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How close is the EuroLeague basketball to the NBA?

On October 3, during the NBA preseason, EuroLeague club Real Madrid hosted Oklahoma City Thunder and won in a very exciting game 142-137 after overtime. During the Thunder’s visit to Europe Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid, talked to NBA commissioner Adam Silver and presented him a plan for Madrid to be included in Eastern Conference as NBA’s 31st team.

This is not the first time that the subject of Europe teams competing in NBA was discussed and certainly not the last. EuroLeague is constantly changing its structure and format in order to complement NBA. But the main question always was, and still is – can Europe teams be competitive in NBA, and if not, how big is the difference in quality between NBA and EuroLeague basketball?

Head to head

Let’s first take a look in the history of games played between Euro League and NBA teams. Since the Euro League started in 2000-2001 season there were 65 games, 41 in USA and Canada, and 24 in Europe. An important thing to mention is that they were all played under NBA rules, with 3 NBA referees when the game was played in USA and Canada, and 2 NBA and 1 Euro League referee when played in Europe. The outcome – NBA teams won on 52 occasions and Euro League teams won 13 times.

Now let’s put this score in perspective. Obviously, NBA teams were dominant overall, but there are some facts in favor of both sides that need to be considered. First, those were all friendly games played during NBA preseason. Europe teams, on the other hand, had already started their national competitions, so they were in full competitive rhythm.

In terms of rotation, both group of teams played with full squad in most of the cases. Although NBA coaches limited their stars minutes in some degree, they still usually played at least 25-30 minutes. 8 out from 13 wins for Euro League teams came in the last 6 years, while NBA teams won 20 games in the same period. It’s obvious that Europe teams have improved with time, so if we follow this trend we can expect more and more wins from them.

Talent base

With a population of 314 million, USA has base of players larger than any European country by far margin. But Europe as a whole has a population of 743 million, so in that regard Euro League can easily match USA with sources of basketball talent. Basketball is founded in USA and there is no doubt that they have the best school of basketball in the World, but the fact is that Europe’s school of basketball is at a very high level.

You can just look at the list of NBA players who started their career in Europe in the last 20 years, and you will have an elite group of players who had Hall of Fame NBA careers. Europe basketball has quality and basketball knowledge to produce world class talents and if EuroLeague continues to expand financially and commercially, it can become able to keep top talents in Europe and compete with NBA teams.

San Antonio Spurs are among the first NBA teams that started exploiting a huge basketball talent base in Europe and rest of the World. They began drafting top talents outside of USA and leaved them in Europe a couple of years to develop their game. When they estimate that the player is improved they bring him to organization as a developed player ready to compete in NBA. Manu Ginobili is a prime example of this practice.

Since then, this strategy is replicated throughout the NBA, so Euro League and other European competitions became some sort of development league for NBA, knowing that NBA teams have enough financial power and quality to take those players when needed.

Also, due to financial improvements that EuroLeague made since its foundation, a lot of American players are joining European clubs. EuroLeague has greater quality that NBA’s development league and it is financially stronger, so American players have a great opportunity to, playing in EuroLeague, develop their game and attract interest from NBA clubs, knowing that they closely scout talents in Europe.
The EuroLeague has a capacity to create and develop quality players, but the league cannot keep them for a long time due to the financial power of NBA. Therefore the next big challenge for the league is to gain financial power in order to keep their top talents in the league, improving its overall quality.

League structure

When the first season of EuroLeague started on October 16, 2000, it gathered 24 teams are divided in 4 groups of 6, with first 4 teams from each group advanced in elimination round in best of 5 series, and at the end best 4 played single elimination games in EuroLeague final four. The concept of final four has not changed ever since first season, but other than that, the league was constantly changing its structure. It went from 24 to 32 teams, second stage of the league also changed with top 16 teams competing in 2 new formed groups with top 8 competing in best of 5 series etc.
Also, the teams were qualifying for competition in the league through their national championships. Therefore the composition of teams in the league changed each year, depending on results in national championships.

In recent years EuroLeague owners came with idea of modeling the league by NBA. The concept of licensing tams emerged, meaning that EuroLeague grants certain clubs exclusive licenses for the competition, allowing them to play in EuroLeague every year regardless of their placement in their national competitions. The conditions for getting the license were defined as combination of financial ability, minimum seats number in home arena, distance to airports and availability of hotels for guest teams etc.

So the league became more exclusive, with the same group of teams competing each year. 2016-2017 season is another breakthrough in that regard. As of this season, EuroLeague has 16 teams competing in one regular season group (division) with a double round-robin. After regular season is finished, the first 8 teams start best-of-five playoff series, after which Final Four is played.

