Lokomotiv Kuban

Four Teams to Watch in the Eurocup Next Season

Expect Jamar Smith to play a key role in helping Unicaja make a run to the Eurocup championship.

In terms of the premiere second-tier European basketball competition, the Eurocup continues to hold the title, though FIBA’s Basketball Champions League has given the ULEB-sponsored competition fierce competition this summer (mostly due to FIBA muscling clubs with possible National Team and Domestic League sanctions; Italy and France were two countries who deferred to FIBA this off-season by not sending any teams to the Eurocup). However, only the Eurocup has the automatic Euroleague qualifier for whoever wins the competition, and with a new format, and less Euroleague/Eurocup crossover (no teams will be sent down to the Eurocup mid-season as in years past), the ULEB second-tier competition promises to be the most competitive in its 14-year history (the competition began in 2002-2003).

So, with an automatic berth and possible Wild Card spot on the line (the Euroleague offers one Wild Card slot out of its 16 teams), which of the 24 Eurocup participants will have the greatest chance of punching their ticket to the Euroleague in 2017-2018? Who will be worth watching, especially when the playoffs begin in the Spring?

In this post, I will take a look at four Eurocup participants who’ll be worth paying close attention to this upcoming season, and should make a run at that coveted Eurocup title and Euroleague berth.

Joan Plaza should have a much better year in Malaga this season after Unicaja limped to finish line in the Euroleague and ACB a year ago.

1. Unicaja Malaga

Unicaja will be participating in the Eurocup for the first time in club history. For some squads, that is an honor, but for Unicaja, it’s quite a buzzkill. Unicaja has been a Euroleague mainstay, who qualified for the Top 16 for the 11th consecutive season last year, and made the Final Four in 2007. But, despite a hot 7-3 start in the Regular Season of the Euroleague, injuries and roster turmoil resulted in a 4-10 record in Top 16 play (11-13 overall) and a first-round sweep in the ACB playoffs to Valencia. And thus, after a mediocre campaign and without an A license lock, Unicaja proved to be the odd-team out when it came to picking the Euroleague field of 16 in 2016-2017, losing out on the lone Wild Card spot to Turkish upstart Darussafaka Dogus.

With the demotion to the Eurocup, the summer didn’t start off well for Unicaja, as star Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who was one of the best players in the Regular Season round, and had masterful performances in road wins over Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv and CSKA Moscow, ended up leaving Malaga (first going to Darussafaka before the New York Knicks bought out his rights from the Turkish club). In addition, center Fran Vazquez, one of the leading shot blockers in Euroleague history, also left the club, signing with ACB rival Iberostar Tenerife. Much like Lokomotiv Kuban experienced a mass exodus of talent after their Eurocup demotion, it appeared Unicaja was going to suffer the same fate this summer.

However, Unicaja has rebounded quickly, and has suddenly put together one of the most competitive squads in the Eurocup this summer. To make up for Kuzminskas’ departure, they added shooting guard Adam Waczynski, a Polish national who averaged 14.6 ppg with Rio Natura Monbus Obradoiro of the ACB last season. His arrival should mesh well with Jamar Smith and Nemanja Nedovic, two returning wing scorers from last year’s squad. Additionally, Unicaja got stronger in the playmaking department, as they added solid point guard options in Oliver Lafayette (from Olimpia Milano) and Kyle Fogg (from Eisbaeren Bremerhaven) who should help solidify the backcourt with Alberto Diaz, a young, rising star who should get more playing time opportunities than a season ago. And lastly, in the front court, Unicaja added depth and athleticism by signing Trevor Mbakwe (from Maccabi Tel Aviv), Jeff Brooks (from Nizhny Novgorod) and Dejan Musli (from Manresa). This trio should help Unicaja be more effective in the post not just in terms of rebounding and offense, but defensively, as they should improve a block rate (2.8 percent) that was below average in the Euroleague a year ago.

With added depth at his disposal, head coach Joan Plaza should have an easier time coaching this squad than a season ago. Plaza stayed at Unicaja despite other job openings  in his home country being available, such as Laboral Kutxa Baskonia and FC Barcelona. Then again though, Plaza’s stock took a bit of a hit after such a poor finish in Malaga last season, so it is possible that he wasn’t in serious consideration for those positions despite his coaching pedigree. That being said, with a deeper, more athletic roster and a bit easier Eurocup schedule (which should ease the burden of also playing in the ACB), Plaza should make Unicaja competitive again, with a Eurocup championship not only a possibility, but an expectation in 2017.

Amare Stoudemire’s signing with Hapoel Jerusalem will make the Israeli club a favorite in the Eurocup.

2. Hapoel Jerusalem

Though they traditionally are overlooked in comparison to rival Maccabi Tel Aviv (who has an A license in the Euroleague), Hapoel Jerusalem was arguably the best team in Israel a season ago. Not only did they have the best record in regular season Winner League play, but they also made it to championship game, something rival Maccabi did not do. Unfotunately, their loss to 4th-seeded Maccabi Rishon (who is playing in the Champions League) in the title game left the Jerusalem-based club with little to show for what was an extremely successful campaign overall in 2015-2016.

Not ready to rest on their laurels, Jerusalem was as active as any Israeli club this summer, Maccabi Tel Aviv included. They hired Simone Pianigiani, an Italian head coach who had Euroleague success with Montepaschi Siena and Fenerbahce Ulker. And in terms of the roster, they added an influx of American talent, which included combo guards Jerome Dyson of Auxilium Turin, Curtis Jerrells of Galatasaray, and Tarence Kinsey of Crvena Zvezda, who should be pulling main point guard duties next season. They also boosted their size in the post with Travis Peterson, most recently of Valencia, and Isaac Rosefelt, who comes locally from Hapoel Holon.

However, though those signings added some much needed depth to their roster, no acquisition generated as much splash as the recent signing of Amare Stoudemire, who recently retired from the NBA, but signed a two-year deal with Jerusalem. A partial owner of the franchise (though he did have to sell his shares as a requirement of joining the team so there was no conflict of interest), Stoudemire, a former NBA All-Star and All-NBA player, is one of the most high profile players to ever come to Israel, and should add a dimension in the post that the Winner League or Eurocup has rarely seen. Though Stoudamire has struggled with injury since leaving the Phoenix Suns during their “Seven Seconds or Less” days, he still was an effective bench player last season with the Miami Heat, and is only 33-years-old, still relatively young considering how long he has been playing professional basketball.

To think Stoudemire will channel his Phoenix or early New York Knick days is foolish, but Amare should have an impact on this team immediately. He is still immensely talented on the offensive end as a scorer, and he and Kinsey should thrive in the pick and roll. Furthermore, Stoudemire is coming motivated to Jerusalem, as this is something he “wanted” to do, not a last-end resort, as is the case with most imports. I could see this situation being similar to Stephon Marbury’s success in China, as Stoudemire could achieve a positive revitalization for both himself and this Jerusalem team in the next couple of years. And if that revitalization could result in a Eurocup title and Euroleague berth in 2017-2018, that would only add to Stoudemire’s legacy individually, and make Jerusalem’s risk well worth it in the end.

After a down year with Panathinaikos, Sasha Djordjevic looks to rebound with Bayern Munich.

3. FC Bayern Munich

Much like Unicaja, Bayern was another victim of the downsizing in the Euroleague, as their failure to get out of the Regular Season, or ability to win the BBL from Brose Baskets Bamberg resulted in them being left out of the Euroleague field. However, much like Unicaja, instead of letting such a demotion get to them, they instead have reloaded with a formidable team that looks to compete for the Eurocup crown.

The biggest addition for the Munich-based club was the hiring of former Panathinaikos head coach Sasha Djordjevic. Djordjevic, the current Serbian Men’s National Team coach and a former European club legend in his playing days, is coming off an uneven campaign in Athens where he was unable to bring the Greek power back in the spotlight, as PAO were swept in the Euroleague playoffs by Baskonia a year ago. Though his one-year tenure in Greece was underwhelming, he is coming back to a smaller club with less pressure in Germany. Prior to Panathinaikos, Djordjevic also coached in Italy, first with Olimpia Milano from 2006-2007 and then with Benetton Treviso from 2011-2012.

Another plus is that Djordjevic is that he will have top player Nihad Djedovic to mold his offensive strategy around. The Bosnian National was one of Bayern’s most productive players a year ago, as he had the highest touches per game on the team in Euroleague play, and averaged 0.97 PPP, not extremely productive, but not bad in comparison to his high usage (the higher the usage, the harder it is to produce higher PPP). Djedovic, who has spent most of his professional career in Germany, was definitely in high demand this summer, but it appears that he enjoys his role in Munich as well as the community, and that was a big plus for the club as they aim to return to the Euroleague in 2017-2018.

