Cloning Ante Tomic isn’t on the table and that leaves Barcelona with a big problem that was clear to see in the Copa del Rey, writes Emmet Ryan.
The scoreline on Saturday night was the most misleading part. Barcelona, if you only checked in after the final horn, looked like they had cruised past ACB leading Unicaja Malaga to book their place in the Copa del Rey final. Up until the final 5 minutes, when the Blaugrana charged with gusto, this was anything but an impressive night. Xavi Pascual’s team looked flat throughout, fortunate to still be in the contest entering the closing stages never mind in a position to storm through the finish.
We’ve seen the same thing happen a few times this season. For large portions of a game, Barcelona will reek but they will have just enough glory moments to keep the game alive. Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv saw that in a Top 16 game they nearly threw away in the Nokia Arena before visiting Barca snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
On Sunday there was one play that summed up Barcelona’s night. Leading by three with a chance to make it a two-possession game at the half, Tomas Satoransky and Maciej Lampe had some ill-communication and Rudy Fernandez snatched the ball away before storming up the floor to cut the gap to the minimum at the half.
The final was a classic in terms of entertainment, largely due to Barcelona’s shocking imbalance. This was no tit-for-tat night, the reigning ACB champions would throw a flurry and get on top before Real Madrid responded with a barrage of their own. Rudy was the hungriest he’s looked in a long time but the defining player was the man at the centre of Barcelona’s conundrum.
Ante Tomic has developed into the most irreplaceable part of Xavi Pascual’s roster. The big Croat had another double-double in the final and was a legitimate contender for MVP on the night despite being on the losing side. It wasn’t just what he did while on the floor that made Tomic stand out but how dire Barcelona looked whenever he sat.
Joey Dorsey was never Tomic, he was a different kind of big, but he was really good at what he did. When Dorsey left in the off-season, Barcelona looked for a more Tomic-style replacement. In terms of the way Pascual plays, having a player who wasn’t a change of pace for Tomic actually made sense. It would keep the flow going and allow change-ups to come from other parts of the court. In principle, signing a player like Tibor Pleiss had a ton of upside. In practice, it’s the biggest risk to Barcelona’s season. Pleiss has been a complete failure as a back-up to Tomic and, for all his gifts, simply isn’t suited to playing that role.
As it stands Barcelona will need a bit of help to get home-court in the Euroleague playoffs, and they are already in a whole on that front in the ACB but the Blaugrana took the title in spite of that handicap last summer. It’s not unthinkable that Barcelona lift both titles this season, there’s plenty of time left, but it’s hard to see them scale either mountain in their current form.
The issues go beyond the lack of a Tomic clone. In Mario Hezonja and Satoransky, Pascual has two of the most exciting young players in Europe today. This corner has been amongst the loudest in questioning Pascual’s conservatism around the former but the Copa del Rey backed up the Barca coach’s hesitations. There were flashes from Hezonja throughout the weekend but he got the minutes to do far more than that, he simply couldn’t assert his athletic brilliance with authority on a consistent basis. When he did, it was great for the highlight reel but too often Hezonja disappeared for large parts of the action. Satoransky’s faults are as much to do with his youth as anything, he can certainly prove exciting but he needs a lot of help out there.
The Tomic/Pleiss tandem is essentially what Barca need to steady the ship and bring all of the young parts together with the veteran core. Right now only one half of that is working and the road to Madrid in May looks awfully long.