Gibson: Forget the Celtics; Fenerbahce Wants a Euroleague Title

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Rajon Rondo thinks the 2013 Boston Celtics can be better than the 2008 championship version. And last week, Fenerbahce Ulker beat the 2013 Boston Celtics by six.

“They have a really good basketball team,” Paul Pierce said after the game had wrapped up in Istanbul, Turkey.  ”My hat’s off to them. They really played a good game.”

Hold onto your hat, Paul.  At least until mid-May.

While any win–certainly any win against a storied club like the Boston Celtics—is better than any loss, Fenerbahce Ulker understands how exhibitions work.  Bo McCalebb’s 21 points didn’t roll over into the Euroleague opener, just like the Celtics will still take an unblemished record, along with their talents, to South Beach for their October 30 NBA opener despite the 97-91 loss in Turkey.

Fenerbahce Ulker Coach Simone Pianigiani knows it.

“Honestly, I don’t prefer to talk about the game,” Pianigiani said, right after the game. “It’s because both teams were not ready for the season and this was not the real face of both sides.”

So beating Rondo, Pierce and Garnett of the mighty Boston Celtics is a fun story to tell the grandkids around the fireplace, but little more.

But it’s what McCalebb and Co. did against Khimki Moscow’s Zoran Planinic, Vitaly Fridzon and Alexey Zhukanenko in a 92-80 win in Friday’s Euroleague opener that showed me these Turks are ready to contend for—and win—a Euroleague title.

And it’s not just because they opened their wallets—Hell, they do that every summer. It’s because this time, that wallet was opened judiciously, with some semblance of a plan.

At this time last season, the Euroleague narrative included a couple dozen new characters that had been locked out of their league at home.  Forced to seek refuge in faraway lands, NBA rentals like Danilo Gallinari (Milano), Nikola Pekovic (Partizan) and Nicolas Batum (SLUC Nancy) ignited a fuse underneath the Euroleague’s popularity balloon, but it flickered, faded and popped almost as abruptly as it had been lit.

By the time David Stern ordered the motorcade to bring home his stars, it was hard to argue that many of those “stars” had been anything more than disruptive in the grand scheme of things.

Even those who played well and then returned to the States—Gallo, Pek, Batum, Jordan Farmar, Rudy Fernandez (sometimes) — left huge, empty European-sized shoes behind.

Any rhythm their teams had developed under their leadership was whittled down to the nub.

Then there were the stints that were almost purely negative.  Like Ty Lawson cooking up some Twitter beef with his hometown Zalgiris fans in Lithuania, or Alonzo Gee texting Prokom’s head coach that he was leaving Poland on a plane and would not be coming back, or Siena prematurely releasing DaJuan Summers from a contract that never should have been written, printed or signed to begin with.

Fenerbahce Ulker bit into the apple as well, and came away with Thabo Sefolosha of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

It paid off brilliantly in the beginning.  Sefolosha played well a little closer to his Swiss home, putting up 11 points per game and living up to his reputation as a crack defender with 15 steals through seven Euroleague games.

But by week eight, Sefolosha was gone.  Fenerbahce qualified two weeks later for the Top 16, but it’s nothing they couldn’t have done without outside help.

They lost four of six in the Top 16 and missed the playoffs.  Thabo could only—but probably didn’t—watch from Oklahoma City.

Pair that failure with a lifeless showing against Besiktas—whose rafters feature the retired jersey of one Deron Williams—in the Turkish League playoffs, and it was time for Fenerbahce to assemble something more substantial.

To be Europe’s best team, it helps to have Europe’s best player. Welcome aboard, Bo McCalebb.

A New Orleans Privateer in college, McCalebb averaged 13, 22.6, 25 and 23.2 between 2003-08 (he sat out all but four games in 2005-06 with a medical redshirt).  After helping Partizan to an unlikely Final Four berth and picking up All-Euroleague honors in 2010, he went to Siena in 2011 and last season, he led the Euroleague in scoring at 16.9 ppg.

