The 2016/17 VTB United League season has come to an end. Who do you think won it? Never mind, don’t guess, it was CSKA. CSKA always wins (alright, except in 2010-11 when Khimki took the crown — but back then the final was a single-game championship, and Khimki only won by a single point). 7 out of 8 seasons, CSKA has won the VTB championship. 3 of those series (including this season’s) were 3-0 sweeps. This year, 2 of those 3 games weren’t even close. Khimki has Shved, they have some very solid American help in EJ Rowland as an additional ballhandler, Robbie Hummel doing the little things like rebounding as a non-big. Dmitry Sokolov and Marko Todorović are always out there being large. But CSKA has two of the best guards in Europe, and certainly the best two guards in VTB, in Miloš Teodosić and Nando De Colo. They have some of the best role players from the Russian Federation — Fridzon, Kurbanov, Khryapa (that is still useful thanks to his cleverness even as he slows down from age and injury). Andrei Vorontsevich was injured in the first game of the series after only 12 minutes of playing time, but it didn’t really even matter. And I haven’t even mentioned Cory Higgins and Aaron Jackson.
Jackson, key particularly because of his perimeter defense, is not coming back to CSKA after 5 seasons with the Armeitsy:
Aaron Jackson announced on Instagram that he will not return to CSKA after 5 years with the club. He won 1 EuroLeague and 5 VTB 🏆s with CSKA pic.twitter.com/wMNZFT5dA7
— Austin Green (@LosCrossovers) June 15, 2017
So let’s talk about the real VTB Finals: the series between Zenit of St. Petersburg and Khimki, a suburb of Moscow. That series decided the (non-CSKA) VTB League team to enter Euroleague next season. It went to 5 games, it had a number of former NBA players/draft picks, and the 5th game of the series was settled in the final minutes. Not bad for a semi-final match-up.
Zenit is coached by Vasily Karasev (pronounced Karasyov), led in scoring by his son (and ex-NBAer) Sergey Karasev, led in rebounds by Aaron White (played college ball in Iowa, late 2nd round pick by the Wizards in the 2015 draft, next season he’s playing with Žalgiris Kaunas), and led in assists by Stefan Marković (a big guard, silver medalist with Serbia in the Rio Olympics, spent years in the ACB with Valencia and Unicaja). Jānis Timma, Ryan Toolson, Trevor Mbakwe, and Kyle Landry were key contributors at times throughout the season. They were eliminated in the Eurocup quarterfinals with surprising ease by another VTB League team, Lokomotiv Kuban of Krasnodar (who would be swept out of the VTB playoffs by CSKA).
Khimki we’ve seen not long ago at the Euroleague level. This season, they were also eliminated from Eurocup in the quarterfinals, blown-out in a deciding Game 3 by eventual runners-up Valencia Basket (of ACB, of course). Led in points, assists, minutes, 3-point makes and attempts (38.4% on the season), free throw makes and attempts, fouls drawn, turnovers, and also steals, by ex-NBAer Aleksey Shved. My feeling coming into the series was that Khimki might be too one-dimensional (that one dimension is Shved, if you couldn’t figure it out from that list above). Other key guys besides Rowland, Hummel, Todorović, and Sokolov who I mentioned before, include Markel Brown, Yegor Vyaltsev, Slava Zaytsev, and Sergei Monya. They all fill different roles — the first three fill space on offense, Vyaltsev is a backup ballhandler, they play some defense; meanwhile, Monya’s job is mainly to hit shots.
Besides my worries about the heavy pressure on Shved to come through individually, Khimki’s defense was my other main consideration. Certainly it was good enough to get the job done at the average VTB level, but against other top teams they didn’t seem to have the personnel to make stops. This proved to only be true for a fraction of the series — their first 2 losses were narrow Ls on the road with scores in/around the 90s (99-95 loss in Game 1, 92-89 loss in Game 2). But Khimki managed to reel off 3 wins, including the decider on the road in Petersburg. The home wins in Khimki saw them hold Zenit to 73 and 71 points. But the final game was a shootout: 90-84, Khimki winning the right to get beatdown by CSKA. So the defensive concerns on my part were hit-or-miss (particularly when we keep in mind that the final game was played in such a way that led to ~80 possessions, inflating the final score a bit).
