Monday, October 19, 2015

NBA vs Euroleague: Is Euroleague basketball catching up to the NBA? Clearly not

It is a never ending issue amongst basketball fans outside of the US. “The Euroleague is closing the gap” “Real Madrid could compete against any team in the NBA” “The Euroleague Final Four teams would easily make the playoffs if they played a full NBA season”.
The above are only a few of the several remarks that can be heard in any basketball discussion amongst two European fans. The European basketball fandom can be basically divided into two huge slices: on one hand you have NBA freaks who will defend the Association’s quality and superiority even in detriment of their own country’s league.  On the other side of the spectrum one may find rabid fans, backing up their favorite teams until death, even if that means desperately trying to bash the NBA with gems such as “The NBA is not real basketball, it’s just a show”,  “They don’t play any defense in the NBA” or “Americans can’t shoot”.
Since I am not particularly biased on this subject and having the 2015 NBA Global Games fresh in our memories I thought tackling this subject would be a good idea, since it is a always a current issue in the Old Continent.
Real Madrid, the team with the most continental crowns with 9, defending Euroleague champion, as well as Spanish’s league and cup winners, got beaten easily in Madrid by the Boston Celtics, with a final score of 111-96. Just two days later they trashed Olimpia Milano (a team which last season cracked the Euroleague’s Top-16) in Milan by 33 points, 124-91. Don’t get me wrong, the Celtics are a solid team who happen to have a great coach. Nevertheless, they barely made it to the Playoffs last season, and in a league that would not be divided into Conferences they would not have made it in the Top-16. Nevertheless, despite being an average team with no current All Stars on its roster, they just easily beat a Top-16 Euroleague team and the defending Euroleague and ACB champion after having played in Milan two days prior and having had only one week of team practice since late April, when they were swept by the Cavs in four games.
Unfortunately, it would be erroneous to back up a general statement like that, involving approximately 30 teams on each side of the conflict, by looking at only two games, both played by the same NBA team. For this reason, I have examined the all time record between NBA teams and Euroleague teams.
Giving a quick look at the data a few conclusions con be drawn:
-          Historically NBA teams have widely dominated Euroleague teams, although the latter have improved slightly since the early 2000s.
-          The all time record for NBA teams is 73-15, which translates into an 83% winning percentage. Now let’s have a look at the European improvement we are talking about:

-          in the 1978-1999 era the NBA boasted a 23-3 record (88’5%), with the 3 European victories being inflicted by Maccabi Tel Aviv, who beat the NBA defending champions Washington Bullets in the first ever game between an NBA team and a European team back in 1978. Then in 1984 Maccabi beat the New Jersey Nets and the Phoenix Suns. All three games were played in Israel.

Since 2003, NBA teams have a winning record of 50-12 (80’6%). In the 2000s, when the NBA Europe Live Tour became a household name for international fans, they had a 31-5 record, an outstanding 86’1% winning percentage. This record was almost as commanding as the one from the last two decades of the 20th Century.

In the 2010s NBA teams have undergone a notable decline when facing teams from across the pond. In the few years since the start of the decade NBA teams are sitting on a 19-6 record. A 73’1% winning percentage. That’s still a major lead, but it is also a substantial decline in such a short period of time. So, should the NBA panic? Should Adam Silver fear European squads becoming a threat to his product? Not at all.

The 19 NBA wins have come with a 15’3 points margin, including 6 blowouts which ended with a +20 point difference. Meanwhile only 3 of those 19 wins came with a difference of 5 or less points. On the other hand, though, out of the 7 wins by Euroleague teams in the present decade 5 have come with a 5 or lower point differential, with only a six point win by Fenerbahçe over the Celtics in 2012 and a 14 point win by Barcelona over the Mavs in that same year being their only comfortable wins. The 2012-2013 season, by the way, has been the only season where the Mavs have missed the Playoffs since 2000.

Taking this into account, could Euroleague teams really compete in the NBA? Well, although the samples are very small, I have dissected the games from the 2010s into two categories: Non-Playoff teams vs Euroleague Final Four teams and Playoff teams vs Euroleague Final Four teams, meaning how teams fared at the end of that season, not how they performed the previous season, since summer trades may radically change the aspect of a team.

On the first category we can see that non-Playoff  teams present a 1-2 record against Final Four competition. If everything goes as planned this season, we will add Fenerbaçe’s (definitely a Top-3 Euroleague team this season) win in Brooklyn two weeks ago.

On the second category, Playoff teams are 3-0 against Final Four competition, boasting wins by Memphis and San Antonio over Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow and Fenerbaçe. Again, if things turn out as they should if we consider roster quality we could be able to include another 2 wins by Playoff teams that recently came in October, when the Celtics and the Thunder easily beat Real Madrid and Fenerbaçe.

From a players’ perspective, the NBA is by no means losing its ground when it comes to talent, as the last couple of summers have seen the influx of Euroleague superstars such as Bojan Bogdanoviç and Nemanja Bjelica and rising stars like Mario Hezonja, whereas only role players or benchwarmers seem to be leaving the NBA for the Euroleague, with the likes of Ekpe Udoh, Jan Vesely, Alexey Shved or Luigi Datome. There is no reason to think this stars-in-scrubs-out trend will reverse anytime soon.

In conclusion, I do not think Euroleague squads could compete in the NBA, not even the perennial powerhouses. By competing I mean making it to the postseason or at least fight for a spot until the last couple of weeks. Previous games have shown the NBA is still a few floors above in terms of physical and overall individual talent, even though those games are played in early October, when NBA squads have barely started training camp. On top of that, European teams are used to a much lighter schedule and shorter games. The fact that they would have to endure the mileage of an NBA season, both on and off the court, makes me believe no Euroleague team would make it out of the bottom of the league, not being able to crack the Top 25.

What do you think? Is Euroleague basketball closing the gap?