Welcome back 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 Euroleague Basketball Legend Theodoros Papaloukas; Luca Chiabotti, the former basketball expert-in-residence at La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy; Gokhan German, basketball writer and columnist for Fanatik sports newspaper in Turkey; Bugra Uzar of Eurohoops Turkey; and Javier Gancedo, EuroLeague Fantasy Challenge guru and Editorial Senior Manager for EuroLeague.net. Check out their opinions on three key questions before Round 7 of the regular season.
1. Which player has been the best team leader in the first six rounds?
Tough question. There doesn't seem to be a very clear choice. Since Fenerbahce Istanbul has already gotten two big away wins in Kaunas and Vitoria, I'm going to take my pick from there. And I'm going to go with Kostas Sloukas, despite the fact that Jan Vesely has been having an amazing season so far. I think Zeljko Obradovic's team doesn't have another top-class facilitator in the backcourt and so the Greek guard has much greater responsibilities, resulting in a demand for him to step up and prove his leadership skills. So far, he has been responding brilliantly. It's not just the 11.5 points and 5.7 assists on average, and excellent shooting percentages. At critical points, Sloukas almost always makes the right decision and finds ways to put Fenerbahce on the right track for the win.
Mike James of AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan, and not only because he decided two big wins at the buzzer, against Khimki and Efes Pilsen, and is now the second-best scorer of the league. He is also the EuroLeague's second-best assist man and he is changing the face of his team with his personality and performances in the pressure moments of the game. This one is the best season of his Euroleague career, but Milan may need him too much: in the first six games, he played 35 minutes on average, more than any other player in the league. Now, fatigue could be his best opponent.
Leading the team to win the game is most important, so for that reason, I will pass on Alexey Shved. I'm between Kostas Sloukas and Mike James. Sloukas has played crucial moments in a great way with his basketball IQ and experience. And he did not get too much help, either, with Tyler Ennis injured and Erick Green needing time to adjust. But I think that Mike James has been excellent as a leader. Without Nemanja Nedovic, he helped his team win four games, two of them with his last-second points. So I prefer James.
Jan Vesely. Of course, he was great before this, but Fenerbahce Istanbul's big man has developed his game incredibly this season and is playing at a whole new and amazing level. He has added so many things to his game. He was already one of the most athletic players in the EuroLeague. Now, he has a decent mid-range shot, he can pass the ball very well (3.2 assists per game), and he's an even better defender. Combining these elements with his non-stop energy gives us the best leader of the season so far. Vesely knows how to fly and he's carrying Fenerbahce to glory.
Probably Mike James of Milan, based on the fact that he won two home games with his late heroics. He hit 3 of 3 free throws to push Milan past Khimki Moscow Region in Round 4, and a week later he hit a game-winning three-pointer against Anadolu Efes Istanbul with 1 second left. Prior to that shot, James was 3-of-19 from the field, but he showed his leadership skills in crunch time. He also had 12 assists against CSKA Moscow, tying Milan's club record in the competition. James has been all over the place. He ranks second in scoring with 18.7 points, and in assists with 7.2, while leading the EuroLeague in playing time at 35 minutes per game.
2. Which coach is having the most positive impact for his team so far?
Allow me to bow down to Pablo Laso. In basketball, the coach is very important, and the image of the defending champions, Real Madrid, is a reflection of his work. The MVP of last season but also of the Final Four, Luka Doncic, is no longer here. So what? Laso has presented a grade A team. They've started the season with a 6-0 record and the best global point difference (+106) in the league. At the same time, Madrid has the best offense in the competition, the best defense, the highest index rating, the most assists and rebounds, and the best assist-to-turnover ratio! Respect to Laso!
I vote for Simone Pianigiani of Milan. His club is getting its best start since returning to the EuroLeague 11 years ago. After three seasons at the bottom of the standings, now Milano is in the playoffs race thanks to his high quality of basketball, and despite the absence of Nemanja Nedovic in the last three games. Milan is the most-improved team of the year but, of course, Pianigiani needs to confirm the good start now that the team schedule is changing from four home games in the first six rounds to six away games in the next nine.
