Usually I’m not much interested in writing in-general, on-the-surface quick pieces like this one. Usually you should expect content that delves into particular things. But I didn’t want to start off the blog with a very particular piece that focuses on a player or a team. Since the mid-point of the 2021-2022 EuroLeague Regular Season finished, with the first half of the fixtures wrapped up minus the postponed, that also creates an opportunity to start off with a general piece like this that welcomes snippets on every team.
List is in alphabetical order. And all images are in credit to euroleague.net
Alba Berlin: The biggest change for the Berlin club in the latest off-season was Aíto García Reneses’s departure after building something very special in the four years he worked there. Reneses hasn’t quite retired, he officially is in sabbatical and his former assistant Israel Gonzalez has replaced him for the head coach position.
With a very peculiar attacking structure built by Reneses in his coaching twilight, filling in those shoes is no easy task. It is arguably easier to demolish what was built and start something very different, than trying to follow Reneses’s footsteps within a good amount of squad continuity. After a recent patch of good results, Alba Berlin doesn’t exactly look much different in overall performance than their previous couple EuroLeague seasons with Reneses.
Injuries have not been easy on them, especially at the start of the season when they were missing multiple key players. Marcus Eriksson’s return from injury has proven key to access some of their attacking oomph back again. Swedish shooting guard is scoring on ridiculous shot efficiency with 55/45/91 shooting splits and 67.4 true shooting %, similar to his 20-21 season. Otherwise newcomer Jaleen Smith hasn’t shown the necessary attacking aptitude to compensate for Simone Fontecchio’s departure to Baskonia. Yovel Zoosman has never displayed that type of talent as an attacker, he’s closer to a defensive specialist you’re content with if he doesn’t compromise your attack. Without Eriksson and Fontecchio, Alba Berlin’s creation has depended way too much on Maodo Lo and Luke Sikma early in the season. Eriksson’s off-the-ball movement brings another dimension to Berlin’s attacks, adding to Maodo Lo leveraging the threat of his off-the-dribble shot-making using ball screens and Luke Sikma’s passing and playmaking out of half-court setups where he is used away from the basket. That results in three major dimensions to Alba Berlin’s set offence, via one player each in guard, wing and big positions all.
In that aspect, Maodo Lo – Marcus Eriksson – Yovel Zoosman – Luke Sikma – Oscar da Silva is an interesting five for them, and one of the lineups I am most intrigued to watch across the entire EuroLeague. This is a lineup that they’ve utilised to break away in Bundesliga matches, in crunch time or otherwise. The problem at EuroLeague level is that Sikma and da Silva constitutes a questionable defensive pairing at the most important positions for defence. But nevertheless, Alba Berlin under Reneses’s watch at its best and its most, has been a team that shows off splendid attacking power even at the expense of being a bad defensive team. That expense has prevented them to compete at EuroLeague playoffs level perhaps, but if you are sticking to the Reneses era Alba without Reneses, boosting your attacking at the expense of your defence with your lineup management is on brand. Gonzalez is following Reneses’s footprints, but he has differed in some aspects. And that is not a criticism, for instance trying to replicate Reneses’s specific match plans on the defensive side of the ball could result in worsening things. This is an Alba Berlin lineup I’m looking forward to watch more of in the 2nd half of the season though.
Anadolu Efes: Reigning champion has managed to close the first half of the regular season with a winning record (9-8) and in the last quarter-finals spot in the standings, by winning 7 out of their last 9 matches following an awful start to the season.
All technical examination to follow, it really has to be said that Efes’s fixtures were a lot easier towards the back end and were a lot tougher at the beginning. They perhaps did not perform as badly as their results suggested at the beginning of the season and they perhaps did not perform as greatly as their results suggest at the back end of the year.
Still, there is no doubt that the defending champs have regressed in their performance. At the beginning, Efes’s regression was characterised by a defensive regression, suggesting the newcomer Filip Petrušev was the main culprit. Can’t exactly say this was a very wrong diagnosis either. Petrušev hasn’t displayed strong resistance as the essential paint defender, has shown some very problematic aversion to rebounding and perhaps to the physicality he has to face as a EuroLeague defender at the 5; all the while showing impressive attacking talent. But Bryant Dunston starting the season slow was also an important factor. It wasn’t just that Petrušev replaced Sertaç Şanlı and all the defensive regression Efes experienced at the centre position stemmed from that change. 20-21 Bryant Dunston might not have been prime Dunston as a defender, but until recently Dunston this season was defending at a level far away from the 20-21 version. Efes’s latest EuroLeague win against Crvena Zvezda in a thrilling game at home, has showcased not even 20-21 Dunston levels, but peak Bryant Dunston levels of a defensive performance from the man himself and while it’s not realistic to expect Dunston to defend on that level consistently for the 2nd half of the season, that is a very encouraging sign for Efes to be able to go on a championship charge in 2022 akin to last season’s.
Another element to Efes’s defensive improvement is Tibor Pleiß having a career best season as an attacker, which gradually increased the German’s minutes and allowed coach Ergin Ataman to lessen Petrušev’s, using the Serb in smaller doses. Pleiß is not an ideal defender at the 5 himself and can’t match Şanlı’s 20-21 performance there, but isn’t detrimental to Efes defence as much as Petrušev was. Emphasis on the last word, because what’s also worth mentioning is that Petrušev has slightly improved as a defender as the season progressed, being a better or a less worse defender after not being the top minute getter in Efes’s centre rotation.
On the offensive side of the ball, reigning season and Final Four MVP Vasilije Micić’s performance has been discussed a lot. I imagine most would concur he hasn’t played at his MVP form from 20-21. One statistic that draws attention is that so far he is averaging the same amount of turnovers as he did in the previous two EuroLeague seasons: 3.1. But in 19-20 he averaged 5.8 assists a match and in 20-21, 4.9 assists. This regular season at its mid-point the reigning MVP is at 3.6 assists. In 18-19 season his stats stood at 5.5 assists to 2.8 turnovers per match. I don’t find a great deal of correlative value between assists and turnovers per se, but I do find the assist to turnover ratio to be important. If only because, I feel that when praising performances of especially the perimeter creators, assist averages sometimes are used to prop up the value of the player as a passer without accounting for the usage amount of the player. That’s why I think assist to turnover ratio is important, even if the assists as events and turnovers as events in game play don’t necessarily correlate very well to each other in my view. In any case, 3.6 to 3.1 is not pretty.
