By Jim Katsionis on 22 January 2018
The Euroleague is almost at 2/3 of the season and things look more marginal than ever for a certain amount of teams. It’s the best time for the third edition of Hoopfellas’ Power Rankings…
Last week was full, as the two Greek teams won only one out of the four games they played, and lost ground in the standings. Olympiacos eased past Maccabi, but they were destroyed for the second time in a row in their road game (this time against Khimki), as Fener caught up to them in second place. Right behind them (together with Real Madrid and Zalgiris) are Panathinaikos, who lost two games in the final stretch of the match, as they lost for the first time at OAKA this year by Dimitris Itoudis’ CSKA. A look at the standings and the matchups to come leads us to the conclusion that things are quite marginal for several teams in the league. It’s definitely a good time for a mini-evaluation.
So, let’s start with the third edition of Hoopfellas’ Euroelague Power Rankings for this season.
CSKA is beginning to stand out from the other teams, as they are now two wins ahead of the second team, and the win in OAKA helped them a lot on a mental level. The “Bear” went through a hard period in the beginning of January, where they had defensive problems. Dimitris Itoudis has changed things around (lineups with three forwards in the middle positions to match the height disadvantage at the “5” position, control the rebounds and to minimise the possibility of a miss matches in favour of their opponents) and this year’s CSKA are playing with the most … American style among the Euroleague teams. High tempo, transfer of the game to 1 on 1, where they are built to have an advantage. It was obviously seen that when the team gets to the “one breath” matches, the teams must be familiar with this type of game (1 on 1), where the rule is that this is what teams rely on, but, on the other hand, such an offensive approach is not hard to read. Am I wrong, coach…? Rodriguez is in excellent shape, Clybern’s presence multiplies the number of lineups that have a high degree of functionality and the ability to “adjust” in various situations, with the key being Higgins. However, this CSKA team does not make me as confident. Basically, it makes me less confident than previous years…
Coach Obradovic found the path (who would be stupid enough to think that he wouldn’t?) to success again, leading the champions to the top spots in the standings. Fener overcame the mini-shock of two defeats in a row, and mainly the loss of Nunnaly, and turned to the quality of their role-players, defense and all these things that they know how to do very well. Their defensive indices are still on great levels without their two energy guys on the floor (Nunnaly’s ability to defend on the ball and –especially him- the gritty and versatile nature of Kalinic are very important components of the defensive armour of the Turks), and the half court execution continues to be among the highest level in the league. Thompson and Guduric responded very well in their upgraded roles, without Fener losing their identity. Coach Obradovic aims to get his team to that level again, where, before the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs, with a simple snap of his fingers, he will give it the required boost to close the season as they should.
Remember in the beginning of the season (somewhere after the third game), when I said that the team that best catches my eye is Madrid…? I believed that the combination of assets and the freshness the duo of Campazzo-Causeur brought to the backcourt as well as the great number of players that can both execute and create under pressure (especially the strong presence of playmaking) was a very healthy basis for coach Laso to build something good this year. The “Queen” went through a dark period (6 defeats in 7 games in less than 40 days) with the consecutive injuries, but they managed to stand on their feet and they are back in the game. Rudy Fernandez has 10.8 points with 54.1 in three-pointers (he scored the winning basket in a significant-the way things turned out- home win against Baskonia), their defense has significantly improved (Madrid have been keeping their oppontns’ numbers low, they have the character of a true two-way team), coach Laso is fully exploiting the depth of his roster and Madrid proved, in these 7 wins in a row until their defeat in Andalusia, that they can win without an individual show by Doncic. Until early March Madrid have many difficult consecutive games, as they will be up against every top-seeded team. How much would a quick return to the court by Anthony Randolph improve the team…?
