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Modern Basketball, Exhaustion and Real Madrid’s 2016-17 Season

Real Madrid, a traditional European powerhouse in the midst of a good basketball stretch (4 Final Fours in 5 years, 4 straight Copa del Rey titles, 3 out 6 of the last ACB titles), came up short during the 2016-2017 season. Despite dominating during the regular season to the tune of a Copa del Rey title and a top-ranked result in both the Euroleague and the ACB regular season, the Madrid-based team lost against eventual Euroleague champions Fenerbahçe in the semifinal — in a game that never really felt in reach for them — and then went on to cede the domestic title to a seemingly hungrier Valencia Basket team in the ACB final.

While it is important not to lose sight of Real Madrid’s successful season, in which they reached the final stage of every competition played, their defeats against Valencia Basket and Fenerbahce — as well as an overall performance that felt rather unsustainable during stretches of the season — raise a number of questions about both the 2016-17 campaign and the moves the club will make in order to prepare for next season. So without further ado, let us evaluate exactly what Real Madrid’s season looked like, what they did well, and what they could improve upon for next year.

Results:

Euroleague:

  • Regular season: 1st, 23-7 record.
  • Playoffs: 3-1 win over 8 seed Darüşşafaka Doğuş.
  • Final Four: beaten in semifinals by eventual Euroleague champion Fenerbahçe 84-75.

ACB:

  • Regular season: 1st, 25-7 record.
  • Playoffs:
  • Final: beaten 3-1 by 3rd seeded Valencia Basket
  • Won the Copa del Rey, beating Morabanc Andorra, Baskonia and Valencia Basket.

Sergio Llull

What did work

Sergio Llull

Euroleague MVP and ACB MVP is about as good as it gets in Europe. Sergio Llull, after several years sharing shots, status, and recognition with Sergio ‘El Chacho’ Rodríguez, finally established himself this year as the All-EuroBall destroyer he had hinted at in past seasons.

He developed into a pick-and-roll maestro, using the threat of his elite jump shot to open up lanes to the rim, where his body control, explosiveness, and craftiness allowed him to finish against all but the best rim protectors. He remains among the top players in the old continent in assist to turnover ratio, aided by a low-turnover style whereby he just takes crazy shots if he doesn’t see a clear passing lane. He’s perhaps Europe’s best tough shot-maker — although Milos Teodosic might want a word here — and he can and has delivered a steady diet of outrageous shots both inside and outside the arc. He’s the unquestioned leader for Real Madrid, the best player on the best (regular season) team in Europe.

Oh, and yeah, he’s insanely clutch. During the season I wondered if it wouldn’t be better to just foul the dude when the game’s tied and then attack RM’s defense on the other end. I’m sure the math won’t suggest that as a go-to option, but I’m also not sure that the math is the right call here.

Although he had a mediocre defensive season — hardly surprising considering the offensive burden he shouldered — and ran out of gas at the end, Llull’s dominant season as the lead ball-handler for Real Madrid can only be considered an unquestionable success.

Luka Dončić

Luka Dončić was 17-years-old at the start of this season. He was included as a for-real part of the roster, with the initial expectation that he would ease his way into the rotation gradually. He didn’t “ease his way,” and he sure as hell didn’t do so “gradually”.

Instead, Dončić just made it clear from day one that he was the best available option at the wing. His first half of the year was outstanding — not just for a 17-year-old, but for an any-year-old. He had a stretch during the winter where he legitimately looked like the best player on the court, knocking down NBA-range step-back jumpers, hitting the roll man or the shooters on pick-and-rolls like a 12-year veteran, reacting calmly to opponents’ attempts to rook him, and running the fastbreak like a freight-train equipped with 360-degree court-vision. He played like he knew he was the best player on the court, and it showed in game-winners like the one against Žalgiris or in insane highlight plays like this one:

He consistently closed games for Real Madrid on the wing. His ability to generate clean looks for others without even turning the corner or setting foot in the paint remains mind-blowing. He was a 37% shooter from 3 during the Euroleague regular season, with a solid chunk of those attempts being of the hard, off-the-dribble, shotclock-running-down variety. He regularly checked the better scorer on the other team, significantly contributed as a defensive rebounder and became Real Madrid’s best — sometimes only — transition threat following a sneakily-off-year for Llull in that regard.

