, and CSKA’s home record in the playoffs in which they’d won 14 in a row, maybe the Russian giant was too complacent. After they made it 15 in a row in a nervy but ultimately comfortable Game One, perhaps they took things for granted. Certainly the way Milos Teodosic was careless with the ball twice after he stepped on the floor late in the first quarter didn’t please coach Dimitris Itoudis, who played him only 18 minutes.

They were a Stevan Jovic travel away from having a chance at going home 101. So how can Crvena Zvezda get back into the series? Beyond hoping that the ferocious Belgrade crowd can bring on a mental meltdown. Which could happen…

Continue to trust in Jovic

The Serbian point guard has racked up 11 assists in the first two games, seven on on Thursday, and he should be the main man when it comes to creating shots and handling at crunch time. He has a great understanding with Maik Zirbes, and that pick and roll offense has given CSKA trouble, particular with help rotations from the wings. Vasilje Micic is a talented creator but Jovic just has that feel for the game that you need in a playmaker, knowing when to pass, when to attack. Jovic is better in transition though, quicker up the floor, and that’s the second key to staying in the series.

I wasn’t as keen on Tarence Kinsey handling the ball. Kinsey is a great weapon to have in mid range as he can find space between the paint and the perimeter to pull up for two, or attack the closeout with a one or two dribble pull up, and he’s not afraid to take the big shot. His driving ability makes him a spacer without having a three point shot. But he’s not really a playmaker. Coach Radonjic has enough options without Kinsey taking over too much.

Jovic took his team to this point, he should be given the chance to get them even further. He’s also shot 7-for-11 from behind the arc in the series, with Kinsey on 0-for-6, making him 3-for-27 in 15 Euroleague games since he joined the team. Jovic’s ability to pull up for three is a key part of the Reds’ offense.

Push, push push

Crvena Zvezda is second in opponent turnover percentage in these two games –  an impressive 20.4%. One every five trips up the floor, CSKA has coughed up the ball, and that has turned into easy points. One way of levelling the playing field when up against more skilled opponents is to grab those transition points, and the atmosphere in Belgrade should ramp up even further the insanity scale if the likes of Quincy Miller can throw down on the run. During their first half lead in Game Two, when the score was 43-36 in their favour, they’d forced 11 turnovers to CSKA’s two. Get a lead like that in Belgrade and the decibel meters will be blowing smoke.

The only problem is that the leader of the above statistics is… CSKA. The Serbian team has to take better care of the ball if it wants to drag this to five games.

The other factor that makes live ball turnovers so vital is that, in the vernacular style of European hoops, it racks up team fouls through those instinctive half court reach-ins. That will matter in a series as closely contested as this, particularly when one of these teams has a strange habit of perhaps getting the benefit of the doubt on close calls.

Hope Against Hines

There’s been an Olympiacos DNA running through these playoffs – as Pero Antic and Kostas Sloukas carve up Real Madrid; Georgios Bartzokas’ Lokomotiv Kuban recall the strengths and weaknesses of the 2013-14 Reds, but the biggest imprint has been made by Kyle Hines. To many – with apologies to Bamberg – he remains synonymous with the scrappiness of the back-to-back champions, and somehow he’s retained that despite moving to the penthouse section of society with CSKA.

His 40 points over the two games have bailed out CSKA as Teodosic and De Colo haven’t been firing on all cylinders. There he was switched onto Jovic for the crucial turnover with 2.9 seconds left, smothering him like a fire blanket.

He didn’t pick up a block in Game Two but altered several shots. His arms poke into passing lanes, he fights for offensive rebounds. This is not news. Itoudis has put Hines guarding Miller or Simonovic a lot in this series, guarding the stretch four in the corner, meaning he can help from the wing rather than playing ball screen defense. That’s such an advantage for CSKA as he’s a fantastic help defender, though he can obviously also switch out on guards at the top.

But Joel Freeland and Pavel Korobkov’s injuries have meant Hines is front and centre in the big man rotation. Perhaps that’s always at it should have been. After a year misspent lost at power forward under Ettore Messina, and another finding his feet again, it seems like we’re poised again for Peak Hines. The whole reason for signing him was so he couldn’t destroy them again wearing an opposing uniform.

Vlad Stimac put up a physical fight, as did Maik Zirbes – Crvena Zvezda, like many other teams, have the bodies to put on Hines. The trouble is he just finds a way.

It seems like one of the major factors in any Crvena Zvezda win would be Hines having an off-day. There isn’t much anyone can do to make that happen other than hope.

@robscott33

Fenerbahçe Put Champions on the Brink

There was a school of thought before this series – at ELA at least – that it might be a close one. All the emphasis was on how Jan Vesely’s absence would perhaps bring the teams closer, how Madrid’s offense looked scary again against Khimki in the clinching Top 16 game, but also whether Madrid’s shaky defense would be able to do anything to keep these games close. Something that escaped my attention at least was how Fenerbahçe could smother that Madrid offense. Over the first two games, that has been the defining aspect as they sit on a 2-0 lead that no team in the modern Euroleague has ever overcome.

