A perennial championship contender capped the 2018-19 EuroLeague season hoisting the hardware...
...but the season was hardly without its unexpected developments.
A wild race to the playoffs, which included Zalgiris’ electric, six-game winning streak to earn the final bid, set the scene for the postseason. Established stars elevated their games to unprecedented heights, while a new crop of top-flight players emerged.
OFFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
We all know the basketball community’s oft-recited cliché about defense, but this season’s EuroLeague championship winner defied convention.
CSKA Moscow rode the league’s most explosive offense to the crown, culminating in Final Four point totals of 95 versus Real Madrid and 91 in the championship game versus Anadolu Efes. The two Final Four eruptions followed on outputs of 94, 84, and 92 in CSKA Moscow’s three playoffs wins against Baskonia.
The champs went 24-6 in the regular season, employing the same, diverse offensive attack that carried them in the postseason. Six CSKA Moscow players averaged between 7.3 and 14.9 points per game: Kyle Hines, Othello Hunter, Sergio Rodriguez, Will Clyburn, Nando De Colo, and Cory Higgins.
In the Final Four, the six kicked their averages up to between 7.5 and 19 points per game, with Clyburn and De Colo tying for the high.
En route to the championship, CSKA Moscow faced the next two most prolific offenses in EuroLeague. Real Madrid scored 2,578 in the regular season, second to the champs by just 12 points, and Anadolu Efes produced 2,562 points. Efes powered its way to the title game by forcing EuroLeague’s stingiest defense, that of Fenerbahce, into a fast-paced semifinal.
Efes raced past their Turkish rival 92-73, in part due to a 44 percent average from 3-point range. Efes finished the season with the most shots made from deep, 385. For some added perspective on the 3-point line’s significance in the 2018-19 EuroLeague championship hunt, the other three teams to advance to Vitoria-Gasteiz were the other three most prolific shooting squads of the campaign.
Dimitrios Itoudis’ second championship in four seasons with CSKA Moscow also came with his second EuroLeague Coach of the Year award. He still has a ways to go to catch the benchmark for EuroLeague coaching excellence, Zeljko Obradovic, but it’s a start.
Fenerbahce’s Final Four loss to Efes denied Obradovic his 10th championship, but the five-time EuroLeague Coach of the Year oversaw the best regular-season winning percentage (83.3) of his six-season tenure with Fenerbahce. The club’s 25-5 regular-season finish was the best of any Obradovic-coached teams since Panathinaikos finished the regular season 12-2 in just the second modern-era season of the league, 2001-02.
LARKIN’S HISTORIC POSTSEASON
He didn’t win Most Valuable Player—that honor went to CSKA Moscow’s Will Clyburn—but Anadolu Efes guard Shane Larkin wrote his name in EuroLeague Final Four history all the same.
Larkin knocked down five 3-pointers in the semifinal rout of Fenerbahce, on the way to 30 points for the contest. He followed it up with four made triples and 29 points in the championship loss. The latter stat broke Nicolo Melli’s title-game record by a point, which was set the year prior, and Larkin’s 59 total points for the Final Four beat Nando De Colo’s 52 in 2016 for most in EuroLeague’s modern era.
Fittingly, Anadolu Efes reached the Final Four in part on the strength of another Larkin record. His five 3-pointers in the decisive, Game 5 victory over Barcelona Lassa gave him 18 for the series—a EuroLeague Playoffs high.
FROM WORST TO (ALMOST) FIRST
Anadolu Efes finished the 2017-18 campaign dead-last at 7-23. Wholesale roster changes, including the addition of Shane Larkin from the Boston Celtics and Vasilije Micic from Zalgiris, set the stage for the most impressive turnaround in EuroLeague.
Efes’ resurgence from a dismal season to championship contention shook the league’s power structure. The 2019 Final Four included familiar faces with CSKA Moscow, Fenerbahce, and Real Madrid—winners of the past five EuroLeague championships—but Anadolu Efes arrived in Vitoria-Gasteiz having gone almost two decades since it won a postseason game.