In addition to keeping Djedovic, Bayern also was able to keep wing and team captain Bryce Taylor, who underperformed in the Euroleague but scored 13.6 ppg in the BBL, as well as big man John Bryant, who was arguably Bayern’s most effective post player, as evidenced by his team-high 62.6 percent True Shooting percentage and 1.15 PPP in Euroleague play. Bryant is not particularly graceful or athletic, but he has always been an efficient, highly productive player, and he should continue to be so under Djordjevic, who demands a lot from his big men. Another big signing in the post by Bayern was Devin Booker, the reigning French League MVP with Chalon a season ago. Booker should be a nice replacement for Deon Thompson, who signed with Galatasaray this summer.

In many ways, Bayern is pretty much the same team that went 4-6 in the Euroleague a season ago, as the roster remains pretty much intact, perhaps even better with the Booker acquisition as well as other signings such as Vladimir Lucic from Valencia, Ondrej Balvin from Sevilla and Danilo Barthel from Fraport Skyliners, all players who should add depth to their front court. Add that with a motivated head coach in Djordjevic, who is looking to rebound after his failed one-year voyage in Athens, and the outlook appears pretty rosy for the Munich-based club in terms of competing for a title in both the Eurocup and BBL, both roads back to the Euroleague.

David Stockton should help bring a jolt from the PG position for Cedevita Zagreb.

4. Cedevita Zagreb

The Croatian club is coming off a pretty solid year in Euroleague play, as they qualified for the Top 16 for the first time in club history. Considering the club (or country in general) doesn’t have the history of other Balkan rivals (such as Serbian clubs Partizan or Crvena Zvezda) in terms of Euroleague success, their appearance in the Top 16 could be a sign of breakthrough.

Unfortunately, what may be breakthrough in the long run didn’t help their consideration in 2016-2017, as they didn’t have the season nor the kind of money or fanbase to merit a wild card berth in the Euroleague this season. However, Cedevita may be even better than last year, even though they will not be seen or on fans’ radar as much as they were in the Euroleague a season ago.

First off, Cedevita didn’t necessarily make any big time moves, but rather they opted for quality and fit rather than quantity. Gone are imports Jacob Pullen and Bill Walker, former college stars and NBA journeymen. Instead, Cedevita concentrated on keeping their young core together. They re-signed Luka Babic, who had some interest from other clubs, and they also were able to keep other crucial roster pieces such as Miro Bilan and Marko Arapovic. Also, they brought in athletic wing Scotty Hopson, who scored over 22 ppg in China last year, but averaged 15.5 ppg with Anadolu Efes back in 2013-2014. He will add some much needed athleticism and isolation scoring for this Croatian club.

The biggest player returning though may be Dzanan Musa, the Bosnian teenage star who is probably the most sought-after prospect in Europe. The MVP of the U16 European Championship a year ago, Musa is only 17 years old, but saw some playing time with the Cedevita senior squad a year ago. Musa is a special talent, and he will be given a much bigger role, especially now that he is a year older and has experience playing and practicing with the senior club. I don’t think Cedevita will expose him too much, out of fear for hurting his development (and they have Hopson and Babic so there isn’t a tremendous need to rush him), but he definitely will play a key role in the rotation in 2016-2017. To see his development will be exciting to follow, especially considering he is expected to be a lottery pick in the NBA in a couple of years.

Cedevita also made one of the more underrated signings in David Stockton, the son of NBA Hall of Famer, John. Stockton, though small in stature and lacking in natural athleticism like his father, is the kind of true playmaker that will help this Cedevita squad on the offensive end. D-Stock lives to make assists, as he has that passing gene that made his dad the NBA career leader in assists. Stockton was the starting point guard and leading assist man not only at prestigious college program Gonzaga his senior year (home of Lithuanian power forward and OKC Thunder draft pick Domantas Sabonis) but also of the most productive offense in the D-League with the Reno Bighorns (the most fun team to watch in the D-League thanks to head coach David Arsenault’s offense). Those kind of merits show that Stockton can produce on the professional level, and that he is ready to transition that playmaking skill set to the Eurocup and ABA.

Cedevita will benefit from the chemistry they developed last year during their Top 16 run, as well as new acquisitions, like Hopson and Stockton, who should mesh seamlessly with the culture of this club. There were a lot more teams that may have made “bigger name” signings, but I like the core Cedevita brings back and the potential for breakout from some of their young stars (like Musa), which should make them a dark horse in the Eurocup this season.

Some honorable mentions to watch in the Eurocup

  • Nizhny Novgorod: They barely missed out on the semis after a double-ot loss to Strasbourg a year ago, and they signed an excellent combo guard in DeAndre Kane, formerly of Iowa State. They lost a lot of talent though from last year, and they will have a new 31-year-old coach in Arturs Stalbergs, who has no head coaching experience, so that dampens the enthusiasm for this year a bit.
  • Alba Berlin: They made some good signings to solidify their backcourt with young talent in Malcolm Miller and Peyton Siva, and Engin Atsur should add some veteran leadership to their squad. They also have added a lot to their junior team, as they are looking more into the future rather than winning in the present. However, they are thin in the post, and it will be interesting to see if new head coach Ahmet Caki will see that solidified in the months leading up to the season.
  • AEK Athens: They loaded up with a lot of local Greek talent, including 22-year-old Giannoulis Larentzakis, who signed a four-year deal after averaging 11.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg and 2.9 apg with VAP Kolossos Rodou a year ago. However, while they have quantity in terms of acquisitions, it’s hard to see if there is much real quality with this AEK roster, which makes it hard to see them as a genuine contender (though I wouldn’t be surprised to see them buck expectations).
  • Lokomotiv Kuban: I think it’s going to be a rebuilding year, even though they have been making a late run in talent acquisition this summer (they signed Mardy Collins from Strasbourg and somehow got Kenny Gabriel from Pinar Karsiyaka even though he seemed to have offers from bigger clubs like Olympiacos). The most fascinating thing to watch will be new head coach Fotis Katsikaris, the former Greek National Team head coach, who had a solid campaign last year with UCAM Murcia of the ACB. Katsikaris has known to overachieve with teams (with the exception of the Greek national team, which blew it in the Eurobasket in 2015 and OQT this summer), as Murcia was one of the more fun teams to watch in the ACB a year ago thanks to do-everything Argentinian point guard Facundo Campazzo. Will Katsikaris be able to pull that “Murcia Magic” with Kuban, a team coming off a Euroleague Final Four appearance a year ago?

 

“Basketball Tapas”: Miller out for Maccabi TA, Taylor re-signs with RM, Abrines going to OKC

“Basketball Tapas” are newsletter-like posts where I highlight major news stories, articles and links on the Web centering on European basketball for that day or over a couple-day span. Hopefully, I will be able to make this a regular part of the blog where I am publishing it every day or at least every couple of days.

In this edition of “Basketball Tapas,” we will take at three major Euroleague-participating teams who will had major incidents happen to them in the past couple of days. Two of them were negative; one was positive. What happened and to who? Well…let’s get to serving our Tapas of the basketball variety for the day.

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Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv’s Quincy Miller injures self in pickup game; out 6-9 months.

Over a week ago, there were reports that Quincy Miller, Maccabi’s big summer signing from Crvena Zvezda, hurt himself in a pickup game back in the United States. Originally, it was suspected it would be a minor injury that would keep him out a few weeks. Unfortunately, news broke today about the severity of his injury:

Really difficult news to hear, especially considering how late it is in the summer signing period, and it will be difficult to replace a player of Miller’s talent and skill set. (How many 6’10 players can shoot threes, take it to the rack like a guard, and block shots?) Apparently, the injury occurred in a game with former NBA players like Baron Davis and Kenyon Martin and current NBA star Kyrie Irving, so it wasn’t as if Miller was horsing around and got hurt in an asinine fashion. (This isn’t the Monta Ellis on the Moped situation.)

It will be interesting to see how Maccabi handles this situation. They put a lot of hoopla on his (as well as Sonny Weems’) arrival, holding a “welcoming” ceremony of sorts this summer to help pump up the Maccabi fans for the 2016-2017 season. Without Miller, the outlook for this team’s a lot foggier, not a good thing considering Maccabi is coming off one of their worst seasons in club history in both Euroleague and Winner League play. Will they be aggressive in finding someone to replace him, and who at this point in the off-season? Or will management and Erez Edelstein simply roll the dice and depend on the roster they have?

I think it’ll be more likely that Maccabi will do the former than the latter.

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Jeff Taylor officially extends with Real Madrid

It was expected after Taylor received lukewarm interest from NBA clubs this off-season, but Real Madrid officially announced re-signing forward Jeff Taylor to a one-year deal with Los Blancos. Taylor struggled initially with Real Madrid, unable to find his role on the team in his transition from the NBA to the ACB and Euroleague. However, by the end of the season, Taylor excelled as a defensive-focused wing player, and started many games for Madrid down the stretch in ACB and Euroleague play.

