By: Rob Scott / @robscott33
Six weeks into the Euroleague Regular Season and we have seen enough to start thinking about putting the 24 teams into tiers. It’s also an easy column format, which makes it popular here at Euroleague Adventures towers. But this year something seems different. Last season, Zalgiris, Maccabi and Unicaja stormed out to 5-1, and folks in Kaunas, Tel Aviv and Malaga were genuinely thinking ‘Playoffs’ if not dreaming of the Final Four. All of those great starts happened alongside the eventual Final Four teams Olympiacos, Real Madrid, Barcelona and CSKA Moscow jumping out to at least 4-2.
This season, it’s a different story. Only two teams look genuinely superior to the rest. Below Real Madrid and Fenerbahçe, two of three unbeaten clubs, only Olympiacos are raising their hands above the clamour of the crowd. The reigning champions are not without their issues though, and Zeljko Obradovic’s new team has lost two of three in domestic league play. Below them, CSKA Moscow, Barcelona, Panathinaikos and Maccabi Tel Aviv are suffering various problems on and off the court, to the extent that they can’t be considered default Final Four contenders on reputation and talent alone. The door is open, but which teams can walk through it?
Tier 1: Legit Contenders
Real Madrid (6-0) – Pablo Laso just signed an extension through 2016, and the only surprising thing is why the brass in Madrid didn’t make it a longer deal. Los Blancos are in an easy group, and but right now they don’t have any competitors. Putting up an Offensive Rating of 124.6 is insane – there might be no other heavyweights here, but it’s still Euroleague. Their Defensive Rating of 85.6 also leads the league. That’s just cruel. Corner threes, fast breaks, shots at the rim, it’s like they have a diabolical algorithm to slice through opponents and there’s nothing that can be done to stop them carrying it out. Except that with guys like Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Llull, nothing could ever seem clinical or planned out, even though both guys are playing a big role in a historically efficient offense.
Fenerbahçe Ülker (6-0) – Obradovic’s charges are unbeaten in Euroleague but have dropped a couple in the TBL. It’s worth pointing out both of those defeats came on the road, after Euroleague road games. No coddling of Euroleague teams in the TBL schedule, clearly. Zeljko has the offense purring at a 122.6 Offensive Rating, with perfect spacing and Bojan Bogdanovic turned into a back-to-the-basket killer, but it’s on the defensive end where questions have been raised. Are Gasper Vidmar and Luka Zoric a Euroleague-winning pair at centre? Olympiacos won with Josh Powell, but he had Kyle Hines to cover his tracks.
Tier 2: Still Working Things Out
Olympiacos (6-0) – The core of Spanoulis, Sloukas, Law and Printezis remains, and in case you forgot, are the back to back champions. However, there are concerns upfront with two of the three new centres not really working out (Bryan Dunston, you’re doing just fine). They have a 6-0 record with some stirring fourth quarter comebacks, but just because a team is ‘clutch’ doesn’t mean they will always will be so. There is time to sort everything out, but don’t rule out a mid-season addition at the centre position. This is really a #1A reserved for the defending champs, because even though they have an unblemished record, there are slightly more doubts as to the makeup of their roster with so many new parts. But it feels like Groundhog Day to put ‘doubts’ and ‘Olympiacos’ in the same sentence. Have we learned nothing from the past two years? Apparently not. Can Olympiacos keep pulling off wins like the video below? As long as Kill Bill wears red and white, why not?
Tier 3: Pull Yourselves Together
CSKA Moscow (4-2) and FC Barcelona (4-2) – Both of these teams have high expectations, and both have failed in back-to-back Final Fours. Can a team that gives Sonny Weems and Nenad Krstic heavy minutes be built for championship success when Messina himself admitted they lacked a defensive identity in London? Year three of this project and it looks to be further from success, not closer.
