Continuity in Question: Olympiacos-Fenerbahçe

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by Savaş Birdal

When the kind people of Red Point Guard first asked me to do a piece for their website about Olympiacos and Fenerbahçe, which was back in May last year, I said yes, ignoring my laziness and hectic work schedule, thinking I could overcome it to give them some material. Turns out I was wrong, underestimating my never-ending ability to procrastinate. An apology is due and therefore I apologize for taking me 6 months to write something up.

After I said yes and then once again after I actually started to work on this piece, two occasions unbelievably 6 months apart, I thought about the one thing that connects Olympiacos and Fenerbahçe. If I wrote about those teams at the end of last season, I could struggle to come up with an underlying connection, but after watching the first half of the 2019-20 season, one concept stood out: Continuity and how we observe it as fans and viewers of this beautiful sport called basketball.

Olympiacos wrecking the league in the early 2010s amidst low expectations and high intensity luckily coincided with my peak as a EuroLeague basketball fan. I was a university student back then, one who had aspirations to become something more than just a fan in the sport, trying to follow every single game comprehensively and come up with content. I was there in the media stands when Olympiacos completed the impossible comeback against CSKA, hoping Siskauskas misses those free throws and Printezis makes his signature floater in the end as a neutral, despite having no emotional attachments to the Reds coming in to the game whatsoever. I remember trying hard to hold my scream in after Printezis made it and I was probably not the only one in the media section, looking at other media members’ reactions. It was my first experience at a EuroLeague Final Four and I will probably cherish it for the rest of my life.

In 2017, 5 years after Olympiacos lifted the trophy at the Sinan Erdem Dome, the Reds were again in the finals, not to anyone’s surprise. This time it was different though, at least for me. Here stood Fenerbahçe, after all those years of misery before Obradovic arrived and the biggest heartbreak of my life the year before in Berlin against CSKA (Shout-out to Damir Javor), having the opportunity of a lifetime: A Final Four at home with the team in top form, with almost 15k fans behind them. And it finally happened. I was trying to restrain myself from screaming 5 years before when Printezis won the game, but this time, what I was trying to hold in was tears.

Here we stand now, in late January 2020, 3 years after Olympiacos’s last Final Four appearance and Fenerbahçe’s last title win, asking similar questions about the future of both teams. Do you really still want to keep the same core together? Is holding onto the same players for longer than necessary a death wish, no matter how much joy and glory those players brought in the past? How do you even move on? These questions are existential and present threats to how fans think about the team and sometimes even how the players think about themselves, resulting in even worse outcomes on the court. I have some ideas about both teams, but in the end, I guess only way to answer these questions requires to do the most difficult thing a fan could be asked to do: To wait and see. Especially as fans from the Balkans, substantially different yet almost exactly the same, that’s just not how we roll.

Olympiacos and Bartzokas recently got back together and after his third EuroLeague game at the helm, things look pretty much the same. This is not to say that Bartzokas is not a better coach than Kemzura, he unquestionably is, but when you take the Olympiacos job, with the way the roster is, there are some things you just can’t change, no matter who you are or how talented at coaching you are. This, in my opinion, was the problem David Blatt ran into.

He might actually be the only coach Olympiacos had in the last 3 years to try to change the status quo, but he failed.

To Blatt’s credit, he put a structure in motion, to leave the Spanoulis era behind him. To his detriment, I don’t think he made the best moves in the transfer market or as a coach on the pitch to actually make that structure safe and sound. Maybe the management should be blamed for some of those too, but it the end, it simply doesn’t matter. You can’t leave Plan A behind if the plan you are proposing as the new Plan A just does not work as expected. Blatt had the idea, but the fact that we never saw him realize that idea on the court brought the end. Now the same question awaits Bartzokas.

Against Zenit in St Petersburg, Spanoulis became the oldest EuroLeague player ever to score 30 points by scoring 31 points being 37 years old. I know fans would love to focus on the 30 points part of the sentence, but if you are building a team as a general manager or a coach, you have to focus on the 37 years old part and ask yourself, what am I doing wrong to rely so much on a player who might not even be playing next year. Olympiacos with Spanoulis and without Spanoulis is just like night and day on offense and against Zenit, the effect was even more amplified because of the fact that all of Olympiacos’s 87 points were scored by 5 players. 4 of them were the usual suspects, the gang who is still around since the 2017 final loss, first three of whom were actually on the roster 8 years ago when Oly won the final in İstanbul: Spanoulis, Printezis, Papanikolaou and Milutinov.

 

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I still love to Spanoulis when he’s up and firing, but you have to admit it doesn’t happen as often as it used to and it’s not his fault. Father time is undefeated after all. You can say the same about Printezis to a certain degree. What happened to Papanikolaou after his NBA stint is anybody’s guess but one I haven’t seen answered yet. Milutinov is a building block for any EuroLeague team but with his contract expiring in the summer, you are not sure he’ll stick around either.

