Continuing our series of EuroLeague playoff previews here at GiveMeSport.
READ: Part 1 - CSKA Moscow are as dominant as they have ever been
READ: Part 2 - Panathinaikos have ridden their great point guard to the playoffs
READ: Part 3 - Zalgiris have a real chance at making their first ever Final Four
READ: Part 4 - Facing the mighty CSKA Moscow, Khimki are really up against it
When it comes to stardom, no one in the EuroLeague rivals Real Madrid.
They have Luka Doncic, future NBA superstar. In a league in which young players barely play at all due to the physicality and skill required, Doncic, who only turned 19 six weeks ago, is not just a guest guitarist on an album track. He is leading the team in minutes, he is leading the team with the ball, he is way ahead of the curve, and he is destined for the upper tiers of the NBA. From a talent point of view, he is already the best player in the Europe.
They have Rudy Fernandez, one of the league's greatest flair players. With a knack for the impossible shot and plenty of athleticism he uses, even if only to get away more threes, Fernandez is averaging 9.3 points and 2.6 in only 18.6 minutes per game, shooting 38.9% from three-point range. He plays pick-and-roll, he plays perimeter defence (sometimes), he casts up the shots, and he looks smooth as hell doing all of it.
They have Felipe Reyes, now into his fourteenth season with the team, and still a key part of it. Reyes is not out there playing token minutes as a reward for loyalty - he is pretty much the same player he has always been, and to the same level. Averaging 15.7 minutes per game, Reyes still puts in 8.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in that time - the slow feet and no explosion make for little defence, but the touch, moves, poise, footwork, savvy and knowledge of angles has not diminished, and the city's legend still lives on.
They have Walter Tavares, who has only been with the team since November but who transformed the season upon arrival. When Ognjen Kuzmic went down with injury, Real needed size, and they do not come more sizeable than the 7'3 Tavares, who has become the league's best interior defender. Tied for the league's lead in blocks per game (1.7), and seventh in rebounds (5.9), Tavares is also a capable finisher of bounce passes or passes thrown over the top - always a target with that sheer length, he does not need a high level of strength, poise or skill to be effective, so long as the guards can find him. And they do.
They have Jaycee Carroll, one of the league's best shooters. Now 35 years old and into his seventh season with the team, Carroll has not let age deny him developing, as he has driven the ball more this season. Deadly off screens still, Carroll is not just raising up off of screens, driving the closeouts and dropping in floaters.
And to all that, they are about to re-add Sergio Llull.
Having missed the season to date with an ACL injury, Llull is about to return at the perfect time. He might not be back in time for game one of this series, but he will return during it, and he is needed on a team that did well to survive his absence. Led by Doncic, who took on a much more senior role as a halfcourt playmaker than was planned and who still shows some of rawness but who was so good in the role considering, Real were part of the three-way tie for third place with Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, finishing 19-11 on the regular season. Not bad, considering they have never had all the horses in the stable.
A full strength Real Madrid is a true competitor in this tournament. A part-strength Real Madrid were not half bad, either. Ranking second in the competition in offensive efficiency behind only the anomalously good CSKA Moscow, Real shot a .603% true shooting percentage as a team, including shooting 37.7% from three-point range and 79.7% from the line.
This comes despite lacking their senior point guard, relying at the position on the toddler Doncic and a somewhat overexposed Facundo Campazzo in his first significant-minutes EuroLeague season (whose flair, speed, handle and passing instincts provide Doncic some relief, yet whose lack of shooting and tendencies to overdribble, overly dominate the ball, find trouble and inadvertently disrupt the flow while trying to hard to be the flow has limited his usage). Doncic has been the end-of-the-shot-clock, refeed, go-to guy in the half court, and the fact that Llull is coming back to take on some of that duty again is a big help.
It particularly will help Doncic, who, despite his success int hat unexpected role, must surely be toilworn. Campazzo's limitations as the starting point guard, and the lack of much contribution behind him (Chasson Randle has looked out of sorts at this level all year, aggravating Llull's absence), has meant a huge workload on Doncic. He has been constantly on the ball, learning on the job, and has had a massive burden to shoulder. With one so young, and still lacking the core strength to handle the physical play, questions about his potential fatigue are valid.
Compounding this is the fact that, while Llull is set to return, Campazzo is now out with injury himself, not giving Llull the opportunity to work his way back into the fold and demanding an immediate impact in high pressure situations from him. Randle will have to pick up his play (in large part by slowing it down), while Fabien Causeur might have to be the primary point guard defender, another duty to add alongside his crafty combination of drives and shots.
Still, in also having the fifth-best defensive rating, this is a team with some balance. They score, they shoot from all positions (helped by Trey Thompkins's 40.8% three-point shooting on a good volume of attempts), they drive, they score in isolation when needed, they have length and athleticism, they clear the glass (second in the league in rebounding percentage and led by individual league leader Gustavo Ayon's 6.3 boards er game), they have match-ups for everybody (aided by the physical profile and defensive versatility of Jeffrey Taylor), and they are replete with two-way players.
They aren't the best team. CSKA are. They were not even second best. Fenerbahce were. But Llull's return is a big deal, even if it does take him a while to get up to speed.
He might not have that while, though. The first round opponent for Real in these playoffs is a particularly tough one. Real will go up against Panathinaikos, a tough defensive unit - disconcertingly, while Pana's great strength is the point guard position (specifically Nick Calathes but now backed up by Mike James), it is Real's great question, as above.
But if they do win this series, they could potentially win it all. Star talent is hard to keep down.