photo: ACB Media

By Rob Scott / @robscott33

The traditional ACB curtain-raiser took place in Vitoria-Gastiez last weekend, as hosts Laboral Kutxa met the top three teams from last season in Barcelona, Valencia and Real Madrid. The latter took home their third Supercopa in a row, once again defeating Barcelona in the final, 99-78.

The tournament saw Madrid unveil five new signings while four newcomers wore blue and red. But despite the fresh faces, the game took on a familiar pattern. Real bombarded their opponents with offense, while offering enough clues as to what could go wrong if they meet a team with toughness upfront and better outside shooting.

We all know that Sergi Llull is irresistible when he’s hitting threes and gliding to the rim. We know that Marcelinho Huertas and Ante Tomic have the best two-man game on the continent. What we were hoping to see at the Supercopa is what’s new, what’s changed?

Real Madrid

Andres Nocioni has taken over Nikola Mirotic’s role, a former Chicago Bull replacing a current one. On the face of it, they’re relatively similar, both able to stretch the floor, somewhat creative off the dribble, even if the Argentine doesn’t have as much bounce as he once did. Pablo Laso drew up a nice creative action to set El Chapu up for a three, which bears a closer look:

Jaycee Carroll is the key to this play, or more specifically his threat as a shooter. He curls up from the left corner off a double screen from Fernandez and Nocioni, causing Abrines to give chase. It’s the second cut that triggers the play though, as Abrines trails Carroll, Ayon screens Tomic and drops down below the foul line, meaning Nachbar has to meet him to stop an open dunk. With Tomic and Abrines out of the play, Carroll cuts again, down to the right corner. Both Tomic (recovering back to the middle) and Abrines chase him, meanwhile Nocioni rolls to the top of the arc, takes the pass and swishes the three. Either Madrid end up with a good look at a three, or a mismatch right under the rim for Ayon.

Laso has long been extremely creative in using decoys like this, all based on shooters you cannot leave causing the defense to give chase. Madrid may have faltered at the last hurdle in two of three major competitions last season, but it’s nice to think that Laso has another shot at redemption. The play also shows that the new pieces in Madrid, like those in Barcelona, are likely to fit in slots left empty by the players who have left. Perhaps it’s inevitable at this stage of the season, but the structure of both teams hasn’t changed a whole lot.

Gustavo Ayon had his murky ACB-rights issue resolved, but what hasn’t been sorted is how Madrid will use four elite-level centres, none of whom really have the game to play at power forward. Marcus Slaughter sat out both of these games, as Campazzo and Ayon fill the extranjeros spots. KC Rivers now reps Guinea-Bissau and the Cotonou status that comes with it, while Madrid are trying to dress Campazzo in an Italian flag as soon as can be expedited.  Of course there are no restrictions in Euroleague, but even if Campazzo can parlay his heritage into a domestic roster spot for ACB play, there is barely room for three centres, let alone four.

Ayon started with Salah Mejri, but this doesn’t seem like a lasting solution. True, the Mexican can move up and down the floor quicker than Madrid’s other centres, and did score on an eye-catching running hook-shot on the drive. He also stuck reasonably well with a driving Doellman on one occasion, but he doesn’t have the floor-stretching or footspeed to play the four spot on a long term basis. The real question is whether his superior pick and roll defense – he broke up a Huertas-to-Tomic play, so is already one up on Ioannis Bourousis on that count – will earn him crunch time minutes at his natural position.

Another position of ludicrous depth in this matchup was Madrid’s point guards. Dontaye Draper is out, replaced by Argentine Facundo Campazzo. Viewers of South American hoops and this year’s World Cup will have seen an intense, creative playmaker who can jerk his way to the rim using clever angles and a low centre of gravity. His arrival in Europe is well deserved, but it’s a shame for the neutral observer that he won’t get more than spot minutes behind Sergi Llull and Sergio Rodriguez. There wasn’t much to report other than he looked right at home, and quickly pulled up for three when Satoransky misguidedly went under a screen. Such scraps are all we have to go on until he plays a bigger role.

