Fans are back and rosters look different, Euroleague’s return to normality might well be the most open season in years
Before we get carried away, yes, I fully expect CSKA Moscow to be in Berlin come the end of the season. That has little to do with their roster, which is quite fun and we’ll get to, or anything else. CSKA at the Final Four is a constant, what it does there is wild.
They could be playing against the Monstars with a hostile pro-Monstar crowd in a series they had to play completely on the road in the playoffs, while being forced to play by Netball rules (just CSKA, not the Monstars who still get to hoop normally), and I would still have no doubt that CSKA would make it to Berlin. It’s just the way life is.
Now, that out of the way, wow it is good to be back. I mean properly back. Last season was a thing and it was great to see the most entertaining side in recent memory win a championship (much love to Ergin Ataman on winning the big one too) but it was also a salve. Just getting that season played in full was an achievement. This year, the bar for those of us watching is an awful lot higher.
Fun in Russia
We’ve had teams that were downright good craic to watch from Russia before but rarely more than one at a time. There was the Unics side with Quimo Colom that thrilled despite its terrible win-loss record. There was the CSKA side of the last two seasons, not necessarily its best team but somehow played a more exciting brand of basketball than when it had Milos Teodosic on the floor. There was also, of course, the Final Four squad from Lokomotiv Kuban.
This season? Oh just give it to me. Starting out with CSKA, it was already a roster built for a good mix of genuine barn busters and total hot messes; they provided every flavour of fun. Now they’ve added Alexey Shved, the foul-drawing king and a whole lot more. This one doesn’t really need elaboration, CSKA have proven their craic credentials.
Add in a returning Unics Kazan with Mario Hezonja, OJ Mayo, Isaiah Canaan, and a man truly underappreciated for his entertainment value, Andrey Vorentsevich. While certainly sensible, Vorentsevich has the type of three ball that gets the people going. Hezonja and Mayo bring enough of a mix of crazy and baller to raise their thrill quotient, while Canaan is more in the Vorentsevich mould of sensible but still crazy enough on the ball to be able to ensure this team is favourites for the Euroleague TV equivalent of a League Pass team. It’s the type of roster as capable of going 0-34 as it is 34-0, which is exactly what you want from a fun side.
Zenit can’t quite compete with the other two in terms of entertainment but they’re still going to be in the playoff hunt again which is what really matters to a Xavi Pascual team as it should.
So, eh, Spain
Well, this is just going to be a touch confusing to be honest. I have no idea what the ceiling or floor is for either Real Madrid or Barcelona this season and that feels refreshing. There was zero doubt that the Blaugrana were going to the Final Four last season but, this year, despite an awfully similar roster the off court issues with the broader club’s finances may have some impact but it’s total guesswork to work out what.
Real have endured some serious roster turnover, although they have brought in Adam Hanga from Barcelona and Thomas Heurtel, from Asvel after the Frenchman’s own stint in Catalunya, which is going to give some kind of a different look this season. The biggest challenge for Real last year was the sheer amount of comings and goings in-season. This year promises less of that, which is a plus, but I’m not even pretending I know what they’re going to end up being like on the court. Indeed, that is almost the rule for this year. It’s just hard to gauge what anyone can actually do.
Granted, that makes the look at Baskonia a touch easier as that’s generally what I gauge for them before every year. Once more, they will be very Baskonia.
New eras in Athens
Olympiacos waved farewell to Vassilis Spanoulis at the end of last season and now, it appears, the role of leader goes to the returning Kostas Sloukas. He’s got quite the job to do as the Reds are also back in the Greek league this year along with the roles of Hassan Martin and Sasha Vezenkov certain to only increase in importance.
Panathinaikos had to wave farewell to Hezonja as he went to Kazan with the Greens essentially running off the engine of Nemanja Nedovic and Ioannis Papapetrou. The importance of the latter’s leadership really can’t be overstated as, on paper, this is not a terribly competitive looking roster for the Greens, not awful but also not a playoff side, and he’ll need to get every drop of basketball out of the men around him when he’s on the floor.
The Lone Rangers
Olimpia Milano, Crvena Zvezda, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Zalgiris are, once again, the only teams from Italy, Serbia,Israel and Zalgiris in Euroleague. Given the way Virtus Bologna and Partzian are spending, there’s a good chance that Milano and Zvezda have some company next season although the latter situation is more complicated given its wildcard status.
