Same old story — and Luka Doncic

A Euroleague preview of Real Madrid’s season

Finally, after our yearly summer break — gloriously interrupted by the Olympics this time round — , the Euroleague returns tonight at 21:00 CET. And it’ll start off with yet another instalment of one of plenty interesting European rivalries, and one that has dominated each of these teams recent past: Real Madrid will host Olympiacos Piraeus at the Spanish capital’s Barclaycard Center.

This opening duel is symbolic: the Euroleague has re-shuffled its format and will start anew, and nothing better than a re-run of the game that marked the inauguration of the Euroleague 16 years ago to signal a new beginning. Instead of the traditional format —with a group stage, a challenging top 16, a playoff series and then the Final 4 — this year’s Euroleague will just be a straight-up league between the 16 teams, capped off by the standard 5-game playoff series leading to the Final Four, hosted this year in Istanbul.

Real Madrid enters the competition as one of the richer teams in Europe, as the winningest team in the history of European competitions, with a roster featuring some of the most well-known players this side of the Atlantic and with the status of being — at least somewhat recently — a perennial Final Four candidate. So with this in mind, lets delve deeper into this team, what they are, what they could be and what could stand in their way of achieving their ever-present ultimate goal: to win everything.

The context: How good was Real Madrid last season?

The short answer is “not very good”. Real Madrid was 5–5 during the group stages, 7–7 during the Top 16 and got swept by Fenerbahce in the playoffs. They had a point differential of +2.3 if we exclude the Fenerbahce series, which ranked behind non-playoff teams such as Khimki (+3.5) or Efes (+3). From a numbers perspective, you could make a convincing case that Real Madrid didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs altogether.

The eye-test sort of confirmed that conclusion. Real Madrid struggled all throughout the year with injuries. Jeff Taylor — who was meant to be an important part of the team — missed the whole preseason. Llull had an inconvenient muscle injury that forced him to miss time straight after Christmas and over-stretched the rest of the backcourt. According to coach Laso, Trey Thompkins had some personal issues that affected him up until the very end of the season. Rudy Fernández missed essentially the whole year after having back surgery, and wasn’t really himself until the Olympics — and lets not forget, he was arguably the best defensive player on the roster last season, at least on paper.

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The team survived several match-balls throughout the year, initially riding the Chacho Rodríguez train — most Real Madrid fans forgot just how good he was at the start of the season — and later becoming extremely dependent on Gustavo Ayón’s incredible statistical production. Several players admitted that the mental exhaustion from several long consecutive seasons and an intense year with must-win games at all stages affected the team, and indeed Real Madrid was visibly better after being knocked out of the Euroleague and taking a few weeks of mental rest just before the ACB playoffs.

Overall, I’d say Real Madrid was a dangerous but very inconsistent team last year, and one that just wasn’t solid enough to put up credible opposition to the better Euroleague teams of 2015–16. They had the talent, for sure, but injuries ravaged the team early and they never managed to put it all together.

The offseason

After a disappointing season, then, Real Madrid had to face yet another piece of bad news: as part of a crazy European basketball exodus, Sergio “El Chacho” Rodríguez received a multimillion offer from the 76ers and took his talents all the way to Philadelphia, where I sincerely hope he plays the best basketball of his life en route to establishing himself as a legit NBA player.

The departure of Rodríguez is bad for everyone involved in European basketball: we’ve lost one of our most spectacular players, one of the guys who made paying a ticket to a game entirely worth it with two or three incredible passes, shots or dribble moves. But it’s especially bad for Real Madrid. Laso’s team was built on the fundamental principle of pushing the ball and getting easy fastbreak shots. The fall-back option was always a very perimeter- and guard-heavy offense based on the sheer talent of their ball-handlers. Sergio Rodríguez was the most talented of them all, and the man trusted by his teammates to create easy shot opportunities — both for himself and for others — out of thin air.

Real Madrid replaced Chacho with Dontaye Draper, who, although greatly improved since his previous stint with Real Madrid, is a fundamentally different player, more focused on defense and offensive execution than on the unpredictability and shot-making that characterised Rodríguez. And that’s fine: there’s really not that many players in Europe who can replicate what Chacho did, so a change in style might be in order.

Source. Original photo: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports.

KC Rivers, following a strange season that saw him do his version of an Erasmus study abroad program in Münich, return to Real Madrid and then find himself out of the rotation during the ACB playoffs, left the club and signed for Euroleague rivals Panathinaikos.

Additionally, Real Madrid lost its two young big men — Maurice Ndour and, more notably, Willy Hernangomez — to the New York Knicks. Neither of them were heavy-minutes players, although Willy’s offensive production was useful for Real Madrid in stretches during the season, even if his pick and roll defense got exposed at the highest level.

To replace them, Real Madrid brought in Othello Hunter from Olympiacos and Álex Suárez from Bilbao Basket. The former was a very solid Euroleague player for the past couple years and, from what I could gather by watching Real Madrid’s preseason and ACB games up to now, will be a fantastic contributor off the bench, providing rim protection, switchability and interior finishing off of dump-offs and pick-and-rolls. The latter won’t play much during the year, and I wouldn’t expect him to get any Euroleague playing time at all unless there are injuries to several of Madrid’s frontcourt players.