Dončić hit the rookie wall hard in the second half of the year and was unable to deliver in the same manner against tougher competition, despite having decent numbers in some games (for instance, notching 13 points and 8 rebounds, and then 11 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists respectively in Games 3 and 4 against  Darüşşafaka Doğuş). Exhaustion likely played a role in this: he simply hadn’t ever played at this level for this long.

But EuroBall beware: Luka Dončić is coming back for more from September onwards, and he never backs down from a challenge. It’ll most likely be his last year in Europe, and we should all just sit back and enjoy it.

Jeff Taylor

The Swedish swingman burst onto the Euroleague scene last season with his incredible dunks, plentiful travelling violations and head-scratching decision-making. This year, however, Jeff Taylor found his groove as Laso’s go-to guy when defending opposing teams’ primary initiators off the dribble. He did an excellent job on tough coverages — most notably on Brad Wanamaker during the playoff series against  Darüşşafaka — and stayed within his role on offense, knocking down open jumpers, cutting timely to the rim and even displaying some rare off-the-bounce juice towards the end of the season.

He doesn’t look destined to be a star at this level, but he was the most stable presence amongst Real Madrid’s wing rotation and decisively earned his spot in next year’s squad, especially considering how thin the market for passport-holding wings is.

Anthony Randolph

What sort of worked

Anthony Randolph

Highly touted after a terrific year at Lokomotiv Kuban, Randolph delivered at times — especially early on in the season — but direly underperformed at the end of the season. Forced to play the 4 next to a non-shooting big man in Ayón, Randolph was unable to deliver the kind of performances that propelled him to European stardom (e.g. vs Barça last year, destroying the slower Ante Tomić).

He definitely had a few clutch shots, as well as a notable three-game stretch in the Copa del Rey where he averaged 22 points and 6 rebounds. He also emerged as a dominant shot-blocker, with highlight reel plays galore and stretches in games where opponents legitimately panicked when they saw him tiptoeing on the weak side. However, he ran out of gas towards the end of the season and was underwhelming both in the Euroleague Final Four and in the ACB playoffs, unable to assert himself on offense and struggling to maintain the intensity on defense.

Laso’s offensive system

Previously predicated on a dizzying run’n’gun and a devastating pick-and-roll-centric, extra-pass offense, Real Madrid’s attack just never really meshed this year. Despite star performances from its dominant guards Llull and Dončić, the team never quite delivered the glimpses of brilliance exhibited in the past and instead was heavily dependent on Sergio Llull — and his 29% usage rate (in the Euroleague).

Llull was indeed dominant, but Real Madrid’s inability to get others involved was ultimately the nail in the coffin for the Spanish powerhouse, especially when confronted with a switching-heavy defensive combo of Nikola Kalinić and Ekpe Udoh that shrank the court and limited the openings for anyone other than the ultra-talented, red-bull-fuelled Spaniard.

Spacing

The consistent use of non-shooting big men pairings formed by Ayón, Hunter, and Reyes, coupled with the very streaky Randolph, completely erased the recently pristine spacing enjoyed by Real Madrid. Uneven playing time for two of its better shooters — Nocioni and Thompkins — didn’t help, nor did the poor shooting season from its perimeter guys: Mačiulis vanished this season after a solid start, Rudy just wasn’t the same player he was before last season, Taylor shoots with solid percentages but is always left open and Dončić slowed down after a blistering start.

