EuroLeague Playoff Previews: Fenerbahce have a chance of defending their title

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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
READ: Part 4 - Facing the mighty CSKA Moscow, Khimki are really up against it
READ: Part 5 - Even without Sergio Llull, Real Madrid sustained a high level
READ: Part 6 - Olympiakos are looking to go one better this year

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Last year, after coming third in 2015 and second in 2016, Fenerbahce won the EuroLeague title. Doing so while going only nine and a half deep, they triumphed by following a fairly simple formula - the interior defence of Ekpe Udoh and Jan Vesely, the crafty brilliance of Bogdan Bogdanovic, and plenty of outside shooting.

Of course, as is so often the way with true stars, the NBA soon came calling. Udoh returned to the States after two years away, signing as a free agent with the Utah Jazz (only to find himself out of their rotation come playoff time), while Bogdanovic finally took up his draft rights, signing a big money deal with the Sacramento Kings, and being one of the better rookies in the NBA this season.

These moves, combined with the departure of the ageing Pero Antic to Crvena Zvezda, necessitated something of a reload for Fener. And yet despite losing two stars of the league, here they are once again, in a strong defence of their title, ranking second in the regular season with a 21-9 record, and going for their fourth consecutive Final Four appearance. They are doing so with largely the same formula.

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Replacing only three key rotation players in one offseason is considerably less turnover than many of their peers self-inflict unto themselves annually. Fenerbahce have thus been the beneficiary of plenty of continuity and cohesion, something best evidenced in their offensive rhythm. Ranking second in the EuroLeague in offensive efficiency (albeit 4.3 points behind the CSKA Moscow powerhouse), Fenerbahce rank second in true shooting percentage at .613%, and also lead the league in assist percentage, a whopping 11% better than CSKA.

They can still shoot, too. Fenerbahce shoot 42.4% from three-point range as a team in EuroLeague play; the ball zips around, the wings shoot the bejeezus out of it, and the team also can and do play a range of four-out line-ups. Nicolo Melli, brought in from Milano as one of the few new additions, hits 37.5% of his three-pointers as a part of a fairly complete if inconsistent face-up offensive game that he pairs with capable face-up defence, while fellow forward Nikola Kalinic chips in a bit of floor spacing of his own in limited minutes.

The only non-shooting position is at centre, where Vesely serves as the remaining half of last year's monstrous interior defence. Without Udoh to cover for him, Vesely's foul rates have increased this year due to the increased exposure and responsibility, but the foul is not always a bad thing, and in and around the key, his size, length and spring make for quite the deterrent. Vesely's offensive skill has never been great, but that same physical profile makes him an interior target for lobs, a put-back artist and a finisher. He leads the team in scoring at 12.9 points per game, even if he does not lead it in skill. In Udoh's place has come NBA veteran Jason Thompson, who has had some offensive success through his combination of mid-range jump shots and paint touches. Between the two of them, there is paint offence at the five spot.

The absence of Udoh is notable, though. An excellent eraser of missed rotations, Udoh was the league's best interior defender last year, and by quite some way. His pairing with Vesely meant an interior wall that no one wanted to take on. Thompson in contrast has lost any lateral foot speed to rotate either on the perimeter or inside, and instead defends via the you've-already-beaten-me-but-I-might-as-well-grab-you foul. Whereas Udoh was a demoralising defender, opposing offences now love the opportunity to attack Thompson when he is forced to defend in space.

One other weakness in the defence is a susceptibility to the opposing stretch big. Vesely and Thompson do not have the foot speed to either step up to the perimeter or get back again, and while Melli is good in this area, he stands alone amongst the bigs in doing so. Nevertheless, the perimeter D as a unit on opposing guards and wings is much sharper, and whatever points Fenerbahce give up via the jumpshot can be easily gotten back by the outside barrage of their own.

Marko Guduric (the new Bogdanovic and potential heir apparent to his throne) hits 41.8% of his outside shots in addition to his promising off-guard playmaking. Mehli Mahmutoglu shoots plenty of threes off screens and flanks it with playing basically no defence. And none on the team or even in the competition shoot better than NBA veteran James Nunnally, who has hit a colossal 59.5% of his three-pointers in his 24 games thus far, many of which have been in big moments. In his first season with the team, Nunnally struggled to step up and drove into traffic too often; this year, he is sticking to what he does best (threes and defence), and coming through whenever called upon. 

Fuelled by this shooting, Fenerbahce's offence is a powerhouse. They are less reliant on the services of their point guard as many of their elite EuroLeague contemporaries, but they do have a pretty good one in Brad Wanamaker, a sizeable combo-guard who is crafty and unselfish as a passer off the dribble. Now likely charged with the task of defending Rodrigue Beaubois, Wanamaker will be tested to the limit, yet the strength around him means less of a toilsome ball dominance offensively as is the case for, say, Nick Calathes and Vassilis Spanoulis (assuming the slightly ball-dominant Wanmaker can bear to be parted with it). Behind Wanamaker is the elder statesman and nationalised Turk Bobby Dixon (beautiful Turkish name), who, lacking the explosion of his youth, is largely a tempo-controller and three-point shooter at this stage of his career. But he too is a good one, hitting 47.5% of his three-point shots in EuroLeague play.

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That lesser reliance on the point guard is a good thing, as it speaks to the depth on the wings. The wing rotation of Nunnally, Guduric, Gigi Datome and Kostas Sloukas features four excellent shooters, and when one struggles (as the streakier Sloukas has done as times), the others are there to pick them up. Sloukas and Datome are both highly skilled and smooth off the dribble, too, as well as being 40% three-point shooters. They are the hubs to the powerhouse offensive unit that Fenerbahce has. 

Going into the postseason as the second seed is much the same sort of position as Fener were in last season, and they closed that one out pretty darn well. That said, the playoff push of last season was buoyed by the timely return from injury of Bogdanovic. There is nothing quite like a late-season return of a clearcut star to fuel a playoff run, and there are no such stars on the horizon this year.

That said, this is a team game. And this team has a formula for success and the personnel to carry it out. Fenerbahce are not the favourites headed into these playoffs, but they do have a good chance to win it all.

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