Tuesday, October 18, 2011

2011-12 Euroleague First Round Primer

With the NBA still in limbo, the top caliber of basketball in the world can be found in the Euroleague, whose 2011-12 season tips off on Wednesday with a slate of four games, highlighted by Fenerbahce vs. Caja Laboral. (CSKA beat Zalgiris on Monday.) Six games to follow on Thursday and one game on Friday. The first round runs until Dec. 22.

In the first round, 24 teams are divided into four opening-round groups of six teams apiece. Each team plays the other five teams in its group twice (home-away). The top four teams from each group move on to the the Top 16 round, which runs from Jan. 18-Mar. 1.

Then, the top two teams in each of those group moves on to the quarterfinal round, which starts Mar. 21. The four winners of each best-of-five quarterfinal series earns a trip to Istanbul for the EL Final Four on May 11-13.

As of right now (lockout could change things), the top five contenders are CSKA, Panathinaikos, Real Madrid, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Barcelona. Other strong teams slightly a level below the top five are Caja Laboral, Fenerbahce Ulker, Olympiacos, Zalgiris, AJ Milano, Efes and Montepaschi Siena.

It's a bit difficult to forecast this season as the NBA lockout could alter some rosters as we get deeper into the EL season. For example if the Gasols were to end up on Barcelona, they are the overwhelming faves.

In the U.S., ESPN3.com will be showing many Euroleague games throughout the season.

(Teams listed in order of predicted finish)

GROUP A:
1) Caja Laboral
2) Fenerbahce Ulker
3) Olympiacos
4) Bilbao
5) Bennet Cantu
6) Nancy

Summary: Would say Caja, Fenerbahce and Olympiacos are tightly bunched at the top of this group, while Bilbao is team that can't be overlooked and has sleeper-type potential.

Caja Laboral has lost Marcelo Huertas and Stanko Barac but still retain Fernando San Emeterio and Mirza Teletovic. Teletovic is another key offensive threat for Caja who is one of the best shooters in Europe. San Emerterio (EL 1st-Teamer in '10-'11) makes up for his mediocre physical skills with terrific smarts--very sneaky driver.

They also will have Reggie Williams to turn to to offer more scoring pop. SG Brad Oleson will take over for Williams if/when he has to go back to the States. Nemanja Bjelica (TWolves own rights) is a quality reserve at the forward spots.

Veteran PG Pablo Prigioni comes over from Real to take over for Huertas. One concern for Caja is the lack of length. Maciej Lampe might miss most of the first round with injury. Joey Dorsey is signed for the entire season while Kevin Seraphin is available as long as the lockout continues.

Turkish power Fenerbahce Ulker should be able to push Caja thanks to a deep roster. They have a bunch of talent on the wings with Bojan Bogdanovic, Emer Preldzic, Marko Tomas and Thabo Sefolosha available. Preldzic, Bogdanovic and Tomas can all handle the ball. Tomas and veteran PF Mirsad Turkcan are currently sidelined with injury and might miss a chunk of the first round. Roko Ukic and Curtis Jerrells give Ulker two good options at PG. Kaya Pekar and Oguz Savas provide servicable bulk off the bench.

This might be the weakest team Olympiacos has assembled in awhile. However, there is still a fairly deep roster that should allow this team to advance to the Top 16 round. With Milos Teodosic and Theo Papaloukas gone, the brunt of the playmaking duties will rest on Vassilis Spanoulis' shoulders.

Spanoulis is one of the better guards in Europe thanks to his penetration, but he's a TO machine. Recent Mich. State grad Kalin Lucas will try to lessen the playmaking burden on Spanoulis.

Oly's frontcourt rotation is two limited, lumbering bigs, Lazaros Papadopoulus and Andreas Glyniadakis, who will try to make up for the loss of Giannis Bourousis. Stretch-4 Pero Antic brings his dicey shot selection and chip-strap beard to the mix.

Recent Butler grad Matt Howard and combo forward Georgios Printezis (Raptors own rights) will also see minutes on the backline for Oly. Undersized PF Kyle Hines comes over from Germany where he had a nice season for Brose last year. Marko Keselj, Kostas Papinikolau and Panagiotis Vassilopoulos are a nice athletic fleet of small forwards.

