We’re seven games into the Top 16, which means the halfway stage in this marathon race to the playoffs as Euroleague takes a break for Copa-Week. You only have to look at ELA’s Top 16 tiers article to see that not everything has gone as expected (whats up, Crvena Zvezda? 1-6?). Rod, Rob and George collectively delve into what has made them smile or squirm over the past seven weeks.
Big men and market inefficiencies
In many ways, the Euroleague market money is a laissez faire fantasy. Supply and demand, unchecked by regulatory forces, determine prices; seemingly rational actors put a premium in signings that will minimise risk and maximize productivity. And if your team finds itself on the wrong end of the income distribution spectrum, you are more than welcome to enjoy your season until the end of the Top 16 - at best.
Thankfully, market inefficiencies, inextricably linked to misinformed decisions, often restore competitive balance, at least to some degree. Take Barcelona this past offseason. When Joey Dorsey joined the Houston Rockets, the Blaugrana decided to play it safe with his replacement. Money was not an issue and Laboral Kutxa had proved themselves to be a reliable business partner (Marcelinho Huertas; Brad Oleson; Maciej Lampe), so Tibor Pleiss, coming off the most productive season of his career was brought over from Vitoria.
It was supposed to be an expensive but low risk solution: Pleiss’ age, basic numbers and ability to work the pick and roll made him appear as an ideal backup for Ante Tomic. A few months later, Pleiss looks like yet another poster child for the information gaps that plague the big man market. Much like Stanko Barac and Efes, Nenad Krstić and CSKA, or Luka Zoric and Fenerbahçe, Barcelona spent a bunch of money on a seemingly safe, high demand/low supply choice (you can’t teach height, seven footers don’t grow on trees and so on). And then they were shocked to find out that he can’t perform a basic big man function: defend the pick and roll.
To blame Pleiss for Barcelona’s defensive inconsistency this season (great defensive rating overall, with a lot of stinkers against elite offenses) would be a simplification. Injuries have not allowed them to establish the continuity which is crucial in Pascual’s system; their wings and power forwards have not exactly shined in a help and recover role; and they could really use another guard who can navigate through screens. However, a team with Barcelona’s resources should get more help from their centers in this area. One of those centers could be Marko Todorović, but the blaugrana went with the safer option in Lampe. Bilbao got Todorović on a loan and are laughing all the way to the top four of the ACB league.
Barcelona’s arch rivals, Real Madrid, have displayed a similar pattern of decision making. Marcus Slaughter has been losing playing time to more traditional - and rarer - big men like Giannis Bourousis and Gustavo Ayon. Slaughter’s own shortcomings in his second season with the merengues and internal politics had something to do with it, but Madrid’s resurgence over the past few weeks has coincided with the return of the American center to a more prominent role. The lesson here is that before anyone offers a seven-digit contract to Artsiom Parakhouski, they should really check his footwork on defense.
Jan Vesely or How I stopped worrying about spacing
Jan Vesely as a Euroleague center is an elite roll man and a valuable defensive presence around the rim and on perimeter switches. Jan Vesely as a Euroleague power forward practically invites his man to ignore him on the perimeter and clog the paint.
Fenerbahce have adjusted by playing the Czech mostly at five. But even with Nemanja Bjelica carrying most of the load at the other big position, there are still about twelve minutes per game at the power forward slot that need to be filled. How can Vesely be used there without hurting Fener’s spacing. The answer has been simple: keep him moving.
Fenerbahce are not pretending that Vesely is an outside threat. They have him cut at the rim next to the roll man, catch the ball in traffic and finish in traffic. The degree of difficulty is higher but so is Vesely’s jumping ability. Opponents will surely flood the strong side with help defenders, but Fener are betting that Vesely can simply rise above them, at least for short stretches. So far it’s working.
CSKA need to stop the ball
You can see it in their body language: CSKA players enjoy themselves more playing for new cool kid Dimitris Itoudis than grim Professor Messina. The offense flows. Injuries have hardly slowed them down. Even a three-game losing streak did not bring their spirits down - Nando de Colo was back to capping off tweets with smilies in no time. Still, for the good times to last, CSKA will need to improve defensively.
The main issue has been stopping dribble penetration. Miloš Teodosić has been so bad he should have his own video compilation. Nando de Colo is not really making up for the shortcoming of his backcourt mate. Sonny Weems has shown flashes of potent defense on the ball during his time in Europe but he’s been battling injuries and is not really tested against smaller guards. Opponents have noticed and they have not been shy about resorting to iso sets, especially against Miloš.
Aaron Jackson - having a fine season on both ends - and Vitaly Fridzon can help in this area. But will Itoudis go with either of them over his more celebrated perimeter trio when things get really serious? And if he does, will the good times last?
Giannis Sfairopoulos - So far, so good
The former Panionios coach stepped into an Olympiacos team in a bad way. Georgios Barzokas was out after losing* to Panathinaikos’ youngsters in the Greek Cup, and there was much work to do. Our own rodhig has detailed how Sfairopoulos has re-worked the defense with a heavy hedging strategy, and right now it’s working. However, I’d still like to see how the Reds would react to a team that could unpick the gaps that are unavoidably left when you bring your big man out to the halfway line to trap the ball handler.