The Greens offense was put to the test this week against elite competition, and didn’t do very well. Its upgrade in terms of functionality was what had lifted the Greens, who were very close to the top before this set of games. Lojeski’s absence caused a reorganisation in terms of offensive direction, as he is the shooter that best moves off the ball (the type of offense used by coach Pascual to start the games, it shows how much he trusts him) and at the same time KC Rivers (the guardian angel of the team in the Pascual era) was looking for the antidote to the “spell”, the “Shamrock” (they had 15/56 three-pointers this week) lacked a point of reference in the paint (Gist was nowhere to be found, he scored 8 points in total, shooting 2/12 FG) and was one-dimensional. The good news is that the Greens controled a big part of those 80 very competitive minutes. The intensity and the tempo of the two opponents in the CSKA game was very notable for the new era of the Euroleague (to the degree that when I later sat down to watch the other EL games, they looked like exhibition games), as Vougioukas’ presence (in terms of speed) on the court looked as strange as a tourist crashing a private party of the Belgravia club in West London… Calathes’ Panathinaikos (Calathes has been in MVP mode) is able to match anyone in this style of game, but they depend heavily on outside shooting, and, without Post game or a second PnR big man, they look “poor” offensively against this type of defense; this means that they will have to shoot over 37% in order to beat them. If the Greens make the addition that can give them the needed boost, they have to be very careful and assess how they can improve on certain weaknesses. I wrote “if”, because Xavi Pascual believes in this roster and he has been trying to get Auguste in the rotation lately…
Olympiacos are experiencing a really difficult time, as their performace is problematic, despite the fact that the team has not been left behind in the standings. Their two hands-down defeats (Vitoria, Moscow region), but mainly their surrender without the slightest of reactions have created many doubts in Giannis Sfairopoulos’ team regarding what he is working on on a daily basis (this can be a bigger problem than being left behind in the standings), as well as whether the roster was properly built. Olympiacos are facing a problem when they are not the most physical team on the court, the one with better runs and greater energy. They are in unchartered waters, as they are finding it difficult to control the ball (both in the half and in the open court), resulting in the principles that have been governing their game in the form of “constants” and defensive mechanisms to tumble down. So, we had to get to the beginning of 2018 in order to become perfectly clear that Olympiacos are not shooting the ball well from the perimeter (last in the league with 32.4% in three-pointers) simply because they gathered many shooters (not players that would help the process of peripheral execution with different roles, childish naivety), that they are unable to break through the defense and that they don’t have alternative sources of creation. It’s not a secret that Roberts would have left the team, if it weren’t for his expensive contract that forces coach Sfairopoulos to (again) try to make him work in this environment. Many bad things together, right? Exactly. But, this is Olympiacos we are talking about. The chance of them returning to winning basketball is very real. Let’s not forget that Olympiacos are in the second place in the standings, not the eighth. It’s just that their performance “screams” for immediate reaction. The Reds need their coaching staff’s help at the moment. A shock, an “adjustment” that will give their mechanism the much needed freshness and boost and get it started again. Maybe even some “brave” decisions… Olympiacos must look to the edge of their bench to get their strength back. It is in these moments where it’s very important for role-players (Wiltjer, Toliopoulos, Thompson) to be able to help the team and bring something different, a new point of reference that will help their team continue. The Reds will get back on track once their frontcourt trio (Printezis-Milutinov-McLean), which is their heavy arsenal, starts rolling again…
Zalgiris continue their great season and managed to overcome the threat of an upset in two home games, where things looked to be going bad (Unicaja, Valencia). What’s important is that the team appears to have built constants in its execution in the end of close games. Kevin Pangos has gone to the next level (he is playing with the confidence of a leader), being blessed by the magic wand of improvement of guards Saras keeps in his pocket, when the lights go down and the crowd goes home. It’s the system itself that helps improve players that go to Kaunas with their game being raw for this level. Just take a look at how White, Toupane and Davis have taken a step forward are now in front of the Lithuanian core of Jankunas, Milaknis, Ulanovas… Zalgiris can improve much more on defense and I repeat that this is where things will be decided regarding their chances later on in the season. Taking into account what we ‘ve seen so far, I personally believe that they can match anyone, anywhere in a Playoff series. Saras’ aura, the dynamic of the project and the healthy path, within which the team evolves, guarantees a competitive character. If and when this time comes we’ll talk about it more.
Khimki was faced with a crisis that was not reflected in their results. They won two out last week’s two games, which (especially their triumph over Olympiacos) helped the team to settle down again. The two major problems the Russian are facing at the moment have to do with their weak offense and their weakness in rebounds. Coach Bartsokas must find the balance between Shved’s despotism and the Markovic’s responsibilities in this broader offensive context. I told you in the beginning of the season that the Serbian PG will be the barometer of this year’s Khimki. The stats say that when the Russians win, the Serbian has 7.8 points and AST/TO 3,4, and when they lose, he only has 3.1 points and AST/TO 1.5. I have to repeat that Khimki are missing Thomas Robinson, who, apart from being the best rebounder in the league, with his combination of strength-speed-ability in 1 on 1 on offense and defense, gave the Russian team a comparative advantage against most opponents in the league, and together the required boost in their game, as he was their point of reference in the paint.
