Continuing our series of EuroLeague playoff previews here at GiveMeSport.
READ: Part 1 - CSKA Moscow are as dominant as they have ever been
READ: Part 2 - Panathinaikos have ridden their great point guard to the playoffs
READ: Part 3 - Zalgiris have a real chance at making their first ever Final Four
Khimki enter the EuroLeague playoffs with the toughest path to success. Although this is not their first EuroLeague season - they played in the Euroleague in each of 2009/10 (out in the first round), 2010/11 (out in the round of 16), 2011/12 (one game and out) and 2015/16 (out in the round of 16 again) - this is the best they have ever done. They are also the only playoff team not to have an A licence (granting them automatic entry into the competition), and also play in the smallest stadium. If there is an underdog to be found in what is left of the field, it is them.
In anticipation of this step up to the big leagues, Khimki went shopping this past summer for a load of former NBA talent. To bring in all of Charles Jenkins, Malcolm Thomas, James Anderson, Thomas Robinson and Tyler Honeycutt is to bring in five NBA vets - with Anthony Gill also having been on the cusp of the big league as a pro - while the acquisition of established European veteran point guard Stefan Markovic signalled an intent to be in there with the big boys come the season's end.
To be fair, they are. But despite all the talent and reputation acquired, there are limitations with the roster.
Most notably, the team's major weakness is in the rebounding department. Khimki ranked last in the regular season in team rebounding percentage, and by quite a long way - their 47.1% mark trailed second-last Olimpia Milano at 47.8%, and joint-third-last Crvena Zvezda and Valencia were quite some way ahead at 48.5%. They are particularly weak on the defensive glass, ranking a full 2% lower than the next lowest team.
Thomas Robinson, whose combination of rebounding instincts and athleticism were always the foundation of his perceived NBA star potential, missed the middle three months of the season due to injury, and has not been the same since returning. He is nevertheless the only plus rebounder on the team's interior, yet cannot do it all. And while Gill and Thomas are decent rebounders for their position (particularly offensively), and Honeycutt (5.4 rpg in 20.7 mpg) is a particularly good one for his, that is all the team has been able to offer on the glass. It hasn't helped that Honeycutt, too, has missed half the season.
Additionally, the team is also short on defence, at least in relative terms. They ranked eighth out of the 16 teams in defensive rating in the regular season, yet of the eight playoff teams, they were ahead only of Zalgiris. None of the interior players are great shot blocking threats - Thomas Robinson should not be the major basket protector - and neither do they apply enough pressure on the perimeter, vulnerable to a moving ball at all times. They also lack for domestic help - although Sergei Monia is still around, he is now considerably slowed (turning 35 just this week) and is limited mostly now to three-point shooting and extra passing, as is also the case for another veteran Russian, 32-year-old reserve guard Egor Vyaltsev. Viacheslav Zaystev handles the ball off the bench for a few minutes per game, but not to any great effect, and that is about it.
Well, except one. What Khimki do have is Alexey Shved.
Shved is the leading scorer in the EuroLeague this season, and the only man to have cracked the 20 points per game barrier. In all but nine games of the regular season, he scored more than 20, and never did he score less than 15.
A good athlete with plenty of skill, Shved is extremely aggressive in hunting his shot, and empowered to be. He pulls up and creates off the dribble, splitting doubles, probing and dropping floaters, and although he can rightfully be accused of taking some bad jumpers - and talking quite a lot of them, shooting more than nine three-pointers per game on the EuroLeague season to date and hitting only 32.2% of them - his ability to shoot off the dribble in this way does at least give the offence a chance every trip down.
This style does have its inefficiencies. Shved has a tendency to stop the ball and overly isolate, and when he does so, his teammates such as Markovic, Honeycutt and James Anderson (none of whom are you would say good catch-and-shoot players) have a tendency to stand there and watch him do it. But Shved's constant cast-ups and bailouts got them here, and they could not have done it without him.
Elsewhere on offence, there is some length and athleticism to be found. The frontcourt trio of Robinson, Gill and Thomas might not be the best creating in the post, on the drive or in the pick-and-roll, yet they are good athletes all who can finish, and Gill has had some success as a face-up four man. There are some other options to which the team can turn - Markovic can post and controls the tempo well when the ball is not with Shved, Monia can shoot, Honeycutt can run the court and dunk as well as anyone and drives closeouts, Jenkins can make plays out of the pick-and-roll - and while Anderson's forays into trying to be a playmaker and isolation player of his own have not gone nearly as well as when Shved does it, his physical profile does make him a good finisher if he can catch downhill without too much duress.
Nonetheless, the offence is defined by Shved and his Shveddyness. And that becomes a problem when talking about a defence of the calibre of CSKA Moscow, of an individual guard defender like Cory Higgins, and of a switcher like (when healthy) Kyle Hines. Khimki might also be undermanned themselves with the health of both Honeycutt and Anderson still unclear - to have any chance here, they need every weapon playing to their best.
Also handicapping the team all season has been a tendency to lose on the road. It might help, then, that their first round opponents only live down the road. The downside of drawing CSKA Moscow, though, is their sheer quality, both of their star talents and their depth. Khimky cannot boast these things.
Khimki are a good team who are shallow only by EuroLeague standards, and who can call upon one of the competition's very best players. They are however phenomenally reliant on Shved. There are some other options - and the absence of Kyle Hines ever so slightly opens the door. But given the strength in depth of the opposition, it is not open very wide.