Madrid coach Pablo Laso has built up an enormous store of credit in his five year tenure, but there’s a lot to question about his personnel decisions in this series. He started Game One with Jeffery Taylor guarding Bobby Dixon in a crossmatch, with Sergio Llull on Bogdan Bogdanovic and Rudy Fernandez on Luigi Datome. Madrid switched when Dixon used a ballscreen and hedged out above the pick when it was Bogdanovic. The first quarter was low scoring but it didn’t take long for Fenerbahçe to break it down, primarily because for someone brought in to alter and improve the defense, Taylor just doesn’t react quickly enough or anticipate rotations.

More importantly, Taylor disrupts the Madrid offense by holding the ball, he’s not a good passer and he isn’t a reliable three-point shooter either. I understand that they struggled in conventional pick and roll defense but it seemed to take them out of their rhythm on offense, and when that happens, Rudy can try to do too much, which is what happened. Laso took his own team out of what it does best in an effort to counter the opposition, and it has failed miserably.

Taylor’s primary weakness is his three point shooting – 33% on the season – and it meant Fenerbahçe could easily help off him when he was set up in the corner, something they wouldn’t have been able to do for Maciulis, Carroll or Doncic. The image below shows an example – here Reyes tries to thread a pass through a crowded key to Ayon but Bogdanovic can ignore Taylor and help into the paint to block the passing lane.

Taylor Spacing

In this next play, Rudy takes a three against a double team, misses and Reyes can’t get the offensive board because he’s double teamed – his offensive rebounding is one of Madrid’s big strengths but Fener took it away and all because they could leave Taylor on his own in the corner. Taylor did hit a corner three soon after that but you can take that risk in order to take away something more valuable.

Taylor Spacing 2

Smallball and switching, Zoc does his homework

Every individual battle has been won by Obradovic’s team in both games, and that must be at least in part not just down to the personnel involved, but in meticulous preparation and strategic thinking. Rudy has played pretty good one on one defense on Datome but that hasn’t even been in the top 20 factors affecting the series.

Fenerbahçe switched on and off the ball – they have the versatility to do so – and there hasn’t been a convincing answer for it. They’ve been closing out to the corner impeccably, cutting off Madrid’s options for swinging the ball round to the open shooter. Against a team that can pass, pass, pass and then punish you, they shut the door.

It’s not all about preparation though. Fener played a lineup in a close fourth quarter in Game One of Sloukas, Bogdanovic, Hickman, Kalinic and Datome. That five-man combo has never been used before. With the yellow uniforms and backdrop of the fans, there were shades of Maccabi’s smallball lineup of death in 2014. Even when Laso brought in Carroll late in the first game, he took Rodriguez out and kept Taylor in. It’s like he didn’t want to admit he was wrong, whereas Obradovic improvised, and won.

Even though Madrid won the third period of the first game 23-10 and took the lead just before the final break, it wasn’t out of a strategic advantage, they just benefitted from Fener missing a succesion of shots. The dagger three from Bogdanovic, up 69-64 with 1:27 on the clock, came from another defensive breakdown. Taylor and Ayon defended Bogdanovic and Udoh in a high screen and roll. They switched, there was a re-screen, switched again, then Bogdanovic attacked Ayon on the switch and Taylor trailed behind, creating a three-on-two situation on the weakside that eventually led Madrid defenders to chase the ball and opened the space for Bogdanovic to fire an uncontested three from the corner. Fenerbahçe were patient, composed and executed. It was a killer play, the kind that win series, and championships.

Kostas Sloukas scored 17 points in Game One, probing the Madrid defense for weakspots and pouncing on them. Udoh played 33 minutes, only spelled by the tiny-ball lineup, which itself was prompted by Rodriguez attacking Baris Hersek on a switch and scoring with a foul. Obradovic wasn’t willing to tolerate that for even a few possessions more. The supposed huge weakness in Fenerbahçe’s lineup – the absence of Vesely – didn’t even register. You might even infer that in forcing Zoc to try out different lineup options, it had a silver lining.

Rodriguez replaced Taylor in the starting lineup. Jaycee Carroll also made an earlier entrance, but Obradovic saw him coming. They aggressively doubled and trapped coming off the downscreens that are his trademark. That not only stopped him firing from three point range, it prevented him attacking the closeout as he’s become so adept at doing. But this isn’t the first time that Fenerbahçe’s coach has had to deal with a quick trigger three point shooter. Not even close to the first time.

With Carroll on his patented curl round a backscreen, Obradovic sent the screener’s defender to chase the shooter with Carroll’s guy catching up as he got round the screen. It worked flawlessly. Carroll didn’t attempt a three-point field goal in 19 minutes on the floor.

After they beat Khimki in a do-or-die game to reach the playoffs, it was tempting to say that Madrid might just be battle hardened enough to raise their game, to take this series the distance. It was tempting enough for me anyway, because I said it, although I did pick the Istanbul team to take it in five. On the contrary, the champions seemed to still be reeling from Bogdanovic’s three-point dagger around 46 hours earlier. They came out flat and never responded to the occasion.

