Argiris Pedoulakis

Lucky 7? How Panathinaikos is shaping up to be Euroleague favorites in 2016-2017

After five titles in 13 years, Panathinaikos has struggled to find success after head coach Zeljko Obradovic left for Fenerbahce.

“When I came in June 1999 to Athens to join Panathinaikos, I could not have imagined that this would be my team, my family, my home for 13 years. In these 13 years, we had many beautiful moments, many celebrations, but also difficulties. We were always together as a great and true family.”

-Zeljko Obradovic at his Panathinaikos farewell press conference in June 2012

Panathinaikos has always been associated with legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic, and for good reason, really. The “Greens” from Athens have won the most championships (six) in the modern Euroleague era, and Obradovic during his 13-year tenure in Athens was responsible for five of them. Under the well-respected and fiery Serbian coach, Panathinaikos became one of Europe’s most recognized, and respected clubs, annually competing for Greek Basketball League championships, as well as Euroleague Final Fours and titles. Before Obradovic, the Greens were simply another Greek club in the European basketball climate, on the same level with Olympiacos, Aris and PAOK (who all made Euroleague Final Fours prior to Obradovic coming to Athens). Now, along with Olympiacos, they have become one of Europe’s elite clubs, able to afford and attract all kinds of talent worldwide, with the expectation that they will add to the “stars” (i.e. Euroleague titles) each and every year. Since Zeljko, “championships and nothing less” have been the expectation not just for fans, but the players and organization as well.

Unfortunately, for Greens fans, since Obradovic left to Turkey to take over Fenerbahce, the club has not been able to live up to the lofty expectations since their coaching messiah left in 2012. In the post-Obradovic era, Panathinaikos has not made the Final Four, and in that same time span, they have seen Greek rival Olympiacos make the Euroleague championship game in two of those years (with a championship in 2013 and a runner up finish in 2015). For a club that exerted their dominance so forcefully in the Euroleague for nearly 13 seasons in the 2000’s, this kind of regression has not only been disappointing, but somewhat unacceptable in the eyes of the organization and fanbase. Thus, with such dissatisfaction from their internal and external supporting base, there has come constant change, as the club has gone through multiple player and roster changes in the the last four seasons.

Despite the wild inconsistency of the last four seasons, Greens fans have reason to be optimistic. The upcoming 2016-2017 season, the fifth season in the post-Obradovic era, looks to be the most promising yet, as the club has assembled the kind of roster that can truly compete for a Euroleague Final Four berth, not to mention championship. How did the Greens get to this point? And what will make this season different from the previous four, which ended up in playoff disappointment?

Well, let’s break down the road the Greens took to not only thrive this summer in the transfer market, but also set themselves up for success in 2016-2017.

Sasa Dordevic led Panathinaikos to the playoffs in 2015-2016, but the lack of big wins overshadowed statistical success.

Good on paper, but unable to follow through

After failing to make the Euroleague Final Four for a fourth straight season, and losing to CSKA Moscow in the playoffs, Panathinaikos decided to fire coach Dusko Ivanovic. After going through an interim coach for the remainder of the season (where they lost in the GBL finals 3-0), on June 30, 2015, the Greens tabbed Serbian Sasa Dordevic to be the new head coach for the 2015-2016 season.

Dordevic had the kind of resume that made the Greens faithful hopeful. In many ways, he was likened to a younger version of Zeljko: he was Serbian; had made his name as the Serbian National Team Head Coach (he led Serbia to a runner-up finish in the 2014 FIBA World Cup); and had a standout playing career for multiple clubs in Europe, with a brief spell in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers. On the other hand, Dordevic didn’t have much extensive club coaching experience like Zeljko, prior to his arrival in Athens, as Dordevic only had “cups of coffee” stints with Olimpia Milano in 2006-2007 and Benetton Treviso in 2011-2012. Nonetheless, the combination of his National Team coaching experience as well as his highly respected status as a player made the Panathinaikos club feel confident in tabbing Dordevic as their new coach.

