Fenerbahce’s last gasp victory over Real Madrid was a heap of fun to write but Emmet Ryan says their need to adapt heavily points to a wider issue with roster balance
The technicals, on both sides, seemed horribly soft. The pace was ludicrous and the score understated just how much of a slobberknocker it was for 40 minutes. There’s no way anyone could argue Fenerbahce’s narrow win over Real Madrid wasn’t entertaining but the root of why it worked as a piece of fun, a thriller between two top sides, points to the deeper issues with Fenerbahce’s roster.
In simple terms, Fener shouldn’t be in this position. They shouldn’t need a thriller with Real in Round 10 to remain among the elite of the competition. This is meant to be a no-brainer first or second placed finisher in the regular season. The depth of the roster as a whole looks great but anyone with functioning vision can see the issues that lie beneath.
Fener just haven’t got enough guards they trust and it’s not even close. Bobby Dixon, James Nunnally, and Kostas Sloukas are it right now. The injury issues with Bogdan Bogdanovic have proven a far bigger problem than a team with this much talent in total should have to deal with.
In the playoffs last year, we saw what Bogdanovic can do and why he is primed to be a long-term fixture as a top Euroleague backcourt option at worst. That’s fine but this league is about depth and options. Having Sloukas and Dixon around him helped and Nunnally, while not the option folk expected for a team of this level, was fine-ish (we’ll get to that) for developing a four man rotation in the back court. All of this however is dependent on health. If one of these men goes down, Fener suddenly look awfully shallow when it comes to guards. There are other guards on the roster, naturally, but it’s more than clear that Zeljko Obradovic doesn’t trust any of them with a meaningful minute on the floor. All Melih Mahmutoglu and Berk Ugurlu do is fill up a roster sheet. They won’t contribute in Obradovic’s vision.
Which brings us to Nunnally who is essentially playing the 2 when he’s really a 3. That’s functional in certain situations, read situations where you can switch things around, but it’s far from ideal. Between Sweet 16’s shout earlier this week and the assessment of Euroleague Adventures, Nunnally really isn’t a 2 at this level. Judging by last night, he realised the queries being made about his suitability because what we saw was James Nunnally: Superman. His 18 points on 7 of 9 shooting along with 5 rebounds and 2 assists only tells a bit of the story. Nunnally was obsessed out there and clearly of a mood to prove his worth to the side. That kind of hunger is great but it’s not something a contender should need to lean on to remain as one.
This is far from Nunnally’s fault. He’s a result of the problem not the cause and there are plenty of Euroleague sides who would kill for this kind of problem in their lives. When Fener go to their essential four big line-up, it doesn’t slow them down as much as it unbalances everything. With Dixon on point, there’s a defensive hole in the back court but the speed is still fine because Dixon’s raw pace alone ensures that. When the switch is to Sloukas there’s more focus to the side but a lack of regular explosive option.
There’s a Bogdan Bogdanovic shaped hole in both of these approaches and it’s limiting Fenerbahce’s options too much right now. Every side is going to have to ride through injury issues and Fenerbahce, at 7-3, are about as healthy as a side dealing with such matters could expect. The question is how do they put themselves in a position where they aren’t so utterly dependent on Bogdanovic?
Where they want to be is to have Nunnally as a contributor rather than someone with so much pressure on him. They want nights like Thursday to be the oh yeah moments with him where everything clicks and not fundamental to remaining an elite side. Their options, both short and long term, are interesting.
Fener could go down the route of trying to find a Turkish Vitaly Fridzon. The CSKA Moscow man is essentially the fifth guard in the rotation and that’s a luxury given his talent. The options aren’t great, clearly Mahmutoglu isn’t seen as that by Obradovic and outside of him the only option at the level that suits with the right passport is Sinan Guler. Mentally there’s no question Guler would fit because there isn’t a team in the sport where Guler wouldn’t, his attitude to the sport is exemplary, but he is nigh on certain to never be available as he is likely to finish his career at cross-Bosphorous rivals Galatasaray. Even if he were to become available in the future, there’s no chance they get him this season.
The alternative then is to look at balancing the roster with another import. There are options out there for Fener but all of them come with the obvious caveat that the club must make a sacrifice in the front court. Right now the five man rotation of Antic-Datome-Kalinic-Udoh-Vesely is just so good a fit for them that cutting here is brutal. All of them offer so much but all of them are restricted by Fener’s shallow back court.
A big part of this naturally falls on Turkey’s lack of backcourt options as a whole right now. Wealth isn’t a problem financially but there aren’t enough good young guards coming through that big clubs will trust with real minutes. Dixon is the only player with a Turkish passport that gets real minutes for Fenerbahce right now and he wasn’t even a citizen 18 months ago. It is in the Turkish federation’s interests to keep a minimum requirement of Turkish players on rosters in the BSL because their focus is meant to be on developing the game in that country.
The rich clubs naturally see this as a matter that hampers them but it really falls on them to find a solution. This is the lot they have been given and other power clubs in countries with similar restrictions have found ways to make it work. CSKA succeeds in spite of its heavy need for players from a country currently in a long down cycle for its national side. There can be no excuse for a club like Fenerbahce, from a country which we shouldn’t forget has done rather well in youth tournaments of late, to not find guys that can do jobs.
Right now a young Turkish star with NBA potential either rides the bench for a big club or gets minutes with a struggling outfit. Fener’s goal is to win, that’s good, but it can’t just hope that it can get by with feigned depth. The Ugurlus and Mahmutoglu’s need to be developed into players who can at least give you 12 real minutes in a big game or step in for more when a star is down. That’s hardly a huge ask. Even Pinar Karsiyaka’s crazy championship run in 2015, where they essentially went six deep including a still not-Turkish Dixon, saw creative use of Baris Hersek and Soner Senturk to make crucial contributions.
In the short-term, it’s wait until Bogdanovic is healthy. In the medium term, Fener need to re-think how they build a roster to contend.