Madrid’s soft centre

But even if mentally they had have been on point, Fenerbahçe would still ruthlessly expose the soft underbelly of this Madrid defense. You can drive at Ayon and, at this point in his career, Reyes. You can jump over them, as Udoh did with relish as he detonated a lob finish over his Mexican ex-compadre, plus the foul. It was disdainful and pitiless. These kinds of chest-beating individual battles are what big games are made of, and this one has been a one-sided onslaught by Udoh.

Its the kind of play that gives Bogdanovic license to gamble for a steal at midcourt on Sergio Llull and take the layup at the other end. Madrid may have defensive fragilities, but they’re not supposed to get their pockets picked.

Laso mixed up the rotation again and brought in Willy Hernangomez in the first quarter. A playoff series really isn’t the time to be searching for lineups that work, especially when the option is to bring in a big man who although gifted offensively, has been glued to the bench at times because his defensive shortcomings are all too obvious. Hernangomez doesn’t obviate Madrid’s pick and roll weakness, he shines a spotlight on it.

The problem Madrid have had all year, which has been ruthlessly exposed in this series, is a lack of athleticism at the five. I’ll go to the barricades to argue that Marcus Slaughter was tough to keep once he lost his Cotonou passport and Darussafaka Dogus offered him a million per. But the replacements – Trey Thompkins and Hernangomez – haven’t even been close to adequate, and the effects haven’t been confined to protecting the rim. Game One wasn’t the first time Laso has tried Taylor as an auxillary perimeter defender, but it’s tempting to say that Slaughter would have done a much better job. He would also have been a gatekeeper at the rim – Madrid havent just got rid of their burglar alarm, they’ve left the keys in the front door.

Hernangomez has so much to learn, not just about moving his feet in pick and roll, but not biting on pumpfakes as he did to pick up his third foul in the first quarter. That meant he couldn’t breath on Udoh next time he got him in a pick and roll situation and lo and behold, the Fener big man scored easily. These are the soft spots and mistakes that Fenerbahçe punished, over and over again. It’s been a devastating performance from the Turkish team, one borne out of repetition, intense desire and brilliant execution.

Udoh steps up

Nobody has stepped up for Madrid – on the contrary, Fenerbahçe’s stars look like they are physically growing as they dominate the series. Ekpe Udoh gets my vote for MVP of the first two games. Without his Czech tag team partner, he has been immense. Dunking on Ayon, swatting away layups from poor young Hernangomez and Doncic, switching onto just about anyone and keeping them in front, he has been a two-way killer.

Likewise Pero Antic has taken all of those defensive positioning smarts he refined in Atlanta and played a huge role in keeping Madrid off-kilter, also switching at will. Plus he screens like… well, like you’d expect him to if all you’d ever seen was his photo.

Nikola Kalinic too, he matched Sloukas’ total from Game One, 17 points with only one missed field goal. There has been a constant tide of yellow and blue jerseys waiting to pile on the pressure. Kalinic did what he does – he attacked. Baseline, transition, on the glass, relentless energy and anticipation of where to be. A glue-guy de-luxe. What an advantage to have.

Madrid take them home needing to win just avoid a sweep. On the evidence so far, salvaging some pride may be the height of any reasonable expectations.

@robscott33

PODCAST: Breaking down the Euroleague Playoffs

It’s been a while, but the Euroleague Podcast is back, as Rob Scott is joined by our good friend Austin Green, who runs ACB-focused site Los Crossovers direct from Seville, Spain.

We broke down each series, then got into some ACB chat at the end.

It’s a long one, but when it comes to these playoffs, there’s a lot to say. So thanks for listening and let us know what you think on Twitter (Austin: @LosCrossovers / Rob: @robscott33) or in the comments below.

Peace and Ioannis, enjoy the playoffs.

On the Kusp? Kuzminskas and the NBA

In a recent Adrian Wojnarowski podcast, it was put to a roundtable of NBA executives that the league might be getting “too smart”. The theory was that advances in analytics, cap management and consensus around player evaluation mean that it’s harder to take a poorly-run team to the  woodshed in trade negotiations. With even heretofore dumb-dumb teams like the Brooklyn Nets hiring a Smart Guy from the Spurs front office to run the show, maybe there’s something to that.

So, one way for teams to retain an edge is international scouting. There is already a pecking order emerging, with some teams taking that side more seriously than others. Take the Denver Nuggets, for example, early adopters of taking the non-North American part of the world seriously, who drafted future key pieces like Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic at 16 and 41 respectively. Of course the success of Kristaps Porzingis may influence perceptions of European draft picks around the league, although the attitude of casual fans is always way behind front office decision makers on that front.

But you don’t have to use draft picks to scoop up useful players. Signing undrafted free agents can sometimes come up relatively big, as with Jose Calderon, Mirza Teletovic or Boban Marjanovic, but for every one of those, there’s a Luigi Datome or Vitor Faverani who just didn’t quite work out.