Taylor has his issues. He struggles at times in team defense, he isn’t an adept shooter or shot creator, and he seems to “space out” on possessions on the floor. However, athletically Taylor is up there with any wing in Europe, and he adds more depth to a team that will be chock full of it next year, important to have considering the Euroleague’s extended season format. Though Madrid lost Sergio Rodriguez, the addition of Anthony Randolph, and the re-signing of Taylor, Gustavo Ayon and Trey Thompkins will make the Madrid club one of the longest and most athletic in Europe. And, consider the breakout season that Luka Doncic, still a teenager, could have next year after a solid full-season with the senior club last season, and this Madrid has to be a favorite for the Euroleague crown with CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce Ulker.

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Alex Abrines signs three-year deal with Oklahoma City Thunder

A lot of big losses for Barcelona this off-season. First, they lost 6’7 point guard Tomas Satoransky to the Washington Wizards, and now, the OKC Thunder, fresh off losing Kevin Durant to the Warriors, poached wing Alex Abrines on a three year, $21-million deal. That being said, the deal wasn’t entirely bad, as it seems to have freed up money for Barcelona to sign athletic four-player Victor Claver from Lokomotiv Kuban.

The Abrines deal is interesting because Abrines really didn’t show much beyond being a spot-up shooter with some defensive capability last season. Granted, it was difficult to tell how “good” Abrines may have been last year, as he struggled to get consistent minutes from Juan Carlos Navarro and Brad Oleson, veterans Xavi Pascual clearly favored last year in the rotation, despite their regression in 2015-2016. Maybe OKC sees something in Abrines that most European basketball fans didn’t see last season, and see him as a specialized player who could boost their 3-pt shooting on the wing, something they struggled with last season beyond Kevin Durant and occasional flurries from Dion Waiters (whom they don’t seem to be bringing back).

However, Abrines will be making more than Tomas Satoransky, interesting to see considering Satoransky’s skill set seem more valuable than Abrines. Satoransky is a tall point guard in the Shaun Livingston mold who can shoot from beyond the arc, defend up to four positions (though three really well) and can penetrate and create offense for himself and his teammates off the drive. That seems to be a more valuable skill set to NBA teams than Abrines’ “shooting-focused” abilities, but Satoransky will be making less than Abrines on a per-year basis. Yes, it’s probably a pedantic issue, considering they are both going to the NBA, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.

Other Tapas of note…

  • Fotis Katsikaris in negotiations to be Lokomotiv Kuban coach: The former Greek National Team coach (he wasn’t extended after the Olympic Qualifying Tournament) and current UCAM Murcia coach is a favorite to replace Georgios Bartzokas, who left for Barcelona. Katsikaris had a solid season with Murcia, where they gave Real Madrid a tough fight in round 1 of the ACB playoffs. The cupboard though is pretty bare in Loko, with Randolph, Malcolm Delaney and Victor Claver all signing elsewhere this summer. However, Loko will be in the Eurocup, and Katsikaris has done well in rebuilding jobs, as evidenced by his work with Murcia last season.
  • Besiktas signs Michael Roll: A surprising power move by the Turkish club, who will be playing in the inaugural Basketball Champions League competition rather than the Eurocup. After signing Devin Booker and Kyle Weems from French Clubs (Elan Chalon and Strasbourg, respectively), Besiktas stayed close, signing Roll from Büyükçekmece of the BSL. Roll was rumored to be going to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, so this is a bit of a surprise pickup by the Turkish club, and a big loss for the Basque team, who has lost a lot from last year’s Final Four team.
  • Jordan Sibert signs with PAOK Thessaloniki: A young, under-the-radar talent that will be going to a solid Greek club that often goes under-the-radar in the Greek basketball scene amidst Panathinaikos and Olympiacos. The 24-year-old Sibert, a product of Dayton University, averaged 13.1 ppg with the Erie Bayhawks of the D-League last season.
  • Maccabi Kiryat signs Trevor Releford and Koroivos signs Ken Brown: Two smaller clubs made pretty good point guard acquisitions, though we’ll see if these acquisitions move the needle for these mid-tier clubs. Releford, a product of Kansas City as well as the University of Alabama, scored 13.5 ppg in 28 games with Kolossos in the GBL, and gives the Israeli club one of the better point guards in the Winner League. Brown is coming from Lithuanian competitor Lietuvos Rytas, where he averaged 8.0 ppg in 28 games. He should give Korivos another point guard to complement Vincent Council, who averaged 5.8 ppg in 17 games last season with the Greek club.

EuroBall and Beatz: Malcolm Delaney and “Pink Toes” by Childish Gambino

Loko’s Malcolm Delaney was one of the best players in the Euroleague last season; now he is taking his talents to the NBA.

Malcolm Delaney-Highlights Euroleague 2015/2016

Some people take unique paths to success in the NBA. Some do it the traditional way: go to college, get drafted, succeed with the team that drafted them until they sign an extension with that team or go elsewhere in free agency. That has been the tried and true method for the most part to NBA success.

However, there are stories where players take a different road to NBA success. For example, Hassan Whiteside, probably left Marshall a year too early, was drafted in the second round by the Sacramento Kings, where he failed to adjust to their roster and the NBA game in two seasons, and knocked around the D-League and in China until he got an opportunity with the Miami Heat. After succeeding as one of the best “traditional” big men in the league last year, the Heat rewarded him lucratively this off-season, and with Dwyane Wade gone, he seems primed to be the Heat’s building block for years to come.

Whiteside’s story is nice. Those stories show that you can’t label someone a “bust” within the first few years of their career. And, it shows that even if a player might not find success in the NBA initially, there is always a chance they can develop as a player and mature into a NBA-quality player.

Malcolm Delaney is the next in line of great “late bloomer” players.

Of course, we have no idea if Delaney is a “late bloomer” or not because he’s been pretty fucking good for most of his basketball career since college. The East Baltimore native, is a dynamic player who shined as Virginia Tech’s primary combo guard, but because the NCAA is stupid and corrupt, they ended up shutting the Hokies out of the NCAA Tournament during Delaney’s two best seasons in college. (Because of “strength of schedule” or some other bullshit; I don’t know. The NCAA doesn’t have any criteria for anything.) Due to this “lack of exposure” on the big stage in college (i.e. the Tourney), Delaney went undrafted, mainly because he played for a basketball program that pales in comparison to its football program in terms of profile, attention, and fan and school investment.

However, after not making a NBA team, Delaney took his talents to Europe, where he’s done nothing but kick ass and take names as a big, athletic, sweet-shooting point guard. He went to Elan Chalon of the LNB in France, and impressed in his professional debut. After a successful rookie year in Europe, he made his way to Ukraine, to play for Ukrainian league power BC Budivelnyk, where he made first-team All-Eurocup, despite it only being his second year out of college. And, in his third season, he made the leap to a higher profile club and scene, transferring to FC Bayern Munich of Germany, where he helped Bayern qualify automatically for the Euroleague by helping them take the BBL crown 3-1 over Alba Berlin, earning Finals MVP honors in the process.

Despite a season where he is was named a Eurocup First-Team players, and BBL Finals MVP, Delaney still didn’t seem to get the respect he deserved from the States. The NBA still didn’t call, and he was making too much money to go settle for paltry amounts in the D-League. So, in 2014-2015, he signed a 1+1 contract (the other 1 being a player option) with Lokomotiv Kuban of Russia, where they were looking to be a major player in the European scene after years of deferring to major Moscow clubs like CSKA, Khimki and Unics.

This season, Delaney, after exercising his contract at the end of 2015, was arguably Loko’s best player, and that was saying something considering this team had Anthony Randolph, a former NBA lottery pick, and Victor Claver, a former NBA player. Delaney cut people up in the pick and roll with his three stretch bigs Randolph, Claver and Chris Singleton, not necessarily in the traditional way, where he would hit them rolling to the basket, but by attacking the rim off the ball screen (and hitting them on the pop) or shooting from beyond the arc if they went under the screen and didn’t hedge. Delaney routinely torched defenders and defenses this year, as he shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc, and had a 60.5 true shooting percentage. What was even more incredible was Delaney also had a 0.52 FT/FGA ratio and a 0.52 3FG/FGA ratio. What the fuck does this mean? Well, these numbers show that he got to the free throw line a tremendous amount (which means he wasn’t afraid to get to the rim or absorb contact) and he relied a lot on the three-point shot (more than half of his field goal attempts were threes). To have a guy who can do BOTH of these things is an analytic-guy’s wet dream, and it makes sense that an analytic-heavy organization like the Atlanta Hawks (with their analytic-driven head coach Mike Budenholzer) would sign a player like Delaney, which they did to the tune of a two-year contract this summer.