The 2015-2016 roster was full of big-name Greek, European and American talent, and it looked like the kind of team Dordevic could be successful with right away in the Euroleague. At the point guard position, they had Nick Calathes, who came to Panathinaikos after a successful stint as a backup point guard with the Memphis Grizzlies, and the legendary Dimitris Diamantidis, who would be playing his last season professionally. On the wings they had former NBA player Sasha Pavlovic, American James Feldeine and Serbian Vladimir Jankovic to give them shooting and scoring. And in the post, they had the athletic and physical James Gist as well as Greek Antonis Fotsis in the power-forward position, and Serbian star and former Minnesota Timberwolf Miroslav Raduljica and former Golden State Warrior Ognjen Kuzmic. Though they were a bit of an older roster, Dordevic had the depth and pedigree to immediately be one of the most competitive clubs in Europe.

However, in week 1, the Greens lost on the road to first-time Euroleague participant, Pinar Karsiyaka, a club that failed to make it out of the 10-game opening round. * In many ways, that opening loss was a microcosm of the 2015-2016 season: so much potential, but nothing but “thuds” in the end.

(*Edit July 28th: As noted by a commenter below, the loss was actually to Lokomotiv Kuban, not Pinar Karsiyaka. Barcelona was the team that actually lost to Karsiyaka in round 1 of the Regular Season, which I confused Panathinaikos with. This is sort of fitting because they had a disappointing season as well and also fired their head coach by the end of the season as well. In comparison, Panathinaikos’ loss to Loko was not as bad considering Loko made the Final Four. But the loss was to a Loko team without Randolph, and it was Loko’s first game in club history in the Euroleague, so it was disappointing to an extent. Just not as bad as Barcelona’s to Karsiyaka.)

Panathinaikos rebounded from the opening week loss, as they went 6-4 and finished third in the division and qualified for the Top 16. While they avoided a massive letdown like other big name clubs such as Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv and EA7 Armani Milano, who failed to qualify for the next round, their third place finish in the group was a bit disappointing, considering the group was considered one of the weaker ones in the Regular Season round.

In the Top 16, Panathinaikos started to mold into form, as they went 9-5 and finished tied for second in their group with Lokomotiv Kuban (a team that finished first in their group in the opening round). Panathinaikos, which struggled with scoring and outside shooting, got a mid-season boost when they added Elliot Williams, a former NBA Draft pick, to be a wing combo threat. Taking minutes away from Pavlovic and Jankovic, the move proved to be beneficial, as Williams gave Panathinaikos an athletic threat on the offensive end that could create offense individually late in the shot clock.

During the Top 16 season, the Greens, with the addition of Williams, were statistically speaking one of the better teams in the Euroleague. They had the fourth-highest Net Rating in Top 16 play (higher than FC Barcelona and Baskonia, a Final Four participant), as well as the third-best defensive rating over the 14-game span (behind only Loko and Fenerbahce). And, under Dordevic, they moved the ball the best out of any team in the Euroleague (as evidenced by their 64.9 A/FGM rate tied for second in the Euroleague), not to mention crashed the boards effectively (as evidenced by their 32.4 offensive rebounding rate, third-best in Top 16 play).

So how come Panathinaikos failed to win a single game in their five-game playoff series against Laboral Kutxa Baskonia?

One of the main issues for Dordevic and this squad was their shooting inconsistency. Despite an elite defensive rating in Top 16 play, their offensive rating was around league average at 106.9 (10th in Top 16 play). Despite an elite assist rate, they didn’t shoot especially well from the field, and their players struggled to score or create offense in isolation situations (usually due to good pressure defense by opponents). Panathinaikos ranked 11th in eFG percentage in Top 16 play with a eFG% of 52.7, a pretty mediocre mark. This lack of effectiveness in shooting led to possessions where the Greens would have to force offense, which unfortunately led to a multitude of turnovers, as evidenced by their 19.8 turnover rate, second-highest in Top 16 play, behind only Crvena Zvezda.