One such player who could sign for any NBA team in the summer, and has already attracted attention from a number of clubs is Unicaja Malaga’s Lithuanian forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas.

He’s a 1989-born, 2.05m (over 6’8″) small forward who has been steadily improving each season since he burst onto the scene with Zalgiris Kaunas in 2011/12. This is third season in Malaga, and he’s reached the point now of being one of the most productive players in Europe.

He’s out of contract in the summer, and the question won’t be ‘does he move up a level?’ It’s more like, does he go to the NBA, or does he get tempted with a likely more lucrative and longer term deal with one of Europe’s big spenders in Russia, Turkey or Spain?

Kuzminskas is very much in the Super Role Player mould. Unicaja doesn’t really run any plays for him, something that would be expected to continue in the NBA. It’s pretty well established by now that it’s much harder for the European star in the Navarro and Spanoulis mould to transfer their high usage game to the Association, compared to players who can just translate their secondary status to the higher level.

The video above, from last season, gives a pretty good indication of his strengths. He runs the floor, finishes above the rim, and is frequently the first down the other end in transition. His average of 12.8 PPG in 21 minutes in Euroleague play fits the familiar criteria of not being eye-popping to the general NBA observer, but he’s put up a few 20+ outings this season, and is one of those players who just steadily accumulates points in a low key style until you look at the stats and realise he has 15 in 14 minutes midway through the third quarter.

Statistically, he’s one of the most productive players in all of Europe, while playing in the Spanish ACB – still the best professional league outside the NBA – and Euroleague, the elite continental competition. All he has done this season is put up points efficiently, against a very credible level of opposition.

He scores in a variety of ways – he’s excellent from either side on the low block, spots up for three with a high release point and has a pretty decent pull-up jumper. He creates cheap points from floating around the weak side and crashing the offensive glass.

He’s a threat to come flying in off the baseline for putbacks, and he’s a really smart anticipator of where the ball is going to be. That makes me think that he could probably still get those buckets in the NBA despite his athletic advantage over European opponents not being as pronounced as it would be over there.

He’s still a great size for a three, and not every NBA player has to be Aaron Gordon, athleticism-wise. He has improved his jumpshot to the point where he’s a genuine deep threat, and I don’t think he’d have many problems spotting up in the corner and stretching the floor. Guys who don’t need the ball in their hand to score efficiently are pretty useful in the right situation, and I feel like he could definitely replicate the majority of what he does here.

Still, it’s worth remembering, if you’re only tracking production, that he does rely on finishing opportunities created for him by others. So if his production declines over the rest of the season it’s worth bearing in mind Unicaja has a crisis at playmaker, with Stefan Markovic and Jamar Smith both out injured. The effect that playing with a great passing centre like Richard Hendrix has been great for his production this season, so an NBA team like Memphis that has a passing big who loves to hit cutters from the elbow could work well.

In terms of weaknesses, he’s still not much of a ball handler, and had trouble with getting the ball stripped on the drive versus top Euroleague opponents in CSKA Moscow. He’s not exactly an unwilling passer, but rarely gets the chance to create off the bounce, as that’s not a situation he often puts himself in.

He’s pretty much never used as a screener in pick and roll, operating strictly off the ball. If the ball rotates to him on the perimeter and there isn’t an immediate shot open, he tends to just back up or hand the ball off. He’s comfortable finishing off one or two dribbles, but he’s not any kind of isolation scorer. In terms of an NBA future, team role and situation would be even more crucial than for most non-superstars.

Kuzminskas could absolutely fill in as a role player on a playoff team like the Celtics next season, and I think he could thrive there, in a team culture that values depth of talent throughout the roster and a team-first, ball sharing ethos. Not coincidentally, Boston is one of the teams that the Spanish media has already reported to show interest, and have a Lithuanian connection through their chief international scout, Benas Matkevicius. It goes without saying that the Spurs would be a good landing spot, and there must be more teams in need of a cheap addition on the wing.

If a franchise like Brooklyn, for example, picked him up and expected him to produce in ways he just hasn’t shown off in Europe, that would be a much tougher situation, and I would fear he’d be set up to fail. Whilst most players outside the top tier would be more likely to succeed in a better team, with more talented playmakers, for Kuzminskas it could make or break his NBA career.

Defensive downside

On the downside, as a 15 minutes per game, tertiary option on offense, one way to cement a rotation place would be to add value on defense. That side of his game is a lot further away, and would be his biggest weakness in an NBA context.

There’s no question that he puts in the effort, which is always a good start, and he can get opportunistic steals by shooting passing lanes. He’s also not a great 1-on-1 defender, and doesn’t bend his knees and get low to the ground in isolation situations, so gets rocked back on his heels and off-balance.

On the whole he just doesn’t appear to have great ability to react to where he needs to be as the ball moves around, and I’ve seen him involved in a few too many miscommunications off the ball.  He tends to be a beat late to start his close out, and his slightly rigid way of moving means he’s vulnerable to a pump fake or straight blow by. That might get exposed more against better athletes at the guard spots in the NBA.

