Credit: D.Repečka, FIBA | BasketNews illustration/A.Sakavičius
Credit D.Repečka, FIBA | BasketNews illustration/A.Sakavičius

A coaching change in October, two new players, one cut, and more to come. Maybe that was just another day at the office for some EuroLeague teams, but it was an improbable scenario at Nemunas basketball island for quite some time. 

Emmanuel Mudiay

Emmanuel  Mudiay
Team:
Position: PG
Age: 25
Height: 196 cm
Weight: 91 kg
Birth place: Kinshasa, Congo (Republic of the)

What happened to Zalgiris, one of the most consistent EuroLeague organizations?

What we see now in Kaunas is the tip of an iceberg. It all started at the end of the last season when Paulius Motiejunas gave his head coach Martin Schiller full power on summer decisions.

First of all, when the season wasn't finished yet, Schiller already reached an agreement with two starting lineup forwards: his former player from the Salt Lake City Stars, Tyler Cavanaugh, and ALBA Berlin captain Niels Giffey.

Credit BasketNews.lt iliustracija/BNS

On a sleepover in Warsaw during his offseason road trip from Kaunas to Germany, Schiller vetoed the signing of a point guard who ended up inking with another EuroLeague team. Instead, he decided to wait for the NBA training camp cuts and signed former No. 7 overall draft pick Emmanuel Mudiay. A five-year NBA veteran came to the EuroLeague mainly because of Schiller. They knew each other very well from their time together in Utah back in 2019-20. Mudiay thought he could trust Schiller to help with his EuroLeague rookie transition.

Schiller also let long-time Zalgiris assistant coach Evaldas Berzininkaitis go. Berzininkaitis spent eight years at the club, assisted Sarunas Jasikevicius as a team scout, and was a genuine Zalgiris' guy with green blood in his veins. This departure was a big topic in Lithuania mainly because Berzininkaitis was Sarunas Jasikevicius' follower and often challenged Schiller's basketball ideas.

Credit BasketNews.lt/D. Lukšta

In summer 2020, Schiller took over the Zalgiris team, which was constructed on Saras' foundation. This time he built his own team. Although to this day, there are question marks in Kaunas if Edgaras Ulanovas and Mantas Kalnietis, two Lithuanian veterans, were really Schiller's signings. Time will show that both of them had to play how they're not used to playing. Kalnietis became an off-ball player for short stints of the game, while Ulanovas was put in Grigonis' shoes, playing pick-and-roll, shooting threes, instead of using his qualities on the block.

Emmanuel Mudiay

Emmanuel  Mudiay
Emmanuel  Mudiay
MIN: 19.21
PTS: 7.4 (41.18%)
REB: 2.2
As: 3.2
ST: 0.6
BL: 0
TO: 2.2
GM: 5

Problems appeared from the start of the Zalgiris training camp.

Janis Strelnieks joined Zalgiris preseason camp already injured. Mantas Kalnietis didn't feel comfortable with his ankle at the beginning. Mudiay wasn't match-fit, and Zalgiris were struggling. They lost all five preseason games, three of them against lower-tier teams like Lietkabelis, Lokomotiv, and Tofas.

Zalgiris started winning when the official games began. But double-overtime victory against Dzukija Alytus (105-100) or a close battle with LKL newcomers CBet Jonava (86-80) wasn't convincing.

There were many concerns before the EuroLeague season opener in Villeurbanne for a reason. Zalgiris didn't have a chance against ASVEL (76-88), and as Paulius Motiejunas will tell later, that was the time he started considering a coaching change. Yes, after the first game of the EuroLeague regular season.

Credit žalgiris.lt

Schiller found digging himself into a hole.

Neither of his backcourt players was a solid defender. Both starting lineup guards Mudiay and Strelnieks couldn't keep their opponents in front, causing major defensive collapses. Schiller's squad lacked athleticism under the basket when Josh Nebo was on the bench. Above everything, Zalgiris lacked chemistry on the court to work like a Swiss watch on the defensive end. To this day, Zalgiris have the worst defensive rating in the EuroLeague.

