Trying to give more oomph and interesting themes to a league dominated by Panathinaikos and Olympiacos ever since 1992, the Greek Federation opened the doors to a third non-European player per team in a move aimed to achieve a better balance between those teams whose goals are merely to challenge by only attempting toapproach the Greens and Reds’ dominion.
Instead, most Greek clubs have serious economic problems, so that this third non-European initially seen as a hypothetical step forward in quality typically features a young American boy just out of college. In a few words, the strengthened Pana-Oly are still the only title contenders; behind them is something, but the race to Esake’s crown is closed to the two old rivals.
Last year, Panthinaikos had a slow regular season (the finished second with a 22-4 record) but burst forth during the playoffs, when the team saw nearly a clear path (2-0 in the quarterfinals vs. PAOK; 3-0 in the semifinals vs. ARIS; and 3-1 in the finals vs. Olympiacos), that gave them the second title for 2008-09 one month after the Euroleague triumph in Berlin.
To a team close to perfection from starting lineup to bench has been added Milenko Tepic, the all-around player from Partizan expected to confirm himself on a Final Four-worthy team; Nick Calathes, the half-Greek half-US guard from University of Florida; and youngster Georgios Bogris, the 210-centimeter big man who was so devastating at the U20 European Championship. These guys are going to see the court on Greek ground, while the other stars get rest to their bodies for Euroleague play, when their use will increase and Obradovic’s rotations will be shorter.
Contrary to Olympiacos, which every year becomes involved in changing expensive and less-than-effective players, Pana restarts from its certanties, represented by a roster of champions (i.e. Jasikevicius, Spanoulis, Diamantidis, Batiste, etc.) accustomed to playing together with a playbook suitable even to the newcomers, as Nikola Pekovic’s example teaches us. Sorry, Olympiacos, the favourites are still in another side of Athens.
Olympiacos hasn’t won a title since 1997, they continue spending a mount of money, and they won’t surrender. Five months after that bitter disillusionment in the final against Panathinaikos (Oly was beaten 3-1, losing despite home-court advantage and nullifying a regular season record of 25-1), investments have been – if possible – even huger than in the recent past: To secure Linas Kleiza (who put up 8.3 points per game in four NBA seasons, the last as a Western Conference finalist with the Denver Nuggets), you need cash; same goes for Von Wafer to play sidekick to Josh Childress, or stealing small-forward prospect Kostas Papanikolau at the end of a tremendous auction.
Now it’s up to Panagiotis Yannakis to find the right chemistry in a roster full of talent but with two important ambiguities to solve: Namely must the starters at point guard and center be Eurobasket 2009 chief characaters Milos Teodosic (assuming that Theodoros Papaloukas prefers to come off the bench) and Sofoklis Schortsanitis, or is it better to go with Yotam Halperin and Ioannis Bourousis? To add to the confusion, Patrick Beverley (42nd pick of the 2009 NBA Draft) and Greek duo of Loukas Mavrokefalidis and Andreas Glyniadakis (Wouldn’t they be more useful with an Aris or Panionios?) have also been enlisted.
Offensively, Olympiacos looks like a team whose quantity of talent could win games even without a remarkable contribution by the coach; defensively there are doubts, because Bourousis has some instinct, but beyond this are only Papaloukas and Childress.
Maroussi BC‘s asking for space at the highest level: Recent seasons have been satisfying, it has beaten Aris in the decisive games to get a pass into Euroleague, and the strength of roster is evident. Kostas Kaimakoglou showed himself at Eurobasket 2009 with Team Greece and shined against CSKA Moscow in game one, while Billy Keys (in his second season with the club), center Dimitrios Mavroeidis, and Levon Kendall are the tough core of a team which has not many opportunities to win a match with 80 or more points, but has a strong defensive mentality even in those players who’ve known only Euroleague (i.e. Michalis Pelekanos, Jared Homan).
Andrea Mazzon paid off a bad start, particularly in missing qualification to Euroleague, Aris Thessaloniki‘s minimum target. In his place is Fotis Katsikaris, coming from unwonderful years in Valencia, a team that didn’t play up to its abilities and onerous contracts. Together with him, Aaron Miles is the lately-arrived mind that will support Keydren Clark; Jeremy Richardson is the go-to guy in the backcourt. The frontline (Michalis Kakiouzis, Andrew Betts, Dimos Dikoudis) is glorious … but is it close to the sunset? Nikos Barlos and Nikos Hatzivrettas give consistency to a team whose season has not begun on the right foot.
