Greek League Preview

Greek League Preview
Oct 19, 2008, 07:03 pm
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A league of contradictions is what the Greek A1 has become these days. Franchises with massive budgets are pitted against clubs on the constant brink of bankruptcy. The domestic talent base offers a lot of value, but very tight restrictions on American imports (just two allowed per team). Some markets feature huge, passionate fan bases and NBA style arenas, compared to others who play in almost empty gyms not even suitable for some high school teams. This is a league with a terrific tradition of success, which has been spoiled somewhat by a waning national interest in basketball and the incompetence of far too many team front offices. Still, the competition level is always extremely high, as the teams are well coached, everyone plays extremely hard, the refs call the game fairly loose, and there is rarely such a thing as an easy road game.

Once considered arguably the top leagues in Europe, the Greek league has lost some of its prestige with the ascent of the Spanish, Russian and neighboring Turkish league, despite sporting one of the strongest national teams in the world and two of the most prestigious teams in the Euroleague—Panathinaikos and Olympiakos. Unfortunately, there is a huge drop-off after those two storied franchises, as once powerful organizations such as AEK Athens and PAOK Thessaloniki are trying to restore their severely tarnished images after struggling with massive debts incurred by past administrations.

No other league in Europe is as widely feared by players and agents for its instability and shoddy payment history as Greece, and as evidence we find teams such as Kavala (where Americans Billy Thomas and Will Daniels were slated to play) disbanded from the league last week, just a day before their first game. Basketball insiders will tell you with a straight face that a contract is often nothing more than a piece of paper in European basketball, and nowhere is this spirit embodied more than in the Greek league.

Last Year’s Champions: Panathinaikos

Ten of the last eleven domestic championships have been won by Panathinaikos, but they will face a much stiffer test than usual this season from cross-town rivals Olympiakos. After bringing home a well-deserved Euroleague championship in 2007 (hosted in Athens that year), the team shockingly crashed out of the Euroleague last season in the Top 16 stage—a tragedy by their standards. They responded by beefing up the roster substantially with new signings, while still holding onto all of their core players from last season, giving them one of the strongest and most expensive rosters anywhere in Europe.

Led by legendary Serbian coach Zeljko Obradovic, an old-school, conservative, and extremely dominant personality with three Euroleague titles, a world championship, and eight Greek league titles underneath his belt—Panathinaikos will be aiming to win every award possible once again this season.

The strength of this roster lies in its backcourt, flanked by three of the top guards in European basketball—Sarunas Jasikevicius, Vassilis Spanoulis and Dimitris Diamantidis--oftentimes all playing alongside each other in an extremely undersized lineup. This is mostly a blessing, but at times a curse, as each of these three players fancy themselves as point guards, making their individual roles and responsibilities a bit unclear at times, at least looking from the outside. With two of these three (Saras being the exception) known as just average long-range shooters at best, the team saw the need to add a sharpshooter in the form of American SG Drew Nicholas to discourage teams from sagging off the perimeter.

With once dominant inside player Mike Batiste (going into his sixth season with the team) taking somewhat of a step backwards last season as he entered his 30’s, Obradovic decided to go out and sign the best center in European basketball last season, Serbian Nikola Pekovic, to shore up the interior. His teammate from Parizan, Dusan Kecman, joins him, as well as talented but enigmatic face-up power forward Antonis Fotsis (from Dynamo Moscow), bringing even more scoring power.

All in all, this is an extremely deep and talented roster, which might gel better in the backcourt this season now that Jasikevicius, Spanoulis, and Diamantidis are getting a second season to play together. Still, it’s hard not to feel like Panathinaikos has been outdone to a certain extent in the transfer department by hated rivals Olympiakos, but there are always question marks about how that will actually be reflected on the court.

Predicted Champions: Olympiakos

Anyway you look at it, Olympiakos made all the right moves this past summer, starting with the hiring of extremely successful Greek National team head coach Panagiotis Giannakis (midway through last season actually) and finishing with the dazzling array of acquisitions made on the transfer market.

The signing of Josh Childress made noise not just in Europe, but around the globe, providing a fascinating test-case for basketball fans to study this upcoming season. Not only were the proportions of his contract (3 years, 20 million dollars net) absolutely unprecedented by European basketball standards, but there may not have been a better overall pick in terms of character, feel for the game, defensive ability, passing skills, and all-around versatility to make this a home-run pick by any standard imaginable.

Very few remnants from last season’s team--which lost to CSKA Moscow in the Euroleague quarterfinals and Panathinaikos in the Greek league finals—are still intact. The most notable returners are scoring point guard Lynn Greer, perimeter oriented big man and dominant rebounder Giannis Bouroussis, versatile combo forward Panagiotis Vasilopoulos, and the maddeningly frustrating Sofoklis Schortsanitis.