With Zvezda, they really need the crowd back as that has carried them to better records than the assets at their disposal were expected to deliver in the past and it’s hard to see the current group doing much without that help. Zalgiris impressed in parts during their first season of the post-Saras era, with Martin Schiller certainly doing his stock plenty of favours, and he’s got quite the eclectic mix to work with.
Emmanuel Mudiay, Janis Strelnieks, Niels Giffey, Edgaras Ulanovas, and Joffrey Lauvergne is a line-up we could plausibly see on the floor at some stage for the Kaunas club. Per the current depth chart, it’s not so much plausible as much as much as it needs exactly one substitution to happen. I don’t know what that’s going to be like as a mix but it will certainly be interesting.
Maccabi fans have been patient while waiting to get back to what they see as their normal level of being regularly in the playoffs and this year’s roster appears to have beefed things up considerably. James Nunnally and Derrick Williams add a touch of explosiveness and physical strength to a side that tended to always be struggling to balance both. Turns out signing two guys that deliver equally in the two regards is a good way of fixing that.
Milano meanwhile will want to build on last year’s Final Four appearance, with most of the key men back and a return home for Niccolo Melli after six years. The mental hurdle overcome last year has to ensure they have more grit through the wobbly parts of the season and I expect them to be in contention for home court advantage in the post-season.
Repeat or relief?
Winning a championship is no easy feat. Winning back to back crowns is a whole lot harder. You have to go back to London in 2013, when Olympiacos followed up on their Istanbul heroics, for the last repeat champions. For Efes, it’s going to be an enormous ask. On the one hand, they finally got over the line. On the other, Sertac Sanli has departed which means there’s a lot of production to replace. Added to this is the sheer challenge of getting mentally where you need to be to make such a push forward again.
For Fenerbahce, it’s a new look as Sasha Đorđević takes over on the bench fresh off his first ever league title as a coach with Virtus. A full 10 departures have occurred amongst the playing staff along with 7 arrivals and this is going to be a very different looking outfit on the floor this year. Reaching the playoffs would be a good year, finding a way to win the BSL as well would be a bonus, but asking anything more really is a lot from the current outfit.
A balancing act
It’s a sign of the times that the back-to-back Bundesliga champions are pretty much the consensus second best German side in Euroleague and will hold that status for the third straight year. Such is the challenge of getting things done both at home and on the continent’s big show.
Alba Berlin have a couple of interesting arrivals in the forms of Yovel Zoosman and Tamir Blatt but Peyton Siva is a big loss and they also said farewell to Giffey and Jayson Granger. We know Alba will entertain, they always do, but they also go in with low expectations in terms of their final position.
FC Bayern by contrast carry some real weight after ending a lengthy wait for a German club to make the playoffs. It says a lot about the oddity of sport that the Munich club held, and still holds, the role of plucky underdog. If and when the wider club decides to spend like a giant, things will change but, for now, it once again faces a tough task if it is to make the playoffs.
And finally, France
Honestly, I left this to the end because of a reference to when Céline Dion won the Eurovision in 1988. Yes, I know she is Canadian but she was singing for Switzerland in Dublin and was 5 points behind Britain going into the final round of votes, from Yugoslavia. Dion got 6 points which had her one point up but 4 more scores to come. Britain needed only one of them to win. They didn’t get the 7, 8, or the 10 (Eurovision scoring before public voting was very different) so it came to down to the 12. Well, watch for yourself:
The height of drama with France playing the ultimate spoiler. That’s also what we can expect from the French sides. Monaco’s debut season in Euroleague, fresh off their Eurocup title win last season, composes a side that already had a decent amount of talent and then just plain added Mike James. Given everything that happened with him the last few seasons, it’s safe to say James has a chip on his shoulder and may be in crush everything mode early and often.
Asvel have built a tremendous core around French talent, have proven the Astroballe is a tough place to go to, and we get to see Victor Wembanyama do his thing against the big boys this season. They’re going to get some results nobody expects.
I’ll save my predictions for a later post closer to the eve of the season. For now, I’m just happy that I’ll get to go watch some basketball this season.