Zalgiris wasn't any better on the other end. Mudiay couldn't make a long-range shot (3P: 23.1%), wasn't efficient from the 2-point range either (2P: 37%). Rivals knew it, and it made the court smaller for Zalgiris. Mudiay was neither a good floor general to involve others (3.2 APG, 2.2 TO) and mostly ended up attempting low-percentage mid-range shots.

But to be honest, that was nothing that you couldn't predict before Mudiay's rookie experience in the EuroLeague. These red flags were raised way before his arrival to Kaunas.

Credit T.Matijoška

With their projected best scorer off, Zalgiris didn't have anybody else to break the defense. Lukas Lekavicius, a great backup but not your go-to guy for a playoff team, became probably the most reliable perimeter threat (9.4 PPG). Janis Strelnieks started the season tremendously (21 points at Villeurbanne and 14 points vs. Zenit), but he got injured again, and since the coaching change, he couldn't find his rhythm yet (4.3 PPG under Zdovc).

Zalgiris have too many veterans in important roles. Paulius Jankunas, 37, played 15 minutes per game instead of doing a farewell tour. Kalnietis and Milaknis, both 35, average 15 and 18 minutes, respectively. To no one's surprise, half of Zalgiris' roster missed at least one game due to injuries so far. Zalgiris recently announced that Jankunas would be out for 4-5 weeks due to meniscus surgery, joining Joffrey Lauvergne, who won't help his team for around three months.

Edgaras Ulanovas lost his confidence somewhere between Kaunas and Istanbul and is on his nightmare season so far (3.6 PPG on 16.7% 2-point and 21.1% 3-point shooting). Tyler Cavanaugh (5.8 PPG) was bought to stretch the floor, but he has made only 25% of his threes so far. Nigel Hayes also had some nights with his shot off before, but at least he could offer a very solid defense. Cavanaugh's 2+1 contract looks like a mystery right now.

When Joffrey Lauvergne suffered a shoulder injury, which ruled him out at least until the end of January, Zalgiris missed another vital presence in the paint. Josh Nebo stepped up, showing some great splashes of his potential. At the moment, he's the best scorer (9.7 PPG) and the most efficient Zalgiris player (14.7 PIR). But to be efficient in the offense, he needs guards to deliver.

"We understand that we need to be patient. With Saras, we also had a 1-4 start. But we were patient because we saw the progress. This time we thought that it was only a matter of time because of a new roster. All the players needed time. But later, we didn't see the progress we expected," Paulius Motiejunas explained after firing Martin Schiller. "For us, Zalgiris, to be satisfied with a double-overtime victory against Dzukija... It doesn't satisfy us. We have higher ambitions. You can always wait, but if you don't see the progress, what's there to wait for?"

One day Schiller was on the cover of the most popular magazine in Lithuania. The next day he was fired. Motiejunas' belief in Schiller was worth only the first two EuroLeague games. That was a bit surprising, especially if you give full control to a coach with a whole different approach. If he was judged only by two-month performance, Zalgiris should have taken a different route in summer, with a new head coach, his own players a new direction.

Although it was not only Zalgiris' front office decision. Some players also raised their concerns over Schiller's job in Kaunas, sources say BasketNews.

Credit zalgiris.lt

From a more players-friendly American basketball approach, Zalgiris quickly came back to the roots of old-school European basketball. They hired a tough coach Jure Zdovc.

"I have to take part of the responsibility. When Saras left, we wanted to start something new, and we started a project between the NBA, G League, and the EuroLeague. I have to admit that this project was unsuccessful," Paulius Motiejunas said. "We decided to move forward, and we believe it will be better for us."

So all of a sudden, Zalgiris is going old-school now. A defensive-minded head coach emphasizes the defense based on intensity and discipline, but who has to take over a team that is not suited for that style.

Zdovc also got an injured team. Lauvergne, Strelnieks, or Mudiay, at least one of his starting lineup players, even all of them in some cases, weren't ready to help Zdovc in a battle due to injuries ever since he came to Kaunas.

