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 21 of the regular season.
1. Maccabi and Baskonia are currently fighting for the last playoffs spot. Which team will get it and what player will make the biggest difference?
Baskonia has been more consistent in their play since the coaching change, and even when they lost, they always had a chance to win the game. Maccabi, on the other hand, has shown itself to be a force when playing at home, but not so much when on the road. They are a brand new team and inconsistency is an expected side effect of a rebuilding season. But at the core, Maccabi has been consistent at playing their own style. In my opinion, this might come down to their direct clash on March 29 in Vitoria, although I see Maccabi at a slight advantage. Key players for each team, Michael Roll for Maccabi and Toko Shengelia for Baskonia.
Maccabi has one victory more and won the first match against Baskonia, which will host the rematch and has just a four-point deficit to make up. The strength of their schedules until the end of the season is equal, but Baskonia will play one more home game – five to Maccabi's four. At the end of the day, I think Maccabi is a slight favorite to advance, and I vote for Pierre Jackson as the man to will make the difference (but the improvements of Jonah Bolden could be decisive). That said, I won't be surprised if both Maccabi and Baskonia will make the playoffs because Khimhi's schedule for the last games of the season is more difficult and goes through both Vitoria and Tel Aviv.
There are eight more weeks and these two teams are very close to each other. As we saw last year, any team that can win three in a row now makes a big difference. Other teams will be in the race with Baskonia and Maccabi, too. When we look at the schedule, Zalgiris Kaunas may lose its last three games. I think that Baskonia will succeed in reaching the playoffs. They have a big tradition like Maccabi's, but Baskonia plays better defense and Tornike Shengelia has started to become a leader this year. Probably Baskonia will get it – or both – because I think that Zalgiris and Khimki are not yet guaranteed to make the playoffs.
I think that it's difficult to bet against Baskonia. However, considering the basketball that Maccabi has produced thus far, their homecourt and tradition, I wouldn't bet against them, either. I think that Maccabi has control of their fate, an excellent backcourt duo and if I had to pick a player, I would say Norris Cole. He is one of the best guards in the league and doesn't get the attention he should.
I think Baskonia will make it. Although it has a tough run of road games now, the Spanish team also finishes with four out of five games at home, including the potentially decisive meeting with Maccabi in Round 29. Maccabi could be killed by playing Fenerbahce, Panathinaikos and Baskonia in consecutive weeks in Rounds 27, 28 and 29. The key player will be Rodrigue Beaubois, whose shooting talents are well-known. He's moving into top form at the perfect time of the season and is the kind of player who can score 10 points in a couple of minutes to change a game – or a season.
2. What fifth- to eighth-place team entering Round 22 has the best chance to move into the top four?
History will tell you to never doubt teams from Athens, so logically I'd be inclined to say that Panathinaikos is the heavy candidate to make that happen. But then there's Zalgiris, and when you see how Sarunas Jasikevicius has those boys playing, one might think they're avid fans of Winston Churchill's famous quote: "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." There are plenty of games to be played, of course, and several teams have a chance at cracking the top four, but I'm picking the team that, in my opinion, has been playing the best basketball of the season.
I think that Panathinaikos has more chances than the others despite a worse record in head-to-head games with Zalgiris. PAO will have an easy end of the season against teams without chances to make the playoffs, while Zalgiris will close against the best ones. Nonetheless, for Panathinaikos, the next four games, especially its clash with Olympiacos, will be decisive to take a run at home-court advantage.
None. I think that CSKA, Real Madrid, Fenerbahce and Olympiacos will keep their places. Their basketball is improving and when you look at the schedule, they have it a little bit easier than the others. In my opinion, the possibilities of Panathinaikos, Zalgiris, Khimki and Maccabi have more possibilities of sliding down than rising up in the standings.
Panathinaikos, without a doubt. They have one of the best home courts in the league and this is the season in which they are clearly aiming for their Final Four come back. Their home game against Olympiacos will be more than crucial for them. If they win it – and with it the tie-break advantage for having two regular season wins against Olympiacos – they will be on their way to top four.
I don't think Maccabi or Khimki has any realistic chance of a top-four finish – both are too inconsistent. And Zalgiris closes out the regular season with games against Madrid, CSKA and Olympiacos, two of those on the road. So that leaves the way open for Panathinaikos. The key will be Round 24, when Olympiacos visits for the Greek derby. If Xavi Pascual's men come out on top in that game, they'll have a great chance of securing homecourt advantage – especially as they finish the season with a winnable batch of games against Unicaja, Zvezda, Maccabi, Valencia and Milan.
3. If you, instead of the coaches, were voting for the Best Defender Trophy, who would be your top choice?
For me, a good defender is not always the guy who has the most steals or the most blocked shots. Defense is a matter of pride, is a matter of unselfishness, always being the guy who doesn't save his energy for offense, the guy who says, "I'll do all the things that don't show on the stats sheet." Deflecting a pass, diving for a loose ball, taking a charge, being vocal behind the lines, alerting your teammates on pick-and-rolls, and most importantly getting a stop and not getting beat one-on-one… From what I've watched this season, a few names come to mind: James Nunnally, Kyle Hines and Axel Toupane. There are other guys who are having also great defensive performances, like Nick Calathes or the always consistent Bryant Dunston, but if I had to choose it would be Nunnally, Hines or Toupane.
I am always enchanted to watch the defensive play of a former winner of the trophy, Kyle Hines, and Brian Dunston is the king of the blocks, as usual, but I want to choose a new player. I think that Fenerbahce's Nicolo Melli – for his versatility, his stops against small players, his awareness of the team defense system – could deserve the consideration for this trophy. If you come to an Obradovic team and in your first year with him you are playing so many minutes, it means that you are a great defender...
Another hard question. I'm looking at this as something unconnected to statistics. Of course, blocking and stealing are important, but I would choose Jan Vesely for this. As a center, he has very quick legs. He can switch every position and nobody beats him one-on-one. He can defend short guys very easily; he is a shot-blocking threat; he takes a lot of offensive fouls. There are a lot of valuable defenders in the league, like Bryant Dunston, Adam Hanga and others, but this year I choose Vesely.
That's a very hard choice. Considering the blocks average of Dunston, he is again one of the candidates. James Gist, however, is also a good choice, and Walter Tavares has been impressive, too. I would go with Tavares if he continues to perform at this level. He is a player who clearly can dominate the paint and make things happen with his size.
I don't even have to think about this: the league's best defender is Kostas Papanikolaou. He plays on the team with the best defense in the league, and he is the top performer on that team both in terms total performance index rating and plus-minus rating: Olympiacos are +91 in scoring when he's on the floor. He's also played more minutes for Olympiacos than anyone. In addition to statistical evaluations, his relentless energy and ferocious competitive drive epitomize everything that makes Olympiacos such a tough team to score against.