Baskonia is the team with the best momentum behind the first six teams, especially if we reach this conclusion based on the potential of the team and the possible high point of the performance they can get to in the season. However, their inability to close at least one of the two games last week left them behind and they now have to cover the ground, starting with the match in Andalusia. Coach Martinez has in his hands one of the best frontcourts in the league, and a team that knows how to work together well and produce in the half court. This new team now has to show us that they have character. Despite Beaubois delivering in crunch time, the Basques’ inability to go to the free throw line and their tendency to turn the ball over has hurt their results. The way Maccabi are playing leaves room for hope to the Basques, who are getting ready for their final attack.
Maccabi’s defense has been down a spiral in terms of efficiency lately. With very few exceptions, in the last month the Israeli team is conceding 90 points, which has affected their performance. This guard-based, fast paced game of the “people’s team” needs depth. It’s obvious (very obvious…) that Maccabi needs an extra player in the frontcourt. The core of local players on which coach Spahjia bet in the beginning of the season (Cohen, Zoosman, Segev, Mashour plus Di Bartolomeo) has not responded in this high level of competition in their supporting, but very important, roles. So, I believe that Maccabi will need reinforcements in order to cope with the comebacks of teams that are fighting for a place in the playoffs.
Going back to a more European roster and the upgrade of the roles of veteran players was a shock for Barcelona, who are unable to find the required balance on both sides of the court. Coach Alonso’s multi-forward lineups help the Catalans in gaining a more versatile character on defense, but at the same time require better movement and off the ball game on offense in order to work. Barcelona are finding it difficult to put on the same page the up tempo they are seeking and the offensive skills of their players, and complete the puzzle of assets properly, in order to travel to the … land of two way teams. Sometimes the persistence on Navarro looks like a trading card for Sito Alonso, who must choose between Sanders and Vezeknov for his hard core of the rotation, and at the moment is hoping that Seraphin’s return may give a boost to his team’s offensive game. There have been rumours that coach Alonso is trying to bring Edwin Jackson back to Barcelona and increase his favourite French core within the roster. The years spent in San Sebastian and Biblao…
Well done, coach Plaza… I have to say I was not expecting such a reaction in the middle of December, when the team from Andalusia (after 5 straight defeats) won 4 games in a row with Nedovic playing at the highest level (20.5 points, 4.5 assists). Coach Plaza knows his roster well and he can get the maximum from almost everyone, even though the abilities of his team are limited. Unicaja relies on last year’s hard work in the half court offense, which they support with their traditional strength, offensive rebounds (Augustine is really great this year with 2.9 offensive rebounds, third overall in the league). Unicaja are playing to the max… They are only two wins behind the playoff teams, and they have 3 out of the next 4 games at home (Baskonia, Anadolu, Maccabi). Can they handle the chance that has fallen in their lap? I am not so sure…
The last month was a disaster for Brose, as they lost 6 out of their last 7 games. Andrea Trinkieri’s absence (shoulder surgery) did not help (even though Ilias Kantzouris is trying really hard) and the team is trying to pull itself up. The team’s offense is “rigid” (basically, the only guard that can be consistent in his shooting and affect the formation of their opponents is Lo) and the 3-guard lineups don’t always work. They are missing the “3&D” character of Bryce Taylor (48.3 in three pointers in the German league, 43.3% in the Euroleague), and him being on the court together with Wright in the forwards could produce better spacing. In 5 games Dejan Musli has 10.0 points and 6.4 rebounds, and he has been the new constant in the Bavarian game on offense. This year’s more “Americanised” version of Brose does not have the charm of the previous year, the one of fundamentally sound offense…
