Euroleague X’s & O’s: The Spectre Haunting Europe

Euroleague X’s & O’s: The Spectre Haunting Europe

On the surface nothing is the same – 11 months after Istanbul, Olympiacos secured their second straight final four berth, but this time around they won’t catch anyone sleeping. They are the champions and everyone, from Barcelona to Cedevita Zagreb, treats a game versus the Reds as a special occasion. CSKA Moscow, one season and several personnel changes removed from that traumatic final, will have an even bigger chip on their shoulder once the semifinal tips off.

And yet it would still be fair to call Olympiacos the underdog of the London final four, just like a year ago. Oddmakers, Pythagoras enthusiasts and other analysts seem to agree that the crown lies too heavy. The fact that Dusan Ivkovic (semi-retirement), Vangelis Mantzaris (injury) and Joey Dorsey (too many issues to mention here) will not be there makes repeat an even tougher mission. In other words, Olympiacos are more respected this time around, but their standing among their final four peers is not particularly elevated. After all, the last team to win the Euroleague back to back was Maccabi Tel Aviv with Saras, Parker and Vujcic. The Reds, on the other hand, are not exactly loaded with star power.

But the Euroleague final four has never been about perception. What really matters is preparation, execution and all those intangibles that make life difficult for those aforementioned analysts. In this context there are both good and bad news for coach Giorgos Bartzokas and his players. Olympiacos started the season with their championship team intact (save for Marko Keselj being replaced by Stratos Perperoglou) and the assumption that the coaching change would not drastically alter their playing style. It didn’t happen.

Josh Powell and Giorgi Shermadini replaced Dorsey, while a combination of 91-born Dimitris Katsivelis, Doron Perkins and Martynas Gecevicius is trying to make up for the huge loss of Mantzaris, perhaps the best perimeter defender in Euroleague and a great three-point shooter. Powell is not anywhere near Dorsey in terms of  defensive impact, while Shermadini’s shot-blocking prowess and knack for getting steals is often overshadowed by unnecessary fouls, weak post-up defense and a lack of consistent playing time. Perkins and Gecevicius have not earned Bartzokas’ trust, but the athletic Katsivelis has reemerged as a defensive specialist after a promising start last season. These roster changes have coincided with even bigger modifications in Olympiacos’ defense.

Last season’s continued progress on the defensive end was based on a simple guiding principle: the two-man game should be dealt with by two defenders. Whether it was Hines switching to guards, or Dorsey waiting for the ball handler in the paint, Olympiacos tried to keep defensive rotations at a minimum, with help defense coming as late on the shot clock as possible. That way, opponents were forced to either run their offense through their big men, who acted as passers off the double team with a few ticks on the clock, or risk having their guards overdribble. A few open perimeter shots were conceded, but overall there was a balance between protecting the paint and limiting the damage on the weak side.

This was supposed to be the Reds’ modus operandi in defense even after Bartzokas replaced Ivkovic. On opening night against Caja Laboral, Olympiacos switched on 27 of the 43 Caja Laboral possessions that involved a pick and roll set. A couple of weeks later they resorted to that strategy 26 times against Zalgiris, who had 48 pick and roll possessions overall. However, after a shaky start to their campaign and Dorsey’s departure, the Greek coach decided that adjustments were in order. A hedge out rotating pick and roll defense was installed and the initial returns were quite impressive. As the season wore on, however, consistency proved elusive.

In the playoff series against Anadolu Efes, Olympiacos would look like Barcelona on one night and Olympija Ljubljana on the other – no disrespect to my fantasy league saviour, Jaka Blazic. These defensive ups and downs were mainly a function of the Turkish team’s wild fluctuations in three-point shooting over the first four games of the series, as well as the two halves of game 5. But why are the Reds risk so many open threes? The video below provides some answers:

The first play is probably what Bartzokas had in mind when he changed the defensive set up early in the season. The strong hedge out by Pero Antic – a vastly underrated defender – keeps Tunceri away from the basket,  providing the weak side defenders with enough time to get back to their men. The problem is that opponents adjust to this aggressive approach. For example, they can change the angle of the ballscreen:

On the side pick and roll, the defender on the far corner has to rotate deeper than usual, but in this case Spanoulis just doesn’t get there in time, allowing an Erden dunk. The next screencap is even more alarming, considering the effectiveness of the Teodosic-Khryapa pick and roll combo:

With the Olympiacos power forward having to commit himself far away from the basket, his front line partner often finds himself occupied with both the screener rolling toward the rim and his man. On Friday night, Dusko Savanovic often resorted to a short roll, making himself available in the free throw line area. Once he received the ball there, the Reds’ center had to close out on him, opening up a passing lane toward the other Efes big. This how Erden gets his second dunk. Even worse, this how Farmar gets a wide open three. Even if Perperoglou had rotated on him, Guler would be alone in the corner. A quick and accurate entry pass can often leave Olympiacos’ rotations a step behind. Against CSKA’s ball movement this could be a huge issue. And then there’s this pesky horns set. Powell has to help Antic, Barac gets a quality look. Stretch fours (or fives) could have a field day in these situations:

This domino of rotations, combined with the fact that Oly’s centers spent a lot of time defending beyond the arc, also explains the ineffectiveness of the Reds’ block outs. Dorsey’s rebounding contributions have not been replaced (even though Shermadini puts up really solid numbers when he gets the chance) and the champs often looked painfully undersized against Erden. But they also were not in proper rebounding position as often as they should. A few instances of miscommunication in transition defense and a poor defensive season by Spanoulis and Perperoglou also undermine their defensive consistency.

Such shortcomings, coupled with more extended rotations toward the basket by perimeter players, have also limited the effectiveness of the Reds’ running game – in game 5 Efes got more points in transition. Post-up defense has also raised some concerns. The impromptu Hines switch on the Farmar-Barac pick and roll of the above video, results into Sloukas and Printezis trapping the Croatian center. But as it has often been the case this season, the trap is not aggressive enough to either deny the pass (even though Printezis “cheats” on the rotation) or force the recipient into a turnover. Even if Spanoulis hadn’t fall asleep on the Guler cut, Tunceri could still receive a direct pass for the corner three.

That said, Olympiacos are still an above average defensive team. Acie Law has been a revelation defending on the ball. Kyle Hines defends expertly inside and out. K-Pap will chase you down and block your damn layup. And when this team raises its defensive intensity, you just can’t miss it. Even Powell’s poor footwork could be concealed if he is prohibited from hedging out. In other words, a spectre is haunting Euroleague this season. Olympiacos are not last season’s unit, but they have often provided their opponents with glimpses of the hard-nosed, physical style that got them to the top a year ago. And they tend to complement that with an improved half-court game on offense, featuring more quality looks from the perimeter.

So far these glimpses have not translated into a full forty minutes of proper Olympiacos basketball. Maybe the structural issues in this year’s edition are too much to overcome. Then again, there is still time to shock the world.

 Rod Higgins is a writer for Euro-Step.Net from Greece and you can follow him on Twitter @rodhig7