Upward Movement: Who’s In The Playoff Chase?

Upward Movement: Who’s In The Playoff Chase?

Dmitry Gerchikov predicts fierce competition for a spot in the top eight and names the teams he expects to improve in 2018.


While the VTB United League’s top teams have fallen in line behind CSKA, the bottom half of the standings is in serious flux. Dmitry Gerchikov analyzes which teams could lead the charge for a postseason spot in 2018. 

Tsmoki-Minsk Belarus

Now: 7th place (4-5)

The Belarusians have never reached the postseason and weren’t expected to be a serious contender in 2017-18 either. But the defense implemented by new head coach Alexander Krutikov, which he tested on the Belarusian national team this summer, has been effective at the club level. Tsmoki uses a core of Belarusian players who forged an identity in 2019 World Cup qualifying games and were in great shape to start the season. Coupled with a cadre of international players that fit the system and needed little time to adjust, Krutikov has assembled a roster with balance and work ethic, if not much name recognition. Nobody’s asked to do too much: forward Chris Czerapowicz is expected to knock down 3-pointers, center David Kravish anchors the defense in the paint and point guard Filip Adamovic orchestrates the offense…

Many expected the opposition to break down Tsmoki’s system quickly and efficiently. But because Minsk’s players don’t overthink things and stick to executing the game plan in each outing, the wins have continued to trickle in. The Dragons’ losses have come to teams above them in the standings, while the wins have been against other playoff hopefuls. That’s good enough for 7th place in mid-December. Tsmoki has never climbed this high in the standings, and if they can avoid injuries, they might stick around for quite a while. After all, the teams chasing Tsmoki have yet to play with the same consistency, discipline or defensive reliability.

Kalev Estonia

Now: 12th place (2-8)

Let’s drive north to Estonia’s capital and check in on Kalev, where ex-Dragons boss Donaldas Kairys was recently hired as head coach. He got off to a hot start in Minsk, but an over-dependence on foreign players, extremely short bench and lack of composure in close games (bad timeouts, lack of in-game coaching) led to a relatively short stint in Belarus. Nevertheless, it was easy to see his talent for game planning and decision-making in free agency as he assembled one of Tsmoki’s best rosters in League history. 

Three years later, he’s returned to the League, and very nearly guided Kalev to an upset of CSKA. Boasting only one win at the time, Kalev lost by eight in Moscow. In the next game, Kalev erased 14-point deficits three different times, but couldn’t quite take down Minsk. A win over VEF in the Baltic derby snapped Kalev’s losing streak and served notice that the Estonians could be a force in the playoff hunt in 2018. 

That may seem unrealistic for a team with a 2-8 record, but there are reasons for optimism. Kalev’s point guard and center, Mirkovic and Simmons, are both experienced and smart enough to ensure execution at both ends of the court. And despite their age, both can provide at least 25 quality minutes per outing. The Estonians also have a balanced roster, which likes to push the tempo and keep things interesting. Kairys also matured as a coach in Poland, improving his in-game management and adding new elements to his system, and now he’s ready to prove he belongs in the VTB United League. 

Enisey Krasnoyarsk

Now: 9th place (2-5)

For a team near the bottom of the standings, Krasnoyarsk has struggled most to play in multiple competitions. Even within the VTB United League, every road trip is an exhausting affair for the Siberian club. Combined with away games in the Champions League, Enisey has had some ugly stumbles in the VTB League. Oleg Okulov does his best to keep his leaders fresh, but it’s a virtually impossible task. As 2017 comes to a close, Enisey sits 2-5 in the League with a pair of 20-point road defeats to Astana and VEF, games that Krasnoyarsk typically won last season. 

But that’s reality for Enisey with five more games to go in the Champions League. Beginning on January 20, however, Enisey will have a realistic chance to turn things around and begin climbing the standings. For nearly a month, Enisey will play every game at home–where it’s already 2-1 in the League–including several match-ups with other playoff hopefuls. Given that Enisey is also gradually getting healthy and improving its on-court communication (especially between the point guard and the rest of the team), while signing fresh talent like center Martins Meiers, it’s almost certain the team will be improved in 2018.

Astana Kazakhstan

Now: 11th place (2-7)

This may be the most controversial team on the list. Astana doesn’t have a clear-cut leader that can take over games. The squad is also more dependent on international talent than other teams in the League. Meanwhile, Astana is near the bottom of the League in offense, which can cause problems in games the Kazakhs are expected to win. Given the litany of issues facing Astana, few would give the team much of a chance in 2018. The reality, though, is that Astana was closer than anyone else in the League to notching several big-time upsets. 

Against Khimki, Kostas Flevarakis’s men showed no fear, losing by only a point in the final seconds of a hard-fought game. Last week, Astana pushed UNICS to the limit and had a chance to win in regulation at the free-throw line, before dropping a heart-breaker in overtime. Despite the defeats, everybody would agree that Astana’s discipline, execution and never-quit attitude are on the verge of delivering big wins.

A glance at the calendar suggests a turnaround may be in the cards for Astana. The Kazakh club played almost exclusively on the road in the autumn, with only one home game against another playoff hopeful in Enisey. Flevarakis & co. took advantage of that opportunity, running Krasnoyarsk out of the gym. Once the team gets a series of home games against beatable opposition, and the calendar becomes a bit more consistent, Astana could pick up a lot more respect around the League. 

Dmitry Gerchikov