By: Rob Scott / @RobScott33
Caja Laboral’s 1-5 start in the Euroleague, combined with their ignominious exit last year, finally did for Dusko Ivanovic. They went to Kaunas to take on Zalgiris needing a win to maintain any real chance of progression to the Top 16, with new coach Zan Tabak on the bench for the first time. The Croatian playing legend honed his coaching chops as an assistant under Zalgiris coach Joan Plaza, at Real Madrid and Sevilla. After forty miserable minutes and an 82-45 defeat, Tabak could have been forgiven for looking down the sideline at his opposite number for some advice, although it’s difficult to imagine what would have worked.
Ten unforgettable years
Fewer than 48 hours later, Tabak could allow himself a smile. A 90-79 victory over Euroleague high-fliers Unicaja Malaga raised the spirits of the Basque fans, even if they held up banners celebrating ’10 años inolvidables’ and ‘Gracias Dusko’, a reminder that to let go of such an iconic figure would be done slowly, and with reverence.
It seems impossible to pinpoint what has gone right and wrong in Vitoria. They sit at 6-3 in domestic play, having also beaten Barcelona fewer than three weeks before the embarrassment in Kaunas. If the Euroleague losses prior to this week could be put down to the players tuning out Ivanovic, what message did the 45 points scored, 21 turnovers, 23 offensive rebounds given up and only 17 defensive boards secured send to Tabak? What can be made of the weekend’s recovery? If anything it only highlights the abject nature of their defeat, but also allows the fans to torture themselves with elusive hope. Could they win the next three Euroleague tilts to sneak in at 4-6? This is a team that doesn’t lose close games, they get blown out. Even if they can salvage the Regular Season, what pain might fourteen more games against superior European competition bring?
Having said that, watching Lampe and Milko Bjelica at least give an element of effort on defense, to a relatively decent effect, begs the question as to why they couldn’t beat Milano at home next week. It isn’t like Scariolo’s team is on much of a better run in Euroleague play, having snapped a four game losing skid versus Cedevita Zagreb. A very tough trip to Istanbul to face Efes follows, with Zagreb coming into Buesa Arena to round off the first phase. Nothing that has happened in the Regular Season so far suggests a three game win streak is likely, but then nothing about their ACB season suggests that they couldn’t.
Stand up, Tibor
In Kaunas, it all began, or finished, on the defensive end. There isn’t a single player on the roster who could be called a plus defender, and somehow their team defense, in Euroleague play, has been even less than the sum of its parts. Macej Lampe was outmuscled by Paulius Jankunas throughout, picked up two early fouls and was replaced by Tibor Pleiss. The young German is all potential but it’s about time he made some use of his physical tools. Failing to box out, biting on pump fakes – these are lapses in concentration but repeated often enough they demonstrate a lack of defensive instinct. Lampe had to come back in and picked up his third foul early in the second quarter. These are the kinds of issues which tend to have snowballed in Euroleague games.
When guys did try hard defensively, they were too aggressive and picked up silly fouls. Screens were switched too early, leading to situations like Thomas Huertel defending Darius Lavrinovic in the post. Baskonia now have the second worst defensive efficiency (112.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) and the fifth worst offensive efficiency (98.4).
Drop off at the point
At the offensive end they lack a point guard who can consistently make the right entry pass, who can initiate ball movement that forces the opposition defense to do any work. They have gone from Prigioni and Huertas to Huertel and Rochestie, neither of whom have shown the combination of creativity and reliability needed to succeed at this level. But games like Sunday’s when Huertel put up 3/3 from behind the arc and five assists to one turnover show us the raw tools that excited scouts in the first place. Every sentence one could write about this team feels like a contradiction because nothing they have done this season has made any sense.
It may just come down to attitude, which is theoretically fixable, but if that’s the whole problem, what kind of a mess has been caused behind the scenes? Perhaps Tabak can fix that, at least. Against Unicaja, on the surface, cuts were zippier, for a start. Even if Luka Zoric did have his way with Pleiss, at least the young German showed some range and even came down hard on Zoric at the other end, with the kind of ease that begs the question as to why he doesn’t finish at the rim like that every time.
In ACB play, they are making threes at a 41.2% clip, 8.5 per game. In Euroleague, only 6.5 at 33.1%. When Unicaja made a comeback in the third quarter from downtown, the hosts responded in kind. It feels, without seeing advanced stats from ACB play, like this team turns to the three pointer in times of need and if they don’t drop, the offense just falls off a cliff. Early in Kaunas, Nocioni hit unassisted back to back threes but the foundations were never put in place for anything else to happen when that stopped working. A real low post presence seems like a must after the dirty work to which Mirza Teletovic finally applied himself last year hasn’t been replaced at all by either of the Bjelicas or Pleiss.
Salvage and rebuild
Hopefully the rest of this season can be salvaged as they regroup in Spain, and big changes made over the summer. With the luxury of an A-license, a large and loyal fanbase and one of the purest basketball traditions in Europe, every ingredient remains in Vitoria to re-establish the success achieved in the first decade of this century. This work should begin immediately.