A Guide to Following Round 30, a Critical Week for the Euroleague (and Eurocup)

The Euroleague’s switch this season  to the new 16-team, 30-round Regular Season format, in my opinion, has been a resounding success. The continuity of the same teams competing, and same general week-to-week schedule has not only helped Euroleague teams and players gain familiarity with worldwide basketball fans (especially American ones who are just getting acquainted with the European game), but it also has helped the product on the court: teams can prepare better knowing exactly what their schedule is until the end of the Regular season in early April.

Now, we are in Round 30, the last game of the regular season. Many Euroleague purists who didn’t support the new format worried that the last few weeks may be worthless, especially if the competition was too top heavy, as has been the case in years past. However, Round 30 will prove to be a crucial week for a majority of the Euroleague squads, as playoff positioning, as well as the remaining 8th spot will all be on the line April 6th-7th.

And if that’s not enough, a Eurocup champion (and hence ,automatic Euroleague berth for 2017-2018) will be determined as well on April 5th. This is a huge week in European basketball, and it will be tough as a fan to navigate through it (after all, no one wants to be late to big news, though as an American, it happens to me quite frequently).

Thankfully, here’s a guide of what to know, what games to watch, and what to watch for during this incredibly important week for basketball in the European continent.

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April 5th-Eurocup Championship Round 3

Who punches their Euroleague ticket?: Valencia Basket vs. Unicaja Malaga

Both teams have held serve in this All-ACB Liga Endesa final, as Valencia took the first game in Valencia, thanks to a 14 point, 8-rebound performance by center Bojan Dubljevic, who also hit a dagger 3-pointer with 31 seconds left to clinch a 68-62 win. With a chance to clinch the title and win a record fourth Eurocup championship, Valencia fell short, as the rabid Malaga fans, a 22-point performance by Jamar Smith, and a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double by Alen Omic helped Unicaja pull out game two in a 79-71 win.

Both teams have been extremely good at home, as both teams also went undefeated at home in the semifinal rounds as well. With that being the case, the advantage appears to be in favor of Valencia, who not only has the homecourt advantage, but the Eurocup championship experience that Unicaja sorely lacks (this is their first year in the Eurocup after being a long-standing participant in the Euroleague previously).

The player to watch in this game may be Fernando San Emeterio, who has not had a strong Finals after playing well in the previous rounds of the playoffs, especially in the semifinals against Hapoel Jerusalem, where he had two games with a PIR over 20 (both at home). In game 1, San Emeterio only scored 4 points on 2 of 5 shooting for a PIR of 4. In game 2, even though the points went up (he scored 9), it was an extremely inefficient game for the Spanish veteran, as he shot 2 of 10 from the field (1-of-6 from three point land), and posted a PIR of 1. San Emeterio has had a big home game every round of the playoffs so far (in the Quarterfinals against Khimki, he had 17 points, 8 rebounds and a PIR of 29 in game 1 at Valencia). If he can produce that in game 3, Valencia’s fourth Eurocup championship is as good as sealed. That being said, if Unicaja can neutralize him for a third-straight game with the combo of Jeff Brooks and Adam Waczynski, then Unicaja could pull off the game 3 upset, and their first Eurocup championship.

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April 6th-Euroleague Round 30 games

Watch it on replay: Brose Bamberg vs. Galatasaray Odeabank

What if Brose hadn’t lost so many close games this year? What if Galatasaray could play any semblance of defense? Both teams have showed flashes of being a postseason threat, but unfortunately for them and their fans, they often fell short this season. This should be an exciting game, not to mention a high-scoring one. However, both teams were out of the playoff picture weeks ago. If you have the time, watch this one on replay, as it may have a chance to break the 100 point mark for both teams. Bamberg post savant Nicolo Melli should have a field day against the Galatasaray frontcourt, which has been inconsistent all year on the defensive and rebounding end.

Worth watching sporadically: Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv vs. Panathinaikos

Pana has the fourth spot pretty much locked up after a huge 85-80 home win over CSKA Moscow in Round 29, and thus may be tempted to rest key players in preparation for the playoffs (they won’t improve or worsen their positioning, win or lose, according to this chart courtesy of Overbasket). They have been one of the hottest teams in the Euroleague since James Gist returned to the lineup (and consequently, after Alessandro Gentile was released). The athletic frontcourt combo of Gist and Chris Singleton has made Pana one of the most formidable and flexible frontcourts in the Euroleague, as they can switch with effectiveness on the perimeter defensively, and damage inside and out on the offensive end. Pana has not lost since Gist returned in Round 26, a big reason why they clinched the fourth spot in that time span. And with Gist in the lineup, Singleton has been even more effective individually as a player, and has made a case during this end-of-the-year stretch as a darkhorse MVP candidate.

Maccabi is trying to avoid the 20-loss mark and salvage something of what has been an extremely dysfunctional and disappointing season thanks to multiple coaching and roster changes. While this game may not mean anything in terms of postseason, a big win over the heavily favored Athenian club good be good momentum for Maccabi in the Winner League as well as next season (proving that they still deserve an A license despite two sub-par years). To Maccabi’s credit, Ainars Bagatskis has done a decent job, getting the most out of a less-heralded roster (such as Gal Mekel and Joe Alexander) and making Maccabi tough competition on a round-by-round basis. Sylven Landesberg has especially thrived under Bagatskis, which makes one wonder how Maccabi would have done this year had they relied on him instead of flameout Sonny Weems and the injury-ridden Quincy Miller.

