By Rob Scott / @robscott33
The Top 16 may have already semi-started, but we still more or less have time to look back on the Regular Season, absorb some big transfer news and gaze into the crystal ball that weird aunt gave us for Christmas. It’s tough to rank 16 teams who have played different Regular Season schedules, but we’re going to do it anyway, small samples be damned. To overcome some of that, we’ve put the teams in tiers, an old ELA favourite.
The Dejan Bodiroga Do-It-All Tier
1. FC Barcelona (9-1)
They may have had one loss, but this Barça team looks imperious. They addressed all of their weaknesses from last season, getting more athletic, quicker and younger at key positions. They have the luxury of bringing in a scoring talent like Mario Hezonja off the bench, but will be able to use him as and when his sketchy defense permits. To have played this much at this point is a testament to Mario’s offensive skills. But with Edwin Jackson signed from Asvel in time to fill in before Brad Oleson and Navarro return, if the defense isn’t good enough, there’s no need to risk him at key moments.
Watching Deshaun Thomas bully guys in the post and finish with an unblockable jump-hook, it’s tough not to think back to Pete Mickael. Satoransky is the kind of big guard that Pascual loves, and while his defense might not be quite at peak-Sada, his playmaking is far ahead. Justin Doellman gets up and down the floor better than any Barcelona power forward since Terrence Morris and just fills in the gaps in the offense as needed. It’s tough to imagine a better fit for a Pascual team. The Huertas-Tomic pick and roll combo is still devastating, its gravitational force opening gaps for everyone else.
Barça recorded the fourth best offensive and third best defensive rating, at 112.8 and 96.6 respectively. It’s a winning combination. Their net efficiency of +16.2 is second by quite some way to CSKA, but they faced a subjectively harder group, including Fenerbahçe and Panathinaikos.
There isn’t really a let-up when anyone comes off the bench - possible obstacles include Pascual’s still somewhat unpredictable love/hate relationship with certain players, and a possible repeat case of Post-Traumatic-Final-Four-Loss-Disorder. But since the same teams tend to make it to the Final Four, they aren’t alone in that.
2. CSKA Moscow (10-0)
A summer cleanup in Moscow has been needed for the past couple of years. That didn’t happen in full, but it looks like enough has been changed to create a a new atmosphere in Moscow, after the poison and rancour of Ettore Messina’s last season. The core of the team still remains in Milos Tedosic and Sonny Weems, but it looks like Dimitris Itoudis has given some other holdovers a fresh start. Injuries could actually turn into a blessing for this team. Viktor Khryapa is yet to play, which allowed Andrey Vorontsevich to blossom as a high energy, passing savant at power forward. Teodosic missed the last five weeks, and Aaron Jackson finally looks like he did in Bilbao, not a guy scared to make a mistake.
CSKA breezed through these ten games without even breaking sweat, including 19 and 23 point victories against Maccabi Tel Aviv, putting away any lingering doubts over whether anything had changed since last May. Sasha Kaun is freed from having to plateau or -even worse - play alongside Nenad Krstic. Another case of addition by subtraction.
CSKA replaced Jeremy Pargo, a multi-million dollar signing who Messina didn’t even play sometimes, with Nando De Colo, returning to Europe with a point to prove. He fits right in, with size, creativity and athleticism. This CSKA team looks like they actually enjoy playing with each other, which should be terrifying for the rest of Europe. On the upside, for the fans, they are actually enjoyable to watch too. Hopefully nothing gets disrupted when Milos comes back in, and Itoudis has the courage to keep playing Vorontsevich over Khryapa when the time comes. The same doubts about Sonny Weems’ willingness to share the ball at crunch time still linger, but it’s likely that they’ll sail through the Top 16 before that starts to actually matter. Just as long as Andrey keeps passing like this.
The Mid-00s TAU Ceramica In Final Four Contention Tier
3. Fenerbahçe Ülker (8-2)
Hold on to your hats, folks, we have a real contender here. I know it’s fishy, I mean, we’ve had hyped-up Turkish teams before, although they have rarely stayed hyped at this stage. But this feels different. We know about the coach, no introduction needed. They have a viable rotation at centre, with Jan Vesely and, yes, Semih Erden. They have a bona fide shot creator - albeit usually for himself - in Andrew Goudelock, who cannot be left alone anywhere within sniffing distance of the three point line. The only major vacancy was at point guard, and now they have signed Nikos Zisis, from UNICS Kazan. Zisis isn’t to everyone’s taste, but if there’s one thing he knows how to do it’s running an offense. Even without a bona fide playmaker they were third in offensive rating (114.7), and while defensive rotation and intelligence remains an issue, they should be able to put up points on anyone.
4. Real Madrid (8-2)
The ultimate mystery team this season. It’s difficult to not to overreact to their shortcomings, so dominant did they look last season, but the drawbacks are legitimate. The main one is that Pablo Laso doesn’t seem to have an idea of which lineups are working and which aren’t. They steamrollered the likes of Dinamo Sassari, but against better opposition they haven’t looked as overwhelming as last season.
