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Notes from the Euroleague Final Four

5/8/2007

ATHENS -- Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos, playing before a fanatical crowd at its own OAKA Olympic Stadium, was crowned Euroleague champion for the fourth time in the past 13 years after Sunday's thrilling 93-91 victory over defending champion CSKA Moscow.

But the real winner of a memorable Athens evening may yet prove to be the losing team's veteran point guard, Theo Papaloukas.

The Euroleague MVP -- described by ESPN's Chris Sheridan as "the best non-NBA player in Europe" after starring for Greece in the 2006 World Championship -- is at the center of much speculation about his future.

And his performance Sunday, in which he scored a Euroleague career-high 23 points on 9-of-10 shooting and dished out eight assists in one of the most daunting and hostile atmospheres imaginable anywhere in the basketball world, cannot have failed to impress the estimated 100-plus NBA team and league personnel on hand.

Although Papaloukas turns 30 Tuesday, his representatives have let it be known that "three or four" NBA teams have expressed a strong interest in the CSKA guard. The Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks are said to be on the interested list.

But a feeling prevails on this side of the Atlantic that Papaloukas' agent might be attempting to drive up his value in Europe with such a tactic and that the limited playing time being experienced by a comparable fellow Euro who made the move at a similar age -- Golden State Warriors point Sarunas Jasikevicius -- actually will convince Papaloukas not to head across the Atlantic.

"He is 30 years old and doesn't want to play 82 games a season," says one scout familiar with the situation. "If he wants to play for five or six years more, that means another 480 games in the NBA or 250 games in Europe. And, actually, you are talking about an even bigger discrepancy because of the longer [NBA] games.

"He is probably earning a million euros in CSKA, tax-free with housing, cars, other things added on. He is going to command Jasikevicius-type money ($4 million in 2007) but then, when he looks at Jasikevicius sitting on the end of the bench, he may well think twice about trying the NBA."

Not unexpectedly, in the wake of the loss, Papaloukas is keeping his future a closely guarded secret. "The Euroleague season is now finished," he said after the loss. "Now we have to try to win the Russian championship and see what is going to happen next year."

ATHENS NOTES

• Among an estimated 100 personnel from NBA teams and the league office in attendance in Athens were GMs R.C. Buford (San Antonio Spurs), Billy Knight (Atlanta Hawks), Ed Stefanski (New Jersey Nets) and David Twardzik (assistant, Orlando Magic), along with Clippers head coach Mike Dunleavy.

• Eleven years after winning the NCAA Final Four with Kentucky, former NBA journeyman Tony Delk collected the European version with Panathinaikos. "This is a great feeling," Delk said. "We started out with a mission to achieve, and we managed to accomplish. I won the NCAA Final Four, now the Euroleague Final Four, and now I want to win it again!"

• His poor semifinal showing will not have harmed Luis Scola's standing in the eyes of the Spurs, the team that drafted him 56th in 2002 but that so far has been unable and unwilling to buy him from Spanish team Tau Ceramica.

Had the Spurs wanted Scola as soon as they drafted him, San Antonio would have needed to deal with a $15 million buyout for the 6-foot-8 forward. That buyout figure was understood to have dropped to $3 million this year and will be $1 million in summer 2008.

NBA regulations limit the amount teams can pay to a foreign club to "buy out" an international player -- currently a maximum of $500,000.
However, the player himself can pay his old team the balance of the buyout clause. That means the player then looks to recoup that money by seeking a higher than market salary from his new employers, meaning the NBA teams ultimately shoulder the financial burden.

Indications are that Scola is keen to embark on an NBA career, not least of all because his original Tau contract was negotiated in U.S. dollars, meaning it has been seriously devalued because of international exchange rate changes in the years since.

In this instance, the use of a low second-round pick on Scola made his selection a no-lose situation for the Spurs, but other NBA teams might be risking more if they do not do their homework properly before spending a draft pick on a Euro who comes with a prohibitive buyout clause.

For example, FC Barcelona's All-Euroleague guard Juan Carlos Navarro was drafted 40th by the Washington Wizards in 2002 and, according to reports in Spain, still carries with him a $6 million buyout clause.