An interesting dilemma: Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz vs. Zalgiris Kaunas

Baskonia is looking for a win in their home Euroleague Regular Season finale, as this game could determine their playoff position, which could range from 5th-to-8th depending on whether the Basque clubs wins or loses, and what else happens in the other games. What’s interesting is if Baskonia beats Zalgiris, and gets the fifth spot, that would mean a matchup with Pana, who swept Baskonia during the Regular Season, including two weeks ago, where Pana absolutely shut down Baskonia’s offense 72-63 in Vitoria. It may be tempting for Baskonia to “tank” this game against Zalgiris, especially since Baskonia has split with CSKA and Real Madrid in the Euroleague this year (they also got swept by Olympiacos, so they might want to avoid the sixth spot as well).

Baskonia on paper is better than Zalgiris, as Baskonia will have distinct advantages at the point guard position (thanks to Shane Larkin) as well as in the frontcourt, where Toko Shengelia has been a key cog in Baskonia’s late-season resurgence. However, Baskonia’s desire to get out of matchups with Pana and Olympiacos (5th and 6th), as well as Zalgiris head coach Sara Jasikevicius’ subtle auditioning for a more high-profile coaching job next season (Barcelona seems to be the one most talked about as a destination for Saras) could factor in a potential upset at Fernando Buesa Arena on Thursday. It may be the fan in me over-thinking it, and I can’t imagine head coach Sito Alonso will want to lose the last game of the year going into the playoffs.

But hey, you never know…perhaps the Gregg Popovich “resting” players strategy of the NBA could pop up in Round 30 in Vitoria.

Meltdown in Istanbul?: Fenerbahce vs. Barcelona

If Fenerbahce loses, it’s entirely possible that they could get the 8th seed in the playoffs. Yes, that’s right. This club was one basket away from a Euroleague championship a year ago, and was widely heralded as the favorites to return to the Final Four and win it with it being hosted in Istanbul. Now, it’s plausible that Fenerbahce could be entrenched in a brutal first round matchup with Real Madrid, the Euroleague’s top seed.

It’s amazing how head coach Zeljko Obradovic has not killed someone from Fenerbahce this year (maybe he has and we just don’t know). This year has been a perfect storm against Turkey’s premiere club: Bogdan Bogdanovic and Luigi Datome have all been injured down the stretch and missed time; former All-Euroleague player Jan Vesely has declined significantly; they have some questionable losses, including getting swept by Darussafaka in Euroleague play. Other than Ekpe Udoh (who has put in a MVP case of his own), and Bogdanovic (when healthy), Obradovic has struggled to get any consistent productivity from his club that entered the season as heavy Final Four favorites.

On paper, Fenerbahce should take care of things against Barcelona in Round 30. Barcelona has gone through it’s own horrendous season, plagued by injuries and down seasons by key players (Ante Tomic being the main culprit). Barcelona is 12-17, and it’s already been widely rumored that there is going to be significant changes roster and coaching-wise this off-season. In many ways, this Barcelona team is a dead-man walking, which should be a softball for a Fener team looking to get some momentum heading into the postseason.

But this Barcelona team is not going out quietly. They’ve won their last two games, beating Crvena Zvezda (hurting their playoff chances in the process) in Round 28 and then beating Maccabi Tel Aviv in Round 29. Brad Oleson, who’s been widely criticized for declining the past couple of years, is coming off a 13 point game where he posted a PIR of 19, and Tomic showed he had some left in the tank with 15 points and a PIR of 23 in their home finale. Give it to this Barca squad: they don’t have much to play for (other than ACB, which they are still in the hunt), but they aren’t going to quit and lay down.

Will Barca win one for Georgios Bartzokas in what could be his Euroleague finale with the Catalan club? Obradovic and the Fenerbahce players and fanbase certainly hope not.

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April 7th-Round 30 of the Euroleague

Probably don’t bother: Olimpia Milano vs. UNICS Kazan

It’s a battle to see who avoids the Euroleague cellar. After flirting with competitiveness in the middle of the season UNICS has lost 12 Euroleague games in a row. Without an A license and after a subpar showing this year, they are probably destined back for the Eurocup, unless they can rally in VTB play. Other than Keith Langford challenging for the Euroleague scoring title, and head coach Evgeny Pashutin’s turned up talks to his team, there really hasn’t been any reason to pay much attention to this team during the last third of the season.

The same can be said of Jasmin Repesa and his Milano squad. They are playing hard despite being out of the playoff pictures weeks ago, and they are doing well enough in Italian League play that they will probably be back in the Euroleague in 2017-2018. Furthermore, fellow countryman Andrea Cinciarini has been worth watching during this end-of-the-year stretch, highlighted by his 17 point performance in a 88-84 win over Zalgiris last week which ended a 13-game losing streak in Kaunas. But neither of those reasons, much like the UNICS one above, should merit this game as worth watching, be it live or replay.

The great, but nothing to gain or lose matchup: CSKA Moscow vs. Olympiacos

CSKA’s home finale in Moscow will certainly be a challenge: this could be a potential Final Four or Championship game matchup. All season long, these two clubs have been the two of the best three teams (along with Real Madrid) and it seems fitting that they will play in a mega-matchup which will be April 6th’s Game of the Day.