Sure, when Rudy is bouncing around the court like a well-coiffured Tigger they still look dangerous: The second half of Week 10 versus Anadolu Efes was joyous, with Ioannis Bourousis in a good mood and everyone filling in around Rudy, they overwhelmed the number one defense in a 90-70 stomping. But the likes of KC Rivers, Jonas Maciulis, Andres Nocioni and Gustavo Ayon have yet to find their roles, and there’s a ceiling on expectations if there’s a Rudy-reliant attack and a sluggish pick and roll defense, albeit with Felipe Reyes still reigning over the offensive glass. If everyone else steps up, that ceiling is still pretty high, but the mojo just isn’t there so far. There’s still time though, and if last season proved anything, it’s that there are no prizes for winning every week until May.
5. Olympiacos (8-2)
After a nightmare start to the season and the canning of Coach Bartzokas, it’s been as impressive a transitional period as anyone could really have hoped for. Throw out a meaningless Week 10 loss at Galatasaray and a strange slip-up against Baskonia, the Reds have been cooking on a relatively high heat without even needing to boil over. They still have Vassilis Spanoulis, who shows no real signs of letting up. Orbiting around him, Stratos Perperoglou has been a real loss but Giorgios Printezis will be back for the Top 16, along with more or less the same supporting cast from last season. They haven’t been particularly incredible, but respect for the back catalogue gets them a bump over some up and comers. It’s more a finger-in-the-air feeling than anything scientific, but look at their wins over Valencia and Crvena Zvezda. Four close, dogfight-style games, four wins for the Reds. Anybody saying they’d be happy to play this team in the playoffs is lying.
6. Anadolu Efes (6-4)
Legendary coach who has already recently enough piloted an unfancied team to Euroleague glory (amongst many other achievements). Best defense by rating in the Regular Season. Phenomenally talented young playmaking forward in Dario Saric. Terrier-like do-everything wing in Cedi Osman. So why only sixth place? Well, there are question marks. New point guard Thomas Heurtel needs no introduction, but in a team where Saric has been doing a lot of playmaking, it might take a few weeks for everything to settle down.
This team feels like it’s in year one of a two or three year programme, but right now guys like Matt Janning, Donnie McGrath are still knocking around. They’ll need to reincorporate Nenad Krstic back into an offense that is at its best when Saric is distributing from the post. Is Stephane Lasme really an elite rim protector anymore? Furkan Korkmaz is the real thing, an athletic, slippery but powerful wing who is getting Euroleague minutes at the age of 17. If he has a Mirotic-like teenage breakout, then this could be an exciting team, but as it stands, their offense is a little too anaemic to vault into the next tier up. But with Osman and Korkmaz developing this quickly, just wait til next year.
7. Crvena Zvezda (6-4)
Possibly the surprise team of the opening phase, it’s been a hell of a season for the red team in Belgrade. Undefeated in Adriatic League play, and a well deserved second place finish in a tough Euroleague group. We’ve already gone deep on what makes them tick, so we won’t repeat ourselves too much here. Boban Marjanovic remains a matchup nightmare for any team, and surrounding him are a group of young, unflappable, hard-working and talented players. We caught stick for not mentioning guard Branko Lazic in that December article, so we’ll say here that he’ll be deployed to shut down the opposition’s best wing player every week.
In an offense that does have a habit of grinding to a halt at times, the improvisation and slashing of Jaka Blazic from the wing will be equally important. And of course, a lot depends on Marcus Williams and if his setback is lethal to the opposition or his own team. They’ll need the scoring to stay around the 70s to beat the leading clubs, but with the Regular Season’s second best defensive rating, that could easily happen. Nobody will want to go to Kombank Arena, least of all Real Madrid in Week One.
8. Maccabi Tel Aviv (7-3)
OK, we’re cheating here, they’ve already lost to Panathinaikos in the opening week, but we swear we had them here to begin with. This team is outwardly pretty reminiscent of David Blatt’s vintage squads, and not just because Jeremy Pargo is back in yellow. They must be infuriating to play against because they have so many players who can either attack one-on-one or hit contested shots. Peel back the edges though, and Pargo is only shooting 22% on threes, and he attempted 49 in 10 Regular Season games. Ricky Hickman was such a vital part of their title-winning team, and Marques Green isn’t a like-for-like replacement, especially at the defensive end. Brian Randle went on an insane tear through the first stage, shooting 68% from two-point range, so that will probably cool off as the opposition gets better. At some point, those tough shots won’t fall.
9. Unicaja Malaga (4-6)
Which Unicaja team will show up? The one that sits alone on top of the ACB at 12-2, or the one that backed into the Top 16 on a four game losing streak? It’s so tough to tell. This team looks like a playoff certainty when Jason Granger is attacking off the dribble and pulling up for three anytime anyone dares go under a screen, and Fran Vazquez is flashing passes through the paint, dunking lobs and hitting that baseline J. On the other hand, when they go cold, things can get clogged up. There were some close losses, to ALBA Berlin on the buzzer, and when they threw away a huge lead against CSKA. But there’s little excuse for losing at Limoges, a game in which Granger failed to score. If they had more reliable big men to put alongside Vazquez, this team would be a lock for the playoffs, but Will Thomas and Caleb Green are still a wee bit too feast or famine. Ryan Toolson and Mindaugas Kuzminskas are also a little hit or miss. The Martin Carpena Arena was rocking as they beat Real Madrid in overtime in the ACB just after Christmas - it would be amazing if those nights were to return for Euroleague games too.
