The biggest stories, stars and stats from the VTB League in November.
CSKA, Khimki and UNICS go undefeated
After two months, we’re starting to see some separation in the standings. CSKA, Khimki and UNICS have lived up to preseason expectations, distancing themselves from the rest of the League with excellent play and win after win. None of these teams lost in November, breezing to a perfect record.
The Red and Blue have been unbelievably sharp, leading the League in points scored by a huge margin (99.1 ppg). Zenit is next closest with 89.1 ppg. Khimki and UNICS don’t have the same firepower, but have also made winning look easy. Outstanding defense has been the key. Moscow Region also proved it can win without its stars: Shved and Gill. Kazan, meanwhile, continues to improve, showing improvement at both ends of the floor.
Zenit once again dealing with point guard woes
Zenit also did not lose in November, quickly climbing into 4th place in the standings. But it’s too early to tell if Vasily Karasev’s club is a serious contender. Instability on the roster is to blame, with the club recently releasing its biggest star, Brandon Jennings.
Point guard trouble has, unfortunately, become tradition in St. Petersburg with head coach Vasily Karasev unable to connect with his star playmakers. The issue was not as obvious when St. Petersburg employed players like Hodge and Dowdell. Even Stefan Markovic was viewed as a quality role player when he joined the team–someone who would primarily defend and set up the offense.
But over the past two seasons, Zenit has whiffed on several star free agent guards. The break-up with Nicolas Laprovittola was quiet and peaceful. But Jennings’ departure ended in scandal. St. Petersburg tried to keep his antics out of the spotlight for a time, but eventually the drama bubbled over and the club made the right decision, deciding to rid itself of the source of the trouble.
Zenit wasted no time finding a replacement. Codi Miller-McIntyre was on the team’s radar during the summer and he appears to be a better fit for St. Petersburg’s style than Jennings. And as far as personal qualities and work ethic are concerned, the young point guard should be a huge improvement over his star predecessor.
Loko and Avtodor bring in new head coaches
November witnessed the first coaching changes. Lokomotiv-Kuban, not Avtodor, was the first to make a move. Sasa Obradovic’s exit, however, surprised few. Kuban’s front office was non-plussed with the team’s performance at the end of last season, but decided to give the Serbian coach another chance. Loko worked hard in the offseason, signing several big stars. But Obradovic was unable to get connect with the new talent. His preferred slow-down, defensive style didn’t fit the team and he was forced to resign following a loss at home to Kalev.
Fellow Serb Vlade Ivanovic replaced him, after previously managing Loko’s youth program. He currently has the interim tag, but rumor has it he will made permanent head coach in the near future. Kuban has been mostly successful under Ivanovic (5-1) and plays a more up-tempo style.
Avtodor also turned to a Serb, Dusan Alimpijevic, who has already coached in the EuroLeague, despite only being 32. He’s considered one of the best young coaches on the continent. But he does not have an easy task in Saratov. Alimpijevic may struggle with a team of Americans that like run-and-gun basketball.
A broken finger sent Khimki’s star to the bench for at least a month. That could spell trouble for Moscow Region. Yes, Shved did miss two games earlier in the season, but fatigue is beginning to set in between VTB League and EuroLeague competition and there are no easy games on the schedule in the weeks ahead. Between veteran Zielona Gora, savvy Nizhny Novgorod and high-flying Zenit, Moscow Region’s depth will be tested in December.
Homegrown players stealing minutes from foreigners
Big performances from homegrown players was another fascinating trend in November. Khimki, Zenit, Loko, Nizhny Novgorod, Astana and VEF all saw Russian, Kazakh and Latvian players lead the team in scoring. At CSKA, meanwhile, Mikhail Kulagin trailed only Nando De Colo.
CSKA: Nando De Colo (21.3 ppg), Mikhail Kulagin (13.7 ppg), Daniel Hackett (11.0 ppg)
Khimki: Alexey Shved (22.0 ppg), Anthony Gill (14.7 ppg), Andrey Zubkov (9.0 ppg)
Zenit: Sergey Karasev (16.8 ppg), Jalen Reynolds (16.0 ppg), Evgeny Voronov (14.3 ppg)
Loko: Dmitry Kulagin (18.8 ppg), JaJuan Johnson (12.8 ppg), Jamel McLean (12.3 ppg)
Astana: Alexander Zhigulin (15.3 ppg), Michael Jenkins (13.7 ppg), Ken Horton (12.3 ppg)
Nizhny: Ivan Strebkov (19.7 ppg), Ilya Popov (12.0 ppg), Rod Odom (8.0 ppg)
VEF: Andrejs Grazulis (14.3 ppg), Vincent Council (11.0 ppg), Mareks Mejeris (10.0 ppg)
It’s an encouraging trend. The progress from Astana’s Kazakh players may be the biggest surprise. Astana’s new head coach Emil Rajkovic has a lot of confidence in his Kazakh players and they have shown they compete at a high level. Perhaps that has been the secret to Astana’s early success this season.
Playoff race promises to entertain
November made it clear that the playoff race will provide the most drama during the regular season. There are no clear favorites or underdogs yet. Kalev and Astana appear to have an early edge, both recording wins over preseason contenders, Loko and Zenit, respectively. Enisey has taken care of business in head-to-head matchups with playoff hopefuls. Other Russian clubs–Nizhny Novgorod, Avtodor and PARMA–should improve as the season progresses, while Zielona Gora has a talented squad. Even VEF and Tsmoki-Minsk showed signs of life in November after starting the season in rough shape.
The level of competitiveness is easy to see when looking at the standings between only these nine teams (games against CSKA, Khimki, UNICS, Zenit and Loko have been excluded).
Enisey 3-1, Astana 3-1, PARMA 2-1, Avtodor 2-2, Kalev 2-2, Nizhny Novgorod 2-2, VEF 2-2, Zielona Gora 2-3, Tsmoki-Minsk 1-5.