Granted, I would have loved to see Delaney return to the Euroleague, perhaps on a different team since Loko did not make the Euroleague’s 16-team field. (It would have been awesome to see him and Georgios Bartzokas reunited on Barcelona.) However, Delaney deserves this contract from the Hawks, and to be in the NBA. He’s worked his ass off to get this far, and he has the skill set, attitude (dude is a straight out competitor, no bullshit), and the kind of personality that will endear to the Hawks’ growing millennial fanbase (low key, his twitter account is great). Europe will miss him, but Delaney deserves this opportunity in the NBA. It’s his time, and I guarantee you NBA teams will be wondering why teams gave guys like Austin Rivers so many chances when Delaney was waiting in Europe the whole time (oh yeah…I forgot why Rivers is still in the NBA…nepotism).

 

Childish Gambino (right) and Jhene Aiko collaborated on “Pink Toes” which correlates with how upbeat and hopeful Malcolm Delaney is feeling now after signing with the Atlanta Hawks.

Childish Gambino featuring Jhene Aiko-“Pink Toes”

I am becoming a bigger and bigger fan of rappers today. From the late 90’s to mid 2000’s, the rap scene had become a bit stagnant. Rappers kind of evolved into heavy metal musicians of sort: they all were the same, and a lot of their music touched on the same subjects. Now, I’m not saying the rap game was a complete desert at the time. You still had Jay-Z, you had Eminem in his peak, and you still had Kanye West pre-Kim Kardashian. (The best Kanye period really; he was spitting fire as a rapper and a producer; and then one Taylor Swift beef and a marriage to a reality TV star and he’s gone off the rails and hasn’t produced his best shit; I’m waiting for a Kim divorce to get Kanye back to being Kanye musically.) However, other than that, other than a few artists and tracks here and there, rap kind of failed to differentiate itself artistically and musically.

Since then though, rap has been flooded with talent who not only offer a bevy of different skills and sounds, but talents as well. Action Bronson used to be a chef of a high-end restaurant. Drake has succeeded as an actor (Degrassi), rapper, and courtside staple at Raptors game (seriously, Drake got everyone to give a fuck about the Raptors again post-Vince Carter). And Lupe Fiasco is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful activists in the United States today (as well as one of the most creative rappers in the game as well). Rap is going through a renaissance, as different backgrounds and education have produced rappers who aren’t just categorized by their music or appearance, but by their bevy of skills and talents that display the well-roundedness of these young savants of this art-form today.

One of the biggest talents in the rap game today is Childish Gambino. A former actor on 30 Rock and Community, Gambino has captured fans in the Hip-Hop game with his ear-snaring beats as well as thoughtful, multi-layered lyrics. One song that I particularly enjoy is “Pink Toes” a collaboration with Jhene Aiko from his album Because the Internet which came out in 2013. For those who don’t know what the phrase “Pinktoe” means, this is one of its definitions, according to Urban Dictionary:

Pinktoe
Refers to caucasian-female,
you got yourself a pinktoe.

The song is primarily about a black guy finding himself in a different environment from what he is used to, with “pink toes” (i.e. white girls) being what primary attracts his attention in this new environment. It’s a bit of a relevationary track from Gambino, as the main chorus (“Rainbows…Sunshine”) refers to a different place, or a refreshing change of scenery from what Gambino has been exposed to previously in life. This song could have been in reference to maybe when Gambino first arrived at Tisch School of the Arts, where he would have probably been one of the few minorities at the prestigious arts school in New York, and everything seemed so different from what he was used to during adolescence.

I think this song coordinates with Delaney in a multitude of ways. First, it’s an upbeat track, and Delaney deserves an upbeat track after finally making it to the league after years of scrapping and working toward his ultimate goal. Secondly, I could see Delaney feeling a lot of the similar emotions Gambino echoes in this track when he first arrived in Europe from Virginia Tech. Instead of pink toes though, I think the basketball court was what attracted him and ensnared him: the different kind of game, rules, and fans that Europe provided in comparison what he was used to in college (which was usually lukewarm Hokie fans who didn’t give a shit about their basketball team until late January; after bowl season was over). And for Delaney, yes it wasn’t the NBA, but he embraced the European game, and before you knew it, fans from France, Germany and Russia (and Europe all over, really) embraced him.

It would be cool if Delaney walked into the Hawks arena after signing his contract with this booming in the background. Because again, I’m sure Gambino’s 2013 track will resonate with him once again next year. Things will be different. The NBA will have brighter lights. More production value. The best of the best will be around him on the court on game day. And I’m sure there will be plenty of groupie “pinktoes” looking for a “companionship” (i.e. sex if you’re that dim) after games, especially in ones where Delaney tears it up.

Enjoy the sunshine of the NBA, Delaney. You deserve it.

Will Georgios Bartzokas be the right coach for Barcelona?

Georgios Bartzokas is officially the new head coach of Barcelona; they are hoping he’ll be celebrating like this (his Euroleague title with Olympiacos in 2013) in the near future.

Finally…all the turmoil, rumors, and reports are over. FC Barcelona finally has a coach, and it isn’t Sarunas Jasikevicius or Sito Alonso (who ended up taking the Laboral Kutxa Baskonia job…more on that in a separate post). After a lengthy process to figure out Xavi Pascual’s replacement, Barcelona management settled on Greek national Georgios Bartzokas, most recently the head coach of Lokomotiv Kuban of Russia.

Bartzokas is an interesting hire by Barcelona management after a multiple week process that felt much longer. He doesn’t have the playing pedigree of Jasikevicius, nor does he have Alonso’s youth or deep ties within the Spanish basketball system. Despite not having those characteristics, Bartzokas has been a successful head coach, as he won a Euroleague title in 2013 when he was head coach of Olympiacos and led Loko to their first ever Final Four as well as a third place finish last season (in the club’s second appearance in the Euroleague ever). There is no question that the 51-year-old Athenian head coach can make teams competitive at the highest level of play in Europe, but is he the right fit for the Catalan club, and can he bring the kind of success (ACB and Euroleague titles) that evaded previous head coach, Xavi Pascual, the past couple of seasons?

After all, as stated before in one of my previous posts, in Barcelona, it’s “championships or bust.” Consolation prizes aren’t a reality with the Catalan faithful, and it will be fascinating to see how Bartzokas will be able to transfer the success he had with Loko last year to Spain, but this time, under much more cutthroat circumstances.

Bartzokas has found Euroleague success as a coach, first with Olympiacos in 2013 and last year with Loko.

Bartzokas came onto Barcelona’s radar late, as it seemed in mid-June, Bartzokas was going to honor his contract with Kuban for at least one more season, according to a report from Sportando. And honestly, it didn’t seem to matter at the time, as Saras seemed to be a shoo-in for the Barcelona job once Pascual officially was let go (which happened a couple of weeks later). But, as we learned before, Jasikevicius wasn’t eligible for the position due to ACB rules, and in early July, after the Alonso reports proved to be erroneous, Barcelona was still without a head coach.

And surprisingly, things also changed dramatically for Bartzokas in Krasnodar.

Despite pledging his allegiance, the outlook for Lokomotiv Kuban looked quite bleak for 2016-2017. While Loko had a banner year in the Euroleague with their surprise Final Four run, their domestic season wasn’t as successful. In the VTB United League, Loko finished an underwhelming fifth, and were promptly swept by Khimki Moscow 3-0 in the playoffs. Because of the disappointing finish, the club didn’t earn the B license out of the VTB to qualify for the Euroleague (that went to Unics, who finished second to CSKA Moscow), and they missed out on the lone wild card spot to Darussafaka Dogus of Turkey. With new condensed format of the Euroleague, Loko was left out of the field of 16, and regulated to Eurocup, a harsh reality to stomach for Bartzokas and the organization after they ousted Barcelona in the playoffs months earlier.

And because of the regulation, it became less of an incentive for ownerships to pay top dollar to keep players, and star players began to look and find contracts elsewhere. Malcolm Delaney headed to the NBA where he signed with the Atlanta Hawks. Versatile big man Anthony Randolph ended up signing a two-year deal with Real Madrid. And though they haven’t signed anywhere else yet, Victor Claver and Dontaye Draper have made it known that they are not returning with Loko next season. And thus, it made sense for Bartzokas to look elsewhere despite pledging his commitment nearly a month earlier. Loko looked to be a rebuilding job in 2016-2017, and quite a big one in Europe’s second-tier competition. That’s not what Bartzokas signed up for when he said he would “honor” his contract, and when Barcelona came along with an offer, he took it gladly, knowing that the Loko job would be more risk than it was worth.

Bartzokas is a different kind of hire for Barcelona, and the Barcelona job is a different one as well for Bartzokas. Previous head coach Xavi Pascual was a Barcelona-lifer of sorts, as he got his start coaching the B team in 2004, and then spent a couple of seasons as an assistant to Dusko Ivanovic before taking over in 2008 after Dusko was fired. Bartzokas on the other hand, has no experience coaching or playing in Spain, and his only basketball experience outside of his home country of Greece came last year with Loko, and that was in Russia, where the VTB and Russian Domestic scene is not as strong as the ACB. For Barcelona, one of the top clubs in the ACB, the Bartzokas hire is a bit of an experiment, as the coaches they have hired in the past had experience in Spanish basketball as a player or coach.

