Our long nightmare is finally over, Euroleague is back. Grab your bag of cans, light up whatever you’re lighting up, and strap yourself in for 30 rounds of basketball that matters. Emmet Ryan breaks down the big storylines to watch and makes his predictions for the Final Four, the eventual champions, along with the major end of season awards in our big season preview
Oh it’s just so comfortable. EuroBasket 2017 was a fix, a really hard and pulsating one, but it’s just a different beat to the season. The grind from October to May of the absolute best on the continent going at it until somebody lifts the trophy that looks a little awkward to lift. Well not that awkward, Panathinaikos in 2011 was the last side to go Stanley Cup style in lifting and the more conventional FIFA World Cup style vertical elevation has been the norm since. A whole bunch of things are going to happen between now and Belgrade but, for the novices and the die-hards, we’ve picked out a few narratives that should shape the season. There’s only one logical place to start.
Can the champs retain?
Considering Fenerbahce lost Bogdan Bogdanovic and Ekpe Udoh in the off-season, the type of exits that would normally be described as ‘catastrophic’ and ‘dynasty-ending’, they’ve managed to come out of those huge changes in pretty good shape. The additions are more focused on replacing production than straight-up replacing players and that’s smart because straight swaps for either basically weren’t available in this market. No point going for off-brand knock-offs when you can find value by looking at matters holistically. The short answer to the question is yes. Fener enter 2017-18 with a roster built to go to the Final Four while dominating their domestic league in the face of a weakened Efes side and no clear alternative contender in Turkey stepping up. They will be in the shake-up come the end of the season.
Can Doncic do the double?
Nobody has ever won both the Euroleague Rising Star and MVP award in the same season. Luka Doncic has landed in a better situation than any of his predecessors to give it a serious shot. Barring a significant injury, he’s going to walk a second straight Rising Star award. Were it not for his expected departure to the NBA next summer, I’d already hand him the 2018/19 and 2019/20 awards. Although if he was actually looking at four-in-a-row, Euroleague might re-think the way players can keep winning it until they age out.
The MVP race is a different matter entirely but the loss of Sergio Llull will give Doncic the spotlight and increased usage to make a serious run at it. There are other contenders, indeed several more likely winners come to mind immediately, but he’s got a legitimate shot at it. That’s no small deal for an 18 year old and he’s in position to control his own destiny on that front.
The resurgent Blaugrana
The slide of Barcelona over the past three seasons was ugly. The shift over the summer has certainly given reason to believe that the 2010 champions have righted matters as, on paper, the Blaugrana have a Final Four contender. Adam Hanga was the highlight signing but there are lots of parts to this roster to like. Structurally, Barcelona look just plain better but that’s going to require plenty of results to back them up. With the signs pointing to this being Juan Carlos Navarro’s last season, La Bomba would certainly like to go out with Barca back on the up.
A whole lot of Milutinov
Nikola Milutinov is likely entering his last season in Euroleague and he looks like he is going to make it count. All signs through pre-season and the early part of the Greek League point to a completely different player. Milutinov, whose NBA rights are held by the San Antonio Spurs, saw his 5 hole tandem buddies Khem Birch and Patric Young leave Piraeus so now he gets to run the show as the big man in chief for Olympiacos. With the pieces around him and his individual improvement, the big guy looks poised to have a tremendous season.
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Norris, Dee, and Jordan
Norris Cole couldn’t have arrived in Euroleague with any less fanfare. Considering the tendency of players with his type of game to translate really well to European hoops, a touch more hype around the move to Maccabi Tel Aviv might have been expected beyond the Israeli capital. Dee Bost arrives at Zalgiris having delivered a splendid season at Basketball Champions League level and looks like the type of guard Sarunas Jasikevicius loves. Jordan Theodore did even better at that level but has got one of the toughest gigs in the competition as the dude running the show for Olimpia Milano. These three guards are going to be really worth watching as the season progresses. Cole has the best chance at taking some end of season honours but each of them could really shine significantly throughout.
