We’re only four games into the 2017/18 EuroLeague season, but only two teams remain undefeated. You may have heard a bit about Real Madrid and this Slovenian star putting up ridiculous numbers, who they laughably claim is still a teenager. Over in Piraeus there’s another team which won’t be able to claim the underdog status that propelled it to two championships and two second places since 2012.
The icon of this era, not just for Olympiacos but arguably for EuroLeague as a whole, is Vassilis Spanoulis, but he is yet to step on the floor this season. The most clutch player in Europe, the inevitable fourth quarter game winner has been absent, but his team hasn’t missed a step.
In fact, whisper it, the crucial task for coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos may be how to re-integrate his talisman into the lineup when they’ve been doing just fine without him.
Olympiacos Pireaus: destroying your favourite hipster team since 2012 #baddestmotherfuckers
— rodhig (@rodhig7) October 26, 2017
The Reds last game was a 92-75 stomping of previously unbeaten BC Khimki Moscow, which followed a 69-68 win on the road in Tel Aviv. These two games revealed much about Olympiacos, the state of the early contenders, and how difficult it should be to knock the Greeks off their pedestal as one of the favourites for the title.
Khimki may have been unbeaten, but those three wins were all at home in Moscow. Going to a place like Peace and Friendship Stadium was a stark reminder of how far a team still learning who it is, developing bonds and discovering how to dominate tough opponents has to go before it can be called a contender. Coach Georgios Bartzokas’ post-game press conference comments were brutally honest, but said as much about their opponents, his former team, as the Russian squad:
“We have newcomers in Europe, we don’t know what it means to play in this gym against Olympiacos, It was a good lesson for us. It was a mental problem for us today. We have to be concentrated, we had to travel. Everyone is saying that Khimki is a favorite for the Final Four. This is bullshit, this is for idiots. There are many more experienced teams in the EuroLeague.”
“Bullshit”! Kudos on the honesty, Bart-man. But he isn’t wrong, the reality is that Olympiacos have little bro’d teams this week with insouciance. Just look at Professor Printezis welcoming Jonah Bolden to the grown ups’ table:
— Austin Green (@LosCrossovers) October 27, 2017
That is some Olajuwon-level footwork, in addition to the first play of the game where he dropped a deep three on Bolden, who perhaps wasn’t aware of who he was guarding. Not only that, but Printezis is out here dropping dishes like a drunken waiter:
Going back to the Khimki game, Nikola Milutinov, who *cough* a certain podcast tipped for All-EuroLeague status on the eve of the season, toyed with five-year NBA veteran Thomas Robinson and another former NBA big man, Malcolm Thomas.
In the early minutes, the Spurs’ first round pick disrupted an Alexey Shved drive, hit a smooth turnaround hook over Thomas, blocked his shot, skied for a pass in the paint and finished again. Later, as Olympiacos ran away with the game in the third quarter he scored on Robinson with a low-post spin move that was so slick the ball was through the net before T-Rob knew what was happening. He turned over the other shoulder on the left block and sank a baseline turnaround, again with no defensive resistance possible. Just to flesh out the advance scouting reports, he also hit a nice mid-range J after Robinson backed off to cut off the paint.
It was dominant, against a frontline that had impressed many, including me, with its physicality and speed. Both hands, turning over both shoulders, hooks, jumpers, easy rim-drop offs he created by gaining deep position. I love how he makes decisive moves without holding the ball too long and giving his defender a chance to dig in. Although Robinson called out his and the team’s efforts after the game, Khimki had no answers.
One other interesting factor in Milutinov’s development is his increased mobility on defense, and what it tells us about projecting big men down the line, as they develop into the players they can become. The Serbian, still only 22, used to be pegged as a drop-back defender in pick and roll, not really someone who could step above the screen or switch on to guards.
He’s not going to be a Khem Birch or Ekpe Udoh who can slide with the quickest perimeter guys in Europe - not to mention the NBA - but his ability to cover the paint has definitely improved, to the point where he can definitely be put in the middle of an elite EuroLeague defense. It isn’t that his foot speed or natural athleticism has improved, but his awareness and ability to read and react to the offense has. This is something that can be developed through teaching and experience, not always just a question of genetically bestowed hops and muscle fibres.
