What to make of Union Olimpija’s chances for 2009-10, especially in light of the Euroleague-opening demolition suffered at the hands of Maccabi Tel Aviv? Guest writer Matjaž Žbogar, chief editor at Prostimet.si, gives us reasons for optimism about the green-and-white’s chances, together with a heavy dose of, um, realism.
Slovenian powerhouse Union Olimpija was once, a long time ago, a very well known club in European basketball. But this isn’t the case anymore. Every season in recent years has been identical – the goals are to reach the Euroleague Top 16 and Adriatic League final four: Rarely have these goals been reached. In fact, since the 2003-04 season when they surprised everyone and reached the second stage in Euroleague, Olimpija has never appeared in the second round of this elite competition. And the semifinals are the biggest achievements in the ABA.
Year after year Union Olimpija fans, whose number steadily declines, hope that this season is *the* season. Year after year, management claims that these players are proper for good accomplishment. But year after year, the team fails. The reasons are hardly unknown: Turbulence among the management board. Hiring a new coach in mid-season who inherits players from the former coach and just gets to building a new team only to be fired as well after a few months. And, most importantly, lack of money: Union Olimpija is the team with the lowest budget in the entire Euroleague, estimated at around €4 million. A team with such a low budget can only succeed with continuity of work and by establishing young players. Neither of these are present in this club.
But before this season, fans do have one really good reason to hope success will come at last: His name is Jure Zdovc, the coach who built a Slovenian national team as never seen before. Despite injuries, this team showed great heart, great defense and great wins. Only one basket separated them from the medal podium. Nevertheless, for the first time in the state’s short history, Team Slovenia advanced past the quarterfinals. It’s hard to work under such stress like Zdovc does; both teams are under constant pressure, but fans certainly hope that the former defensive wizard as a player is guarantee for success as a coach.
And there’s another reason for hope: The current recession isn’t a bad thing in Olimpija’s case. With its help, the team was able to bring in players who didn’t get good offers elsewhere and were forced to sign lower contracts, including Sani Bečirovič, Vlado Ilievski, Uroš Slokar and Gašper Vidmar.
Hold on, let’s stop right here. We’re getting too optimistic. Should we return to a few months back? Olimpija just captured another two Sloveninan domestic titles, titles which should be captured in any case. Zdovc had taken over the team just few months ago from Serbian coach Alexander Džikić. The latter left Zdovc the disgruntled and injured Marko Milič, an out-of-form Jasmin Hukić, the overpaid Mirza Begić, Vlado Ilievski on loan to Tau Ceramica, and so on. Zdovc quickly made a statement that he want to build on players who were already on the club and wanted to add just three or four new players.
Oh, how wrong he was! Not only in that more than three players were added during the summer, but that only three players from last season stayed! These are Sašo Ožbolt, named team captain after the Marko Milič departure, and Jaka Klobučar and Vladimir Golubović, both of whom agreed to a lower salary.
Every other player left: Aleksej Nešović, Junior Harington and Brian Greene were there merely to patch up holes anyway. Damjan Rudež didn’t agree to sign for a lower salary and went to Croatian Cedevita without any compensation, and Mirza Begić was a similar case, with management first raising his salary just few months ago only to suddenly declare him overpaid. Jasmin Hukić, one of the cornerstones of the team for three years, left for Benetton Treviso, also without compensation. Marko Maravič and Miha Zupan didn’t extend their contracts, and young talent Mirza Sarajlija broke his contract to join Aleksandar Džikić in Krka, only to have his contract broken there as well to force him to join his third team in one season, Bosna. Even Ožbolt and Golubovič were reported to be on the verge of going elsewhere.
So in June, only Klobučar and Zdovc were certain to be here in September and to make matters even worse, Union Olimpija also lost some sponsors. Into this environment, the team quickly signed two Bosnian players: playmaker Dušan Djordjević from Bosna, and former NBA draft pick Edin Bavčić, who played for Cologne in the German Bundesliga last season.