One of the big reasons the Greens shot ineffectively from the field relative to their competition was due to their lack of confidence in shooting beyond the arc. Panathinaikos tied for the second-lowest 3PA/FGA rate (0.34) in Top 16 play, and that low number was mostly due to their 34.1 3FG percentage, which was fourth lowest in Top 16 play. Because they didn’t have a knockdown shooter, outside some occasional streaks from Diamintidis, this forced them to constantly pass around for shots or get things into the post to Raduljica or Gist. This worked a lot of the time because guards like Calathes were effective at creating offense, and Raduljica was a talented low post scorer. But when they faced good defenses that took away passing lanes with pressure defense or didn’t give them a lot of second-chance opportunities, the Panathinaikos offense would stagnate and get down-right ugly, leading to a lot of losses and deflating performances that didn’t inspire confidence in the Greens faithful.

Dordevic didn’t do a bad job by any means. While the Greens had some big names, it was obvious that many of them didn’t have the skills that matched their names anymore. Despite their NBA pedigree, Pavlovic and Calathes were two of the clubs most ineffective scorers, as evidenced by their 0.82 and 0.77 PPP (points per possession) rates, respectively. And Raduljica, though a big name and a talented offensive player around the rim, didn’t exactly provide the rebounding they needed in the post to play him big time minutes (his 13.0 rebounding rate wouldn’t have even put him in the Top 30). And thus, Dordevic did all he could to make this team successful, which was a playoff berth and not much more.

But as stated before, playoff berths aren’t good enough. After Baskonia completed their sweep in Athens, Dordevic was let go and former Panathinaikos head coach Argiris Pedoulakis took over for the remainder of the season and re-signed for the 2016-2017 season.

Panathinaikos hit it big this summer by landing First Team All-Euroleague player Ioannis Bourousis from Laboral Kutxa Baskonia.

Building the Greens with “proven” talent

After a season where they relied on “NBA” names and Serbian talent to mesh with their Serbian coach, the Greens have undergone a different approach: going after players who have been recently successful in the Euroleague. This off-season, with the exception of maybe Real Madrid (though time will tell if their three bigs: Randolph, Ayon and Thompkins will mesh together), Panathinaikos probably had the best offseason of any Euroleague participant when it came to roster acquisitions. Let’s take a look at each move they made this summer.

  • Signed point guard Mike James from Baskonia: James gives them an explosive threat off the bench, similar to his role behind Darius Adams in Baskonia. Calathes is a deft passer, but he doesn’t have the ability anymore to really play in isolation and get to the rim to score. James on the other hand does, as he thrives in such situations and can get to the rim and throw it down against lesser defenders.
  • Signed Chris Singleton from Loko: Singleton and Gist will give Panathinaikos one of the most physical stretch-4 combos in the league. Singleton is a physical player with the ball, as he is able to bang posts or smaller wings off of mismatches in the post, or he is able to clear out in ISO situations, get space and hit the mid-range and occasional 3. Defensively, he is not the most pure rebounder, but for a guy of his offensive skill set, he holds his own on the glass, especially offensive end (he had an 11.0 offensive rebounding rate last year). With Gist, Singleton gives Panathinaikos to play small ball (put Singleton at the 5) or give them depth should Gist get into foul trouble.
  • Signed Ioannis Bourousis from Baskonia: Without a doubt the best signing this off-season of any Euroleague club, period. Bourousis is the reigning ACB MVP, and was a first-team All-Euroleague player, who had the second highest PIR in the Euroleague last season (behind only Euroleague MVP Nando de Colo). Bourousis led Baskonia to their first Final Four in nearly 10 years, and helped mentor a young squad to exceed most people’s expectations (many figured Baskonia to be a Top 16 participant at best). Bourousis had the second highest rebounding rate (19.1) of any player in the Euroleague last season (behind only Barcelona’s Joey Dorsey, who played nearly 570 less minutes than Bourousis), and was one of the Euroleague’s most effective scorers with a True Shooting percentage of over 61 percent. To put it bluntly: no player was more valuable this off-season than Bourousis, who had proven his worth last year as a multi-talented big in the mold of Vlade Divac. And despite serious NBA offers, Bourousis returned to his home country to play for Panathinaikos. The addition of Bourousis, who is coming of a season where he experienced a career renaissance, automatically puts the Greens in the Final Four conversation.
  • Signed KC Rivers from Real Madrid: If Bourousis put them in the discussion, Rivers solidifies their status as Final Four favorites. The biggest issue for the Greens a season ago was shooting, and Rivers helps that issues immensely, as he automatically becomes the Greens most effective and reliable 3-point shooters. Rivers also comes from a winning pedigree, as he was a key cog of the 2015 Euroleague champion Real Madrid squad. In terms of his shooting prowess, Rivers thrives behind the arc, as evidenced by his 41.1 percent rate from beyond the arc in 2015 with Real Madrid, and his 44.2 rate in BBL play with Bayern Munich last season. Though he did drop to 37.1 in EL play with Madrid after being acquired from Bayern Munich through transfer during Top 16 play, his dip was most likely due to the fatigue of playing with multiple clubs in 2015-2016. Expect his rate to climb back into the 40 percent range, and if it does, Panathinaikos will have the shooting that will make them a more well-rounded squad offensively than a season ago.