Unfortunately, neither CSKA or Olympiacos has anything to gain in this Round 30 game. Real Madrid clinched the No. 1 spot after a win over Fenerbahce last week, and Olympiacos can’t go any higher or lower than their No. 3 spot. Olympiacos could use the week to rest players, especially considering key players such as Vassilis Spanoulis, Georgios Printezis and Matt Lojeski have had various injury issues throughout the season. CSKA could also benefit from such a strategy, as head coach Dimitris Itoudis may want to make sure his combo of Nando de Colo and Milos Teodosic is 100 percent by Game 1 of the Playoffs.

Nonetheless, I think this will be a competitive game, as both teams are looking to bounce back after losses the previous week, and do not want to enter the playoffs on losing streaks. That may be enough to at least force both CSKA and Olympiacos to play their full rosters (momentum going into the postseason is always huge), which should produce a highly entertaining game between the Euroleague’s two premiere clubs.

Efes Strikes Back?: Real Madrid vs. Anadolu Efes

After a 19-point Round 25 loss in Istanbul to Brose Bamberg, many Euroleague fans wondered if Anadolu Efes was going to even make the playoffs. They were 13-12, and had a tough four-game schedule down the stretch that included a road game in Kaunas against Zalgiris (who at the time was also competing for the 8th spot), a home game against Fenerbahce (which isn’t really a home game), a home game against Olympiacos, and a road game against Real Madrid in the season finale. It seemed entirely plausible that Efes could have gone 0-4, and missed the playoffs for a second straight season.

Instead, since the Bamberg loss, Efes has gone 4-0, winning the first three out of their “death stretch”, with a chance to win all of them in the season finale. Efes is now 17-12, and not only have they clinched a playoff spot, but they are also shooting for a chance at the fifth position, which would match them up with Pana, whom they have split with this season. Efes has plenty of weapons, with Derrick Brown as an inside-outside frontcourt threat, and Bryan Dunston controlling things down in the paint. But the biggest resurgence has been at the point guard position, as Jayson Granger put up his best performances of the year during the final double week of the season, helping Efes clinch their playoff ticket thanks to an incredible 25 point performance in Kaunas, and then following it up with a 13-point, 5 assist performance against derby rival Fenerbahce. And what’s amazing is that despite Granger’s presence, he is not even the best point guard on the team, as Thomas Huertel from France has carried this Efes team for the most part this season. That kind of depth makes Efes a scary playoff foe for any top seed.

As for Real Madrid, their depth is unparalleled both in the back and frontcourts. Anthony Randolph, who will be signing an extension with Madrid, is finally playing the best basketball of his career (including NBA), making him a scary matchup for opposing post players, and boosting the depth of an already loaded Los Blancos frontcourt which includes Felipe Reyes, Gustavo Ayon, Othello Hunter and Trey Thompkins. However, one of the biggest progressions this year may be Sergio Llull, who may be the frontrunner (and deservedly so) for the Euroleague Regular Season MVP award. The combination of Llull’s improved efficiency, and knack for carrying Los Blancos during big moments at the end of games puts him over other competitors such as de Colo and Milos Teodosic of CSKA, Udoh of Fenerbahce, Printezis of Olympiacos (though he certainly has his share of big game moments) and Singleton of Panathinaikos.

The tempting pick may be for Real Madrid to rest their starters and with their depth they could afford to do so. But I think Madrid is aware of Efes’ surging, and they know Llull’s challenging for that MVP award. This Efes game could be a signature moment/game for Llull to cement his legacy as the Euroleague’s best player of the 2016-2017 season, and I think head coach Pablo Laso will play him on that alone.

A surging Efes team looking to garner the fifth spot? A Los Blancos team looking to seal Llull’s award as the Euroleague’s best player? This should be a hell of a game.

Win or go home: Darussafaka vs. Crvena Zvezda

I have already gone into many reasons why Red Star should make the playoffs in my previous post.  So I am going to keep this section short. After their controversial win over Bamberg in Germany last week, Dacka forced the do-or-die matchup in Istanbul in Round 30. On the flip side, Red Star beat UNICS as expected, giving them a bit more playoff flexibility if they win (they could get a 7 seed).

This is the game of the week. Period. It will be a dogfight. It probably won’t be pretty. There will probably be a lot of shitty calls in favor Dacka (as we saw last week against Bamberg). But clear your schedule, put a reminder on your phone or whatever.

This is the game you need to watch in Round 30. And you need to be cheering with the whole of Belgrade and Serbia for Red Star as well.

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Lucky 7? How Panathinaikos is shaping up to be Euroleague favorites in 2016-2017

After five titles in 13 years, Panathinaikos has struggled to find success after head coach Zeljko Obradovic left for Fenerbahce.

“When I came in June 1999 to Athens to join Panathinaikos, I could not have imagined that this would be my team, my family, my home for 13 years. In these 13 years, we had many beautiful moments, many celebrations, but also difficulties. We were always together as a great and true family.”

-Zeljko Obradovic at his Panathinaikos farewell press conference in June 2012

Panathinaikos has always been associated with legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic, and for good reason, really. The “Greens” from Athens have won the most championships (six) in the modern Euroleague era, and Obradovic during his 13-year tenure in Athens was responsible for five of them. Under the well-respected and fiery Serbian coach, Panathinaikos became one of Europe’s most recognized, and respected clubs, annually competing for Greek Basketball League championships, as well as Euroleague Final Fours and titles. Before Obradovic, the Greens were simply another Greek club in the European basketball climate, on the same level with Olympiacos, Aris and PAOK (who all made Euroleague Final Fours prior to Obradovic coming to Athens). Now, along with Olympiacos, they have become one of Europe’s elite clubs, able to afford and attract all kinds of talent worldwide, with the expectation that they will add to the “stars” (i.e. Euroleague titles) each and every year. Since Zeljko, “championships and nothing less” have been the expectation not just for fans, but the players and organization as well.

