Is the Asociación de Clubs de Baloncesto still the best league in Europe? The question is now open, considering the recent arrivals of NBA stars to Russia and especially the return to the top level by many Italian teams. At the moment, though, the most admired European basketball is still played in Spain, at least partially because the ACB is where several world and Olympic champions show off.
Today, BallinEurope takes a look at the race for the ACB crown.
AXA FC Barcelona. As every September, you can hear voices from PaluBlaugrana saying, “We have the best team” and “We are candidates for everything.” True, it’s Barcelona’s management making this noise, and they have the right – historically, politically, economically – to do so. I’ll be more careful, though, because in the end, FC Barcelona hasn’t won the ACB since 2004 and Euroleague since 2003: Too much time for “mès que un club.” The huge investments on the market make this a crucial season, despite Ettore Messina still playing in Moscow. Xavi Pascual is now head coach, and we don’t know how ready his is to manage a group like this. With Navarro and David Andersen, the availability of talent has been improved, while Sada is one of the most interesting young Spanish players, and Barton is probably the best defender at forward in the entire ACB. Only the playmaking area raises a question, because Lakovic isn’t a winner and doesn’t convince at all, and as new backup, Andre Barrett is what this team with the Slovenian as starter absolutely doesn’t need: Barrett has playing instincts that don’t match with the European style.
Real Madrid. What went wrong this summer? Real Madrid didn’t free themselves from Papadopoulos. As for what went right, the team reached a deal with Jeremiah Massey and Pepe Sanchez. Summarizing the Merengues’ roster, aside from the basic arrivals of the dominant internal player from Aris and the Argentinean director of operations (essentially to take pressure off Raul Lopez and let Bullock play only shooting guard), Hervelle’s re-signing is remarkable. To strengthen the backcourt, Marko Tomas returns after a good year in Fuenlabrada (averaging 13.2 points per game) and Quinton Hosley awaits confirmation of the ability shown in Turkey that made him one of the most blossoming surprises in Europe last year. With great talent and a great bench, Real Madrid still lacks a shooter in a department where there are players able to create off the dribble (Bullock, Lopez), can assist divinely (Sanchez), and are strong enough to attack the basket (Tomas, Hosley). On the other hand, coach Plaza calls on great forwards and centers (also Felipe Reyes and Mumbrù), but can’t win Euroleague with them alone: Due to the competitiveness of the ACB, this is out of the question.
Tau Vitoria. Home sweet home: Dusko Ivanovic is in Vitoria again. Is that enough to become convinced of a legitimate run for the ACB throne? Spahija wasn’t so well seen, but had a great season in carrying Baskonia to the Supercopa, the national title, and the usual qualification in the Euroleague Final Four. In the end, his legacy is not so easy to define; instead, Ivanovic has been considered a king in the Fernando Buesa Arena. He will enjoy Splitter for another year (the center has extended his contract until 2012) and Rakocevic is still Tau’s guide, but the market hasn’t smiled on the champions yet: The expected return of Goran Dragic from Lubiana, where he shined last season, didn’t happen, with the Slovenian playmaker desirous to fly overseas to Phoenix to play with the team that acquired him in a trade with San Antonio, who chose him as 45th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. Until this knot is resolved, Tau has some problems at PG, where Prigioni can’t guarantee more than 15 quality minutes. This means Tau is on the shoulders of Rakocevic, now that Planinic is in Messina. San Emeterio could confirm his great progress in playing with Girona to gain authority in the national team as a great addiction off the bench. He’s no worse than Berni Rodriguez. However, the market isn’t closed yet, and in Vitoria two or three more players should arrive.
Unicaja Malaga. No doubt Malaga has made the best moves on the Spanish market. Signing Omar Cook (hey, he’s from New York!); Thomas Kelati (a useful all-arounder revealed himself last year in Turow); the unflinching Robert Archibald; and retaining the most of last year’s squad (Kus has gone to Cibona, the disappointing Popovic to Bruesa), Unicaja is a strong candidate for the title. Also, the departure of Sergio Scariolo has been amortized with Aito Garcia Reneses, one of the chief characters for the beautiful Joventut Badalona. Without Santiago (Where will he go? To the NBA?), Malaga’s play will be less anchored in the paint, speedier, and in the hands of Cook, a slightly selfish star-in-waiting endowed with an awesome understanding for the game. Cabezas will get back several balls to handle, Welsch will try to be what Rudy Fernandez was in Badalona, while N’Dong and Haislip are two athletic big men which perfectly suit Aito’s system. The debut game against Real Madrid will tell us how high Unicaja Malaga’s ambitions can go.
DKV Joventut Badalona. Badalona can’t be a title contender for one simple reason: Rudy Fernandez is now a Blazer. And his loss probably becomes a larger specific burden than Ricky Rubio’s explosion did, because after the Olympic final in which the 18-year-old embarrassed NBA veteran Jason Kidd, this is Rubio’s team. He is the cornerstone of a group refreshed by Simas Jasaitis from Tau, Bracey Wright from Aris, Pops Mensah-Bonsu from Granada, and Luka Bogdanovic from Le Mans – young and promising guys all, just as Penya management wants. New coach Alonso (Aito’s former assistant) makes you ask about Badalona’s ambition. Wrong: Badalona trusts its sons and the results (last year, the team won the Copa del Rey and the ULEB Cup) are available to everyone. 2008/2009 will mark the first season of a new successful era for Joventut.