That all to be said, I think what held back Efes’s attacking production the most was Kruno Simon’s absence, rather than Micić not fully operating back on MVP form. Micić is still close enough to that form that he can have a better second half of the season, like he did in 20-21, and maybe possibly even surpass his 20-21 season performance overall. But Simon being absent took away a dimension from Efes’s attack much like Eriksson’s absence did for Alba Berlin. Ataman’s offence with this core squad is a very systematic one. Eventually I’m bound to produce a long video to explain why the characterisations of Efes offence to the contrary are mistaken and just how utterly systematic of an attack theirs has been across multiple seasons. I actually had already finished a medium length video going over the principles that unleash Efes’s dominant attack after their 18-19 season to be published before the 19-20 season. But that was one of the videos I refer to in the about page of this blog that I wasn’t able to publish in time because of technical problems. Nevertheless, such an overview will need to be a lot more comprehensive because of all that happened since then, but the core principles that makes Efes such a historically dangerous attacking team are the same. In some senses, stars need to be aligned to build something like this. But even before Ataman ever built an offence this dangerous, he always has been a coach that has been said to be using, or even having to use, same type of players in some specific positions that undertake similar/same type of tasks. Anadolu Efes cannot showcase their lethal offensive output on the long run, without Simon’s creativity at the 3. Quite literally a lot of Ataman’s sets and Efes’s playbook become useless without Simon’s presence. As mentioned in the Alba Berlin snippet, their dimensions of creativity are easier to differentiate, spanning 3 players across all three of guard, wing, big positions. And they’re all creators in very different ways. Perhaps because Efes’s creation is so ball-screen and perimeter creator oriented that, their offence is rather seen as this non-systematic, individualistic structure. However when Kruno Simon is injured, their offence lacking a full dimension of creation is a visible evidence to just how systematic and inflexible their attacking system is. It’s as fluid of an attacking style as it gets, but fluidity regarding the contents of the system is not relevant to flexibility of the system itself. The principles that unlock Efes’s all-time lethal creation are the preliminary half-court movements which they optimise to make their creation as unstoppable as possible. And in classic Ergin Ataman fashion, as people have noted over the years, his offences need the presence of the most significant players to the structure, moreso than other offensive systems and how much they need the most significant players to their structure. That is no exception for Ataman’s magnum opus and that is why when Efes is in full force, their unrelenting attacking output is a scary sight for all opponents.
AS Monaco: I have to mention, the idea to produce written content and to actually go through with it by buying this domain name and so on, had come to me after I was unable to publish a relatively long video examining Mike James’s underwhelming start to the season whilst Monaco was doing well. So that the next time I am unable to upload a video that I made, I’d be able to quickly publish it in written form.
The plot thickened with the argument AS Monaco’s star and the Montenegrin head coach had in November at Efes away:
😳 Koç Mitrovic ile tartışan Mike James, soyunma odasına gitti. #EuroLeague
🤔 “Mike James gitti…” pic.twitter.com/5qGnE23VFq
— beIN SPORTS Türkiye (@beINSPORTS_TR) November 19, 2021
And again this month right before Monaco and Zvezdan Mitrović parted ways:
Mike James was visibly frustrated with coach Zvezdan Mitrovic after getting subbed off the game vs. Olimpia Milan.
James came in from the bench and played a total of 2:42 before returning to the locker rooms. pic.twitter.com/CdKC7m0TkW
— Dionysis Aravantinos (@AravantinosDA) December 11, 2021
I think Zvezdan Mitrović is a EuroLeague calibre coach and I also think his performance this season was good when Mike James hasn’t performed up to par as the expected leading force for this Monaco side. On the other hand, there are only 18 spots so being a EuroLeague calibre coach doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all in EuroLeague sometimes. And that Olimpia Milano match was Monaco’s 5th consecutive loss, so even if the Monaco management has sided with James over their head coach unlike CSKA Moscow and Olimpia Milano, it wasn’t an abrupt decision. Perhaps it would be so if there was no rift between Mitrović and any one of his players, considering Monaco’s pleasantly surprising start to the season performing above expectations. But I don’t think changing your head coach after five EuroLeague losses can be defined as an abrupt decision when there is such a visible rift involved. EuroLeague history is a witness to teams winning despite rifts in the dressing room, but it’s a situation that can be maintained without making any management move only when you are winning.
Monaco has a mediocre attack and defence both. They have talented defenders (Alpha Diallo is a gem), but enough shortcomings on the squad to not be outright good on that end. I think the coaching change was a good management decision in that sense. Because considering their star creator has underwhelmed thus far, if there is one way to shoot up from mediocrity on either side of the ball, it is more probable to come from their offence if they manage to get expected performance level from James. Furthermore, one possible upside to mid-season coaching changes that remains constant is, the departing coach’s work always remains at some level with the team. If the departing coach was contributing to several different aspects well, rather than, you know, somehow putting in a terrible performance which usually doesn’t happen at EuroLeague level, then it is a positive upside for that team. Because you can perhaps fix things that were not working with the coaching change, whilst retaining the positive contributions that the departing coach had. Monaco has that possible upside here, if they could get expected value out of Mike James after the coaching change, along with retaining what they have, at least their offensive output might escape from mediocrity.
ASVEL: French powerhouse draws attention with its stunning backcourt duo, Elie Okobo and Chris Jones, who performed arguably second only to Efes’s backcourt in the first half of the regular season. With a strong start to the season, and a 8-9 record just shy of the final quarter-final spot in the standings despite a -86 point differential (ranks 14th in the league), they seemed to have overperformed. That is, of course, always a praise and hardly ever a criticism, in any competitive, performative setting. ASVEL is not any significant historical exception here, under the existent league format, EuroLeague table hasn’t really been a perfect representation of point differentials. The entry battle to quarter-finals has been insanely close almost every season, so each win and loss is inarguably vital and eking out wins in crunch time like ASVEL has managed to do, is more than welcome. Elie Okobo’s crunch time heroics have been an entertaining element to this EuroLeague season.