To round up the offseason, Real Madrid, facing rumours that Ayón would leave for the NBA, signed one of the best players on the market in Anthony Randolph. The former 2008 lottery pick comes to Madrid after an All-Euroleague year playing for Lokomotiv Kuban, where he had ample offensive freedom to create as well as frontcourt mates who somewhat covered his defensive weaknesses in Chris Singleton and Víctor Claver. Although clearly a talented player, his fit on this Real Madrid roster is unclear, especially after Ayón extended his contract too.

The big question

Or rather the big men question. Real Madrid’s main asset this season is undoubtedly their big man rotation. The names are kind of astounding: Ayón, Randolph, Hunter, Thompkins, Felipe Reyes and Nocioni will have to split the minutes between only two positions, and that doesn’t include any potential small-ball minutes with Maciulis, Taylor or even Doncic at the nominal 4 spot.

The main challenge looming ahead is the role of Ayón. The Mexican big man comes off an insanely productive Euroleague campaign. He was the Euroleague MVP for the month of December. Eurohoops pegged him as the 16th player in their rankings. Among Top 16 players, only Bouroussis and Felipe Reyes grabbed a higher percentage of available rebounds than him. He only trailed Bouroussis, Tomic and Miro Bilan in assist rate among big men that played his volume of minutes; and he was near the top in steal rate among big men as well. He scored quite efficiently on a surprisingly low usage rate, but always seemed to be an integral part of Real Madrid’s offense.

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However, Ayón’s pick and roll defense proved problematic last year. And indeed, during this preseason and the first few ACB games, Real Madrid has actually played considerably better with Ayón on the bench and either Randolph or, especially, Hunter manning the paint.

Ayón’s strengths are clear at this point: he’s mobile for his size on offense, he has excellent touch on the short roll and he can punish help defenders with accurate passes to either shooters spotting up on the wings or other big men creeping up on the baseline. His weaknesses are also evident: he’s a liability defending the pick and roll, he cannot switch and consistently keep guards in front of him and he’s not an excellent rim protector either.

With the right personnel — notably a pick and roll guard who can consistently find him going towards the rim with a head start, that is, with Sergio Rodríguez — he can be a force on offense. But Llull isn’t the kind of ball handler that will consistently feed the roll-man, nor is Draper. It seems clear to me that Laso will have to try several lineups to find a good fit with Ayón, perhaps with a ball-handler that can give him the ball —Doncic — and with a big man who can credibly stretch the floor and provide some degree of rim protection — perhaps Nocioni, although only in short bursts — .

The big hope: Luka Doncic

Luka Doncic is 17 years old and is getting quite a lot of hype. And that’s fine: as Brandon Paul said earlier this week, he’s a ridiculously good 17 year old who is already on the roster of one of the better teams in Europe. That’s crazy.

Here’s what’s crazier: he might be the best two-way player on the team as well.

Luka Doncic right now can do basically everything on the court. He protects the paint. He runs Real Madrid’s offense. He hits shots. He switches picks and holds his ground in the post. He guards RUSSELL WESTBROOK. He rebounds everything, on offense and on defense. He gets assists — without even stepping in the paint. He finishes inside and he gets to the line. The list is endless.

He will only be here for two more seasons, so lets enjoy him while we can.

So what is Real Madrid this season?

I personally think that Real Madrid is going to be quite good this season. Others have predicted this as well: all the guys from the Euroleague Adventures podcasts seem to have them pegged as a Final Four team, Austin Green seems to have them in that range as well and Emmet Ryan from Ball in Europe has them slotted as 4th. That sounds about right.

Much of Real Madrid’s season will hinge on Anthony Randolph, and on what Laso can turn him into. If Real Madrid can turn him into another shot creator and a guy capable of occasionally taking over games at the highest level, they might be onto something. However, Anthony Randolph, for as good as he was last year, has a history of being inconsistent and slightly disappointing. Laso seems to keep his players motivated at all times, but the closest player to Randolph that he ever coached was Nikola Mirotic, and that relationship wasn’t as productive on the court as it could’ve been and didn’t end up very well off the court either.

Real Madrid will be a good team with plenty of weapons, but without Sergio Rodríguez their ceiling is slightly lower. We all love Llull — and if you don’t love Llull you’re either a Barça fan or you don’t like basketball all that much — but I just can’t picture one guy taking over games in Europe on his own, much less in a Final Four and against the two top teams in this competition: CSKA and Fenerbahce.

However, there’s plenty of reasons to watch them anyway. From Llull’s well-known antics to Felipe Reyes’ insane foul-drawing, from Luka Doncic’s jaw-dropping progression to Jeff Taylor’s head-scratching turnovers, from Nocioni’s occasional clutch block-and-three-pointer sequence to Trey Thompkins’ blatantly half-hearted attempts at hedging on a pick and roll, Real Madrid will be the usual fast-paced, fun-to-watch basketball team. And they will sure do their best to find a formula to defeat the two Euroleague preseason favourites.