Rick Pitino got off to a winning return with Panathinaikos but the former Louisville coach is more than aware the challenge is just beginning. Emmet Ryan on the wrinkles that will make his second act in Athens tough work
It was the perfect farewell. Rick Pitino went back to the United States adored by Panathinaikos fans, having got them into the playoffs of Euroleague and picked up both major titles in Greece. He was enjoyed by the media, bringing a generally more entertaining tone to press conferences than the local press was used to with coaches. Most importantly, the club still wanted him. PAO were happy to sign him up long term and it’s always a good sign if you leave them wanting more.
Pitino didn’t stay. He went home due to family matters, unusually a sportsperson was wholly sincere in that reasoning, but there was always a chance the door would reopen not least with who Panathinaikos had chosen as his replacement.
It may sound harsh on Argyis Pedoulakis, who oversaw a Greek title win in 2013, but he had already been fired twice before by the Greens and both of those were in-season sackings. Having fallen out of the Greek Cup and not set the world alight in Euroleague, his third stint also ended with him departing early.
Pitino’s issues at home were over, he had already agreed to coach the Greek national team for free. For the outside observer, a return to Panathinaikos seemed natural once the gig opened up and, sure enough, he quickly agreed terms that would see him through the whole of next season as well.
Anyone who pays attention to Greek hoops will note one major issue. Conventionally, the coach of the Greek national team only coaches Greece. They don’t coach a Greek club, or preferably any, and certainly not one of the two power teams in the country although there is an exception.
Panagiotis Giannakis was head coach when Greece won Eurobasket in 2005 and famously beat the USA at the 2006 World Cup. For the first two years of the stint he was also coach of Maroussi and the last summer of his run as Greek head coach coincided with his the start of his stint at Olympiacos but once the 2008 Olympics were in the bag he had to step away to focus solely on the Reds.
The political ramifications alone are a headache and they have already become apparent. The Olympiacos trio of Georgios Printezis, Kostas Papanikolau, and Antonis Koniaris, sent a letter to the Greek federation expressing their unease at Pitino holding both roles. Pa
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The rivalry between Oly and Pao has always been fierce, it’s called the derby of eternal enemies, but it has been particularly toxic in recent years. Olympiacos after all accepted relegation to the Greek second division, where it fields a youth team, rather than play Panathinaikos with Greek referees. Oly’s kids have won 6 of their 7 games but are bottom of the table in that division because of assorted points deductions.
None of which is really bothering Pitino just yet. Instead he’s got a team with a lot more offence than the one he left although it has also taken a few steps back defensively. This is unusual for PAO who are noted for being a defensive force even in seasons when they look limp scoring.
Signing Jimmer Fredette really does change your on court culture but there is also the regression of Georgios Papagiannis. The turnaround of the big man was the biggest vindication of Pitino’s previous stint. He took a NBA bust who just seemed to be filling a chair for the Greens into a real contributor and a contender for last season’s Euroleague Rising Star award.
Since Pitino left, Papagiannis has looked like the player he was before the Louisville coach first touched down in Athens. If Pitino can work his magic again with him, the ceiling for the Greens gets a lot higher.
As things stand, he has taken over a team which is favoured to get to the playoffs but not a lock. It will win the Greek championship, there is no team in the league that could realistically hope to live with that roster over a five game finals series, and the cup is no longer in the debate.
That means PAO’s season comes down to how well it does in the big show and nothing else. Pitino has to show progress from his past stint, no easy feat but there is room. The Greens were swept 3-0 by Real Madrid in last year’s playoffs. Getting his side into a winnable series and looking competitive would be enough for this year and is achievable. A Final Four return isn’t unthinkable, where it was never really on the cards last year.
Anything less than a competitive playoff performance and the honeymoon will look to be over but it’s going to take a lot more unlikely to implausible events for him not to at least still have his chair for the start of next season.
That however is where things get extra testy as Oly will either be back in the Greek League’s top flight, in which case that championship means more again, or they won’t and Pitino will absolutely have to make it to the Final Four. With PAO’s budget, even with the extra money they can probably attract having him as coach, that’s a whopper of an ask and no name is too big to stop the Greens cutting the cord at no notice.
Still, he got off to the start he wanted. Everyone got on the floor and on the scoreboard in a 100-68 shellacking of a not terrible Baskonia. Let’s just have a quick look at who he gets next in Euroleague….ah.
Next Friday’s home game with Olympiacos is going to be huge. It’s one of only two times the sides will face each other this year, barring extremely unlikely post-season clashes. That makes the stakes high. Win, and everything’s great. Lose, well it’s best not to think about that.