By Nick Gibson of EuroleagueAdventures.com
Kevin Durant doesn’t seem too keen on spending his lockout overseas. Dwight Howard says he has a soft spot for China, but that’s what Dwight Howard does: says things. And though self-proclaimed Europhile Kobe Bryant has entertained overtures from Italian and Turkish squads (Chinese, too), not even the Black Mamba has inked a deal that would keep him busy while the NBA plays its games in conference rooms instead of on basketball courts.
So no, we haven’t seen the exodus of superstars predicted when Deron Williams left New Jersey for the Turkish club, Besiktas, back in early July. (Besiktas, by the way, did not qualify for the Euroleague, the continent’s most prestigious competition.)
Nonetheless, Europe has taken a generous gulp out of the NBA’s talent pool, skipping past the maxed-out megastars and targeting the league’s working class.
Jim Gray didn’t hold our hands through Alonzo Gee’s decision to leave the Cavaliers for Gdynia, Poland. There was no harshly worded letter in Comic Sans, or any other font, attacking his character. The citizens of Cleveland haven’t set the city ablaze with his #33 jersey, and Alonzo hasn’t had to respond in the third person to rationalize his move to Asseco Prokom.
But the Polish champions got themselves a starting small forward.
Likewise, the Pistons without DaJuan Summers will still be the Pistons. And Hornets fans aren’t canceling their season tickets in a fit of rage just because David Andersen fled New Orleans, taking his 2.7 ppg with him.
But Montepaschi Siena just took a Euroleague Final Four team and made it scarier. Winners of five straight Italian championships, these moves might have ensured a sixth.
Andersen is a three-time Euroleague champion (only Sarunas Jaskevicius has more among active players, with four) and Summers fills a void left by Malik Hairston’s defection to Milano. Add EuroBasket hero Bo McCalebb at the point, and you’ve got yourself a contender for a repeat appearance in the Final Four, which will be held in Istanbul in 2012.
And through the haze brought on by EuroBasket-host-city-hangover, Kaunas can look forward to the shifty little Nugget, Ty Lawson, joining Mantas Kalnietis in the Zalgiris backcourt this season. Lawson’s game is packaged much like McCalebb’s; he’s small, strong, quicker than a hiccup and can shoot the lights out. Still, the better Zalgiris deal might be the acquisition of Toronto Raptors swingman, Sonny Weems. He’s on board for one season without an opt-out clause, whereas Lawson will head back to Denver once David Stern and Billy Hunter make nice, nice.
After starting for a good team in Portland, Nicolas Batum will star on awful one with Sluc Nancy. Five French teams have walked through the Euroleague’s doors in the last three years, and not a single one has advanced past the season’s first phase, compiling a 13-37 record along the way.
And though Batum is coming off a tremendous EuroBasket which left him with a silver medal a heightened level of confidence, Nancy’s roster has too many holes to hold water in the Euroleague. Expect a more assertive Batum, but another French failure.
Another of Nate McMillan’s past pupils — albeit his most reluctant one—will also be dropping anchor in his homeland, as Rudy Fernandez (now a Dallas Maverick, thanks to a draft night deal) returns to Spain to play for Real Madrid. Even if Mark Cuban and the Mavs come calling midseason, Madrid has set themselves up nicely for a second straight Final Four run. Their frontcourt is led by one of the smoothest low-post scorers in Europe, Ante Tomic, and 2011 Bulls first-rounder Nikola Mirotic (who will play for the Spanish national team next summer at the 2012 London Olympics.)
On the perimeter, Madrid added Lithuanian star and former Duke Blue Devil Martynas Pocius and reigning Spanish scoring champ Jaycee Carroll to a backcourt led by the best young guard on the Iberian Peninsula, 23-year-old Sergio Llull.
Yes, better than that Ricky Rubio fella.
Minnesota Timberwolves big man Nikola Pekovic is also returning to the club that made him famous, Partizan Belgrade. It’s a perfect fit for Pek, and a Godsend for the fierce Serbian squad that plays above its tax bracket each and every season, competing with Europe’s elite despite a team salary that is a fraction of the Madrids, Barcelonas and CSKA Moscows.
After performing in garbage time in front of a thinning Target Center audience for most of last season, scoring meaningful points in front of Europe’s most ferociously organized crowd should be a shot in Nikola’s tattooed arm. (I think it’s a knight of sorts, armed with sword and shield. And he’s standing on skulls.)