From Zenit’s perspective, they obviously have leaned on Karasev at times to be a gunner and put points up. But they also had Toolson as a designated 3-point shooter (almost 40% on the season), Timma contributing all over the floor, Kyle Landry playing offense inside and out plus rebounding off the bench, the aforementioned White dominating the glass, Mbakwe hitting the glass at a nice per-minute clip. But Toolson shot only 9/28 from 3 in the series. In Zenit’s string of 3 losses to close-out the series, he was 4/21. To add insult to injury, it appears he may have found out that he wasn’t returning to Zenit next season via Instagram:
Тулсон о своем увольнении узнает из инстаграма?) pic.twitter.com/6SxIxLoGMX
— Матюков Андрей (@Mr_Dslam) June 9, 2017
Timma spent long stretches of the series invisible, with negative +/- in 4 of the 5 games to show for it. Karasev shot 4/14 in the deciding game (5/7 on free throws, 5 assists and 3 turnovers). Markovic shot 3/9 in the final game of the series, though did manage a team-high 7 assists. There were major issues for the whole team down the stretch of Game 5 — missed free throws (18/29), unforced turnovers, questionable playcalling/decision-making within the plays.
Defensively, Zenit allowed Marko Todorović to impose his well on the offensive glass and in the paint, if not for an entire game then at least for a quarter or a key stretch in each loss — in Game 5 he scored 5 of his 9 in the 1st quarter, had a couple of blocks and a few rebounds. In a game that ended up finishing with a single-digit deficit, letting Marko Todorović dominate you for even 5 minutes is bad news. EJ Rowland got out in transition and attacked, got into the paint in halfcourt, and ended up being the unofficial MVP of the deciding game for Khimki (19 points on 8/13 shooting). You don’t expect to stop Shved, because if he’s hot he’s hot — he had 28 on 7/18 shots plus 10/13 free throws in Game 5. He averaged 27.4 per game in the series, though his shooting fluctuated through the usual hots and colds. But you have to stop those other guys on Khimki from hurting you if you want to beat them, and Zenit couldn’t do that when they most needed to.
From the Khimki perspective, they had to sweat-out a really tough series…but with a little more luck in Games 1 or 2 of the series, maybe it doesn’t even go to 5. Then again, with a little less luck in Games 4 or 5, they don’t make it to Euroleague yet again, and there are some big questions being raised about people’s clutch genes, winning-ness-ability, clutch-ification, chutzpah, whatever. As it goes, they have the same problems I’ve talked about in the past — they live to outscore people (often behind a single strong player’s performance), their chemistry comes and goes, effort from some key roleplayers (Todorović is first in my mind) tends to be up-and-down…they have some major issues from the perspective of a team that wants to compete at the very highest level of European competition.
Last-minute-in: I completely forgot about Jacob Pullen’s disappearance in the middle of the playoffs for Khimki. His minutes all season long were more limited than you’d expect for an American imported guard at the Eurocup/VTB level — and he, no surprise, blames it on the fact that Khimki head coach Duško Ivanović hates him. So that isn’t ideal. He also went in on Duško pretty hard for encouraging Shved’s shot-happy ways.
Zenit, we already know from the Toolson and White news, are making some big changes to a core that also wasn’t always as good as they maybe hoped to be (the Eurocup elimination suffered at the hands of Mardy Collins-led Lokomotiv was almost surely a shock to their collective system). But despite the ups-and-downs, they nearly slipped into Euroleague in place of a team led by a much bigger name in Shved with significant budget advantages. If they add some good pieces to replace what they lose, St. Petersburg will certainly have a team worth continued watching.
Some end-of-season general VTB League notes:
Kevin Jones is my Newcomer of the Year. Having spent time over the last several years in the Philippines (San Miguel), France (Cholet), and Liga ABA (Partizan), I wasn’t overly aware of the man’s work. But he’s one of those “6’8, but seems bigger than 6’8” American PF/C’s that tends to have much more success in Europe than what the NBA conditions me to expect — before he broke his tailbone during the VTB playoffs, he was a key reason (on offense and defense) that Lokomotiv Kuban was outperforming my expectations.
The VITA Tbilisi Memorial “At Least You Tried” Award goes out to Parma Basket, of Perm. Like the legendary Georgian team of the 2015/16 season, the team from Perm managed only 1 win over the course of the entire VTB season. Their victims? Basketball Club Tsmoki-Minsk. Doubtless a shameful moment for the only Belarusian team in VTB.
The No Surprises Award goes out to CSKA Moscow and Nando De Colo. De Colo was the playoffs MVP, and CSKA won the league as usual, with zero drama.
The Wish You Were Here Award is dedicated to infamous owner/player/interferer Dmitry Gerasimenko, who we unfortunately didn’t get to see in VTB League this season — he’s moved to much warmer weather (and less legal troubles) in Italy. Just a year ago the man operating/playing on the Krasny Oktyabr Volgograd team with VTB/Eurocup, he’s operating Red October/Foxtown Cantù these days.