This season’s “cinderella story” is written in Serbian. Not an unusual concept for the modern times of Euroleague. Crvena Zvezda, after all, is used to climb the ladder of success, step by step.
In 2013–14, their rookie season in Euroleague, they finished with a 4–6 record in the regular season, beating Laboral Kutxa and Lietuvos Ritas twice. The next season, with Boban Marjanovic playing in the middle, the Serbians advanced to Top-16. Last season they made it as far as the quarter-finals, making life for CSKA (the later champions team in Berlin) a misery. Now, they are ready to go once more over the edge. They have won 7 straight games and climbed to the 5th place of the standings with a 12–8 record. They have won CSKA, Real and Fenerbahce at Beograd, but are no longer just a good “home” team. Playing away from the “most difficult gym” (as Euroleague GMs underlined), they have beaten Baskonia, Galatasaray, Bamberg, Zalgiris and Maccabi. Only CSKA has won more away games.
I know what you are thinking: how they do it? How can the team with the lowest budget among the 16 teams, make a 7–0 streak and get people off the feet for a staning ovation?
As Jordan (that’s Mortell, not Michael) would have said “This is how we do it”:
Defense has always been the “name of the game”. Especially for teams with limited budget and talent. And the defense of Crvena Zvezda is as good as it gets. They have the best defense in the league as proven by points allowed (72.6) and half-court Point-Per-Possession (via Synergy) with 0.881.
And they do it Serbian style. When most of the teams build their defensive philosophy on packing the paint, Dejan Radonjic’s plan is to raise the imaginary defensive line even further. The cornerstone of his philosophy is putting pressure on the ball. Press, press, press. Deny, deny, deny. Deflect, deflect, deflect. That is the key.
No team puts as much pressure on the ball as Red Star. They unleash Charles Jenkins, the grand-maitre of stealing, a modern-time Arsen Lupen, with 2.0 steals per game. Jenkins, who is wearing the red-and-white jersey of the 4th straight season, is -in my opinion- the top “stop defender” in Euroleague. A guard that feeds from breaking picks and putting his claws on the ball.
And he is not the only concern of the opposing back-court. The second “terminator” is called Branko Lazic and he is also a pain in the neck for pick-and-roll handlers. He uses his body and the five fouls he has to give in order to stop the opponent. As he often does. If they don’t do the trick, then Radonjic can put either his starting poing guard Stefan Jovic (1.98), or the long and lean Nemanja Dangubic (2.04) to veil with their hands and size any on-ball player.
Length and size. That is the secret of success for Crvena Zvezda. Jenkins is the shortest player in the team and he is measured 1.91 and is as thick as a pitbull. Size does not give the Serbians an advantage in terms of on-ball defense, but also allows them to make deflections and fill the passing lanes with their bodies and hands. Also, the guards can press as hard as they want, knowing that if they get beaten by their opponent a 7-footer, like Ogjen Kuzmic, will be waiting in the key.
As for pick-n-roll defense? They are “icing” the side pick-and-rolls and try to hedge (parallel) those on the top of the key.
Kuzmic and the two tweeners (neither 4 or 5) Bjelica and Thompson have the ability and the quickness to defend at the three point line. The on-ball defender makes his opponents life difficult, as the other three players try to put their hands on the ball.
Using a high-line in pick-n-roll defense is trending right now in modern basketball and the only exception is that the Serbians ask of the weak-side defender to pack the paint, instead of relying on the two-men side (either strong or weak) to cover the key, as most of the teams do. Altough, they are going against the stream, they have been showcasing the best pick-n-roll defense (0.794 via Synergy).
Their aggresive defensive approach is also the reason they are leading the league in steals (8.4) and are forcing the most turnovers (15.7). Fighting fire with fire is not such a bad choice after all.
Forget about the “Serbian Basketball School”
What about offense? Again they are controversial. Who have thought that the achilles heel of a Serbian team whould be scoring? But, this is the case for Red Star. They have a limited offensive game and try to exploit all their advantages:
a) Easy fast-break points coming off steals.
b) The passing ability of a tall point guard such as Stefan Jovic (6.0 per game)
c) The red right hand of Marko Simonovic. The captain is averaging 13.1 points per game and shooting with 43.4% behind the arc. He comes of the bench (counting only two starts so far) and play both the 3-spot and the 4-spot, serving the team as a stretch-four and creating mismatch opportunities.
d) The presence of a true center in the middle of the key. Again, not an unsual concept for Serbian teams.
Playing center in Serbia
Having big guards with good passing vision and limited 1on1 game is always good if you are a center that can play the post-up game. And Radonjic’s players love to pass the ball inside, because -let’s be honest- they have not many other options. Red Star have pass-first point guards, no “iso” kind of players and a lot of shooters. So, they tend to feed the post. Either as a main option, or as part of their freelance game after a pick-n-roll, an off-ball screen or any other play.
They did with Marianovic. They did it with Zirbes. They are doing it with Kuzmic, who has bloomed since last year. Forget about the 7footer who was cut from Panathinaikos’ roster in 2015–16 (5.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.1 ranking in 14 minutes). He has an entirely different role now. He is not playing as the back-up of another big-body center like Raduljca. Now he doesn’t have to play defense for himself and cover the weakness of the starting “5”. This season he is the starting “5”, surrounded by good defenders. He had doubled up his stats: 10.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 16 ranking in 22 minutes.
He has found his Ithaca in Beograd. As many centers did in the past. Maric for example had a career-season when playing in Partizan, the Red Star of the ’00s. The same with Pekovic, Vranjes and Perovic before him. Or Marianovic and Zirbes in Crvena Zvezda. Noboby had the same success elsewhere. Marianovic has been sitting on the Spurs and Pistons bench the past two years and Zirbes was waived by Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Trust the process
Before the Sixers the Serbians made a plan and sticked to it. They have kept the same coach (the first step for success) and the same core. There are only four teams that trully rely on their local player: Olympiacos, Real Madrid and Zalgiris are the other three.
Players left and players grew along with the team. Jovic was once a back-up. Now he is a national team player and a starter. The same with Simonovic. Lazic, Guduric and Dangubic (a very promising prospect for any european team looking for a 3&D back-court addition) are good role-players, that often take a step forward.
They covered the departure of players that got better contracts like Kalinic, Miller and Zirbes and found good chemistry with the foreign players (Nate Wolters and Deon Thompson) and the veteran Milko Bjelica, who gave an experience boost. And the proccess continues. Luka Mitrovic (born 1993 — gets a lot of starts) and Borisa Simanic (born in 1998 — he shined in the last Adidas Next Generation Tournament in Berlin) are waiting their turn.
Hannibal once said that “I will either find a way, or make one”. The Crvena Zvezda organization couldn’t afford to buy a road, so took the liberty to built one on their own.