With that being said, ASVEL’s offensive production standing at 105 points per 100 possessions, a EuroLeague 15th mark per hackastat.eu, is not exactly surprising. ASVEL’s creation almost entirely depends on their terrific backcourt duo and those two excel as creators via shot-making more than anything else. They are special shot makers indeed, however at EuroLeague level, having an offence depend on two guards who themselves depend on their shot-making to be creators is a bit of a risky, and a low margin endeavour. David Lighty’s absence has been brutal for ASVEL for this reason, as he is one of the most effective creators out of the post in the competition. Thus Lighty’s presence does not only add another creator to the mix for ASVEL, but an interior creator that would be able to deepen ASVEL’s offence more than just any third creator. Lighty should recover from his broken hand injury next month, so that’s something to monitor whether ASVEL will get back on track again, improving on the offensive side of the ball.
Barcelona: Make no mistake, this Barça side that we have seen, is not all that similar to last season’s team. They’ve played at a level only their November 2020 could match from last season. Right now they are, they have to be named as, the clear favourite for the title based on the first half of the regular season.
When Jasikevičius replaced Pešić, the prevalent assumption was Pešić was washed up and had no idea what he was doing and that Šaras would be able to instantly improve Barcelona’s offence. Whilst agreeing that Jasikevičius is a considerable improvement, this was a position I was in disagreement with.
Judging the performance of coaches by their sideline demeanour is something that, perhaps the larger, general basketball viewership base cannot drop, but the ones who are actively engaging in the discourse of basketball most definitely should drop. I think Pešić’s performance in his latest Barça stint has been the victim of that. He is an old man with a snarky know-it-all attitude, doesn’t talk much or give series of overt instructions during timeouts, doesn’t have a frenetic sideline presence. All the symbolic signs point to a washed up old man who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Yet that is such an unbelievably poor way to judge a coach’s work, it’s almost like trying to observe an engineer or an architect’s work demeanour and how they look and how they behave to come up with a conclusion regarding their work performance, instead of actually looking at the buildings they designed or things they engineered to judge their performance.
All that considered, Pešić still failed to build any offensive system for the 19-20 team. My position in the summer of 2020 was that, it’s not that Pešić did not fail, but the idea that it is a no biggie to create any sort of comprehensive, well-optimised offence for this Barcelona squad was completely out of touch. It was an extremely challenging task that Pešić failed at. That extremely deep, stacked Barcelona squad was not built thoughtfully with fits in consideration. The potential of an offence cannot be determined by adding up the individual quality of players in the squad, how all those players can be possibly fit together as parts of a multi-dimensional singular system is as much, if not more, crucial. Barcelona’s squad, despite most probably being the best one, was also probably the only EuroLeague squad so thoughtlessly gathered by throwing money at names instead a squad building that was engineered as due with squad construction.
Nick Calathes’s transfer to the Catalan side further complicated things while at the same time adding further quality to the squad. I was only talking about the 19-20 team. But Calathes’s transfer only further deepened that case of Barcelona’s squad construction, where they added another big name, high quality player with questionable fit to the squad at hand even though they actually needed a point guard. But one more element to their squad that improves its already stellar quality was also another element that worsened its squad construction and made the task of building an offensive system even tougher. And last season I think we witnessed exactly that, with Calathes becoming predictably one of the best players of the team, at the same time as his massive on/off stats being quite problematic for a team that talented. Because only in the absense of a comprehensive, multi-dimensional attacking system, a super floor raiser like Calathes might fill up that big void and become as essential to the team’s attacking output as he was to Panathinaikos teams he raised the floors of to great success before. That however, is neither a worthy attacking output of that Barcelona squad, nor sufficient to wear the continental crown, if you don’t have a historically dominant defence. And truly great as Barcelona’s defence was, it wasn’t historically dominant.
Now, with all this context in mind, here comes the results. Per hackastat.eu, 19-20 Barça under Pešić scored 116.4 points per 100 possessions in the 28 EuroLeague matches they played before the season was shut down, 7th best mark in the competition and 2.8 points per 100 better than EuroLeague average. Indeed, Barça’s scoring output implies Pešić’s failure to build an offensive system because that squad should not be 2.8 points per 100 possessions higher than EuroLeague average no matter what. 20-21 Barça under Jasikevičius on the other hand, scored 115.8 points per 100 possessions in the 34 regular season appearances, 6th best mark in the competition and 2.4 points per 100 better than EuroLeague average.
Why am I talking about Barcelona’s previous two seasons instead of an overview on their first half of the 21-22 EL Regular Season and an outlook on their 2022? Because they’ve done it. They’ve done it this season. Jasikevičius and the players have overcome the arduous challenge of having a comprehensive, multi-dimensional, well-optimised, encompassing attacking system with this thoughtlessly gathered super stacked squad. I might cite their ridiculous scoring output per 100, which is well ahead the 2nd and 3rd best numbers at the mid-point of the regular season, but I’m not going to do so. Because this difference I’m referring to, between what they lacked in previous two seasons and what do they have now, is not even exactly captured by the difference in their per possession scoring metrics. When it comes to winning EuroLeague, playing basketball worthy of wearing that crown, that difference is reflected onto the durability of your attacking output given its necessary comprehensive scope, and that is not even necessarily well-captured by the difference in per possession scoring output. Because that difference between winning the title and failing in the playoffs is slight in quantity anyhow. So a slight difference in per possession output would not mean the qualitative difference that you can observe as the viewer is not night and day. Excuse the double negative, but that’s why I don’t think Barcelona’s super offensive rating right now is even worth citing.
