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 Ermal Kuqo, long-time EuroLeague player and recent Final Four Ambassador; Juan Antonio Casanova, the former long-time EuroLeague writer for La Vanguardia in Spain; journalist Donatas Urbonas of leading Lithuanian website 15min.lt; Nikos Varlas, Publishing Manager, Eurohoops.net Global; and Frank Lawlor, Editorial Director for Euroleague Basketball. Check out their opinions on three key questions!
1. Which team now in fifth place or lower should the top four want to avoid most as a playoff opponent?
It's such a complex question. The level of play has never been more balanced than this year and any of the bottom teams could have easily been ranked higher in the standings. To think that even the bottom team, Darussafaka, has lost seven games by 5 points or less. I'd be wary of any of the teams below, but to me, the one team that strikes me as the most avoidable is Baskonia. They are the Final Four hosts and have a dangerously powerful team with high-level players and if their main player Shengelia comes back in time, watch out!
Juan Antonio Casanova
Olympiacos. Barcelona is the best team not counting the four teams that will have the home-court advantage, but Olympiacos is a specialist in surprises, normally positive, thanks to players so competitive as Spanoulis and Printezis. Their path in the last weeks is deceiving (six losses in seven games, but all of them affordable) and I think the team will finish sixth because the normal thing would be for them to win the four remaining games, despite Spanoulis's injury. It is a good reason for the top teams to fight to avoid third place.
FC Barcelona Lassa. They show the highest-quality basketball among the other candidates. Barcelona is a very deep and quite unpredictable team with many different offensive weapons to use. They're disciplined on defense and their depth will let them play very intense basketball throughout a whole series. Svetislav Pesic can prepare his team for the playoff series very well and Barça has all the tools to steal home-court advantage.
As the situation has taken shape, I think that Anadolu Efes Istanbul will face FC Barcelona Lassa in the playoffs and Barcelona is the team ranked fifth through eighth with the best chance to win its playoff series. For me, Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul, CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid have a clear advantage in a best-of-five series with home-court advantage against any opponent that will end up in places six, seven or eight. And not only because of the home-court factor. We're talking about the last three European champions, the best-quality teams in the league with the most long-lasting core players.
A lot depends on injuries and which players can come back from them in time for the playoffs, but as things stand now, if Barcelona does not finish as one of the top four teams, it would seem to be the team to avoid. Its six road wins are tied for fourth-best in the competition, behind the big three of Fenerbahce, CSKA and Madrid. Its depth, defense and varied talent pool also mean that Barcelona should be able to adjust on the fly during a five-game series enough to move momentum in its favor, a necessity if you start the playoffs without home-court advantage.
2. Who is your choice for the most-improved player in this second half of the regular season?
As complex the first question was for me, this one is very easy to answer. As easy as a V-Span dagger with the clock running down to win the EuroLeague. There's one clear name for that and that's Shane Larkin; it's like day and night between his performances early in the season how he's playing now. The Anadolu Efes coaching staff and management deserve a lot of credit for sticking with their guy and showing remarkable patience while constantly showing him their confidence, even in the darkest moments of the season for Larkin. And now they're so close to securing home-court advantage for the EuroLeague Playoffs.
Juan Antonio Casanova
Shane Larkin. I think that the fair thing to do is to distinguish a player whose individual improvements also meant team improvements. And Larkin's role has been key for Anadolu Efes to be on the brink of getting home-court advantage in the playoffs after winning four of its last six games. In those four wins, Larkin has dominated the court and averaged 19.8 points (in the previous 19 games he had averaged only 7.5), with huge numbers in threes (10 of 20) and free throws (21 of 23).
Tarik Black. He improved his scoring average by 4.3 points since mid-season, and improved his shooting percentage to an almost-perfect 74.2%. With 13 points per game in the second leg, Tarik is among the top 10 scorers in the EuroLeague. Black's defense was always there, and he is a huge part of the improved Maccabi defensive schemes and revival. This intelligent player deserves credit.
In the first 15 rounds, Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv had only five wins and was far behind in the fight for qualification. In the second part of the season, it has seven wins from 11 games and is still alive in the hunt for the playoffs. After his return from his injury, Tarik Black has been the key player in his team’s final push. He's scored in double figures eight times in his last 10 games during which he's shot an amazing 74.2% on two-pointers (49 for 66), and is one of the most important players in defense, too. Black has been the most in-form player for Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos's team as they fight for a playoff ticket and - if we consider how much Maccabi has always relied on its game from the perimeter, his influence acquires even greater value.
With still four games to play, KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz has won the same seven games in the second leg as it did during the first 15 games of the regular season. Big man Johannes Voigtmann is a big part of that improvement. His 7.0 PIR in the first half of the regular season has since exploded to 17.6 PIR per game. In his last 10 games, Voigtmann has many more rebounds (83 to 57), assists (34 to 23), three-pointers made (14 to 6) and steals (10 to 5) than in the season's first 15 games, which is one reason why Baskonia has moved from 10th place to sixth in that time.
3. Which of the stats leaders here impresses you most with his numbers?
I have to go with all of the players in the three-point shooting category – Cory Higgins, Ali Muhammed, Marko Guduric and Braydon Hobbs. To play in such tough environments and in a defense-oriented league like the EuroLeague, it's remarkable that these shooters are shooting over 50% from the 3. To me, that's the most impressive detail as far as stats are concerned.
Juan Antonio Casanova
Toney Douglas. Mike James, Nick Calathes and Walter Tavares dominate with authority the rankings in points, assists and blocks. But they are all known EuroLeague superstars. So if there is someone that surprises me in being among the leaders it is Douglas, one of the few positive things in the Darussafaka season. Douglas has taken advantage of a role that he did not have last year at Efes to produce high scoring averages (14.5 points per game on 33 of 35 free throws), assists, rebounds and steals (1.75 making him the league leader).
I'm impressed with Alexey Shved's three point attempts. He is the first in EuroLeague with 11.3 threes per game. For example, Zalgiris as a whole team had five games with fewer three-point attempts than Shved's average. Alexey is by far the biggest threat beyond the arc in EuroLeague history, by the numbers. Actually, only James Harden and Steph Curry shoot more threes per game in the NBA than Alexey in the EuroLeague. That's impressive!
Cory Higgins manages to stand out with his great quality and contribution without hogging CSKA’s possessions on offense. In a backcourt that includes the Nando De Colo-Sergio Rodriguez duo and Daniel Hackett, who is usually used as a starter, and on a team with so many great players, Higgins found a way to be the top scorer (15.1 points per game), with an average of 24:40 minutes of playing time and reaching the amazing 52.9% on three-point shooting. At the same time, he plays good defense and helps out in rebounding and creating. In an era dominated by combo guards, Higgins reminds us of the older, purebred shooting guards, a worthy successor to Trajan Langdon in Moscow. He deserves a lot of credit.
I love great passing, and Nick Calathes makes it look easier than anyone I've watched, perhaps ever. He broke the EuroLeague's assists-per-game record last season as the first player to reach that plateau of 8.0 on average. Now he's shattering his own mark with 8.4 per game. And it's not just the number, but the variety: alley-oops, mid-court one-handers, long bounce passes, wrap-arounds, behind-the-back and even full-court baseball passes. He's a joy to watch and it's no wonder that his coach, Rick Pitino, not only compares him to basketball's greatest assist-makers ever, but puts Calathes ahead of them all.