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28
Jun

David Pick | Nr. 45

If you're one of those people that believe in poetic justice in sports, then we all should bow down in excitement for Anadolu Efes winning “back-to-back” Euroleague titles. The ONLY thing that prevented Ergin Ataman's club from making history sooner was the COVID breakout that forced Mr. Jordi Bertomeu to pull the curtain down on the 2019-2020 season and cancel the Final Four in Germany.

Anadolu Efes lost in the 2019 Finals vs CSKA Moscow and would now avenge that in supreme fashion. Let's put aside Will Clyburn's heroics in the semifinals game for a quick moment - the entire event was a one man show for the reigning Most Valuable Player in Vasilije Micic. Anadolu Efes breezed its way to a surprisingly easy 20-points margin before Daniel Hackett and Clyburn rallied the Russian's back to within reach.

Micic, Shane Larkin, Krunoslav Simon and co. would then secure the deal and punch their ticket to the Finals vs FC Barcelona. Barcelona, by the way, another topic for discussion down the road.

Efes' win over CSKA caused disappointment within the Russian camp, but the Moscow brass felt it was bitter-sweet due to the fact that they were the only club in the event to miss multiple key players from the roster.

While Barcelona added Pau Gasol and Anadolu Efes brought in a few meaningless midseason editions for depth purposes - including an NBA drop out - CSKA played without their starting center Nikola Milutinov and their former lead guard Mike James, who was cut from for multiple violations of the player-club ethics code. Their replacements, Michael Eric and Iffe Lundberg, aren't remotely close to the required level. Eric's contribution to the Final Four consisted of 1 rebound, 1 block, and 1 turnover over six minutes. Lundberg played somewhat of an X-Factor role, averaging 14PPG shooting 70-37-71 percentages, however his creation opportunities for his teammates is limited, logging just three assists over 36 minutes. CSKA has a lot to be optimistic about regarding the Danish guard, but he is not Mike James. With that, CSKA knew coming into the contest, that Efes were far more superior and the ultimate favorites to dethrone them as Euroleague champions.

Back to Micic: Vasilje Micic became only the 5th player in EuroLeague history to win both the regular season and Final Four MVP trophies following Greek legend Dimitris Diamantidis (Panathinaikos, 2011), Vasilis Spanoulis (Olympiacos, 2013), Frenchman Nando de Colo (CSKA Moscow, 2016) and current NBA superstar Luka Doncic (Real Madrid, 2018).

What's the plan for Micic moving forward? The Oklahoma City Thunder have traded with the Philadelphia 76ers for the rights to bring the Serbian MVP to the NBA and the notion around Europe is that Vasilije will indeed leave Turkey for the United States. Multiple reports have indicated that Lokomotiv Kuban guard Nigel Williams-Goss will land in Istanbul, however louder whispers from Spain claim that Williams-Goss has already signed a contract with Real Madrid effective from the 2021 offseason onward.

Larkin is another fascinating story of a true zero-turned-hero. "When you look at me, I don't look like a basketball player," Larkin said in an interview with Walla! Sport in Israel. "I'm not so tall, not so strong, and when I grew up no one believed I'd be a first-round NBA Draft Pick."

Larkin chose the number "0" for his jersey in evidence of the number of people who believed in him. Last season was his official comeout party. He was great with Baskonia but with Anadolu he shattered Euroleague records - 32 PTS vs Real Madrid, 40 PTS vs Olympiacos, 49PTS (Euroleague record!) vs Bayern Munich; twice he poured in 10 3-Pointers (ANOTHER EUROLEAGUE RECORD), and was chosen six times for the Weekly MVP (ANOTHER EUROLEAGUE RECORD). Larkin averaged 22.2PPG shooting 50.9% from distance and 90.3% from the FT line. His efficiency rating for the 2019-2020 season was 25.8PIR - an all time Euroleague record for any guard, and the highest overall since Arvidas Sabonis in 2004. Larkin, not Micic, led Anadolu Efes to the No.1 seed in the Euroleague, but then COVID hit. No wonder Micic brought Larkin to the MVP interview on the floor right after hoisting the trophy. This award is Larkin’s just as much as it is Micic's. Therefore, the MVP goes to Larkic (Larkin + Micic).

Looking back though, none of this should've been possible for multiple reasons. 1. Larkin turned down a $6M contract from Barcelona to make an NBA comeback, so a return to Europe wasn’t in his plans, but he didn't stick with the Boston Celtics. 2. In late 2018, a trans-atlantic trade deal was formulated behind the scenes that would have shifted the tide at the top of the Euroleague realm. Larkin was playing poorly for a long time, struggling to brush off his NBA rust, and couldn't fit into Ergin Ataman's system.