So, with all this lengthy recent context behind to really hit home how special what Barcelona has managed to do in this first part of the season, two things to look forward to in 2022 are, in case Efes goes on another championship charge in the remaining part of the season, like last season, how well 21-22 Barcelona with its enhanced attack respond back? And Calathes has been sidelined since November, but he should return back to play soon enough, so as an attacker, how well he’s going to mesh with what Barcelona has showcased in his absence?
Baskonia: Baskonia during Duško Ivanović’s third stint at the club was a bit wonky in terms of game performance and results. Their biggest success during that time was obviously the 19-20 Liga ACB championship, achieved in a spectacular manner in 2020 Fase Final, which the league organised to conclude the season after it was shut down for obvious reasons in March. However, Ivanović’s best work actually came with the following season. I don’t think losing a close playoff series to Valencia in the league is shameful, which was followed by Valencia losing a close series to Real Madrid in the semi-finals themselves. Although Baskonia could be faulted for not having a better regular season performance and losing home court advantage to Valencia in the playoffs. In EuroLeague, they finished 10th with a winning record and shared the fourth best point differential with Zenit. Did I mention how ludicrous the playoff entry race is in EuroLeague yet? That’s what the regular season is all about, the crazy playoff entry race and a slightly less crazy home court advantage battle, which makes the regular season brutally competitive where you see coaches draw up plays for the final possession of a match that they already won, being 9 points ahead with 10 seconds left.
But it was clear Ivanović’s performance wasn’t up to that level this season and the very particular set offence he built needed Pierria Henry’s passing and Achille Polonara’s screening, cutting, rebounding more than at least I myself realised. So perhaps it was time for a change, even if he might not have performed outright badly. Like I mentioned in AS Monaco’s section, that’s not often the case with mid-season coach departures in EuroLeague.
I’m not thrilled about the appointment of Neven Spahija, however. Yet there might still be things he can contribute to this team, while benefiting from the positive contributions of Ivanović that is felt on this team even this season. A big concern for me is that, even if Ivanović failed compared to his two previous seasons, arguably largely triggered by the departures of Pierria Henry and Achille Polonara, there were still multiple matches in which Baskonia looked very solid, with a different structure that centred around their super wingers, Rokas Giedraitis and Simone Fontecchio, both of whom are more than capable on either side of the ball. To the extend that Spahija could build on that, and to which amount that he insists on point guard oriented creation, should determine Baskonia’s prospects in 2022.
Bayern München: A worrisome reality for Bayern towards the end of 2021 is the fact that their offensive output completely faltered. Why worry? After all they are the most overperforming team of the previous season whose main strength was the defensive side of the ball, not the offensive, and they had just necessary amount of attacking output with a great amount of mid-range shooting to support that defence enough, to be able to put up a resilient fight to make it to Cologne. That’s all true. But this season Bayern’s productivity was falling on the attacking side of things, not defending. Whether that is worrisome for a Trinchieri team in and of itself can be disputed but it is certainly worrisome for this Trinchieri team that has this group of players. So their attacking output faltering towards the end of 2021 is a blatant alarming sign. If they are going to regress to the mean as an attacking team, they will have to get better as a defending team. And that is something I’m very curious of to see, so I’m not keeping Bayern’s section shorter because they are not as interesting, but because I believe the 2022 portion of their season will be more telling than maybe an odd, out-of-character 2021 portion of their season. But the remaining months will show whether that odd, out-of-character dynamic is their whole season or something they will grow out of.
Crvena Zvezda: Serbian powerhouse has been a personal joy to watch, playing a supremely entertaining hard nosed basketball that is stylistically unique in EuroLeague right now. They’ve had a few brutal losses, the last of which was the Efes loss on the road that wrapped up their first half of the regular season. Radonjić’s general set direction and crunch time lineup management probably didn’t exactly help in those close losses.
I think what makes their defence especially, so entertaining to watch, is the juxtaposition between Radonjić’s risky defensive schemes and the aforementioned hard nosed play style that they have. Normally these kinds of teams would be expected to defend in conservative schemes but Dejan Radonjić doesn’t care and goes for the jugular with daring defensive tactics. To a detriment, I could argue. It is well established that this Crvena Zvezda has been in the need of a solid centre ever since the season started. But building on that general need at the 5, they also are in desperate need of a solid centre because of the type of defence Radonjić has them playing and how unsuited Crvena Zvezda’s current centre rotation is to Radonjić’s defensive principles that they are applying. I still admire the practical work that Zvezda’s coaching staff pulled off, because you can see how much of a great job they are doing with the rest of the four defenders, when their centre who is unsuited to defend two-man games aggressively, defends them aggressively. They manage to shrink the court very well given the context of their aggressive defence. But the margins are brutal in EuroLeague and you can also see how sometimes the opponent scores, even in these possessions where they shrunk space well with optimal positioning to accompany their daring defensive tactics applied by their centres who are unfit to apply them. If they had at least one solid centre that is actually suited to play in this defensive setting, they could be in a more impressive spot.
Recent news in Serbian media report the club is in talks with Alan Williams, who recently impressed at Lokomotiv Kuban. But he also is recovering from a significant injury, so this transfer isn’t as surefire as it would be before Williams’s injury. Also notable is that Alan Williams too, shined as a defender in conservative schemes for Kuban, so even without health concerns there is still the question of whether he is actually suited to play in Crvena Zvezda’s daring schemes too. That is a matter of degree of course, because as this coaching staff has proven, they can bring up the level of even the defenders who are utterly unsuited to play in aggressive schemes. It’s just that as admirable of a work it is to bring someone like that up to an okayish level in that role, that doesn’t move the needle a whole bunch in this competition. So the coaching staff can clearly raise up Williams’s performance in aggressive defensive schemes if he ends up at Crvena Zvezda, but their starting point with him would be the crucial matter. That is of course, the same for any centre they could sign who hasn’t previously shown off as a defender in aggressive schemes.
CSKA Moscow: This snippet could have been one of the most stretched out in this article, but I’ll hold back on most things. The reason being, CSKA is clearly in the midst of a quite a chaotic state, not in the back end of that situation. Therefore a lot of the points that could be made regarding their performance and current situation are probably better off if held back right now because it is so much more recent and fresh for them, even if it was already building up to it.
