ALBA Berlin has participated continuously in the EuroLeague since the 2019/20 season but has not once made the playoffs during that span. This season, the German side again finds itself as one of the worst teams in the league, raising the question: does ALBA truly belong among Europe’s elite competition?
Currently, 12 out of the 18 EuroLeague spots are held by clubs that possess a long-term license and are members of the Shareholders Executive Board. The remaining spots are occupied by wild card teams and the previous season’s EuroCup winner.
This season, the non-licensed clubs are Serbian outfits Partizan Belgrade and Crvena Zvezda Belgrade, the French team Monaco, the Italian giant Virtus Bologna, the Spanish club Valencia, and ALBA, which sits at the bottom of the EuroLeague this season alongside ASVEL Villeurbanne, with two wins and 11 losses.
ALBA’s Aspiration for Inclusion
In July 2023, ALBA’s sports director, Himar Ojeda, explained that while they don’t possess a permanent license yet, ALBA is in the process of obtaining one. The Spaniard continued, stating that the process could have been completed this past summer, but last year’s inclusion of ASVEL and Bayern Munich caused a delay. Ojeda remains hopeful that perhaps a permanent license could be granted to ALBA next summer.
There are differing opinions regarding ALBA’s potential inclusion. On one hand, they have occasionally been competitive in the EuroLeague, yet the playoffs have remained an elusive goal. Their best season since 2019 was the 2021/22 season when they finished tenth and missed the quarterfinals by two wins. However, it’s crucial to note that their finishing position was influenced by the expulsion of Russian teams—CSKA Moscow, Zenit Saint Petersburg, and UNICS Kazan—after Russia invaded Ukraine. All the Russian clubs were ranked in the top eight before their removal.
Given ALBA’s financial limitations compared to other EuroLeague teams, they focus on developing younger players, signing individuals who have not yet found success in the EuroLeague or come straight from North America. In a way, ALBA serves a springboard or a stepping stone.
ALBA deserves recognition for nurturing talent and aiding players in reaching greater heights. For instance, Simone Fontecchio, a key player in the Italian national team, showcased promise during his time with ALBA in the 2020/21 season before moving to Baskonia and subsequently joining the NBA’s Utah Jazz.
Luke Sikma spent four seasons with ALBA in the EuroLeague before joining the Greek powerhouse Olympiacos. This season, German center Johannes Thiemann’s consistent performances must have placed him on the radar of major European clubs. Moreover, ALBA played a role in the careers of the Wagner brothers, Franz and Moritz, who are currently doing well in the NBA.
ALBA also deserves credit for not making rushed decisions. While Zvezda, ASVEL and Baskonia have changed head coaches this season, ALBA has retained theirs, despite a challenging record of two wins out of 13 games under Israel Gonzalez. However, the Spaniard manages a roster relatively inexperienced in EuroLeague play, and ALBA typically presents an entertaining style of basketball. So a bad EuroLeague record is by no means surprising.
Will the EuroLeague Broaden its Horizons?
Now let’s take a look at the other side of the coin. Firstly, the EuroLeague landscape might become even more complicated when Russian teams are allowed back as there are actually 13 clubs with a permanent EuroLeague license – CSKA Moscow also holds one.
Secondly, not a single one of the current wildcard teams deserves to be cut to include ALBA because they are simply stronger teams with good projects. Could we really envision an EuroLeague without the Serbian giants? Monaco’s project extends beyond finances, and they’ve demonstrated their prowess on the court as well. Virtus is currently one of the best teams, and their new arena is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2024 or the beginning of 2025. Valencia possesses a strong team, dedicated fans, and an owner who happens to be Spain’s wealthiest individual, willing to invest more than 15 million euros annually into the team.
Bayern Munich’s managing director, Marko Pešić, stated in early November that the EuroLeague must broaden its horizons. “Not in the sense that a Dubai club necessarily has to play in the league, but due to the problems in finding resources and other economic issues,” said the German in an interview with Serbia’s outlet Mozzart Sport.
It’s plausible that the EuroLeague will encompass more than 18 teams in the near future; 24 seems like an appropriate number. Firstly, integrating Dubai, Paris, and London into the current mix would raise the number of clubs to 21. Additionally, other ambitious projects are emerging in Europe that could fit as wildcards, such as Prometey (Ukraine), Venezia (Italy), and AEK Athens (Greece), for example.
However, expanding the EuroLeague while maintaining the current format would be nearly impossible. Having 24 teams would guarantee 46 games in the regular season, which is 12 more compared to the current schedule.
For top teams, the schedule is more than heavy enough already. Last season some EuroLeague clubs played more games than NBA teams with the reigning EuroLeague champion Real Madrid as a prime example: they played a total of 88 matches across the Spanish league, the Spanish cup, the Spanish Super Cup and the EuroLeague.
From an NBA standpoint, 88 games isn’t something out of this world, right? However, considering the European context where clubs have fewer resources for travel and player care, 88 games significantly tax players and staff in comparison to the NBA.
So let’s split the 24 teams across four groups of six with the top four from each group advancing to the top 16. There we’d have four groups of four, they’d play home and away with the top two from each group snatching a ticket to the quarterfinals. Sounds familiar? That’s because the EuroLeague has used this format in the past with the last season being 2011/12.
As ALBA’s hunt for a permanent license continues, it seems likely that they will achieve their goal. And it’s not a bad thing if the EuroLeague broadens its horizons in the near future, but it won’t be good news if ALBA’s inclusion would leave stronger clubs out of the league.