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 21 of the regular season!
1. After 20 games, which team do you now believe will win the EuroLeague title in May?
Well, the picture in my eyes is pretty much the same like last year. I see strong domination from two teams, CSKA and Fenerbahce. I would like to see other teams bring their influence, to mix up a little bit, because that always makes it more interesting for us, the audience. But somehow I would give most chances to win it all to those two.
Fenerbahce Istanbul. They have demonstrated amazing consistency during the course of the regular season and beyond, having reached the final game in the last three years and winning the title in 2017. They have a deep and balanced team (only Kostas Sloukas averages double figures in scoring, with 11.6 points) and the best coach this side of the Atlantic (and maybe even on the other side). They will have home-court advantage in the playoffs and, if they hang onto first place, an easier path to Vitoria. Barring injuries, they are the favorites to make it to the end for the fourth straight year and bring home the hardware.
Three of the temas that made it to the last Final Four – Real Madrid, Fenerbahce and CSKA Moscow – are also dominating the current EuroLeague season. I would say that the champion will one of the these three teams. So far, Fenerbahce is stronger than anyone else, with 18 wins and two losses, and having Zeljko Obradovic on the bench is a guarantee when the most decisive games arrive. CSKA will do better after a slow January was relieved by its good game against FC Barcelona last week. Real Madrid can also raise its level as soon as Pablo Laso finds the right rotations and Sergio Llull returns to being the decisive player he was before his serious injury.
Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul is playing at a whole different level from other teams. Sometimes their stars cannot play due to injuries, but we do not feel that absence filled thanks to the organization on the court. Only two losses in 20 games, dominant performances at other great powerhouses' home courts... Yes, in the Final Four it depends on daily performances to win the title, but Fenerbahce, so far, has got what it wanted from each player. I don't see that changing in May either. All teams have apparent concerns except Fenerbahce and Real Madrid. I expect these two teams to go against each other in the final once again, and I think Fenerbahce will win it this year.
I have to go with Fenerbahce. They have two losses in 20 games, they have been to four consecutive Final Fours, and the last three championships games. They kept their core for years, and roster is filled with players who have won it before or been to the Final Four multiple times. Of course, it all starts with a coaching mastermind, Zeljko Obradovic, who won nine EuroLeague titles. So, added all up, I must go with Fenerbahce.
2. Which major stats leader could change in the last 10 games and what other player could replace him as first-ranked?
In sports, statistics is a part of the game that can show us a lot but at the same time hide many things. In points, I think, objectively speaking, that Mike James is untouchable at this moment. The performance index rating situation is a little bit different. The first five names are very close: Jan Vesely, Mike James, Nikola Milutinov, Will Clyburn, Arturas Gudaitis. All of them can finish the season in first place, because of the quality they have as a players.
At first glance, it seems that in the three major categories all the leaders have a distinct advantage – Mike James in scoring, 5.5 points ahead of a trio of players; Nikola Milutinov in reboundsm, 0.8 per game more than Vincent Poirier and Arturas Gudaitis; and Nick Calathes, with 0.8 assists more than James – seem on track to keep their position. But if I had to pick one I would say Nikola Milutinov, just because making up ground would be easier in his category, and Gudaitis, fully healthy, has demonstrated an ability to rise to the occasion. Ten games are a lot and the rebounds race could go down to the wire.
The leaders in all main statistic categories are well defined and I don't think there will be changes in the remaining games. The 20.2 points per game that Mike James is averaging is just as unreachable as the 8.1 rebounds per game by Nikola Milutinov, the 2.0 blocks by Walter Tavares or the 8.1 assists by Nick Calathes. I hope that Will Clyburn and Cory Higgins of CSKA Moscow increase their scoring average as soon as their team's performance improves. Above all, there will be a big battle for the highest PIR average. James (21.15) can go past Jan Vesely (21.21) because his overall performance must be very important for AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan to make it to the playoffs. I also expect players like Nando De Colo, who ranks 12th with a 15.4 PIR average and Anthony Randolph (15.2 PIR on average) to raise those numbers.
The favorites in points, assists, rebounds and blocks are certain, and the difference between their numbers and their closest rivals' is obvious. On the other hand, the difference gap for steals is generally pretty small and the winner of this category often happens to be a guard. Thats why Jan Vesely may not be able to retain his position at the top. Through the last 10 games, I think Nick Calathes, who is following Vesely closely, will be able to take a step in front of Vesely and he will be on the top in steals at the end of the season.
It's the shot-blocking. Once Buducnost young center Goga Bitadze plays enough games, he should take over the lead in blocks from Walter Tavares. He currently gets 3.2 blocks per game. In five of the six games that he has played so far, Bitadze has had at least 3 blocks. That's impressive for any player, let alone a 19-year-old rookie. Even if Bitadze does not get a single block in his next three appearances, he would still average better than 2.0 blocks of Tavares.
3. In Round 21's pivotal game in the playoffs race, who will win between Baskonia and Maccabi, and why?
I would give the biggest chance to Baskonia. Why? Well, first, they’re the home team, and one with unquestionable quality. Second, I think they are extremely motivated because theirs is the host city of the Final Four this season... That element is huge.
Maccabi. They will play on the road, which should give Baskonia the advantage, but since the arrival of Coach Sfairopoulos, Maccabi has shifted into another gear. They have won four straight, including an imposing victory at CSKA Moscow, which demonstrates they can go on the road and dominate. Not having DeAndre Kane could be a problem, but Angelo Caloiaro has been on fire lately and Baskonia has to deal with injuries, as well. It will be a very close and contested game, and the Israeli team has no more than a 55-45 chance of winning, but to me they are slightly favored.
The showdown between Baskonia and Maccabi may be the key one to get the last playoffs spot, even though Milan will also be involved, so it will be a three-way fight. For Baskonia and Maccabi, this game in Vitoria-Gasteiz can be decisive, especially taking into account that Baskonia won 79-81 in Tel Aviv. Maccabi is the team that has improved most in recent rounds, and that improvement can come with a reward. It will be difficult, because apart from this one, Maccabi will have five other road games against tough teams like Olympiacos, Milan, Bayern, Fenerbahce and Khimki (which may be eliminated by the time that game comes). The Israeli team has its future in its hands but it will not be easy.
If both teams were playing without any injuries and the game meant just as much for the playoffs, I would go with Baskonia due to the home-court advantage. However, the fact that Maccabi has been on great form lately, fixed its defensive issues and has been getting contributions from each player in the rotation takes the visitors a step further. They are flying to Vitoria with terrific confidence in themselves. I don't think that Baskonia, lacking important players, will be able to resist this Maccabi team.
Injuries have depleted Baskonia, while Maccabi is getting healthier and finally even got Jeremy Pargo back. Baskonia has been far from impressive lately, even struggling on its home floor early and falling behind in games. Meanwhile, Maccabi's four-game winning run includes a mighty-impressive road win over CSKA Moscow. That being said, I will still go with Baskonia. At home, in an important game, with last week's loss having shaken them up enough, I think that Baskonia will get back to winning ways.