I may also write an entire piece on just CSKA and Itoudis after we see the back end of this chaotic situation they are in right now, so holding back some things now would prevent being repetitive too.
It needs to be underlined how unlucky they are to have Nikola Milutinov experience another serious injury again and as Toko Shengelia missed considerable time too, suddenly their highest value area of the team, those two as their big men has vanished under their feet. But why then, this recent collapse hasn’t happened right there and then but since both of their star big men returned back to play? Both the UNICS Kazan loss at home and the loss against the astonishingly depleted Real Madrid were beyond embarrassing losses. These two losses were terrifying sights for CSKA, and the win in Berlin in between them wasn’t convincing at all.
Even though there is no actual break, perhaps completing the first half of the regular season will help them shake it off. But whether they manage to do that or not, there is no denying they’ve been a team with quality ingredients that haven’t been brought together all season long. It arguably has been Itoudis’s worst performance in his career, as CSKA has been functioning apart and in separate, like no other Itoudis team before.
Fenerbahçe: The serious injuries Jan Vesely and Nando De Colo suffered at the latest match against ASVEL which will make them absent for several weeks each, coupled with the shorter injury time that Devin Booker is in, definitely changes how 2022 is looking for the Turkish side after their recent run of wins at the back end of the year.
An impressive, strong defence put together with an impressive transition attack that is lethal in counter-attacks, put together with a catastrophic set offence almost perfectly describes Fenerbahçe’s 2021 in this season across those three vectors.
Djordjevic has insisted in pairing Booker and Vesely together, drawing the hellfire in criticism of doing so and not utilising Polonara more. And let’s rewind that back.
In the off-season I was of the opinion that Polonara was an excellent transfer and Devin Booker was a meh one at best, but an okay back-up for Vesely at the 5. That’s obviously not how Djordjevic is using Booker, he has played him and Vesely together a lot. Mind you, my view has been in line with the general opinion that Booker was a meh transfer for Fener at best as the second centre behind Vesely, whereas his role is even bigger than that in reality. Naturally, if I expected his role to be bigger, my opinion on the Booker move would be lesser than meh. With the hellfire Djordjevic receives due to his usage of Booker and Polonara though, I’m not so much in line with, unlike my view on the transfers of these two players in the summer.
Djordjevic is unable to get proper value out of Polonara, that is a fact. He is one of the better 4s in EuroLeague yet his performance hasn’t been at that level for the Turkish club, and that is more on Djordjevic than it is on Polonara. So while I’m not in line with the criticism Djordjevic receives in this regard, one aspect of this dynamic that he might deserve the endless criticism is the fact that he hasn’t been able to incorporate Polonara to Fenerbahçe’s set offence.
But on the other hand, if you are disregarding, overlooking, underrating, and in any shape or form not giving the proper due to Devin Booker’s performance this season, just because you’ve had similar takes on and expectations of him before the season to mine, then your criticism loses its validity. Because not only Devin Booker has balled out on either side of the court, surpassing expectations and then some, he is also doing so by undertaking wildly different tasks than what he was doing at Khimki. That is the most impressive aspect of his performance, that, spanning from the type of defensive schemes he’s playing in to the entire attacking role he has in a radically different offensive structure, the kind of basketball he’s playing and expected to play by his coaches, could not possibly be any more different compared to his seasons at Khimki.
So, I understand the fascination with Polonara. While I think Baskonia’s set offence amplified his strengths as an attacker, even without it he’s still a premier power forward who has showcased his quality even with Italy this summer. I don’t think he’s a worse player than Booker right now, or anything of that sort. But holding onto off-season expectations like dear life, to a point where you falsely claim just Djordjevic playing Polonara more instead of Booker is going to be the thing that solves Fenerbahçe’s problems, is just not right. Because, and this is the key point, Djordjevic’s failure here is not the stubbornness on playing Polonara enough, but it is a failure of not being able to utilise Polonara in set offence even if/when he plays Polonara enough and with the right kinds of lineups. The energy that Polonara often installs to Fener’s attacking is just further boosting an already good transition attack, not simply solving the abysmal set offence. That abysmal set offence falls on Djordjevic and is not something that could be simply solved by playing Polonara more. And furthermore, Djordjevic not being able to utilise Polonara in set offence is only one of the shortcomings that made the set offence abysmal, not the only one.
The nuances within this fascinating and chaotic dynamic doesn’t even there either. There’s Polonara not helping his case by playing awful defence in some key matches when he’s subbed in, despite being a good defender in general. And another lazy criticism of Djordjevic, is the idea that Booker and Vesely together don’t work. That could only be described as a blatant denial of reality, when their high-low connection has been one of the only couple bright spots of Fener’s set offence at its absolutely lowest points this year. And that is only touching on the weaker side of the ball for those two. That, again, looks more like people holding onto their off-season takes and expectations for dear life, ignoring the material data presented out there on the battlefield. If someone had told me about Djordjevic’s plan to play Vesely and Booker together so much and asked me how effective do I think it would be, I would most definitely laugh it off. It’s worth reminding Fenerbahçe won its lone EuroLeague title by playing two centres that cannot shoot. So a superficial criticism on playing two centres that are not shooting threats is underthought at best. At EuroLeague level, even a team like ASVEL which plays lengthy minutes with a perimeter trio that is on average less than 190 cm tall, can play with an extremely tall Wembanyama & Fall lineup and reap its success in small doses. Shooting is the first, and by the virtue and reason of being the first, the most simplest solution to playing two 5s together. It is not the only solution though. And as long as you build a passing connection between your two non-shooting bigs, with clever positioning, timely cutting and offensive rebounding pressure, that is even a more durable approach to tackling the problem of playing two 5s together which is how Udoh and Vesely managed it and Vesely and Booker have done well also. The reason why I would laugh it off this summer, is that I just could not possibly envision Booker undertaking all these necessary tasks mentioned and then doing them well enough to make it work with Vesely. Not even close. But he has, and that is why his season has been so impressive and I’ve been proven so mistaken and if I don’t recognise that to hold onto my off-season opinions like dear life instead, ignoring what is actually going on out there, and whether Fener’s horrible set offence is actually all that relevant to playing two 5s together, I would be merely insisting on to continue to be mistaken about it.
