With a month and a half remaining in the regular season, we check in on the chase to finish in the top eight, the battle for the top three and a heated MVP race.
Who will take the remaining playoff spots?
There’s only seven weeks remaining in the regular season and only one team has clinched a playoff spot: CSKA. Five more teams look like locks for the postseason: UNICS, Loko, Khimki, Astana and Zenit.
That leaves two open spots with five teams–Nizhny Novgorod, Kalev, Avtodor, VEF and Enisey–desperate to keep playing in May.
Nizhny Novgorod, of course, has the best odds. The team has overcome a ridiculous rash of injuries to win eight of its last 10 games. The team from the Volga could post its first winning record since the 2015-16 campaign with eight games left and only three against current playoff teams (CSKA, Khimki, Kalev). Nizhny Novgorod will also play five times at home, which only increases its odds of a strong finish. Zoran Lukic’s men only lead 9th-place Avtodor by two wins, but the favorable schedule and excellent atmosphere within the team make Nizhny Novgorod the odds-on favorite to snag one of the two spots.
Kalev is enjoying one of its best seasons in the League and looking to reach the playoffs for the first time ever. The Estonians finished in 9th place in 2014-15, missing out on the postseason due to a tiebreaker with 8th-place Astana. Now Tallinn has a second chance to make history, currently ranked 8th with a one-game lead on Avtodor. Unfortunately for Kalev, remaining games with Khimki, Loko, UNICS, Zenit and Nizhny won’t be easy. They will all be played at home, however, where the Estonians have been far better than on the road.
Avtodor is no longer in the driver’s seat and trails Kalev by one game. Any unexpected setbacks could spell disaster. But the Russians do have an easier schedule with only two games against top-eight opposition: UNICS and CSKA. Avtodor is also able to focus entirely on the VTB United League after being eliminated from the Europe Cup.
VEF: The Latvians are significant underdogs in the playoff chase. Yes, they have the longest active winning streak in the League (4) and only trail 8th place by two wins thanks to a rousing start to 2019. But VEF only has six games remaining (five at home) with dates vs. UNICS and Loko. The next seven days are crucial: Riga plays Avtodor and Nizhny and a loss in either game will likely eliminate the Latvians.
Enisey also has a shot at making the postseason, but it needs to start winning now. The gap from 8th-place Kalev is already three wins. Krasnoyarsk plays four of its next eight games at home and only has two games against top competition: Khimki and Zenit. Everything depends on Enisey. If the team can play its best basketball down the stretch, it could sneak into the playoffs.
Who will finish in the top three at the end of the regular season?
The VTB United League champion earns a spot in Europe’s top international competition, the EuroLeague. If CSKA, which already has an A license, wins the title, the League runner-up get the coveted invite.
CSKA is very likely to win the regular season. The Army Men only have five games left. The upcoming meeting with UNICS could be decisive. If Moscow can take down its nearest rival, first place will be virtually guaranteed. The remaining two spots on the pedestal, however, should be hotly contested. UNICS, Khimki and Loko are the biggest threats to finish in 2nd, while Astana and Zenit could pick up a top-three finish.
Khimki has the best chance of clinching the two seed in the playoffs. First of all, Alexey Shved is back from injury. The Khimki star missed the entire winter, but scored a career high in his return and helped take down CSKA. Second, the Yellow and Blue have added Andrew Harrison, Janis Timma and Dmitry Sokolov to the roster. Third, if Khimki doesn’t qualify for the EuroLeague playoffs (Moscow Region currently trails 8th place by four games with five remaining), they will be able to focus on the VTB League in the final weeks of the regular season. Finally, Khimki’s schedule is relatively soft. Loko and Astana are the only top teams remaining on the calendar.
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(RUS)🇷🇺 ⚡ ОФИЦИАЛЬНО! ⠀ 🇱🇻 Латышский форвард @janis.timma будет выступать за «Химки» на правах аренды до конца сезона 2018/2019. Янис уже играл в @vtbleague за @zenitbasket и @vefriga с 2014 по 2017 г. Последние полтора года он провел в @baskonia1959 и @olympiacosbc. ⠀ Laipni lūdzam, Jānis! ——— (EN)🇺🇸 🇱🇻 Latvian forward Janis Timma joins Khimki on the loan deal till the end of 2018/19 season.
