The quality of a national league here in Europe is not given by the value of top teams – every league has a number of top teams – but is more appropriately determined by how good the medium-to-low range clubs are.
Spain’s are good like no others are: This is why ACB is today the most important league on The Continent; even more important is the evident superiority when we talk about basketball houses, social involvement, and financial investment. Oh, and don’t forget the Spanish national team is European Champions, World Champions and Beijing Olympics runners-up. Dear sirs and madames, here it is, the giant ACB.
Regal FC Barcelona. You are Barcelona. You win the national title and achieve a presence in the Euroleague Final Four the same year your football team rises up to grab the Champions League trophy. Life’s shining on you … then you lose your decisive players David Andersen and Ersan Ilyasova to the NBA, while old enemy Real Madrid profits from a new rich president who wants to take over the top of ACB with a lot of euros. What do you do? Not panic, surely: The answer to the team’s woes is the agreement with the 5th overall pick of the 2009 NBA Draft (Ricky Rubio) and the arrivals of technically the best big man nowadays in Europe (Erazem Lorbek), two other tall forwards with Euroleague experience (Boniface N’Dong and Terrence Morris), and probably the most reliable small forward seen in ACB (Pete Mickeal). Barring the unforeseen, Regal Barcelona is even better than its 2008-09 edition. It could take time before Rubio becomes chief of the backcourt, where Jaka Lakovic is seeking minutes, because Victor Sada just showed his abilities last year and Gianluca Basile is still too important as shooting specialist off the bench. The frontcourt, in contrast to last year, seems much stronger in the paint but without that perimeter dimension provided by Andersen and Ilyasova; but this isn’t such a problem for a team whose fourth big man is Fran Vasquez, a former NBA lottery pick. Chemistry must be found, especially for the use of Rubio in directing breakway plays and adapting to become an uptempo game player, but the stuff here is great, and coach Pascual has the chance to begin a “blaugrana” era.
Real Madrid CF. Ettore Messina trusts his followers: coaches, players or whomever, Messina trusts people who have shown him a kind of devotion and a strong team-centered attitude. This summer, when he was called upon by a club in the same nice condition of CSKA Moscow during Messina’s first year, the Italian coach didn’t want to collect rolling names only to draw attention; he instead asked those players he considers practical to his project and targets. So, no joining the auction for Rubio, no NBA stars signed: I understand that Real Madrid bought at the highest European level (Novica Velickovic and Darjus Lavrinovic included), but try to deny that Pablo Prigioni, Rimas Kaukenas, Travis Hansen and Jorge Garbajosa are in their 30s and their former teams used them as parts of a system and not as main stars. We can read these movements as mirrors to comprehend the stays of Lou Bullock, Axel Hervelle and Tomas Van Den Spiegel. Messina wants functionality, he wants all the pieces to form a puzzle and what he still lacks becomes his task to solve. We’re not saying Real Madrid hasn’t the squad to beat Barcelona (the Supercopa showed us the opposite); we’re saying Real Madrid is a team built on coach’s convictions and choices (but not necessarily the best offered on the market) which is maybe less talented than Barcelona and other European clubs, but with a trainer who believes in his men and wants to win with them. Real Madrid has a logic and won’t be spectacular every week: This team will often win with fewer than 80 points, but it will always be in the fight for the ACB and Euroleague crowns. Ettore Messina is a guarantee.
Caja Laboral Baskonia. To put it bluntly, TAU’s not dead with new sponsor Caja Laboral, even if some non-Spanish fans confuse this club with Cajasol Sevilla. OK, Baskonia president Josean Querejeta refuses to say his team is still in the elite, maybe because he fears facing the Euroleague Final Four and its burdens again, but he must admit holding Tiago Splitter counts for least a Top 16 qualification. Gone are Igor Rakocevic, Pablo Prigioni, Pete Mickeal, Will McDonald and Sergi Vidal; the newcomers are white shooters Brad Oleson (from Fuenlabrada via Real Madrid) and Carl English (from Gran Canaria), Lyor Eliyahu, the emerging Pau Ribas, Marcelinho Huertas (last year at Fortitudo Bologna) and Walter Herrmann, directly from NBA. The group put in Dusko Ivanovic’s hands is similar to Real Madrid: So many good names, an identified star (Splitter) and several tactical solutions. Caja Laboral looks like a team which can kill from outside the arc – Alaskan Oleson made 44% last season, English finished at 37%, Mirza Teletovic went for 41% – but which is not so well directed by two playmakers whose goal is to launch the transition, then read the defenses. Big men Eliyahu and Splitter have mostly played for themselves and their boxscores, as has Teletovic, and that’s a true problem for a playbook that will contain some plans to free up the shooters beyond the line. Renewed by spending (Don’t tell Querejeta!), Baskonia needs time to know itself as a team, not only as a collection of remarkable talent. Until the job is unfinished, they’ll shoot, shoot, shoot some more.