Unfortunately, for Greens fans, since Obradovic left to Turkey to take over Fenerbahce, the club has not been able to live up to the lofty expectations since their coaching messiah left in 2012. In the post-Obradovic era, Panathinaikos has not made the Final Four, and in that same time span, they have seen Greek rival Olympiacos make the Euroleague championship game in two of those years (with a championship in 2013 and a runner up finish in 2015). For a club that exerted their dominance so forcefully in the Euroleague for nearly 13 seasons in the 2000’s, this kind of regression has not only been disappointing, but somewhat unacceptable in the eyes of the organization and fanbase. Thus, with such dissatisfaction from their internal and external supporting base, there has come constant change, as the club has gone through multiple player and roster changes in the the last four seasons.

Despite the wild inconsistency of the last four seasons, Greens fans have reason to be optimistic. The upcoming 2016-2017 season, the fifth season in the post-Obradovic era, looks to be the most promising yet, as the club has assembled the kind of roster that can truly compete for a Euroleague Final Four berth, not to mention championship. How did the Greens get to this point? And what will make this season different from the previous four, which ended up in playoff disappointment?

Well, let’s break down the road the Greens took to not only thrive this summer in the transfer market, but also set themselves up for success in 2016-2017.

Sasa Dordevic led Panathinaikos to the playoffs in 2015-2016, but the lack of big wins overshadowed statistical success.

Good on paper, but unable to follow through

After failing to make the Euroleague Final Four for a fourth straight season, and losing to CSKA Moscow in the playoffs, Panathinaikos decided to fire coach Dusko Ivanovic. After going through an interim coach for the remainder of the season (where they lost in the GBL finals 3-0), on June 30, 2015, the Greens tabbed Serbian Sasa Dordevic to be the new head coach for the 2015-2016 season.

Dordevic had the kind of resume that made the Greens faithful hopeful. In many ways, he was likened to a younger version of Zeljko: he was Serbian; had made his name as the Serbian National Team Head Coach (he led Serbia to a runner-up finish in the 2014 FIBA World Cup); and had a standout playing career for multiple clubs in Europe, with a brief spell in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers. On the other hand, Dordevic didn’t have much extensive club coaching experience like Zeljko, prior to his arrival in Athens, as Dordevic only had “cups of coffee” stints with Olimpia Milano in 2006-2007 and Benetton Treviso in 2011-2012. Nonetheless, the combination of his National Team coaching experience as well as his highly respected status as a player made the Panathinaikos club feel confident in tabbing Dordevic as their new coach.

The 2015-2016 roster was full of big-name Greek, European and American talent, and it looked like the kind of team Dordevic could be successful with right away in the Euroleague. At the point guard position, they had Nick Calathes, who came to Panathinaikos after a successful stint as a backup point guard with the Memphis Grizzlies, and the legendary Dimitris Diamantidis, who would be playing his last season professionally. On the wings they had former NBA player Sasha Pavlovic, American James Feldeine and Serbian Vladimir Jankovic to give them shooting and scoring. And in the post, they had the athletic and physical James Gist as well as Greek Antonis Fotsis in the power-forward position, and Serbian star and former Minnesota Timberwolf Miroslav Raduljica and former Golden State Warrior Ognjen Kuzmic. Though they were a bit of an older roster, Dordevic had the depth and pedigree to immediately be one of the most competitive clubs in Europe.

However, in week 1, the Greens lost on the road to first-time Euroleague participant, Pinar Karsiyaka, a club that failed to make it out of the 10-game opening round. * In many ways, that opening loss was a microcosm of the 2015-2016 season: so much potential, but nothing but “thuds” in the end.

(*Edit July 28th: As noted by a commenter below, the loss was actually to Lokomotiv Kuban, not Pinar Karsiyaka. Barcelona was the team that actually lost to Karsiyaka in round 1 of the Regular Season, which I confused Panathinaikos with. This is sort of fitting because they had a disappointing season as well and also fired their head coach by the end of the season as well. In comparison, Panathinaikos’ loss to Loko was not as bad considering Loko made the Final Four. But the loss was to a Loko team without Randolph, and it was Loko’s first game in club history in the Euroleague, so it was disappointing to an extent. Just not as bad as Barcelona’s to Karsiyaka.)

Panathinaikos rebounded from the opening week loss, as they went 6-4 and finished third in the division and qualified for the Top 16. While they avoided a massive letdown like other big name clubs such as Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv and EA7 Armani Milano, who failed to qualify for the next round, their third place finish in the group was a bit disappointing, considering the group was considered one of the weaker ones in the Regular Season round.

In the Top 16, Panathinaikos started to mold into form, as they went 9-5 and finished tied for second in their group with Lokomotiv Kuban (a team that finished first in their group in the opening round). Panathinaikos, which struggled with scoring and outside shooting, got a mid-season boost when they added Elliot Williams, a former NBA Draft pick, to be a wing combo threat. Taking minutes away from Pavlovic and Jankovic, the move proved to be beneficial, as Williams gave Panathinaikos an athletic threat on the offensive end that could create offense individually late in the shot clock.

