With the big three of EuroBasket 2022 not even making it to the medal round, Emmet Ryan breaks down how changing cultures in basketball have been behind the shocking exists of Antetkounmpo, Doncic, Jokic, and more
There’s a poster just inside the media entrance of the Mercedes-Benz Arena. The main promo for EuroBasket and similar versions of it are dotted around the streets and all promotional material for the competition.
Atop the group of players, in the most prominent positions are the three that were expected to define this tournament. Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece and the Milwaukee Bucks, out in the quarter finals. Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks and Slovenia, out in the quarter finals. Nikola Jokic, Serbia and the Denver Nuggets, out in the last 16.
Between that three there are 4 NBA MVP titles, a finals MVP, a defensive player of the year award, a rookie of the year, a most improved player, 10 All-NBA first team selections, another 4 All-NBA second team selections, and 12 All star selections. The absolute cream of the crop and not one of them leaves Berlin with a medal.
Of the 12 players on that poster 2 never made it to the tournament through injury (Sergio Llull and Toko Shengelia) and another 5 have fallen before the medal rounds, leaving only Rudy Gobert (France and Minnesota Timberwolves) and Germany’s Dennis Schroeder who is currently unemployed.
In a tournament that was expected to be dominated by star power, the biggest names went out early and undoubtedly left officials in FIBA’s offices scratching their heads.
The big three went out in different ways but with similar stories. All three posted impressive states throughout the tournament and looked, coming out of the group phase, like the obvious contenders for the medals.
Jokic’s Serbia was two different teams with him on and off the court in their loss to Italy. In a 32 point and 13 rebound outing from the Nuggets man, Serbia was +11 on the scoreboard with him on the floor but -19 when he sat. The problem was twofold. There lacked any plan on how to maintain momentum with him sitting and Nikola Militunov, often linked with a move to the San Antonio Spurs not so long ago, was all too easy for Italy to neutralise at both ends when he spelled for Jokic.
There was however another issue, in the second half it was clear that even with Jokic there that Serbia had no plan B for when going through him wasn’t effective. What was considered a sneakily deep side coming into EuroBasket proved to lack the breadth of options of Finland, who were openly ride or die with Lauri Markkanen (Utah Jazz) from the off.
Greece and Antetokounmpo showed their flaws in a narrow win over Czech Republic at the last 16 stage. The Czechs looked like a club team, playing cohesive basketball despite their biggest star being a less than healthy (and then some) Tomas Satoransky (FC Barcelona). Guys that couldn’t get a look-in at Euroleague level were limiting the Greek Freak’s efficacy for large stretches. In the quarter finals.
Germany took the same plan but added more quality with Daniel Theis (Indiana Pacers) and Johannes Voigtmann (Olimpia Milano) doubling him and ensuring that even with big numbers it wouldn’t be enough for Greece to overcome the bombardment from the teams’s Bundesliga core.
Doncic’s story goes along similar lines but with an added element. Poland, whose biggest name Mateusz Ponitka (Reggio Emilia) got NBA comparisons after his triple double quarter final performance, have been together a long time. They lack star power but believed in the system. The Poles stuck to their rotations through the highs and lows of a wild one to eke out the win but it was obvious that Slovenia had run their biggest names into the ground early in the competition with Luka, Goran Dragic (Chicago Bulls), and Vlatko Cancar (Denver Nuggets), all looking exhausted just taking the floor against Poland.
That collective exhaustion put Slovenia in a 19 point hole at half time and Luka got an injection to deal with the pain before the second half. All three had been run ragged by their own staff in pursuit of a favourable seeding in the knockout stages and it ended up with the same result as Greece, which was far smarter with time management, as their comeback proved in vain against a fresher Poland team come the final buzzer.
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A strategic failure
The numbers for the top stars were awfully impressive. Jokic had 21.7 pgg, 10rpg, and 4.3 apg, Giannis 29.3/ 8.8/ 4.7, and Luka 26/ 7.7/ 6.6. All easily MVP numbers if they were still contending but deeper down we should have seen the issues earlier.
The four teams that remain all have one thing in common, they have been together a long time and the system is designed around the collective not just the stars. France have Gobert and Evan Fournier (New York Knicks) but Thomas Heurtel (Zenit) and Terry Tarpey (Le Mans) have been vital in their run so far. Spain’s Hernangomez brothers obviously hit the name recognition mark but they and Usman Garuba (Houston Rockets) mainly exist to enable an effective outside shooting game that wears down opponents.