Funny enough, as Fener has seen some slight uptick in set offence efficiency, they’ve been more lax regarding the principles on how to make Booker and Vesely work on attack. Booker has been casually spotting up more behind the arc. During that time, he shot 3s well, but over the long run and even when he’s shooting them well in general, it is not good for Fenerbahçe to stop being disciplined regarding the principles that make their dual-centre lineups worth playing. All this while Polonara will be putting in intense shifts with Vesely and Booker out. And then with Booker before Vesely returns. So while getting into quarters is too big of an ask from this point on for Fener with their two stars injured for several weeks, I think it’s safe to expect Polonara showcase his talent and form, much better in this context just because of his level, not because Djordjevic will suddenly figure out how to get high value out of him. But whether this period of play could result in Djordjevic using Polonara better once all their injured players return, is a different question and possibility to monitor when the rest of Fener’s season is probably going to be much more boring and much less chaotic than the first half.
Maccabi Tel Aviv: Most recently Maccabi lost to Hapoel Tel Aviv in embarrassing fashion at home in the Tel Aviv derby and afterwards news from Israel outright say that coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos is on the brink of losing his job and their upcoming fixture against AS Monaco is critical:
הסוף מתקרב: הפסד במונאקו ומכבי ת”א צפויה להיפרד מיאניס ספרופולוס. במכבי מתייחסים למשחק בצרפת מחרתיים כנקודת אל חזור. הפסד עלול להוביל לפרידה מהמאמן. ניצחון, והיווני יקנה לעצמו עוד זמן עד המשחק בירושלים@sport5il
— Roi Cohen (@RoiCohen99) December 27, 2021
Meanwhile Maccabi finished the former part of the regular season with a seven match losing streak in EuroLeague.
There are parallels here to Olympiacos parting ways with coach Sfairopoulos in 2018 after losing in the EuroLeague quarter-finals to Žalgiris despite being the 3rd seed and having home court advantage and then losing Greek League finals series to archrival Panathinaikos.
What was revealed immediately afterwards Olympiacos’s decision was that Sfairopoulos was not necessarily underachieving but even overachieving with that team, on the back of the strength of the defence that he was able to help be built. So it wasn’t necessarily Sfairopoulos underperforming in the playoffs as much as overperforming during the regular season, given the tools he had to work with. And Olympiacos certainly lost other finals series against Panathinaikos in the league, despite being better than Panathinaikos during that season on the whole, even moreso than in the case of 17-18.
That is not exactly the case here. Maccabi’s losing streak is bleak and losing the Tel Aviv derby at home is indeed embarrassing. It is probably a better time for Sfairopoulos’s employers to relieve him off his duties. But I am not letting go of the parallels with Olympiacos’s decision in 2018, because there are a lot of similarities in both situations thanks to Sfairopoulos’s consistency as a coach.
Ioannis Sfairopoulos is one of the best, if not the best, defensive organisers. He has proven he is able to build great defences without great defensive talent. His ability to organise a defence is a constant strength of his. Just as his relative inability to organise an efficient offence is also. That was the main problem at Olympiacos, there were loud complaints about how lifeless and lacklustre Olympiacos’s attack was even at a high spot as the 3rd seed in regular season and those were true. Greek head coach’s Maccabi Tel Aviv stint hasn’t developed any differently. With very impressive defensive work with not top class defensive talent, and lacklustre attacking.
The problem for Olympiacos then, and Maccabi now, is that their squads have a bunch of problematic elements that mostly pertain to their attacking talent. And parting ways with Sfairopoulos does not resolve those issues. It’s not necessarily hard to find and appoint a head coach who is better at on the attacking side of the ball. But doing so doesn’t get rid of the problematic elements of the squad.
This isn’t to say with a losing streak of seven in EuroLeague and after the loss in the Tel Aviv derby, Maccabi would be wrong to part ways with their head coach. But more of a warning that might not instantly improve Maccabi to a desired place.
Olimpia Milano: I do find 21-22 Olimpia Milano to be more impressive than the 20-21 team so far. 21-22 team is facing tougher competition and may or may not finish with a lower standing in the table when it’s all done and settled, than the 20-21 team. But regardless of that the basketball they’ve displayed this season has been more impressive.
First and foremost, what matters the most, is that this Milano side is getting a better performance out of Ettore Messina. And that is reflected onto their strengths, being one of the best defences in EuroLeague this season with mediocre attacking output. If we look at Messina’s championship teams, Messina in his prime prevailed with all-time, historically incredible, dominant defences. He’s not at the prime of his career anymore so maybe this team is not at that level defensively and maybe the age of the some important players also factors into that. But this is still a great defensive team in EuroLeague and therefore much more up Messina’s alley than the previous Olimpia Milano teams he has coached in this chapter of his career.
Dinos Mitoglou’s injury has been tough on them because he has started the season super strong. It was a great off-season signing that was somehow even better in practice than at least I imagined. His return will be very important to Milano’s season. What we briefly saw from him this season is impact both as an attacker and a defender that gives a visible boost to Milano. But it is not only a matter of when he returns but how he will return also, because of the significance of his injury, having to undergo surgery.
Milano is a strong Final Four contender. But I imagine most would agree that they are not quite there as a championship contender. I think the gap there is due to the fact the dynamic between the rather mediocre attacking efficiency and the great but not dominant defence. Like I already mentioned above, Messina’s teams were able to wear the EuroLeague crown, generally speaking, with historically dominant and all-time great defences and perhaps rather mediocre attacking efficiency that relied on star creators and scorers. But if and when the defence takes a couple steps back from an otherworldly level to a great on the season but not historically special level, much like 21-22 Olimpia Milano, then you don’t get to be a strong title contender.
