I’ve been away from the Euroleague scene for the most part of the 2017-2018 season. Job and personal commitments can do that, especially when you run any web site as a labor of love, not for profit. However, as I do every year, I get sucked back into the Euroleague at some point in the season, and luckily for me, I have gotten back in, right come playoff time.
So, being the opinionated person that I am, here are five things to take away from this year’s Euroleague Regular Season. This isn’t really a post for detailed analysis. I would suggest Euroleague Adventures, Eurohoops, Courtside Diaries, or various other European basketball sources to get something really detailed. However, for a light look, this may be worth a gander.
Maccabi Tel Aviv not back…but they’re not a mess
I will tip my hat to Neven Spahija, who got Maccabi Tel Aviv back to respectability this year after the club went through two miserable seasons prior. Though their 13-17 record doesn’t look good on paper, they were 12-10 at the 22-round mark, and were a few points away from being a .500 or better team during their 1-7 stretch. Yes, it was baby steps in Spahija’s first season, but that is what this franchise needed, especially after their four-head coach debacle in 2016-2017 where they went 10-20 and finished 14th in the Euroleague standings.
As always, American import talent was the key to success this year, as guards Pierre Jackson and Norris Cole came from the G-League and NBA, respectively to lead Maccabi Tel Aviv on the offensive end. DeShaun Thomas and Alex Tyus (making his triumphant return to Israel) also added some versatility in the post, as Thomas became an inside-out threat, while Tyus finished well in the pick and roll and provided much needed shot blocking in the post, something they missed dearly a season ago. Lastly, Artisom Parkhouski offered some nice skill and touch in the paint after coming over from UNICS Kazan a year ago.
At the same time though, this roster probably is still in some need of change. This team didn’t score much from beyond the arc, as they only scored 24.6 percent of their total points from beyond the arc, the worst mark in the Euroleague, according to overbasket.com. While it’s important for a team to have an identity (Zalgiris was second-last in this mark and made the playoffs), the Maccabi offense seemed to lack variety, and they struggled to find scoring when they couldn’t get their main horses going. It will be interesting to see how Spahija maneuvers lineups down the stretch in the Winner League season, as how the team (as well as certain players) finish in domestic play could make a difference in terms of who stays and who doesn’t for the 2018-2019 season.
Sarunas Jasikevicius is building something special in Kaunas
Saras continues to improve as a coach at the professional level. When he took over Zalgiris during the 2015-2016 season, it seemed like he was in a bit over his head, unable to connect with the roster, demanding the same kind of perfection as a coach that he demanded from himself as a player. This led to a disastrous last-place finish in Top 16 play. In year 2, thanks to a full off-season, and getting more players to fit his style, Zalgiris stayed in the playoff hunt for almost all of the season, finishing 14-16, good for 10th overall in the Euroleague standings. Saras’ reputation blew through the roof, as he was linked to many coaching vacancies in the summer as a result.
This year, Saras may be on the cusp of building something really special in his home country of Lithuania. Zalgiris swept traditional Euroleague powers Olympiacos, Barcelona, and Olimpia Milano and finished 18-12, 6th overall in the standings, and qualified for the playoffs (where they will face Olympiacos, a possible upset in the making). And Saras accomplished all this with the same, mostly Lithuanian, roster from the past couple of seasons. Yes, Aaron White proved to be a great wing acquisition from Zenit. And yes, point guard Kevin Pangos has seemed to thrive under the tutelage of Saras in two seasons. But make no mistake: the heart and soul of this team comes from local Lithuanian talent, not imports (which is the inverse of what most Euroleague clubs do, with the exception of Crvena Zvezda).
Saras will once again be courted hard by Euroleague powers or big-money clubs (Russian ones come to mind). However, what Saras is doing in Zalgiris is unique, and I think he will continue to build Zalgiris into a Euroleague power for at least the next few years.
Give Baskonia’s Pedro Martinez his due
When Pedro Martinez took over Baskonia, the club was 0-4 and just had first-time head coach Pablo Prigioni abruptly resign. Baskonia was hoping to find the same kind of magic with Prigioni that Zalgiris found with Saras and instead, it backfired tremendously. As for Martinez, despite leading Valencia to an ACB title, a Euroleague berth, and a Eurocup runners-up finish in 2016-2017, he was sent packing from Valencia, and was jobless going into the 2017-2018.