Bilbao might be the sleeper in Euroleague field and can steal a game from any team in this group. Bilbao has some solid vets up front with Axel Hervelle, Marko Banic, D'or Fischer and Dimitrios Mavroeidis. Hervelle is still recovering from a leg injury he sustained during Euro '11 prep. SG Aaron Jackson leads this team and might have a future in the NBA. Alex Mumbru, Kostas Vasiliadis, Janis Blums and Raul Lopez round out a quality perimeter rotation.

Cantu can challenge Bilbao for the final Top 16 bid in Group A, though they rely on some older guys and are not the most athletic bunch. Former Oregon Duck Maarty Leunen is their top frontcourt option. Athletic SG Manuchar Markoishvili is the main perimeter option who can hit off screens or spotting. Cantu will count on two 36-year-old shooting guards, Nicolas Mazzarino and Gianluca Basile, to provide sharpshooting off the bench. Recent acquisition Giorgi Shermadini was much needed as starting center Denis Marconato (36 years old) can only go limited minutes.

Reigning French league champ Nancy has added Nic Batum for the time being, but not much firepower after him. Former NCAA standouts PF Akinlolu Akingbala (Clemson), PG John Linehan (Providence) and Jamal Shuler (VCU) will try to help Nancy stay competitive.

GROUP B:
1) CSKA
2) Panathinaikos (PAO)
3) Zalgiris
4) Unicaja
5) Brose
6) Zagreb

Summary: Solid group led by title contenders CSKA and PAO. Zalgiris, Unicaja and Brose should compete for the last two Top 16 bids in the group.

CSKA is coming off a somewhat disappointing '10-'11 EL campaign where they failed to get out of the first round. CKSA is a legit 12-deep, has good size at each position and can put out a variety of different lineups with many players being able to play multiple positions. CSKA has added Andrei Kirilenko, Nenad Krstic and Milos Teodosic to an already stacked roster.

Even if Kirilenko doesn't finish the season, CSKA is a Final Four contender. Kirilenko is not obligated to go back to the NBA since he's an unrestricted FA and would not be surprised if he stays the whole year with CSKA. With Andrei, I would give CSKA the slight edge to win the EL title.

Teodosic, Alexey Shved and Jamont Gordon give CSKA three dynamic ball-handlers, though all three guys can be prone to careless TOs. Trajan Langdon and JR Holden are recently retired but CSKA still has the services of vet SF Rimas Siskauksas. Siskauskas is another playmaker at CSKA's disposal.

Much like on the Russian national team, Vik Khryapa and Kirilenko provide CSKA with all-around threats at the forward spots. Andrey Vorontsevich gives this team another versatile 6-9 forward off the bench. Darjus Lavrinovic and Sasha Kaun are two other nice options at center behind Krstic. Anything short of a Final Four appearance would be a disappointment.

Defending champ Panathinaikos kept most of their its intact and should challenge CSKA for Group B supremacy. Last season's Euroleague MVP Dimis Diamantidis returns to cause problems for the opposition on both ends of the floor. '10-11 Euroleague 1st-team selection Mike Batiste remains one of the most dangerous roll men in Europe.

When Aleks Maric is healthy, he's a top-notch big who can pound the glass and draw fouls. Romain Sato teams with Diamantidis to form a destructive defensive tandem on the perimeter. Should be interesting to see if PAO misses Antonis Fotsis' shooting and defense at the PF spot.

PAO added Saras Jasikevicius back into the mix and he showed at EuroBasket he can still be effective in limited duty. Saras' shooting ability allows him play minutes at the off-guard and he can play alongside NIck Calathes off the bench. David Logan is another proven perimeter option for Coach Obradovic to call on.

Zalgiris' most heralded addition has been Denver PG Ty Lawson. If/when Lawson has to go back to the States, Zalgiris won't be in bad shape as Mantas Kalnietis is a capable PG. The poor man's Juan Navarro, combo guard Marko Popovic, is a potent offensive option in the backcourt. Sonny Weems is signed for the entire season and adds some more scoring pop alongside Popovic. Veteran bigs Robertas Javtokas, Paulius Jankunas and Milovan Rakovic provide toughness on the frontline but not great scoring.

