Can a team fight to change its identity and have a lot of fun doing it? Efes sure look like it according to Emmet Ryan who looks at the unlikely holders of the most entertaining side in Euroleague
Last season, despite a 10-20 record and finishing 15th of 16 teams, there was no question that Olimpia Milano were the league pass team of Euroleague. 13 of their 30 games were within two possessions at the final buzzer and more often than not they delivered drama and excitement.
While this year’s edition is hardly lacking in fun, the crown has clearly been passed to a team with far higher aspirations this season. With 10 games to go in the regular season, Anadolu Efes sit in 4th with a 13-7 record and look about as legit as they will ever be.
They are ticking a few fundamental boxes, 7 of their 20 games have been decided by two or fewer possessions, their final 10 games include 8 against teams either in the playoff spots right now or firmly in the hunt, while the other pair include a trip to giant killers in chief Buducnost.
The story of this Efes team however is far more than the raw numbers. Efes are perennially a team that either makes the post-season or just misses out but it never, ever, gets to the Final Four. Efes has made the quarter-final stage 9 times in its history but only has one playoff road win, two years ago at Olympiacos, and no series wins in their history at the top tier.
Granted, their win in the third tier Korac Cup in 1996 is seen as one of the key trigger points for commercial investment in basketball in Turkey but that’s a long time ago and the sport on the continent has changed immeasurably in the interim.
This is not the best supported team in basketball by a long shot, it’s owned by the Efes brewery and is essentially a factory team. There’s no connection to a big football team like Istanbul rivals Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Besiktas. Being an Efes fan immediately makes you the other guy in a really big city.
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The buzz around this version of Efes, coached by the easily irritated Ergin Ataman, took a while to get going but now everyone is buying in that this is a real contender to get to the last weekend of the season in Vitoria-Gasteiz.
A lot of it comes down to the roster which appears to finally look like a coherent team as opposed to a collection of talent. Bryant Dunston was basically the entire source on court entertainment in recent times, with some contributions by Dogus Balbay, but the moves last offseason really have shifted everything.
In came Tibor Pleiss, Rodrigue Beaubois, Shane Larkin, Adrian Moerman, and Vasilije Micic. These guys being added to a roster with Brock Motum and Kruno Simon already spoke to many things but, with the exception of Larkin, it wasn’t raw entertainment. It’s not that Pleiss and Moerman weren’t fun to watch in parts, they just looked like pieces being brought in to deliver a slow and grinding outfit. The 5 hole still looked far more offensively focused, Dunston may be a two-time Euroleague defensive MVP but he’s there for what he does under the opponent’s bucket and Pleiss wasn’t much different in balance.
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Still, throw Micic into the mix and the Philadelphia 76ers forgotten stash pointed to this being a defence first outfit that was going to force its way to wins and probably go out with a gentleman’s sweep in the playoffs. Next to forcing that series with Olympiacos two years ago to a fifth game, a Matt Janning three on the buzzer to force a series to a fourth game was literally the greatest post-season moment in the club’s Euroleague history.
It’s been a down than up run for Micic since getting drafted. Having really made no impact with FC Bayern and Crvena Zvezda in his first two Euroleague campaigns, he spent a year with Tofas in Turkey getting his confidence back before signing with Zalgiris.
The Kaunas club is basically reclamation central as Sarunas Jasikevicius finds a way to squeeze every little drop of basketball out of a player. They are the Oakland A’s of basketball and Micic road a fine season with them to the Final Four in Belgrade. It was a dream comeback year for the Serbian, and he finished up with Zalgiris having proven himself to be a fine defensive powerhouse at the point.
That was the player most of us thought Efes were getting but we also forgot one tendency of Ataman as a coach. He gets angry but he’s also always had a simple approach. A player can be himself so long as it works and Micic clearly wanted to be a touch more offensively minded this year.
Through 20 games he’s at 12.3 ppg (+4.6 from last season), 54.8% from 2 (+8.2%), 45.3% from 3 (+9.8%), with 5.3 apg (+1.1). His other stats have largely stayed within the same range as last season but he’s got more room to be the aggressive ball handler for this side than he had with Kevin Pangos a year ago.
This despite Larkin being on the roster and putting up similar averages to his explosive year at Baskonia. The former Boston Celtics man has seen his share of load take a back seat to Micic who has been the spark-plug for an Efes side with real confidence.
Pleiss for his part is doing loads with a role that clearly has him as the second man in the platoon with Dunston, averaging 8.3 points in less than 15 minutes a game, identical to Dunston who is far fresher now with more offensive options like Moerman to work with.
Granted, the arrival of Beaubois also meant that Efes were doing something on the offensive end but nobody really expected him to be as good as he is as often as he is. Rody, who won the NBA championship with the Mavs way back in 2011, is still only 30 and having his best Euroleague season ever with 12.8 ppg and a career high 45.2% from deep.
The coming game on Friday night typifies the change in attitudes towards the club. On Friday they travel to Athens to take on Rick Pitino’s Panathinaikos. While 8-12 so far, a game like Efes at home is normally one you’d bank on the Oaka crowd to influence hard and lead to a home win.
Instead, the consensus amongst those that watch the league here is that Efes should win. This version of Efes isn’t the usual Efes.
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