I don’t think he could really survive switched out onto guards if he had to defend fours setting ballscreens in a small lineup. That might lose him a lot of points in the new consensus over positional flexibility in today’s NBA.

Summer League vs Security

But, you’re not getting a fully formed NBA player – unless you’re lucky – on the international free agent market. Kuzminskas offers a tremendous amount of potential as a floor-stretcher and glass-crasher who won’t waste the ball or stop it moving. That has value on any elite team, and his ability to slot into the same role on an NBA squad as he currently enjoys in Europe should also count significantly in his favour.

Where it might be tricky for the front office that wants him, is outbidding the likes of CSKA Moscow or FC Barcelona (to name two top Euroleague clubs at random). He’s a proven quantity at a position which isn’t so deep at Euroleague level, and that could be worth up to $1.5-2 million, net. Choosing between that and a Summer League gig or a one year, maybe partially guaranteed NBA contract might force him to choose between security and the chance to go to the big dance. If he does sign a big Euroleague deal, it seems unlikely that it would include a reasonable NBA out-clause, so it might be a case of now or never.

Some players will make that leap, others prefer the status and often larger financial rewards on offer in Europe. He already received a Summer League invitation in 2015 but between Unicaja declining to allow it (a fair attitude given that he was under contract to them) and preparation with the Lithuanian national team, he couldn’t make it.

Gun to my head, I always bet on the player taking the money, but if Mindaugas does want to make the big leap Stateside, it would be very tough to bet against him turning it into a big success.

Top 16 Catch Up: Olympiacos Wobbling, Fenerbahçe Rolling

For Olympiacos fans, looking back at recent Final Four history has been deeply rewarding. Last week, unfortunately, Vasillis Spanoulis recreated only part of last year’s semi-final – the first three quarters of it where he was held scoreless; monochrome rather than glorious technicolour.

You could have lost a lot of money betting against Kill Bill and a supporting cast since 2012, as he showed in that fourth period blitz to break CSKA spirits last year. So it would take a brave prognositcator to declare the Reign of Span over – but the signs are becoming increasingly worrying for the fans in Piraeus. So much so that a question that might have seemed heretical only 9 months ago might need to be at least raised in discussion.

Through 11 games in Euroleague this season, Spanoulis is shooting 20.7% from three point range. Some of his lines from behind the arc so far include a pair of 0-for-5s and a 1-for-8. Player Index Rating has its limits as an analytical tool, but his average this season Euroleague is 5.9. He’s averaging 9.5 points per game, the first time he’s ever been in single figures, and 4.9 per game down on last season. He’s only shooting 35% from inside the arc, and is getting to the line less as well – 3.3 per game this season compared with 5.3 last time out and 5.1 per game since 2012.

Some of the trademark Spanoulis finishes are looking just a little more tired. The hang time on those off-the-glass runners is a split second shorter. The pull-up threes with not quite enough elevation to arc over outstretched hands.

To be fair he racked up 19 points only three weeks ago against Baskonia, and he dished out nine assists the week before in Barcelona. He’s also missed time to injury, not for the first time, and that takes its toll on a 33 year old much more than it would on someone in their late 20s. So maybe it’s a case not of Spanoulis’ inexorable decline, but learning to use him in a different way – similar to the quandary that Barcelona have faced with Juan Carlos Navarro.

The trouble is, since the Top 16 began, the supporting players have not risen to that challenge, they have shrunk away from it. Injury has played a huge part – Patric Young’s season ending torn ACL after only five games robbed the Reds of their deterrent at the rim.  If they had signed the Shawn James of 2013 they’d have had a replacement, but the maniac who swallowed up entire frontlines defending Maccabi’s paint is long gone. Georgios Printezis is ailing too, and there is no adequate backup to overcome these problems at the big positions. But Matt Lojeski continues to drift in and out of games despite looking like one of the best wings in Europe when he’s locked in. Vangelis Mantzaris just looks sluggish, far from the familiar defensive spanner in the works of even the best pick and roll offense.

There was very little resistance to the slashing of Sergi Llull and Sergio Rodriguez or Felipe Reyes and Gustavo Ayon’s high low game.  There was no intimidation, no pressure. Forget Xs an Os, character-wise it was the antithesis of everything Olympiacos threw at CSKA, Barcelona and Madrid on the way to those two titles. Of course they were unsuccessful the last time they stepped onto this floor, but that was the Euroleague final, and they were playing a far stronger Real Madrid team. This year’s edition has struggled with elite athleticism and shooting whenever they’ve faced it, and was under a certain amount of pressure.

There is little margin for error in making the playoffs in their Top 16 group. Not only the perennial Final Four competitors but Baskonia are looking great, Bamberg are far from the punchline they were in their last Top 16 outing, and Khimki have carried themselves with a swagger seen only sporadically in the Regular Season. It’s usually considered vital to finish in one of the top two spots, to get homecourt advantage in the playoffs, but right now the Reds would be happy with merely making it.