The pressure will be on for Argiris Pedoulakis to bring Panathinaikos their first Euroleague title in the post-Obradovic era.

How does Panathinaikos put this all together?

As we have seen in the past from many Euroleague teams, sometimes the biggest names don’t equate to “most successful.” The Greens have gotten off to a good start by acquiring players who address specific needs from a year ago: James gives them instant offense off the bench, Singleton gives them toughness to complement Gist, Bourousis gives them playmaking and rebounding from the post, and Rivers gives them shooting. Pedoulakis will have a much easier time with this squad offensively than the one a year ago during his interim stint, which had to work so hard through their sets to create offensive opportunities against good defenses.

Furthermore, one of the more underrated developments of their signings was their ability to find guys who meshed together chemistry-wise. James and Bourousis were close teammates in Baskonia, and they are likely to continue that on and off-the-court camaraderie in their new surroundings in Greece. Rivers is a proven professional who has fit in with any club he has gone due to his role as a specialized shooter, and athletic defender. And Singleton has embraced the European lifestyle and game after coming over from the NBA, as he is the kind of emotional player that will thrive from the energy of the Greens’ rabid fanbase. So, a lot of credit has to be given to the Panathinaikos management: they took the time to not only find the right talent and skill fits to this roster, but also the right personalities that should mesh easily with the current players on this roster.

Of course, these four new players can’t do it all. They need Calathes to improve his efficiency as a playmaker and scorer (which should be easier with more options around him). They need their young Greek talent such as Vasilis Charalampopoulos and Nikos Pappas to step up and earn more minutes after being regulated to the bench mostly in 2015-2016. Fostis and Jankovic need to step up after mostly regression seasons a year ago. The new talent will certainly be a boost on their own individual merits. But if the returning players on this Greens squad can also improve and bounce back from a year ago, then the new talent added will be amplified even more on the court, meaning a special year for this Panathinaikos squad.

Pedoulakis has been the coach of the Greens before, so he knows the expectations in Athens: win a Championship or else. However, he has the talent to do it, and in the new Euroleague format, with a longer season, he also had the kind of depth that will help them be a competitor throughout the course of the Euroleague and GBL seasons. Yes, injuries happen. Yes, regression seasons happen. But on paper, this Panathinaikos squad is ready to compete for another Euroleague crown.

Can the Greens get the first Euroleague title in the post-Obradovic era? Well, if the chips fall right (and we won’t know that until the games start), 2017 looks to be a prime opportunity for Panathinaikos to get lucky number seven.

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