Pamesa Valencia. Someone should call Valencia “no victory’s land.” This is an empty and distressing palmares, unacceptable after years of huge outlays on the market. This is Pamesa Valencia, an elite Spanish club which can show only a Saporta Cup and a Copa del Rey as its trophies. The 2008/2009 season begins with confirmed coach Katsikaris and four new faces (Florent Pietrus, Dikoudis, Kuqo and Rafa Martinez) to join the big three of Ruben Douglas (15 ppg over the last two years), Shammond Williams (4.8 assists per game last season) and Vule Avdalovic. The roster, including Miralles and prospect Victor Claver, is not so bad at this stage, but GM Johnny Rogers is keeping the door open for another acquisition at either playmaker or center, depending on how Avdalovic recovers from his knee problems. As things stand, Valencia doesn’t seems so strong in the paint (both Kuqo and Dikoudis love to play five meters from the basket), while the backcourt is rich in great catalysts and bad defenders. Must Pamesa’s fans expect another tormenting season?
Remote possibilities. Kalise Gran Canaria starts its run from the comfortable 9th place of last season. There still are key players like shooter English and big man Freeland; furthermore, landed are Joshua Fisher; Melvin Sanders, who can make the difference on both ends of the floor when he wants to; and James Augustine, just returned from an unsatisfying experience in NBA and ready to show his athleticism and mental toughness. Iurbentia Bilbao finished its amazing last season in the quarterfinals, losing 2-0 against Barcelona; a repeat of that result could be too difficult, but the team moved very well on the market, inking a solid playmaker in Janis Blums and Seibutis, the man who was considered Rimas Kaukenas’ substitute for the future Lithuanian national team. Seibutis is due for a breakout season, now that he will exploit much more minutes than in Piraeus and Maroussi. Bilbao’s season passes from him, and from the ability of the rest of the roster to increase its scoring tools, now that Huertas has gone to Fortitudo Bologna. MMT Estudiantes will try to get into the postseason: The team isn’t full of talent, but Vonteego Cummings, Martin Rancik and Iker Iturbe know the way to achieve the goal. And the Spanish movement hopes this will be Carlos Suarez’s season because, at the age of 22, he hasn’t yet made a name for himself. Vive Menorca expects to make a push for a playoff spot: It has expanded the skilled backcourt base that showed just Stojic and Bazdaric (25 points per game together), and now has grown in value with Pooh Jeter and Duda Machado. Boisa-Eley is the new frontline starter for a team whose most evident shortcoming is a poor bench. Cajasol Siviglia has landed Andrea Pecile from Granada, a move not to be underestimated. The Italian combo guard will provide offensive impact, creativity, and great leadership, now that everyone has seen that Tyrone Ellis is a perfect second fiddle, stop. Ilic-De Miguel will not struggle in grabbing rebounds and representing a decent threat around the basket, while Dusko Savanovic has a less limited shooting range that will allow him to play several minutes as small forward.
The rest. If CB Murcia can repeat its 12th place finish of last season, it will be a miracle. It’s not easy, but the two new big men, Lamont Barnes and Chris Moss must lock up the paint, while Chris Thomas, Taquan Dean and Momotou Diarra will be the offensive finishers. Bojan Bogdanovic, on loan from Real Madrid, is a great project, but we don’t know how many minutes he’ll find in the rotation. Alta Gestiòn Fuenlabrada is ready to launch Kristaps Valters and P.J. Ramos, but how about the reaminder of the team…? CB Granada lost Pecile and is now relying on Hunter and Videnov (Is there enough ball for both?), but for the fourth season, fingers must be crossed for Borchardt, one of the best all-around centers in Spain when healthy. Cai Zaragoza, newly arrived from the LEB, came to terms with a great name from the US: Taurean Green, a two-time NCAA champion with the Florida Gators. Green is unproven in Europe, but he can be a great addition to a roster that is aging (Ruben Garces is 34, Larry Lewis is 38 years old) and, barring Victoriano, Guerra and Phillip, has no ACB experience. The bright side is one of the best groups among that clubs seeking to stay in the top Spanish league. The other newly-admitted from the LEB, GBC Bruesa, has signed former top players searching for the final contracts of their career (Marconato, Roe) or an opportunity to forget previous disasters (Bojan Popovic, Urtasun); if coach Pablo Laso understands how to make them play as a team rather than individuals, he could fulfil a few expectations. Furthermore, what newcomer has ever lined up a playmaker as Sergio Sanchez in its first year in ACB? Ricoh Manresa remains. A name and a surname to analyze it: Serge Ibaka. But is he enough to keep the club in ACB? Perhaps not. Just wait to see him though. Before he flies to Oklahoma City, that is.
Article written by Francesco Cappelletti.