Barcelona Trending Up
by Rafael Uehara
By Rafael Uehara
After taking care of business against Estudiantes at home last weekend, Barcelona is now on a four-game winning streak, one that features a couple of impressive road victories in Piraeus and Istanbul. Barça wasn’t necessarily struggling before that. It currently holds a 21-win, eight-loss bottom line in the Euroleague and the Spanish league, ranking third in pace adjusted point differential in both leagues. But it seems as if Xavi Pascual’s group is playing its best basketball of the season, in large part because this is the healthiest the core parts have been together as Juan Carlos Navarro hasn’t been available for every game, Brad Oleson missed about a couple of months with a stress fracture and Erazem Lorbek has only recently returned from offseason surgery, missing half the season.
Lorbek’s return has been of meaningful help in this run. It’s not as if he has looked anything close to the player he was a couple of seasons ago, when he was arguably the second best player in Europe, but his presence has stabilized the stretch-four position. Lorbek has hit 40% of his 27 three-point attempts, which is immensely better than Bostjan Nachbar’s 24% on 74 attempts. Lorbek is also a much superior player than Maciej Lampe on the defensive end. I always thought of Lorbek as an underrated team defender, at all times aware of timing and assignment, hardly ever a significant minus on any matchup. His physical problems limited his impact last season but how quickly he is moving considering he hasn’t been back for much long is very encouraging for Barça’s hopes of him making an even bigger impact as the season progresses.
This team has not been as dominant a defensive force as the others in the previous years of the Xavi Pascual era but its working its way up. According to realgm.com and in-the-game.org, Barça has held seven of its last eight opponents in both leagues at or below 1.1 point per possession (with that one being Real Madrid, which torched Barça for 1.34 points per possession in their late December meeting). Shutting down Murcia and Estudiantes isn’t particularly impressive but the performances against Olympiacos and Fenerbahçe were. Aside from Lorbek and Oleson getting into shape, a more impactful Ante Tomic – busting pick-and-rolls all over the perimeter and protecting the rim against high end interior scorers – also stood out on those games.
Tomic hasn’t been as good a player as he was last year but I don’t think he has regressed either. Personally, my guess is the minutes are the reason for the less exciting performance. They are down a bit, from 24 a game on each league last season to 20.5 averaging both leagues this year, and the substitution patterns seemed to have changed as well; Pascual used to use shorter intervals not to tire Nathan Jawai. Meanwhile this season, it’s not uncommon to see Tomic sub out midway through the first quarter and then return only in the latter part of the second quarter as Pascual has continued to try finding minutes for Lampe, who quite frankly has been as big a waste of an expensive investment as we have seen in some time.
But I’d argue Tomic, even though not as big a difference maker as last season, remains the best player at his position in the continent, with Shawn James’ minutes incredibly low considering his high end statistical profile, the same being true about the awesome Marcus Slaughter (though that can be explained by Real Madrid’s embarrassment of riches in its frontcourt rotation) and the up-and-coming Tibor Pleiss still leaving something to be desired in the terms of consistency. Barça has allowed four fewer points per 100 possessions and rebounds five percentage points better on defense with him on the floor in 282 Euroleague minutes, according to in-the-game.org. It seems evident Pascual should just up his minutes as we reach the final stretch of the season and enjoy better defensive performance.
The offense is making progress as well. Aside from Lorbek providing an upgrade over Nachbar at all areas (shooting, passing, crashing the offensive glass and arguably even off the dribble, despite Nachbar’s superior athleticism at this time), Pascual has been more definitive pairing Navarro and Victor Sada together opposite lineups that feature Marcelinho Huertas running point the last couple of weeks after appearing to resist the option for most of the season. Always having one of Huertas and Navarro on the floor seems clearly the most optimal approach, especially if Pascual chooses to keep having Sada average almost 18 minutes per game in the Euroleague. I understand why Pascual likes Sada so much. He plays with a tremendous deal of energy on defense and might just be the best athlete on the team. But the “Sada problem” is very real as we saw on the quarterfinals series against Panathinaikos the last two seasons and one that persists, regardless of the fact that the team has averaged 123.3 points per 100 possessions in his 211 Euroleague minutes might imply.
This top 16 group isn’t quite a murderous row but features some good challenges and the King’s Cup is around the corner as well, providing us a good look at how good this Barça team really is now that they are healthy, in shape and playing their most cohesive ball. So far, they are trending up.