Running the point for Partizan will be former NBAer Acie Law. This will be his sixth city in five years since leaving Texas A&M: Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Memphis, Golden State (twice), and now Belgrade.
If Nikola and Acie want to make it past the season’s first 10 weeks, they’ll likely have to oust a Milano team that saw a crack in the door and busted it off the hinges. After Roma lost its Euroleague A License, a feat only achieved under the most extreme and embarrassing of circumstances (See: finishing in the bottom half of the Italian League), Milano slid right in and accepted a Wild Card slot.
After their courting of Wilson Chandler turned sour (Chandler ultimately signed with Zheijang Guangsha in China), Milano shifted their attention toward one of their own: Danilo Gallinari. A Euroleague Rising Star Award winner with the Italian club in 2007-08, Gallo should get comfortable quickly back in his old digs.
And once Gallo’s settled in, he’ll find some high profile help around him.
Milano took advantage of Greece’s financial woes and ransacked their two most prominent clubs; they signed Antonis Fotsis and former Maryland Terrapin Drew Nicholas away from reigning Euroleague champs Panathinaikos, and plucked Ioannis Bourousis from Olympiacos. They installed Omar Cook at the point after Valencia—eliminated from the Euroleague this season—could no longer commit to him financially, and poached Malik Hairston from their archrival, Montepaschi Siena.
To manage all that talent, they enlisted the services of Sergio Scariolo, who most recently led Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro and Spain to their second straight EuroBasket championship.
And though the NBA lockout has flooded the market with new talent, the European elite seem largely unimpressed.
Panathinaikos has tip-toed into their title defense with a quiet summer, picking up a proven scorer in David Logan and bringing Pat Calathes in to play with his brother, Nick. Head Coach Zeljko Obradovic is content to invest in Euroleague MVP Dimitris Diamantidis and All-Euroleaguer Mike Batiste rather than fawn over an NBA player who’s always a phone call away from hopping on a plane and scooting back to the NBA. I can’t say I blame him.
The 2010 Euroleague champions, Barcelona, have also kept their wits and wallets about them this summer, scouring Europe for resources instead of looking long distance. First they recruited do-everything forward Chuck Eidson from Maccabi Electra before inking one of the world’s finest point guards, Brazilian Marcelinho Huertas, as Ricky Rubio’s replacement.
Actually, replacement sounds as if it’s a one-for-one swap. Allow me to clarify: Huertas is an upgrade. No matter how fond you are of Minnesota’s new point guard.
Still, others went the less costly route of taking shots at undrafted free agents, like Euroleague newcomer Cantu did with Ohio State swingman David Lighty.
And remember the drama Matt Howard provided during Butler’s back-to-back NCAA championship game appearances? Someone at Olympiacos must have been impressed, and the Greek club gave him a contract to prove it. Sidling up beside him will be 2009 Big Ten Player of the Year, Kalin Lucas, who played four years for Tom Izzo at Michigan State.
It’s a new look for the Reds, who forked over fat stacks for Josh Childress and Linas Kleiza just two seasons ago, and most recently lost two former MVPs in Milos Teodosic (signed with CSKA Moscow) and Theo Papaloukas (Maccabi Electra) in the span of about a month.
As of today, the Euroleague—which consists of just 24 teams—will feature 17 guys who played for NBA teams in 2011. This article has mentioned 10. The other seven, alphabetically: Joey Dorsey (Caja Laboral), Jordan Farmar (Maccabi Electra) Ersan Ilyasova (Anadolu Efes), Nenad Krstic (CSKA Moscow), Kevin Seraphin (Caja Laboral), Sasha Vujacic (Anadolu Efes) and Reggie Williams (Caja Laboral).
Clearly, the NBA lockout isn’t about the players it will bring to the Euroleague; it’s about the attention that is sure to follow them.
The goal is not to overtake the NBA. Such aspirations would be foolish and unrealistic. The NBA is the greatest league in the world, and not even a season-long work stoppage could threaten that. But while there’s very little room for better, there’s plenty of space for different.
Nick Gibson covers Euroleague and other European basketball developments for SheridanHoops.com. His columns will appear each Friday, beginning October 7. Click here to follow him on Twitter.