The Top 16 Fodder Tier
10. Panathinaikos (5-5)
Again, they already played, and beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in the opening round, so why are they lower? It’s a whole body of work thing. On the right day, with Esteban Batista reborn as a pick and roll threat, James Gist flying across the paint and AJ Slaughter hitting from outside, they can compete. They’re just not consistent enough to do it regularly. DeMarcus Nelson missed most of the Regular Season, and his scoring will be much needed alongside Slaughter. This PAO team is pretty much the definition of middle-of-the-pack - they’ll probably get some scalps, drop an easy one along the way and just miss the playoffs.
11. ALBA Berlin (4-6)
ALBA is 15-1 in the German BBL, but will be looking to over-achieve in surviving the Top 16. This is an entertaining team to watch, with a few players who will be earning a lot more money next season off the back of their efforts. Reggie Redding has shown his combination of size, smoothness and playmaking can win games. Jamel McLean is a beast down low, with more handle and quickness than most players with the size to body him up can manage. Cliff Hammonds is another tough competitor with shot creating ability.
The trouble is that the supporting players are just a tad overwhelmed by really elite competition, and that’s where they’ll likely fall by the wayside. They tied Milano for the worst defensive rating amongst teams who qualified, and the offense can drop into prolonged lulls where they struggle to create good looks. Coach Sasa Obradovic is a huge net positive, but his all-action, intense style means that the top-line players have to rotate in and out really frequently, and the reserves like Alex King, Alex Renfroe and Vojdan Stojanovski are solid, but not spectacular. Still, there are always moments like this:
12. EA7 Milano (5-5)
An uninspiring year for a team that really should have made it to its home Final Four last season. It was always going to be a transition as they lost the pair of Keith Langford and Curtis Jerrells to UNICS Kazan. Daniel Hackett has taken the brunt of the backcourt responsibilities, as neither MarShon Brooks nor Joe Ragland has lived up to expectations. It’s always a risk bringing in a fringe-NBA player, but Ragland excelled in Lega A last season for Cantu, and should have delivered more. Linas Kleiza on a cut-price deal hasn’t really worked out either, and it’s been the established guys like Alessandro Gentile, David Moss and Nicolo Melli who have guided them just into the Top 16. They won’t go any further, and by Week 6 or so, their games will probably slip down the priority list for viewing.
The Prize-Draw-Winners-Just-Happy-To-Be-Here Tier
13. Galatasaray (4-6)
The third of our four ‘one game in’ teams are already 1-0 after ‘winning’ a turgid game behind closed doors over Zalgiris. This team is slow, slow and then some, with only new arrival Justin Carter adding any real speed in the backcourt. Carlos Arroyo has gone from throwing lobs to Pops Mensah-Bonsu last season to aiming at the younger, in-theory similar version in Patric Young, but the rookie out of Florida is in his first year of pro basketball and has a lot to learn. The Top 16 isn’t really the place to do it. Add in the fact that we’re never sure if anybody has actually been paid, and the marathon 14 game phase could start to look really long.
14. Nizhny Novgorod (5-5)
It feels mean to rank the hipsters’ favourite Russian team this low, but just making the Top 16 ahead of moneybags UNICS Kazan will have already made them happy. The good news is that Taylor Rochestie returns after missing the last two games , which should give them a fighting chance in Milano in the opening round. There are some under-the-radar names here who might pop up somewhere bigger next season; Trey Tompkins has been a smooth scoring machine as a stretch four, and Belarusian centre Art Parakhouski is the kind of old-school banger that nobody likes facing. They can move the ball around nicely and they’ll probably surprise at least one team along the way.
15. Laboral Kutxa (5-5)
Baskonia are in another phase of their gradual fall from grace, and had to take the money for Thomas Heurtel in order to stick another coin in the meter. They’ve replaced him and Sasha Vujacic (who didn’t see that working out? Oh, that’s right, everybody) with a trio of small, not-quite-ready-for-this-level shooters. Mike James, Darius Adams and Ben Hansbrough can all fill it up, but are all players who would be better off slotting in alongside a more experienced playmaker. It feels like the best outcome for this squad would have been a Eurocup campaign, where they could probably have gained some confidence and saved their legs to try and regain a playoff spot in the ACB.
16. Zalgiris Kaunas (5-5)
How Zalgiris made it is a mystery. James Anderson might end up winning the Sonny Weems Regular Season Volume Scorer Who Disappears in the Top 16 that was inaugurated in his season in Kaunas. There are some hard-working domestic guys like Arturas Milaknis on the wing, but Robertas Javtokas’ days as a post-up threat are gone, except nobody seems to have told him. Their defense is pretty solid, earning the fifth best mark in the Regular Season, but it won’t be enough in this phase.