During the Top 16 season, the Greens, with the addition of Williams, were statistically speaking one of the better teams in the Euroleague. They had the fourth-highest Net Rating in Top 16 play (higher than FC Barcelona and Baskonia, a Final Four participant), as well as the third-best defensive rating over the 14-game span (behind only Loko and Fenerbahce). And, under Dordevic, they moved the ball the best out of any team in the Euroleague (as evidenced by their 64.9 A/FGM rate tied for second in the Euroleague), not to mention crashed the boards effectively (as evidenced by their 32.4 offensive rebounding rate, third-best in Top 16 play).

So how come Panathinaikos failed to win a single game in their five-game playoff series against Laboral Kutxa Baskonia?

One of the main issues for Dordevic and this squad was their shooting inconsistency. Despite an elite defensive rating in Top 16 play, their offensive rating was around league average at 106.9 (10th in Top 16 play). Despite an elite assist rate, they didn’t shoot especially well from the field, and their players struggled to score or create offense in isolation situations (usually due to good pressure defense by opponents). Panathinaikos ranked 11th in eFG percentage in Top 16 play with a eFG% of 52.7, a pretty mediocre mark. This lack of effectiveness in shooting led to possessions where the Greens would have to force offense, which unfortunately led to a multitude of turnovers, as evidenced by their 19.8 turnover rate, second-highest in Top 16 play, behind only Crvena Zvezda.

One of the big reasons the Greens shot ineffectively from the field relative to their competition was due to their lack of confidence in shooting beyond the arc. Panathinaikos tied for the second-lowest 3PA/FGA rate (0.34) in Top 16 play, and that low number was mostly due to their 34.1 3FG percentage, which was fourth lowest in Top 16 play. Because they didn’t have a knockdown shooter, outside some occasional streaks from Diamintidis, this forced them to constantly pass around for shots or get things into the post to Raduljica or Gist. This worked a lot of the time because guards like Calathes were effective at creating offense, and Raduljica was a talented low post scorer. But when they faced good defenses that took away passing lanes with pressure defense or didn’t give them a lot of second-chance opportunities, the Panathinaikos offense would stagnate and get down-right ugly, leading to a lot of losses and deflating performances that didn’t inspire confidence in the Greens faithful.

Dordevic didn’t do a bad job by any means. While the Greens had some big names, it was obvious that many of them didn’t have the skills that matched their names anymore. Despite their NBA pedigree, Pavlovic and Calathes were two of the clubs most ineffective scorers, as evidenced by their 0.82 and 0.77 PPP (points per possession) rates, respectively. And Raduljica, though a big name and a talented offensive player around the rim, didn’t exactly provide the rebounding they needed in the post to play him big time minutes (his 13.0 rebounding rate wouldn’t have even put him in the Top 30). And thus, Dordevic did all he could to make this team successful, which was a playoff berth and not much more.

But as stated before, playoff berths aren’t good enough. After Baskonia completed their sweep in Athens, Dordevic was let go and former Panathinaikos head coach Argiris Pedoulakis took over for the remainder of the season and re-signed for the 2016-2017 season.

Panathinaikos hit it big this summer by landing First Team All-Euroleague player Ioannis Bourousis from Laboral Kutxa Baskonia.

Building the Greens with “proven” talent

After a season where they relied on “NBA” names and Serbian talent to mesh with their Serbian coach, the Greens have undergone a different approach: going after players who have been recently successful in the Euroleague. This off-season, with the exception of maybe Real Madrid (though time will tell if their three bigs: Randolph, Ayon and Thompkins will mesh together), Panathinaikos probably had the best offseason of any Euroleague participant when it came to roster acquisitions. Let’s take a look at each move they made this summer.

  • Signed point guard Mike James from Baskonia: James gives them an explosive threat off the bench, similar to his role behind Darius Adams in Baskonia. Calathes is a deft passer, but he doesn’t have the ability anymore to really play in isolation and get to the rim to score. James on the other hand does, as he thrives in such situations and can get to the rim and throw it down against lesser defenders.
  • Signed Chris Singleton from Loko: Singleton and Gist will give Panathinaikos one of the most physical stretch-4 combos in the league. Singleton is a physical player with the ball, as he is able to bang posts or smaller wings off of mismatches in the post, or he is able to clear out in ISO situations, get space and hit the mid-range and occasional 3. Defensively, he is not the most pure rebounder, but for a guy of his offensive skill set, he holds his own on the glass, especially offensive end (he had an 11.0 offensive rebounding rate last year). With Gist, Singleton gives Panathinaikos to play small ball (put Singleton at the 5) or give them depth should Gist get into foul trouble.
  • Signed Ioannis Bourousis from Baskonia: Without a doubt the best signing this off-season of any Euroleague club, period. Bourousis is the reigning ACB MVP, and was a first-team All-Euroleague player, who had the second highest PIR in the Euroleague last season (behind only Euroleague MVP Nando de Colo). Bourousis led Baskonia to their first Final Four in nearly 10 years, and helped mentor a young squad to exceed most people’s expectations (many figured Baskonia to be a Top 16 participant at best). Bourousis had the second highest rebounding rate (19.1) of any player in the Euroleague last season (behind only Barcelona’s Joey Dorsey, who played nearly 570 less minutes than Bourousis), and was one of the Euroleague’s most effective scorers with a True Shooting percentage of over 61 percent. To put it bluntly: no player was more valuable this off-season than Bourousis, who had proven his worth last year as a multi-talented big in the mold of Vlade Divac. And despite serious NBA offers, Bourousis returned to his home country to play for Panathinaikos. The addition of Bourousis, who is coming of a season where he experienced a career renaissance, automatically puts the Greens in the Final Four conversation.
  • Signed KC Rivers from Real Madrid: If Bourousis put them in the discussion, Rivers solidifies their status as Final Four favorites. The biggest issue for the Greens a season ago was shooting, and Rivers helps that issues immensely, as he automatically becomes the Greens most effective and reliable 3-point shooters. Rivers also comes from a winning pedigree, as he was a key cog of the 2015 Euroleague champion Real Madrid squad. In terms of his shooting prowess, Rivers thrives behind the arc, as evidenced by his 41.1 percent rate from beyond the arc in 2015 with Real Madrid, and his 44.2 rate in BBL play with Bayern Munich last season. Though he did drop to 37.1 in EL play with Madrid after being acquired from Bayern Munich through transfer during Top 16 play, his dip was most likely due to the fatigue of playing with multiple clubs in 2015-2016. Expect his rate to climb back into the 40 percent range, and if it does, Panathinaikos will have the shooting that will make them a more well-rounded squad offensively than a season ago.
The pressure will be on for Argiris Pedoulakis to bring Panathinaikos their first Euroleague title in the post-Obradovic era.