Unicaja is anchored by one of the top bigs in Europe, Joel Freeland. Freeland (Blazers own rights) can do damage inside and out, and he could be a quality rotation player in the NBA right now. Unicaja will rely on on a trio of Americans--Earl Rowland, Gerald Fitch and Tremmell Darden--to provide some scoring pop on the perimeter.

German representative Brose is led by former Stanford standout shooter Casey Jacobsen. Besides Jacobsen, Brose gets key contributions from other former NCAA standouts like PJ Tucker (Texas), Marcus Slaughter (San Diego St.), Julius Jenkins (Ga. Southern) and Brian Roberts (Dayton). Brose is solid team that could push Unicaja for the final Top 16 berth.

Zagreb doesn't have much of a chance of getting out of this group. They have already changed coaches after a poor start in the Adriatic league. The frontcourt is not in bad shape with the likes of Sean May, Mario Kasun and Josh Heytvelt available. But the the backcourt is hurting for talent.

GROUP C:
1) Maccabi
2) Real Madrid
3) AJ Milano
4) Efes
5) Partizan
6) Spirou

Summary: Group C seems to be the proverbial "Group of Death". Maccabi and Real are very closely-matched and both are serious Final Four contenders, while a very solid team (possibly Partizan, Efes or AJ Milano) won't make it out of the first round.

Even though they lost Jeremy Pargo--who was one of the best players in the EL last season--Maccabi has a very deep roster that can make a repeat run to the Final Four. Expect this David Blatt-led team to execute crisp sets and repeat the strong defensive play from last year.

They have turned to two Americans to bolster their backcourt, Jordan Farmar and Jon Scheyer. Farmar will have to return to the Nets if the lockout ends, but Scheyer is signed for the season. Veteran playmaker Theo Papaloukas moves over from Olympiacos to give Blatt more ball-handling options.

Maccabi could be even more dangerous as they are currently in pursuit of Omri Casspi and Keith Langford. Maccabi has retained their solid veteran forward rotation of Lior Eliyahu, Richard Hendrix, David Blu and Guy Pnini. Eliyahu is a key scoring option close-in with is array of flip shots while Pnini and Blu bang jumpers.

Sofo Schortsanitis is the primary interior option and Big Sofo is coming off a terrific '10-11 campaign that earned him a EL 1st-team nod. The one minor concern is the lack of size. Maccabi recruited former NCAA shot-blocking ace Shawn James to add some much-needed bouncy length.

Like Maccabi, Real Madridwill try to make a return to the Final Four and they have a loaded roster that's as formidable as Maccabi's. For combo guard Sergio Llull, it will be interesting to see how he handles increased point-guard duties with the departure of Pablo Prigioni. Sergio Rodriguez will take some of the ball-handling burden off Llull.

The frontcourt rotation of Ante Tomic, Felipe Reyes, Nikola Mirotic, Novica Velickovic and Mirza Begic is very talented. All five guys can create offense down low--Tomic and Mirotic are two of the most refined players in Europe. Unlike Tomic, Begic actually uses his size to cause problems on the defensive end.

Real has Rudy Fernandez signed for the time being. If Rudy can stay the whole season, it would be a boon as the SF position could use some depth. Could see Mirotic and Velickovic sliding over to the 3-spot sometimes. Velickovic needs to regain his '09-10 form after struggling last year to adapt to Mirotic getting more minutes. If Rudy has to go back to the Mavs, Real can turn Martynas Pocius and Jaycee Carroll for some scoring on the wings.

Efes and AJ Milano are both intriguing teams with a lot of raw talent but how the talent jells together is the big question. Milano has a quality veteran roster with plenty of new pieces thrown together. A nice potential starting lineup of Omar Cook, Drew Nicholas, Danilo Gallinari, Antonis Fotsis and Giannis Bourousis (all five guys new to Milano). This lineup can really spread the floor with Fotsis and Bourousis' ability to face-up.

Even if Gallinari won't finish the season in Milan, they can to turn to Stefano Mancinelli and Malik Hairston to take his spot. Leon Radosevic is a promising young big that should provide quality support off the bench. Clearly a ton of talent, but how will all of it mesh together is the real question.

Like Milano, Efes has added quality vets to the roster like Sasha Vujacic, Terence Kinsey, Stanko Barac, Esteban Batista and Vlado Ilievski.