And now that video promo…
Like, where to start? For those of you who somehow haven’t seen the season promo for Euroleague…you really need to see it. Some personal highlights:
1. Chacho looking like the daddest dad that ever dadded.
2. Edgaras Ulavovas attempting to rap
3. Spanoulis donning a crown and robes
4. And this…
— CourtSide Diaries (@courtside_drs) October 5, 2017
Always mention the war
On Friday 24 November, Great Britain will host Greece in the European qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Looking at the Greek roster that reached the quarter finals of EuroBasket, 10 of those players will be in action with Olympiacos at Milano on 23 November or Panathiaikos against Real Madrid on 24 November. This issue isn’t going away anytime soon and it is bound to rear its head in the spring during the next round of international qualifiers. The Reds and Greens are the most focused example that can be given here but everybody is in a mess with this one.
Smaller story but one worth noticing
Milano came dead last in the first season under the new format and the Italian club has made a bunch of signings to avoid a repeat of that performance this coming campaign. This goes marginally beyond pride for them as, theoretically, three last place finishes in a decade could see their licence in danger. In reality, that isn’t going to happen without an awful lot of other things happening but the lone Serie A side in the big show is under plenty of pressure to make a league with a serious tradition appear relevant on the big stage.
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Will expansion be announced?
The potential expansion of Euroleague has been debated from the moment the closed league format currently in operation was introduced. It’s a fundamental issue in the whole civil war really but the first signs were hinted at over the course of the summer. The look right now is that if expansion is announced for the 2018/19 season then a slot will go to France, although it’s unclear whether that will go to the champions irrespective of who takes the title or Tony Parker’s Asvel Basket. The other slot mooted has been to the runners-up of Eurocup, in addition to the existing slot for the competition’s winners. That’s an interesting move to say the least as the gut feeling was that at least one slot, if not both, would be a straight-up A licence. As it stands, it’s entirely possible that neither slot is going to guarantee a team its place in the competition for more than a year.
Regular season rankings
Here’s how I see the ladder looking after 30 rounds of play. For context, I got exactly one team’s finishing position right last year (CSKA Moscow in 2nd). I’ve linked to the individual preview of each side beside its rank here:
1. CSKA Moscow – Russia gets a dose of Chachismo
2. Real Madrid – It’s the Luka Doncic show
3. Panathinaikos – So about the Elevator
4. Fenerbahce – Wanamaker stepping into the spotlight
5. Olympiacos – Militunov ready for a statement season
6. Valencia – Gosh, these guys are fun
7. Barcelona – New stop, same mission for Adam Hanga
8. Anadolu Efes – Dunston at peace
9. Khimki – The Cosmic Ballet of Alexey Shved
10. Maccabi Tel Aviv – Maccabi seeking some order
11. Baskonia – McRae going down a well-trodden path
12. Crvena Zvezda – Lessort has some learning to do
13. Brose Bamberg – The rebuilding boys of Bamberg
14. Zalgiris – A last dance for Saras?
15. Unicaja – A chance for McCallum to build a home
16. Olimpia Milano – New look, same issues for Milano
And now here how I see the big three Euroleague individual awards going…
MVP – Nando de Colo
There are plenty of strong contenders here but the field looks set nicely for Nando to do enough in the regular season to set himself apart from the pack.
Defensive player of the year – Nikola Militunov
This one just looks set up nicely for him to shine and impress mightily throughout the campaign.
Rising Star – Luka Doncic
In order to make this interesting I’m going to assume I make at least one mistake in the regular season table. Not so much as to give me some room to wriggle out as to set up a cracker of a Final Four. Much as I love what Panathinaikos bring to the table in terms of regular season play, I just don’t trust this crew in a playoff situation. I’ve got really little between my top five teams and plenty between those and the rest. So it’s PAO to miss out with CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Fenerbahce, and Olympiacos making it to Belgrade.
Champions – Real Madrid
You have to go all the way back to 1980 for the last time Real Madrid were crowned kings of Europe with the title being decided outside of Spain. Los Blancos have waited so long to prove they can win the big one away from Spanish surroundings that the last time they managed the feat, it was in West Berlin in West Germany. Several of their players were born after both of those places lost the West in their name. The team that finished 5th that year, Den Bosch, play in the Dutch league which now sends teams solely to the FIBA Europe Cup. It was a long, long, time ago. While the roster changes haven’t been huge and the loss of Llull for the guts of the season is massive, this still looks like one serious outfit and it would be a massive statement result for Doncic on his way out the door.