There is little evidence to suggest Panellinios could replicate last season’s result (fifth place at the end of regular season, eliminated by Maroussi BC in the quarterfinals): William Avery, Anthony Grundy, Brad Newley and their offensive impact are gone, so it’s time for Devin Smith (terrible at Fenerbahce Istanbul last year) and Britton Johnsen (from PAOK) to take over a lot of responsibilities, because Rod Blakney and Juro Ostojic aren’t natural scorers, and neither are Manolis Papamakarios and Ian Vougioukas.
PAOK did the right thing by renewing the backcourt: No one among its rivals has three US players like Avery, Chris Monroe (from Roanne) and Kenny Gregory (from Valencia) in the starting five; consequently, much depends on Todor Gecevski and descending Predrag Drobnjak not to be overpowered in the postup game, where Giorgios Tsiaras and Wade Helliwell are also developing. If all works out for him, Tyrese Rice could overshadow most of the opposing point guards, with Panionios’ jersey. Not a pure playmaker, too short to play shooting guard, he led Boston College in points, assists, and steals – a driver, a finisher, Rice has the ability to run the floor and finish through contact, though maybe he’d have some problems on priming B.J. Elder, a sharpshooter well known in Italy (from his days with Biella and Cantù) who needs 10 shots a game at least.
Near the basket, Nikoloz Tskitishvili is the ideal complement for a fighter like Lazaros Agadakos; Yoannis Kalampokis, Ivan Zoroski and Dimitris Papanikolaou provide experience and defense. Keep and eye on Kevin Rogers (from Baylor University) and Dimitris Haritopoulos (from PAOK): They’re still immature, but don’t be astonished if they become able to find their places.
The rest of ESAKE is shorthanded, to be honest. Many clubs really won’t reach more than that eight-place VAP Kolossos achieved last season; however, several youngsters are ready to come out. Rich (as compared to the average) newcomer DASH Peristeri boasts a good starting five (Rudy Mbemba from Cremona, Marcus Faison, Will Daniels, Jamie Arnold, Shaun Pruitt) but its bench is very short (Nikos Papanikopoulos, guard Michael Bramos).
AEK Athens trusts Taurean Green, though not so convincing in Saragozza, and tries to believe that Lamont Mack may be a scorer even in Europe, after the numbers he collected at University of Charlotte. Torin Francis (16.4 points and 8.6 rebounds a game last season with AEL Larissa) is the danger to society in the paint desired by many clubs, and anyway he needs the best Green to confirm himself as one of the most productive centers of the league.
Newcomer Ilysiakos has sent Giorgios Bogris to Panathinaikos, but his heir Leonidas Kaselakis is one of the brightest prospects in Greece.
Kavala/Panorama preferred experienced players (i.e. Giedrus Gustas, Demetrus Alexander, Savvas Ilyadis, Miroslav Raaicevic); on the other hand, its season could turn out better only if dynamic rookie Lorenzo Wade (from San Diego State University) and shooter Shawn Huff (unused by Maroussi BC) keep their playing level high.
Olympia Larissa gives the green light to Jamar Butler and Chris Massie, not to mention Panagiotis Karavanas, the 213-cm tall center.
Trikalla has probably bought the next top scorer of ESAKE in A.J. Abrams from University of Texas. An awful shooter from the three-point range, Abrams is undersized and lacking in game knowledge to play point guard in the NBA, but here in Europe he could be unstoppable and that’s why he chose a team that can guarantee to him a great number of shots: He wants to be seen by NBA scouts to restore his reputation as specialist off the bench.
Close to him, Trikalla grabbed another rookie, Tyrell Biggs from University of Pittsburgh, swingman Kasib Powell from the NBA D-League, and Miha Zupan, more suited to this level rather than Euroleague in Lubjiana.
In the end, there are two good reasons to watch VAP Kolossos games: jumper Robert Dozier (from University of Memphis) and guard Nikos Pappas, considered to potentially take over the legacy of Papaloukas, Spanoulis, and Zisis in the director’s role.