Crvena Zvezda are one of the pleasant surprises in the league, if we take into account what they are playing in conjunction with the expectations in the beginning of the season. Regardless of their record, Dusan Alimpijevic is doing good work. Just think of what he had to deal with as a rookie in the Euroleague… The Belgrade team is not as efficient on defense this year, but they are working better on offense (despite relying too much on outside shooting, they have poor numbers, 32.9%), where their few turnovers (No 1 in the league) and their strength in offensive rebounds give them extra possessions. From time to time Rochestie can be a feast for the eyes, and Ognjen Dobric has 9.7 points in just 14.1 minutes in the last 7 games… It will be very interesting to see how Alen Omic will be absorbed in Belgrade’s offensive environment, and if they will continue the rule of “rebirthing” of big men the teams of that city bring at this level. The next five games will show us if the Serbian team can be competitive in the battle for a playoffs spot, as they will close the season with games against the top seeded teams that will be extra hungry for a good final place in the standings…
The “Bats” kept their honour and ended their disgraceful streak of 10 defeats in a row, winning 3 out of their next 5 games, and lost in Kaunas in the final minute. Valencia’s main problem (which makes me wonder about the viewpoint of coach Vidorreta) is the lack of athleticism at Euroleague level, which is a major obstacle on defense. You can’t be competitive if you can’t run… This (in conjunction with their injury trouble) is one of the reasons that the fresh feet of the 22-year-old Alberto Abalde (a product of Penya, we have talked about that in the past) are winning in the team’s rotation (he has 8.5 points in 19.3’ in the last 4 games). It is very strange that Valencia didn’t sign a PnR big man that would be a good fit with their guards, after Latavius Williams was injured. Sam van Rossom has been playing at “1” and has 9.8 points and 7.8 assists for 1.8 turnovers in the last 4 games.
– ARMANI MILANO
Milan ended their streak of four defeats in a row and won two games in a row against Spanish teams, with Jordan Theodore having 9.5 assists for 1.5 turnovers in this set of games. The team from Lombardy has already started talks to extend the contracts of Tarczewski-Gudaitis, the two 1993-born big men, who are a very good pair, and are the healthiest part of the team, also being very good in Offensive & Defensive Rating, Efficiency and Effective FG%. The problem is that Milan didn’t create an identity this year as well. Coach Piannigiani’s statements about focusing on defense were out the window (the team is very poor on defense in every type of action that includes any type of cooperation). Milan works as a “reminder” for Euroleague teams that aim high that “it’s forbidden to let loose”, as you ‘ll just pay for it later …
They had very good chances of getting to this spot when their front office took matters in their own hands and managed to meet the expectations for a limit down within a short time. The team is lacking balance and it’s certain that it has a defensive problem. Coach Ataman can’t inspire his players and Derrick Brown has hit rock bottom after the change in coaches (5.7 points, 8/22 two pointers). In his three games in the Euroleague, Tony Douglas has 15.0 points, 68.8% in two pointers, 51.7 in three pointers and 91.7% in free throws in 21.0’ and together with a good Motum are the ones that shine in a very dark, cold Sinan erden. The (much talked about in our community) “Anadolu mentality” derives from the club’s offices…
P.S.: The Greens front office had come to an agreement with Mike James in the financial part, but it was Xavi Pascual that didn’t make it happen. In my opinion he was right. Panathinaikos would have to move things around in order to fit such a presence in the team. They may have won games like the one against CSKA at OAKA if they had James in their roster. However we have to see the bigger picture… Basketball is a complex sport. I believe in the unwritten laws and I follow them religiously in case of a dilemma. Xavi Pascual did the right thing in my opinion.
P.S.1: Regarding the rumours of the possibility of Kemba Walker joining the Knicks. Undoubtedly Walker is a very good player. He is also a New York native. Born and raised in the Bronx, he went to Rice highschool in Harlem, he went to college in Connecticut, where he had his glorious moments and got all the way to the 2011 NCAA title. The Garden fans were dreaming about him since then…
He is a real baller with a big heart. The kind of player born in the New York playgrounds. However, the Knicks front office must think twice about the possibility of giving up Frank Ntilikina. “D”-ilikina is the kind of guard that comes from the war-like past of the MSG to show the way to the future as the “shield” in the backcourt. He may never score 25 PPG in a season like Kemba. But he can be Porzingis’ sidekick, and most important he can be the one to inspire the average Knicks fan and be a great fit to what the Knicks are trying to build. In short, you just can’t make this trade…
Translated by: George-Orestis Zoumpos