It is clear that this season’s league structure, aside of Final Four concept, replicates NBA’s conference competition, with 11 out of 16 teams carrying license to participate each year and other 5 qualifying through their national competitions. The final idea is to make closed exclusive league with 16 steady participants competing each year, making the league “European NBA division”.

Changing rules

Aside from competition structure changes to emulate NBA, EuroLeague also found very helpful that FIBA started changing rules of the game towards the NBA standards. In the last few years there were some significant steps made in that direction. 3-point line has moved from 6.25 meters up to 6.75 meters, coming close to NBA’s 7.24 meter margin. Also, FIBA changed trapezoidal-shaped lane design to rectangular, identical in both shape and size with NBA’s, with restricted area arc also introduced. Shot clock also went from 30 to 24 seconds.

The plan for Euroleague is to gradually continue harmonizing the rules between the leagues, and the next big step in that direction could be introducing defensive 3-second violation rule in EuroLeague basketball, which will make a huge difference in the way both offence and defense is played. This rule is the one that makes maybe the biggest gap between the NBA and European basketball.
With unlimited time for defensive players to spend in the lane, European teams are allowed to shrink the defense and play with strong help side, making it harder for teams to strongly rely on individual talents and athleticism of their star players. This rule makes probably the biggest gap between NBA’s individualism and Europe’s team oriented offence.

Finances

This is an obvious one. If EuroLeague wants to compete with NBA it must offer its players contracts comparable to NBA’s. And let’s take a quick look at where both leagues stand today in that regard. In the 2015-2016 EuroLeague season CSKA Moscow had the biggest club budget in the league which was around 37 million euros or about 40 million dollars; and it was the biggest budged in the league by a far margin.

For example, budget of Red Star Belgrade, who played CSKA in quarterfinals last season, has the budget of 5 million dollars. At the same time, salary cap in NBA was 70 million dollars. Important thing to mention with these figures is that NBA salary cap relates to amount of money that teams spend only for player’s salaries, while when speaking of EuroLeague team’s budget, the salaries are just one part of the equation. For example, only 1.5 million out of Red Star Belgrade’s 5 million budget is intended to player salaries, so the gap between the two leagues is clearly enormous.

Furthermore, If you look at top 50 player salaries in EuroLeague for 2015-2016 season, Rudy Fernandez leads the list with 2.8 million dollars salary, which is a “little” bit lower than Kobe Bryant’s 25 million salary from last season. It is pretty clear that EuroLeague is no match to NBA in this category, and as long as it stands like that, Europe’s best players will always lean towards the NBA. The question here is has the EuroLeague potential to come close to NBA’s financial standards.

Fan base and world-wide popularity

NBA is a global media giant. It has an enormous fan base all around the globe that is constantly getting larger in numbers. At the end of 2014-2015 season, the number of fans increased by 40% from one season before, making 811 million likes and followers on social networks overall. During that same season 30 NBA teams gathered total revenue of 5.18 billion dollars which is 200% increase from 2001-2002 season. The league is huge money making machinery and with expansion of online content and its world-wide availability the future is bright for NBA.

EuroLeague is still no match for NBA in terms of revenue and popularity, but there are some encouraging facts for them in this area. Since its foundation, the league is recording constant growth in both world-wide popularity and generated revenue, with some staggering improvements in these areas over the years. In 2014-2015 season EuroLeague had 22000 hours of broadcasting time, a 6110 % improvement from 2000-2001 season. In the same time period the league made 1090% improvement in accumulated audience number. It went from 15 to 73 broadcasters during that time, with 1116% increase of territorial coverage, from 18 to 201 countries word-wide. The total revenue of the league increased during this time by 360%. This is without any doubt impressive improvement, and if this trend of growth continues, as expected, EuroLeague could be competitive with NBA in this regard in the coming years.

Looking in the future

European basketball has a rich history, with several great schools of basketball producing top class talents (like Spain, France, and ex-Yugoslavian and ex-Soviet countries). But usually, when they develop, these talents end up in the NBA league. For now, that is the fact. EuroLeague teams cannot compete with NBA financially and the best players are still going across the Atlantic to play the best basketball. But there is a strong statement and desire from EuroLeague leaders to improve and become competitive with NBA, or even be part of NBA. Changing the league structure to emulate NBA, changing rules, growing world-wide popularity and financial strength of EuroLeague are clear signs of improvement. If this trend continues as expected, not that long in the future the time will come when EuroLeague could become competitive with, or even in some way integrated into NBA. In any case, the good thing for us as basketball fans is that the game is expanding globally, so there are very exciting times for basketball ahead of us. So enjoy it.