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The year full of discoveries and unexpected twists

We started the season with a lot of question marks, following a summer filled with changes both to the roster and to the coaching staff. Most importantly, of course, we had to replace leaders like Kirilenko, Shved, Siskauskas and important players like Lavrinovic and Gordon. Some of the decisions were up to us, others were out of our control. We lost a group of leaders and had to discover new ones for the team to be successful.

Drawing a line, the only true disappointment came with falling in the Euroleague semifinals. We failed to perform to our standards in that game, failed to compete. That said, reaching the Final Four still remains a prominent accomplishment in a season as difficult as this one.

At the same time, we clinched the Russian Championship title and won very tough VTB United League play-offs. We had to endure more than a fair share of injuries, all while playing an extremely demanding schedule filled with back-to-backs and four-games-in-five-days sequences.

In the play-offs we faced some extremely competent opponents. First, we had to dispose of the Eurochallenge-winning Samara outfit. Then came Khimki who fielded easily their strongest team of my five years in Moscow and had home-court advantage. Like I told my players after the eventual victory, I happened to coach a lot of great guys on a lot of strong teams, still that was the first time my team managed to overcome the lack of home-court advantage to turn around a series. And to do it by taking a huge Game 5 in their arena was nothing short of outstanding.

Having suffered even more injuries, we wrapped the season up by winning another closely-contested series against the newly-crowned EuroCup champions in the hot environment of Krasnodar.

All in all, we have to be happy with what’s been achieved. True, we’ve had far too many ups-and-downs in the first part of the season while most of the players tried to adjust to a new system and I had to adjust to a new team. At that period of time, injuries to Vorontsevich and Erceg created some real problems for us. For instance, we were forced to play Kaun and Khryapa a lot of minutes this winter. It’s not a coincidence that those players suffered injuries later on, especially since they were coming off a busy summer with the national teams.

I can say I’m pleased with the way CSKA played in the VTB League play-offs, and also with the character that was put on display. That was a vintage CSKA performance – a depleted team on its last legs still manages to stay together, finds some much-needed help off the bench and comes through on sheer will and character finishing each series with a road victory. A classic performance and a good sign for the future as well.

This year we constantly had to adjust our game depending on who was healthy and who wasn’t. We tried several new combinations and often experimented with positions. Like, we used Nenad Krstic at the four, essentially playing him the same way he was often utilized in the NBA – as a second big able to space the floor to some extent.

Also, in some crucial Top-16 games we went big with Victor Khryapa at the three, and in the VTB play-offs we shifted Aaron Jackson back to the point after a prolonged stretch as a 2-guard. Jackson started the season as a point guard but then had to change position as he really needed time to adjust to a completely new system. And, unfortunately, time is what we don’t always have here at CSKA. Nevertheless, Aaron’s improvement over the course of the season has been evident. By the play-offs he’s truly become one of the team’s leaders. That’s one more reason for us to be confident about next season.

Another significant improvement that really helped us came courtesy of Andrey Vorontsevich. After months of injuries and inconsistent play, he finally came through at the late stages of Euroleague and even more so in the VTB League play-offs. He played some high-level basketball, so here’s hoping that translates into the next season as well.

Theo Papaloukas rejoined us as a midseason acquisition to help shore up the point guard position. We felt we could benefit from his experience not only on the court but also in the locker room and in the daily routine. I can say he gave us exactly what we were looking for. Obviously, he’s not the same athlete he used to be five or six years ago. That’s normal, at 36 you just can’t play the way you did when you were 28 or 30. But the fact that we won our Top-16 group, were dominant in the Euroleague play-offs and then managed to recover mentally after what happened in London can be attributed to Theo’s presence in our locker-room.

