Welcome to the Experts Round Table, where we ask a variety of the most knowledgeable Turkish Airlines EuroLeague followers across the continent their opinions on the topics of the day. This week's panel includes Ermal Kuqo, long-time EuroLeague player and 2017 Final Four Ambassador; Gokhan German, basketball writer and columnist for Fanatik sports newspaper in Turkey; Luca Chiabotti, the former basketball expert-in-residence at La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy; Aris Barkas, Chief Editor at Eurohoops; and Andy West, EuroLeague.net contributor and EuroLeague.TV commentator. Check out their opinions on three questions after Round 20 of the regular season.
1. After 20 games, which team do you now believe will win the EuroLeague title in May?
I feel like so far it has been a pretty balanced race at the top part of the standings, but ultimately I see Fenerbahce and CSKA fighting for top position come May. Having said that, we all know how Final Fours can be, it takes one in-form weekend to "shock the world". In that case, my dark horse is Zalgiris if they manage to go all the way to Belgrade. Saras has those guys playing top-notch basketball, and they have been growing together throughout the year. Come May, anything can happen.
Too close to call between CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce Istanbul. I believe that the two 2016 finalists are the strong favorites for the next title: the difference will be only about the health of the two teams in the key moments of the season. Until now, CSKA is a little bit ahead. For the same reason, I expect that Real Madrid with Randolph and Llull (if they come back from the injuries) will be at the level of CSKA and Fener in the playoffs.
Fenerbahce. Although they lost key players like Bogdanovic, Udoh and Antic, although they are not in 100-percent good shape, Fenerbahce still sits right after CSKA Moscow after 20 weeks. Besides Fenerbahce, I'd say that CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos are candidates for the Final Four. The ranking of the regular season will be decisive, but in the end, Zeljko Obradovic knows best how to win, as do players like Sloukas, Vesely, Datome, Kalinic, Ali, Melih and Nunnally, and that could make the difference again. I know that to keep the title is harder than to be a champion, but if Fenerbahce reaches the Final Four, with the coach and the fan factor – most probably Fenerbahce fans will fill at least half of Kombank Arena – they will have an advantage to win again.
At this point, it seems that the expected trio of CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid and Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul are the main favorites. Olympiacos and Panathinaikos are a tricky couple, especially if the two Greek teams face each other in the playoffs. Still, I dare to say that Real Madrid with a full roster and Doncic playing the way he started the season may be the best team on the continent. Of course, this will also depend heavily on Sergio Llull being his old self after his injury, but currently, the roster of Madrid simply has everything they need in order to go all the way.
The beauty of one-off games at the Final Four is that you never know. It just takes the right players to find the right chemistry at the right time, as we saw when Maccabi became champion in 2014 despite going just 8-6 in the Top 16. So every playoffs team has a genuine chance. Having said that, for me CSKA Moscow is the team to beat. Dimitris Itoudis has so many game-changers, and not only Nando De Colo and Sergio Rodriguez. For starters, Cory Higgins is the league's most under-rated player and Will Clyburn's addition has added a new dimension, so CSKA will take some stopping.
2. Which major stats leader could change in the last 10 games and what other player could replace him as first-ranked?
None. There is a good gap between the top guy and the rest of them in almost every statistical category other than maybe steals and blocks. Shved (points) and Calathes (assists) have all but secured their top spot; I just don't see them slowing down anytime soon as they've been very consistent since day one. Although in the blocks category the gap is not very big (just 0.17 between Dunston and Tavares), I just don't see Dunston giving up that spot. He's been one of the most consistent shot-blockers of the last decade, and regardless of his team's performance, I think he'll end up on top. In rebounds, another Efes player who has all but lost any hope of advancing with his team to the playoff. But just like Dunston, I see Stimac fighting for every rebound in order to at least take a positive out of this otherwise disappointing season.
