The defending Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champions have made significant changes over the summer, but with a new-look backcourt and an improved frontcourt, CSKA Moscow's roster looks as dangerous and fun as ever.
The defending Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champions have made significant changes this past summer, and no addition has made more noise than the arrival of last season's Alphonso Ford Trophy winner, Mike James. However, he's just one of four new pieces in CSKA's backcourt. James will be sharing playmaking duties with a EuroLeague newcomer, Ron Baker, as well as with veteran sharpshooter Janis Strelnieks. Swingman Darrun Hilliard is a an athletic presence at the wings who is looking to build on his first EuroLeague season, while CSKA's frontcourt became more versatile with the arrivals of big men Johannes Voigtmann and Kostas Koufos, the latter of whom is set to make his EuroLeague debut after 11 seasons in the NBA.
CSKA will have a new-look backcourt where James is set to be the focal point. A proven playmaker who makes CSKA even more dangerous with his speed and athleticism, James is just one of several players who can run this offense. CSKA also has versatile point guard Daniel Hackett, who plays at a high level on both ends of the floor, and both Baker and Strelnieks can play at either guard spot. Such versatility will surely present nightmares for opposing teams, and could put Hilliard in a sweet spot where he will get plenty of passes and open looks, but also chances to create his own shot or take it to the rim, both of which he does really well. Shooting guard Mikhail Kulagin and young point guard Ivan Ukhov, both with the experience of winning a EuroLeague title, will provide solid depth in limited opportunities.
While Koufos is set to be the anchor in the paint, not much has changed in CSKA's front line this past summer. Four-time EuroLeague champ Kyle Hines remains the personification of a leader on and off the court, while Joel Bolomboy has built a nice foundation in his debut season and could be in for a much bigger role. Around these centers, Coach Dimitris Itoudis will have all his versatile pieces back, which will once again allow him to play big or small. No team has such a group of big men who can be used in either forward positions. It all starts with All-EuroLeague forward and the Final Four MVP Will Clyburn, whose scoring and rebounding makes him invaluable for this team. But he is not the only big man who can be equally successful at battling inside and also lighting it up from long range. Nikita Kurbanov, Semen Antonov and Andrey Vorontsevich have all been reliable key pieces, either as starters or off the bench in recent seasons, and will remain so. Then, there is the addition of Voigtmann, the most versatile of them all, who flirted with triple-doubles on several occasions last season in Baskonia's uniform. In such a deep frontcourt, 21-year old forward Andrei Lopatin, the youngest man on the champions' roster, will have hard time finding playing time.
PLAYER TO WATCH:
Mike James was not only last season's EuroLeague top scorer with 19.8 points per game, but also ranked second in assists with 6.4 per contest. With his performances, James transformed AX Armani Exchange Milan's offense into the highest scoring in the EuroLeague last season. Now, he arrives to a well-oiled system, Europe's best scoring offense over the past five years. What will make James's play even more fun to watch is that he will be surrounded with more weapons than ever before on a EuroLeague team. With not as much responsibility on him, James could take his impact to yet another level, and that is something not to be missed.
The defending champions have made more key changes than in any previous season under Coach Itoudis, but that could be far from a bad thing. This personnel turnover made CSKA a younger and perhaps hungrier team. There is every reason to believe that CSKA will continue the trend and remain as one the top scoring offenses on the continent, and the pieces CSKA brought in suggest that team's defense could be much improved. The likes of Clyburn, James, Hilliard, Koufos and Hines guarantee this will be one of the most fun-to-watch clubs in the competition. CSKA will proudly set the bar high and put all its resources towards trying to become only the second team this century to repeat as the EuroLeague champion.