So far, DraftExpress has looked pretty good in our predictions. Granted, it wasn't that tough, but our three major favorites for the Final Four this year, Euroleague defending champs CSKA Moscow, Final Four hosts Panathinaikos Athens and Spanish powerhouse Tau Vitoria, all won their groups in dominant fashion. Despite an early loss to Pau Orthez, CSKA was strong enough to bounce back and go undefeated over the last 11 games of the regular season. A very strong core combined with the team's experience helped Etore Messina's squad overcome some major injuries in the last few games, showing a concrete character and receiving great leadership from Theo Papaloukas and Trajan Langdon. Panathinaikos started off 11-0 and mathematically first in its group, before three straight losses in the final three games of the regular season made them look a bit weaker than expected. Because of Mike Batiste's recent injury problems, the team will depend on Dimitris Diamantidis' and Ramunas Siskauskas' all-around game, but still looks like heavy favorite to proceed towards the next round without difficulties. Tau lost their first game of the season to Olympiacos Piraeus and then won ten straight games, before finishing with a 12-2 record. Luis Scola is still the best offensive big man in Europe and Pablo Prigioni has raised his game after Zoran Planinic's injury that will keep him out of action for at least 3 more weeks.
But who are the best of the rest? You might recall our sleepers prediction article, which we'll now find out how accurate it might be. A late run at the end of the regular season made sure that the second Russian team, wildcard Dynamo Moscow will be among the favorites too. Despite a long-lasting injury, Lazaros Papadopoulos remains a major offensive force in the Euroleague and with him healthy, Dynamo won their last five games. Efes Pilsen is filled in the wings, now that Antonio Granger is back and has one of the top frontlines in the competition, led by a very active Marcus Haislip, who is still not as stable as NBA scouts would probably like him to. Maccabi Tel Aviv is a traditional powerhouse of the competition, led by the most probable MVP of the year; the all-around big man Nikola Vujcic. They recently signed Goran Jeretin to compliment Will Bynum in the top-16 round. Olympiacos, a potential final four team roster-wise, has been unlucky with the injury of Arvydas Macijauskas and the consecutive troubles that center Sofoklis Schortsanitis has caused to team chemistry, while Barcelona, an extremely deep team in its own right, has yet to come up with further offensive solutions besides the backcourt duo of Juan Carlos Navarro and Jaka Lakovic. Benetton Treviso, despite its problematic and unstable season so far, mired by injuries, looks to bounce back in the top-16, also aided by the newly acquired Erazem Lorbek. Lorbek's former team Unicaja Malaga looks like the weakest link currently amongst our preseason predictions, but they managed to qualify for the top-16 as well with a 7-7 record.
So far this season we've noticed many ups and downs by some of the contenders. The basketball level of the teams, recovering from the loss of more and more Euroleague talent to the NBA, has been a bit lower than expected and it has been quite notable from the beginning of the season that some of those teams would need major changes. So, as it happens quite often, usually with the greatest of ease (which is part of the problem with European basketball), there were many transactions that went down in the few weeks preceding the start of the top-16 round, with many more expected.
Wealthier teams get stronger by buying out the contracts of players they covet from squads who no longer share the same ambitions as their counterparts. Among some of the top players so far who changed teams during January or late December were Marcus Faison, Preston Shumpert and Ender Arslan. Marko Milic left his Euroleague squad, Olimpija Lubljana to join ACB powerhouse Real Madrid in the Spanish team's attempt to win the championship. Other players have left their ULEB Cup teams to join stronger Euroleague squads, ensuring that they can have a better chance at reaching the Final Four.
The conclusions don't stop here. The decreasing talent in the competition due to the departure of pure Euroleague products to the NBA gives more chances for some ex-NBA players to flourish and establish themselves as go-to players at the European level. Some of those players, like Zoran Planinic of Tau Vitoria, youngster Alex Acker of Olympiacos Piraeus and Aaron Miles of Pau-Orthez have been extremely influential in their team's succes. However, the majority of those players are facing significant problems to adjust to the different rules and habits we find on the European courts. Maccabi Tel Aviv big man Noel Felix has been stuck as one of the last players in his team's rotation.
The new year arrived with all the necessary awards for 2006 and, besides Rudy Fernandez who won the U-22 European player of the year award, another player was rewarded for a superb year. Theo Papaloukas, the star point guard of CSKA Moscow and the National team of Greece had another successful year-- full of titles and awards--which helped him beat both Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol for the "European Player of the Year" award.
Papaloukas came off the bench for both CSKA Moscow and the Greek national team to ensure that the Russian team would win every title imaginable in 2006 (Euroleague, Russian Superleague, Russian Cup) and help the Greek national reach the final game in the World Championships, heavily aided by his 12 assists in the semi-final versus the U.S. team. He was the MVP of the Russian Superleague, MVP of the Euroleague final four, All-Euroleague 1st team, and a World Championships 1st team selection. Despite his accomplishments, it remains uncertain whether Papaloukas will be tempted by the lure of the NBA, as he is the best-paid European player right now, is approaching his 30th birthday and his team remains a top Euroleague contender this year too. His new contract will be expiring in 2009, but there is a clause that allows him to sign with an NBA team, if he feels that this would be the right move for him. What's interesting is that Papaloukas has mentioned that the offers he received last summer were not interesting for him, as he would like to join a contending team and see good playing time. Former examples of Anthony Parker, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Jorge Garbajosa make it impossible to ignore the possibility that Papaloukas may finally join the NBA next season. But, on the other hand, his quotes last week on the team's internet site cannot go unnoticed either. Among others, he mentioned that the "NBA offers I had didn't satisfy me. They give you similar money, but it's not only about that. Let's just say that they didn't show me that they want me as much. I think that when I leave something good, I have to leave it for something better and this isn't the case right now."
However, not everyone can be happy in the Greek basketball world. The major Greek prospect of this decade, over-sized center Sofoklis Schortsanitis, another stud of the World Championships semi-final game versus the U.S. team, has been facing many types of problems since last September. As soon as the season started off, Olympiacos' newly acquired coach, Israeli Pini Gherson, noticed that Schortsanitis had gained weight excessively, making his game subside and his fatigue decrease more than it already had, which immediately limited his playing time. In addition to that, his attitude seems to have soured, while there are many rumors that he has been skipping practices without reason. After a three-month period filled with plenty of drama between the coach, the player and the press accusing coach Gherson of not using Big Sofo enough, Olympiacos' Board of Directors decided to impose a heavy penalty on Schortsanitis. The player has now started training again, in order to reach a better physical condition and be able to help the team in the future, but the solution of attitude issues may not be solved that easily.