Olympiacos didn’t make a whole lot of changes after a disappointing 2015/16 Euroleague campaign but their run to the Final Four this weekend has made them look like a completely new team. Emmet Ryan on how subtle switches rebuilt the Reds, turning them into a threat against anybody in Istanbul this weekend
Autumn of 2015 wasn’t a good time to be Kostas Papanikolaou. His NBA career was flatlining, having been traded from Houston to the Denver Nuggets in the off-season, and he was an after-thought on the Greek national team at EuroBasket. This tremendously talented young man just couldn’t find the vein of form he needed to get back at what he does best. The winter gave him a chance to rebuild. K-Pap went home to Piraeus, where his legend was born with the Olympiacos side that took back-to-back Euroleague titles in 2012 and 2013. The next few months were about rebuilding. The Reds had a forgettable Top 16 campaign but got it together to claim the Greek title come the summer.
This first full season back home has seen everything get back to where it needed to be. He’s a key part of an Oly side looking to win the big one yet again. Alongside Vassilis Spanoulis and Georgios Printezis, he’s one of the guys that fans of the Reds will be looking to during key moments. That’s where Papanikolaou needs to be. He’s a player who needs the pressure to matter, to be expected to take charge and make the plays.
Were it just a back to normal K-Pap, Oly could have fancied their chances at a run to the Final Four but they needed more than that to be contenders. The two notable off-season arrivals, Khem Birch and Erick Green, didn’t scream of the types of pieces that turn a side which missed the playoffs last year into contenders. Well they sure showed how wrong that view was.
Birch, particularly through the season’s middle third, build a legend of brutality over the course of the year. While not the biggest big on the floor, he was up there with the most effective. He added a spark to the Oly defence that freed up some pressure on the offensive end. The Reds could push harder on offence knowing they wouldn’t have to suddenly drop the pace when cutting back. Green meanwhile has proven the piece the bench needed. The former Reno Bighorns man has shown he can lead the second unit and give real rest to the likes of Spanoulis. With Billy getting more real rest even though his time on the floor didn’t change significantly.
It’s really the blend that has improved Olympiacos. Even with Matt Lojeski hurt since the tail end of the regular season, the Reds just look deeper all round. Role players and youngsters have stepped up. Vangelis Mantzaris and Ioannis Papapetrou are making real contributions when they get in. Patrick Young, long under-rated by this corner, is becoming an effective player for a contender, and Nikola Milutinov’s ugly but effect game is the type of different look that coaches want to have available to them.
It’s Oly’s ability to change things up, to alter what they do, that makes them a completely different beast this year. While Spanoulis will still be the one everybody looks to when it’s time for the last shot, it’s not a be-all and end-all situation. Those Olympiacos sides that won back-to-back Final Fours had Billy as their MVP but had so many ways to hurt an opponent. Along with K-Pap and Printezis there was Pero Antic, Acie Law III, and so many more who could step up and do a job when it mattered.
The Reds head to Istanbul essentially with house money. A failure to win it all, while naturally disappointing to their fans, won’t be a tragedy. This is a really good side that has proven it’s built to keep making runs. They aren’t major underdogs either in the eyes of those who know, despite being generously priced at 7/1* on most markets. CSKA Moscow know that Olympiacos can test them and that it won’t just be by targeting them at the 5. Oly will try to match and maybe outrun the back court rotations of the defending champions. They will look to get those big contributions from the bench, all while the spectre of Spanoulis hangs over CSKA.
*Incidentally at the time of writing (Monday afternoon) you could still get odds on Efes and Crvena Zvezda with BetVictor. Oh BetVictor, delete your account.
In 2012 it felt like a miracle. In 2013 it was the end of a run for a brief but brilliant side. This outfit, its more modular. There are pieces that can be adjusted, switched in and out or wholly replaced. Olympiacos may not win it all this Sunday but at 7/1…they’re mighty tempting.