BallinEurope’s man in Serbia, Marko Savanovic, brings us another preview of an Adriatic League power: Today, Marko takes a look at Crvena Zvezda (a.k.a. Red Star Belgrade) to assess the team’s chances in 2012-13 after a sloppy 0-2 start and the quick sacking of coach Milivoje Lazic, plus offers an Official BallinEurope Fearless Prediction™…

“If Red Star wins the [Serbian] title, Serbia will be a better place.” You might think this is something we picked up from team fans, while queuing to get inside Belgrade’s Pionir Arena. But no: This statement came from no other than club president Nebojsa Covic.

Covic, who once was mayor of Belgrade and vice-president of Serbia’s national government, is such a controversial public figure it would take us a six-page essay in order to summarize his career. Covic holds a degree in mechanical engineering; was successful both as a CEO and a public official; and above all else, remains a fast-thinking, tongue-in-cheek basketball devotee. Since he took over Red Star basketball (by merging it with FMP Zeleznik, a far more successful franchise he has led since the early 1990s) in summer 2011, Covic has been fighting two battles: one on the court (Red Star has yet to live up to his expectations, though) and one off-court – against what he sees as state and Serbian basketball organizers’ favoritism of archrivals Partizan.

Covic’s nemesis is Dule Vujosevic. Two of them have been swinging insults back and forth for months. However, in late August, they began firing press announcements at each other which included words as “fascist”, “midget”, “criminal”, and so on. The vitriol was such that one web portal even decided to stop reporting them.

This rude exchange ceased only after Dragan Djilas, current Belgrade mayor and head of the Serbian basketball federation asked the two to calm down, saying that “people play basketball outside of Belgrade, too” and that “kids are listening to our every word.” Too late: when a month later Partizan presented its roster, insults directed at Covic’s family were hurled from the stands.

Rakocevic in 2004

But back to basketball: only Cedevita invested more money than Red Star this summer. Eight players are out – eight are in. Three-time Alfonso Ford trophy winner Igor Rakocevic is back after ten years of playing abroad, intent on concluding his career with his childhood team. Rakocevic has that sought-after quality to sink FGs in succession due to his great off-ball movement and high basketball IQ. With Cvetkovic, DeMarcus Nelson and Filip Covic playing, Rakocevic will be able to focus more on his offense.

Boris Savovic (last season of Galatasaray) and Marko Simonovic (Alba Berlin) could prove even more important – but only if Red Star can keep them for a longer period of time.

Savovic proved his worth last season, leading the league in rebounding. He set the record for the number of rebounds in a single game, grabbing 17 against Krka; when he left KK Hemofarm for Galata in January, he was ranked no. 1 on the MVP list. Simonovic brings the reputation of a horrific 3-point shooter and has the right physique for a SG. His best season yet was 2010-2011 when he averaged 14 ppg while playing for Buducnost Podgorica.

Red Star’s main issue will be its all-new roster. Three Americans – Nelson, Alton Brown and Morris Almond are on board, late signings as usual. Unexpected opening defeats in Split and Zadar, which led to coach Milivoje Lazic’s early dismissal, were a painful indicator of how out of sync the team is. Guys expected to organize the game for Red Star are inexperienced (Cvetkovic) or undersized (Covic). Three of Red Star’s frontcourt players have managed only 10 assists combined in first two games. Almond should bring consistency from perimeter, making things easier for Rakocevic. In the paint, Red Star’s only true center is Rasko Katic who, smart as he is, remains slow and at times sloppy in defense.

The biggest signing this season might be that of Vlada Vukoicic. Rated as one of the “best coaches in the region”, the 2006 league champion is back to high-level coaching (his former team only plays in the Serbian first league, inferior in quality to ABA competition). Red Star, formerly FMP, was the team where he started his coaching career back in the 90s. Vukoicic is a disciplinarian, a methodical person, and is respected by elders (he assisted Duda Ivkovic this summer). This will Vukoicic’s chance to prove that, despite not leading a Euroleague team (like Filipovski and Trifunovic), he remains one of the most talented coaches in this region.

And in doing its best to defeat the demons of past seasons, Red Star defeated the visiting Union Olimpija on Sunday, 87-76.

Official BallinEurope Fearless Prediction™: Red Star could just manage an Adriatic League final four appearance, but a 4th – 6th place finish and a EuroCup berth seems more realistic.

Marko Savkovic fell in love with basketball because: a) his older brother used to play, so it must have been a cool thing to do; and b) he witnessed Vlade Divac, Dino Radja and Toni Kukoc play an exhibition match back in 1988. After learning the fundamentals with Partizan Belgrade, Marko spent four years in FMP Zeleznik’s youth system and another three playing lower-division ball. Years later, as a political science graduate, he found a different career for himself, yet remained devoted to hoops. For BallinEurope, he will be closely following developments in the Adriatic league. You may write him at markosavkovic@gmail.com.

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