Not getting a good amount of value out of Jerian Grant and Troy Daniels ties their hands behind their back in terms of having better attacking efficiency. But both of them were risky signings in the first place. Still, if one of them worked out well for the Italian powerhouse, it would add a great deal of fresh air to the team, improve their efficiency offensively and ease up pressure on Sergio Rodríguez who is getting old with a lot of basketball mileage and Malcolm Delaney who is younger at 32 years old, to become 33 in March, but more prone to injury.
Olympiacos: The most scary thing about Olympiacos’s season is the fact that they started the season as one of the best defensive teams but by the end of the first half of the regular season, their offence ranks about even with Efes’s and only a couple steps behind Barcelona. It is likely Efes climbs up further, but Olympiacos having the best attacking output after Barcelona and Efes would still be exceedingly impressive. Having this kind of potential on both sides of the ball and actually reflecting it into their play through this campaign makes them a really dangerous team.
They actually rank first in net rating, that is, the difference between their per possession scoring output and per possession defensive success. They finished the first half of the regular season as both the second best attack and second best defence in EuroLeague. Their net rating of 13 barely, probably within statistical margin of error, is ahead of Barcelona’s 12.9 and ahead of Real Madrid’s 10.7. Their attacking output is decently better than Real Madrid’s and their defensive efficiency is decently better than Barcelona’s.
Bartzokas is doing something we don’t see from EuroLeague teams. It is more common in lower levels. He splits the players into different lineup units and there’s not that much crossing between them. For example, for guards, Thomas Walkup and Tyler Dorsey mostly play together and Kostas Sloukas and Giannoulis Larentzakis mostly play together. Moustapha Fall mostly plays together with Sasha Vezenkov as the interior tandem and someone like Georgios Printezis hardly ever plays with those two, if ever, for example. This is something that is quite unique in EuroLeague, so even if the team that is applying these separate units of lineups was not doing well, it would still be one of the most interesting and worth following storylines of the season. I am eager to see how it is going to all work out in the playoffs. Bartzokas isn’t as strict on keeping lineups as separate as possible, as he was in the earlier part of the season. But there is still a very set lineup philosophy here and what is definitely worthy of praise is the thought that goes into who plays with whom, because when you take a look at it, Bartzokas and his staff hit the nail on the head with fits. It is an unusual practice to juggling a squad that has maximised this Olympiacos side so well, I am almost wondering where would CSKA Moscow stand, with their own squad that could definitely use separated lineup patterns. Can’t say this for many EuroLeague winning coaches but it seemed like this season has been Bartzokas’s best work, better than the 12-13 championship season.
Perhaps the most easily noticeable weaker point of this Olympiacos squad is the wings. They are playing guards at the 2 and their 4s are pure power forwards, not combo forwards or 3s that could slide down to 4. Kostas Papanikolaou and Shaq McKissic are kind of alone as the team’s small forwards in terms of wing men in the squad. That’s why Olympiacos looks a lot more impressive, on a legitimate title contender level when at least one of those two wingers perform at a high level. The recent dominance of Olympiacos at home also saw Kostas Papanikolaou play fantastic basketball on either side of the ball and it is something that propels Olympiacos so much, to get that kind of impact from a proper winger.
Panathinaikos: Personally, Panathinaikos is the most boring team in EuroLeague this season. It’s not because they are even a tier worse than the worst teams in the competition or anything like that, they are not. But at the end of the day, the foreigners they’ve been signing are just not good enough overall for this level. They are in a tough spot with the ownership publicly announcing intention and even price to sell the club, but without selling the club yet. So the club is stuck in this limbo where the owner who is supposedly looking to sell is not putting money into the club, but is not selling the club also, so there is no new ownership on the horizon that would start putting money into club budget. Not to mention, this self-sustaining budget and Diamantidis-Alvertis led management could not come at a worse time because they’ve been deprived from gate receipts. If they embarked upon this self-sustaining journey after a season in which they received proper amounts of revenue from gate receipts, with how OAKA is for PAO, the budget would be bigger and could lead to a more exciting team even if they most likely wouldn’t be very close to playoffs.
Priftis is doing some intriguing stuff and taking some risks. I just hope he’s not going to be prematurely let go because I believe both Vovoras and Kattash were prematurely let go. They were at least hasty decisions given Panathinaikos’s situation. It is not a coach’s fault that Panathinaikos has been stuck in this administrative limbo.
Not to finish without saying anything performance related as well, Papagiannis has been playing well lately following a poor form to start the season. If they could use his defensive presence in the paint, getting some stops in OAKA and out in transition, they’ll be able to continue to overperform at home. This is a formula that has made Panathinaikos one of the better performers at home across Europe, relative to team’s overall strength, for the last few years. Extending back to even late Calathes seasons, Panathinaikos found success in OAKA that way, despite having better player quality than they have right now.
Real Madrid: With easily the best defensive output of Tavares-era Real Madrid defences, Real Madrid is positioned as a dangerous title contender once again, even if not the frontrunner of the season.
After seasons in which the team’s defensive strength is entrusted with Tavares’s dominance more than anything else, ironicly or maybe expectedly, the best Real Madrid defence in Tavares’s time in Madrid is the one that relies the least on him. But even further, it may be subject to change in the remaining part of the season, but so far there is a strong argument to be made this has been the worst season for Tavares as a defender in all his Real Madrid seasons. Even with a decline in individual performance, he is still a stupid good defender of course, still inarguably the best defender on the team and he is still the anchor of this monster Real Madrid defence.
Adam Hanga’s transfer helps them very much. After Facu’s departure, Madridistas didn’t have a perimeter defender who can defend two-man games without leaving most of the work to Tavares. They found that player in Hanga. Jeffery Taylor has lost a step or two and he doesn’t guard the ball often. Rudy Fernandez is still somehow a brilliant defender, which is amazing considering how the old Real Madrid core is faring on that end. Felipe Reyes retired. Nobody knows what Jaycee Carroll is up to but defence has never been his strong suit even in his prime anyway. Sergio Llull has been a weak defender ever since his ACL injury. I mentioned Jeffery Taylor’s slight regression already and we are yet to see how much defensive help Anthony Randolph will be able to give after just returning from a severe injury. Rudy Fernandez is still a top notch defender. But he is limited in scope, so it was Adam Hanga who proved instrumental to provide Real Madrid with a more resistant point of attack defence.
