Life is getting tougher for European basketball’s middle class. The changes in format have made the schedule significantly tougher, and the market for signings is just as competitive.
Galatasaray has sat firmly in this camp for Ergin Ataman’s tenure as head coach, having been consistently a Top 16 team in Euroleague, or a contender for the Eurocup title. However, with the field thinned down by the format changes, Galatasaray finds itself sharing a common expectation with the majority of the other 15 teams in the competition: reaching the playoffs is a realistic goal. It has been a tough off-season for the club however; between retirements, doping bans and big name departures there were plenty of holes to fill.
Galatasaray’s first game last week against CSKA was a frustrating one. There were moments and line-ups where the team looked competitive, but frequent mental lapses and some disappointing spells from role players led to the game getting away.
When a team concedes over 100 points it’s not hard to see that there were significant defensive problems. Where Galatasaray has had Stephane Lasme and Patric Young around as defensive anchors in previous years, this year’s rotation of Alex Tyus, Tibor Pleiß, and Deon Thompson don’t have the singular defensive presence that has been there in the past. While Tyus and Thompson are by no means bad defenders, as undersized bigs they lack the imposing physical presence of an Othello Hunter or the aforementioned Patric Young, while also lacking the foot speed to consistently switch out onto guards after screens in the manner of Kyle Hines and Marcus Slaughter-style players. This won’t lead to them giving up simple baskets on a consistent basis, but also isn’t likely to bring a string of stops that will facilitate a big run in Galatasaray’s favour.
Pleiß presents a wholly different problem — his few minutes on the court in the first half of the game against CSKA saw significant defensive breakdowns. His physical limitations are well known, and he appears to have come back from his NBA stint even thinner and weaker — limiting him as a rim protector. His foot speed (or lack thereof) leaves him unable to recover when he finds himself out of position. Pleiß found himself out of position so frequently that CSKA was able to score off a simple dribble drive or a single cut.
There were two instances that were particularly heinous: on one Pleiß and Jon Diebler miscommunicated, switched onto each other’s man (Kyle Hines and Milos Teodosic) as both stood in the key, then as Hines set the screen on the ball handler both were in no man’s land between the free throw line and three point line. This allowed Aaron Jackson to cross-over Russ Smith and dart in for an uncontested layup.
The second instance came in a secondary transition situation — with Kyle Hines trailing the play Pleiß should’ve been protecting the rim in case of a defensive breakdown. Instead, he stuck at the top of the key and, with Jon Diebler’s head turned, Aaron Jackson dashed through the back door for another open layup.
There were struggles with perimeter defence too, as a result of their financial position CSKA is blessed with a selection of big guards who can shoot, cut, and pass. It was easy for them to get shots off over some of Galatasaray’s smaller defenders and, with the exception of the ageless Sinan Guler, their guards and forwards found themselves out of position as CSKA found open shots with ease.
Offensively, there was much more cause for hope. While the performance was not without flaws, the line-up of Guler, Blake Schilb, Emir Preldzic, and Alex Tyus put together a solid third quarter run to bring themselves within 6 of CSKA , before the Muscovites pulled away. This line-up, despite being a departure from Ataman’s approach for Galatasaray teams of previous years — no longer is the attack based on having a high scoring ball-dominant guard (Carlos Arroyo and Errick McCollum previously) — fits well both with his coaching philosophy and personality. Despite lacking a traditional point guard, all three of Guler, Schilb, and Preldzic are happy handling the ball and initiating offence. With two other creators on court, this line up allows the oft-maligned Preldzic the most important luxury: freedom. The five players in this line up accounted for 16 of the team’s 19 assists in the game, and their willingness to move the ball was the primary factor driving their effectiveness. Perhaps the most important piece of this line-up is Alex Tyus who, while unable to match some of his peers as a defensive presence, has ability as a pick and roll finisher almost unmatched in Europe. His combination of athleticism and soft hands makes him deadly cutting to the rim. There really are very few big men who can catch as well as he can, which makes it significantly easier for the ball-handlers looking to find him. The spacing allowed by the other four players on court — both by their shooting and ability to attack a close-out — keeps the lane open for Tyus, and this is where he’s most effective and most dangerous.
The next step for Ataman is working out how both Russ Smith and Justin Dentmon can fit into this team. Both are in the mould of Carlos Arroyo and Errick McCollum, but with the other creative options on the team they will need to be effective off-ball players to consistently contribute to the team, thus emboldening the offence around them.
This season will be tough for Galatasaray — there are some noticeable flaws — but with their vociferous support in the Abdi Ipecki (and on twitter too, as I’m sure I’ll be hearing from some you) they have the potential to upset some teams, and if Ataman manages to knit players in effectively they could be set for a little more.
Let’s just hope he lets Emir be Emir.