The strategy essentially relies on trapping the ball handler long enough for the backside of the defense to recover. If the ball moves more quickly, three remaining red jerseys have four opponents to guard. All the better if the pass that could unpick this mismatch is long and obstructed. Although Oly came out on top in a huge win over CSKA last week, there were signs that the Russians were working this out. One obvious way of probing the gaps is to have the screener make a short roll and either take the open shot or work the passing angles to get a great look.
In the clip above, Hines rolls to the three point line and the ball finds him quickly with Hunter stranded out of the play, leaving Spanoulis to cover two excellent shooters. He stunts towards the corner, leaving Vorontsevich to take an open three before Printezis can close out. The shot misses, but it’s a clear example of how even a non-shooting big man can take advantage of the gap left behind the hedge, so to speak.
One thing I like about Sfairopoulos’ approach is that can force the opposition to adapt - last week CSKA immediately went away from high screen-and-roll sets (not that they don’t have other options). That could put opponents on the back foot in a league game, but in a playoff series, counters like the one above can be designed, practiced and deployed. Of course Sfairopoulos isn’t a one-trick pony, but it will be interesting to see if his best trick is repeatable in the adapt-or-die habitat of a five-game series.
Still, the fans in Piraeus can feel pretty confident if they get home advantage. They’ve won their last seven playoff games at SEF, and the last time they lost one was March 2011.
Marcus Williams reeled me in
The Crvena Zvezda playmaker is a marmite player in Europe - to some he symbolises the Ignorant American, always out for his own shot, a superstar only in his own mind who just doesn’t ‘get it’. To others, and I’ve always had at least one foot in this camp, he’s a risk that a team looking to punch above their weight in Euroleague needs to take. The theory goes that a team with less than €2.5m to spend on player salaries can’t afford a reliable elite scorer, so they have to shop in the Streaky Chucker Aisle. When they’re on form, those players give them a chance to beat anyone. When they’re not, well…. that’s the risk you take. I also get a kick out of guys making shots the whole world knows they’re going to take, like his trademark stepback three.
Going from Unicaja to Lokomotiv Kuban to Belgrade, Williams has sunk down the totem pole. He looked like a bargain in the Regular Season, as Crvena Zvezda bagged second place in a tough group. Williams shot 38.2% from inside the arc, 31.8% behind it and gave out 6.9 assists per game. In the Top 16 those shaky shooting numbers have dropped to a ghastly 27.8/26.5 with 5.3 assists as they have a 1-6 record. He was never an efficient scorer, but you can live with it when he has some big games and can create shots for others. They’ve lost some heartbreakers in the Top 16 - when your margin for error is so small, carrying a guy with a 33.6 eFG% and a 26.2 usage rate (6th highest in the Top 16) just isn’t sustainable. Only Daniel Hackett has a worse eFG% in the Top 16 amongst guys who play at least 25 minutes per game, but that’s another story.
Crvena Zvezda have done well just to make it this far, and they will probably judge success and failure by what happens in the Adriatic League. But its a shame for a team of irrepressible Balkan players like Nikola Kalinić and Jaka Blazić to be dominated by the guy with the ball bricking shot after shot.
Ibon Navarro and the rebirth of Baskonia
It looked like this Laboral Kutxa season was going down the pan as Marco Crespi oversaw a 2-3 start to the Euroleague season to go with a 2-4 opening run in the ACB. Worse than the results, the way the team had been assembled was clearly off from the beginning. Anyone remember DJ White, Orlando Johnson, Ryan Gomes or (gulp) Sasha Vujacic?
Former assistant coach Ibon Navarro stepped in, they won three of their last five to make the Top 16, and it’s a whole new team, almost literally. General Manager Josean Querejeta has never been shy to wheel and deal, nor to accept buyout money for his best players, so before the second phase even started, off went Thomas Heurtel to Anadolu Efes. The reinforcements looked like a gamble - Mike James, a high-volume shooting guard who’d put up big numbers in the Greek League; Darius Adams, who was the German BBL’s top scorer last season, and Ben Hansbrough, who hadn’t really settled anywhere in Europe to date.
The improvement has been dramatic: In James, they have a player who few can guard one-on-one, with the ability to finish off-balance, twisting his body to turn improbable scoring chances into layups. For one with such a scorer’s mentality he also has uncanny timing on pocket passes if the big man steps up. Shot selection might still be an issue - why he hoisted a deep three to win at Fenerbahçe in Week 6 when on the previous possession it took two defenders to assault him at the rim is anyone’s guess - as is defense, but he’s committed at that end, and if he can work hard to at least not be a net minus, the next step on the European career ladder won’t be far away.
Although Adams came with the reputation as a scorer, it’s his defense that has impressed the most, although 20 point games like last week against Unicaja don’t hurt. At first he held the ball too long, resulting in some ugly long-two point attempts, but he’s actually shooting 47.1% from three-point range in the Top 16, which is pretty incredible, if likely to drop off.