But, if there is one thing the Athenian coach can do it is win and win quickly. Bartzokas took over Olympiacos in 2011, and promptly won a title in 2013, beating CSKA Moscow in the semifinal and Real Madrid in the championship game by double digits. After an underwhelming season in 2014-2015, when Loko went undefeated in the Eurocup regular season, but choked in the quarterfinals, Bartzokas led Loko to a dream Euroleague season which not only included a trip to the Final Four, but also a dramatic comeback in the playoffs, where despite being down 2-1 in the series and facing elimination in Game 4 in Barcelona, they won two straight games to punch their ticket to Berlin. Bartzokas’ basketball acumen, as well as cool demeanor, especially in big games, has served him well in his coaching career, as he has installed immediate success in every place he has coached so far.

For Barcelona, hiring a coach who could produce a quick-turn-around is exactly what they needed, especially with their rivals in Madrid dominating not only them, but the ACB the past couple of seasons.

Athletic defenders like Randolph (left) and Chris Singleton (right, 1) were key to Bartzokas finding defensive success in Loko.

What has made Bartzokas such as successful coach is his emphasis on defense. Last season, Loko was one of the best teams defensively in the Euroleague, as their 100.2 defensive rating was the second best mark over the full season (and only .1 behind Fenerbahce Ulker). However, Loko really found their groove defensively when Top 16 play began, when they fully had their roster intact (Randolph only played 60 minutes total in Regular Season play). In Top 16 play,  Loko’s defensive rating was 98.4, 3.1 points better than the second best mark (Fenerbahce), and their net rating of 11.4 was also the best in the league in the Top 16, even better than eventual champion CSKA Moscow (who had a 10.0 mark). Once Bartzokas had all his horses (mostly Randolph), Loko was one of the toughest teams to beat on a night in-night out basis, and Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy was a big key to that tremendous success in the Top 16.

Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy really is nothing spectacular. He emphasized strong, man-to-man defense, with little switching, and an emphasis on stopping the drive as much as possible. On the backside, Loko usually sagged their defenders to create help more than typical from most squads, which is characteristic of many Pack Line defenses. Take a look at how Loko is positioned on this possession against Barcelona in the playoffs.

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See Claver on the weakside sagging heavily toward the paint, which was a heavy part of Bartzokas’ philosophy last season: force teams to beat them from the outside. However, one reason Bartzokas was able to do this because Loko did two things well: 1.) utilize their length and athleticism and 2.) play extremely hard in half court defense. Loko was a cohesive unit on the floor defensively, and Bartzokas deserves a lot of credit for maximizing the talent on his roster on this end.

Bartzokas didn’t utilize a lot of full court presses or traps in the half court, mainly because he didn’t need to. He had length and athleticism advantages defensively at nearly every position. Delaney was a big point guard who could body up most opposing point guards with ease, and he was strong enough to play through screens and blow up opposing pick and roll plays. And Delaney’s backup, Draper, was a small bundle of muscle who didn’t have Delaney’s height, but had the same kind of strength-speed combo to either frustrate opposing guards or play through screens easily. Claver was a versatile defensive player who had the size to play opposing fours, but also the speed and length to hound and frustrate wings as well (he could sag this low on this possession because if Barcelona did skip it, he had quick enough reactions and athleticism to recover and break down and properly contest the three pointer or prevent the drive). Ryan Broekhoff didn’t have the athletic gifts of some of the other players in the starting lineup (mostly Claver or Randolph), but he played EXTREMELY hard on the defensive end. One could say Broekhoff was the glue that kept this squad together. A defender who didn’t give as much effort may have put Loko in situations where his teammates would be compromised more defensively. However, because of Broekhoff’s effort, and his ability to play through screens and guard multiple positions (he could guard guys on the perimeter or post depending on the situation), his teammates were able to play in their comfort zone and not worry about frequently having to help on breakdowns, which consequently made them more effective defenders, and thus, a more effective defensive team.

And the jewel of Bartzokas’ defensive strategy was Randolph who did everything defensively. He could block shots with ease around the rim, but he was also quick enough to hedge and recover off the ball screen, or switch in a pinch (which didn’t happen very often). And Chris Singleton off the bench provided the same kind of defensive ability, though Singleton was a bit more on the physical side (though not as quick as Randolph). As one can see, all these pieces put together put up a strong defensive force that proved to be difficult for opponents to score on. The only times Loko gave up points was usually due to mental lapses on their own end. As talented and effective as Randolph was, there were times he broke down defensively in transition, as he sometimes tended to jog back down after a turnover or missed shot, which led to easy buckets in transition for opponents. But for the most part, Bartzokas had this Loko team a well-oiled machine on the defensive end, and installed a strategy that proved to be effective all-season long in the Euroleague.

Of course, it is to be expected that Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy will adjust with Barcelona in some ways. While he will be able to play a similar way on the perimeter with long wings such as Alex Abrines, Stratos Perperoglou, and Pau Ribas, Ante Tomic in the post is a much stiffer-moving defender who can’t recover or switch or block shots like Randolph. However, there is one weapon on the roster that Bartzokas most likely will utilize more, especially on the defensive end, and that is Shane Lawal. Lawal doesn’t have the offensive gifts of Randolph, but defensively, he mirrors Randolph’s profile nicely. Lawal is a long, athletic defender who can roam and fight through screens, and he looked like he was on the verge of breaking out for Barcelona before a midseason injury sidelined him for a while. Expect Bartzokas to utilize Lawal more, especially since he will fit into Bartzokas’ conservative man-to-man strategy that emphasizes strength and length to prevent baskets. The only issue for Bartzokas to address is defense from the point, as Juan Carlos Navarro isn’t the kind of defender that will fit into what Bartzokas liked to do with Delaney and Draper last season, and Tomas Satoransky isn’t going to be with Barcelona next year, but instead in the NBA (he would have fit better due to his large frame). It’ll be interesting to see if Barcelona management will add a point guard through transfer this offseason in the kind of athletic mold of Delaney and Draper to fit into Bartzokas’ defensive system in year one in Barcelona.

Bartzokas relies heavily on his star players offensively, as evidenced by Anthony Randolph’s 32.1 usage rate last year with Loko.

Offensively, it is a bit of a different story for Bartzokas, as this is where he will most dramatically differ from his predecessor. Pascual was known for being a great basketball mind, who relied on a heavy playbook and liked to call multiple actions and sets in the half court. Bartzokas is the opposite, as he prefers a hands-off approach and allows for a more free-flowing offense that relies more on isolation and getting the ball to 1 or 2 scorers and depending on them to make the offense work.

Last season, Bartzokas relied heavily on Randolph and Delaney, as they generated most of the offense for Loko, especially in the half court. Randolph led the team in usage rate at 32.1 perecent, a mark that was also highest in the Euroleague last season as well. A lot of the time, Bartzokas offense was simply get the ball to Randolph and let him do his thing, and considering how versatile and athletic a scorer Randolph was, it worked most of the time. When Plan A (get it to Randolph) didn’t work, it usually delved into Plan B which was get the ball to Delaney, who had the second highest usage rate on the team at 22.9 percent. And off the bench, Singleton proved to be a Randolph-lite, as his usage rate was 21.9 percent.

When it worked, it was a sight to behold. No better example was Game 4 of the playoffs, when Anthony Randolph went straight “LeBron James”-mode and won the game himself and kept Loko alive despite facing elimination on the road. Check out his highlights below and how heavily Loko relied on him in their sets (as well as Delaney, who set up a lot of Randolph’s buckets).

There really wasn’t anything groundbreaking with what Randolph, Delaney and even Singleton did on the court strategically. They got the ball, they either drove and finished (mostly in the case of Randolph and Singleton) or drove and created for others (mostly in the case of Delaney). It was simple, but it was effective and it was tough for teams to guard at times, especially when one player was hot, it usually opened up shots for others as well. And this isn’t something exclusive to Loko, as Bartzokas preferred this philosophy with Olympiacos as well, as Vassilis Spanoulis had a usage rate of 29.3 during their Championship run in 2013.

Unfortunately, when things stalled offensively for Loko, or if they couldn’t get the ball to Randolph or if Delaney wasn’t hitting his shots or finding room to drive or if Singleton was on one of his cold streaks, the Loko offense could get downright ugly. Poor turnovers from horrendous possessions led to easy baskets for the opposition on a more-than-desirable basis. Loko actually had the seventh highest turnover rate in Top 16 play, and their lack of ability to take care of the ball consistently would transfer to a lot of blown leads for the Krasnodar-based club. Yes, they would come back a lot of the times, as one of those three or another like Claver, would get on a hot streak to rescue them. However, Bartzokas’ simple offense sometimes proved to be Loko’s own worst enemy, as they didn’t play well in the pick and roll, nor did they have a lot of effective secondary plays to hang their hat on in the half court when the isolation wasn’t clicking.

