By: Rafael Uehara / @rafael_uehara
Montepaschi Siena has dominated Italian basketball for over half-a-decade now. With a win over Bennet Cantu in the LegaBasket Finals, Mens Sana clinched its fifth straight Italian league title and sixth in the last eight years. On top of their domestic success, Montepaschi managed to return to relevance in the continental scenario, earning third place in the Euroleague last season, just barely falling to the eventual champions Panathinaikos Athens in the semifinals.
But while Siena is the capital of Italian basketball right now, many forget Olimpia Milano remains the country’s most historic powerhouse, owner of 25 Italian championships and 33 Finals appearances in the domestic league. The reason why is because Olimpia has failed to renew its relevance, which is only done with championships. The club hasn’t won a LegaBasket title since the 1995-1996 season and hasn’t reached the Euroleague’s Final Four since the 1991-1992 season.
Behind the sponsorship of Armani Jeans, the club has tried a resurgence over the last few years, reaching the LegaBasket Finals twice in 2009 and 2010. But things haven’t been done the right way. While Siena maintained a great franchise, Milano just put together a group of great players inside the court but never a team, let alone a similar organizational structure as Mens Sana. As a result, Montepaschi swept Olimpia in the championship series both times.
Appearing to have learned its lesson, Emporio Armani is trying to go through the right steps this time. Before any blockbuster signings, the organization started from the top and hired Sergio Scariolo to lead the club’s brain trust. After a not-as-successful-as-you’d-expect tenure with BC Khimki, Scariolo looks to reestablish his name among the coaching elite. We are all aware of his accomplishments with the Spanish national team, fresh off another EuroBasket title, but as Scariolo himself better puts it, he’s mostly lucky the Spanish federation lets him drive that Ferrari. At the helm of Olimpia’s resurgence project, Scariolo will be responsible for whatever the results are moving forward, since his input on the building of the team has been extensive.
Last season’s team was built mostly around the triumvirate of Oleksiy Pecherov in the post, Ibby Jabber handling the ball and David Hawkins at the wing. All three had extremely disappointing seasons, with Pecherov getting benched during the LegaBasket playoffs after turning himself into a three-point shooting machine. Marijonas Petravicius was supposed to man the paint and Coby Karl came in late to spot up at the corner.
Going for blood this year, Milano has upgraded each and every one of those positions.
Omar Cook was signed to handle the ball. Cook comes in from a pretty good season with Power Electronics Valência in which he helped them overachieve their way to the Euroleague’s quarterfinals. Omar took advantage of Nando DeColo’s down year and Victor Claver’s injury to lead the charge. He finished third in assists in the Euroleague last season, and his ability to create for others will be his best contribution to this team, as he’ll have a lovely set of weapons around him.
Antonis Fotsis should provide all the experience Milano fans could hope for. Fotsis leaves Panathinaikos for the third time (in 2001 to the NBA, in 2003 to Real Madrid and now to Emporio Armani) in his career and we all expect him to come back at some point. Having been a part of three Euroleague championship teams, the captain of the Greek national team brings the winning mentality that Scariolo wants to reinsert into the organization.
Malik Hairston was an important part of Siena’s title campaign and their Euroleague Final Four run last season, which makes his departure from Mens Sana all the more surprising. In Hairston, Olimpia lands one of the most poised multi-dimensional scoring threats in Europe. As he has established his position as an elite defender and ferocious rim attacker, Hairston only needs to prove he can be a consummate leader in order to become a superstar.
Drew Nicholas was brought in to spot up. Nicholas leaves Panathinaikos Athens after a three-year stint with the Greek powerhouse, collecting two Euroleague titles along the way. He returns to Italy after leaving Benneton Treviso in 2006. Used to the spotlight thanks to tenures with Baskonia and Efes Pilsen, besides PAO and Treviso of course, Drew is there for one reason and one reason only: to hit big shots.
And then there’s Ioannis Bouroussis, kind of a shocking acquisition. Not for Bouroussis’ talent—we all know he has that—but because of the tumultuous late season Ioannis faced last year. TalkBasket explains it best here but to sum up; Ioannis dates the sister of Stavros Psomiadis (president of the Greek football club Kavala, arrested a couple of weeks ago for fixing games) and had one of his calls to Psomiadis intercepted by the police in which it becomes clear he played all year under the influence of performance enhancing drugs. Bourousis was never caught because the Greek A1 league is virtually a test-free league since the anti-doping agency is on strike because the federation owed them money. He has tried to clear his name since, making himself available for testing, which he passed, but you know…
And if it wasn’t enough for Emporio Armani to have the most productive offseason in terms of swapping all the big names in the European market, the club also managed to talk Danilo Gallinari into returning to Milano for the duration of the NBA lockout. The cherry on the top of the cake. Besides his world-class shooting, Gallinari is a top scoring threat in Euroleague play with his wide-steps on his way to the rim and athleticism to finish there. Can’t overlook his defense either. Or how stunning he looks in shiny jackets.
Scariolo didn’t just put together great players but pieces that fit together. He’s the X-factor, though. His ability to flip all this talent into a fearsome squad is what’s going to determine the quality of Olimpia’s season. Besides Scariolo, Hairston’s performance can decide the team’s fate, too. He’s supposed to lead the way, which is something he actually hasn’t done yet in his short, but very impressive European career. While Gallinari is there, he’ll be able to share the load, maybe even delegate it to the NBA star. But many are optimistic that we will have an NBA season (not yours truly), meaning at some point Danilo should return to Denver and Malik will have to step up and the take the team the rest of the way home. Everyone around him is top-notch at what they do but Hairston is the real key for Milano’s aspirations.
In terms of talent on paper, there is no way not to believe Emporio Armani is a Final Four contender and a title hopeful. Yes, we’ve been here before with the big name acquisitions and high preseason expectations, but never to this level. Olimpia should also get credit for doing things the right way this time, step for step. It’s all about Scariolo proving his worth now as the organization tries to retake its place among Europe’s elite.
Rafael Uehara is the founder of The Basketball Post and a frequent contributor to ELA. You can catch him on Twitter @Rafael_Uehara.