Another impressive thing about Papaloukas is how he put away his résumé for the sake of the team. A true legend with all imaginable titles and honors to his name, he embraced situation where we sometimes played him for less than a minute per game. He was always positive and extremely supportive. That was a lesson to everybody – no matter who you are and how big your trophy case is, you always have to trust your teammates, trust your coach and make sacrifices for the collective good. It’s hard to express the full extent of my gratitude to Theo. A true soldier, example of class and dedication both in his prime and after it. Hope that one day we honor him the same way we did with Holden, Langdon, Siskauskas and Smodis.

Speaking of players meeting expectations and exceeding them, we have to mention Vlado Micov. There’s nothing glamour about him – no style, all substance. But let me give you one sequence from the decisive Krasnodar game. It starts with us trailing by several points. On consecutive possessions Micov makes a jumper from the right, drains another one from the left, assists a three-pointer by Jackson and then finds Vorontsevich in the corner for another three. Essentially it was a 10-point, Micov-inflicted turnaround that put us in the lead for good. And he did all that while covering the opposition’s best player on defense.

Vlado’s become even more important for us when Sonny Weems got injured. His unselfishness garners respect of all teammates. He’s able to connect with everybody on the team – Russians, Americans, Serbs, you name it. He’s versatile, he can really play under pressure... He’s a player who hopefully can make one more leap in his game. I know there were doubts when we signed him, but I’m looking forward to working with him next year.

Surely you’ve noticed that by the end of the season several rotation players assumed leading roles and saw significant increase in their minutes and production. Many tend to attribute that to the amount of injuries we had to fight through. That’s not exactly the case. Guys played when they deserved to. Like, we had full roster when we decided to start Vorontsevich. We haven’t been struck by injuries by that time. When I inserted Andrey into the starting line-up for the third-place game against Barcelona, I had my full team. I just felt he’d earned it.

Same goes for Sokolov who started Game 5 vs Khimki. It’s true we didn’t have Kaun for that game, but Krstic was ready. Still, I believed it was a good occasion for Dima to help us.

I also had no shortage of perimeter players when I opted to start Zozulin earlier in the season. I thought he was better in practice than, say, Christmas. So I went with Aleksey in the starting five. It’s true that sometimes I played guys because there were no alternatives. But I have to give credit where credit is due – in majority of cases those opportunities were well-deserved.

From coaching perspective it was an interesting and challenging season for everybody on CSKA staff. In our last game in Krasnodar you could see the four of us hug each other emotionally on the sidelines even though several seconds still remained in that game. That’s because we were happy with the result and knew just how much hard work was put into it. With all the injuries and in-season changes, we had to concentrate on our own team as opposed to just focusing on the opponents. The first thing on the agenda was always developing appropriate patterns on offense and defense, finding balance and putting the team into the best position to win.

The year was also full of discoveries and unexpected twists for us. We got to know a number of new guys – not only as players but as human beings. Then as the season went on we had to change our opinions on them more than once. So that was the process – finding out more about each other, adjusting opinions because first impressions can be deceptive, discovering new sources of energy and effort within the squad and using that energy to fight through whatever adversities we had to face. And we faced quite a lot of them this year.

As far as coaches go, I’m happy to say we’ve extended the contract of Benas Matkevicius who’ll see his duties expanded and will move from scouting to being a full-scale assistant coach. Evaldas Kandratavicius is also staying at the club. I hope he’ll become an even more important part of the team next season now that we’ve had a year together and got to know each other better.

As for Quin Snyder, well, that’s the sad part. I’m losing a friend, I’m losing a great coach, I’m losing a person who’s established a very strong connection with everybody within the CSKA environment. Still, I’m happy for him and his family because he’ll continue his career at a very high level with the Atlanta Hawks. It just won’t be easy to replace him.

I’d like to add few words of appreciation for Dima Shakulin: I would like to underline that he is the continuity of our staff, the person that more than everybody supports me in the tough moments and that next year will be even more important to connect the all staff because he knows very deeply what I expect from the team and how the staff should work.

Right now we have to do some deep thinking about our future. There are several important decisions to be made – not many of them, but still. Together with the club’s management, we have to make it right and ensure we’re a better team next season.

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