Stay tuned in the coming days as we present the sleeper teams to make the Final Four as well as the NBA draft prospects competing in this year's Euroleague.
Euroleague.net Team Clubhouse
The returning Euroleague champions, there is very little reason to believe that CSKA Moscow does not have the weapons in their arsenal to once again compete for the title. Simply put, everything is in place for them to make it to the Final Four and beyond, as they are a team with almost no holes to be found.
Starting with their coach, two-time Euroleague champion Etore Messina, who is one of the most respected basketball minds in all of Europe. Continuing with their roster, stacked with expensive talent at every position, but built with an eye for complimentary pieces and internal chemistry. Speaking of chemistry, this is essentially exactly the same roster that won the Euroleague championship last year.
The major difference would be the fact that the roster is once again strengthened by Australian David Andersen, who broke his ankle mid-way through last season and was forced to watch CSKAs Final Four triumph from the stands. Andersen is considered by many to be the best center in Europe, and was formerly drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, but foolishly never brought over.
The biggest strength of the roster actually ironically comes from the bench, in the form of last years Euroleague Final Four MVP, Theodoros Papaloukas. The 6-7 Papaloukas solidified his place as one of the top basketball minds in the world, NBA or not, with the performance he put on against the US National team in the World Championships in Japan this summer, leading his team to victory behind 12 mostly spectacular assists. Hes widely considered the best player in Europe these days. Many expect him to take advantage of an NBA opt-clause in his contract this upcoming summer and finally test himself against the best of the best in the NBA. Papaloukas sees the floor and runs the pick and roll the way few players can, and is capable of providing an offensive spark as well if his team needs him to.
Rounding out the backcourt are three Americans; 6-4 sharpshooter Trajan Langdon, 6-1 creative combo guard JR Holden, and 6-5 Swiss army knife David Vanterpool. Off the bench is a new addition to CSKAs squad, versatile 20 year old combo guard Anton Ponkrashov, who will be followed closely by NBA scouts all year and seems to have cracked the teams rotation based off what weve seen in preparation games.
The other major cog to the team would be super skilled 6-9 mismatch threat Matjaz Smodis, who can punish opponents both with his back to the basket and facing the basket. Coming off the bench and playing an important role last year in CSKAs Final Four run were big men Alexei Savrasenko (7-1) and Tomas Van Den Spiegel (7-0).
CSKAs biggest strengths, besides their awesome depth and team chemistry, lies in the type of defensive mentality that Messina has imposed on his squad. CSKA is capable of playing lock down defense both in zone and man to man, and will quickly push the ball forward after getting a stop or getting in the passing lanes. Offensively, they enjoy excellent ball-movement from their backcourt to frontcourt, as all of their players possess solid court vision and are generally unselfish players, making them a very enjoyable team to watch. They play for each other and are for the most part all capable of stepping outside and knocking down perimeter jumpers as well. Were talking about an experienced team that has been to the Euroleague Final Four no less than four years in a row. It will be a shock if they dont make it five straight this April.
Euroleague.net Team Clubhouse
A three-time Euroleague winner since 1996, Panathinaikos Athens has returned to Europe's elite over the last few seasons. But this team's summer transactions, as well as the fact that this year's Final Four will take place in Athens make Panathinaikos a top candidate for this year's crown.
Having lost backcourt scoring threats Jaka Lakovic (to Barcelona) and Vasilis Spanoulis (to the Houston Rockets), legendary coach Zelimir Obradovic was most happy to see the only returnee from last season's three-guard punch, 6-5 PG Dimitris Diamantidis. He will be in charge of acclimating and distributing the ball to the many newly acquired players, both around the perimeter and into the frontcourt. Diamantidis, a top point guard in the International game today, is a two-time Euroleague Defensive Player of the Year. His unselfish nature and terrific court vision make him the most important cog of the Greek champions. Alongside him, NBA veteran Tony Delk and Slovenian star Sani Becirovic will bring plenty of energy and scoring prowess, while Serbian combo guard Milos Vujanic has to potential to be the team's steadiest shooter. This might not materialize, though, as the former NY Knicks draft pick has been out of action for the past 18 months due to consecutive injuries, and will start the season off pretty far down on the depth chart.
While the backcourt should be carrying most of the offensive load again this season, the most important summer transaction of the team was probably Ramunas Siskauskas. The Lithuanian small forward is both a defensive contributor and an excellent ball distributor, and looks to be the missing piece connecting the star-studded perimeter with the inside forces. Some of those forces, like the power forward triplet of 6-9 U.S. banger Mike Batiste, 6-11 Kostas Tsartsaris and 6-9 newcomer Dimos Dikoudis will round out the team's rotation, and all of them should be in position to help significantly on both ends of the court. However the recovery of Serbian PF/C Dejan Tomasevic--one of the top big men in Europe over the past decade--whose game is characterized by his passing skills and high basketball IQ, should be the main reason for coach Obradovic to smile about his frontline. The addition of San Antonio Spurs draftee, Lithuanian defensive star Robertas Javtokas comes to give Tomasevic the ideal counterpart at the center position.
With their abundance of talent, versatile players at every position, outstanding coaching and with a whole bunch of role players (Nikos Hatzivretas, Dusan Sakota, Frangiskos Alvertis) coming off the bench, Panathinaikos looks like a team without flaws on paper, particularly on the defensive end. Whether they will go all the way or not will depend on how coach Obradovic will handle playing time, the pressure of being the favorites and team-mentality issues that always come along with having such a deep group of important players on one roster.
