Sad times in Catalonia. In their worst season in recent memory, the players from FC Barcelona managed to disappoint on almost every occasion. The final breakdown says it all — an acceptable aperitif-kind loss in the SuperCopa finals against Gran Canaria; mid-year irrelevancy at the Copa del Rey (losing in the semifinals against Valencia); a shady EuroLeague season (12-18, good for 11th position, highlighted by a memorable 39-points home loss against Real Madrid in November); a highly forgettable Liga season (22-10) only good for a 6th seed and a first-round 2-1 loss against the eventual champion, Valencia. These are obviously very bad results for a team with this massive a budget. So where did it all go wrong?
Before blaming anyone, bad luck seemed like a well-worn concept this year in Las Ramblas. Pau Ribas’s achilles nightmare and Koponen’s car accident made the backcourt look really thin from day one. Poor Stefan Peno, thrown in the fire of Euroleague PG duties. Thus, the domino effect was almost impossible to avoid — Navarro and Oleson, still possibly-useful-though-declined role players at this point in their career, never were able to handle all this suddenly-abundant playing time. The wing rotation was less impacted, but Doellman being out of the Liga playoffs was probably too much to swallow, with Vezenkov missing the surprisingly few 3s he took. In the paint, maybe having Lawal could have prevented the team from exposing Joey Dorsey so much, which would have made everybody far more comfortable when watching the first half of the season. All the injuries also meant Barcelona had to search the free agent market all season. It’s fair to say those forced choices weren’t easy to make, but the results were, as expected, pretty bad: Jonathan Holmes, Xavier Munford, Alex Renfroe, or Vitor Faverani certainly can be useful rotation players, but not as call-ups being asked to be the first line of firefighters. The main problem is that they followed a bunch of questionable summer roster additions.
Finishing with those results despite the money spent and the important European basketball names involved means the fit of it all was, at least, debatable. After a few years building chemistry with Tomáš Satoranský, Ante Tomić suddenly shared most of his pick-and-rolls with Tyrese Rice. It’s an understatement to say that the pairing was completely different — from a tall and athletic guard, good defender, and capable ball mover, Tomic had to find a new formula with an undersized, dynamic ball handler (who shot poorly, finishing his Euroleague season with a 37.9 FG%), but not quite there in terms of compensating for the defensive problems of a not-that-fast big man. In fact, none of the other (many) point guards playing in Blaugrana this year could bring what Satoranský was able to: the offense, the defense, the chemistry.
Speaking about offense and defense, another problem for Barcelona this year probably was their lack of solutions in terms of two-way wings. As nice offensive players and floor spacers as they can be, Doellman, Eriksson, and Vezenkov have to be hidden on defense, which is probably too much to ask for a team without great defensive guards. Perperoglou, filling at the SF spot, lacked consistency in the Euroleague (38.1 FG%) while providing little floor spacing in the ACB (28% on 3s). Moreover it looks like we’ve come to the point where Victor Claver is a better contributor as a defensive switching 4-5 than as a 3-4, a solution that Bartzokas looked scared to experiment with when, over in Greece, Xavi Pascual was having some degree of fun with the idea of Chris Singleton playing Draymond Green-like basketball. It’s not as if Barcelona had many options in terms of defensive centers anyway — the Dorsey project turned into a nightmare, while neither Faverani nor Diagne could bring much presence protecting the rim (3 blocks in 220 combined Euroleague minutes…).
The most interesting thing in this massively failed roster was how different it was from Bartzokas’s Loko squad. The year before, he had a very reliable defensive point guard duo in Delaney and Draper; a scary trio of hybrid bigs in Claver, Singleton, and Randolph; and serious-if-not-mindblowing depth on the wing. Even if you can’t argue with the level of talent, this group meshed and quickly became more than the sum of its parts. On the other side, 2016-17 Barcelona was undeniably talented but was missing consistency, while a new coach was going full-headache-mode trying to figure it all out. And that’s exactly where their next problem is — still with a lot of money to spend, a late coach-hiring, and an understandable willingness to forget as soon as possible their last season, the Barcelona front office could very well repeat the same mistakes.
Without much surprise given this whole story, the front office has decided to revamp most of the roster. The obvious problem will be the lack of continuity. While Madrid, for example, will keep the same core and add players that look like possible good fits without alienating their stars, Barcelona will hit the reset button. Even if the choice of signings ends up right, they’ll need a few months to develop mutual understanding of leadership, roles, and automatic reflexes in specific situations. But even their first signing of the off-season suggests it may not go oh-so-well — Thomas Heurtel may be one of the flashiest playmakers on the continent. However, his decision making will always be a rollercoaster ride, and his defense won’t help much. The rumored Larkin signing is a high-profile one, and even if he is not a perfect player, he can be an at-times transcendent one. Also, Alonso at least already knows how to use him. The rest looks like the biggest construction site in European basketball (depending on if you consider Maccabi as-an-institution turned into a traffic cone).
Barca is looking at
They got a lot of work to do
— Austin Green (@LosCrossovers) July 5, 2017
The main, obvious needs are for a hard-working big, as well as a capable all-around wing — a real Euroleague starter-type. Regarding bigs, it seems that they’re in talks with Pierre Oriola and Adrien Moerman, who could both be under-the-radar signings, and usually have a good sense of what their role is. The market looks, as usual, way thinner in terms of wings — Darius Miller is headed back to the NBA, Hanga could finally be available but the price may be a problem* (especially if they invest on Larkin) and the rest of the market requires creativity, which is not what Barcelona’s front office has proved to be the last few years. The risk now is to make dicey moves based more on the names than on the fits. Given where they have fallen this past season, Barcelona could use a year to build something more cohesive, and hope it pay dividends via a more long-term approach. But with this type of historic powerhouse, expectations are often too much, and patience is often way overlooked.
* [At time of publishing, Hanga has signed with Barcelona on a 3-year, 7.5 million euro deal]