A coaching change expecting a quick turnaround in this new EuroLeague format became overrated these days. Zdovc didn't hide that he was thrown into a fire. He didn't know team plays at first. He didn't have enough practices to implement his ideas. And he went through 8 games (5 in the EuroLeague) in 18 days, including two double-game weeks.

To no one's surprise, Zdovc started his chapter in Zalgiris with 0-5, extending green whites losing streak to 7, the club's worst in the modern EuroLeague's history.

"I don't have to be a lawyer of any coach here. But expect a change when you play the double week? When you have injuries? How can you expect the change? Just snapping fingers? In basketball, it doesn't work," Andrea Trinchieri said after defeating Zalgiris in Zdovc's first EuroLeague game in front of the home crowd. "Every coach needs time. Every coach need needs time to put together something new."

"So Zalgiris could not have made changes. And they played a super hard game. They played hard in Olympiacos, which is really difficult to beat. They played hard with Zvezda. And they played hard tonight. This is a fact, not an opinion. But Zalgiris doesn't need me to cheer for them," Trinchieri concluded. 

Credit BNS

Three weeks after a coaching change, Zalgiris started making moves.

Zdovc reshaped the roster with two players from his agency: Slovenian hustle Zoran Dragic and the EuroLeague rookie Tai Webster.

Dragic adds a lot of experience, never-ending energy, and perimeter defense, which didn't exist before. Mudiay's replacement Webster is expected to be more prepared for the EuroLeague game and a more reliable shooter (55.2% 3-point shooting in EuroCup 2019-20).

On the other hand, Dragic became the 7th 30+ player on the Zalgiris roster. Despite playing as a shooting guard, he also covers probably the most loaded small forward position, which Ulanovas and Giffey already covered. Webster, a pick-and-roll player, who was not very consistent in the EuroCup, still needs to prove he belongs in the EuroLeague.

Both newcomers were signed to one-year contracts, showing that Zalgiris is still in a win-now mode. Although with the season slipping away 0-7, all the injuries and roster mistakes, Zalgiris should also think about their future.

They have only two players with significant upside so far. The EuroLeague rook Josh Nebo, 24, has stepped up as one of the most athletic EuroLeague big men (next to Donta Hall) with his incredible athleticism on both ends of the floor. One of the top Lithuanian prospects, Marek Blazevic, 20, finally got some meaningful EuroLeague minutes in his second season with green whites. But what's interesting, Zalgiris is still on the market for a big man.

Credit zalgiris.lt

Mudiay also would have been on this list. He had the potential to become a much better player in some time. Lithuanian veterans appreciated his effort and saw some great glimpses in the practices. Considering the possible upside, Zalgiris' needs, and thinking about the future, it seemed logical to move Strelnieks instead of Mudiay. But with so many players playing below their potential, Zalgiris decided to move on from their biggest summer project. 

All of a sudden, Zalgiris became a team that is stuck in limbo this year. Even with a full roster, they're not talented enough to be in a playoff race. They're not CSKA: they can't afford to replace 4-6 players during the season. Neither do they have enough prospects to build on for the next season.

For many years under Saras' guidance, Zalgiris was very well known and respected for their clear direction. Zalgiris always built a hungry team, unproven players with a considerable upside, solid Lithuanians with clear roles, fighting spirit, and mentality of being a formidable opponent for any EuroLeague team.

But Zalgiris lost their track, and, again, you should look for the answers in summer 2021.

As Sarunas Jasikevicius once said, such an organization could have one season like this, and to overachieve every single year is a big ask. But at the same time, this basketball town has to find a way to quickly get out of this grey zone. 

Show comments
Thank you for reporting a comment

Add comment

We have the right to remove comments which are offensive, contains abusive language, or violates other rules of the website

Points this season

40%
66,3
Points made: 66,3
Accuracy: 39,8%
Place in standings: 18
Record max: 76
Record min: 60
Best scorer: Josh Nebo