Legendary Lithuanian team Zalgiris Kaunas, which has failed to make it out of the Euroleague Top 16 since they won the championship in 1999, has been Euroleague's biggest story in this season thus far.
Starting the season by winning five games in a row (the best result in club history) - including blowout win over current Euroleague champions Olympiakos - has delighted Zalgiris fans, who after all those rough years probably didn't dream about a start like this.
Simultaneously, European basketball fans have an opportunity to witness a Cinderella story in Zalgiris. Joan Plaza, their new 48-year-old head coach who is also can be called 'the messiah' in Lithuania, and a few new players have completely changed the face of Zalgiris for the good.
Here we consider the main reasons for how Zalgiris became a winning team and the key points of its transformation.
Notable changes on both ends of the floor
Before the start of the season, Plaza made finding the balance between offense and defense his primary goal and the Spanish coach been very successful in implementing it from a very early stage.
Zalgiris had many defensive issues in 2011-12 season as they allowed their opponents to score 109.9 points per 100 possessions. That was the third worst result in the league, beating only KK Zageb and Spirou Charleroi. The Lithuanians also struggled to force their opponents to commit turnovers (16.1 opponent turnovers per 100 possessions) and were a bit better on that only than Partizan and KK Zagreb.
It's a different story in 12-13, as Zalgiris has significantly improved its defense - allowing their opponents to score 103.7 points per game so far, reaching the league's average (103.4). Kaunas has also joined the leaders in terms of forcing turnovers (21.5 opponent turnovers per 100 possessions).
More intriguingly, in his very first interview, Plaza called 6-foot-11 veteran Robertas Javtokas, who is currently injured and sidelined until after the first of the year, "one of the best defending big man in the Euroleague and the whole world."
Plaza has been correct so far and it's interesting how the comeback of Javtokas could improve Zalgiris' defensive numbers even more.
Despite tremendous changes on defense, improvement on offense has played an even bigger role in their success.
Zalgiris leads the Euroleague in scoring, averaging 83.4 points per game, but more important is their opponents-killing efficiency. They have the highest eFG% (Effective field goal percentage) in the league (59%) and leads in Total Shooting% - all three shooting categories percentage combined (173.4) as well.
Moreover, Kaunas scores 122 points per 100 possessions, almost 22 points more than last season (100.4). Great shot selection and ab improved mid-range game helps Zalgiris, whose players don't belong to any statistical Top 10 category, to build the most efficient offense in the Euroleague since 2010.
Quality over quantity
The most important element left unnoticed is that Zalgiris plays at Euroleague's lowest pace as they use only 68.3 possessions per 40 minutes. This is also the lowest pace in the Euroleague since 2010, but it's been proved to be a winning formula for some of the teams.
Different from last season where Zalgiris played faster than the league average pace, they changed its offensive philosophy and became more patient.
You couldn't call Zalgiris slow as their frontcourt is likely one of the most mobile in the league. Zalgiris' patience and willingness to take only open/good looking shots, even with a few seconds left on the shot clock, not only produces the most efficient offense in the league, but fatigues their opponents as well. You rarely see Zalgiris attacking the basket with more than 4-6 seconds left on the shot clock this season, thanks to unselfish guards who had some serious problems sharing the ball last year.
A different approach on building a team also has been a factor. Less athletic, but more experience players gave Plaza the right tools to adapt a 'quality over quantity' strategy by slowing down the pace and raising efficiency on offense.
And that's what winners do. The biggest sensation of Euroleague last season, Bennet Cantu, even without having as much talent as Zalgiris, used the similar long-possession tactics. The Italians played at Euroleague's lowest pace - only 70.2 possessions per 40 minutes - and at the end of its Euroleague season were only one win away from eliminating Maccabi and making it to the Top 8. Final Four participant FC Barcelona and Top 8 team Unics were also among four bottom teams in terms of possessions average in that season.
As has been the case for years, in the postseason of Euroleague (Top 16, Playoffs, Final Four), the pace of the game gets dropped. When every game is a do-or-die, most of the teams slow down the tempo and tries to raise their offensive efficiency. For example, in the 2011-12 season Euroleague regular season the average team used 73.7 possessions per 40 mins and it went down to 71.8 in Top 16 and 71.2 in the Playoffs. The same thing happened in 2010-11 (73.3, 72.6, 70.7, respectively) and many seasons before.
Thanks to Plaza, Zalgiris are not waiting for the playoff. They already set the tone and plays every possession as they would for any critical playoff game.
The Darden effect
Tremmell Darden, the 31-year-old veteran with only one year Euroleague experience under his belt, could be called one of the most influential players in the whole league and doesn't get enough credit for the great Zalgiris results. Together with Plaza, they were two main difference makers, who made Zalgiris offense so successful.
The stunning statistic shows that when Darden is on the court, Zalgiris is averaging 137.2 points (!) per 100 possessions, while the points average drops to 90.7 when he is off the court. The difference is 46.5 points and that is the biggest number the Euroleague has seen in last three seasons. No surprise, Darden gets the most playing time in Zalgiris (29.5 minutes per game), even as his statistical numbers are not as impressive, averaging 10 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
Room to improve
Zalgiris, however, still needs to improve its defensive rebounding. Offensive rebounds are more about luck, size and hustle (Zalgiris is great on that), while defensive rebounding consists of boxing out and fundamentals.
Zalgiris grabs only 68.8 percent of available defensive rebounds, meaning that opponents gets second chances in one out of three possessions. That's the fourth worst result in the Euroleague and improving this component of the game would help Zalgiris become a true Final Four contender.
The first six games Zalgiris has managed to become a winning team without dominating, game-changing players in an old fashioned European basketball way. Getting back to the roots of European hoops - slow-paced, efficient positional basketball has brought success to Zalgiris, which has what it takes to make a long run in this Euroleague season.
Statistical information was used from RealGM.com, Euroleague.net, Zalgiris.lt and Gigabasket.org.