What difference does a summer make? Well, it could be argued that it depends on who your best players are and where their career leads them. Fenerbahçe, a team that certainly looked dominant for its whole playoff campaign, has reinvent its identity. This week, they were facing-off in a Finals game rematch against an Olympiacos team that has kept a strong core and tried to add complementary pieces. This week being a double round, Fener also saw an ever competitive CSKA, looking for new landmarks but still playing solid basketball. The comparison between the three powerhouses and how they continue to try to set up their new roster and adjust their gameplan made this double week an enjoyable one.
The Olympiacos Game
Many things have been said about the importance of roster continuity, but the concept can not be understood simply in terms of players staying on the roster year after year. Comparing who stayed at Fenerbahçe to who stayed in Piraeus leaves one with a rather cruel impression: Oly has to cope with the departure of Erick Green who was never given the responsibilities he seems capable of handling; Daniel Hackett is well-known as a solid ball handler but can be replaced; Khem Birch is the trickiest given the market on rim running/high activity/very reliable bigs. On the other hand, the three main tickets (two of which were stamped for planes to NBA cities) out of Istanbul were given to two of the most impactful players on the continent, in Udoh and Bogdanović . Meanwhile, Pero Antić, for all his flaws, probably could have been a meaningful locker room presence while filling a marginal role on the basketball floor. Given the fact both teams had a 4-2 record before their game last week, it’s safe to say they overcame offseason issues/changes pretty easily, and are still top-tier teams in the competition. But the eye-test, especially in this game, tells another story: no surprise, it is much tougher to recover from losing Bogdanović and Udoh than Hackett, Green and Birch. But it doesn’t only mean losing individual contributions. Losing players that important means you have to re-think how your team works, executes, is driven in certain situations — how your inner hierarchy is built, who takes over, etc
In the case of Fenerbahçe in this game, a lack of continuity can be observed. Arguably their best player of the night, James Nunnally, isn’t ready to fully take over the offense the way Bogdanović did, since he is more an opportunistic scorer (a good one) than a creative one. The creation process belongs to Wanamaker and Sloukas, but both had limited impact in the 4th quarter and overtime. It will take time for them to come up alternatively with the right timing in tight games. In the paint, at the moment, Melli doesn’t direct offensive traffic the way Udoh did last year. Add up all these elements, and you end up with the feeling that the team should evolve to an equal opportunity offense that Obradović has already created foundations for. But, for now, the team is still suffering growing pains in terms of situational fit. No one scores more than 13 per game at the moment, and no one will need to score more than 15 on average in the regular season. What seems more important to find is fluidity in terms of who to play for in any given situation. Sending the ball to Vesely in the low post down 2 during the last possession of the game is the perfect example of that. It was absolutely evident that he would get fouled before he was able to put up any shot, and it’s a mini-miracle that he was able to send the game to OT by sinking both free throws. Still, giving him the ball at this specific moment demonstrates how this team can progress in terms of game management.
On the other hand, Olympiacos, despite missing their superstar and offensive anchor in Spanoulis, looked like a team that knows how to manage good times and bad times, knowing exactly who to give the ball and when. Relying heavily on Printezis, the Reds never hesitated much to give him the ball in key moments and provided a spot-on gameplan to help him score at will. But the most interesting thing may be how the others worked around him. In this regard, the “Brian Roberts Game” doesn’t quite tell the story, even if some of his shots were created by beautiful offense. More important is the role of some glue guys that seem to make the team better than the sum of its parts: Kostas Papanikolaou (with a rare, for a forward, 6 assists and 4 steals), and to an even greater extent, Nikola Milutinov. Milutinov contributed with classic high pressure on the offensive boards (even if the numbers don’t reflect it much), but the most eye-popping part was how he distributed the ball after setting screens. How he can find his teammates unlocks great bits of offense, especially with floor spacers Strelnieks and (well, not really at the moment but meant to be floor spacer) Hollis Thompson. His development seems to benefit the structure he plays in. Sure he has made a lot of progress in 1+ season with the Reds, but what he shows now relates to the team system and how you can blossom more easily when you know your environment well. The passing is the most obvious beneficiary, but the way he plays defense knowing he has help (or not), when to be aggressive, etc. The proof lies in his 15 fouls in 188 minutes this season, way below last year’s rate (79 fouls in 457 minutes).
The CSKA Game
No one on the Fenerbahçe roster seems to have the luxury of evolving slowly in a familiar environment. The way these guys bounced back in their second Euroleague game this week can be admired nonetheless. The way they started this game was absolutely mind-blowing for a team who suffered an overtime loss at home two days before, and had to face the most dangerous team in the tournament. Their offense clicked from the beginning despite playing Vesely and Thompson together 9 minutes in the first quarter, and despite Nunnally being a non-contributor. The way CSKA opened boulevards to Vesely on the pick-and-roll certainly helped, but Thompson himself, after an invisible game against Olympiacos, managed to get things going with 6 points (props to Obradović for starting him, a choice that seemed puzzling at best on paper). But up 18 after 15 minutes, Fenerbahçe suddenly looked completely lost. Showcasing something strange for a well-coached team, they were simply unable to manage the flow of the game for five good minutes (featuring numerous turnovers, an unsportsmanlike foul by Vesely, and many mental mistakes) before half time, letting CSKA quickly back into a game that seemed already out of reach. This type of sequence highlights how much this team lacks a clear floor manager (Bobby Dixon being injured doesn’t help), or someone that knows how to calm everybody around and be reliable in bad moments such as this one.
The fact that they still competed en route to an OT win in this one serves as a very bright spot in what could have been a double-game week disaster. The very close second half was still filled with glaring mistakes, the most obvious one being the foul on the ridiculous Rodriguez 3-pointer that sent the game to OT. In general, Fenerbahçe continued having trouble with finding reliable scoring sources and controlling the flow of the game. The 15 point 3rd quarter wasn’t pretty, and Vesely, despite being absolutely unstoppable, scored only 2 of his 31 points in the 4th quarter. A few buckets by Datome, some key assists by Sloukas and, in OT, Vesely and Melli crashing the offensive glass led them to prevailing despite playing fragile basketball. More importantly, neither Sloukas nor Wannamaker seemed to be in real control of the game, the role they must assume without Bogdanović and Dixon. They both had good plays in the clutch, but they weren’t as impactful as they were all of last season. Sloukas still has trouble coping with the missing gravity of Bogdanović, and overdribbled some sequences, searching for some kind of movement from his teammates. Wanamaker seems tentative on the whole, acting as the go-to-guy he was last year on some plays, but reluctant to reproduce that kind of action too often. As it is, Fenerbahçe seems far away from the dominance showcased in last season’s playoffs and Final Four. But reflecting on last season also shines an optimistic light on what their season could become. Last year’s team also navigated troubled times before becoming the force we all remember. This year, they still have the coach, the grit and, if not the same talent, enough of it compared to a Llull-less Real or a post-Miloš CSKA. Whether they find ways to become more than that is another problem. But they have plenty of time to figure it out.
Text edited by: Nick Flynt