Pablo Lasso

What didn’t work

The big man rotation, PnR D, shooting, and modern basketball

Old-fashioned, two-big-man lineups with little shooting and no good pick-and-roll defenders were a staple of Real Madrid’s season. Despite having the personnel to play differently — shooters such as Nocioni and Thompkins and great small-ball options in Mačulis and especially Luka Dončić —, coach Laso chose to stick to his guns and rolled out lineups mixing Ayón, Randolph, Hunter, and Felipe Reyes for most of the season.

The Mexican, who had a good enough season to make 2nd Team All-Euroleague and subsequently be destroyed by the one team with the weapons to do so — Fenerbahçe — showed exactly where the risk with this strategy lies: either every link in the chain is primed and operating to perfection, or the whole thing breaks down amid poor spacing, overworked perimeter playmakers, and tough, forced shots with the shot clock winding down. Although Randolph tried his best at spacing the floor, playing at the 4 position instead of the 5 minimised his strengths (decent shooting, excellent mobility, shot blocking) and maximised his weaknesses (lack of awareness on both ends, a mild obsession with posting-up). Indeed, the big man rotation was so shaky that Pablo Laso finished the season trusting his two most veteran players — Felipe Reyes and now-(sadly) retired Chapu Nocioni — with heavy minutes in the ACB Finals after barely playing them during the rough stretch of the Euroleague playoffs and Final Four.

On the defensive end, Ayón’s customary below-average pick-and-roll defense, Anthony Randolph’s lack of awareness, and Sergio Llull’s and Jaycee Carroll’s well-documented inability to avoid getting screened or going over the screen made for a series of middling defensive lineups. Despite Othello Hunter’s reputation as a defensive specialist, he never quite delivered the level of proficiency that I believe management expected. Although he seemed to be far and away the best interior defender for Los Blancos, he still wasn’t the havoc-creating force that Marcus Slaughter used to be both at defending the pick-and-roll and at checking the bigger Euroleague 5s in the post.

Exhaustion

This was the first iteration of a longer, harsher Euroleague season, and the combination of more games and tougher opponents round in, round out caught up to Real Madrid towards the end of the season. Couple this with an especially veteran team and you’ve got yourself a recipe for failure.

Only 5 players on the team are under 30: Dončić (duh), Llull (turns 30 in November), Taylor (28), Thompkins (27), and Randolph (turns 28 in July) — the latter with quite a lot of professional miles on him having entered the NBA aged 19. Reyes and Nocioni (both 37) are well-known Euroleague veterans, but other Real Madrid stalwarts like Ayón (32), Carroll (34), or Draper (32) are much older than one would guess at first glance. Rudy and Mačiulis (both 32) are not only on the wrong side of 30, but also have noteworthy injury histories. There’s basically no youngsters on the team other than Dončić — not counting Alex Suárez, who essentially didn’t play all year. When push came to shove, the team just didn’t have an extra physical gear to go to.

Sergi Rodriguez

No Chacho, no off-the-dribble creation

Real Madrid noticeably lacked a second off-the-bounce creator, especially late in the season once Slovenian prodigy Luka Dončić drove head-first, full-speed into the rookie wall. Despite Dončić’s prowess in the first half of the season, Real Madrid couldn’t really generate after getting an initial advantage, constraining their whole offense to Sergio Llull’s pick-and-roll mastery and especially to his (off-the-charts) shot-making ability.

The absence of a first-class EuroBall guard in Sergio ‘El Chacho’ Rodríguez was a deciding factor here, but so too was the decline of the two other secondary generators in Real Madrid’s roster these past few years: Rudy Fernández and Jonas Mačiulis.

