The ball is over; the lights are turned off: Eastern Europe’s leading basketball competition said goodbye with the 2018 Final Four. In front of 10,100 fans (a new finals attendance record), a champion was crowned and the final standings determined. But before we file the season away for good, I’d like to take a look back and remember the heroes who–for eight and a half months–provided us with thrill after thrill. This season was stuffed with suspense, crazy twists and turns, and a happy ending, of course.
CSKA Moscow defended its title as the League’s top team in style. Dimitris Itoudis’ men only lost twice during a lengthy regular season, and then only because of juggling EuroLeague and VTB League schedules coupled with a desire to win every game possible. Their boss proved a savvy strategist, refusing to change the team’s style of play despite numerous injuries to leading players (CSKA continued to dictate the tempo and style of play on the court), while making a few tactical adjustments. As a result, the Army Men were able to continue racking up wins in style (CSKA led the League in points scored during the regular season). Itoudis found a way to modernize his wings, take advantage of undersized centers and coax the maximum from his superstars, transforming CSKA into a team from the future. Opposing coaches would do well to take note and follow his example.
Alexey Shved finally became the player everyone hopes will lead the Russian national team into the future. His penchant for scoring is phenomenal, of course. The records he broke this season (most points scored in a Playoff game and most career Playoff points) will not only go into the record books, but also grabbed the attention of the public, inspiring a new generation of basketball fans. We should also mention that the Khimki guard continued to perfect his passing and playmaking this season.
His ability to pass out of double and triple teams added excitement even to games with low ratings. His patience in high-pressure situations made him one of the most effective players in Europe in crunch time. In other words, Russian now has the first player to ever lead the EuroLeague and VTB United League in scoring to go with incredible versatility at the guard position.
Despite finishing in 4th place, UNICS boss Dimitris Priftis deserves nothing but praise. This was his first test at a big club, not to mention his first time in Russia. He also took on the challenge of building a roster from scratch and organizing the team’s style of play. On top of this, Priftis had to adjust to the foreign player limit, travel logistics and Tatarstan’s somewhat insular culture. Given nearly an impossible task, the Greek coach passed with flying colors, matching CSKA for the League’s best regular season record, even if his team did lose both games to the Army Men. Kazan then faced a stiff challenge from Nizhny Novgorod in the quarterfinals, where the roster depth and his ability to squeeze the maximum out of Jamar Smith and his foreign teammates helped the Tatar club reach the Final Four. On the big stage in Moscow, the team’s lack of experience and patience resulted in a fourth-place finish. But this was the most interesting team to come out of Kazan in recent seasons, as evidenced by the notoriously demanding Evgeny Bogachev’s loyalty to the players and coach.
Ever since Codi Miller-McIntyre joined PARMA, it was clear he would be the most exciting American guard in the League since Courtney Fortson. The strong, athletic, confident and explosive playmaker sparked Perm’s offense game after game. Every time the tempo slowed or the team struggled to rebound, Miller-McIntyre was there to push the pace in transition or snag a loose ball.
Codi broke the stereotypes of your typical foreign player trying to make a quick buck abroad: He listened to Nikolajs Mazurs, never quit competing and rallied teammates with his infectious energy. He deserves recognition, both on the individual level and for nearly guiding PARMA to its first-ever playoff berth. The Siberian club missed out by one win, hurt by its lack of depth, but that in no way diminishes Miller-McIntyre’s sensational season.
On that note, the race for the Playoffs was the best in League history. For the first time in many years, several teams were in contention until the final day of the regular season. Featuring similar-sized budgets and styles of play, VEF, Tsmoki, Astana and PARMA went head-to-head for the final postseason berth. Riga came out on top, winning several key match-ups, while picking up the tiebreaker when necessary with close losses. The Latvians also demonstrated impressive balance between foreign and domestic players, proving they were best as a team, and not as a collection of individual players.
Tsmoki had the most heartbreaking finish: Minsk had a chance to reach the postseason for the first time in club history, helped by the schedule and a string of opponents with nothing at stake late in the season. But Alexander Krutikov’s men came up short, winning only once in their final five games.
Two different players deserve mention in this category. Isaiah Briscoe was terrific throughout the season, fitting perfectly into Kalev’s system. Playing outside of the USA for the first time on a team with little depth and hope of reaching the Playoffs, the 22-year-old American initially showed little sign of becoming a star. But after a couple sluggish starts, Briscoe set the League on fire, underscoring Donaldas Kairys’ ability to discover stars, joining a list that includes Branko Mirkovic, Demonte Harper and Keith Benson…
Stefan Jelovac challenged Briscoe for the title of most electric player in the League. Jelovac stunned the competition by finishing third in scoring, helping Nizhny Novgorod win game after game down the stretch. Jelovac’s 49 points and 15 rebounds vs. Kalev went down as one of the most impressive performances in the League this season.
Avtodor and Astana decided to change head coaches during the season and both benefited from the move. Avtodor quickly realized that its hybrid approach without any centers and frenetic tempo was not what the team needed. In search of a quick turnaround, Evgeny Pashutin was brought in to rescue the season. He passed with flying colors, crafting a dangerous, versatile lineup from an unbalanced roster that held its own on both ends of the court. Avtodor had no trouble reaching the postseason, led by a breakout performance from Coty Clarke. Unfortunately, Saratov ran out of gas in the quarterfinals, making the team’s visit to the postseason a quick one.
As for the situation in Kazakhstan, Russia’s Mikhail Karpenko made a favorable impression in his coaching debut. He had clearly defined roles on the team from his predecessor Kostas Flevarakis: a) hard-working, unsung foreign players; b) determined, but limited domestic talent. Karpenko played a delicate balancing act throughout the campaign, attempting to coax the maximum out of his Kazakh core and give the foreigners an occasional break. Based on results, he did not always succeed. But the stats do not tell the entire story. Astana played many teams close, regardless of their position in the standings. But every time the games entered crunch time, more seasoned opponents like Nizhny and Lokomotiv were able to swing the momentum in their favor. By spring, Astana had missed too many chances to take a serious run at the Playoffs.
Zenit’s bronze medal finish was not St. Petersburg’s biggest achievement this season. The northern capital has grown accustomed to third-place finishes, making this three consecutive seasons with bronze. St. Petersburg’s embrace of the 2018 All-Star Game proved a bigger statement. The city on the Neva sparkled during the February showcase, with skills contests and star-studded entertainment setting the stage for a thrilling, back-and-forth All-Star Game. For a weekend, the League’s rivalries took a back seat to a united celebration of basketball in St. Petersburg. Everyone who had a chance to attend the festivities found their love for the game renewed.