Establishing an offense will be much a bigger challenge for Bartzokas in Barcelona than defense, and ultimately that will make or break his tenure with his new club. With Satoransky gone, and no new signing to take over his position (yet), it will be interesting to see who will step up and be that “primary” isolation playmaker that will succeed under Bartzokas. With Olympiacos, it was Spanoulis as well as Dimitris Diamantidis. With Loko, it was Delaney and Randolph. Three-four years ago Navarro could have handled that role, but he isn’t the shooter or shot creator he once was, as evidenced by his sub-par campaign last season. Tomic is an effective scorer around the block, but he is effective in the pick and roll (not one of Bartzokas’ go-to’s) and really can’t create much off the dribble. And wings such as Perperoglou, Abrines and Ribas have been more “secondary” offensive threats in the past, not necessarily primary offensive options (though that could change with Bartzokas giving them more responsibility and leash). Bartzokas most likely will adjust his offensive philosophy to play more to his roster’s strengths, as he most likely will try to find a middle ground between Pascual’s old system and his own for the short term until they get more talent tailored to his liking. Nonetheless, it’ll be interesting to see who will step up and be that “main” guy, as Bartzokas has leaned on that “primary” player in his coaching stops thus far.

Bartzokas seemed to get the most out of his players in Loko; will that carry over in Barcelona?

The pressure to win in Barcelona is more than ever, and Bartzokas knows he is not stepping into an easy job. Pascual was a misnomer for a European coach, as he actually stayed a long time in Barcelona, something that is not typically seen from coaches in the “impatient” basketball management world of European club basketball. However, he had success. He took Barcelona to Euroleague Final Fours and won ACB titles, and he didn’t the last two years, which is why he is gone. Bartzokas has done the same: he has won a Euroleague title and been to two Final Fours, but doing so in Greece and Russia is a lot different from doing it in Spain, probably the most high-profile country in Europe when it comes to Euroleague and domestic league success.

If there is one thing positive about Bartzokas’ outlook it is that Barcelona is trying to change how they “build” their team, so Bartzokas will have some leash if he doesn’t make the Euroleague Final Four or win an ACB title in year one. However, a bottom-out season (i.e. a fourth or lower finish in ACB play or not qualifying for the playoffs in the Euroleague) won’t save him, nor would two years without a championship. This isn’t a one-year audition, but the pressure to perform at the highest level certainly is going to be expected from the Catalan faithful

Bartzokas won’t be able to play the same exact kind of ball he did in Loko next season and how he adjusts his style, which differs from Pascual in so many areas, will be something to behold next year. Will it work? Will Bartzokas find the right compromise in styles offensively and defensively? Will he get some talent toward the end of the summer or start of the year that will allow him to do what he is accustomed to doing? (There were reports that Barcelona was trying to make a late push for Randolph before he ended up signing with Madrid.)

Bartzokas can’t waste much time though to figure out these issues. Real Madrid has dominated their El Clasico rivals the past two seasons, and that is a wound that gets deeper and deeper with every Real championship and win in the ACB and Euroleague.

If that competitive status with their rival doesn’t change quickly, it is not difficult to imagine who the fans’ scapegoat will be.

Will Barcelona or Lokomotiv Take the Last Final Four Spot?

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After today’s slate of games, we now know who three of the four Euroleague Final Four participants will be on May 13th: Fenerbahce Istanbul, Laboral Kutxa (Spain) and CSKA Moscow. All three squads swept their opponents (with each one winning the decisive game on the road) in their respective series, and can begin the celebration and preparation for the Final Four event in a couple of weeks.

However, there is still one spot to be determined and that is being decided between long-time Spanish power FC Barcelona and the relatively Euroleague novices Lokomotiv Kuban from rural Russia. After their 82-70 Game 3 win in Spain, Barcelona is one game away from punching their ticket to Berlin for a chance at the Euroleague championship, but don’t count out Lokomotiv, the higher seed going into the series, who holds home court advantage should they be able to equalize and win on the road in Game 4 on Thursday.

Let’s take a look at each team and what is on the line for the in a crucial Game 4 later this week.

 

Barcelona Looking to Finish Strong

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Barcelona has had one of the weirder seasons in their history this year, as they haven’t found much consistency in terms of wins and losses. Statistically speaking, Barcelona has been one of the strongest teams, as they are the fourth-best team in the Euroleague this year in terms of net rating over the full season (6.8), but only had a 14-10 record through the Regular Season and Top 16 to show for it. Despite some big wins in the year over teams like Lokomotiv and a Top 16 season sweep over Spanish rival Real Madrid, they also had head scratching losses to Pinar Karsiyaka in the Regular Season opener and to Brose Baskets Bamberg during the Top 16 (a team they later beat by almost 20 in the second to last game of the year). In fact, due to all this inconsistency (they finished the Regular Season with three straight losses and lost five of their first seven in Top 16 play), it took until the final week of the Top 16 for Barcelona to clinch a playoff berth, as their win over Lithuanian power Zalgiris Kaunas on the road (and they were down at halftime) earned them one of the final playoff spots.

However, despite their meager record, this Barcelona team is loaded and peaking at the right time, though they certainly have their issues that could rear their head in the Final Four should they win on Thursday. First off, Barcelona has playoff leadership and experience with Juan Carlos Navarro being their primary option on the perimeter, along with complimentary wings players like Alex Abrines, Tomas Satoransky and Pau Ribas, who have been effective as of late, especially in the Top 16 and Playoff rounds (Abrines shot 6 of 10 from beyond the arc and scored 25 points total). In the post, Justin Doellman, a former Xavier product, has proven to be an excellent stretch 4 type, and they have depth in the post with Ante Tomic, Samardo Samuels and Joey Dorsey, whom they acquired during the Top 16 round. Dorsey especially has given Barcelona a physical presence, as his ability on the glass (his 16.8 percent offensive rebounding rate is second best in the Euroleague this year behind only Trevor Mbakwe of Maccabi Tel Aviv) and ability to body up opposing teams’ centers has made him an invaluable member of this Barcelona squad despite his relative lack of experience with the team and in Europe in general.

However, Dorsey hurt himself in Game 1, and his status seems to be questionable going forward as he missed games 2 and 3 in the playoffs. This hasn’t hurt Barcelona too badly, as their post depth, hot outside shooting, and the lack of a physical presence in the post or much post player depth in general from Loko has helped Barcelona be effective in his absence. That being said, the 3 final four teams have excellent players in the post, especially Fenerbahce, which is seeing a resurgence from newly acquired Ekpe Udoh, who has stepped up after Jan Vessley was lost for the season due to an Achilles injury in the Top 16 round. If Barcelona makes it to the Final Four and doesn’t have the services of Dorsey, it could make things very difficult in terms of having a serious shot at the Euroleague crown.

Another issue with Barcelona is their point guard play, as the squad hasn’t relatively gotten much from Carlos Arroyo, who was expected to be a playmaking catalyst for this squad. Arroyo only played little over 5 minutes in Game 3, and he only averaged 14.6 minutes in 7 games during Top 16 play, a downgrade from the 18.6 mpg he was seeing  during the 10-game regular season. This puts more pressure on Satoransky, who is the team leader in assist rate over the full season, and Ribas, who was 2nd in assist rate during the Top 16 round. Both those two are effective, but they do not have the dynamic athleticism that other Final Four teams have, and that could present issues, especially if Barcelona cannot transition their hot shooting from the playoffs to the Final Four (should they close it out).

Head Coach Xavi Pascual has done a phenomenal job considering the circumstances his team has faced this year, especially early on when they looked like they would miss the playoffs. He has a methodical, half-court oriented approach, as evidenced by their 70.3 pace this year, which is the slowest rate of any Euroleague team this season. However, that has been effective in the playoffs, as they have gotten Loko to play out of sorts in the slower pace of the last three games. Furthermore, his defensive plan has worked, as he has held the 3-point chucking Loko squad (their 0.48 3PT/FGA rate was highest in the Euroleague this year) in check, as evidenced by their 21.7, 33.3 and 28.6 percentages from beyond the arc, which are all below their season 3-point average of 36.6 percent. For Barcelona to close this out on Thursday, Barcelona has to continue to follow Pascual’s plan of relentlessly hounding Loko’s shooters and force them to win in the post, which is not exactly a strength of Loko’s on the offensive end.

 

Loko looking to make a comeback

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Loko has been one of the most balanced teams in Euroleague play this year. They are the top team in the league in net rating at 11.4, higher than even fellow Russian squad CSKA Moscow, who has been far and away the most dominant team over the course of the entire season. Loko’s heavy 3-point attack on offense, and risk-taking and aggressiveness on defense (their 10.8 steal rate leads the league) has been a key reason why Georgios Bartzokas’ squad went 17-7 in the regular and Top 16 season combined.