On the more collective and technical side, instead of the individual and talent side, what makes Real Madrid’s defensive work so impressive this season is the precision of the stunts they are executing, shrinking the space for opposing creators without leaving their own assignments open. They are always on their toes and in their defensive stances. Weak side and strong side defenders are both required. And all the wingers in the squad have been instrumental in making these deadly stunts.
Anthony Randolph returning to competition a couple weeks ago is definitely a significant development for Spaniards. It is a crucial question to be answered, in the prospects of Real Madrid’s title hopes across all competitions, how much of that two-way Anthony Randolph impact they are going to see from him post-injury.
UNICS Kazan: Now, this is something remarkable. They’ve become the story of this first half of the regular season, have they not? Do you remember their Fenerbahçe away? Me neither.
It is hard to find a team that has maximised its defensive talent to this degree. Tonye Jekiri is very good, but he is not in the very first tier of defenders at the 5. John Brown III, with all the deserved appreciation and hype he is getting, and honestly that goes back to last season as well but reached a different level of all around praise for him with this EuroLeague showing, is a fantastic defender. But he is not in that top tier of defenders at the 5 either. Nevertheless, having two interior defenders on the level of Tonye Jekiri and John Brown III is still a luxury. But then the rest of the defensive talent doesn’t exactly fall in line with the overall defensive level at which the team is performing.
Lorenzo Brown, Mario Hezonja and Marco Spissu are solid. Brown and Spissu both excel in pressing the ball. The first line of defensive pressure Kazan puts on starts with them. Vyacheslav Zaytsev is actually a special defensive talent that they have on the squad but he basically is not a part of the rotation in this team. But they are not getting strong defensive contribution from their power forwards and Isaiah Canaan provides a defensive weakness for them to cover. And yet…
Where Real Madrid defence’s positioning and movement shine is in the stunt helps that they are so precisely executing, where UNICS Kazan defence’s positioning and movement shines is instead the pressure on the ball and rotation patterns they are committing to. Pressure on the ball is not just present from their point guards, but it is embedded into their two-man game defence also. In those schemes they press the ball with their bigs, instead of their guards. So between Brown, Spissu, Jekiri and Brown, Velimir Perasović has put the best defenders in the team up to the main task of giving hell to opposing creators. That is clever talent optimisation. But more significant work, where perhaps this should fall apart somewhat but doesn’t, happens at set defence after they press the ball. Overhelping is one of the biggest causes why defences concede points in volume and UNICS Kazan is perhaps the team that overhelps the least. In aggressive defensive schemes like the ones they are using, it’s much easier to fall into the trap of overhelping and conceding baskets only because of it. Instead they manage to be committed, disciplined to an unnatural degree and achieved remarkable success because of it.
Žalgiris: They’ve just been unlucky with Emmanuel Mudiay. Similar to Panathinaikos, gate receipts is a more essential revenue source for them than most other clubs with both how Žalgirio Arena is and also similar to Panathinaikos, Žalgiris needs to break even too. But unlike Panathinaikos, it is not because they are stuck in administrative limbo, it’s just generally the ownership situation for the Lithuanian powerhouse. Deprived of gate receipts when budgeting their season, they take a risk in Mudiay. If it pays off, and he is one of the better guards in EuroLeague, it is a signing that could propel Žalgiris to overperformance. Mudiay then could have signed with a different EuroLeague club in the summer for higher wages, but that would simply mean Mudiay overperformed his Žalgiris wage and the risk paid off for the club. Instead Mudiay played terribly on both sides of the ball and left Žalgiris after a few appearances. That is the essential difference between the size of budgets. It is not that teams’ performances are actually bound to their budgets. Teams could overperform or underperform their budget for a limitless amount of reasons. The essential importance between the size of budgets is instead, the margin of error for low budgeted teams is small. When teams which have high budgets make risky transfers and they don’t pay off, it hurts them but they have a bigger margin of error and they’re still relatively fine. But when Žalgiris is operating on this small budget, with hardly any revenue from gate receipts, and they make the decision to take a risk in someone like Mudiay and burn an important portion of their resources on that decision, how that risky signing pans out for the team dramatically affects their competitiveness and could make or break their season.
Josh Nebo, on the other hand turned out to be a fantastic signing. They actually have one of the most intriguing centre rotations in the league between him and the youngster Marek Blaževič who has shown improvement. Then there’s Joffrey Lauvergne who revitalised his career in Kaunas. He is expected to return from injury in a month or so, and if he returns fit, I am looking forward to see if Jure Zdovc starts playing two centres together, because their rotation at the 4 is nowhere close to how deep they’ll become at the 5. That said, it requires a dramatic change in their identity of play. And sure, while Žalgiris can afford the risk of that because their output isn’t sufficient as it is, it’s still a dramatic mid-season change in game identity to pull off.
Zenit St Petersburg: Kevin Pangos received hefty praise for his performance last season, was a big time performer when Zenit threw the kitchen sink at Barcelona in the quarter-finals, made All-EuroLeague first team, was rewarded with a lucrative NBA contract. And he deserved all that. Zenit, on the other hand, chose Shabazz Napier to replace Pangos. Napier is yet to appear in EuroLeague for Zenit. And the St Petersburg side finished the first half of the regular season with a 11-6 record, fourth in the standings. Could just end Zenit’s section with these facts only, because that’s nuff said, is it not? I would honestly not cut Zenit this short, just to be fair and expand a bit on their season also. But I don’t expect them to be as successful in the second part of the season, so if I prolong their section then I am going to feel like taking some shine away from what they’ve achieved, by being not as much optimistic on the remaining portion of their EuroLeague campaign as the feel-good 2021 they’ve had. There is of course, the missing Napier equation. Their actual Pangos replacement is yet to play in EuroLeague and that could change things every which way when he returns to play and swing Zenit’s momentum in a totally different direction. In any case, we ought to tip our imaginary hats for Xavi Pascual.