Poland have the same club team mentality of the Czechs but AJ Slaughter (Gran Canaria) looks like a different man to what we see from him at club level because his familiarity with the international game is almost invariably greater than whatever star he is up against. Germany are that in overdrive with this core having been developed through the 2015 disappointment, a slightly surprising quarter final run in 2017, and this competition. Schroeder and Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic) grab the headlines but Maodo Lo (Alba Berlin) might be the most important player on this team and there’s no way this side is still standing without the contributions of role players like Andreas Obst (FC Bayern) and Johannes Thiemann (Alba Berlin).
None of these sides are superior on paper to the superstar line-ups but they have benefitted from far greater organisation. Sergio Scariolo of Spain took his time in the NBA as an assistant with the Toronto Raptors and used elements to change his coaching style. Here was a guy, now 61, who refused to stop learning despite a title laden career. He kept on adding pieces to his game wherever he could find them no matter the roster he had because he knew he needed to do that to stay relevant in modern basketball.
Dimitris Itoudis, Greece’s coach, talks like a man who wants a NBA job but he never seemed to settle on a strategy he was comfortable with throughout his side’s run in this tournament, never mind one that would maximise his team’s performance.
Svetislav Pesic is on of the greatest coaches Europe has ever produced but the Serbia head coach showed his intransigence in that defeat to Italy as he has refused to evolve and it’s very difficult to tell a man who was winning EuroBasket titles 30 years ago that he needs to keep learning.
Slovenia’s failure was more basic, it was a ride or die mode with the stars which had been avoided far more five years ago by Igor Kokoskov when they won the title. That Slovenia side realised it needed a more evolved game to compete. Even the Finns, who have one unquestioned superstar in Markkanen, realised the need to build around not just through their best player.
Yes, yes, the officiating
It’s not the core reason but it can’t be ignored. The officiating as a whole at EuroBasket 2022 has been atrocious and that comes down mostly to the weak pool of talent available. NBA refs are, understandably given the rule differences, never available for FIBA tournaments but neither are Euroleague or Eurocup due to the continued animosity between Euroleague and FIBA. The better refs all go to Euroleague and that means the pool is awfully weak to start with for the international game.
There have been clear in-game impacts, mostly around how remarkably easy it has proven to be to pick up an unsportsmanlike foul in this tournament. Offensive foul calls have also been a touch heavy at times but the unsportsmanlike calls have been far more combative and Giannis famously exited Greece’s loss to Germany after picking up two.
Beyond the individual calls, the standard has added to the tension. Players are going into games thinking more about the refs than they should, more on edge about what blunder is going to come, because this tournament has been flooded with them.
The concern is that this standard will make the top stars think twice about coming back to international play. For what it’s worth, Doncic very quickly stated that when healthy he will always suit up for Slovenia, but throughout the fortnight on the continent that concern has been raised.
Rudy and Dennis the last two standing from this poster… although I am sad about Llull pic.twitter.com/vtznpUp3qM
— Ball in Europe (@ballineurope) September 14, 2022
The way forward
European coaching is at a key point in its evolution. The old rant and rave coach won’t succeed anymore for a far more worrying reason than eugh millennials. It’s not that young players don’t like being shouted at, it’s that they don’t care. All they hear is someone losing their head and not someone instructing them on what to do.
What do you do when a drunk starts ranting at you in a bar? You might try to reason with them but that probably makes things worse. You could try listening to them but that gets annoying and confusing in a hurry as you’re trying to translate the rage. The easiest and most natural human reaction is to just placate them, keep quiet, and tune out.
There are coaches in Europe that are clearly getting it and the younger breed, like rising hot property Igor Milicic, get that the raised voice needs to be used sparingly so it stands out from the more low tempo stream.
Then comes the strategy because it’s clear that running through the leader, the common term for the big star player on a team in Europe, isn’t the way forward. It has to be built out from the best players, from the lead, to make a more dynamic game that frankly this continent is supposed to be famous for. Maximising the best players doesn’t just come on the stat sheet, it comes on the total impact on the game and the only number that really counts come the buzzer.