While Olimpia Milano are hardly the stoutest of opponents, CSKA Moscow’s demolition of the Italian champions showed the importance of their role players according to Emmet Ryan
It’s easy to focus on the stars with CSKA Moscow. In Milos Teodosic and Nando de Colo, CSKA have what is widely regarded as the finest back court tandem in Euroleague. Throw in the immense talent and proven success of Kyle Hines, and you have a three-headed monster that most sides would kill for. Star power however was what weighed down CSKA during that phase from 2012 through 2015 where they kept on CSKA-ing in the Final Four. The difference between those sides and the outfit that final got over the hump in 2016 was the presence of a heavy corps of role players, guys who didn’t need to be the guy but were able to do a job around the stars to get the job done.
The 101-64 slaughter of Milano on Friday night emphasised how broad a role this part of CSKA’s roster plays. Dmitry Kulagin is never going to be Milos or Nando but, at 24, he’s proven he is a player who can get a job done at this level. The motor is obvious but it’s Kulagin’s brain that makes him a difference maker for the Moscow club. While he had a couple of missed threes in the first quarter, for the most part he was getting into position well, troubling the opposition while in possession, and showed fine awareness on defence before Milos stepped in to change the tempo.
That’s where CSKA’s role players make the difference. They offer a different flavour to the stars and one that forces adjustments. No team in Europe has as many players who can be relied on for double-digit minutes night-in night-out. When Andrey Vorontsevich came in for Aaron Jackson, it changed the spacing challenge for Milano. He’s a three-point specialist and one CSKA use to force adjustments from the opposition.
Few players however fill the CSKA role player ideal quite like Vitaly Fridzon. Long a favourite of this site, Fridzon is essentially the fifth guard on CSKA’s roster yet he gets what the team needs from him as well as any of those above him on the depth chart. Milos must absolutely adore him because Fridzon is always in the right place at the right time when on the floor with Teodosic. It’s what happens when the likes of Fridzon have an off night that makes the depth of CSKA’s reserves so menacing. In the last three Euroleague games coming into this, he only managed 2 points in each of them, and while those coincided with losses for CSKA it didn’t reflect poorly on the depth. Other guys on the bench were able to step up and cover for Fridzon’s poor run. Sure enough he was back on form here, managing 12 points and an assist in his first stint on the floor against Milano.
There’s just always another guy for CSKA. That’s long been the way but through their run of Final Four calamities, they were far too dependent on players who look to be Superman. Sometimes you need a Jimmy Olsen or three to keep things ticking along. As the first half progressed, we saw the front court bench players make their presence felt with Semen Antonov recording a block within seconds of his entrance while James Augustine proved reliable in his stint on the floor. They even managed to fit in minutes for Joel Freeland, the injury plagued British international who has failed to stay healthy long enough to build up a run for the Moscow club.
CSKA are far from perfect, the 5 remains a hole for them on defence at times despite the presence of Hines and they are giving up far too many offensive rebounds but it’s a hole they have shown they can work around. You need top tier talent to be league leaders but it takes the other guys to stay there and push for a championship.