Some consider Serie A to be the second best European league behind (and I mean, kilometers behind) only the ACB, others consider the league’s unstoppable decreasing level which began at the beginning of new millennium. Anyway, between clubs which fail year by year, rules about US and EU players never staying consistent for more than one season, and continual delusions of grandeur about the national team, there is one certainty that still stands before us atop this crisis. That certainty is called Montepaschi Siena and, honestly, it’s the only reason why Serie A could keep on attracting attention from every angle of Europe. After its threepeat, Siena goes for number four in 2009-10, and it seems it will be another easy ride.
A look at Siena and this rest of the top six in Serie A follows.
Montepaschi Siena. The cycle continues, no doubt. Three titles in a row are not enough for a club which spent so many years fighting to remain in the first league. So considering the wonderful results – even in the Euroleague – achieved these years by a team able to get to the elite level after not-so-notable careers, Montepaschi Bank has continued investing in the team, protecting Terrell McIntyre, Ksystof Lavrinovic and Romain Sato from foreign assaults and changing those elements which hadn’t captivated (e.g. Morris Finley) or have answered to the last and probably best contract of his life (Rimas Kaukenas). Arrivals include simply the most experienced 26-year-old European point guard (Nikos Zisis) and the public enemy of recent Italian battles (David Hawkins) hungry to face the Euroleague within a system and not as the only gun on his team, as happened with Roma and Milano. Further, nobody believes Montepaschi can lose more game (one!) than last year because the average quality in Serie A has generally decreased. The possibility that Montepaschi could end its regular season and playoffs without a loss is very very real.
Lottomatica Roma. Owner Claudio Toti is a building contractor famous throughout Italy and whose primary problems don’t involve money. But for a rich man like Toti, years of delusion and large expenses have weighed on Lottomatica, which today presents itself as *one* of the contenders and no longer the *only* contender to Siena. Dissatisfied with Dejan Bodiroga’s work as general manager (Piergiorgio Bottai now serves in the position), Toti’s chosen path is one of preferring Italian players –young, if possible – along with Americans longing to re-launch careers and Serie A experts. Of the Italian core, it’s time for Angelo Gigli and Luigi Datome to rise up, while Kennedy Winston will try to find that shooting ability which made him a Green in Athens. Ibrahim Jaaber is the recognized star from whom all will be forgiven, even some over-shooting. If Jaaber doesn’t score, though, it will be difficult for a squad that doesn’t pack a lineup of natural gunners and, with the exception of Andre Hutson, hasn’t no real low-post player (Hervè Toure is a small forward; don’t joke). Nando Gentile will have a lot of work to do; however, if the intention is to build something solid for the future and not look to the present, the stuff is not so bad.
Armani Jeans Milano. Milano’s remained the only Italian club besides Montepaschi that can make some noise in the European market. For this reason, and reinforced by the targets reached last season, i.e. the Serie A final and Euroleague top 16, Giorgio Armani has made his own statement by buying the best available Italian (Stefano Mancinelli, free agent after Fortitudo’s failure) and a Lithuanian duo (Marijonas Petravicius and Jonas Maciulis) which needs no introduction. Massimo Bulleri is back from Treviso, Alex Acker is waiting for a great season that could make him a leader in the backcourt, and Marco Mordente is still defensively tough enough to be a factor from the bench. Much depends on Morris Finley and his ability to manage a group of good players who have to be triggered by a real playmaker, rather than the offensively devastating but tactically disastrous guy who was in Siena last season. With such an improved roster, Mike Hall’s impact will not be less decisive, and he’s the most suspected guard-forward to go to when hot. Chemistry is everything for Milano and the double engagement of Serie A and Euroleague will help Piero Bucchi find the best rotation. This team looks good and the owner knows it: A worse result than last season would be perceived as a flop.
Benetton Basket Treviso. Nearing the end of its economic resources, Treviso has had to rediscover its role of “one of the best places in Europe” to get matured young players, no matter their nationality: So now alongside local products Andrea Renzi and Daniele Sandri stands the most intriguing result of modern basketball, the 213-cm tall Lithuanian Donatas Motiejunas. Motiejunas is an NBA player in waiting, if he can fulfill the high expectations every European and American scout has of him. He begins 2009-10 behind Sandro Nicevic and C.J. Wallace as the first big man off the bench, although the intention of new coach Frank Vitucci (a specialist in working with youngsters) is to give Motiejunas minutes in the small forward spot as well; you’ll then easily understand how he could be impossible to defend. Together with the Motiejunas project, Benetton has put its trust in former USC starting point guard Daniel Hackett, to whom many other clubs (including NBA franchises) have not believed in his mental maturity. Hackett has an Italian passport, he’s talented, he knows how to guide a team, and this risk seems to be calculated. Cartier Martin is the shooter who’ll support Gary Neal when his light is switched off, while Jasmin Hukic and Davor Kus guarantee a mountain of solutions.
Virtus Bologna. Another example of decreasing investment is Bologna, where histrionic owner Claudio Sabatini tires of chasing Siena and has an actual worry in healing the team budget. His first step of the new season has been exalted from many sides, however: Putting Lino Lardo in guidance of the team is the best choice he could have make. The tactics-loving Lardo soon called over his former forward in Rieti, LeRoy Hurd, to make him the focus in the paint, while tiny Andre Collins, third in scoring last season with Ferrara at 17.5 points per game, has a broken finger and is out until December. To replace Collins, Bologna has taken on Scoonie Penn, surely in career descent but useful in teaching the playmaker’s arts to Petteri Koponen, a lad on whom Lardo trusts blindly. The rest of team is not so skilled, apart from David Moss (who played in Teramo last year), a great defender on four spots and who’s expected to develop offensively. Michele Maggioli returns to Serie A after four years of pure domination of the paint in Legadue; the challenge is to prove he’s not too for the first league. Diego Fajardo provides experience and raw talent, unfortunately he’s as old as Dusan Vukcevic. Viktor Sanikidze could remain out of the European players’ rotation; if not, expect him to broaden his technical skills.
Banca Tercas Teramo. Last year, Teramo saw the consecration of Peppe Poeta, but its playoff race finished early with 3-1 quarterfinal round defeat suffered at the hands of AJ Milano. With Biella eliminated in the semifinals, coach Capobianco still regrets that series, which could have lead his team to a historic final against bulldozer Siena. This year, with everyone awaiting more from Teramo, it will be much harder to repeat a season like 2008-09. The positive news is the Poeta is still Teramo’s leader and he’s ready to test his toughness, a dimension he lacks and the true reason for hesitation on the part of interested Euroleague clubs, in Eurocup play. Out is Jaycee Carroll, and his substitute Drake Diener has the same trademarks: outstanding three-point shooting range and scoring instincts even in breakaway situations. The other backcourt spot is filled by Bobby Jones, a versatile swingman who can both score in numerous ways and use his body on several type of players. James Thomas has come back to Serie A and is forecast to lead the league in rebounds (as he did three years ago with Fortitudo Bologna and also in Turkey), and he will free up space for athletic and aggressive Valerio Amoroso, a power forward who loves to attack the basket from outside. The bench is a problem: Ryan Hoover will turn 36 early in the season, Jesse Young is an enigma, and the rest is full of boys.
Tomorrow: The remaining ten squads, from Angelico Biella to Martos Napoli.
–written by Francesco Cappelletti