Ersan Ilyasova is also currently on the Efes roster. And if Ersan has to go back to the States, Efes can turn to Dusko Savanovic (another new addition) to take his starting spot. PG Kerem Tunceri is one of the few returning players and usually provides any team he's on with a steady influence.

Partizan will have a hard time getting out Group C. The good news for Partizan is they will likely have Nikola Pekovic for most of the first round. The frontcourt is also bolstered by Miroslav Raduljica and Milan Macvan (recently loaned out from Maccabi). Both guys have some skills on the offensive end. Acie Law is signed for the entire season and should get the starting nod to run the offense.

Spirou recently just advanced through the mini-qualification tourney to earn one of the last two bids but was done no favors by being placed in this brutal group. Their chances of getting out of group play are slim to none. Spirou's slim chances took a hit when Mickael Gelabale recently left the team. Christophe Beghin is a decent scoring option in the post and possible draft prospect Tornike Shengalia is a strong rebounder and finisher.

GROUP D:
1) Barcelona
2) Montepaschi Siena
3) Galatasaray
4) UNICS Kazan
5) Union Olimpija
6) Asseco Prokom

Summary: Group D is probably the weakest group with Barca and Siena clearly a level above the other four teams. Barca and Siena should easily roll into Top 16 relatively unscathed. Would not be surprised to see Barca go undefeated in group play as Barca's only competitive games should be vs. Siena.

Barca is once again is loaded with primo talent led by Juan Navarro and Erazem Lorbek. Ricky Rubio is gone but Barca filled the vacancy with Marcelo Huertas, one of the top PGs in Europe. They have also added multi-skilled combo guard Chuck Eidson to provide more quality playmaking to the backcourt. Barca also retained quality vets like Pete Mickeal, Fran Vazquez, Joe Ingles and Boniface Ndong. Right now the Gasols are practicing with Barca and if the NBA season is cancelled, if either one of those guys (or both) are signed, hand Barca the trophy.

Most of the same players who helped Siena advance to last season's Final Four return this season. Bo McCalebb is the featured player for Siena and he's no doubt the most feared penetrator in Europe. Bo has quality auxiliary support in the backcourt from Rimas Kaukenas, Nikos Zisis and Pietro Aradori. DaJuan Summers should start at SF and is signed for the season.

After an unsuccessful stint in the NBA, David Andersen returns to Euro ball to help Siena's frontcourt. Energy forward Shaun Stonerook and PF/C Ksystof Lavrinovic return to bolster the frontline rotation.

The last two Top 16 berths in Group D should be up for grabs as not much separates Galatasaray, Union and UNICS.

Even though Galatasaray was one of the last two teams to qualify, they have enough veteran talent to compete for a Top 16 berth. This Turkish club has upgraded its roster by adding Jaka Lakovic, Ender Arslan, Darius Songaila and Zaza Pachulia. (Songaila is signed for the year while Zaza has an out-clause). Former NCAA standouts Josh Shipp and Preston Shumpert round out the rotation.

UNICS is a veteran-laden club with a heavy American influence. Have a trio of quality scorers in the backcourt with Henry Domercant, Lynn Greer and Terrell Lyday. All three guys will share ball-handling duties. Former Wisconsin standout Mike Wilkinson and Kelly McCarty are other viable options at the forward spots. Nathan Jawai and Alexey Savrasenko are a servicable center tandem. This team ain't young--most of their key guys are over 30

Slovenian champ Union Olimpija will be able to compete for a Top 16 spot thanks to its collective ability to spread the floor. Union will call upon two former UNC Tar Heels, Danny Green and Deon Thompson, to play big roles. Thompson bolsters a solid frontline that includes stretch-4 Damir Markota and old-school bruiser Ratko Varda. Ben Woodside and Aleksander Capin will split PG duties. Recent Spurs draftee Davis Bertans and Sasu Salin give this team two young sharpshooters off the bench.

Prokom did not fare well in EL play last year and the Polish champ's chances are not any better this year as they have a weaker roster. Recent Rocket draftee Donatas Motiejunas comes over from Treviso to lead this team. Alonzo Gee (has an out-clause) and Devin Brown will try to help Motiejunas make Prokom respectable.

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