Continuing our series of EuroLeague playoff previews here at GiveMeSport.
The most noise that Panathinaikos have made in the EuroLeague this season has been off the court.
Unhappy at his own punishment by the league (a year's suspension from all EuroLeague arenas, including his own) for comments he made about fans of Fenerbahce on his Instagram account, the team's owner, Dimitris Giannakopoulos, threatened to pull the Greens from the competition altogether, before claiming he would be putting the decision of whether to withdraw or not to the fans. That referendum has not been held - as of yesterday, Giannakopoulos has stated his intention to remove the team from the EuroLeague after this season - that drama has overshadowed what the team has been able to do in the EuroLeague season.
That said, on the court, things have gone quite well. Finishing the regular season with a 19-11 record, Panathinaikos tied for the third best win total along with cross-town rivals Olympiakos and Spanish giant Real Madrid, although they will enter the playoffs as the fifth seed due to losing their tiebreakers (thus they will now play Real in the first round). They also come in carrying a bit of momentum - losers of six out of eight games at one point, the Greens won their final five regular season games, and although those five wins all came against teams that will not make the playoffs, momentum is momentum, and they are carrying it.
They do so in part on account of a key mid-season reinforcement.
The mid-season market was not particularly strong this year, and is always a dangerous thing to have to rely upon, yet in re-signing Mike James (who had been with them last season), Panathinaikos won perhaps the best piece on the market. Opting to leave the NBA so soon after making it for the first time, James's EuroLeague scoring credentials are well established - with enough size, good speed and a tight handle, James's aggression and changes of direction get him to the rim with some ease, whereupon he can finish or kick to a shooter. He is a player who can create in isolation and at the end of the shot clock, and is even more of a threat in transition. The defence and outside shot are streaky at best - in his eight EuroLeague games thus far, James has shot only 7-42 from three-point range, not all of the shots are good ideas, and the occasional bout of physical man-to-man D is undermined by lazy or absent rotations off the ball. Yet James not only added talent, but also patched up the team's weakest area.
Just as their Greek counterparts and eternal cross-town rivals Olympiacos rely so heavily on veteran playmaker Vassilis Spanoulis, so too do the Greens rely on Nick Calathes. In his third season back with the team after his NBA career ended, Calathes leads the EuroLeague in assists at 8.1 per game, and the gap is quite a sizeable one (Barcelona's Thomas Heurtel is second with 6.5 per game, with Zalgiris's Kevin Pangos third at 6.2). Panathinaikos possessions feature Calathes up top, switching wings, trying to get to the rim for the kick-out pass or the dump-off, using screens, and hitting the screener. Failing that, he can post up his invariably smaller opponents.
Calathes has never been the best shooter himself, hitting only 24.7% from three-point range and getting something of the Ricky Rubio treatment on the perimeter, yet his defence has improved slightly year on year, to the point where the results now match the effort. He is, to reuse an old cliche, the engine that makes the whole team go.
The problem, though, is that the team somewhat over-relies on Calathes, and indeed the point guard position as a whole. Despite having one of the best playmakers in the competition, Pana finished the EuroLeague regular season ranked only 10th in offensive rating at 110.2, closer to last place than ninth. As a team, they struggle to shoot from outside, hitting only 35.2% three-point shooting as a team, with Matt Lojeski (5.7 ppg, 44.6% three-point shooting), Marcus Denmon (5.9 ppg, 40.8%), Lukas Lekavicius (3.8 ppg, 50.0%) and Chris Singleton (10.3ppg, 45.1%) as the only plus-efficiency shooters. Calathes and James being mediocre shooters themselves is a part of this, yet those around them largely need setting up, and the wing spots lack for individual offensive creativity.
What they do have in James, Calathes and Nikos Pappas are big playmakers. The never-shy Pappas is one of the few domestic players in this year's version of the team, and is using his usual combination of relentless attacks of the basket, fast breaks, semi-transition, tough bankers and pull-ups to be a key scoring guard off of the bench. He has taken a step up this year, and has been a welcome aid to both the aging Lojeski (who, given his lack of defence, may have a smaller role going forward with James in the fold) and important starting wing K.C. Rivers. As a good shooter and strong defender, Rivers is by far the team's best wing player, and has been rested over the past fortnight to get him ready for this matchup. He is a key part of the physical and decisive team defence that got the team here, and his scoring and shooting will be key to overcoming the offensive disadvantage Pana will face not only against Real Madrid, but in any future rounds should they overcome. And between Rivers and the long and athletic Singleton (himself a key part of the defensive strategy against Anthony Randolph), the Greens have some decent matchups against Luka Doncic,
As ever, there are plenty of options on a team that runs at least 13 deep. Denmon and Lekavicius provide depth as quality shooters who can drive a closeout (Denmon providing some good pressure defense to go with it, while Lekavicius provides almost none), while Ian Vougioukas and Thanasis Antetokounmpo provide enough to merit their spot as domestic player quota-meeters. These options, however, are limited in their usefulness. Vougioukas, as ever, can score in the post with touches given his good size and footwork (essentially the only post-up player other than Calathes), but makes almost no plays on the ball defensively, while Antetokounmpo will make plenty of plays on the ball defensively, dunk when he can and add plenty of energy, yet has developed his offensive skills and poise very little since his NBA days.
The key to success, then, relies on riding their quality backcourt, hitting enough shots, and getting enough offence and rebounding out of a frontcourt that has not inspired confidence thus far.
In addition to James, the Greens also brought in Adreian Payne in midseason, with a view to shoring up some of the rebounding deficiency that had been a factor in the regular season. Ranking tenth in the competition in rebounding rate, only Khimki (stone cold last) also made the playoffs out of all the teams behind them. Unfortunately, although Payne has stuck to the brief rebounding the ball at a good rate, he has looked out of sorts offensively, still not sure of what kind of player he is on that end. Overall, even with the prescribed rebounding, he has not been a net positive for the team.
Beyond Payne lie wider frontcourt problems. Third year EuroLeague player Kenny Gabriel is not having a good year, largely limiting himself to catch-and-shoot outside attempts offensively (and missing far too many of them), while defending via the foul. Albeit to a lesser dgeree, Singleton has also been ineffective offensively outside of the catch-and-shoot three - he is still not an efficient driver of the ball, and he has abandoned the idea of being a back-to-the-basket player (one he was perhaps always slightly reluctant about), now doing everything face up. And although James Gist remains a bit of an offensive tank, he has never defended with the switching potential he has in anything more than fits and starts, and his defensive rebounding rate declines every season.
Matchups, then, form the crux of their first round battle with Real. Unless Sergio Llull (expected to return from season-long injury very soon, but surely in need of some play-in time) gets to 100% very quickly, Facundo Campazzo will be the main opponent of Nick Calathes, and vice versa. This, plus the general backcourt strength with James and Pappas in tow, gives Pana the theorietical advantage in that half of the depth chart. But they also have no real answer to Walter Tavares's size and interior dominance at the five spot, and nor do they have an ideal match-up for Anthony Randolph.
Lacking post offence, some offensive creativity and (at least of late) outside shooting, Panathinaikos will have to rely on defensive physicality to overcome a tough first-round match-up. To overcome means to exploit their own best advantages while shoring up their own weaknesses. And to do that means continuing the great reliance on Calathes.