THE SEASON OF JAN
Each of the past three seasons have been special for Fenerbahce big man Jan Vesely. In 2016-17, he averaged 9.6 points per game on 57 percent shooting from the floor for the EuroLeague champion.
A season later, Vesely established himself as one of the premier players in EuroLeague with averages of 12.5 points per game on 61 percent shooting, 5.1 rebounds per game, and a plus-16 average Index Rating. That earned Vesely a spot on the All EuroLeague First Team, but was merely a prelude to 2018-19.
Vesely stormed his way to Most Valuable Player averaging 12.3 points per game on an incredible 66.2 percent shooting, with 4.7 rebounds per game and career-highs of 2.4 assists and 1.4 steals per.
In addition to winning MVP, Vesely claimed the Magic Moment of the Year for a second straight year.
Not a bad exclamation point to put on a career-defining campaign.
Panathinaikos headed into Christmas a disappointing 6-8, having dropped its fifth game in the last six with an 86-83 defeat at home to Olimpia Milan.
Rather than stay the course and potentially squander the MVP-caliber season of guard Nick Calathes, Panathinaikos management made the bold move of bringing in a coach as successful as he is controversial, Rick Pitino.
Pitino spent 14 months out of coaching in the aftermath of FBI investigations into fraud in NCAA basketball. Panathinaikos presented the coach his first opportunity since, and the two-time NCAA champion showed his acumen carried over to the EuroLeague game.
Panathinaikos went 10-6 after Pitino’s arrival, including a six-game winning streak from Rounds 23 through 28, which ostensibly landed the club in the playoffs.
GETTING TO THE POINT
Headlined by First Team All-EuroLeague selection Nick Calathes, the 2018-19 campaign was an exemplary one for point guards.
Calathes’ First Team nomination was his second straight, and the culmination of a second consecutive season leading EuroLeague in assists. The Panathinaikos star bumped his average from 8.0 to 8.7 per game, while also producing 12.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, and a league-leading 1.7 steals per game.
Fenerbahce combo-guard Kostas Sloukas joined Calathes on the First Team. Sloukas helped pace Fenerbahce to EuroLeague’s best regular-season record and a berth in the Final Four with averages of 11.2 points—on torrid 58 percent shooting inside the arc and 44.9 percent beyond it—and 4.8 assists per game. 2018-19 continued on the breakout performance the nine-season EuroLeague veteran enjoyed in 2017-18.
Another pair of standout point guards landed on the All-EuroLeague Second Team: Vasilije Micic, who averaged 12.4 points and 5.5 assists in Efes’ history-making run to the championship game; and Mike James of Olimpia Milan. James finished the season EuroLeague’s leading scorer at 19.8 points per game.
Four of the seven MVP of the Month awards during the 2018-19 season played point guard: Calathes, James, Micic, and April winner Facu Campazzo of Real Madrid. The Argentinian Campazzo was electric in the playoffs, shooting a blistering 66.7 percent from 2-point range and dishing out 25 assists in Real
Campazzo carried over his red-hot playoffs into the Final Four, tallying 15 assists in the third-place game against Fenerbahce and thus breaking a record held by Elmer Bennett for 18 years.
A STAR IS BORN?
Goga Bitadze played just 13 games for Buducnost, but that was enough for the young big man to earn Rising Star honors for 2018-19. Bitadze averaged 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in his stint with the club.
The Rising Star award carries some weighty historical significance. The winner the previous two seasons was Luka Doncic, who since went on to set the NBA on fire en route to 2018-19 All-Rookie First Team distinction. 2018 NBA All-Rookie Second Teamer Bogdan Bogdanovic also claimed Rising Star twice. Other winners include Utah Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio and Danilo Gallinari, who had arguably the best season of his NBA career in helping the surprise Los Angeles Clippers to the playoffs.
The comparisons to current NBA EuroLeague imports are relevant; the Georgian national Bitadze is projected as a first-round prospect in this year’s draft.