It’s only normal that great teams struggle after a period of continued success. Olympiacos is no exception. What worries me as an outsider tuning in is how they couldn’t prepare for the life after the 2012 core plus Spanoulis. Financial issues are well known, but we have seen teams built with less money play with much more cohesion and at a higher level than this year’s edition of Olympiacos.

Future poses all kinds of questions to Olympiacos and its fans, but on the management side, I haven’t seen anybody trying to actually answer those questions. That is what is worrying.

Even though Fenerbahçe is on a different stage of its life cycle, similar questions exist on the Asian side of İstanbul. Fener’s championship core isn’t as old as Olympiacos’, but there is a funnier problem: Fener’s championship core doesn’t exist anymore. It looks or even feels like Fener stuck together after the 2017 win with Vesely, Sloukas, Dixon, Datome and Kalinic still around, but with Bogdanovic’s expected departure and Udoh’s unexpected one, it’s basically not true. It’s not only the championship core either. List of players Fener lost to the NBA in the last decade makes up a team that would be an immediate title contender. What is left is a team that is decent enough but declining to say the least.

 

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Fener had an interesting off-season. Fans didn’t mind Melli or Guduric leaving, especially with high profile names De Colo and Williams replacing them. But basketball isn’t a game played on paper, this was just another proof. When everyone expected a team that is firing on offense after the addition of De Colo and Williams to a team that already had two All-EuroLeague stars in Sloukas and Vesely, what they got was completely different:

A team which struggled on offense and completely decimated defense.

Although the decline on defense was largely attributed to the absence of Vesely, it was a cumulation of all Fener’s flaws. Sloukas and De Colo’s fragile natures and lack of athleticism, Datome’s disappearing lateral quickness, Kalinic’s mental failures, Williams’s lack of understanding to play for a coach as tactically demanding as Obradovic and De Colo simply acting like a mercenary and so on… Biggest mistake of the summer was probably Stimac, a player with good intentions but not enough talent to be a part of a team like Fener, a team that needed a rim protector in Vesely’s absence. Gherardini tried to make amends by the Malcolm Thomas move in the end too much was already lost. Wasted money on Lauvergne’s contract didn’t make things easier on that end, let’s say, with the financial restrictions the team has at the moment.

 

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From the championship team, Fener gave extensions to three players in the past year. One was Sloukas, who stayed despite rumored offers from top teams. Other was a pre-injury Vesely, which looked like a no-brainer at the time. Last one is Datome, which was baffling at the time and still is. Sloukas’s case is interesting. He’s the most loved and hated player by the fans, both at the same time. His inclination to commit some weird turnovers and take some tough shots at the most difficult moments doesn’t go that well by the fans, especially when he misses.

Fener fans for years had an obsession with having a true point guard like Teodosic or Rodriguez who never stopped by in İstanbul and that makes people evaluate Sloukas in the light of unrealistic expectations.

Sloukas

It was never Sloukas’s fault that he was the number 1 ball handler when Bogdanovic and Wanamaker left and Obradovic trusted him with that and it’s certainly not his fault that he is not Milos Teodosic. He’s still a great player I enjoy watching on his day, but when tries to go overboard, it’s gets a bit dicey. About Vesely, there is pretty much nothing you can do at this point. He looked promising in the past weeks after he came back, but it’s also pretty obvious he’s not the same player who played almost 40 minutes with never-ending energy and needs better players behind him in the rotation. Datome’s case is the most curious one. He stayed despite having a financially better offer from Milano. That sounds really lovely, it shows how desirable a destination Fener became to players of his stature in Europe, but Fener’s defensive stats with him on the floor makes me regret that he was even offered an extension.

In the end you have a team with a lot of variance. One that hasn’t been shown by a Fener team maybe since Pianigiani days. On its day Fener can still be a pain in the ass. More often that not though they haven’t been on their day this season. Blowout losses on the road against top teams raised some serious questions about the declining core of the team, very much alike Olympiacos. Some questioned Gherardini and Obradovic’s decision making with the contract extensions or the new signings. Some even questioned players’ personal integrity. But if you ask me everyone misses the point!

 

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It’s been 6 years since Fenerbahçe started to build its current core and good things do come to an end.

Visionary front office people are the ones who foresee the slump coming and end it before it actually gets worse. With both Fenerbahçe and Olympiacos, it feels like we were forced to wait and experience the eventual decline.

I wanted to make this piece one about hope, both for Olympiacos and Fenerbahçe fans reading, but it turned out to be a rather pessimistic one. But it’s in the nature of the game. It all comes in cycles and we are here to live through it. That is the beauty of the fandom. Bleakness of the bad days and emotional destruction it causes makes you appreciate the good ones even more.

Just keep that in mind and until then, all we have to do is survive.

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