The rebounds race is open more than the others: I think that Stimac reign will be in trouble because of Efes's low ranking without playoffs hopes, but all their big men are playing only 20 to 22 minutes per game, so it's difficult to make a forecast. I would bet on Walter Tavares but the return of Randolph will allow him to play fewer minutes so… At the end of the day, I think that CSKA's Will Clyburn could pass Stimac for the best rebounder title.
In rebounds, after Ergin Ataman came on as the coach, Vladimir Stimac's minutes are decreasing. The former coach, Velimir Perasovic, used to play with two centers together, Dunston and Stimac, but Ataman splits up their minutes. I think Kaleb Tarczewski will catch Stimac. Also steals, because Panathinaikos will play tougher games and more away games than Fenerbahce. Brad Wanamaker's performance is increasing. He is going play more home games than Nick Calathes. Wanamaker has a chance to beat Calathes.
Dunston has the biggest competition, from Walter Tavares, Tibor Pleiss, Alex Tyus and Jonah Bolden. It's obvious that the top blocker of the season will be decided by a very small margin and that's why Dunston can't feel safe. The same of course can be said about the steals where Nick Calathes has great competition in Rakim Sanders and Brian Wanamaker. However, Calathes is having, in general, a season that can give him the MVP award and he will keep pushing, while Dunston is, unfortunately, part of a sinking ship.
Vladimir Stimac has received much less playing time under new Efes coach Ergin Ataman, only reaching his average of 7 rebounds once in the last seven games, so he's the most vulnerable stats leader. To replace him, I like Toko Shengelia of Baskonia, an outstanding player who just seems to be getting better all the time. Shengelia is the heart and soul of his team, and Baskonia's battle to achieve something they've been threatening for months – breaking into the top half of the standings – will need him to deliver some big performances. I expect him to post huge numbers in the next couple of months.
3. Which 35-or-over player could have the most impact on the rest of the playoffs race?
With all due respect to the great names on that list, there's only one who stands out more, and that's Kill Bill Spanoulis. He's made us all believe that as long as he's able to put on his jersey and step on the court, anything can happen, at any time. And he's never been a wiser player than as of late. In my opinion, he's just figured out exactly when and how to spend his energy. Every move he does on the court has a specific reason, and as the season progresses I wouldn't be surprised to see him take over for yet another improbable run at sealing his legacy.
What a bunch of wonderful players.... It's amazing what Felipe Reyes was doing in the middle of the season to help Real to stay in touch with the contenders for the title and Juan Carlos Navarro seems 10 years younger in the last games... but I bet on Vassilis Spanoulis for his big role in the Olympiacos. The Reds needs to be efficient as usual on the road after four KOs in a row. Only with the best Spanoulis will Olympiacos reach one of the first four places and have homecourt advantage in the playoffs.
No doubt, Vassilis Spanoulis. He is one of the most impressive players in the Euroleague for the past 10 years. He missed the first 10 games of this season. Since he came back, he may seem to be putting up an average performance, but for sure he will do his best when it's necessary for the team. He has a big impact on his team and teammates – and also on his opponents. He is not getting younger. His legs are not as fast as before. But he has got big vision, big heart, big self-confidence. This self-confidence infects his teammates. For sure, he will find a way to help his team for the rest of the playoffs race.
Without question, the answer here is Kill Bill. Vassilis Spanoulis is currently the most important elder statesman in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague. Not only does Olympiacos expect him to lead and not only has he delivered so far in his career, but even if he misfires this season, the impact that his performance will have – good or bad – is more than crucial for the Reds and their quest for the home court advantage.
The fact that Real Madrid is still a strong contender for home-court advantage despite losing last season's MVP and no less than three big men to injury is very impressive. And Felipe Reyes is a big part of the reason why. The 37-year-old has played every game so far and is producing some of his best ever basketball. In fact, his two-point shooting percentage (56.4%) is the best of his career. At his age (38 in March), it won't be easy for Reyes to maintain those standards throughout the whole season, but if he can it will play a major role in Madrid continuing its top four challenge.