The most impressive thing about Navarro’s reign so far is how well organised he has made the offense, a pretty great demonstration of ‘pace and space’ basketball. The ball zips around, and players like Kim Tillie and Fernando San Emeterio who were lost under Crespi are now fulfilling a role. ‘San Eme’ in particular looks like a guy who just shook off the weight of at least two years of frustration, back to being the guy who could bully his way to the best of almost any matchup.
Of course it’s great to surround penetrating guards with big men who can space the floor and vice versa, and Davis Bertans, although he’s shooting a lot, is finally looking like the dynamite gunner he sporadically showed he can be.
It may be blind luck after so many personnel changes, but Baskonia has a real chance of fighting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Navarro should take a lot of the credit for that. He’s part of the next wave of Spanish coaches - like my 2015 coach crush Diego Ocampo at UCAM Murcia - who put the time in as assistants and are rolling out the textbook Aíto-inspired high octane offense. Whisper it, but Querejeta may have found a keeper.
George Rowland decided to hand out some midseason grades. A mix of Chris Traeger-esque positivity with some Obradović-style stern dressings down. Which Obradović? You decide.
Tibor Pleiss: F
Pleiss took a while to acclimatise to the ACB, having a rough first year in 2012-13 after moving to Baskonia from Bamberg. But he finally looked like the player he had always promised to be last season, where he peaked in the Top 16 averaging 13.6 points and 5.8 rebounds on 55.7% shooting; including an outing against Milano where he put up 30 points, 13 rebounds and drew 10 fouls.
But after his great season he walked along a well-trodden road from Vitoria to Barcelona, joining former teammates Marcelinho Huertas, Brad Oleson and Maciej Lampe. This season Pleiss seems to have regressed back below the standard even in his first ACB season as he becomes the latest resident in Xavi Pascual’s doghouse. Averaging 2 fouls in 12 minutes of court action Pleiss has been an outright disaster defending the pick and roll, with a devilish combination of a lack of strength and foot-speed with a demanding coach and defensive scheme. As bad as Pleiss’ defence has been his most obvious flaw has been terrible passing. Playing behind the greatest passing big in European basketball Pleiss’ has only 3 assists in 14 games, as it seems obvious the drop in ball movement as Barca go from Tomic to Pleiss.
While Pleiss has been godawful the failure must also be on the Barcelona front office. Last season they had Joey Dorsey providing the change of pace behind Tomić. Where Tomić had length, finesse and court vision, Dorsey had athleticism, strength and probably the most solid screen in Europe. Pleiss now comes in bringing a lesser skillset than Tomić in every attribute. Essentially giving any opposition a comparative break while Tomić is off court.
Rudy Fernandez: B+
To use a school room analogy Rudy is the smartarse kid who knows how clever he is and let’s himself coast at times. With a slightly injury-plagued regular season both Rudy and Real spluttered along in a weak group that they were expected to dominate. But the Top 16 has come around and exam season is on the horizon and Rudy has kicked into gear, culminating in a 22 point, 9 rebound, five assist, three steal masterpiece against the old rivals Barcelona.
Rudy still has the propensity to disappear and pout at times (although this is greatly overstated by many) but he is still Real’s best two way player and will no doubt be churning out straight As when it matters.
Dimitris Itoudis/Nando De Colo: A
CSKA have been the undisputed best team in Euroleague this season, with the only blot on their record being the loss in Piraeus a couple of weeks ago. Dimitris Itoudis has breathed new life into CSKA post-Messina, developing a culture of ball movement that was sorely lacking last season, as Sonny Weems and Nenad Krstić at times ground the offence to a halt.
The stand-out for CSKA has been Nando De Colo, and his success has been emblematic of CSKA’s larger success in developing a sustainable team ethos on offence. De Colo never takes a bad or rushed decision, looking to go at the rim first off, drawing fouls at an incredible rate; then always looking for an open shot for a teammate or himself.
However CSKA still have a black cloud over their head after crapping their pants in the past three final fours, are the additions of Itoudis and the new personnel enough to cure the disease? I guess we’ll find out in May.
EA7 Emporio Armani Milano: D
Much like fashion, basketball can be a cruel business. As quickly as Milano’s red shoes were back last season, they have faded from vogue this. As maligned as Keith Langford and Curtis Jerells were, they seemed to be simultaneously free and kept in check by Luca Banchi. Especially with Gani Lawal sweeping up and defensive errors behind them. But those three have departed and many of Milano’s replacements have disappointed. To replace Lawal Milano signed Shawn James, who after injury looks a shadow of his former self, as athleticism has faded, and as has his ability to intimidate around the rim. While Joe Ragland and Marshon Brooks have performed admirably as Euroleague rookies, they simply can’t recreate the spontaneity and sheer scoring ability of Jerrells and Langford, putting too heavy a load on Daniel Hackett, and forcing him to create from nothing.