After returning to Euroleague following three seasons in EuroCup, and four without a championship in Germany, Alba Berlin’s hopes for 2012/13 are high but what’s the limit? Emmet Ryan assesses the challenge facing the men in yellow on two fronts.
The reward of relevancy
Being on the outside looking in is never fun. Alba’s last Euroleague adventure saw them make the Top 16 stage in the 2008/09 season. That’s the clear goal for Sasa Obradovic’s charges again this season but that level now is even more enticing. The decision to switch the Top 16 level into two eight-team groups, as opposed to four fours, means Alba could land 7 home games in the next level against the best in Europe. Alba got this shot as wildcards, gaining a C licence straight into Euroleague level while current Bundesliga leaders ratiopharm Ulm missed out in the qualifiers despite gaining a B licence. A strong team in a city the size of Berlin, with its 16,000 seater O2 World arena, appeals to Euroleague brass.
Alba started the regular season stage like a team on a mission. Winning at Italian champions Montepaschi Siena and beating French champions Elan Chalon at home gave the Berlin club a perfect start. Reality however has set in quickly, losing back-to-back road games at Asseco Prokom (Polish champions) and Unicaja Malaga. Then came Thursday’s high-profile home match-up with Maccabi Tel-Aviv. The Israeli powerhouse, a giant in the European game, was the type of scalp that could energise support for Alba in the city. A freakish start, giving up 9 turnovers in the first quarter having averaged just 10.2 a game leading into the game, left Alba in a big hole but they came back and had a shot to win at the end. To understand how they got back in that place and how they lost, it’s important to look at the type of roster Obradovic has assembled.
Rag-tag fugitive fleet
The Berlin squad could politely be called veteran but at this standard, on paper, it looks more like a collection of journeymen. There’s Nihad Dedovic, who spent five years under contract at Barcelona but spent most of that time out on loan. Albert Miralles bounced around Europe, albeit with a notable stint at Valencia. Even their American players, like Deon Thompson and DaShaun Wood, relative youngsters on the roster, have come from fairly humble beginnings in their European careers. What Obradovic has done is find a way to take all these parts and fit them into a system that is flexible to their strengths. It’s far from ideal but it has already got results. Miralles may be the most visible example of a player enjoying his game with the Berlin cllub but no-one better exemplifies what this Alba team is about than Heiko Schaffartzik.
After that awful start against Maccabi, Schaffartzik came in as Alba switched to a three-guard set-up. Ball-security across the floor immediately improved with his presence. Were he playing in the US, even with a mid-major college, Schaffartzik’s remarkable story of beating leukemia as a teenager to make it as a baller would be well-known. Schaffartzik’s journey to Euroleague play is fascinating in itself without the Disney treatment. Having started out with two-year stint at the Berlin club, the under-sized point guard bounced around the Bundesliga, along with a lone season in Turkey, before making it back to his home-town club. Schaffartzik is, for the most part, exactly the type of player Obradovic needs. He offers a change of pace to what’s on the floor and doesn’t make too many mistakes. Error-free ball is at the heart of what Alba want in Europe. Making the Top 16 carries a wafer-thin margin of error and the Berlin club needs to squeeze out every win it can.
Just don’t get too excited
It was, of course, Schaffartzik who made the stand-out mistake at the end of that Maccabi game. With seconds to play with and down two points, he launched an insane long three under pressure. It was a no-hope shot, the type of play he knows not to make. This is what you get with limited talent. Alba was good enough to dig its way out of an awful start against an elite club but couldn’t be counted on to close it down the stretch.
That factor is also going to carry over into Bundesliga play. With a 3-2 start (at the time ofwriting) , there’s a long way to go in the 34 game regular season. Brose Baskets Bamberg, the reigning champions, look to have their weakest side in years but have already got off to a 5-1 start while Ulm, who lost the championship series last season, are leading the way early. The challenge for Alba is to manage their roster through to the Top 16 and still ensure, even with the potential extra 14 games, they can balance minutes to ensure a high seeding in the playoffs. A failure to make a deep run, and realistically Alba should be targettng the title, in the post-season would make 2011’s trip to the finals seem in the distant past. The coming months should make for a fascinating story in Friedrichschain.
Follow Emmet Ryan on Twitter.