KC Rivers comes off a season shooting 35.1% on 3FGs from the NBA-distance in the D-League. His role in the Madrid offense, so far, is pretty simple. Curl, catch, shoot. He looks eminently capable of doing that, and it looks like he’ll have few issues fitting – provided he continues to perform.

Jonas Maciulis has slotted into the role left by Tremmel Darden as the defensive-focused physical wing, but he is nowhere near the athlete that the American is. He did his typical glue-guy thing, without much aplomb. In games where Llull, Fernandez and others are putting up points,  Maciulis is easy to miss.

FC Barcelona

Thomas Satoransky started at point guard alongside Brad Oleson, with backcourt duo of the recent era Marcelinho Huertas and Juan Carlos Navarro coming off the bench. They tried – unsuccessfully – to go to him in the post on the first two plays, but that could just be a reaction to being guarded by Jaycee Carroll. The Czech phenom played only 15 minutes in the Final and the mainstay of Xavi Pascual’s offense was still the Huertas to Tomic hookup, probing that bubble in the defense around the foul line that the Marcelinho is so skilled at creating.

He scored 15 points in the semi final, but against Madrid he didn’t do much other than bring the ball over halfcourt and hand it off, finishing with no assists and five points. Still, with great athleticism and decent shooting, he’ll be way more than Victor Sada offensively, and nobody will be able to cheat far off him. I like the idea of him floating around off the ball with Oleson handling, Tomic or Pleiss rolling. There could be some nice Rudy-style lob dunks to enjoy, assuming Pascual would allow such frivolity.

The Blaugrana took advantage of their place at the top of Josean Querejeta’s speed-dial list when they needed a buyout for Tibor Pleiss over the summer – few clubs would be able to spend €600,000 on a player they might lose to the NBA next year. It’s a factor of the deep imbalance in European basketball that a player of this quality will probably average 10-12 minutes per game this season. One thing Pleiss does brilliantly is set a hard screen and sprint to the rim, which draws in help even if he can’t, or doesn’t get the ball. Barcelona may have lost some power upfront when Joey Dorsey returned to Houston, but now they can put up 40 full minutes of pick-your-poison pick and roll offense, should they choose it. When Pleiss gets more used to his new surroundings, that’s going to be pretty difficult to contain.

Justin Doellman was one of the most in-demand free agent forwards of the summer, but Barça locked him up early. We’ll be kind and say it’s too early for him to have had much of an effect for his new club, but he was more or less invisible in both games, although that does mean he didn’t do anything particularly wrong, other than shoot 1-for-8 in the final.

Deshaun Thomas has been brought in to play at the three, after Kostas Papanikolaou’s relatively late departure for Houston. Thomas was drafted by San Antonio in the second round in 2013 and spent his first professional season with JSF Nanterre in France. In the Euroleague Regular Season he impressed as a kind of ‘stretch four’ who spaced the floor mainly through attacking from the perimeter rather than shooting, though he did put up 34.1% from three, and 37.9% in their subsequent Eurocup campaign. Thomas can shoot enough to play on the wing, and he can certainly power his way to the rim, but the most important thing is whether he can stick defensively. The early signs in the semi-final weren’t good, as he picked up two fouls in the first quarter defending Fernando San Emeterio.

‘San Eme’ isn’t the slowest guy out there, but he’s also not the quickest. Having said that, Europe isn’t home to too many lightning quick small forwards – he had no problems with Jonas Maciulis, to go to the other end of the spectrum – and Thomas has enough strength to bully smaller wings at the other end. Where teams are playing glorified two-guards at small forward, Thomas should be able to post up, in the same kind of way as Pete Mickeal and Stratos Perperoglou. With Satoransky, Barcelona could mess with pretty big lineups when the need occurs.

Conclusion

Madrid won and Barcelona lost on the back of their established players and more or less with each of their familiar styles, for better or worse. We know from the past two seasons that sometimes Madrid’s free-flowing offense can tighten up when put into difficulty – a self-fulfilling prophecy of missed outside shots leading to more ill-advised ones. Barcelona couldn’t stop Llull or Fernandez from either getting to the rim or scoring from outside, whether the shots created were ‘good’ or not.  None of this is surprising. What might happen as the rhythm of the season builds, new faces blend in and adjustments are made, that will be worth watching, even if ultimately everything stays the same.