He averaged 7.3PPG and 2.6APG and was third string PG. Larkin felt underappreciated and was pushing to get back to the NBA, while at the same time, Milos Teodosic was involved in trade rumors to leave the Los Angeles Clippers and his agent offered a trade deal - Larkin to LA, Milos to Istanbul! "When I heard Milos wanted to come to Anadolu, I agreed,” said Ergin Ataman. “I had a lot of talks with Larkin, he was confused, but when he understood that having a good Euroleague season would open more doors for him to the NBA and he decided to stay. The Clippers refused the trade in the end," Ataman added.

Ergin Ataman always had titles and credentials, but he was never acknowledged among the best coaches in Europe. His lobbying isn't great, his publicity isn't exciting, and he doesn't speak English often. But there's no doubt moving forward that he is one of the best player's-coach's overseas. Ataman has now won all four European titles - Euroleague 2021, EuroCup 2016, Saporta Cup 2002, and the EuroChallenge 2012; and he is only the third coach ever to win both the EuroCup and Euroleague alongside David Blatt and Dusan Ivkovic. He's missing FIBA's BCL and Europe Cup, but I don't think he's losing sleep over those right now. Lol.

"He's the most confident coach I've had," said Larkin. "He was really tough on me my first season, and insisted on practicing twice a day, and hard, long practices, but it was worth it, because he instilled his system and philosophy into all of us. Once he felt confident with us, we were given more freedom to be in control. He's different from most Euroleague coaches that believe things must be done their way all the time."

Ataman is known for his strict discipline and short tolerance for unprofessionalism. Not long ago, after Efes lost to CSKA in embarrassing fashion in Moscow, Ataman scheduled a 6.30AM practice in the blistering snow for the team, and would then travel directly to the airport without having breakfast at the hotel. He was pissed at his players.

No one remembers that Anadolu was the worst team in the Euroleague just under a handful of seasons ago. These last three years have been a wave of fresh air for Turkey's best organization. First they lost to CSKA in the Finals, then they became the best ranked team overseas, and finally, this season, they've won GOLD and Euroleague glory. These are huge achievements for a club that basically has no fans in comparison to crosstown rival-giant club Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, as both have a strong base of support from their football clubs.

It wasn't an easy process either. Hats off to Anadolu for keeping at least 10 players on board for multiple seasons and building an identity that displayed the most beautiful basketball outside the NBA. But not just that, it was winning basketball. Winning also when things don't go your way, and winning in ways that are seemingly impossible.

Sarunas Jasikevicius came prepared for the Finals and attacked Micic and Larkin. Barcelona used their height and physicality to pound the paint and dominate the boards. Efes' dynamic guards duo went ghost in the first half of the Finals as Micic finished with just 4 points and Larkin missed all of his shots from the floor. Efes as a team shot poorly, connecting on just four 3-Pointers overall, while their team average is 11 made 3s per game. WOW.

Fast forward to the money time, when the game is on the line and when it matters most, where big players make big plays, and the ending is clear to all. Larkic finished with a combined 46 points and big plays in crunch time proving that they just might be the greatest backcourt combination of all time.

Barcelona are my favorites for reaching the 2022 Euroleague Finals next season, and I believe they’ll play against CSKA in the Finals. But in order for that to happen, some things must change. Or a lot of things. It’s unclear how a club with a $30M budget has just ONE available point guard and with all due respect to Nick Calathes and his individual greatness on defense and creating for his teammates, HE CAN’T SHOOT. It’s almost impossible to play modern basketball without a shot, and Calathes doesn't have a consistent shot (2-8 3s in the Final Four, 0-4 vs Efes in the final, and 50% free throws on the season). I’m not sure who is at fault for the release of brilliant PGs like Thomas Heurtel and Kevin Pangos, but GM Nacho Rodriguez was recently removed from his position and dismissed from the Catalonia club.

Adam Hanga was serving as a tall ball handler for Barcelona during the season averaging 15 minutes per game, but he played zero defense in the Final Four bcuz he was limited to 3.5MPG. Rolands Smits also averaged 15MPG across the season, but his time was trimmed down a third in the finale. It remains unclear how Barcelona move forward into next season - with or without Pau Gasol - because they completely lost back up big man Pierre Oriola, who logged just 40 seconds in Germany over both games and also dropped from 15MPG averages on the season, to below 60 seconds on the biggest stage of European basketball.



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