And while I’m confident he would make any NBA team and could start for more than half of them, Bo decided to return to the Euroleague, drawn by bigger money and a bigger role in a city nearly 20 million deep.

(RELATED: The top 20 Americans playing in European Cup Competition

Bo brought his coach, Pianigiani, with him from Siena, along with Aussie Olympian and former Rocket and Raptor, David Andersen.  Ex-Xavier Musketeet Romain Sato and Mike Batiste both defected from perennial powers Panathinaikos, who have tightened their belts during Greece’s financial roller-coaster ride.

And Brooklyn Nets fans will want to keep an eye on Bojan Bogdanovic and Ilkan Karaman, the team’s second-round draft picks in 2011 and 2012, respectively.  I put Bogdanovic on my preseason All-Euroleague team over at ELA, while the 22-year-old Karaman could come up huge if his prowess swells as quickly as his collection of tattoos.

Omer Onan provides the savvy and defense off the bench while 6’9″ guard Emir Preldzic scored 20 during his best Euroleague outing in six seasons with Fenerbahce.  If Emir—property of the Washington Wizards—can inject Fenerbahce with just the right amount of glue, the team from Istanbul’s Asian shores just might lift the Continental Trophy this May in London.

Unfortunately for Fenerbahce, they’re not the only team that spent wisely this offseason.

Rudy Fernandez is back with Real Madrid, but it’s his teammate, Bulls draft pick Nikola Mirotic, that has the best chance at challenging for the Euroleague MVP at the age of 21. With those two, plus Sergio Llull and the arrival of Marcus Slaughter (San Diego State) in the post, Madrid’s offense should lead the Euroleague in scoring for a second straight year.

Madrid beat Panathinaikos 85-78 in their Euroleague opener behind 23 from Fernandez, 18 from Mirotic and 15 from Llull.

Then there’s Mikhail Prokhorov’s old toy, CSKA Moscow, which will try to shake the Ghost of Giorgios Printezis, whose floater over MVP Andrei Kirilenko capped a torrid comeback by Olympiacos and sealed the deal for a Euroleague championship last May.

Kirilenko has moved to Minnesota, but Nenad Krstic and point guard Milos Teodosic are still there along with Sonny Weems, who proved last season in Lithuania that he can stick it in Europe.

Ettore Messina left Mike Brown and the Lakers bench to return to Russia.  The idea: to win another Euroleague title.  He and CSKA got off to a frightening start, just squeaking by the overmatched Lietuvos Rytas side by merely two at home, 75-73.

Last season, CSKA Moscow didn’t lose until week 14.

And what about Printezis and those Reds?  Well, while everyone scrambled to fill holes and sign bodies, Olympiacos looked at their roster, then at the championship banner from 2012, and decided to stand pat.

NCAA legends Joey Dorsey and Acie Law resigned with the club after excellent second halves, and Vassilis Spanoulis will be back to seek out the MVP trophy that should’ve been his last season.

And that guy the Knicks drafted? Kostas Papa Nicky…uh…Papadapa…yeah. That guy.  He’ll be playing for the Reds again this season, too.

Olympiacos started their title defense admirably, beating a difficult, Andres Nocioni-led Caja Laboral squad 85-81 in the ironically named Peace and Friendship Stadium.

Printezis had 17, Spanoulis had 16 and KOS-TAS PA-PA-NIK-O-LAOU chipped in five. (Now you Knicks Blazers fans are stoked, huh?  Thought you might be.)

Last season, everyone pondered aloud how wild it would be if one of the Turkish teams made the Final Four.  Not only did Istanbul host the 2012 Final Four, but Turkish Airlines is also the Euroleague’s title sponsor.

Alas, neither Fenerbahce Ulker nor Anadolu Efes could pull it off.

This year, the Euroleague trophy will be handed out in London; but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that it will end up on the next flight back to Istanbul.

Right in Bo McCalebb’s lap.

Nick Gibson, editor of EuroleagueAdventures.com, covers Euroleague and other international basketball developments for SheridanHoops.com. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

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