DraftExpress is back to report on the latest developments out of Europe. As it happens more and more often lately, American readers express increasing interest concerning the improvement of Europe's club organization (ULEB) and its attempts to bring the sport closer to the European audience. ULEB took over the sport in Europe in 2000 and since then has made some significant step towards dominance, mainly by organizing the Euroleague and ULEB Cup, the premiere pan-European club competitions on the continent. Some of Europe's finest players have left for the NBA since then and most of them stayed in the U.S., enjoying a successful NBA career.
However, the improvement in the club competition around Europe is not only notable when it comes to the player quality and the team progress on the court. There has been plenty of work done in the marketing field, which is exemplified by the second consecutive sellout of the Final Four that ULEB has managed, this time more than two months in advance. The importance here is that this second sellout took place much quicker than last year, while the Final Four in Prague was announced just a few days before the semi-finals started. The response that most fans expressed was so obvious, and it is suspected that there are many fans around Europe that didn't manage to get a ticket at the end. However, the Final Four this year takes place in Athens, a traditional basketball city, which also has two Euroleague powerhouses in Panathinaikos and Olympiakos. Whether this is a step-back or not in ULEB's plans to increase the interest towards the countries that will be participating in the Euroleague in the near future, will be probably seen in the next tournament that they will organize in a non-traditional basketball country, like they did in Prague a year ago.
Discussing potential expansion, the latest talks behind the scenes have been referring to cancellations of the Euroleagues plans to enter new markets next season. Euroleague's CEO Jordi Bertomeu has long been planning to announce expanding the field from 24 to the more mathematically sensible 32, and consequently a further involvement of some basketball countries in next year's Euroleague. Right now, the most likely season for the expansion will be in 2008-09, with some countries trying to receive the 3-year contract deal that ULEB already offers to many participants. Among the many countries interested in participating in the expanded edition of the Euroleague, we find Belgium, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland. Besides that, there is a lot of talk concerning the number of the Russian teams that should be constant Euroleague participants, especially after the very good season that Dynamo Moscow is having, which led them to qualifying for the quarterfinals in their first year as a wildcard. But, at the end of the day, the biggest reason for this expansion is no other than the potential success that ULEB is hoping to achieve in two of the largest European countries, Germany and England. With just one German team in the Euroleague so far, ULEB is planning to give a guaranteed contract to Alba Berlin, in order to attract the audience interest of the German capital, a task that has been unsuccessful so far. When it comes to England, progress is always relative, but the recent financial improvement of the London Towers has been pointing towards the potential participation of the team in the Euroleague in the following years.
Moving out of their expansion plans, another interesting issue is still up in the air for ULEB. A few months ago, Bertomeu opened discussions with the European Basketball Players Union in order discuss implementing a standard contract across all European leagues for players everywhere. The issue is well discussed so far, with the European Basketball Players Union (UBE) president Giuseppe Cassi accusing the Euroleague of "trying to impose an employment contract on the players using coercive methods" a few weeks before 2007, trying to prevent this contract from taking place the way Bertomeu wants. However, during the first months of the New Year and consecutive meetings between the two men, the ground seems to be softer and an agreement is not looking out of reach. Among important points noted in the contract, ULEB wants free agents under the age of twenty four who played in ULEB's competitions to pay their last ULEB team a minimum of 1.5 Million Euros in order to play for an NBA team, for the purposes of covering their training, development and improvement. Other contentious points include allowing teams to unilaterally cut the contracts of players who have been injured for over 225 days, making all players restricted free agents at the end of their contracts (allowing teams to match offers), a one million Euro fine for players under contract who unilaterally leave their team, and others. This would toughen free agency and raise the amount of money International players would have to receive in order to move to the NBA. The discussions are still up and there is no further meeting arranged before the upcoming Euroleague Final Four (May 4th-6th) in Athens, Greece.
Back to the action, the Euroleague has not been as exciting this year as it has been in the past, at least so far, with three teams dominating the action and looking like locks to make the Final Four. Having won their regular season groups rather easily, all three of DraftExpress' pre-season picks, defending champions CSKA Moscow, Final Four hosts Panathinaikos Athens and Spanish powerhouse Tau Vitoria won their groups in the top-16 round in dominant fashion. CSKA and Tau went unbeaten in that round of six games, while Panathinaikos just lost the last game to a strong Barcelona in Spain, which was of zero importance to the Greeks. In the wide-open last group, Unicaja Malaga took first place, leaving Dynamo Moscow second and Benetton Treviso third and out of the quarterfinals. It is now definite that there will be at least one Spanish team in the Final Four, with Unicaja and Barcelona matching up against each other in the quarterfinals, a best-of-three series. In the other three match-ups, Tau will take on the very talented, but unstable Olympiacos, CSKA will revive last year's Final game versus Maccabi Tel Aviv and Panathinaikos will face Dynamo. Spain has three teams in this round, Greece and Russia have two each, and Israel has one.
Italy having no teams in this round is just obvious another sign that this is a league that is on the decline. Benetton Treviso, however, managed to make this seem like a less important issue, simply because there was even worse news expecting them during the last week of February. The number of players that every team is allowed to have a contract with in Italy is 18 and Benetton had already reached the max, before signing once-NBA prospect Erazem Lorbek
in the middle of the season. They tried to hide another player's contract in order to present the total player number signed as legal, yet the Italian Federation realized their move and caught them. Benetton is now punished with a 12 point penalty, which means that they are almost definitely out of the Italian playoffs, while their recently won Italian Cup was taken from them. In addition to that, they lost Lorbek to Lottomatica Roma, while some of their main stars like star guard Nikos Zisis and the team's coach David Blatt are not expected to return for next season, being well targeted in the market for the past couple of months already. Blatt could very well end up in the NBA, as either a head coach or as an assistant. Benetton, however, will play in the Euroleague once again next season, thanks to the three-year contract they have that expires in two years.
Benetton might have tried to change players in the middle of the season, but Tau has successfully (at least so far) changed coaches in the middle of the top-16 round. Veteran Bozidar Maljkovic took the team over, as the much younger Vladimir Perasovic had been hospitalized for several weeks with heart problems and had been pushed out of Tau's bench after his absence. Perasovic was accused in the past of not being experienced enough in order to lead Tau to the Euroleague title, an opinion well supported after Tau's horrid semifinal game last May and easy defeat to Maccabi Tel Aviv. The Maljkovic era began with a loss, but Tau has started eventually winning dominantly again during the past couple of weeks and people in Vitoria have not been dissatisfied so far, although there are still concerns concerning Maljkovic's defensive mentality, while coaching an offensive minded team like Tau.
Before ending this report, we should return for a bit to the organizational side of European basketball, in order to note that the Euroleague has arranged some friendly games with the Chinese national team this upcoming summer, in order to help expand their products popularity to Asia. This continuous Euroleague plan is to target a pretty much unknown market even for the NBA. The question is whether the lack of a decent star-system might hurt them in this expansion attempt, at least in the first few years. When NBA teams come to Europe in order to play exhibition games with Euroleague teams, European fans know the names and the game of the star players, so they expect something specific. However, there are only a few well known Euroleague stars in the market and it might take a bit longer for the huge Asian audience to learn those names and their game characteristics. Nevertheless, the Euroleague has been fully convinced that Asia is where they should target right now, looking to book some more friendly games with the Japanese national team in the near future too, making some noise with their inspiration and marketing potential.