Bartzokas can thank the two-headed combo of point guard Malcolm Delaney and Forward/Center Anthony Randolph for Loko’s success, especially during the Top 16 round. Everything runs pretty much through those two, as they lead the team in possessions per game with 15.89 and 15.8, respectively (the next highest rate is Chris Singleton with 9.25, and Singleton primarily comes off the bench). When those two are on, Loko has proven to be one of the toughest teams to play in the Euroleague on a nightly basis.  Delaney is the classic hybrid point guard, who can score at will as well as create offense for his teammates. His 2.08 assist to turnover rate is tops on the team, and over half of his shots come from beyond the arc (0.52). Add that with a strong true shooting percentage (60.1 percent) and a surprising defensive rebounding rate for a point guard (10.9) and it makes sense why Delaney is so crucial to Loko’s success. Delaney plays all out and is their engine on the floor on both ends, which makes sense why he leads the team in minutes during the playoffs (106). In the playoffs, Delaney is certainly doing his share to will Loko to a Final Four berth, as he leads the team in minutes, and is showing his effectiveness on the offensive end by scoring 1.03 PPP and posting a highly respectable 5.00 Assist to Turnover rate.

Randolph is second on the team in minutes, and is also a unique talent who has been critical to Loko’s success. Randolph isn’t always efficient: his 45.2 effective field goal percentage is not good, especially when you consider his 32.2 usage rate, which is tops on the team. Furthermore, a knock that has dogged him from his days at LSU is Randolph’s inconsistent motor on the floor, and that continues to be an issue. Randolph doesn’t bang down low with opposing bigs (his 2.8 offensive rebounding rate really is just flat out pathetic for a near seven-footer), and he has spurts where looks unfocused and disinterested, which leads to lapses on defense and the killing of ball movement and spacing on offense. With Dorsey out, one would think Randolph would be making his bread on the block and with his back to the basket to take advantage of Barca’s less physical post players. Instead, he settles in the mid-range and tries to create offense off the dribble, which seems to bail out Barcelona’s defenders, who don’t have the physicality of Dorsey.

That being said, Randolph, when he’s on, is not just the most dangerous player on Loko, but perhaps in Europe. On the defensive end, he is Loko’s best post defender, as evidenced by his 4.2 block rate. Offensively, he has a decent and versatile touch around the rim (though he probably settles for fade away mid-range shots too often), but he can also step back from beyond the arc and shoot with some effectiveness, as he did game 2 where he shot 40 percent from beyond the arc. He is also an effective free throw shooter, as his 76.8 free throw percentage is pretty solid for a big man, and his 10.3 assist rate shows that he can also create offense from the post for his teammates. Randolph has the tools and skills to really dominate in this series, but he has to flip on the switch and get more physical, or Loko will be most likely heading back home for the Euroleague season after Thursday.

Loko does have some good supporting players that can help turn things around for Bartzokas’ squad. Singleton, who started out the regular season as a starter before Randolph arrived in the Top 16 round, is very much like Randolph, though a bit less skilled (however he makes up for it by being more physical than Randolph, especially on the offensive glass). Also Ryan Broekhoff and Victor Claver are effective “glue” stretch players (not quite guards, but not quite pure posts) who are highly efficient despite their relatively low usage rates, as they lead the team in Points Per Possession at 1.14 and 1.09, respectively. But make no mistake, if Loko wants to win two in a row and punch a historic first trip to the Final Four, then they will need more effective production from Delaney, and especially Randolph, who has to take advantage in the post with Dorsey either absent or not 100 percent. If Randolph can do that, and if Delaney can continue his hyperactive production as the team’s  main playmaker, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Loko can win two in a row against Barcelona.

Final Verdict?

I am pulling for Loko, though having to win one in Barcelona to force game 5 seems like a tall task. As much I respect Pascual for the job he’s done turning this team around in time for the playoffs, Barcelona has been to the Final Four before countless times. While that may be good for Spain, who would like to have two teams on the big European stage May 13, I do not think Barcelona is built all that well to compete for a title against the likes of Fenerbahce or CSKA Moscow. A healthy Dorsey gives them a better shot, but I do not think they can keep shooting like they are against Loko in the Final Four and I don’t know if their post players can compete with Fernerbahce nor do I think their guards could compete with CSKA Moscow.

Now, does that mean that I think Loko will do much better? No, not at all. In fact, I think Loko would be an auto 4th place finisher should they make it to Berlin. However, they have been a nice story this year, as they were regulated to the Eurocup, Europe’s second-tier league, a year ago, and have really impressed in Bertzokas’ first year at the helm. Yes, they are a bit too dependent on Delaney and Randolph, but they are an entertaining squad, and it would be good to see them on the big stage, especially considering they are one of the more rural teams in the Euroleague, and their contests have a “small town” feel to them. Them making the Final Four would be akin to Hickory High in “Hoosiers”…

Unlike the Huskers however, Loko would not win it all. Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good story though, not to mention a foundation and marketing tool to build on for next year in terms of upgrading their talent for the future.

Was Lokomotiv Kuban’s Victory over Panathinaikos a Fluke or Sign of Things to Come?

Ryan Broekhoff (right) and Lokomotiv got the best of Sasha Pavlovic and Euroleague mainstay Panathinaikos in the first Euroleague game of the year for both teams.

There was plenty of upsets in Week 1 of the Euroleague regular season, including a shocker where defending champion Real Madrid seemed to come out flat and was lost 84-70 to  Eurocup champion and new Euroleague participant Khimki Moscow . (Though to be fair, it was on the road, and Khimki’s crowd seemed especially amped with the defending Euroleague champions coming to Moscow.) However, while Khmki’s domination, as well as CSKA Moscow’s 100-69 blowout of 2014 Euroleague champion Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv were all big stories, one of the biggest surprises was Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar’s upset over Panathinaikos 81-70 in Krasnodar, Russia. Considering Panathinaikos is an A license team and regularly contending for a Euroleague Final Four and Championship, the loss to the wild card participant (meaning there on a 1-year license in the Euroleague and can move back down to the Eurocup division if they do not finish in the Top-4 in their group in the regular season) Lokomotiv generated a lot of discussion in Euroleague fan and media circles.

Dominating Early, but Finishing with a Whimper

Lokomotiv and head coach Sergey Bazarevich started the year well, but finished with a disappointing quarterfinal exit in the Eurocup to UNICS

Last year, Lokomotiv, who had been demoted to the Eurocup after failing to get out of the second round in the regular season the previous year, started off 2014-2015 scorching under first year coach Sergey Bazarevich, who assembled primarily an American-laden roster. Relying on players such as point guard Aaron Miles, wings Derrick Brown and Malcolm Delaney, and former lottery pick Anthony Randolph, Lokomotiv crusied through their group, going 10-0 and led all teams in point differential (+142) after the regular season ended. With their combo of elite talent as well as strong depth (they also got solid contributions from bench players such as Richard Hendrix, Krunoslav Simon and Nikita Kurbonav), it seemed like Bazarevich had assembled the kind of roster that would cruise to a Eurocup championship.

Things continued as usual in the Round of 32, as Lokomotiv dispatched Valencia of Spain, Asesoft Ploiesti of Romania and Nancy of France with ease, finishing 6-0 in their group with a point differential of +76. In the knockout stage though, they struggled to find the rhythm that made them the B Division’s best team all season. In round 1 of the Knockout stage against Brose Bamburg, they only won the initial game 80-78, a far cry from the dominance they displayed in the first two rounds of Eurocup play. Then, things just fell apart in round 2 against fellow Russian club UNICS. After winning the first game 87-78, Lokomotiv unraveled in the second game, losing 79-58. The 21-point differential resulted in a 157-145 combined score, and instead of advancing to the championship, they were out in the second round, forced to watch the rest of the knockout round from Krosnador. It was the only loss all season for Lokomotiv, but it was so damaging that it ended their season prematurely and put a damper on what was a superb campaign.

Back in the Euroleague, but Cleaning House

Former Los Angeles Clipper and Washington Wizard Chris Singleton was a key signing for Lokomotiv this off-season.

In recognition of their dominance, Lokomotiv earned license to the Euroleague as a wild-card participant for 2015-2016. Knowing that this is a crucial year, the Krosnador-based club cleaned house , letting nearly everyone but Delaney and Randolph (though his status is in the air as he did not play in Game 1) go as well as head coach Bazarevich after only one season (though he did go 19-1 in Eurocup play). Now installed as head coach is Greek national Giorgios Bartzokas who coached Olympiacos from 2012-2014 and led them to a Euroleague title in 2013 and earned Euroleague coach of the year honors that season as well.

