Why there might be more to Russian basketball than meets the eye

 CSKA Moscow's Milos Teodosic, left, looks to pass as he is pressured by Minnesota Timberwolves' Alexey Shved, of Russia, in the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game, Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, in Minneapolis. Source: AP

CSKA Moscow's Milos Teodosic, left, looks to pass as he is pressured by Minnesota Timberwolves' Alexey Shved, of Russia, in the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game, Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, in Minneapolis. Source: AP

With a month before the NBA season explodes into life, the beginning of the Russian basketball season gives hardcore fans of the sport an opportunity to branch out a little – the Russian league is among the strongest in Europe and has served as a training ground for a number of NBA coaches.

There’s still a month until the new NBA season starts, and this year, that final month of waiting will feel even longer than usual. 

As the U.S. team went undefeated 9-0 on the way to victory at the World Cup in Spain this month, there was the usual mix of U.S. glory and exotica. 

There was the Americans’ 129-92 domination of Serbia in the final, their traditional doubling-up of a hapless preliminary round opponent (this time Finland, 114-55), but also a few outlandish touches – the bemused looks on American faces when faced with New Zealand’s traditional haka war dance, for example. 

There was also something missing – where was the Russian team? Or, for that matter, China?

After the excitement and exotica of the World Cup, NBA pre-season feels a little underwhelming, and why not? 

Of course any true fan will watch their own team’s pre-season games, seeing how the roster comes together for a potential shot at the championship. Or, if you’re a Lakers fan, you’ll be watching with a grimace on your face and thinking: “God, spare me another year of this pain…” 

But obsessively watching other teams’ pre-season is a step too far for many. Perhaps you’ve been bitten by the international basketball bug and are seeking a new source of excitement to fill your time. In that case, how about looking east to Russia? 

With the Russian national team having missed out on qualifying for the World Cup, you might be forgiven for thinking Russian basketball is weak right now. You’d be wrong. 

The national team is indeed mired in trouble – fierce infighting at the Russian Basketball Federation has created chaos behind the scenes. From winning Olympic bronze in 2012, the back-biting laid the ground for an abject EuroBasket campaign last year. The storied Team Russia finished 1-4, faring worse than even Britain. Yes, you read that right. 

Still, despite the hassle at the federation, Russian club basketball remains among the strongest in Europe. And, handily for U.S. fans seeking another overseas thrill during pre-season, the Russian season begins nice and early, October 3. Worth watching online, I say. 

The main competition for Russian teams is the VTB United League, a cross-border league with teams from six countries in Eastern Europe and even Central Asia, but dominated by Russian clubs. The overwhelming favorite, unsurprisingly for anyone with knowledge of Russian basketball, is CSKA Moscow. 

CSKA, founded in the 1920s as the team of the Soviet Army, boasts four Americans on its roster, including ex-Toronto Raptors small forward Sonny Weems, and has proved its ability to keep up with NBA power. Last year, a mini-tour of the States in NBA pre-season saw CSKA defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves 108-106 and go down fighting 98-96 to the San Antonio Spurs, a highly creditable performance against the eventual champion. 

CSKA is indisputably the big dog in Russia, having won the last three VTB titles, most recently with a 3-0 domination of Nizhny Novgorod in last year’s final series, which included a 27-point blowout. Still, Goliaths are there to be taken down by plucky Davids, and CSKA can be beaten, such as by BC Khimki in the 2011 VTB finals. Among other challengers, Nizhny Novgorod is not as bad a team as last year’s finals suggest, while Zenit St. Petersburg could emerge as a challenger this season after being relocated and picking up funding from deep-pocketed government gas company Gazprom. 

Apart from Russia, teams from Finland, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Estonia also feature, although the VTB league lost some of its luster this summer when scheduling conflicts forced Lithuanian clubs, some of the strongest in Europe, to withdraw. 

CSKA is also a constant presence in the Final Four of the Euroleague, the strongest basketball competition outside North America. With top teams from Spain, Greece and Israel also in the mix, the standard of competition is high but there are fewer games, scattered throughout the season schedule in two lengthy preliminary rounds before the playoffs. 

Alongside CSKA, Nizhny has qualified due its performances last season in the VTB, while UNICS Kazan could become the third Russian team in the Euroleague if it wins a qualifying tourney on Friday. 

But there’s one more, less obvious reason to keep an eye on Russian basketball – you could be watching NBA coaches of the future. 

Before joining up as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers (and LeBron James) this summer, David Blatt learned his trade with two Russian clubs and the country’s national team. As the new assistant coach of the Spurs, former CSKA coach Ettore Messina brings the knowledge of four Euroleague titles to an NBA champion famed for its European-style team game. Even the NBA’s first female assistant coach, Becky Hammon, who joined the Spurs last month, has Russian history – she played for the national team as a naturalized citizen. 

So there you are. Russian basketball is more than just an interesting distraction during NBA pre-season. A few years in the future, you could be watching your NBA team announce its new coach, a mysterious rising star from Europe, and shout out: “I know that guy!”


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