It’s amazing how things work out sometimes.
Since Martinez took over, Baskonia has gone 16-10 and qualified for the playoffs, something that seemed unthinkable after Round 4. And they have done this despite losing Euroleague defensive player of the year, Adam Hanga, who left for Barcelona in the off-season. Martinez has really utilized the strengths of this roster, leaning on Toko Shengalia, who may be a dark horse Euroleague MVP candidate, while getting the most out of young talent like Luca Vildoza, Janis Timma, and Vincent Poirier.
It won’t be an easy matchup for Baskonia in the playoffs, as they will take on the defending champs, Fenerbahce, in the first round. However, the Martinez hire has gone from a temporary stopgap solution to perhaps one they can build upon in the near future.
Things not much better with Barcelona and Olimpia Milano…
Both Barcelona and Olimpia Milano made big-time coaching hires to get their clubs going back in the right direction after sub-par 2016-2017 campaigns. However, both squads struggled to get anything going, and once again finished near the bottom of the regular season standings in the Euroleague.
Barcelona showed a lot of promise this off-season by not only hiring Sito Alonso from Baskonia, but also acquiring top talent in the backcourt in Thomas Huertel (from Efes), Phil Pressey (from the G-League), Edwin Jackson, and Euroleague defensive player of the year Adam Hanga. And yet, that top talent and coaching change wasn’t enough, as the Barcelona club went 7-14 before firing Alonso and replacing him with Svetislav Pesic for the remainder of the year. The Catalan club showed some improvement by finishing 4-4 in his 8-game tenure, but the lackluster 11-19 overall record and sparse crowds at Palau Blaugrana hasn’t given the franchise much to be hopeful about this season.
As for Milano, the big-name hire of Simone Pianigiani was a controversial one, as he was known as a foil to the Milano franchise during his tenure with Montespachi Siena. Unfortunately, things proved to be more of the same for the Milano club, the lone Italian representative in the Euroleague for the second-straight season. They went 10-20 during the regular season, and once again weren’t able to get much out of high-profile signings such as Andrew Goudelock, Jordan Theodore, Curtis Jerrells (who came with him from Hapoel Jerusalem) or Mindaugas Kuzmiskas (who came over after being waived by the New York Knicks). MIlano still holds the top spot in the Italian League standings and looks like a strong candidate to rebound with a domestic league title, which evaded them a year ago, so maybe year two in the Euroleague will be kinder for Simone (if he makes it that long of course).
So why is this a big deal? Well, both are A-License clubs, meaning that they are entrenched in the Euroleague for 10-year periods of time, regardless of finish in the Euroleague or their domestic league. That isn’t the case for most other clubs, who have to earn their right to stay in the Euroleague on an annual basis (by winning their domestic league competition or qualifying as an at-large). And thus, with sparse crowds and lackluster play, these two clubs are definitely making the argument that the Euroleague has to seriously re-visit their policy with handing out A-Licenses. This may not be something that will happen in the near future, but another season or two of mediocre play from these two clubs may (or should) start the discussion sooner rather than later.
It’s a pretty wide open Euroleague playoff race
There’s no real dominant Euroleague squad this year. CSKA holds the top spot, but they’re not the same without Milos Teodosic, and they have had their share of injury issues, much like other top clubs such as Fenerbahce and Real Madrid. Fenerbahce doesn’t have the dominant feel of last year’s squad (not to mention game changers like Ekpe Udoh or Bogdan Bogdanovic). Real Madrid’s success corresponds with Luka Doncic, which is a lot of pressure for a teenager. Panathinaikos looks like a top end club at times, and certainly has the depth to win a Euroleague title, but on some occasions they looked like a middle-of-the-road team. And Olympiacos? “Kill Bill” Vassilis Spanoulis is starting to show his age, and the depth on this Piraeus squad just isn’t what it once was.
The bottom line? Expect something surprising this postseason. The last few Euroleague postseasons have been pretty chalk, but every club in the playoffs this season has some serious flaws. Yes, that makes it tough for betting, but for those who like excitement and shockers, this Euroleague postseason may have a lot to offer.