And if Kill Bill responds to this by dropping 28 points and a game winning triple over Khimki on Friday, then you can thank this article for tempting fate and making me look stupid. It wouldn’t be the first time…

Double screen fun

It’s always fun to see a nice set that works to counter one of the opponent’s defensive trademarks. It’s also nice to go back to the 2010-era ‘non-moving-pictures’ approach to analysis. Whatup, Sebastian Pruiti?!

This is a sweet double-screen set that gets Felipe Reyes an open layup. First, Reyes sets a ball screen for Sergio Rodriguez, a split second after KC Rivers backscreens for Gustavo Ayon moving from the left corner across the paint.
RMB Double Screen 1a

Reyes doesn’t really roll or pop, he just stays where he is for a beat, as Spanoulis, caught up on Rivers’ screen, has to make a decision. Printezis, guarding Reyes, as is the norm with Sfairopolous’ scheme, has shown hard over the ball screen to try and force Rodriguez away. But because of the off-ball screen, Spanoulis has to recover over to Rivers – an excellent three point shooter – on the perimeter. Or, if he stays inside, great, Rodriguez has two options – Reyes with a mismatch or an open Rivers on the three-point line. Because Printezis is temporarily out of the play, Spanoulis is left with the impossible task of guarding two players.
RMB Double Screen 2

Reyes slips down into the paint and Spanoulis has made the understandable decision to follow Rivers. Printezis can’t recover quickly enough (how could he?) and Ayon steps out from the under the rim as Reyes takes the pass and drops it off for an easy two.

RMB Double Screen 3

A nice, subtly effective halfcourt set that relies on Rivers’ gravity as a shooter (it could easily have been Carroll) and Rodriguez’s ability to make quick reads on the fly.

Fenerbahçe: International class

Fenerbahçe remains the only unbeaten team in the Top 16, rolling to 5-0 with a hard contested win over Cedevita Zagreb. Jan Vesely picked up January MVP, and there’s not a whole lot to worry about right now.

We’ve not really covered Fener much so far this season, but that’s at least in part because there’s been something of a mundane inevitability about them. They’ll be a fine participant in the Final Four, and are probably at worst the second favourite to win the whole thing, goofy single-elimination game stuff discounted.

Vesely is a de facto provider of ‘exciting plays’ – high-flying dunks, vicious blocks, you name it. He’s refined his new-found destiny as a rim-running centre, and is one of the toughest covers in Europe. Bobby Dixon has shaken off some initial rust, and  is producing at both a high usage (25.6%) and efficiency (third best PPP among point guards, at higher usage than both).

Luigi Datome has shown that if the NBA moved too fast for him, Europe works out nicely. He’s in the 50/40/90 club (52.2% / 44.2% / 93.3% since you ask) and leads the team in minutes played. I was skeptical that Ekpe Udoh would either necessarily thrive in his first European home or be able to play alongside Vesely as a non-stretchy four. On all of these counts, this Fener team looks like a burgeoning monster ready to devour the competition.

But there’s a bit of a corporate vibe this year – the NBA returnees Datome and Antic; poaching Bobby Dixon from his cult hero status in Karsiyaka, and Kalinic from Crvena Zvezda. There’s no mega prospects who are ready to play, nor anyone reaching the apex of their potential. It’s all a bit…. obvious?

Of course tempting good players with more money is how the game works, so there’s no criticism there. You absolutely have to respect the effectiveness but there is a certain lack of identity.

Without the restrictions of the Turkish League, Melih Mahmatoglou leads all of their homegrown players (no, Bobby Dixon doesn’t count) in Euroleague minutes played, with 93 minutes over 11 appearances. Baris Hersek, Berk Ugurlu and Omer Yurtseven are the only other domestic players to appear, each with less than 47 minutes played over the whole campaign. Fellow financial giants Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow, Barcelona (to an extent) and Khimki for example, all have a core of national players alongside imported teammates, that generally play a huge role on their respective clubs.

From a performance point of view, recruiting the best possible roster is the aim, and I’m sure Fener fans would not swap places with Anadolu Efes right now, even if meant getting their hands on Cedi Osman and Furkan Korkmaz. It should also be said that the main obstacle in the way of Yurtseven becoming a Fener legend is likely to be the NBA Draft. So maybe this is just a sabbatical from playing domestic talent?

For the neutral observer though, there was something more appealing about Fener when guys like Omer Onan, Mirsad Turkcan and Ogus Savas were repping the blue and yellow jersey, though as Jan Vesely dunks his way to another probable Final Four appearance, I doubt anyone at Ülker Arena really cares, and nor should they.

So Far So Good: All-Euroleague Provisional Picks

It may only be a 12-game sample size, but that hasn’t stopped certain players from raising themselves above the competition and standing out. As Euroleague releases the second part of its Mid-Season GM Survey, we thought it as good a time as any to give our picks for the All-Euroleague First Team. As the days get lighter, and the pressure ramps up towards the playoffs and Final Four, who knows what would change? But for now, I’ll take these five:

Guard – Malcolm Delaney – Lokomotiv Kuban

18.1 PPG | 5.5 APG | 21.4 PIR

I already wrote about how he’s anchoring a team with maturity and a killer instinct in my big recap, and then his first Top 16 game was so good I had to take a closer look. He just took home back-to-back Weekly MVPs, and it doesn’t look like the step-up to the next phase has slowed him down. So with that in mind, I’ll leave it there. Guards like this who can score in any situation, but also facilitate are rare in Europe these days, and he’s one of the best. The next question is whether he might take a downgrade in status (and probably money) for a shot at that NBA dream.

