More than one person has asked me in the past for a definition of how basketball works in Europe. Those persons are always American. They see words like “domestic competition,” “EuroLeague” and “Cup,” and they panic. All of those are concepts alien to the NBA, an incestuous league that only plays with itself, and they are not understood by the majority of American NBA fans. (Or, if not the majority, at least some.)
So I’ll try to explain.
All countries in Europe have their own domestic leagues. There’s the strong ones (Turkey, Spain, and a much weakened Italy), the top-heavy ones (Greece, Russia, etc), the ones slightly below that (Germany, France, etc), all the way down to the insignificant and/or terrible leagues (such as those in Moldova, Azerbaijan and Britain). Those leagues are by and large just like the NBA; over the course of several months, everybody plays everybody, with regular seasons and playoff structures. And at the end of it all, the best team wins. All these leagues are different in their own way; the French league is notorious for bad defence, and the Greek league is more physical than many of the others. (It’s also infamous for the salary payments being hideously inconsistent, something not helped by the current general Greek economic turmoil. For example, Maroussi – Greece’s third best team – have recently agreed to a two year repayment structure for their players who did not get paid last year, and may have to merge with a team from Crete just to stay solvent. It happens all across Europe at various times, but it happens a lot more in Greece.) However, they play fundamentally the same format. I have never seen a basketball league that does not have playoffs.
For the most part, European teams are not built in the same way as their American counterparts. Whereas American teams are part of a “franchise” culture – where local ties are comparatively tenuous, and the team exists as fundamentally a business that can and will be moved if necessary – the European model sees teams developed from the ground up over long periods of time, born out of a community and as successful as the local market/current ownership allows. If a team is not financially able to compete at the level that they once did, they don’t move; they shrink. European leagues (mostly) have multiple divisions, and clubs are promoted and relegated between them. If a tiny team has a brilliant year and gets promoted to join the big boys, good for them. It’s a feel-good story. Similarly, if a big market team gets mismanaged and falls off the map, they can get relegated, and they have to earn their way back. In this format, no years are wasted by tanking.
Relegation is a beautiful thing. If your team isn’t good enough to compete for the title, you can’t just mail in the season, or you might get relegated. Relegation for the following season means a big decrease in standard, competition, and (most importantly) revenue. If you get relegated, your team is not just out of the running for a championship; it becomes devalued. No longer do you try to lose if losing can wipe $100m off the value of your team. Oh no. You can play to win, and you play to survive. For this very reason, relegation battles are often more fun than championships battles.
(American sports need a relegation system. It’s immeasurably better for the game, for any game. The lottery system in basketball is not nearly a sufficient enough deterrent to prevent so many games being wasted down the stretch of the season, and neither is having more than 50% of the league going into the playoff format. There’s too many pointless games between teams who have nothing to achieve, and who know it. And worse still, there’s some games that teams deliberately try to lose. With the exception of the occasional dire mid-table snoozer, a promotion/relegation system would rectify that. Of course, it will never get one. That much we can be sure of. Anyway, I’ve drifted off-message. Back to the point.)
All European countries have their own leagues, where every team plays every other team twice, both home and away [European for ‘on the road’] and the best man wins. Most leagues also have a “Cup,” a separate competition with a knock-out format that is as simple as it sounds. These aren’t held in the same regard as the domestic leagues, but they’re still fun, and give teams out of the championship running something else to play for.
We do other stuff too, though. The thing with us European countries is that, apart from the occasional world war, we tend to tolerate each other, and we’re all very close together geographically. Because of that, it’s both feasible and profitable to have competitions within our own continent. And this isn’t the same kind of “intercontinental” competition that the WWF needlessly forced upon the world for so many years. It’s much more fun than that; the best teams from all the European domestic leagues get together and duke it out for title of best club team in the continent, in a competition known as the EuroLeague.
(Note: “EuroLeague” is not to be confused with “Eurobasket”; EuroLeague is the competition for club teams, and Eurobasket is the competition for national teams.)
The standard of the EuroLeague (and of good European leagues) is highly comparable, if entirely different, to that of the NBA. There’s less one on one basketball, less physical interior play, and a much slower pace. Statistically, assists are far harder to come by (so if someone averages four assists per game in a European league, that’s a damn good amount), and there’s a lot less post play on offence. There are about 876 pick-and-rolls a game, though, and the pick-and-roll is a beautiful and clinically effective part of the game. The fundamental fundamental. If you think it’s boring to see a game where 80% of possessions are based around it, trust me that it isn’t.
Below the EuroLeague are two other continent-wide club competitions, for teams not good enough to be in the EuroLeague but still good enough to merit their own European competition. The second tier of cross-continental competition is the EuroCup (which used to be called the ULEB Cup), and the third tier is the EuroChallenge (which, highly confusingly, used to be called the EuroCup). The three tournaments are of a progressively lesser pedigree, but nonetheless, they are all good quality competitions and highly entertaining.
Further to that, there are some other competitions in Europe that transcend multiple countries. The most noteworthy of these is the Adriatic League (also known as the NLB League due to sponsorship), which features club teams from the countries of the former Yugoslavia; Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Montenegro. Its current incarnation features 14 teams, most of which are from Serbia and Croatia, and the basketball is of an extremely high calibre. The former Yugoslavian nations are machines when it comes to producing young talent, and while they don’t have the finances to be able to keep these players around in their prime, many elite players all over Europe and the NBA can have their career origins traced back to these teams and their prodigious youth movements. The EuroLeague is the best standard club competition outside of the NBA, and the Adriatic League is arguably third. If it’s not third, it’s fourth behind the Spanish ACB. It falls no further than that.
Another league in a similar style to the Adriatic League is the Baltic League, a competition contested by the elite teams of the three Baltic nations; Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The Lithuanian teams dominate this competition – in fact, the same two teams have gotten to the final in all six years of the competition’s history. Zalgiris Kaunas have won it three times, and Lietuvos Rytas have won it three times, each beating the other in the final. The Baltic League also has a smaller competition for the not-so-good Baltic teams, called the Challenge Cup, which the last two seasons also featured a Swedish team (Norkopping Dolphins) for reasons I am not aware of. (The Dolphins actually won the Challenge Cup this season, led by George Gervin’s son, also called George Gervin. Bonus trivia for you there.) There’s also the Balkan League (featuring teams from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbian teams not good enough for the Adriatic League) and the VTB United League (a new and more general Eastern European league, which this season featured teams from all the Baltic Leagues, plus Russia and the Ukraine. Like the Adriatic League, the VTB United League is of a high standard.)
Teams play in these competitions – Adriatic League, Baltic League , VTB United League, EuroLeague, EuroCup, EuroChallenge – in addition to their own country’s leagues. Some teams play in more than one; for example, Zalgiris Kaunsas played in all four of the Lithuanian League, the EuroLeague, the Baltic League and the VTB United League. They also had a Lithuanian Cup to play for in there somewhere. It was a busy season with much to play for.
And it’s better that way.