How does Panathinaikos put this all together?

As we have seen in the past from many Euroleague teams, sometimes the biggest names don’t equate to “most successful.” The Greens have gotten off to a good start by acquiring players who address specific needs from a year ago: James gives them instant offense off the bench, Singleton gives them toughness to complement Gist, Bourousis gives them playmaking and rebounding from the post, and Rivers gives them shooting. Pedoulakis will have a much easier time with this squad offensively than the one a year ago during his interim stint, which had to work so hard through their sets to create offensive opportunities against good defenses.

Furthermore, one of the more underrated developments of their signings was their ability to find guys who meshed together chemistry-wise. James and Bourousis were close teammates in Baskonia, and they are likely to continue that on and off-the-court camaraderie in their new surroundings in Greece. Rivers is a proven professional who has fit in with any club he has gone due to his role as a specialized shooter, and athletic defender. And Singleton has embraced the European lifestyle and game after coming over from the NBA, as he is the kind of emotional player that will thrive from the energy of the Greens’ rabid fanbase. So, a lot of credit has to be given to the Panathinaikos management: they took the time to not only find the right talent and skill fits to this roster, but also the right personalities that should mesh easily with the current players on this roster.

Of course, these four new players can’t do it all. They need Calathes to improve his efficiency as a playmaker and scorer (which should be easier with more options around him). They need their young Greek talent such as Vasilis Charalampopoulos and Nikos Pappas to step up and earn more minutes after being regulated to the bench mostly in 2015-2016. Fostis and Jankovic need to step up after mostly regression seasons a year ago. The new talent will certainly be a boost on their own individual merits. But if the returning players on this Greens squad can also improve and bounce back from a year ago, then the new talent added will be amplified even more on the court, meaning a special year for this Panathinaikos squad.

Pedoulakis has been the coach of the Greens before, so he knows the expectations in Athens: win a Championship or else. However, he has the talent to do it, and in the new Euroleague format, with a longer season, he also had the kind of depth that will help them be a competitor throughout the course of the Euroleague and GBL seasons. Yes, injuries happen. Yes, regression seasons happen. But on paper, this Panathinaikos squad is ready to compete for another Euroleague crown.

Can the Greens get the first Euroleague title in the post-Obradovic era? Well, if the chips fall right (and we won’t know that until the games start), 2017 looks to be a prime opportunity for Panathinaikos to get lucky number seven.

Was Lokomotiv Kuban’s Victory over Panathinaikos a Fluke or Sign of Things to Come?

Ryan Broekhoff (right) and Lokomotiv got the best of Sasha Pavlovic and Euroleague mainstay Panathinaikos in the first Euroleague game of the year for both teams.

There was plenty of upsets in Week 1 of the Euroleague regular season, including a shocker where defending champion Real Madrid seemed to come out flat and was lost 84-70 to  Eurocup champion and new Euroleague participant Khimki Moscow . (Though to be fair, it was on the road, and Khimki’s crowd seemed especially amped with the defending Euroleague champions coming to Moscow.) However, while Khmki’s domination, as well as CSKA Moscow’s 100-69 blowout of 2014 Euroleague champion Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv were all big stories, one of the biggest surprises was Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar’s upset over Panathinaikos 81-70 in Krasnodar, Russia. Considering Panathinaikos is an A license team and regularly contending for a Euroleague Final Four and Championship, the loss to the wild card participant (meaning there on a 1-year license in the Euroleague and can move back down to the Eurocup division if they do not finish in the Top-4 in their group in the regular season) Lokomotiv generated a lot of discussion in Euroleague fan and media circles.

Dominating Early, but Finishing with a Whimper

Lokomotiv and head coach Sergey Bazarevich started the year well, but finished with a disappointing quarterfinal exit in the Eurocup to UNICS

Last year, Lokomotiv, who had been demoted to the Eurocup after failing to get out of the second round in the regular season the previous year, started off 2014-2015 scorching under first year coach Sergey Bazarevich, who assembled primarily an American-laden roster. Relying on players such as point guard Aaron Miles, wings Derrick Brown and Malcolm Delaney, and former lottery pick Anthony Randolph, Lokomotiv crusied through their group, going 10-0 and led all teams in point differential (+142) after the regular season ended. With their combo of elite talent as well as strong depth (they also got solid contributions from bench players such as Richard Hendrix, Krunoslav Simon and Nikita Kurbonav), it seemed like Bazarevich had assembled the kind of roster that would cruise to a Eurocup championship.

