Every summer, the offseason for EuroLeague teams takes shape and earns a narrative. There are layers to these narratives, starting with good or bad, and devolving into the reasons why a team has been given one of those binary labels. Oftentimes, these narratives are just that — a narrative. It drops, for better or worse, once actual games start. Sometimes they have a few kernels of truth, and occasionally they endure. Every offseason narrative is either nothing, something, or everything. They always start with a combination of where they ended last season, and what players they lost.
For EuroLeague team Crvena Zvezda Meridianbet, it was bad on both fronts. They failed to qualify for the EuroLeague playoffs and were bested by archrivals Partizan Belgrade in the Adriatic League Finals. Following these disappointing conclusions to their season, four of their five key players left the club relatively quickly.
Luca Vildoza left for Panathinaikos. Facundo Campazzo left for Real Madrid. Ognjen Dobric left for Virtus Bologna, and Filip Petrusev left for the Philadelphia 76ers. Their EuroLeague offseason was quickly going from bad to worse, but since then, head coach Dusko Ivanovic and club President Nebojsa Covic have acted swiftly to replace these players and add even more to what was one of the shortest rotations in EuroLeague last season. Some have praised Zvezda’s offseason, but others have doubts, particularly at the guard positions.
Campazzo and Vildoza’s departure was met with the additions of Yago Dos Santos, Shabazz Napier, Milos Teodosic, and Adam Hanga. If you run the numbers, you’ll realize that four players are more than two. They also still have Nemanja Nedovic and Branko Lazic on their roster. This begs the question:
EuroLeague teams: How will Crvena Zvezda make it work with all their guards?
To start, let’s work backward and take a look at how Zvezda liked to create on offense last season. Across all competitions, Zvezda ran over 1,500 pick-and-rolls that ended with a shot, turnover, or foul for the ball handler or roll man. This and spot-ups were the core of their offense, and it’s likely why they’ve gone all-in on so many guards. Dos Santos, Napier, and Teodosic are all primarily pick-and-roll point guards. They ran more than 700 pick-and-rolls between them last season and will be taking the bulk of what Vildoza, Campazzo, and Dobric have left behind.
Where things get interesting, is when you try to decipher who Zvezda’s lead guard should be. Figuring out who the best pick-and-roll point guard is out of these three is puerile. They are all elite. The better question to ask is what else these players, Hanga, Teodosic, and Branko Lazic, are good at outside of pick-and-rolls. Do they bring other offensive skill sets to the table that will pair well with the pick-and-roll play of their teammates?
The answer to this question will be key to finding a way to make all these players fit and keep them happy. Not only in terms of possessions but also minutes. There are 80 minutes to be distributed between the two guard positions in every EuroLeague game. Dos Santos, Napier, Teodosic, Hanga, and Nedovic averaged a combined 105.4 minutes per game across all competitions last season. All of these players will see their minutes cut across the board, and if they want to limit that they need to offer more than their pick-and-roll expertise.
Zvezda’s most versatile offensive player out of that group is Nedovic. He is not only Zvezda’s most well-rounded offensive player but one of the most well-rounded offensive players in Europe.
Nedovic could, and should, lead the way for Zvezda’s off-guard spot next season and be the focal point of their perimeter offense. He has a greater playbook than his teammates and opens up the entire game for Zvezda. But to tap into that, coach Ivanovic will still need to figure out who’s setting the table for him. Dos Santos is the best choice.
Dos Santos’ skillset is best suited to opening the game up for Nedovic. He’s a penetrative guard, one who uses the pick-and-roll to break through the first line of defense, get into the lane, and make opposing defenses start moving.
Dos Santos lives to create. He is small but mighty and wants to weasel his way to the rim to either score or set up a teammate. He not only applied more rim pressure than Napier last season but was also a better passer, averaging 5.8 assists per game to Napier’s 4. Dos Santos will be the brains of the operation, and Nedovic the heart. Together, they could be unstoppable.
If Dos Santos and Nedovic are going to be the primaries, Napier and Teodosic will have to adjust. Moreso the former, than the latter. Teodosic will always be entertaining, the type of player who makes kids fall in love with the game, who does things on the court that we all go out and try when playing pick up and fail at miserably. No one will ever take away Teodosic’s flair but at 36, Father Time is starting to take away his effectiveness.
Between Dos Santos, Napier, and Nedovic he was the least efficient in the pick-and-roll last season. He doesn’t have the burst that used to let him beat players to the rim years ago and struggles with the increasing physicality of the modern game. But if Teodosic is willing to change his game, he can still be incredibly impactful for Zvezda this season.
No matter how old Teodosic gets, his accuracy from beyond the arc will never leave him. He shot 39 percent on 272 attempts from beyond the arc last season. He shot 40 percent on spot-up three-pointers and 39 percent off of screens, he was in the 81st and 60th percentile on each of these shot types.
For Teodosic to continue to be impactful at the EuroLeague level on a team with Final Four aspirations, he needs to assume the off-ball role and tip the scales of what he likes to do on offense. Instead of 40 percent of his shots coming out of the pick-and-roll and 30 percent coming out of spot-ups or off-screens, those need to inverse at the very least. Zvezda has better point guards than him, and there’s no shame in that at 36 years old. But there is shame in refusing to adapt your game to help your team win.
To close, how do Napier and even Hanga and Lazic fit into the picture? And how does this set up the plethora of forwards - Rokas Giedraitis, Dejan Davidovac, Luka Mitrovic, and Nemanja Bjelica — as well as their centers - Mike Tobey, Joel Bolomboy, Marko Simonovic, and Ognjen Kuzmic?
Hanga and Lazic will serve as defensive reinforcements alongside their more skilled guard teammates. Dos Santos, Napier, Nedovic, and especially Teodosic are varying degrees of bad and flat-out awful on the defensive end. Giedraitis is a perfect fit at the three for this squad. He shot 36 percent on over 250 three-pointers last season and thrived as a cutter (97th percentile), in transition (85th percentile), as a spot-up shooter (74th percentile), and coming off screens (55th percentile). He will feast on the defensive rotations created by his teammates dribble penetration and on-ball firepower. Davidovac will bring more of the same (97th percentile as a spot-up shooter and 91st percentile as a cutter).
Tobey will be their option to offer spacing from the center position. Simonovic and Bolomboy will be major threats as roll-men and screeners, and Simonovic and Kuzmic can provide a low-post flavor to keep teams on their toes. We didn’t even get into Bjelica, who’s probably one of the most talented surpluses in the league at this point.
Coach Ivanovic has a lot of tools at his disposal, a stark contrast from last season when he had one of the most one-dimensional rosters in EuroLeague. This team is gifted and will be able to counterpunch anything their opponents throw at them. But it starts with their guards. Dos Santos needs to be given the keys, Nedovic needs to be recognized as the engine, and everyone else must move with that, especially Teodosic. If Ivanovic can make it all work, this team can reach their goal of making the EuroLeague Final Four.