Credit: AFP – Scanpix
Credit AFP – Scanpix

Being the defending champion is not easy. You already proved how good you are, but you're also faced with the question of how to make a perfect machine even better?

How to motivate the players for a new kind of challenge and reignite their thirst for success? How to identify your defects when you are already dominating?

That is the conundrum that titleholders Anadolu Efes Istanbul could be encountering. These are the main challenges for coach Ergin Ataman, who decided to remain with the club for two more seasons. 

This season's roster management is a success story. Vasilje Micic's path to NBA looked like a sure thing back in May, but he opted to stay and signed a new contract.

Shane Larkin stayed too. So did Adrien Moerman, Rodrigue Beaubois and James Anderson. The other crucial complementary figures like Tibor Pleiss, Krunoslav Simon, Chris Singleton, Bryant Dunston already had existing contracts.

The domestic core also remained intact with captain Dogus Balbay, Erten Gazi, Bugrahan Tuncer, Yigitcan Saybir, and Tolga Gecim. Only Sertac Sanli left and was replaced by Filip Petrusev. 

Efes started their pre-season in Bormio (Italy), followed by the Gloria Cup tournament in Antalya. The friendlies started on a high note (if we leave out the defeat against Milan), seven wins out of eight games.

Despite the lack of crucial players such as Larkin, Krunoslav Simon, and Pleiss, Efes won Gloria Cup easily with comfortable victories against Tofas, Lokomotiv-Kuban Krasnodar, and Zalgiris Kaunas. 

The tougher tests came later in OAKA Arena, Athens, where Efes lost to hosts Panathinaikos in the final of Pavlos Giannakapolous tournament. Here are their results in a nutshell:

Place Tournament Opponent Outcome Score
Italy Friendly Brescia W 91-79
Italy Friendly Brescia W 89-75
France Friendly AS Monaco W 85-75
Italy Friendly AX Armani Exchange W 95-83
Italy Friendly AX Armani Exchange L 62-90
Turkey Gloria Cup Tofas W 90-84
Turkey Gloria Cup Lokomotiv-Kuban W 97-67
Turkey Gloria Cup Zalgiris W 82-60
Serbia Friendly Partizan L 85-92
Greece Pavlos Giannakopoulos Ulm W 88-67
Greece Pavlos Giannakopoulos Panathinaikos L 74-80

These games might not be perfect indicators of teams' overall condition. Nevertheless, we still have something to play with to have our takes from this limited and not-so-robust data sample.

Instead of looking closely at each game on its own, we should take the period in a holistic manner. Here are some major salient characteristics gathered from the early impressions. 

Offensive style and efficiency

Under the Ataman reign, Efes became one of the best Euroleague teams in terms of offensive efficiency, perhaps in the entire history of the competition.

Last season, Efes topped the Offensive Rating with 104 points per 100 possessions ( More intriguing, this offensive potency was built on a relatively liberal type of offensive flow, where player initiatives stood as the main engine. 

The early pre-season games showed us that many of last years' offensive structures are kept with high-range variety.

The primary blueprint of this team is the discernible offensive aspects of Efes, such as stretch spacing (or five outs), good ball movement, and high-volume shooting. Regarding offensive entry types, zipper cuts are very prominent.

Still, occasional Iverson-like cuts, horns setting, and early staggers signify a wide range of offensive tools that Efes can use this season. 

Despite Larkin's absence, the team averaged 86 points per game during pre-season. Efes shot (box scores for some games were not available) 61% (2FG) and 34% (3FG) while attempting 27 shots from behind the arc.

Teamwork and mutual cohesion looked good, with a respectable 1.69 Assist/Turnover ratio (112 to 66). Again, those were friendly games, but the offense looked fluid, intuitive, and confident. 

Micic, Beaubois, and business as usual

During an interview with Donatas Urbonas, Vasilje Micic explained his motivations behind staying with the Efes this summer. He admitted to enjoying the driver's seat for his team. Since Efes gave him this space of initiative and opportunity to show his talents and leadership, why leave? 

Micic will once again be one-half of the scoring duo with Larkin. However, in the pre-season, Micic was accompanied by Beaubois. We do not suggest that Micic particularly forced himself to dominate games that did not matter much, but it wasn't hard to feel his presence on the court as it gave natural confidence to the rest of the team.

In other words, it was business as usual. The turnovers against PAO and 1/8 3 FG shooting against Ulm left a sense of untidiness, but Micic is Micic; still finding best spots to create his own 3s, finding the open corridors after pick and rolls, and what is more, knowing exactly when to lift his game and give his best. 