Things continued as usual in the Round of 32, as Lokomotiv dispatched Valencia of Spain, Asesoft Ploiesti of Romania and Nancy of France with ease, finishing 6-0 in their group with a point differential of +76. In the knockout stage though, they struggled to find the rhythm that made them the B Division’s best team all season. In round 1 of the Knockout stage against Brose Bamburg, they only won the initial game 80-78, a far cry from the dominance they displayed in the first two rounds of Eurocup play. Then, things just fell apart in round 2 against fellow Russian club UNICS. After winning the first game 87-78, Lokomotiv unraveled in the second game, losing 79-58. The 21-point differential resulted in a 157-145 combined score, and instead of advancing to the championship, they were out in the second round, forced to watch the rest of the knockout round from Krosnador. It was the only loss all season for Lokomotiv, but it was so damaging that it ended their season prematurely and put a damper on what was a superb campaign.

Back in the Euroleague, but Cleaning House

Former Los Angeles Clipper and Washington Wizard Chris Singleton was a key signing for Lokomotiv this off-season.

In recognition of their dominance, Lokomotiv earned license to the Euroleague as a wild-card participant for 2015-2016. Knowing that this is a crucial year, the Krosnador-based club cleaned house , letting nearly everyone but Delaney and Randolph (though his status is in the air as he did not play in Game 1) go as well as head coach Bazarevich after only one season (though he did go 19-1 in Eurocup play). Now installed as head coach is Greek national Giorgios Bartzokas who coached Olympiacos from 2012-2014 and led them to a Euroleague title in 2013 and earned Euroleague coach of the year honors that season as well.

As expected, Lokomotiv added a lot of athletic-American based talent, with the standout being Chris Singleton, who has played in the NBA and mostly spent time in the D-League last season (he played for the OKC Blue, the Thunder’s developmental program). However, there is also a lot of local, though older, talent on this roster, including Spaniard Victor Claver (who helped lead Khimki to a Eurocup championship last season) and Ukranian Kyrylo Fesenko, who has played in the NBA with the Utah Jazz and played last season with VTB squad Avtodor Saratov. Though not possessing as many big-names or as much high-end talent as a year ago, it is obvious that they are hoping that the mix of athleticism, veteran talent, and an established Euroleague coach will be the recipe for success in 2015-2016.

Starting Slow, but Finishing Strong against Panathinaikos in Game 1

One has to think that Bartzokas had a little extra motivation for this game, as he coached for Panathinaikos’ rival for 3 seasons. However, Lokomotiv struggled out of the gate, as they were down 21-17 and looked a little out of sorts as a team, struggling to find the right rhythm with the newly revamped roster. But in the 2nd quarter, they hit their stride, as they outscored the Greek power 28-20 in the second quarter to take a 45-41 lead into halftime.

After trading punches in the 3rd quarter, and the game 63-61, things looked prime for Panathinaikos to make a run and pull off the road win in the season opener. However, thanks to the athleticism of Singleton, the strong perimeter defense of Draper and Delaney, an efficient shooting night from Claver (he scored 13 on 5 of 6 shooting, including 2 of 3 from beyond the arc), and inspiring post play off the bench from Fesenko, who finished with 8 points on 4 of 7 shooting and 7 rebounds in less than 15 minutes of play, Lokomotiv outscored Panathinaikos 18-9 in the 4th and won 81-70 in a game that was a lot closer than the final score indicated.

What sealed the deal for Lokomotiv in the 4th was the strong perimeter defense, thanks to their athleticism and length on the wings. Panathinaikos, led by newly acquired guard Nick Calathes, relies heavily on the 3-point shot, as evidenced by their 22 attempts (36.7 percent of their total field goal attempts). However, beyond Calathes (who shot 2 of 4 from beyond the arc) and Dimitris Diamantidis (who shot 3 of 5), the rest of the squad shot poorly, as evidenced from their 2 of 13 mark from 3-point land (including Sasha Pavlovic, a long-time NBA player who shot 0 of 4), good for 15 percent (Panathinaikos shot 31.8 percent from 3-point land, not good considering their emphasis on the 3-point shot offensively). That low percentage is a credit to the Lokomotiv perimeter defenders and Bartzokas’ aggressive defensive principles, as Panathinaikos simply didn’t have a lot of open looks, especially in the 4th quarter with game on the line.

Lokomotiv doesn’t have a lot of pure size in the post (Fesenko is their only 7 footer and they don’t start anyone over 6’9; that being said, they have three 6’10 players in Igor Kanygin, Nikita Balashov and Nikita Zverev, but they are young, with Kanygin and Zverev 21 and Balashov 24, and raw, as they didn’t dress on the active roster for the game), but their aggressiveness and ability in the post was evident on the rebounding end. They out-rebounded the Greek club 42-26 total, and 12-8 on the offensive end (which is one of Dean Oliver’s four factors to winning a basketball game). With Lokomotiv getting plenty of second chances, and preventing the smaller, less physical Panathinaikos squad, it makes sense that Lokomotiv generated more 2 point field goal attempts (44-38) and shot a better 2 pt FG percentage (54.5 percent to 47.4 percent), which contributed greatly to their victory (as eFG percentage is the strongest portion of the 4 factors; eFG percentage accounts 2-pt and 3 pt FG percentage and Lokomotiv shot better in 3-point percentage as well).