In Scola's case, the midseason appointment of a new coach, Euro legend Bozidar Maljkovic, has not helped him. Maljkovic does not work the ball to Scola in the post as much as his predecessor Velimir Perasovic was prone to do and, in Friday's semifinal defeat, Scola also was visibly affected by the refereeing and fouled out after scoring only six points in 25 minutes.

Still, the Argentine should have time to work on those aspects of his game as it is extremely unlikely we will see him in Texas until 2008 at the earliest.

• Tiago Splitter's lifeless semifinal performance (7 points, 6 rebounds in 22 minutes) might have affected his standing on some draft boards, but potentially far more damaging is his contract status at Tau.

The 6-foot-11 Brazilian has a buyout clause that would enable any NBA team that drafts him in June to pay for his release in summer 2008.

But if the team does not exercise that clause next year, Splitter will be unavailable for another two years, so not until the start of the 2010-11 season, by which time he will be 25.

Then there is the Scola domino effect. If Tau were to allow Scola to join San Antonio in 2008, it would be more reluctant than ever to cooperate in facilitating the departure of its other prize asset.

As one scout puts it, all of this leaves Splitter "in limbo." Interest in the player has to be weighed against when an NBA team can actually get him and how much his release will cost. That is why Splitter will appear as a lottery pick on some draft boards and as low as 15-20 on others.

• Relations between the Euroleague and NBA remain constructive, but a couple of minor points of conflict lurk on the horizon.

Euro giants CSKA and Benetton Treviso are traveling to China for an exhibition tournament in October, and Euroleague is working on deals with the Japanese and Korean leagues -- an "expansion" into the Far East that mirrors the NBA's own.

More relevantly, Euroleague wants to discuss potential changes in draft regulations that will prevent what is widely known in Europe as "the Darko effect."

Serbia's Darko Milicic played only sparingly in Detroit after the Pistons selected him second overall in the 2003 draft. European team and league executives worry about the harm caused to players like him who are drafted or signed by NBA teams, then left at the end of benches or in the Development League, when they would be better served remaining in Europe, where they would be allowed to develop more slowly.

"We have no problem with competing for players in the open market," said Euroleague CEO Jordi Bertomeu. "Our worry is, when they are ready to go into that market. The draft is not the problem, the problem is the age at which our players declare for it.

"If we can keep players with high buyout clauses -- as happens with Scola and Navarro -- or if we are competitive enough to pay the players what they could earn in the NBA, then that is good for us. If not and the player goes, then it is good for the player."

One possible proposal: NBA teams should be allowed to send players back to Europe after they have played in the league and still retain their rights (currently, teams lose their rights in such a case) in return for some financial remuneration.

In this scenario, Milicic, after a rookie season in which he averaged 4.7 minutes over 34 games, would have been allowed to return to his team in Serbia, the Pistons would have supplemented his salary there and, in return, been allowed to bring him back to the NBA when he was ready.

Finally, Euroleague also wants to sit down with the NBA and discuss the NBA Live European preseason tour that takes place for a second time this autumn, the end of the original two-year agreement between the leagues.

Look for Euroleague, impressed by the wild crowd scenes that greeted FC Barcelona's upset of the Philadelphia 76ers last year, to seek to add a more competitive element to the format. A World Club Championship, along the lines of the old McDonald's tournament, might still be some years away, but Euroleague will push for some form of knockout competition in the future.

• NBA scouts expressed disappointment at the quality of the Nike International Junior Tournament that ran parallel to the Final Four.

Two years ago, Russian Yaroslav Korolev catapulted himself from nowhere to 12th in the draft, where he was taken by the Clippers, on the strength of his effort in the event.

This year? Lithuanian center Donatas Motiejunas of tournament winner Zalgiris Kaunas may have been the pick of a poor crop.

• One other piece of interesting information to emerge from the Nike tournament: Steve Miller, former sports marketing director with the sportswear company and currently a faculty member at the University of Oregon, is the favorite to be named the new president of the Portland Trail Blazers this week.

If that happens -- and an announcement is expected Friday -- look for Rich Sheubrooks, the Memphis Grizzlies' global scouting director and the man credited with landing Pau Gasol, to team with him in the Blazers' front office.

Ian Whittell covers the NBA for The (London) Times.