The Turkish Basketball Federation has recently signed a new sponsorship deal for the name rights of the Basketball Super League and promoted BSL as the best basketball league in Europe — that’s a discussion that has been going on for a while. (aside – A real estate company going into such a deal for marketing reasons looks absurd to me.) Basketball executives of the country, and especially broadcasters, have really enjoyed voicing this point-of-view for the last couple of years — it should be perceived as normal for a country which has a tendency to promote its mediocrity as a huge success, starting with politics. Lack of ratings and usually-empty gyms do not seem like the qualities of a top domestic league, especially considering how much any single game means to the fans in Spain.
That opinion has also been voiced by players and coaches for the last couple of years, as the competition level has significantly increased. However, the increase in the level of the competition is not fueled by more substantial developments such as better and more extensive player development, better planning and execution by the clubs and league organizers***, not in the context of basketball decisions but also for management and marketing decisions***… 7 of the 16 participants were from Istanbul last season. While only 3 of them have a major fanbase (due to football), which do not bother to show a lot of interest in domestic basketball games usually, others do not have a packed gym atmosphere either. The club which has a better basketball fan tradition than any other in the league, Karşıyaka, played its crucial final game of the season to get into playoffs in a mostly empty gym. That doesn’t sound like something to be witnessed in ACB.
As the center of money-spending in European basketball moved away from Italy and Greece to Russia and Turkey (God bless this tax haven heaven as millionaire professional athletes pay less tax than regular white collars like me), the competition definitely got tougher; however, a more significant reason for the improvement was the change in foreign player rules which allowed teams to have 6 foreign players on roster without any further limitation. Relaxing the “3+2” rule (only 3 foreign players could be on court at the same time) not only allowed the top teams to perform better in European competitions, but also allowed lower-budgeted teams to become more competitive with raw but talented American players, as Uşak demonstrated. Still, the level of BSL teams — especially “middle-class” teams — are not in the same class as ACB.
Neither Fenerbahçe’s title nor winning all the games in the playoffs with the level they reached after April is a surprise; yet, doing that so easily does not contribute to the claims of BSL being the best European league. The picture wasn’t that bright for Fener during the regular season in Euroleague, dealing with a lot of on-court issues. However, they still managed to lose only 2 games in BSL, even if they usually played those games after a difficult Euroleague matchup. It could be argued that winning many close games in the domestic competition doesn’t reflect the domination on the table, but the Euroleague champs rarely felt threatened in domestic competition. Even Daçka, which beat Fener in both Euroleague games and is certainly not Fener’s favorite opponent (as its weaknesses are exposed better by Daçka’s style), rarely looked like a competitor in the semi-final series between the two teams. One team domination may not be a single indicator for the lack of competition, but Fenerbahçe was not such a flawless team as to be able dominate so easily. Other Euroleague teams, Anadolu Efes and Galatasaray, which had much better performances coming into the spring, also didn’t pose a threat during the playoffs. The Lions even looked worse than Efes in their quarter-final series, which allowed us to see Efes (who kind of shut down the machine after Game 5 in Piraeus). Losing an elimination home game by around 30 (which could have been much higher) should explain a lot but, leaving the court in the middle of third game was probably a bigger issue. (Efes also lost a regular season game to Fenerbahçe at home by 39 after the end of their Euroleague journey).
While Euroleague teams did not meet expectations in BSL, two mid-level teams were the real stars of the season. Banvit, which is mostly viewed as a good model for a traditional basketball club and has a developing basketball tradition in the country for the last decade, has played solid basketball throughout the season. They could not maintain their flashy 7-0 start and finished the season with a more modest record compared to previous years and ended in 5th place. The real story of their season, however, was winning the Turkish Cup, the first major trophy in the club history. It should be mentioned that the performance of Jordan Theodore was remarkable beyond his numbers. He was Basketball Champions League MVP, and could be considered as MVP of the season in BSL as well. He was definitely not the same player we have watched at Antalya and Mersin a few years ago. He was not the same score-first playmaker, playing much smarter and involving his teammates more. Another interesting point is that a player whose size is usually a disadvantage at this level (or it was a few years ago) could make such an impact — a good example of how the game has evolved.
