Who is the best basketball club in Europe? It’s Panathinaikos Athens! Source: David Grau/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images
Who is the best basketball club in Europe? It’s Panathinaikos Athens! Source: David Grau/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

From bottom to top: Panathinaikos’s EuroLeague revival

Basketball OlyBet 27.05.2024

Let’s turn the clock back to April 7th of last year. Panathinaikos Athens hosted ALBA Berlin in the EuroLeague and lost 84-88 to one of the league’s weakest teams in front of just 4,120 spectators. Who could have believed that just over a year later, hundreds of thousands of fans would be fully behind the club, and the Greek giant would be back at the top of Europe?

Probably not many, but that’s exactly what happened. Last season, Panathinaikos finished in 17th place, second to last. However, last night in Berlin, they defeated Real Madrid 95-80 in the final, securing the club’s seventh EuroLeague title, their first since 2011 when the era of legendary coach Željko Obradović was coming to an end.

To fully appreciate the significance of Panathinaikos’s triumph, we need to again jump back in time to last spring.

Ataman has pulled clubs out of the mud before

Ergin Ataman is a coach you either love or hate due to his antics. While the Turk is not considered to be on Obradović’s level as a tactician, he is praised for both assembling a roster and motivating players.

Although Panathinaikos was praised for hiring Ataman last April, in hindsight, he was the perfect choice for owner Dimitrios Giannakopoulos. Ataman’s work at his previous club Anadolu Efes Istanbul didn’t just involve winning two EuroLeague titles — or three, as he claims, since Efes was clearly the best team during the unfinished COVID season — but also building the club up.

Ataman rejoined Efes in December 2017. Although he couldn’t perform miracles that season, with the Istanbul club winning only seven out of 30 games and finishing last, significant changes were made during the off-season. They acquired Vasilije Micić from Žalgiris Kaunas, Rodrigue Beaubois from Baskonia, and Shane Larkin, who returned to Europe from the NBA.

With this new lineup, Efes was no longer a pushover in the 2018/19 season, reaching the final and losing 83-91 to CSKA Moscow.

It would be wrong to say that Ataman’s success was solely due to money. Of course, a substantial budget helps to assemble a better team and increase the chances of winning, but basketball isn’t played on paper.

Moreover, feedback from players who have worked under Ataman is almost entirely positive. He is especially praised as a coach who can bring out the best in his players.

Ataman is set, but what’s next?

Hiring Ataman was a crucial first step, but it was clear that the roster needed a major overhaul. In June and July, Panathinaikos brought in 11 new players, retaining only four from the disappointing season: Greeks Panagiotis Kalaitzakis, Alexandros Samodurov, Lefteris Mantzoukas, and Lithuanian Marius Grigonis. Grigonis was told he could look for a new team but chose to stay, unexpectedly becoming one of Ataman’s trusted players during the regular season.

The first additions were Kostas Antetokounmpo and Dimitrios Moraitis, followed by potential key players like Luca Vildoza, Mathias Lessort, and Dinos Mitoglou. Then came the pivotal date, July 8th.

For those who don’t know, the fiercest rivalry in Greek basketball is between Panathinaikos and Olympiacos. Few players have represented both clubs, let alone moved directly from one to the other.

But some have. For example, in 2010, one of Greece’s greatest basketball players, Vassilis Spanoulis, switched from Panathinaikos, with whom he had won the EuroLeague the previous season, to Olympiacos, becoming public enemy number one.

Last July, Kostas Sloukas made the same switch. Although he was one of Olympiacos’s biggest stars, he wanted more playing time and a bigger role. Coach Georgios Bartzokas refused, adhering to his system-based philosophy that requires players to fulfill their roles precisely.

Sloukas’s transfer was a shock. It was also surprising that the then 33-year-old guard signed a three-year contract worth three million euros per season, one of the largest contracts in European basketball.

With Sloukas’s signing, Panathinaikos established the backbone of their team. As the saying goes, a successful season requires a good point guard – Sloukas – and a top-tier center – Lessort.

Since we’re on the subject of Lessort, it’s worth noting that despite Panathinaikos’s impressive summer recruitment, one position was left inadequately covered. Yes, Lessort is a fantastic center, but if he were injured, Ataman would have to rely on Antetokounmpo and Aleksandr Balcerowski.

Despite the 11 new players, Panathinaikos wasn’t complete. The final piece of the puzzle signed his contract on the last day of October, but we’ll get to that soon…

Defying expectations

Most European basketball experts expected Ataman’s team to focus on offense. Panathinaikos was supposed to resemble the Brazilian football team of decades past, unconcerned with how many goals they conceded because they always scored more.

The reality was different. Greeks who watched Panathinaikos’s preseason games reported that they were surprisingly excellent on defense while the offense struggled. This was evident in the season’s first official games, such as the Greek Super Cup final against Olympiacos, where they scored only 51 points.

Ataman realized that Panathinaikos needed more strength in the backcourt. He needed someone who was a good scorer, as it quickly became clear that Kyle Guy couldn’t fulfill that role. Ataman had his eye on Kendrick Nunn, who had shined in the NBA a few seasons earlier but whose career had been affected by a serious knee injury.

However, Nunn hadn’t given up on his NBA dreams and waited for someone to offer him a contract. When no suitable offer came, coming to Europe became somewhat inevitable for the guard.

Panathinaikos was fortunate that Nunn joined. Although his start was rough, he, like the team, needed time to adjust, having never played European club basketball before. By the playoffs, Nunn hit top form, scoring the most points in the postseason.

Panathinaikos also peaked by the playoffs. They scored efficiently, excelled in rebounding, and shone in defense. Ataman often had to spend valuable time finding the right lineup, even in the final, but he managed this very well and repeatedly changed the game with his substitutions.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Panathinaikos’s triumph is that Ataman and his colleagues managed to turn a team built almost from scratch into a cohesive and powerful unit in just one season. Their final opponent, Real, was the opposite, with many players who had been playing together for several years.

But for Ataman, assembling a new team and getting them to play well is not a problem. If things go in Athens as they did in Istanbul, Panathinaikos will remain at the top of the EuroLeague for several more seasons.


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