Kaunas Žalgiris, the honor and pride of Lithuanian club basketball, became the fifth EuroLeague club at the end of last year to change coaches during the season, when Andrea Trinchieri was hired to replace Kazys Maksvytis. Although the Lithuanian is a valued coach, Žalgiris’ decision to give him up is understandable.
Maksvytis, who led Lithuania – with several important absences – to sixth place at the last World Cup, took charge of Žalgiris in April 2022, because Jure Zdovc could not cope with his job at all. The Slovenian was supposed to hand over the baton to Maksvytis after the end of the season, but the situation was so bad that it could not be postponed.
The 46-year-old Maksvytis’ first full season with Žalgiris was perfect. Both the championship and cup competitions were won on home soil, in the EuroLeague, despite a smaller budget, they reached the play-offs, where they lost 0:3 to Barcelona. But let’s be honest: for Žalgiris, getting to the qualifying games was already a great success.
The core remained, but the game did not succeed
For this season, Maksvytis got a slightly bigger budget, and in terms of important players, the team composition remained the same. True, the fans were sorry for the two departures, because the point guard Isaiah Taylor got into great shape at the end of the season and was chosen as the most valuable player of the final series of the Lithuanian championship.
A few days before the start of the season, Olympiacos paid about half a million euros to get shooting guard or a small forward, Ignas Brazdeikis, who is currently on the bench of the Greek club and whose type was very important for Žalgiris, as he was the team’s best individual offensive player next to Keenan Evans.
However, Rolands Šmits, Edgaras Ulanovas, Arnas Butkevičius and Evans, who has recovered from an Achilles tendon injury, remained. Thus, the backbone of Žalgiris was strong enough to offer competition again in the extremely balanced EuroLeague.
The start of the season was not too bad. Three of the first four games were won, with the only loss coming against reigning champions and this season’s favorites Real Madrid. After that, however, Žalgiris’ cart ran into a ditch, because in the next 13 matches, they managed to defeat only two opponents: Bayern Munich and Olimpia Milano. At the same time, Žalgiris was also unable to earn a victory against the league’s weak ASVEL of Villeurbanne and ALBA of Berlin.
In mid-December, it was clear that Maksvytis’ chair was wobbly. According to the Lithuanian press, the management of Žalgiris wanted to change the coach, but the intervention of the players kept the current coach in his position. The CEO Paulius Jankunas said a little later that he fully trusts Maksvytis, although it was already clear a few weeks ago that this was just a nicety told to the public.
The right time to make a move
In this week’s double round, two games await Žalgiris, which will provide a great opportunity to pull the truck out of the ditch. First they will host ALBA at home, then they will visit ASVEL. While Žalgiris is currently in 16th place in the EuroLeague, ALBA, which has collected three wins, is 17th, and ASVEL, which is steady on two wins, holds the red lantern in its hands.
Moreover, exactly half of the regular season has now been played in the EuroLeague, and the tenth row of the table, or the last play-in place, is four wins away. Getting there is a big challenge for Žalgiris, but not impossible.
It is also important that currently, it was possible to replace Maksvytis with a top coach. Trinchieri has been unemployed since his time at Bayern came to an end last spring, but there has been talk of the Italian being on clubs’ radars virtually every time a manager has been fired. For example, when Istanbul’s Fenerbahce gave up the services of Dimitrios Itoudis, according to the Turkish media, the agreement with Trinchier was extremely close, and only at the last minute did the big club decide in favor of Šarunas Jasikevičius.
The management of Žalgiris probably did not want to risk Trinchieri slipping through their fingers by giving Maksvytis extra time.
Maksvytis’s first mistake
But let’s turn back to the headline of this article and see what could be considered the reasons for Maksvytis’s failure. First of all, you can’t get over or around the composition of the team, especially in terms of additions.
Three men joined Žalgiris in the summer: power forward Danielius Lavrinovičius, also power forward Brady Manek and guard Naz Mitrou-Long. If the 24-year-old Lithuanian was a future project, either way, the legionnaires had to play a much more important role.
Unfortunately, the American has not been able to live up to expectations, and the Canadian was so bad that Žalgiris had no problem terminating his contract. Manek is a good thrower – that’s what was expected of him – as he has hit 46.3% of long shots in the EuroLeague. But in defense, the Yankee is anything but good, and just a good throwing arm is not enough at such a high level.
Mitrou-Long had to bring sharpness to the attack in the back line. At a certain level, the North American is a very good baller, because, for example, in the 2021/22 season, he shone in the Italian championship in Brescia’s shirt. His regular season averages were 16.6 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds, in four playoff games Mitrou-Long scored 24.5 points per game and managed 7.3 assists.
It was no surprise that with such a good season, Mitrou-Long earned a contract in the EuroLeague. He joined Milan where he was a letdown – 7.4 points per game is not a disaster, but if your shooting percentage from the field is only 37.1%, it is a clear example that nothing great can be expected from you in the EuroLeague. Moreover, Mitrou-Long has also never been a defensive lion, but a baller whose main focus is the basket.
Also, Žalgiris could not replace Brazdeikis equally. The Lithuanian is not a star in the EuroLeague sense, but he was a very important player for the Kaunas club, who took the attacking burden off Evans. Since Mitrou-Long suffered a concussion and not much can be expected from Tomas Dimša and other local guards in the attack, Evans cannot be as effective as, for example, last season before the injury.
At the end of November, former NBA man Edmond Sumner, who scored 7.1 points per game last season with the Brooklyn Nets, was brought in to replace Brazdeikis. However, it has been difficult for the American to get used to European basketball, although, for example, he has hit 58.3% of long shots. In terms of Old World excellence, Sumner is a decent baller and maybe he can open up under Trinchier.
Maksvytis’s second mistake
The key to Žalgiris’ success last season was a defense that was among the elite of the EuroLeague. After the pre-season games, Maksvytis said how the identity of the team has not changed and for them, everything starts with defense.
Everything seemed right in theory, but looking at the first half of the regular season, it is clear that in practice it was the opposite. Žalgiris has allowed opponents to score an average of 116.8 points in 100 attacks, which is the fifth lowest in the EuroLeague.
In terms of defensive statistics, they are close to the top in several other categories: Žalgiris allows 19.3 free throws per game (16th in the EuroLeague), the opponents make 11.1 turnovers against them (15th) and they manage to make 5.3 steals themselves (17th).
The absence of Butkevičius has left a big hole in Žalgiris’ defense over the past month. He injured himself in the match against Milan in the 11th round and is out for at least another month. True, even though Butkevičius is one of the best defensive players in the EuroLeague, Žalgiris’ defense was not up to par even with him on board.
So, Trinchier has a lot of work to do to get Žalgiris’ engine roaring again.
By the way, although Maksvytis’ time in Žalgiris is over, he will not retire from top basketball. The coach from Darbenai continues to lead the Lithuanian national team, and this summer they are on a hunt for a ticket to the Paris Olympics.