Beaubois looked sharp as his accuracy on the signature spot-up, and one-dribble 3-point shooting signaled his physical and mental readiness for the season. 

Credit BasketNews

Post-ups and early dunker spots

Efes' offense became unstoppable during the second part of last season. Still, in the earlier days, one crucial offensive aspect was not exploited adequately: post-ups and easy finishes at the rim.

It stemmed mainly from the roster structure: Pleiss and Sanli conditioned themselves to play away from the basket, and Bryan Dunston was sidelined with injury. 

As a result, when either Larkin or Micic (or sometimes both) wasn't at their best, their performances decreased overall offensive efficiency. Efes introduced post-ups with Dunston and Adrien Moerman towards the end of the season more frequently, but it looks like they might give it a more prominent role this season.

The early games suggest that Efes give particular importance for a player to position himself in the dunker spot (near to rim), especially in the early phase of the possession. 

With the help of this well-known offensive adjustment, aka "The Dunker Spot," used by Mike Budenholzer and the Milwaukee Bucks when they became the NBA champions. So presumably, something similar could be very effective for Efes too.

As the pre-season games show, Gecim tended to direct offensive flow from these low-post positions numerous times. Anderson and Petrusev also frequently took positions in the dunker spots during the transition.

As we live in the twilight of mid-range shots, these touches to low post help unsettle the opponent defenses by providing different angles to create shots. One question is: Are we going to see a lot of these post-ups once Simon and Pleiss return to the squad? Only time will tell.  

New force: Filip Petrusev 

One of the most crucial losses this summer was Sanli. Last season, he found an opportunity to expose all the game aspects that he improved through the years, thanks to his diligent efforts shown in practice. His contributions to Efes' stretch offensive setting will be missed, but the new acquisition might bring his own value. 

As our staff writer Giorgios Kyriakidis uncovered, Petrusev was ready to show his skills. On paper, the Efes-Petrusev partnership makes sense. NBA Summer League was a rough experiment for him physically, but during the pre-season games with Efes, Petrusev gave us some implications as the fitting addition.

He is pretty mobile at four, and he did not have problems in terms of connection in the pick-n-rolls, regardless of the ball handler. 

Probably he is not going to intimidate with power-dunks after deep rolls, but he is attacking the rim using his gentle but accurate floaters and instinctively good positioning.

His good decision-making after short rolls reflects the distribution skills, which are very valuable when we think of Efes' offensive setting. Petrusev did not use mid-range or 3-pointer range extensively, other than infrequent occasions.

This was a department where Sertac Sanli provided a lot of contribution, so it might be some food for thought whether Petrusev will be assigned to improve that aspect. 

Moreover, Petrusev opted to drop while covering opponent pick and rolls. Whether Ataman would ask him to hard-hedge at times - as Sertac did brilliantly - are other questions for Petrusev.

His courage to contest the opponent near the rim is another plus on the defensive aspect. So far, Petrusev managed to have outstanding games: 15 points against Zalgiris Kaunas, 23 points (9/11 2 FG) and 6 rebounds against Lokomotiv-Kuban, and 17 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks against Ulm. 

Defense: The good and the bad 

Offensively Efes shined like a diamond on their way to the EuroLeague final in 2019 and won the trophy last season. But it is doubtful whether these achievements could be reached without defensive improvements. Barcelona was the defensive kings of EuroLeague the previous season.

Still, Efes also found themselves as third-best in the category, especially with the help of some individual assignments fulfilled brilliantly by James Anderson, Chris Singleton, or Dogus Balbay. It was fun to watch the Larkin-Micic offensive explosions, but all in all, defense determined their long-term limits, no matter how cliche it sounded. 

Early transition treys during almost all pre-season games were eye-catching, if not alarming. Alongside this, drop-in coverage instead of switching (by Dunston and Petrusev) also rendered Efes vulnerable at times.

But as a counterargument to this, Efes showed that they have the rotational mobility and cognitive adequacy to defend both perimeter and the painted area when they want to. 

Overall, they allowed 75 points in pre-season games with a +10 points differential. If we look at the numbers, Efes allowed opponents to shoot 49% (2FG) and 31% (3FG), which could be deemed solid defense figures.

But of course, these are just pre-season games, and taking them too seriously could be misleading. A more advanced and robust analysis could be made after the real season starts.

Ergin Ataman Set Plays That Won EuroLeague

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