By: Rafael Uehara/@rafael__uehara
A team that reaches the Euroleague’s championship game and loses their national title to an equally loaded arch-rival can’t be considered an underachiever. However, they also didn’t fulfill the expectations around them. A lot of money was spent for Olympiacos Piraeus to put together the deepest team in European basketball last season. It never really paid off.
Greece, as a country, continues to hurt with the impact of the worst financial crisis of its history. A crisis so strong that, by itself, made people question the strength of the Euro zone and almost destroyed the €uro as a currency. Those financial woes were generated by years of unrestrained spending, cheap lending, failure to implement financial reforms and lack of structure on Greece’s public sector.
The national debt, put at €300 billion, was bigger than the country’s economy, with some estimates predicting it will reach 120% of GDP in 2010. The country’s deficit was at 12.7% early in the year. With help by the International Monetary Fund, through a three-year bailout fund worth almost €40 billion, Greece has shown signs of evolution, citing 46% budget reduction in the first half of 2010 along with major labor and pension system reforms.
Olympiacos was projected to be affected by the unstable economic landscape and did lose the team’s two best players; Linas Kleiza to the Toronto Raptors and Josh Childress to the Phoenix Suns. Iconic Sofoklis Schortsanitis left too, to play for Maccabi in Israel.
Contradicting all sorts of forecasts, Piraeus surprisingly reloaded in the offseason. The high-profile additions of legendary Coach Dusan Ivkovic, the hyper-productive Vassilis Spanoulis, the underrated Matt Nielsen, the experienced Rasho Nesterovic and the budding wing Marko Keselj reinforced the team’s status as title contenders, assuring they’ll continue to battle Panathinaikos Athens for the superiority of Greek basketball and Regal FC Barcelona for the dominance over European hoops.
Last season’s formula relied on basically overwhelming opponents with the amount of high-volume scoring they had in the perimeter. Their backcourt and wings were responsible for the scoring load. Kleiza was the primary option (a league-leading 17.1 PPG in Euroleague play last season), Childress was the secondary (15.2 PPG and on one of the All-Euroleague teams like Kleiza) and somewhere in between they ran pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop sets that featured their guards (Milos Teodosic, Theo Papaloukas or Patrick Beverley) as the main playmakers and either Ioannis Bourousis or Sofo setting the heavy-weight screens.
It really worked. Kleiza won the Alphonso Ford trophy, Teodosic was named the league’s Most Valuable Player and they did reach the championship game of the Euroleague and title series of the Greek League. If Panagiotis Giannakis had come back, he would have certainly been able to plug in the new additions and keep the scheme that drove them to relevancy intact.
But Ivkovic had different plans in mind. The Serbian had sent signals before competitive play begun that he would change the way the Euroleague runner-ups play, introducing a more modern style of basketball featuring a lot of ball movement and producing 25% of their points from fast-breaks and 60% from secondary ones.
It has happened and it has worked. Over the first three games of the season, Olympiacos stands at 2-1, with wins over Real Madrid and Unicaja and a loss to Brose Baskets, and has played convincing basketball, especially at home. The transition-based offense has looked sharp and productive. Piraeus has recorded 55 assists and shot 53.6% from inside the arc so far.
More than welcomed, maybe the change was necessary with the new horses in tow. Olympiacos never really replaced the scoring load that departed. Spanoulis is a terrific playmaker off pick-and-roll sets but not the go-to guy of a championship team. Both Nielsen and Nesterovic are post scorers but necessarily skilled low post presences. And Teodosic remains as schizophrenic as he remains splendid.
Without having to commit to an excessive amount of usage-percentage for one specific player, Olympiacos have achieved higher efficiency numbers since the overwhelming ball movement has generated a great number of easy baskets. Against Unicaja on Wednesday, November 3rd, 66 of the team’s 93 points came from close range shots or free-throws made.
But at some point, they will need reliable scoring from someone. Teodosic is the guy that comes to mind instantly and deservedly so. Controversial or not, he’s the league’s reigning MVP. However, Ivkovic must love the emergence of Kostas Papanikolaou. Against Unicaja, the wingman scored 17 points on 6-7 shooting. Papanikolaou is not a swingman capable of attacking the rim but is a terrific snipping option off pick-and-roll sets.
Yes, it was a blowout and Unicaja’s inability to defend the pick-and-roll is stunning, especially for a Spanish team, and Keselj was inactive too. None of that changes the fact that Papanikolaou provides something every team needs; shooting. Playmakers capable of giving the ball to him at the right spots is something that Olympiacos does not lack. Again, Kostas Papanikolaou has emerged.
After addressing what they were and what they are, it’s only left to project where they will get. Is this metamorphosed version a real title contender? That’s for sure. Papanikolaou’s emergence addressed the only thing missing; sharpshooting. Over these first three games, Olympiacos has shot 60% from inside the arc. At some point, they will play teams capable of shutting down their ability to feed the post and it will be all about shooting. Can they honestly challenge Barcelona? Only time can definitely tell. But the projections aren’t encouraging. Regal also thrives in the open-court and possess more physicality inside the paint. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.
And this restructuring is exactly what Olympiacos Piraeus needed. After putting together a team that reached the championship games of both the Euroleague and the Greek League, Piraeus lost the pillars on which the team was based. They’ve reloaded. They are reshaped. They’ve metamorphosed, hoping the biting end won’t be the same.
Rafael Uehara is a scout for NetScouts Basketball and the managing figure of the Basketball Outsider, his personal blog. He’s a contributor for the Euroeague Adventures and can be followed on Twitter @rafael__uehara.