Historically, the five richest clubs–CSKA, Khimki, Loko, UNICS and Zenit–have occupied the VTB League’s top five spots. But typically there is at least one surprise challenger from the rest of the League trying to break up the Big 5. Nizhny Novgorod and Avtodor have succeeded in the past and Enisey came close two seasons ago. With four days remaining before the start of the season, here are some underdog teams to keep an eye on in 2018-19.
Pro: signature style of play
Fans have become accustomed to Saratov’s signature style of play over four seasons in the League. This team goes all-in on offense, looking to attack early in possessions and run every chance it gets. Setbacks in Champions League qualifying revealed Avtodor’s many weaknesses. But when they managed to push the tempo, the team showed a lot of promise. As usual, the White-Blacks appear very comfortable playing at a frenetic pace.
Champions League qualifying exposed Avtodor in many ways. The team has issues on defense and setting up the offense. Many blamed the head coach, but the Volga club’s biggest problem is its roster. The problems began in free agency when Avtodor was building its 2018-19 roster. The club brought in seven foreigners (there are also some question marks about their level of talent), but may have the weakest collection of domestic talent in the VTB League (Astana also comes to mind). The so-called “youth movement” was suspect from the beginning and the first official games were merely confirmation. Mikhailovsky and co. aren’t ready yet to compete at this level.
Pro: Zoran Lukic
Zoran Lukic’s return last year was huge for Nizhny Novgorod. The Serbian coach took the team back to the playoffs, where they gave UNICS a scare. Ambitions are even higher this season, as evidenced by free agency. Point guard Kendrick Perry looks poised for a breakout season. Maxim Grigoryev is healthy and ready to lead the team. Rod Odom fits in nicely with the rest of the roster, while Vladimir Dragicevic and Evgeny Baburin will add confidence and experience. Coupled with Zoran Lukic’s talent, expect this squad to make a lot of noise in the VTB League.
Con: injuries and the schedule
At times, Zoran Lukic’s all-in approach can work against Nizhny Novgorod. The head coach treats every game the same way, challenging his players to give 100% no matter the opponent. Practice is no different. As a result, fatigue and increased risk of injury are legitimate concerns. The season hasn’t started yet, but three key players are already dealing with injuries: Pavel Antipov, Ivan Strebkov and Chris Czerapowicz (to be fair, Czerapowicz was injured playing with the national team).
The schedule also promises to be grueling. Nizhny Novgorod has a good shot at qualifying for the Champions League (the team faces Czech Republic’s Padrubice in qualifying this week). If they succeed, the Black-Whites will be playing virtually nonstop for the foreseeable future. Similar schedules derailed Avtodor and Enisey in past seasons. Zoran Lukic’s team may be in danger too.
Pro: Smart signings
Minsk has had to make the best of limited resources in recent seasons. Unable to sign expensive foreigners, the Belarusians need to be creative to get the players they want. This season’s quartet of foreigners could be the best ever assembled by the Dragons in the League. Champions League qualifying ended in defeat (largely because of a chaotic preseason, which was interrupted by national team competition), but the home game vs. Poland’s Torun provided a shot of confidence. All of the foreigners (Shelton, Sarikopulos, Govens, Moody) contributed and looked good on the court. Expect some surprises from the Belarusians early in the season.
Minsk signed quality foreign talent and brought back Belarusian star Vitali Liutych in the offseason. But that’s not enough to solve the team’s biggest problem. The bench players are a clear step below the starters. The foreigners did most of the work in Champions League qualifying and the domestic players sometimes struggled to even fill role positions. Most of the Belarusian players have been on the team for several seasons. There’s no confidence yet that any of them can break through to the next level.
The September signing of veteran sniper Janis Blums looks like a perfect fit for PARMA’s revamped roster. The Ural club are banking everything on outside shooting in the upcoming campaign. Three-point shooting was the emphasis on offense in the preseason with Kodi Justice posing the biggest threat. The American appears to have adapted very quickly to European basketball.
Con: lack of experience
PARMA’s roster features three first-year pros (Justice, Humphrey, Kelly) and one young Russian (Platunov). Even those with more experience on the roster were typically role players on past teams. The lack of a true leader had an effect in preseason games (American point guard Larson hasn’t been up to the challenge yet). Perhaps the veteran Blums can fix the problem, but he will need some help either way.
For the first time in a long time, geography will work in Enisey’s favor. The lack of European competition will lighten Krasnoyarsk’s schedule. Playing once a week will allow the Blue and White the opportunity to practice and prepare for games at a more comfortable tempo. Not flying all the time will also make it easier to stay in shape. Many of Enisey’s opponents will not have the same luxury. For example, both Khimki and PARMA travel to Krasnoyarsk early in the season immediately following games in Riga.
Not surprisingly, Enisey hopes to take full advantage. The team is banking on speed and athleticism, signing three high-motor Americans (Young, Harrison, Stone), who will be led by cold-blooded compatriot John Roberson. With support from a Russian trio of Lavnikov, Komissarov and Zakharov, the Siberians should enjoy more success this season in the League.
There will be higher expectations now that the team is going all-in on the League. Enisey’s setbacks a year ago were attributed to the brutal schedule, travel and lack of time to prepare and recover. Now there are no more excuses. The fans will expect the team to win or, at a minimum, be competitive with each opponent. Not every coach and player can withstand that type of psychological pressure.
Pro: decent depth and talent
Poland’s fourth-placed team chose the VTB League over European competition. The choice speaks to the club’s ambition. Unlike Vita and PARMA, the Greens will contend for more than a single victory in their debut season. At minimum, judging by the talent on the roster, the newcomers plan to battle for a playoff spot. The team is deep thanks to domestic talent, featuring five players who have worn the Polish national team jersey in the past year. In fact, four of them (Sokolowski, Koszarek, Zamojski, Hrycaniuk) are key members of the rotation.
Con: schedule and geography
While skipping European competition, Zielona Gora will play a full Polish league schedule, which means 56 games between October and April, the same number on CSKA and Khimki’s calendar. Unfortunately, Zielona Gora does not have quite the same depth of reserves as Europe’s top teams. The workload won’t be easy for the Greens, especially when facing grueling trips to the League’s easternmost clubs in Astana, Perm Krasnodar and Krasnoyarsk.