Barcelona have a creativity problem, as persuasively suggested by Eurohoops.net. Essentially their persuasive point is that Marcelinho Huertas is not creative enough and Juan Carlos Navarro is slightly past his best as a shot creator. They lost by 17 in Santiago de Compostela at the weekend, to go with defeats to Bilbao, Fenerbahçe and Nanterre thus far. Although they did have a ‘crisis’ first half of last season, and still made the Final Four, won the Copa del Rey and lost the ACB Finals in five games. But this season, something more is missing, and Pascual might be running out of time to fix it. Brad Oleson’s hopeful return won’t mend everything and this is certainly a team that will be in the market for reinforcements.
Tier 4: Definite Ceiling
These are teams that have appeared strong at times, with talented players, but who just don’t seem capable of breaking into the top three tiers. I would include Galatasaray (4-2), Lokomotiv Kuban (5-1), Maccabi Tel Aviv (4-2) and Panathinaikos (3-3) here. It’s tough to differentiate between this tier and the one above for the latter two squads. Both are clubs who aspire organizationally to be in the Final Four and see themselves as sitting at the top table of European basketball, but without that certainty of Final Four calibre talent on the roster, they stay down here for now. It’s worth remembering that PAO rely so heavily on one player, Dimitris Diamantidis, who by his own admission doesn’t have the legs to put in a full season’s work at top speed. But they could certainly peak in time for the playoffs as the did last time round.
Lokomotiv Kuban are possibly not quite as good as their 5-1 record suggests, with only a +14 points differential over six games. A pair of wins on the buzzer will do that for you. But Marcus Williams is having his most reliable season yet, combining a solid assist to turnover ratio of 2.6:1 with great per-minute scoring. Galatasaray don’t defend well enough and good defensive teams will be able to stop the Arroyo/Mensah-Bonsu pick and roll, but it’ll be fun to see if their awesome offensive rebounding can paper over that for a while.
Tier 5: Top 16 Fodder
Unicaja Malaga (2-4), Bayern Munich (3-3), Laboral Kutxa (3-3), EA7 Milano (4-2), Crvena Zvezda (2-4), Anadolu Efes (3-3)
All of these teams will probably make the Top 16, but probably won’t be any kind of threat to make the Playoffs. There are some things to like here, but bigger flaws that make contention unlikely. Efes has the talent on board to be in the next tier up but the way they meekly surrendered in the fourth quarter in Milano last week was symptomatic of a softness upfront that means they can’t be taken seriously. Semih Erden may not be able to recover at all. Baskonia are endearingly streaky, having beaten Maccabi twice, but they don’t have the defensive fortitude to stand up the better teams.
Tier 6. Eurocup Ain’t So Bad
JSF Nanterre (2-4), Stelmet Zielona Gora (2-4), Partizan Belgrade (1-5)
These guys might not make the Top 16, or at least will have to fight to progress, but a consolation of carrying on in Eurocup. Called a second-tier competition but with some very good sides in it, is a pretty good consolation. One great benefit of the new Eurocup format is that pan-continental fans don’t have to put away intriguing clubs like Nanterre and Partizan once the first ten games of Euroleague are over, they will no longer be hiding in domestic competition.
7: The Rest
Lietuvos Rytas (1-5), Budivelnik Kiev (1-5), Montepaschi Siena (1-5), Zalgiris Kaunas (2-4), Strasbourg (1-5), Brose Baskets Bamberg (2-4)
It’s all gone horribly wrong in Bamberg, with a strangely assembled team unable to beat even its nearest rivals Strasbourg and Zalgiris in recent weeks. D’Or Fischer will add shot blocking and finishing in the middle but not solve the team-wide inability to defend anyone or Zach Wright’s unwillingness to take a jump shot, ever. Siena and Zalgiris are both on the wrong side of a huge budget cut, and they can all concentrate on the domestic front from here on out. Look for guys like Daniel Hackett of Siena and Marty Pocius to be available to anyone willing to pay a buyout come the New Year.
All statistics, as always, courtesy of the indispensable in-the-game.org