UNICS is in 2nd place at the moment, but Kazan will have a tough time protecting its seed. The Tatar club is juggling a busy schedule between the League and EuroLeague. Games vs. CSKA, Zenit and Loko will test Priftis’ squad and any loss down the stretch could drop UNICS into 3rd or even 4th place.
Lokomotiv-Kuban has wrapped up its European campaign and will focus its full attention on the VTB League. The main goal is to climb into 2nd place, but it won’t be easy. Krasnodar has a daunting schedule down the stretch with games vs. top contenders (UNICS, Khimki, Zenit) and dangerous middle-weights (Avtodor, Astana, Kalev, VEF). Loko’s final four games will also be played on the road separated by only 14 days.
Two straight losses dropped Zenit into 6th place, making a top-three finish nearly impossible. St. Petersburg needs the teams above it to slip up, while winning virtually every remaining game on the schedule. That looks unlikely, considering Joan Plaza’s men take on CSKA, UNICS, Kalev, Loko and Astana in the final month.
Astana could record its best season in the VTB United League, but there’s little margin for error after a recent 102-74 setback in Tallinn. Yes, Astana has virtually clinched a playoff berth, but Emil Rajkovic likely wants more from his team. The Kazakhs could surprise in the postseason and the higher they finish in the standings, the better chance they have of advancing to the next round.
Who will be named the regular season MVP?
The regular season is almost complete, but the MVP chase continues to look muddled with at least seven serious contenders trying to win the Season X award.
CSKA is in 1st place and close to clinching a regular season championship, but the team is not dependent on a single player with multiple players competing at a high level. Nando De Colo is likely the best MVP candidate, averaging 14.4 points and dishing out 3.7 assists per game. The guard put up 30 points in a November win over Loko and won the monthly MVP as a result.
UNICS has been led by Pierria Henry. The guard is often the spark on offense and erupted for 34 points in a recent win over Astana. Overall, Henry is averaging 12.2 per game.
Alexey Shved won the October MVP and played fantastic basketball during the fall before missing three months due to injury which dealt a blow to his MVP resume. The Khimki guard has a month and a half to get back in the race. He’s started strong, scoring 37 points to lead Khimki past CSKA in his first game back.
Dmitry Kulagin has been Loko’s biggest star this season. The team’s play is often dependent on how he performs and when Kulagin is clicking, he’s almost impossible to stop. Teams like Khimki (17 + 8 rebounds + 8 assists), PARMA (24 + 5 rebounds) and Enisey (23 points) have learned that the hard way.
Jalen Reynolds has been one of the League’s most productive players: 17.6 points (2nd place), 8.3 rebounds (1st) and a 22.7 efficiency rating (1st). The American would be the undisputed favorite for MVP if 6th-place Zenit was higher in the standings.
Astana has been this season’s biggest surprise and Anthony Clemmons (16.9 + 5.6 assists) and J.J. O’Brien (14.6 + 5.9 rebounds) have been the biggest reasons for the Kazakh club’s success. Clemmons was named the December MVP, while O’Brien propelled Astana to a ridiculous comeback win over UNICS. Both players are deserving of the MVP if the underdogs can move up in the standings.
Who will win the scoring title?
Five players–Arnett Moultrie, Jalen Reynolds, Trae Golden, Anthony Clemmons and Perrin Buford–are separated by a single point in the scoring race. Each of these players are indispensable to their teams on offense and could score even more down the stretch.
But it won’t make any difference, if Alexey Shved plays in six of Khimki’s eight remaining games. If he does, he will have played in half of his team’s games, making him eligible and the runaway favorite for the scoring title. Shved is currently averaging 24.4 points per game, nearly seven more than his nearest rival, Arnett Moultrie (17.6 per game).
Can anyone take PARMA’s place as attendance champion?
Perm loves basketball, as evidenced by the team’s home games. The club entered the League two seasons ago and immediately became attendance champions. PARMA remains on top for the third-consecutive season and will likely hold on for yet another title. Perm is averaging more than 4,000 fans per game, 640 fans ahead of 2nd-place St. Petersburg.
PARMA also has the single-game attendance record this season with 6,399 fans showing up to watch the game vs. CSKA.