He’s also, as our friend Austin Green brought to our attention, a definite contender for social media MVP too.

Guard – Nando De Colo – CSKA Moscow

19.1 PPG | 5.2 APG | 22.7 PIR

In the UK, Nando’s is an inexplicably popular chain of  family restaurants serving spicy chicken. Its place in the cultural zeitgeist has been known to confuse Americans. In Moscow, it’s an upscale apartment where the CSKA players gather to eat pizza and watch Youtube videos of their host getting buckets and dropping dimes.  Maybe. He suffered an ankle sprain recently and is questionable for Top 16  Round Three versus Barcelona, but hopefully it’s nothing serious.

Forward – Mindaugas Kuzminskas – Unicaja Malaga

13.2 PPG | 66.7 2FG% | 13.7 PIR

The Kuz has taken a huge step forward this season, refining his game to a point at which you have to wonder how much longer he’ll be on these shores. But it looks like he’ll have to move to a team in a warm weather state, say Miami or the Lakers, no way he’s leaving this behind:

Thriving in a Unicaja offense which rewards ball movement and aggressive cuts, he’s putting up a career high 13 points per game and shooting 66.7% from inside the arc. He’s always been a terror from the weakside at both ends, but has improved his handle and on-ball game no end in the last year or so. Small forward is probably the weakest position in Euroleague this season though, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can maintain this form through the Top 16. This is mainly a Regular Season choice, although the body of work over the past year and half means it’s certainly no flash in the pan.

If it’s not the NBA next season don’t bet against CSKA – he’ll have to change the Christmas day tweet game, but I’m sure he won’t be lonely whatever happens. (h/t to @FMCervantez for the tweet)

Forward – Maik Zirbes – Crvena Zvezda

15.8 PPG | 6.6 RPG | 18.4 PIR

I’m cheating here, by playing two centres, but I just can’t leave ZURBZ off this team. Every time Crvena Zvezda needed him, Maik Zirbes pretty much killed a guy. But although his game might seem simplistically based on power, there’s a lot more to it than that. He understands angles and timing and has an instinctive nose for the ball when it caroms off the offensive glass. It does help that he’s built like a WWE wrestler though.

Centre – Ioannis Bourousis – Laboral Kutxa Baskonia

13.8 PPG | 9.2 RPG | 22.2 PIR

The resurgence of probably the most enigmatic European player of the last 15 years has been remarked upon in glowing terms already this season, albeit mainly by me. There’s something irresistible about the way he has rebuilt his reputation after falling off the end of the bench in Madrid. He’s a cult hero, he’s the deadbeat who cleaned up his act, he’s a con-artist suckering someone into another big contract? I don’t believe the latter, but then again I also picked CSKA to win the title this season. Again.

The Big Dog with the softest eyes has clobbered most statistical categories this season. PIR? Second behind Delaney (per 40 minutes he’s #1). Assists by a centre? Only 0.1 per game behind Ante Tomic. Rebounds per game? That’ll be him on top. Numbers aren’t everything – Gustavo Ayon is fourth in PIR but his defensive shortcomings were nearly fatal for Madrid. But Baskonia has the second-stingiest defensive rating in the competition, and Bourousis has been a big part of that.

Try to move him out of the post. You can’t. Give him the ball at the elbow and he’s been Marc Gasol. These awards are strictly for Euroleague but the fact that he’s won ACB MVP for December doesn’t hurt. His season thus far has been a triumph of both production and aesthetics. He’s in shape, he gives a shit and he’s confident, which was probably the key to everything all along.

Second Team and Near Misses

These picks were so tough, there’s arguably an equally good second team waiting in the wings. Kudos also to Olympiacos for racking up a 10-2 record without any names on the list. By the end of the season some of these dudes might be First Teamers, but right now, they have to settle for second step on the podium:

G – Milos Teodosic – should I have picked a three-guard lineup just to get him in the First Team? Probably.
G – Sergio Rodriguez – Madrid isn’t a Final Four team right now. They wouldn’t have been a Top 16 team without the bearded wizard.
F – Luigi Datome – His numbers aren’t as stellar as some, but on a deep squad, he fits in seamlessly and will only get more important.
F – Quincy Miller – It seems odd for a playoff outsider to have two guys on these teams? Maybe, but Miller got dropped into a sink or swim situation and made like Michael Phelps.
C – Jan Vesely – Lost out on first team honours to Zirbes by a baw hair (ask your Scottish friends).

Apologies to: Nicolo Melli (lost out to Miller by a nanometer), Mateusz Ponitka, Ante Tomic, Thomas Huertel, Alexey Shved.