Unicaja Malaga. The new season started off on the wrong foot for Unicaja. In its first year of a new course, coach Aito Garcia Reneses has just lost injured Joseph Gomis, Robert Archibald and the convalescent Berni Rodriguez. Not the perfect way to set five new players in the team, further trouble for management. Among the latest arrivals, Georgios Printezis is a name too early forgotten by Olympiacos and Euroleague clubs: He’s only 24, he has strong experience in Piraeus and the Greek national team, and he’s very near to the final step to reach the elite level. With Archibald not available for a few games and Joel Freeland, who can’t ask more than 20 minutes per game from the bench, Printezis knows he has a great opportunity: Jonas Kazlauskas will be taking a careful look at Printezis’ season to see if he’s ready to replace descending Kostas Tsartsaris as Team Greece’s starting power forward. The Unicaja backcourt shows some doubts: On paper, only Taquan Dean is able to score 15-17 points per game, but he’ll not have the minutes and plays he had in Murcia last year, while Gomis has been temporarily substituted by a point guard (Pooh Jeter) of whom many think he’s an Omar Cook clone. The losses of Carlos Cabezas and Thomas Kelati are dramatic, and honestly Saul Blanco (from Fuenlabrada) and Guillem Rubio (from Manresa) are kids of 24 and 27 in the adults’ garden for the first time. Carlos Jimenez is a player who’s always followed his body and at 33 is no longer undamaged; Jiri Welsch … is Jiri Welsch: at 29, we can’t expect a sudden resurrection. So, as Aito has always done, enlarged rotations and extended responsabilities will be the call at Unicaja, in a desperate hunt for the right balance.
DKV Joventut Badalona. After sending Ricky Rubio to Barcelona and continuing on a path full of payoffs based on its profuse youth program, DKV begins the ACB from a comfortable fifth-place in the regular season for 2008-09 (Badalona was eliminated in the quarterfinals, 1-2 against Real Madrid), a result that shows how Badalona can change the performers and also that the selections of management are rarely incorrect. As the tradition of this club teach us, this year Joventut has made summer moves fixed on player growth, but the cut of experienced players has been greater, now that Euroleague isn’t on the Joventut schedule. The team’s oldest players are now newcomers Antonio Bueno (from Fuenlabrada) and Clay Tucker (from Cajasol Sevilla) at 29, while the team average is 25 years old. Joventut will be speedy, lots of fun to watch, and will not give any benchmark to the opposition. That’s because coach Sito Alonso will use 11 good players, no go-to stars, and versatile youngsters able to play two and sometimes three roles. It’s difficult to forecast the starting five, the alpha dog, the best rebounder: DKV looks like a chameleon which knows how to adapt itself to the squads it’s going to meet in ACB. Uros Tripkovic preferred Badalona over Rome just for this freedom every Joventut player enjoys: the freedom to shoot, to glue on the most dangerous opponent, to get mature and flying to top teams. Pay attention to atypical Alain Koffi (from Le Mans, very good in Eurobasket) and Henk Norel, while it will be interesting to see the announced developments of Christian Eyenga (30th pick in the last NBA Draft) and 20-year-old swingman Pere Tomàs. Luka Bogdanovic waits for a good season in order to return to the Serbian national team (he’s only 24), Kristaps Valters is no more a shoot-first point guard and has a parachute represented by Mario Fernandez, the former Gran Canaria’s playmaker with a sensational basketball IQ. Badalona should have enough so as not to disappoint anybody.
Valencia Basket Club. It’s not just that Valencia has won nothing for years. Having more money doesn’t mean a lot if you don’t use brains to build your team. So it’s easy to compare Valencia to football team Atletico Madrid: Both are clubs as rich as the winning ones, but far away from results that matter. Maybe GM Francisco Martinez Raga has learned his lesson, and the 2009-2010 squad seems to be more balanced while less dependent upon individual qualities. Talent isn’t lacking here, but it’s condensed among forwards and centers, while the point guard role has finally found two players (Rafa Martinez and Marko Marinovic) who want the team to work to their advantage and therefore not as interested in scoring 20 points as Shammond Williams was. The guns to prime are Nando De Colo and Rawle Marshall, though to run a fast-breaking system, Valencia needs Victor Claver stay healthy and become more towering; few teams have a 207-cm tall forward able to shoot from outside like Claver. If Claver is the key for the offense, Matt Nielsen and Florent Pietrus has been asked to make a defensive sacrifice: Neither Kosta Perovic nor new face Serhiy Lishchuk are untamed paint warriors. Coach Neven Spahija wants to improve on last year’s seventh-place finish (Valencia went 0-2 against Barcelona in quarterfinals), and it will be easier if those elements endowed with above-average talent (De Colo, Lishchuk, Marshall) will fulfill the team’s demands: Otherwise, Valencia’s going to stumble again through internal quarrels and jealousies. Not a wonderful sign for a club which has never won a national title in 23 years of ambitious existence.
Tomorrow: The rest of the ACB teams.
— written by Francesco Cappelletti