My choice is Pablo Laso. Although they are the defending champion and almost the same squad, Real Madrid is playing at another level this year. Although Luka Doncic, a key factor for the team last year, is gone, Laso is getting great efficiency from all his players. When you check the statistics, all the players on Madrid are helping the team on an almost equal basis.
Pablo Laso. Real Madrid is playing amazing basketball. The reigning champions haven't lost a single game so far and it looks like they're going to stay undefeated for a while. Laso has a great share in this success. Last season Coach Of The Year award winner continues in great form this season. All of his players are contributing, he's managing rotations very well, and he's dictating the game on the court. They lost a huge player in Luka Doncic but still manage to be the best offensive team in Europe. Being the defending champion is as dangerous as it gets, but it looks like the Spanish coach might have to clear some space in his trophy closet for a new Coach Of The Year award.
Ergin Ataman of Anadolu Efes Istanbul. His team has been able to get a couple of wins in close games in which his late-game decisions made the difference. Efes won in Khimki on a three-point shot by Dogus Balbay, had a comeback character win against Fenerbahce, and recently won in Gran Canaria due to a wild fourth-quarter rally in which Krunoslav Simon hit the go-ahead shot from downtown. Things went south for Efes in Milan -- Vasilije Micic missed 2 free throws with 18 seconds left and his team up by 2, then James delivered a game-winning triple -- but Ataman has had a big impact on Efes's 4-2 record.
3. Which team needs to win the most in Round 7?
There are several teams that are burning for the win. Some of them have very tough games, and some others – like KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz, playing away from home against Buducnost VOLI Podgorica – have a clear advantage and will most likely get what they want. So, I'm going to go with my former team, Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv. With a 1-5 record and after three consecutive defeats, they simply have to beat Herbalife Gran Canaria, no matter what. Anything less will take them further away from the top eight positions and will add a great amount of pressure at a time when they want to put behind them the failed runs of the last few seasons.
Two teams must absolutely win in the round 7, Khimki and Maccabi. But the Moscow team will face Real in Madrid, certainly not the best opponent to beat. So it is Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv that will face a do-or-die game against Herbalife at Gran Canaria. The ranking of Maccabi does not tell the truth, with four games on the road over six matches in which the team has already faced CSKA, Real Madrid, Panathinaikos, Olympiacos and Barcelona. The Maccabi season is starting now, but with the addition of Ramon Sessions, Neven Spahija's team has no more time to waste to improve their game and start winning.
For sure Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv. Despite starting this season with big goals, they have only one victory. İf they lose again, they may lose their concentration and their motivation. Maccabi is going to play in the Canary Islands, which will not be easy for any team. CSKA and Efes already had difficulties there and Barcelona lost there. We will see what will happens. I think Baskonia needs to win, too. They will host the Final Four. The city and the fans are very excited, but I can't say the same for the team so far.
In my opinion, KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz is the team that needs to win the most this week. They couldn't start the season as they expected. This year, the Final Four will be held in their hometown, so they want to be there and compete for the title in front of their fans. But this situation puts a great amount of pressure on them and they need to get some wins in order to relax a bit and be able to breathe. Their opponents, Buducnost VOLI Podgorica, also need to bounce back from a bad defeat, so this makes the game very important for both sides.
All teams with a 1-5 or 0-6 record, in general, need to win. But I am going to focus on the game between Herbalife Gran Canaria and Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv. Both share a 1-5 record and have probably played better than other teams under the same circumstances. Maccabi needs a road win to compensate its two home losses against Madrid and CSKA. The arrival of Ramon Sessions makes the team more competitive. Gran Canaria is also 2-6 in the Spanish League and just lost the Canary Islands derby against Iberostar Tenerife this weekend. The pressure is on both teams. An intense, exciting game is expected at Gran Canaria Arena.