By Nick Gibson of EuroleagueAdventures.com
BARCELONA – With the NBA set to resume labor talks on Tuesday, only one thing’s for sure: there will be a Euroleague box score from Monday night for the sides to check out, if they so choose, in their respective caucus rooms. It will include the names Ty Lawson, Andrei Kirilenko, Sonny Weems, Nenad Krstic and DeJuan Collins.
The Euroleague opens Monday night with CSKA Moscow playing Zalgiris Kaunas, and Wednesday there are four more contests before six on Thursday. On Friday, a little dessert: Bilbao vs. Olympiacos. Mmm…my favorite.
The story lines are aplenty—does the addition of Marcelinho Huertas make Barcelona invincible? Can Olimpia Milano turn their wildcard bid into a Final Four? Will Olympiacos’ new, cheaper model run like the high-priced machines we’re used to?—these are the three most worth watching.
1. Will They Stay Or Will They Go Now?
Nikola Pekovic is to Partizan what Kevin Love is to Minnesota: a wide-bodied beast on the boards and his team’s most productive player.
The problem is, Nemanja Besovic is to Partizan what Nikola Pekovic is to Minnesota. A decent back-up. An expendable, but decent, back-up.
But neither David Kahn nor Stern cares about Partizan. Not about their run at a fifth straight Serbian League title, a sixth straight Adriatic League crown and certainly not about their chances of making it past Real Madrid and Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Euroleague’s toughest quadrant, Group C.
And once Stern and Kahn reel in their assets from abroad, the Nemanja Besovics of the world will be called into Euroleague action. His team’s success or failure could rest on his inexperienced shoulders.
The same goes for Nicolas Batum and Sluc Nancy. With him, it’s an uphill climb over Cantu and Bilbao to make it through to the Top 16; without him, it’s a downhill plunge into the cellar.
But not all cases are this extreme. When Ty Lawson bounces out of Kaunas, Lithuania and bac to Denver, Zalgiris will fall into the waiting and able arms of Mantas Kalnietis at point guard.
If Ersan Ilyasova heads home from Istanbul to Milwaukee, ex-NBAer Tarence Kinsey (Cavs, Grizzlies) and Dusko Savanovic will happily swallow those minutes at either forward position.
If Kevin Seraphin leaves Vitoria, Spain to back up JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche in D.C., Joey Dorsey and Milko Bjelica can pick up the slack until Maciej Lampe returns from a hip injury (if he returns at all).
This lockout will wreak havoc on Euroleague teams (Hell, it already has), but it’s how they manage the coming and going of NBA talent—whether it’s filling the shoes of a departed star or rationing out some extra burn to capable replacements—that could determine their fate.
2. It’s Turkey Time. Right?
It had better be.
At the 2010 World Championships, they steamrolled their way to silver (Kevin Durant’s Team USA took home the gold), fueled by three of European basketball’s most distinct hallmarks: a strategically congested defense, a legendary coach (Bogdan Tanjevic), and a violently passionate home crowd draped in red, armed with chants and songs.
Turkish basketball had arrived.
The thing is, it hadn’t. Fenerbahçe Ülker and Efes Pilsen—both Istanbul-based—rode that national pride wave only so far, and neither made it through to the Euroleague quarterfinals.
To make things worse—extremely, absolutely and exponentially worse—the Turkish national team finished an abysmally unacceptable 11th out of 24 teams at Eurobasket, failing to qualify not only for the Olympics, but for next summer’s Olympic qualification tournament.
Forged by a sampling of success and sheer strength in numbers (Istanbul alone houses over 13 million folks), a burgeoning world hoops power chucked its momentum into the Bosphorus.
But with the Euroleague Final Four scheduled for Istanbul this May, the Turkish clubs yanked their tails from in between their legs and then opened their checkbooks. Efes Pilsen, now Anadolu Efes thanks to the Euroleague’s sponsorship carousel, grabbed Ilyasova from the Milwaukee Bucks, Sasha “The Machine” Vujacic from the New Jersey “Brooklyn” Nets and looted Spain, coming away with one of the continent’s best frontcourts: Esteban Batista (Caja Laboral), Stanko Barac (Caja Laboral) and the All-Euroleaguer Dusko Savanovic (Valencia).
Across town, Fenerbahçe Ülker grabbed Nets draft pick Bojan Bogdanovic and ex-Maryland Terp James Gist to go with an already solid cast of characters, led by Roko Ukic, thought to be a top five Euroleague point guard by many, myself included.
And just to improve Istanbul’s odds of having some hometown representation in the Final Four, Galatasaray decided to plow through the qualifying rounds and earn a Euroleague berth.
Wait a second, that must mean that…
Yep. Deron Williams plays for the fourth best team in Istanbul.
3. The Individual vs. Zeljko Obradovic
One-on-one basketball doesn’t win you games in international ball. Championships? Forget about it. Panathinaikos proved that last season by winning the Euroleague chanpionship.
That must be why Tony Parker, Bo McCalebb and Juan Carlos Navarro waited for at least a pair of defenders to collapse on them before streaking toward the rim in this summer’s EuroBasket.
Lithuania 2011 was a black sheep among a team-spirited herd as white as Dusan Ivkovic’s thinning hair; it was a summer where systems and tactics looked up longingly at the uniformed humans who executed them. The European championships rewarded the names on the backs of the jerseys almost as much as the ones on the front.
Might the Euroleague break stride and follow suit? Not if Zeljko Obradovic has anything to say about it.
Panathinaikos’ head coach has captured eight Euroleague titles in 21 years: with Partizan in ’92, Badalona in ’94, Real Madrid in ’95, and five with Panathinaikos in 2000, ’02, ’07, ’09 and ’11. He doesn’t do it with a triangle offense or iso sets; Zeljko beats you during the commercial breaks. His gameplan before the tip, his adjustments at halftime, his lineup swaps that don’t make much sense (until they do) are all better than yours. (On lineup quandary for the Serbia coach: How to balance a backcourt that includes old-timers Dimitrios Diamantidis and Sarunas Jasikevicus with up-and-comer Nick Calathes).
And during timeouts, save yourself the trouble and toss that clipboard to the side. No need to wear down a perfectly good marker drawing up some play that Zeljko squashed before it even crept into your head.
Out-maneuver the Serbian savant, you will not. Out-talent him and his Greens, you might. And if ever the talent tree were ripe for the pickin’, it’s right now. Thanks to the lockout, a surplus of skill has flooded the market and Euroleague teams have held their cups high in hopes of catching a few drops.
Yet even though high-priced rentals like Rudy Fernandez (Real Madrid) and Andrei Kirilenko (CSKA Moscow) will give a boost to a pair of title contenders, it’s their teammates who will do most of the heavy lifting: Sergio Llull for Madrid and Milos Teodosic for Moscow. Two NBA virgins under the age of 25 who haven’t met a shot they didn’t love or a situation that made their palms sweat. It’s gunners like these—along with Siena’s McCalebb and Barcelona’s Navarro—who will try to swipe a ‘ship out from under Obradovic’s nose.
Even if they get away with it this year, Zeljko—and leaders like him—will come back strong. Though jumpers may go cold, genius never does.
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.