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EuroLeague Final Four

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As the NBA playoffs wind down their first round, the second most important professional basketball league in the world, the EuroLeague, is entering it's final round.

Tomorrow in Berlin the EuroLeague Final Four gets underway with their semi-final games.  The four participating teams are Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, CSKA Moscow and Barcelona.  Unlike the NBA, which uses best-of-seven series throughout their competition, or even the earlier rounds of the EuroLeague (pool play in the round of 16, best-of-five in the quarterfinals, wacky Europeans), the EL Final Four is a straight single elimination - semifinals on Friday, the winners play for the championship on Sunday.  It's quite the tournament atmosphere, which Sasha Kaun (2008 NCAA champion with Kansas) commented about in a recent blog entry.

These fans are nuts.  There's an announcement on the Final Four home page that keys and coins will not be allowed inside the arena.  Why?  Because fans have been known to throw them at opposing players - imagine getting hit by a coin from the upper bowl at Staples!  Oh, and bear in mind that a 2 Euro coin weighs at least twice as much as a quarter (and is worth more than 10 times as much).  You may be wondering, how is everyone going to get back into their car if they have to turn in their keys?  Well, they'll have a "key check" at the O2 World Arena - so that should be fun, waiting with 16,000 other fans to retrieve your keys at the end of the game.  As for your coins, those get donated to charity.

And what if you want to buy something inside the Arena.  Well, according to the announcement:

Inside O2 World, any purchases will be sold or packaged in €5 increments to avoid the necessity of making change in coins.

5 Euros... that's almost 7 dollars.  So that 8 dollar beer?  That will be 14 dollars please - you know, for the convenience of not using those pesky coins.  Can I just pay with a credit card and NOT have everything rounded up to the nearest 5?

As for the basketball, there are plenty of interesting angles for NBA fans, and a couple of Clipper-specific stories.  To give you some overall idea of the quality of the players in the EuroLeague Final Four, five of the top eight Euro free agents (as ranked by Draft Express) will be in action - and that's not counting the players whose rights already belong to an NBA team. Actually, one of the hottest European prospects in Berlin this weekend may be CSKA's Italian coach Ettore Messina, who is said to be a candidate for an NBA head coaching gig, perhaps in Sacramento.

If you're hoping to watch the games and catch a glimpse of a future first round draft pick, don't count on it.  There are plenty of NBA prospects in the stables of these teams to be sure, but many of the younger ones are actually still playing at the junior level, and almost none of the youngsters are likely to get a lot of minutes in the Final Four.  Nihad Djedovic of Barcelona is currently ranked the 6th best international prospect born in 1990 (again ranked by Draft Express)- he has played 9 minutes of Euroleague basketball this season.  Seven foot Georgian prospect Giorgi Shermandini is the second highest rated prospect born in 1989, and he has managed to register 10 minutes for Panathinaikos.  Your best bet to see an undrafted prospect actually playing at this level is 22 year old Serbian Milos Teodosi of Olympiacos.

Olympiacos is familiar to Clipper fans as the club team of Sofoklis Schortsianitis, aka MBFGC.  Drafted by the Clippers in the second round of the 2003 draft, LA still hold his rights, but it's looking less and less likely that he'll ever play in the NBA (more on that later).  Olympiacos is also the current employer of Josh Childress, owner of the richest contract in European basketball.  So far so good for Childress and Olympiacos, as they've returned to the EuroLeague Final Four for the first time in a decade.  But don't think that Childress is carrying this team, averaging 30 points per night.  For one thing, European basketball just doesn't work that way - the game is more team-oriented and no one gets the touches and the isos that you see in the NBA.  The leading scorer in EuroLeague play this year, Igor Rakocevic, averaged less than 18 points per game.

Let's see if we can make this distinction between the leagues even clearer.  Juan Carlos Navarro played one season in the NBA for Memphis last year.  He averaged almost 11 points, on 9.4 shots in 26 minutes per game.  His teammate, Rudy Gay, took almost 17 shots in 37 minutes per game on the same team.  This season in Barcelona, as the undisputed star of the team, JCN averaged 14.8 points per game, taking 11 shots in 28 minutes per game.  By the way, 14.8 makes him the fourth leading scorer in the EuroLeague this season and the leading scorer in the Final Four.