Another big story is, of course, Beşiktaş making the finals. Coming into the postseason, there were doubts that the Black Eagles could compete at the same level with Euroleague teams which were expected to be fully concentrated on BSL unlike regular season games. Galatasaray and Anadolu Efes’s performances in the playoffs were below expectations, yet BJK did not only maintain its regular season level but also played its best basketball in the playoffs to make the finals. Regular season Beşiktaş was close to Ufuk Sarıca’s Karşıyaka teams, which favor fast-paced, quick offense schemes, and relies on athleticism and switch capabilities of wing players on defense. Despite earning 2nd position in the standings, performances against the top teams during the regular season were not that promising. Head coach Ufuk Sarıca is well known for his ability to motivate his players — he could almost be Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday in that famous speech scene. Unexpected to me, is how tactically aware and smart Beşiktaş played in the playoffs. Personally, I am not a big fan of Coach Sarıca — I think he lacks an overall system, and favors shortcuts in his teams — but hats off to the tactical execution, playing each possession patiently and punishing the weaknesses of opponents in the postseason. Coming into the final series, many Fenerbahçe fans had found a new motivation after Euroleague triumph — an opportunity to demolish their rivals, which had a significantly weaker roster on paper. Despite a sweep on the paper, what was seen on the court was another story. Fenerbahçe only managed to win away games in OT (while one of them was played without spectators and the other one was played without spectators for the last minutes). How BJK allowed those games to go to OT was a quite Beşiktaş way of messing things up. It was not easy at home either: the games featured single digit margins in very tight games throughout. Beşiktaş could only give that much feeling of pride to its fans with a budget of 7-8 times lower than its rivals. Personnel wise, I have to give a few guys special mention: Michael Roll is smart, competitive, and every coach’s dream guy for pick-and-roll play (I would love to see him in Trinchieri’s precise pick-and-roll offense at Bamberg, but one has to wait for that fantasy a while). DJ Strawberry looked unstoppable in the playoffs just as he did two seasons ago during Karşıyaka’s huge upset title run. Another pleasant surprise was, of course, Vladimir Štimac who came on a 2-month contract but dominated the paint throughout the season. Meanwhile, how much Earl Clark, who is an exceptional talent, betrays that talent, will continue making Beşiktaş fans angry for another year.
On other positive notes, Gaziantep making the playoffs could be considered a nice surprise considering there was a lot of uncertainty during the summer. After their sponsor has been appointed a trustee by the government due to the political events last summer, the team formed in the later stages of the off-season, struggled initially and looked like a relegation candidate. However, the team managed to become a solid one with the help of additions during the season. Coach Stefanos Dedas has done a really good job at Gaziantep for the last two seasons, looking like a promising coach for the future. He seems to handle player relations better than his predecessor, Jure Zdovc, and he’s more offense-focused than many Greek coaches.
We could have added Yeşilgiresun here as well, considering how well they started the season; however, losing a key player, Okben Ulubay, early in the season became a turning point. While Ulubay’s decision doesn’t look smart for his career, that’s a consequence of conducting your team in the fashion of a Turkish Mega Leks (hats off to Ermal Kuqo for the perfect analogy). There is one more point which is more important than the results: the developing basketball culture in Giresun really looks promising, making it one of the toughest away games on the schedule. Tofaş, Karşıyaka, and Trabzonspor were other potential teams to provide a better competition within the league, but all fell below expectations, even though Tofaş made the playoffs.
TED Kolej, a traditional team in Turkish basketball, relegated due to financial issues and leaving the city of Ankara without a team in the top division, is a bitter situation. However, newly promoted teams Sakarya and Eskişehir could bring some excitement, with potentially packed gyms, which is probably the number one thing if BSL wants to become the top league in Europe.