As expected, Lokomotiv added a lot of athletic-American based talent, with the standout being Chris Singleton, who has played in the NBA and mostly spent time in the D-League last season (he played for the OKC Blue, the Thunder’s developmental program). However, there is also a lot of local, though older, talent on this roster, including Spaniard Victor Claver (who helped lead Khimki to a Eurocup championship last season) and Ukranian Kyrylo Fesenko, who has played in the NBA with the Utah Jazz and played last season with VTB squad Avtodor Saratov. Though not possessing as many big-names or as much high-end talent as a year ago, it is obvious that they are hoping that the mix of athleticism, veteran talent, and an established Euroleague coach will be the recipe for success in 2015-2016.

Starting Slow, but Finishing Strong against Panathinaikos in Game 1

One has to think that Bartzokas had a little extra motivation for this game, as he coached for Panathinaikos’ rival for 3 seasons. However, Lokomotiv struggled out of the gate, as they were down 21-17 and looked a little out of sorts as a team, struggling to find the right rhythm with the newly revamped roster. But in the 2nd quarter, they hit their stride, as they outscored the Greek power 28-20 in the second quarter to take a 45-41 lead into halftime.

After trading punches in the 3rd quarter, and the game 63-61, things looked prime for Panathinaikos to make a run and pull off the road win in the season opener. However, thanks to the athleticism of Singleton, the strong perimeter defense of Draper and Delaney, an efficient shooting night from Claver (he scored 13 on 5 of 6 shooting, including 2 of 3 from beyond the arc), and inspiring post play off the bench from Fesenko, who finished with 8 points on 4 of 7 shooting and 7 rebounds in less than 15 minutes of play, Lokomotiv outscored Panathinaikos 18-9 in the 4th and won 81-70 in a game that was a lot closer than the final score indicated.

What sealed the deal for Lokomotiv in the 4th was the strong perimeter defense, thanks to their athleticism and length on the wings. Panathinaikos, led by newly acquired guard Nick Calathes, relies heavily on the 3-point shot, as evidenced by their 22 attempts (36.7 percent of their total field goal attempts). However, beyond Calathes (who shot 2 of 4 from beyond the arc) and Dimitris Diamantidis (who shot 3 of 5), the rest of the squad shot poorly, as evidenced from their 2 of 13 mark from 3-point land (including Sasha Pavlovic, a long-time NBA player who shot 0 of 4), good for 15 percent (Panathinaikos shot 31.8 percent from 3-point land, not good considering their emphasis on the 3-point shot offensively). That low percentage is a credit to the Lokomotiv perimeter defenders and Bartzokas’ aggressive defensive principles, as Panathinaikos simply didn’t have a lot of open looks, especially in the 4th quarter with game on the line.

Lokomotiv doesn’t have a lot of pure size in the post (Fesenko is their only 7 footer and they don’t start anyone over 6’9; that being said, they have three 6’10 players in Igor Kanygin, Nikita Balashov and Nikita Zverev, but they are young, with Kanygin and Zverev 21 and Balashov 24, and raw, as they didn’t dress on the active roster for the game), but their aggressiveness and ability in the post was evident on the rebounding end. They out-rebounded the Greek club 42-26 total, and 12-8 on the offensive end (which is one of Dean Oliver’s four factors to winning a basketball game). With Lokomotiv getting plenty of second chances, and preventing the smaller, less physical Panathinaikos squad, it makes sense that Lokomotiv generated more 2 point field goal attempts (44-38) and shot a better 2 pt FG percentage (54.5 percent to 47.4 percent), which contributed greatly to their victory (as eFG percentage is the strongest portion of the 4 factors; eFG percentage accounts 2-pt and 3 pt FG percentage and Lokomotiv shot better in 3-point percentage as well).

(In a tangent central to Panathinaikos, Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica had only 5 total rebounds, the same amount as Calathes, and no offensive boards; those numbers need to improve if they want to be more serious contenders this Euroleague season).

Can Lokomotiv Build on the Momentum from this Win?

Singleton’s 16 point, 9 rebound and 2 block performance will need to be regular if Loko wants to make it into and past the 2nd round.

There is no question that this is a solid Lokomotiv squad. Their group isn’t easy, but they have the talent and coaching to compete with favorites in the group such as Panathinaikos, FC Barcelona and Pinar Karsiyaka. Singleton is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenders on the perimeter, as he can shoot over and post up smaller wings, but he has the speed to beat bigger and slower wings to the rack. Claver is a proven vet, whose ability to stretch out more traditional power forwards and shoot well from beyond the arc makes up for his lack of rebounding and physicality. And Fesenko is a solid bench option, though his stamina issues will probably prevent him from starting over Ryan Broekhoff (though his 4 point, 4 rebound, 3 turnover game certainly wasn’t encouraging).

When Lokomotiv is in the fast break and using their athleticism, they may be one of the best teams in Europe, especially with Delaney, Singleton and Claver on the floor. But taking care of the ball may be an issue for this squad, as they made a lot of errors, turning the ball over 18 times, 3 more than Panathinaikos in the game. A lot of their turnovers stemmed from Lokomtoiv relying too much on isolation plays as well as lack of communication off the pick and roll as well as limited ball movement (which stemmed from the communication issues). Singleton will most likely be their best player considering his scoring ability (he led the team with 16 points) and multiple ability skill set (he had 9 rebounds, including 4 offensive boards and two blocks). But, there were times when the pick and roll that featured him stagnated, because there was a lack of communication and chemistry when it came to responsibilities on the initial ball screen.

Let’s take a look at a possession which was an early microcosm of their early struggles, poor communication and lackluster choices in the offense.

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.15.24 PM

Singleton begins the play from up top. He looks to pass the ball to the wing to set up the side pick and roll play, a staple of professional basketball. But after he passes it, look what happens on the play as he goes to set the ball screen.

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He sets the screen and the other post (Zubkov) doesn’t initially see it, and they are unsure who is supposed to be setting the screen here. Look at the congestion this causes. The wing (Bykov) doesn’t know where to dribble to because he doesn’t know who has the screen responsibility, and 3 Panathinaikos defenders are in the area taking away any free lanes to the hoop. The pick and roll is a free-flowing offensive staple, but when there is lack of communication when it comes to ball screen responsibility, then it kills time, congests the lane, and makes things easy for the defense (since they don’t have to move much because everyone is so close together).

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And then this happens. Because the defense senses the hesitation, they hedge the screen well, and Zubkov can do is give a halfhearted screen that is more of a push than anything. Bykov was lucky he got out of this and was able to find Singleton with the lag pass, because there was a strong possibility he could have gotten trapped here (which Sasha Pavlovic is trying to do on the right).

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After the lag pass to Singleton, Singleton dribble handoffs to Draper on the opposite wing and then does another ball screen. This one is much better and shows much better communication and awareness by the Lokomotiv players on the floor. Draper has much more room to dribble penetrate to the rack and he has a matchup advantage with the much bigger defender switching off the screen. As expected, Draper gets to the rack area, where Calathes has to help stop dribble penetration (along with Pavlovic, in the bottom left, who doesn’t need but sags in anyways).

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Draper then fires it into the corner for Delaney who is sitting wide open for what should be a high-percentage 3-point attempt. Now, this should be a successful corner 3 but look what inexplicably happens next.

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Delaney instead swings it back to Bykov who takes a contested 3. Though Delaney is covered in the image here, on tape, he had enough time to hit the corner 3, as Pavlovic, in the image above this one, had his back to Delaney and would have had a difficult time to block or contest the shot. Delaney was a 36 percent shooter from beyond the arc in Eurocup and VTB play last season. Passing on that shot really is unacceptable, especially considering Bykov’s defender was a lot closer to him than Pavlovic was to Delaney.

Despite this lackluster and frustrating to watch possession, it was still the first game, and you have to remember that this squad is pretty much entirely new from a year ago. Add that with a coach who is in his first year in the club, and growing pains, as seen in the possession above, are inevitable. That being said, this Lokomotiv team has the potential to not just make it to the second round, but maybe be a dark horse to go further (how much though, I don’t know). Singleton is a real building block for them, and they can match player to player with any club in the Euroleague. Furthermore, if Randolph does come back and play with the team, they will be even deeper and more dangerous, as Randolph, while a volatile personality, is multi-purpose talent who can take advantage on the perimeter and in the post when he is on and focused.

The main question with this team is chemistry, not talent. Can they mesh? Can they adjust to Bartzokas’ system and coaching style? Can they come together and finish strong at the end of the year and not fade like they did in the Eurocup a year ago? There certainly are a lot of questions surrounding this Lokomotiv team, who is facing a “win or go back to the Eurocup” situation and don’t have the kind of market or fanfare of CSKA Moscow or even Khimki (who is also in Moscow). Nonetheless, a win in the Euroleague, especially over an established club like Panathinaikos, is a promising sign for the second-round chances (Barcelona and Stelmet Zielona Gora can’t boast the same feat in their group) and should build some confidence for their remaining 9-game slate in the regular season.