Euroleague.net Team Clubhouse
After the two top candidates for the Euroleague crown, CSKA and Panathinaikos, Tau Vitoria looks like the next most realistic and reliable option for the Euroleagues Final Four, which would be the third straight for this Spanish club.
The first step for a successful summer in order to keep the team competitive was to maintain the basic axis of the team, 6-2 point guard Pablo Prigioni and 6-9 power forward Luis Scola, who will continue excelling in pick-and-roll situations, as well as Tiago Splitter (6-11), one of the most intriguing youngsters in Europe and already a force down low. Besides, the front office has done its homework in order to solve the excessive dependence that the team had on Prigionis playmaking abilities, particularly those pick-and-roll plays that he runs to perfection, but that also became too much predictable last season.
The most significant addition was 6-6 point guard Zoran Planinic. Fresh off a frustrating NBA experience with the Nets, he is expected to become a great creative force for the team. This means that Tau will have an excellent playmaker on the court for every minute in the game, while both Planinic and Prigioni can even share the floor given Zorans versatility.
On the wings, the team has added more firepower with 6-3 scoring guard Igor Rakocevic. Hes a guy who can create his own shot and takes pressure off the point guard-post connection whenever the offense is in danger of collapsing. With Rakocevic also comes the stigma of a player whose teams have severely underachieved in the last few years. However in Vitoria he will stay away from the point guard position and his role will be more complimentary than in past occasions. He will have to fight for minutes with 6-3 SG Serkan Erdogan, another very good scorer and a particularly remarkable shooter, who is indeed a better decision maker and team player. Although both can eventually share the wing positions, the small forward spot will be handled by Frederic House (6-5) and Sergi Vidal (6-6) on a regular basis. House comes to replace the key role that the departed Travis Hansen had last season, as the man in charge of the ugliest defensive assignations on the perimeter; providing defense, some rebounding, hustle, but also scoring. Vidal will again be a spark off the bench, a high-intensity player who loves to run the court and speed up the game, although he can eventually get out of control.
Regardless of the new additions, Luis Scola will likely remain as the main offensive reference of the team. The Argentinean leads a strong paint game, as usual for Tau, that includes Tiago Splitter and newcomers Kaya Peker (6-10), Mirza Teletovic (6-9) and Diego Fajardo (6-10). An experienced player at the top European level, Peker brings aggressiveness in the post, and another option to consider for the point guards given his nice off-the-ball moves and ability to finish near the basket.
This is a well-built squad, perhaps not oozing with incredible talent. Its also a bit undersized in some positions, a bit weak defensively in the backcourt and might even eventually struggle rebounding the ball. But it's a high-quality team, balanced, where the roles are pretty much defined and everybody is expected to execute his duties with a high degree of effectiveness. Coach Velimir Perasovic will take care of keeping the tension and intensity that usually characterizes Tau. However, there are still concerns about his ability to handle in-game situations, as hes a fairly young coach (at this level) who is yet to show a significant tactical reactivity when things get ugly.
Euroleague.net Team Clubhouse
After coming only 3 minutes away from advancing to Euroleague Final Four last season, Olympiacos Pireus owners spent more money than anybody could imagine this summer to make sure they won't be eliminated in the quarterfinals this time.
They started with a change at the Head Coach position. The old quote says "If you can't beat them, buy them", so they went out and hired Pini Gershon, a two-time Euroleague champion with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and the coach who took their Final Four hopes away last spring. And that was only the beginning of a series of huge moves that happened almost every week.
The biggest one was a 4 years, 9 million Euro deal worth with Lithuanian sharpshooter Arvydas Macijauskas, coming off a disastrous season in the NBA. Unfortunately for all Olimpiacos supporters, he tore his Achilles tendon in an exhibition game, and will be out for at least a few more months. To replace him, Gershon decided to sign Croatian veteran Damir Mulaomerovic. For his whole career "Mula" was his teams leading player (mentally and skill-wise), but it's hard to believe that this going to happen in Pireus. Why? Because to make sure that their perimeter game will be unstoppable, Olympiacos also signed two established Euroleague stars: James "Sconnie" Penn, who will replace Tyus Edney at the point guard position and Henry Domercant, who will be another perimeter offensive threat. But if it wasn't enough, Alex Acker, who draws many comparisons to a young Anthony Parker, and Gerry McNamara were brought in too, with "G-Mac" being signed strictly for Euroleague competition, since unlike in the Greek league, there are no limits for American players.
The interior part of the roster doesn't look as impressive, though. Sofoklis Schortsanitis is probably the toughest interior match-up for opponents in Europe, but because of his lack of stamina, he is not a player who can win games in the final minutes. Ryan Stack, who comes off a successful four seasons at Aris Thessaloniki, is a very skilled player who has the ability to play both facing and with his back to the basket, but he won't have teammates working for him on the defensive end like he used to in Aris. Now when he will have to balance his game between defense and offense, it's yet to be seen if this won't hurt his offensive game. Players like Andrija Zizic and Ioannis Bourousis will bang inside, but it's doubtful that they can compete with the "big boys" from Tau or Panathinaikos.
There is a consensus opinion at DraftExpress that Olympiacos is not on the level of the three teams presented earlier, partially because it's very difficult to build a team that can immediately compete for a Euroleague title. Another thing to consider is that Pini Gershon has brought in a large group of players who used to be stars everywhere they played. This brings question marks around defining clear roles on the team. But if he can find a way to make all of his players accept a "team first, stats second" mentality, Olympiacos should join Tau, Panathinaikos and CSKA in the Final Four. And there, anything can happen...