So back to Childress.  He averaged 8.7 points per game, fourth on the team, in 15 EuroLeague games.  (He missed 5 games with an injury.)  Now, you might think that the Olympiacos leadership would be disappointed in those numbers from a guy that's supposedly making $20M (after taxes) over three seasons.  But they're in first place in the Greek League, ahead of arch-rival Panathinaikos, they're in the Final Four - so far so good, I assume they're delirious.

Joining Childress and MBFGC on Olympiacos are a few other players you may be familiar with.  Lynn Greer played college ball for Temple and played for the Bucks a couple of seasons ago.  Jannero Pargo had a solid NBA career going, but took some big money from Dynamo Moscow last summer, and then transferred to Olympiacos midway through the season.   And the European (mostly Greek) players on the roster are also very good, led by Theo Papaloukas, who returned to his native Greece this season after spending several seasons playing for CSKA Moscow.  Papaloukas won the Euroleague title with CSKA last season, and would dearly love to win it with a Greek team this season.  By the way, although it's unlikely at age 31 that Papaloukas will ever make the jump to the NBA, the Clippers purportedly pursued him to play point guard a couple years ago.

CSKA, you may recall, is one of the teams the Clippers faced on their ill-fated trip to Moscow during the 2006 pre-season.  Just a few months removed from game seven of the Western Conference Semi-Finals, the Clippers lost handily in that game, and it's been downhill ever since.  Another very good and very deep team, you may be familiar with former Duke star and NBA lottery pick Trajan Langdan, J.R. Holden who played college ball at Bucknell but has enjoyed an illustrious career in Russia, including leading them to a European Championship as a naturalized citizen, and former NBA first round picks Viktor Khryapa (formerly of the Bulls and Blazers)  and Zoran Planinic (formerly of the Nets). 

Barcelona is led by the aforementioned Navarro, but features many other familiar names.  Ersan Ilyasova played a season for the Bucks before returning to Europe.  Center Fran Vasquez was a first round pick of Orlando in 2005, but has yet to join the Magic.  Australian big David Andersen was drafted by the Hawks way back in 2002, but he has never made the jump and at 28 he may never.  Daniel Santiago has played in the NBA a couple of times, and was on the Clippers summer league roster in 2007.  And speaking of Clippers, Andre Barrett had a couple of 10 day contracts with LA last year but opted for the relatively big money of Europe this season rather than hanging around the D-League waiting for the phone to ring.

And then there's Panathinaikos, Olympiacos' bitter rival.  With two Athen's based teams playing in a one semi-final, you can bet the Greek restaurants around Berlin will be full this weekend.  The Greens are led by two of the stars of Greek basketball, Dimitris Diamantidis and Vassilis Spanoulis (who played one regrettable season in Houston before fleeing back to Europe).  They also have Sarunas Jasikevicius, the former Warrior and Eurobasket legend.  But their leading scorer is the pride of Long Beach Wilson, Mike Batiste (who was the last cut in Clippers training camp in 2002).

As for Big Sofo, the news may not be as bad as it was last year when he was so overweight that the team required him to check into a Swiss fat farm, but it's not good.  He was recently suspended for a month without pay.  The official announcement gives no details, stating only that it was for disciplinary reasons.  From what I can gather, it seems like he was suspended for his attitude - I guess he wasn't as happy as he was supposed to be after they beat Panathinaikos in a Greek league game in March.  But he's be re-instated and is eligible for this weekend. 

Perhaps the biggest concern is that he's simply not getting any better.  A Greek league all star in 05, 06 and 07, his productivity has regressed in the last two seasons.  That's due in part to his weight issues no doubt, but whatever the reason, he simply hasn't been impressive.  He's averaging around 8 minutes a game, scoring 4.4 points...  he still shoots a high percentage, but he's not having the impact one would expect.  He's still an intriguing prospect - one wonders what his training regimen is currently and if his physical shape can be improved.  But with another year left on his Olympiacos contract, it seems clear that the Clippers will be content to wait and see what happens.  They're certainly not going to incur a contract buyout to bring him to the NBA.

For a little perspective on how disappointing his development has been these last three seasons, check out his profile on DraftExpress.  Still good enough to be consider the 15th best prospect on their 'NBA rights held' list (just behind Carlos Delfino), they haven't written a word about him since August 2006, in advance of the world championships.  That's the tournament in which he went 6 for 7 against Dwight Howard and Elton Brand as Greece beat the US.  But he simply hasn't gotten any better since then.  Still, that DraftExpress profile sounds pretty sweet. 

You can watch the Euroleague Final Four, if you are so inclined, Friday at noon.