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 Dusko Savanovic, former All-EuroLeague selection and last spring's Final Four Ambassador; Manuel Moreno, the former long-time EuroLeague writer for Sport newspaper in Spain; Massimo Oriani of Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport; Semih Tuna, editor of Eurohoops Turkish edition; and Igor Petrinovic, Editor at Euroleague.net. Check out their opinions on three key questions before Round 20 of the regular season!
1. Which team in the top eight will have the hardest time staying there and making the playoffs?
Probably at this point it looks like FC Bayern Munich is the team that is not playing on the level of what they were supposed to play, at least in my eyes. I think that Coach Dejan Radonjic selected a great team. It's well organized and well coached, but somehow, it seems like they have inexplicable ups and downs in their game.
Even if anything can happen in such a close and spectacular competition as the EuroLeague – as the Buducnost win against Madrid proves – we must think that from the eight top teams at the moment, four of them – Fenerbahce, Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow and Anadolu Efes – already have a spot in the playoffs. Therefore, it's the others that will have to push hard in the 11 remaining rounds to be in the next stage: Olympiacos (12-7), Barcelona (11-8), Baskonia (9-10) and Bayern (9-10). These last two have the most chances to miss their berth. Baskonia has something going for it, with seven home games and only four on the road, while Bayern has those numbers reversed. It doesn't look to good for the German team, as Bayern also has to host Fenerbahce, Maccabi and Barcelona. The game in Vitoria between Baskonia and Bayern will be crucial.
FC Bayern Munich has done an amazing job in its first season back in the top-tier competition, but now faces an uphill climb. The next four games will see the Germans face Khimki in Moscow (always tough to face a team that has just changed coaches); Fenerbahce at home; and then Baskonia and Real Madrid on the road. Considering how tight the group of teams battling for a playoffs spot is – seven teams within two wins of each other – losing a couple of games will make it very difficult to make up ground as many of those same teams will play each other.
I think the first six teams will preserve their places regardless of the order, including Barcelona. There's a real competition for the seventh and eighth spots. Despite injuries, Coach Velimir Perasovic has created a new atmosphere at Baskonia, getting the best out of his players, who are still on track even though they face several difficulties. The Final Four taking place there is also another motivation for them. Bayern, although not considered among the playoff candidates in the very beginning of the season, is doing great but has a tough schedule and is a step behind the other teams in terms of talent.
I think it is Bayern, and for two simple reasons. They and Baskonia hold the last two last playoffs spots now, with 9-10 records, but Bayern plays seven of its last 11 games on the road.
2. Which team in the bottom eight has the best chances of rising up and reaching the playoffs?
If you look to the standings at this moment, we have six teams with more and less the same record. And we already know that in basketball everything is possible, which makes it the best game on the planet. Saying that, I see Maccabi and Zalgiris as two teams with great potential and a huge home-court advantage. Those elements always give you an extra boost in situations when you need it the most. I can't wait to see what's going to happen.
Herbalife Gran Canaria (6-13), Buducnost (5-14) and Darussafaka (2-17) have it almost impossible to make the playoffs. I think that only Milan, Maccabi, Zalgiris and Panathinaikos (all 8-11), and maybe a bit below them Khimki (7-12), could get one of the spots. The team that looks better in my opinion is Maccabi, because they are on a winning trend (three victories in a row) and because of their schedule. Their home games against Panathinaikos, Olympiacos, Darussafaka, Efes, Zalgiris and Gran Canaria are winnable. However, Maccabi must visit Vitoria, Milan and Munich, where its fate will probably be decided.
I think the same reasoning for the first question can be applied here. The standings can give a false sense of hope if you only take into consideration the distance between the eighth and the 13th spots. The schedule will make a huge difference, but so will the way a team is playing. And among that group of contenders, no one is playing better than Maccabi. Losing DeAndre Kane for a period of three to six weeks could make things tougher for head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos, but as long as Maccabi keeps up the same standard of play that it has shown in winning seven of the last 10 games, this is the team that have the best shot of moving up from below to the playoffs.
We are witnessing a Maccabi team that has had very positive effects from a change of coaches and the return of injured players. The team is playing well on the both sides of the court recently. They are just a victory away from the playoffs positions and hold a three-game winning streak. They are in great form. I think six teams are fighting for seventh and eighth place, but with their recent form – and assuming that the head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos will soon have his system totally established – the most suitable answer to this question would be Maccabi.
I will go with Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv. It has the same 8-11 record as three other teams, but unlike Zalgiris, Panathinaikos and Milan – which are all hoping and waiting to start a winning run – Maccabi is already in the midst of its own, having won four of the last five games and three in a row. Also, Maccabi is healthy and getting Jeremy Pargo back.
3. Which player holds his team's playoffs hopes in his hands more than any other?
It's hard to say because strong teams are about a group of great players understanding each other, and not individuals. But if I have to choose one or two I would go with Nihad Djedovic from Bayern, because he is very reliable as a player and a coach can always count on him. The second one is definitely Marcelino Huertas, a guy with extremely big talent and experience. Having someone like that beside you definitely changes the game.
With a new coach in Ioannis Sfairopoulos and a player recovered from a long injury (Jeremy Pargo), Maccabi is hoping to improve its current 8-11 record in the 11 remaining games. The team's most determinant player will have to be Johnny O'Bryant, the one who has taken care of the team in bad moments until now. Thanks to his 212 points (11.2 per game), 104 rebounds (5.5) and 27 assists (1.4), Maccabi is still alive in the competition, and many of us see that team in the playoffs. Their opponents will also need their leaders. Milan will need the best Mike James (20.2 ppg.) to have options, while Baskonia will need to count on Toko Shengelia again, even if he missed a few games with injury, and also their best scorer, Matt Janning.
Nemanja Nedovic. If Milan wants to climb back into the top eight, they need to get the Serbian guard back and healthy as soon as possible. It has been a tough first season with in Milan for the former Unicaja Malaga guard who, due to a recurring injury, has been able to play in only seven of 19 games for his new team. In the beginning of the season, when he was in the starting five, Milan was totally a different team. With him in the lineup, the team's record is 4-3. It doesn't look like he's close to coming back, but if Milan can have him for the stretch run, he could be key to making the difference.
Milan's job is not easy. Amadeo Della Valle and Nemanja Nedovic have suffered from long-lasting injuries. Mike James is inarguably the hero of the team and Milan is dependent on him. Milan aims at somehow getting into the playoffs. To do so, they need Mike James to put an extra performance on the court in each and every game. Having a glimpse at other rosters seeking a playoff spot, I can see one more similar player: Nick Calathes.
I am choosing between two former teammates, Nick Calathes of Panathinaikos and Mike James of Milan, and I am going with Calathes. While James has been impressive and has put up career-high numbers this season, especially in recent weeks, it still has not been enough for Milan, which has just two wins in its last 11 games. Milan needs more help for James. On the other hand, Calathes had his brief slump earlier, but has been playing at much higher level for more than a month now. He needs to get to his level of last year in order for Panathinaikos to reach the playoffs.