I already wrote about the controversial Spaniard’s decline for CourtSide Diaries earlier this year, and the rest of the 2016-17 season has only emphasised the point made there and then — Rudy is not the athlete he used to be, and, while evidently a useful rotation player, he’s nowhere near starting level and cannot create off the dribble at all without the threat of a drive. Jonas Mačiulis simply — and mysteriously — fell off a cliff this year. He didn’t look as spry as before, often a touch late to defensive rotations, unable to beat his man off the dribble, and struggling to pose a threat to the opposing teams other than through his spot-up shooting. There’s been rumours that he’s destined to share Andrés Nocioni’s stewardship role next season alongside captain Felipe Reyes, and honestly that does not seem that surprising after this season.

Backup PG

Luka Dončić’s emergence shouldn’t mask perhaps the biggest personnel failure of the year: the backup point guard position. Dontaye Draper, former Real Madrid shutdown defender and 3rd quarter specialist, was brought back this season to man the position while gradually easing Dončić into the rotation. Of course, the Slovenian smashed that gameplan into a different dimension with his early-season play; however, his sudden burst shouldn’t make us forget Draper’s inability to crack the rotation as a veteran presence.

Real Madrid’s offense seemed to stall with him on the court, and he could barely get on the floor during the Copa, the Euroleague playoffs, and the Final Four, and did not play at all during the ACB Finals. He was a non-threat offensively — he barely shot and was unable to get by his defender or turn the corner on a pick-and-roll. On the other side of the court, while still a good defender, he’s far from the dominant force he used to be in his previous Real Madrid stint.

Real Madrid bench

Overall reflection

Although it may seem counter-intuitive after this analysis, I believe Real Madrid had a successful year. They achieved every one of the squad’s minimum objectives by getting to the final stage of the three competitions they were involved in. However, their inability to close out the season effectively reveals a few keys for next year, not just for Real Madrid but for other similarly self-demanding clubs.

The first one is that the new Euroleague schedule, coupled with a competitive domestic league such as the ACB, makes for a much tougher season that in years past. Couple this with a core of rather veteran — though still competitive — players, and the result was a team that struggled to get to the finish line. Even with Real Madrid’s outstanding depth, with top-notch Euroleague-level players at every position, the long, 83-game season took its toll and most of the players looked visibly tired during May and June.

The second key is that — and this does not come as news to basketball fans — the game is rapidly changing. Although European basketball is clearly below NBA basketball, the trickle down effects of the off-the-dribble-shooting and small-ball revolution are slowly starting to be felt in the old continent too. More “classical” big men (big, strong, but without the skillset to play on the perimeter either on offense or on defense), while still effective against most rosters and during most of the season, are starting to show important limitations in playoff series or when matched up with elite opponents. Real Madrid, with several such big men (notably Gustavo Ayón, but also Felipe Reyes, and arguably also Othello Hunter and even, at times, Anthony Randolph), struggled to attack a Fenerbahçe team that dominated with Ekpe Udoh and Nikola Kalinić, two mobile, athletic big men with the capacity to defend out in the perimeter and strangle pick-and-rolls.

Without enough secondary creation on the roster or the big men combinations to unlock offensively or defensively dominant lineups, Real Madrid was limited to Sergio Llull’s production and Luka Dončić’s moments of brilliance. Although the Spaniard was as productive as it gets on this side of the Atlantic and the Slovenian shined intermittently through the first half of the season, it was ultimately not enough to sustain the team through the end of a long and hard season.

However, unless surprise strikes in the form of the NBA knocking on Llull’s door, they will both remain with the club next year. With Dončić’s last season in Madrid coming up, a few roster tweaks and some different coaching decisions could easily take Real Madrid to the level they couldn’t quite reach this season — or just as easily could end Laso’s long-lasting tenure in a traditionally unstable organisation.

About The Author

Guest Author

Born and raised in Spain, it wasn't until he changed the Mediterranean and basketball-lively peninsula for the gloomier and definitely-not-basketball-oriented British Isles that he discovered that he liked the act of dribbling a ball much more than that of kicking it. Given that he remains terrible at actually playing, he now spends his little spare time attempting to understand what makes some players — and teams — better at basketball than others.

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