Krasnodaredevils: Loko in Motion as Delaney Goes Off

We already bigged up Malcolm Delaney in our Regular Season recap, but he went above and beyond as the Top 16 got underway. Delaney said he was inspired by Alexey Shved and his 28 points the night before. He racked up 31 points and gave out eight assists for a 41 PIR as Lokomotiv Kuban eased past Cedevita Zagreb. But what can we read into this for Lokomotiv’s chances? If your answer is ‘calm down, we’re one game into a 14-game run that doesn’t finish til April’ then this isn’t the article for you.

The first thing noticeable thing about Loko’s offense under Georgios Bartzokas is that it’s pretty simple. That might not get him many plaudits from the .gif-makers and chin-strokers (that’s all of us, thanks for coming) but it does mean that every one of the players is pretty clear on what their job is. It’s a lot easier to do that job if it doesn’t change twice a quarter.

Delaney spoke to the in-house media team early in the season about how Bartzokas has ‘built the team around him’ and that’s immediately apparent. Making players comfortable and confident is probably an under-rated part of coaching, probably because nobody outside the locker room really knows if it’s real, and it’s not something you can categorically conclude from watching film. But it seems like a fair assumption that Delaney relishes the challenge. Players who know the coach has their back if they take bold shots are likely to be more settled, more plugged in, and it seems that way in Krasnodar.

It’s not just Delaney – Chris Singleton, Anthony Randolph, and Victor Claver all have licence to pull the trigger. Even when closely guarded at the elbow, those guys can drive to the rim or elevate over a defender for the jumpshot.

The biggest question is, even though Delaney is really, really good at hitting these pull-ups, can offense like this really carry them past the perennial Final Four teams that are likely to qualify from the other group?

Delaney Pull Up

 

Delaney Pull Up 3

 

Loko’s offense isn’t all one-on-one stuff – Claver is a smart cutter and off-ball finisher, and Delaney’s penetration will always generate kick-outs. Although Dontaye Draper, Sergey Bykov and Evgeny Voronov aren’t all deadeye shooters, Ryan Broekhoff is. When you have one of the continent’s elite scorers, there’s not always a need to run complicated off-ball screens to free shooters, and if you can score without having to force a defensive breakdown then that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Alexey Shved and Tyrese Rice showed that the night before as they beat CSKA. These guys can score without there being some defensive mix up. The best teams screw up less often, but some players can still score, and if they do it with the ball in their hands, without having to get the defense on the move, then all the more difficult it is to stop them.

The trouble is, placing so much of the team’s prospects in the hands of one player isn’t always the best option – although relegated to third place on the Russian Team Rich List, Loko would argue they’re playing the cards they can lay their hands on.

Foundation defense

A more reliable foundation for success might be their team defense. Like the offense, it isn’t overly complicated, and Bartzokas has done a good job of minimising rotations. This is possible because their perimeter guys – Draper in particular – are great at keeping their man in front of them, and when they do get screened, everyone is disciplined at rotating and recovering out to shooters. These possessions from the Week 10 win over Barcelona are good examples:

 

Loko finished the Regular Season third in Defensive Rating (96.8) and it doesn’t seem to me that there’s much of a reason that should slip as the competition level rises.

But when the offense is perhaps teetering on the brink of being found out eventually, certainly under the intense iterative scrutiny of a playoff series, the defense will have to be progressively more impregnable. The more predictable an offense is, the easier it should be to stop, even if Delaney scores in ways that defenses know are coming.

There’s just a nagging doubt that an offense where three or four guys are often standing around on the weakside can’t succeed. There isn’t quite enough movement, enough to get the defense scrambling. We won’t really find out this week as they face a very hospitable Anadolu Efes defense. Maybe the week after when they take on Fenerbahçe?

Black Sea Swagger

The cool thing about this Loko team, dare I say it atypically for some of Russia’s recent Euroleague representatives, is that it has some swagger. The white LOKO jerseys; their home crowd and that distinctive geometric arena interior.

Krasnodar, just inland from the Black Sea shores, is closer as the crow flies to Istanbul than it is to Moscow. There’s something ‘other’ from the centre of power in Russia to this team, at least in sporting terms. Then there’s their mischievous, irreverent Youtube channel. This video ‘starring’ their former player Mantas Kalnietis, brings to mind Russian literary madman Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Nose. Surreal, and awesome.

They may be walking a tightrope by putting so much on Delaney’s shoulders, even though it seems like he’s stepping up more and more. But they’re now 9-2 overall, and they’ve beaten Barcelona and Panathinaikos, two really strong teams. There’s only been one aberration – Week Eight’s 66-51 accident at home to Stelmet Zielona Gora – which showed the ultimate downside of when the simplified, streamlined offense goes wrong. But as long as they keep putting one foot ahead of the other without falling, you have to take them seriously as a playoff threat.

As the clock ticks down in a close playoff game, Malcolm Delaney is one of the last players an opponent wants to see with the ball in his hands. It looks like they should make it at least that far. The question is, how far can Delaney and his Loko amigos go after that?

The Euroleague Basketball Blog