(In a tangent central to Panathinaikos, Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica had only 5 total rebounds, the same amount as Calathes, and no offensive boards; those numbers need to improve if they want to be more serious contenders this Euroleague season).

Can Lokomotiv Build on the Momentum from this Win?

Singleton’s 16 point, 9 rebound and 2 block performance will need to be regular if Loko wants to make it into and past the 2nd round.

There is no question that this is a solid Lokomotiv squad. Their group isn’t easy, but they have the talent and coaching to compete with favorites in the group such as Panathinaikos, FC Barcelona and Pinar Karsiyaka. Singleton is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenders on the perimeter, as he can shoot over and post up smaller wings, but he has the speed to beat bigger and slower wings to the rack. Claver is a proven vet, whose ability to stretch out more traditional power forwards and shoot well from beyond the arc makes up for his lack of rebounding and physicality. And Fesenko is a solid bench option, though his stamina issues will probably prevent him from starting over Ryan Broekhoff (though his 4 point, 4 rebound, 3 turnover game certainly wasn’t encouraging).

When Lokomotiv is in the fast break and using their athleticism, they may be one of the best teams in Europe, especially with Delaney, Singleton and Claver on the floor. But taking care of the ball may be an issue for this squad, as they made a lot of errors, turning the ball over 18 times, 3 more than Panathinaikos in the game. A lot of their turnovers stemmed from Lokomtoiv relying too much on isolation plays as well as lack of communication off the pick and roll as well as limited ball movement (which stemmed from the communication issues). Singleton will most likely be their best player considering his scoring ability (he led the team with 16 points) and multiple ability skill set (he had 9 rebounds, including 4 offensive boards and two blocks). But, there were times when the pick and roll that featured him stagnated, because there was a lack of communication and chemistry when it came to responsibilities on the initial ball screen.

Let’s take a look at a possession which was an early microcosm of their early struggles, poor communication and lackluster choices in the offense.

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.15.24 PM

Singleton begins the play from up top. He looks to pass the ball to the wing to set up the side pick and roll play, a staple of professional basketball. But after he passes it, look what happens on the play as he goes to set the ball screen.

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He sets the screen and the other post (Zubkov) doesn’t initially see it, and they are unsure who is supposed to be setting the screen here. Look at the congestion this causes. The wing (Bykov) doesn’t know where to dribble to because he doesn’t know who has the screen responsibility, and 3 Panathinaikos defenders are in the area taking away any free lanes to the hoop. The pick and roll is a free-flowing offensive staple, but when there is lack of communication when it comes to ball screen responsibility, then it kills time, congests the lane, and makes things easy for the defense (since they don’t have to move much because everyone is so close together).

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And then this happens. Because the defense senses the hesitation, they hedge the screen well, and Zubkov can do is give a halfhearted screen that is more of a push than anything. Bykov was lucky he got out of this and was able to find Singleton with the lag pass, because there was a strong possibility he could have gotten trapped here (which Sasha Pavlovic is trying to do on the right).

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After the lag pass to Singleton, Singleton dribble handoffs to Draper on the opposite wing and then does another ball screen. This one is much better and shows much better communication and awareness by the Lokomotiv players on the floor. Draper has much more room to dribble penetrate to the rack and he has a matchup advantage with the much bigger defender switching off the screen. As expected, Draper gets to the rack area, where Calathes has to help stop dribble penetration (along with Pavlovic, in the bottom left, who doesn’t need but sags in anyways).

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Draper then fires it into the corner for Delaney who is sitting wide open for what should be a high-percentage 3-point attempt. Now, this should be a successful corner 3 but look what inexplicably happens next.

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Delaney instead swings it back to Bykov who takes a contested 3. Though Delaney is covered in the image here, on tape, he had enough time to hit the corner 3, as Pavlovic, in the image above this one, had his back to Delaney and would have had a difficult time to block or contest the shot. Delaney was a 36 percent shooter from beyond the arc in Eurocup and VTB play last season. Passing on that shot really is unacceptable, especially considering Bykov’s defender was a lot closer to him than Pavlovic was to Delaney.

Despite this lackluster and frustrating to watch possession, it was still the first game, and you have to remember that this squad is pretty much entirely new from a year ago. Add that with a coach who is in his first year in the club, and growing pains, as seen in the possession above, are inevitable. That being said, this Lokomotiv team has the potential to not just make it to the second round, but maybe be a dark horse to go further (how much though, I don’t know). Singleton is a real building block for them, and they can match player to player with any club in the Euroleague. Furthermore, if Randolph does come back and play with the team, they will be even deeper and more dangerous, as Randolph, while a volatile personality, is multi-purpose talent who can take advantage on the perimeter and in the post when he is on and focused.

The main question with this team is chemistry, not talent. Can they mesh? Can they adjust to Bartzokas’ system and coaching style? Can they come together and finish strong at the end of the year and not fade like they did in the Eurocup a year ago? There certainly are a lot of questions surrounding this Lokomotiv team, who is facing a “win or go back to the Eurocup” situation and don’t have the kind of market or fanfare of CSKA Moscow or even Khimki (who is also in Moscow). Nonetheless, a win in the Euroleague, especially over an established club like Panathinaikos, is a promising sign for the second-round chances (Barcelona and Stelmet Zielona Gora can’t boast the same feat in their group) and should build some confidence for their remaining 9-game slate in the regular season.