As the Top-16 phrase of 2014-15 Euroleague season begins, here are 16 important questions:
1. When will a German team reach the Top 8 in Euroleague?
The German basketball league has been growing steadily, but the two strongest teams still haven't made significant noise in Euroleague. Bayern Munich took a step back after the departure of Malcolm Delaney and stayed away from the Top 16 this season. Alba Berlin, which collected three of their four wins against Cedevita and Limoges, made a surprise by beating FC Barcelona in the Top 16 opener, but their potential in 14-15 still seems limited.
2. Can Ivkovic’s defensive schemes bring victories to Istanbul?
For many years Anadolu Efes was a synonym for defeats, but this year with two-time Euroleague champion coach Dusan Ivkovic on board, Anadolu Efes seems to have defensive potential to turn things around. Ivkovic helped his new team move from 15th in defensive rating to the number one spot and the question is if defensive commitment will put Anadolu Efes on the winning path.
3. Can FC Barcelona avoid the injury bug in the most important stages of Euroleague?
FC Barcelona is trying to find its identity by involving newcomers, youngsters and by fighting injuries that bit the team in the regular season. Only five FC Barcelona players took part in all 11 Euroleague games so far and only two started all of them. For now FC Barcelona is still doing fine, but it will be interesting to see if they can stay healthy when it matters the most.
4. How good is Boban Marjanovic?
7-foot-5 center Boban Marjanovic made tremendous progress in his game over the last three years, transforming from just a super tall, unskilled big man to become more aggressive, more coordinated and a decisive factor in many Euroleague games. After achieving success in the 13-14 season, this year Marjanovic plays as an MVP candidate, averaging 16.8 points and 10.7 rebounds per game and collecting double-doubles in seven out of 10 (!) regular season games. The question is how good is Marjanovic now? Would he perform as the best center in the Euroleague if he plays for a contender?
5. Is this the year of Teodosic and CSKA?
CSKA Moscow has missed the last two Euroleague finals and a lot of heat was on Milos Teodosic, who did not exactly meet the expectations. However, CSKA made a step forward by fixing the problems - a new coach solved chemistry issues, Nando de Colo proves to be the missing addition and Milos Teodosic continues to play like a candidate to win the MVP prize. Do things finally go in favor of CSKA?
6. Is Linas Kleiza a done deal?
EA7 Milan’s forward Linas Kleiza, still only 29, struggles to revive his career in Europe and it seems that a sloppy year in Istanbul was no coincidence. Kleiza scored 29 points against Turow, making eight three-pointers out of 13, but he remains a huge defensive weakness for his team. Kleiza ranks first in terms of defensive rating difference (when he is on and off the court). EA7 Milan allows their opponents to score over 25 fewer points in 100 possessions when Kleiza is on the bench and that is by far the worst result among all Euroleague players.
7. Will Zeljko Obradovic’s magic work with Fenerbahce Ulker this year and what if it does not?
Undoubtedly Zeljko Obradovic, an eight-time Euroleague champion, is the biggest coaching legend and one of the most-respected basketball icons in Europe. However, his debut Euroleague season with Fenerbahce Ulker became a fiasco as his team finished Top 16 stage with a losing record. Obradovic and Fenerbahce Ulker have better chances this year after acquiring a couple important pieces, but it is still unclear how good Fenerbahce Ulker will be this season. In case of a failure, it will be interesting to see if Obradovic leaves Istanbul as his two-year contract expires or continues to work on bringing Fenerbahce Ulker to the top.
8. Did financial problems kill Galatasaray's potential to make it to the Top 8?
Intriguing moves in the offseason made Galatasaray a promising and potential Top 8 team, but early conflicts, financial problems and then departures of players put the team down. However, new acquisitions, especially Patric Young who has been very valuable throughout the last two victorious Euroleague games for Galatasaray, together with some older names like Carlos Arroyo, Zoran Erceg, Vladimir Micov, who stayed with the club during the most difficult times, could still make some noise in group E.
9. What is life going to be like for Laboral Kutxa without Thomas Heurtel?
Thomas Heurtel, who has just played his best four months of basketball of his career, was undoubtedly the most important piece for Laboral Kutxa this season. The 25-year-old guard led the team in scoring, three-point shooting, assists and playing time and the departure of Heurtel will be felt, therefore it will be interesting to see how his former teammates will fill the gaps and make adjustments.
10. Are Devin Smith and Brian Randle enough for Maccabi to get to the Final Four?
As Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Jeremy Pargo are not playing as well as was expected, Devin Smith and Brian Randle, the two leading scorers for Maccabi, took advantage and became stars of the team. Both players combine for 31 points and 12.4 rebounds, but there is a doubt if they can keep up with this level all season long and if that will be enough for Maccabi to reach the final four.
11. How did Bagatskis transform Nizhny Novgorod into Top 16 team?
First of all, let me remind you that Nizhny Novgorod lost their second and third regular season games against Zalgiris and Real by 75 points combined, but since then made a huge improvement and now are a different team. In the second round Nizhny Novgorod, which is coached by Ainars Bagatskis, lost to Zalgiris and Real by nine points combined. More importantly, the Russian team won last two crucial games against Anadolu Efes and Unics without the most important piece, Taylor Rochestie, who was not available due to abdominal injury.
12. What is the identity of Olympiacos?
Despite Olympiacos winning group D after bringing in a new coach and dealing with injuries, the identity of the team remains unclear. Are they a Top 16, Top 8 or Final Four caliber team? Vassilis Spanoulis brought Olympiacos to the top twice, but considering the circumstances and current top teams of the league, for this to happen, his teammates would have to step up their game like they never did before.
13. Who can beat Panathinaikos in Athens?
FC Barcelona did it once this year in a non-decisive round 10 game, but apart from that unimportant game, Panathinaikos won all five home games that matter by an average margin of 14.8 points. Last week the Greeks beat Euroleague champions Maccabi Tel Aviv in front of their home crowd and it is going to be interesting to see if Panathinaikos will win all home games until March when they face two favorites of group E, again FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
14. Can 14-15 version of Real become a favorite to win Euroleague title?
Last season Real Madrid remained undefeated until the New Year and was the most dominant team in Europe at that time, while this year is a different story. After the departure of Nikola Mirotic and Tremmell Darden, Real already faced six losses in Euroleague and Spanish league. Also in five games they won, the difference was three points or less. Real is still good enough to make it to the final four but it is obvious that there are few issues, especially on the defensive end (Real had highest defensive rating in 13-14, now is ranked eighth), that need to be solved to fight for the title.
15. When Unicaja will break the curse of Top 16?
Unicaja Malaga has been playing amazingly well in Spanish league (Liga Endesa) so far by winning 12 games out of 14 and being ranked at the top of the standings, but they struggled in the Euroleague regular season as they won four games, all against lower-caliber Alba, Limoges and Cedevita. Now Unicaja is on a pace to finish its Euroleague season in Top 16 stage and stay away from Top 8 for the eight consecutive season.
16. Is Will Cherry a solution that Zalgiris was looking for?
Zalgiris Kaunas relied on two inexperienced point guards, 20-year-old Lukas Lekavicius and 21-year-old Vaidas Kariniauskas throughout regular season and that did not prevent Zalgiris from making it to the Top 16 phrase. In order to improve their chances in the Top 16, Zalgiris signed Will Cherry (formerly of the Cavaliers), who was supposed to fill the gaps left by the youngsters. However, in his first five games in Europe, Cherry scored 22 points (9/24 field goals), dished out 8 assists, committed 15 turnovers and for not it is unclear if Cherry can provide stability and quality that Zalgiris needs.