After firing Ahmed Caki Alba Berlin looked desperate and noone thought they could compete with powerhouse FC Bayern Munich in the quaterfinals of the BBL Playoffs. But after a devestating loss in game 1 (95:68) Alba bounced back and made Bayern work extremely hard to reach the semifinals. Even though Alba Berlin ultimately lost 3-1 to Munich, the team somehow managed to win back the hearts of their supporters and earn the respect of the whole german basketball community.
Interim coach Thomas Päch, who took over after Caki was fired, brought back the spirit and passion the team lacked for most of the season. Alba’s twitter hashtag #mitleibundseele (transl.: with body and soul) finally made sense for the first time this season. One has to wonder why it took so long for the players to break free and play with the kind of energy and effort they showed against Munich. Was it all Caki’s fault that Alba struggled after a 7-game winning streak in December and never fully recovered throughout the season? First of all one has to mention that Ahmed Caki seemed very unfortunate as the team had to handle so many injuries over the course of the season. Just remember: Brandon Ashley, who should have been a keyplayer on Alba’s frontcourt, decided to leave the club before the season even started. Malcolm Miller broke his hand at the end of the preparation and missed the first nine games of the season. That’s two starters out before the season even started. When the team finally seemed to have found their rhythm Peyton Siva, with whom Alba had a 14-5 record, had to deal with a stubborn adductor injury that made him miss most of the second half of the season. Without Siva the team finished the BBL regular season with a miserable 4-9 record. Then just days before the start of the Playoffs Alba’s most important offensive player Dragan Milosavljević suffered a season-ending injury to his elbow. But bad luck aside, retrospectively hiring Caki seems like a big misunderstanding.
His defensive system never worked as Alba’s big man were too slow to hedge out aggressively and then move back in the zone. In general it is a very interesting concept to increase preassure on the ballhandler by letting the big man hedge out after every screen. But to play like that Alba lacked at least one modern mobile big man on their roster. Kikanovic and Radosavljevic have other qualities and did not suit Caki’s defensive style at all. Still there were just a few changes made by Caki and at times Alba’s defense looked as spacious as a soccer field to some opponents when Kikanovic or Radosavljevic hedged out.
This usually resulted in easy points for the opponents. Compared to the defensive intensity of last year’s team, that was coached by Sasa Obradovic, Caki’s team gave up seven more points. And with Alba’s big man defending somewhere out at the three-point line, rebounding also became a big issue as Alba was only 13th in getting defensive boards this season.
Ahmed Caki’s compatriot Murat Didin once compared exploring tactical concepts for teams with cooking. You can only cook a certain meal if you have the correct ingredients. To me it seemed like Caki wanted to cook the meal he had in mind not caring enough about the ingedients he had to deal with. At some point I think Alba‘s players simply did not buy into his defensive philosophy and lost trust and motivation to play for a coach who was unable to install a defensive concept that fited better with the players on Alba’s roster. It would have been interesting to see how the team would have developed if Caki was relieved from his services earlier. After Thomas Päch took over, it looked like a fresh start. But after just three weeks that era came to an abrupt end with the elimination from the Playoffs.
It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Berlin’s basketball club. The 2016/17 campaign certainly looked like a lost season, but Alba Berlin is still a household name in german basketball. The 8-time BBL champion hosts its home games at the Mercedes-Benz Arena with an average attendance of more than 10.000 fans per game and is a decent organized club. The days when Alba dominated the German league may seem long gone. From 1996 to 2003 Berlin could win 7 consecutive league titles, but their last national championship win was back in 2008. In the meantime the club was able to win four German Cups (2009, 2013, 2014, 2016) and had some nice results in European competitions. On top of that Berlin could beat the San Antonio Spurs in a pre-season game in 2014. But all of this seems to more or less camouflage that Alba Berlin is no longer able to keep up with Brose Bamberg and FC Bayern Munich. But the club has a rich tradition to build on. I think there aren’t too many basketball clubs in Europe that can look back at 26 consecutive Playoff appearances. It still is something special to play for Alba Berlin. Maybe the expectations of the fans and the management are too high. With an estimated budget of about 8-10 million Euros Berlin can spend just half of the money Bamberg and Munich are able to invest. Nowadays even ratiopharm Ulm and EWE Baskets Oldenburg are budget wise on the same level as Alba Berlin. The 6+6 rule (6 german players have to be on the 12-men roster) in Germany’s Basketball Bundesliga (BBL) made german players comparatively expensive. And without a Euroleague participation Berlin lacks good arguments to get german quality players. Rumours said that Alba wanted to sign Maodo Lo (who was born and raised in Berlin) and Danilo Barthel last summer. Lo ended up in Bamberg, where he could play Euroleague and Barthel became a valuable player on Munich’s rotation. And who could blame them: both got quality minutes on very good teams and better payment than Alba could have offered them.
I think Alba Berlin needs to refocus and prioritize on developing german players. It would be important to keep their german keyplayers Niels Giffey and Ismet Akpinar. Both become Free Agents this summer. There are rumors that Akpinar could end up with ratiopharm Ulm. Niels Giffey should be one of the most interesting german Free Agents this summer and a main target for any BBL club that looks for a german quality player on the wing. Alba has to keep at least one of these two players and built a new core of promising german players around him. It certainly is a balancing act to be competitive in european competitions (as Alba has always been) and develop young german players. But with lowering their expectations a bit and concentrating on building a team around quality import players and german talents I could imagine Alba Berlin to be develop a new identity that makes the team popular again. The way the Frankfurt Skyliners managed to develop german talents (like Voigtmann and Barthel) and be successful (winning the FIBA Europe Cup and several playoff appearances) should be a great example if Berlin management decides to go that path. As Frankfurt’s general manager Gunnar Wöbke stated, Alba Berlin is budget wise lightyears away from Frankfurt. What the Skyliners lacked to be more than a Playoff team was the money to hire better americans. Alba Berlin should have that kind of money to pair young german talents with quality import players. I don’t say that this is an easy path to go, but maybe in the long run it would pay off for Alba to be as patient with german talents as Frankfurt has been with Barthel and Voigtmann. Even if it means to take one step back for one season, the following years could be fruitful. What Alba needs now is some stability and continuity. With Thomas Päch probably becoming assistant coach again, I would love to see Alba Berlin sign Denis Wucherer and go in a new direction.