His development has been rapid, from a third Centre to possible All-EuroLeague level in only a couple of seasons. Milutinov might not be a veteran, but he looks fully at home in this deep, experienced crew of winners, already a guy you can absolutely go to war with.
Versatility and depth, other than Agravanis’ expression
The key takeaway from these early games is that there don’t appear to be any huge question marks or significant weak spots in the rotation you have to live with and hope the others can cover for. Even swapping a Final Four vet like Kim Tillie, out long term with a detached knee tendon (yikes) for the personification of the Shades Emoji hasn’t really put a dent in anything.
There’s so much versatility here. Printezis spent some key moments last season as a smaller five, but they’ve been starting with a big lineup of Roberts / Papapetrou / Papanikolaou / Printezis / Milutinov. KPap guarded Alexey Shved and did pretty well, and he’s still a rip-the-rebound and go fast break firestarter.
It already feels like newcomers Jamel McLean and Hollis Thompson have been here for longer. McLean was lost in the wilderness at Milano but his hard-work and bounciness are back to the level at Alba Berlin when they nearly forced their way into the playoffs in 2015. It looks like he’s the go-to C for an all-switch defense, and he stopped Shved in his tracks a couple of times. It doesn’t hurt that he can stretch out to mid-range with his jumper, unlike the dunks-and-layups-only diet of Birch.
Thompson has already hit a few contested threes and looks ready to swish them in big games, alongside a clever arsenal of fadeaways from closer in. It looks like he has already found his role on a deep roster, and after so many losing efforts in the 76ers tank-a-thon, just being on the winning side must feel pretty good.
The defense is already mid-season sharp. They don’t give opponents the time to make the right reads or time passes to get open looks. There’s always someone breathing down your neck, and if the home scorers had been more on top of things, Milutinov would definitely have been credited with more than one block vs Khimki.
This week definitely felt like a marker being laid down. As Bartzokas said, his current team doesn’t know how to go into a place like SEF and win. Olympiacos went to Maccabi and snuck out with the W, then destroyed a previously rampant opponent. They know how to win, and it feels like their momentum is only just building.
How to weave in the supporting cast around such a dominant personality like Spanoulis has been perhaps the key factor in roster-building for Olympiacos in this era, and in Brian Roberts and Janis Strelnieks, they appear to have found a great combination. Roberts has returned from five seasons in the NBA, and has stepped in with no learning curve to climb, just picking up the ball and running an offense like he’d been doing it for years.
Roberts built his reputation in Bamberg as a hard working terrier on defense, and he still is that, but he’s also been to flat-out burn defenders off the dribble in EuroLeague this season. Strelnieks, another Bamberg alum, has stepped into the off-the-bench instant offense role that Erick Green filled last season, and while Green’s 20 points per game on 63/41/87 shooting percentages so far for Valencia might raise eyebrows, Strelnieks is perhaps a more rounded solution as a playmaker for when Spanoulis returns.
What to do with a rested Spanoulis?
In fact, where Spanoulis fits into all of this might be the most interesting conundrum. Before his semi-final heroics in Istanbul last May, there were a few statistical red flags: 28.2% from three-point range and an average of four turnovers per game. With how Roberts and Strelnieks have started, it won’t be a case of just turning over the entire offense to Kill Bill’s high-wire act.
It’s still early of course, and there’s a long way to go. Limiting Spanoulis’ game time would be a brave move, even for a coach with accumulated credit like Sfairopoulos. It’s always tricky to balance the needs of the team with the narrative of a (slowly) fading legend, but if that’s the biggest question mark then they’re in a pretty good spot.
The most encouraging thought is that in a reduced role, perhaps choosing some Regular Season games to DNP-Rest and picking the right spots to let it fly with the clock winding down, those turnovers with two or more defenders draped over him will probably come down. A Spanoulis with more open shots, more space to operate and more rested legs can still surely be a luxury weapon to deploy. There will still be tied games, shot clock turned off, in need of a cold-blooded game winner.
Adding that guy to this group? Well…
— CourtSide Diaries (@courtside_drs) October 5, 2017