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Understanding Basketball in Europe

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The article below isn't exciting or glamorous, and I doubt it will set records for pageviews. However, it is a straightforward guide to the Euroleague. It gives you everything you need to know about the European system in as short of a space as possible, something which can only be achieved by reading hours of Wikipedia entries on your own. I hope you find it informative and helpful as we head towards the inevitable locked out season of 2011-2012.

Since several players are leaving the United States to go play in Europe, I thought it might be a good idea to get familiar with basketball in Europe. The NBA is a league of teams from almost entirely one nation, and the teams do not compete internationally. The NBA acts as the king of it's domain, declaring the winners of the league "World Champions". It does not enter in serious international competition, unless you count a few pre-season exhibition matches.

Basketball in Europe, however, is quite different. All of the countries have their own leagues, like the NBA, but instead of just playing within their own nation, the best domestic teams play against the best of the other countries in regional and continental competition. First, we'll take a look at the domestic leagues.

Domestic Leagues

Simply put, European domestic leagues are the closest thing you'll find to the NBA. Even so, the similarities are few. Both the NBA and European domestic leagues have a regular season and a post-season, and both have a post-season that consists of a tournament where a winner is decided via a three or more game series.

The differences are much easier to see. Most striking is that the two worst teams in the league are relegated to a lower tier of play at the end of the season. That's right, there is absolutely no incentive to lose, for if you do it too much, you won't be rewarded with LeBron James. Instead, you'll be shown the door and replaced. Additionally, there are no conferences or divisions. All of the teams are placed into a pool, and ranked strictly on record.

Below: More Info on Domestic Leagues, Regional Leagues, the Euroleague, flow charts, and what it all means for players going international!

Now that you know what domestic leagues are, you must be wondering exactly how important they are. The answer depends largely on the country. The domestic league is always considered secondary to international competition, but some countries have more competitive domestic leagues than others. For example, Spain, which has the most talented domestic league in Europe, has a highly competitive league, with regularly different champions. But in other countries, the domestic league is almost a joke. Greece is regularly dominated by Panathinaikos and Olympiacos, so much so that no other team has made the finals since the 04-05 season, no team defeated Panathinaikos or Olympiacos in the 10-11 season, and at one point all of the players of the other teams in Greece went on strike, but it utterly failed because Panathinaikos and Olympiacos are so dominant.

The reason leagues like Greece are so stacked towards a couple of teams is because a smaller nation like Greece can't afford to keep a competitive domestic league while also being competitive internationally. The national leagues generally shake out to be lower priority, below regional leagues and continental leagues, so smaller nations like to consolidate their resources into one team.

However,  the domestic league is still important for non A-licensed teams (explained later), for if they don't place high enough, they won't get into the highest level of regional or continental competition.

Regional Leagues

Regional leagues are specific to mostly former Soviet republics. They exist because the teams either used to enjoy intense rivalries before the iron curtain fell, or because the domestic leagues of certain countries aren't competitive enough, and the good teams from those countries want more of a challenge. The regional leagues are contained within themselves. They use rankings from domestic leagues to determine who gets a birth, but they do not affect the Euroleague or other continental leagues. Regional leagues are considered above domestic leagues in importance, but they are not considered as important as the Euroleague.

The Euroleague


The flowchart above explains the Euroleague qualifying system in laments terms, but the text below should provide more in depth answers.

The Euroleague uses the rankings of last year's domestic leagues to determine who gets into the annual tournament, but there are 13 teams that get into the league regardless of rank. These teams have something called an "A License", which is determined based on performance, TV revenue, and home attendance. So, if a club like Lottomatica Roma is having a down year and doesn't place in the top three of Italy's domestic league, they still get into the Euroleague by virtue of their fan support. Of course, A licenses can be suspended. A good example is Virtus Roma, who had their A license suspended last year because they finished in the lower half of their domestic league.

Domestic leagues are accorded a certain amount of automatic berths into the Euroleague based on fans, TV ratings, and talent. The top three leagues in Europe, Spain's Liga ACB, Italy's Liga A, and Greece's HEBA A1, get two births based on position. Other leagues get automatic berths for their domestic league champions, but only 8 teams gets berths based on domestic league ranking, so it depends in some cases on how well A licensed clubs did that year.

Other teams, who placed slightly lower in a top league or got first place in a less prestigious domestic league will get placed in the Euroleague Qualifying Round, which is two eight seeded tournaments, the winners of both whom are awarded admission into the regular Euroleague season. Some leagues, such as the British Basketball League, are not considered good enough to even get into the Euroleague qualifying round, so they are left out of the Euroleague altogether.

Once the qualifiers are over, teams are placed into four groups of six teams, and they play each other team in the group two times. The top four teams from each group are taken and placed in four groups of four, where each team plays each other team in the group two times. The top two teams are then taken from each group and placed in the quarterfinals, where they play a best-of-five series. The winners of those series are then placed in the Euroleague final four, which is a four team single-elimination bracket that determines the European champion.



There's lots of technicalities involved, but if you want to understand European basketball on its' most basic level, look at the flowchart above. Anytime you hit a blue box (besides start), you've hit a certain league that your hypothetical team might be playing in.

Also, here's a real-life example.

CSKA Moscow is the current team of former Thunder center Nenad Krstic. This season, they will be playing in Russia's domestic league, the Russian Professional Basketball League.  Because they were the champions of Russia's League last year, they have qualified for their regional tournament. As they are from a former Soviet republic (Russia), they will participate in the VTB United League, the tournament for former Soviet teams. They have also qualified for the Euroleague by virtue of having a Class A license, but even if they didn't have the Class A license, they would qualify by having won their domestic league last year.

In other words, CSKA Moscow will be playing in Russia's domestic league to qualify for the VTB United League and the Euroleague next year, but they will also be playing in both of those leagues this year, as they qualified for them last year.

So, what does this mean for players going international?

Well, if the players want to have a shot at the Euroleague, they should sign with a team that is in the Euroleague, or at least a team that is in the qualifying rounds. For a current list of teams, click here.

Right now, two former Thunder players have signed in Europe. As stated earlier, Nenad Krstic has signed with CSKA Moscow. Furthermore, Mustafa Shakur has signed with Pau Orthez of France, which will be playing in the EuroChallenge, the third and last tier of continental European basketball.

Besiktas, the Turkish team that has signed Deron Williams and pursued Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, is not in the Euroleague this year. In fact, they are only in the qualifying round for the Eurocup, which is the second tier of Continental competition. Most players going there are looking at big money, rather than competition.

Other notable players signed in Europe include Sonny Weems, who will be playing for Zalgiris Kaunas of Lithuania in the Euroleague, Sasha Vujacic, who will be playing for Anadolu Efes Istanbul of Turkey in the Euroleague, Darius Songaila, who will be playing for Galatasaray of Turkey in the Euroleague Qualifying round,  Timofey Mozgov, who will be playing for BC Khimiki of Russia in the Euroleague Qualifying Round, Jordan Farmar, who will be playing for Maccabi Tel-Aviv of Israel in the Euroleague, and Nicholas Batum, who will be playing for SLUC Nancy of France in the Euroleague. A complete list of current foreign signees can be found here.

I hope this article is informative and helpful for you as we trudge through this locked-out season. More Euroleague and Eurobasket coverage is to come!