Days passed by without any news. And then Zdovc left. But only to coach the national team.
Zdovc took young Klobučar with him and in first day of August, only one player were present at the first Olympija training session with assistant coach Zoran Martič: Sašo Ožbolt, who in the meantime had agreed to stay. Golubović also agreed, but he was playing for Team Montenegro in Eurobasket 2009 at that time.
The addition of Pawel Kikowski, who had been a candidate for the Polish national team, wasn’t a move for the fans to cheer. However, the addition of Matt Walsh, Belgian League finals MVP, was. The indication was that the roster would soon be complete at last. Alas, it wasn’t so: Except for Vlado Ilievski, who confirmed that he’d be returning to Olimpija, there was no other sign of new players joining until mid-August, when the team went to Rogla, a traditional center for physical preparation.
In Rogla, the very talented Serbian power forward Nemanja Aleksandrov, who has had as many problems with injuries as talent, joined Olimpija for a short trial. Aleksandrov satisfied the trainers there and shortly thereafter signed a multi-year contract.
But the roster was far from complete, with a great need remaining for a starting power forward, another guard and a backup center. The last arrived just before Eurobasket 2009 started, when on September 1 the team announced that Vidmar would be lent from Fenerbahce for one year. Only two more to go…
In the middle of Eurobasket 2009 in Poland, when all Slovenian minds were focused on the great play of Team Slovenia, all of the sudden came a great stroke of news: Bečirovič, one of the country’s best guards, simply couldn’t find a job after searching throughout the summer and signed for Olimpija. Plus, right after the tournament finished, Slokar announced that he would wear the green jersey this year. At the end of September, the roster was complete at last.
Let’s take a quicker look at who will play in Ljubljana this year:
• At point guard, Ilievski is the man. His backup is Dušan Djordejvič. In some cases, Bečirovič and Klobučar can help out, too.
• Shooting guard is probably the best-covered position. With Bečirovič and Ožbolt, what more can a club as Olimpia expect? Klobučar and Kikowski can back up here.
• Walsh is the only true small forward on the team, but Klobučar and Kikowski and also Bečirovič and Ožbolt can lend a hand in some cases, as might Bavčić and maybe Aleksandrov, too.
• Uroš Slokar should be the starting power forward, with Aleksadrov and Edin Bavčić as his backups.
• At center, Golubović and Vidmar will probably split minutes evenly. Slokar can help in case of foul or injury troubles.
Looking at the names, this is probably the best Union Olimpija team in years and should be considered a favorite for the title in the Adriatic League, but there are some problems. Ilievski, Bečirovič, Ožbolt and Aleksandrov are very injury prone, while Slokar, Golubović and Vidmar aren’t exactly known for their toughness.
The main reason for concern, though: This team is completely new. The players don’t know one another’s playing style, they don’t feel each other on the court as much as teams who have stuck together for long period of time (look at Montepaschi Siena, for example).
What’s worse, except for Ožbolt, all the main guys have almost just arrived. The new Olimpija players haven’t been with them for even for a month and a half, but merely some three weeks now: This includes coach Zdovc, and the latest additions Bečirovič and Slokar; plus, Ilievski has just returned from injury. This problem – the lack of team chemistry on the court – was clearly visible in the team’s first games in the Adriatic League against Zadar and against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Euroleague opener. (At this point, I should apologize I didn’t find or take better time for this article before the season began.)
What to say in conclusion? Maybe this: Looking at the names, Union Olimpija has the potential for greatness in 2009-10. But names don’t play, the team does. Zdovc built a great team out of the Slovenian national team in a short time; let’s hope he builds one out of these players, too. Zdovc will need full support for this, from management, fans and sponsors. And when all is said and done, this could be the biggest obstacle of all here in Ljubljana. None of three parties are known for their patience, after all…
— written by Matjaž Žbogar