New to the roster are legendary Greek combo guard Theodoros Papaloukas, talented Israeli combo guard Yotam Halperin, highly decorated but often injured big man Nikola Vujcic, face-up power forward Zoran Erceg, and Greek small forward Mihalis Pelekanos.

There is a great deal of talent, versatility, and especially character to be found amidst this bunch of excellent passers, shooters, and highly disciplined players—making it extremely easy to identify the contrast between this year’s team compared to past editions. Coach Giannakis has everything at his disposal to finally knock off Panathinaikos and bring the Angelopoulos brothers the team’s first championship since 1997, and it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if he clinched a Euroleague Final Four berth (potentially their first in ten years) along the way.

Other Contenders:

There really are no other contenders for the crown besides Olympiakos and Panathinaikos—there is just that much disparity in this league as far as budgets are concerned.

Some of the top contenders to finish third include Panionios, Panellinios, Aris and Marousi.

Panionios is Greece’s third Euroleague contender, and they sport two very good American players in Aaron Miles and Lonny Baxter to keep them competitive internationally. Giannis Kalambokis does not get much recognition outside of Greece but is an excellent scoring swingman, while Serbians Ivan Zoroski and Branko Cvetkovic will play big roles as well. This looks like the clear-cut best third team in the league.

Panellinios has a lot of offensive firepower in the likes of Anthony Grundy, Brad Newley, Jurica Golemac and Djuro Ostojic, but it’s questionable whether they have the defensive ability to hang in the extremely tough and disciplined Greek league.

Aris is another team that can put points on the board with the best of them, thanks to Americans Keydren Clark (playing under a Bulgarian passport), Sean Marshall, and Spencer Nelson, but there might not be enough quality depth here to contend on a weekly basis against the other second-tier teams.

European Competition Participants:

Euroleague: Panathinaikos, Olympiakos, Panionios
Eurocup: Aris Thessaloniki, Marousi, Panellinios
EuroChallenge: Olimpia Larissa

NBA Prospects:

Greece has produced a very small amount of NBA draft picks in recent years relative to how strong their national team and overall domestic pool of players is by European standards. Currently there is not a single Greek-born player in the NBA. Greek players are known for their toughness, versatility, discipline and fundamentals—but they are often lacking the type of athleticism the NBA typically looks for in its draft picks, which has caused most teams to bypass the likes of Diamantidis, Papaloukas, Zissis and Bouroussis, even if there have been some exceptions.

This year looks no different. Big point guard Milos Teodosic is probably the top-draft eligible prospect in the league, but he looks far more likely to continue to ply his trade in Europe than eventually make it over to the NBA. He’s already paid a huge salary by Olympiakos and is locked up for the next four years.

More interesting than A1’s draft prospects are its rights-held and non-draft eligible players on some of the top teams in the league. The most interesting player in this group is obviously Josh Childress, who is still the property of the Atlanta Hawks, but will have such a large cap-hold next summer (nearly 11 million dollars) that he has some decent leverage himself to possibly wiggle his way out of restricted free agency status. If not, he will have two years remaining on his current 20 million dollar contract, which is great leverage in itself for Atlanta to finally negotiate in good faith. Every team in the league will keep track of how Childress is doing in Greece regardless, since he’s an obvious difference maker if signed.

The Minnesota Timberwolves will surely be keeping an eye on their 2008 second round pick Nikola Pekovic, as he has an affordable buyout option in his contract this summer and has all the makings of a quality NBA rotation player. Yotam Halperin’s rights are held by the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’ve shown little to no interest in bringing him over, but may decide at some point to trade/sell his rights to a team that does.

Sofoklis Schortsanitis is about 100 pounds away from ever joining the Clippers, and at this point looks extremely far from mustering up the motivation needed to accomplish that feat. Giorgios Printezis was drafted in the late second round by Toronto in 2007, but it’s questionable whether he’ll see enough playing time this season to show the Raptors that he’s worth a guaranteed contract. Fellow 2007 draft pick Brad Newley had a terrific showing in the Olympics this summer with the Australian national team and will likely be looked at extensively by the Houston Rockets. Loukas Mavrokefalidis looks like a lost cause at this point for the Timberwolves who took him in 2006, but considering where he was drafted (57), no one is probably shedding any tears.

While Greek A1 features an incredible disparity in the talent levels of some of its clubs, it still features some of the best basketball that any domestic league in Europe has to offer this season, and thus is very much worth following.

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