The Challenges Rick Pitino Will Face in Europe

The news that Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino was taking the helm at Greek EuroLeague club Panathinaikos Athens sent a shockwave all over the basketball globe.

Pitino’s agent told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that his client had agreed to a deal with Panathinaikos and will return to coaching 14 months after being fired by Louisville due to his alleged involvement with the 2017 NCAA corruption case.

Some days later, the coach confirmed he’s Athens bound with a tweet:

On Wednesday (26/12) afternoon, Pitino landed in Athens and, a few hours later, had his first practice with Panathinaikos. Meanwhile, the club made his hiring official.

So what has the celebrated coach gotten himself into? What kind of competition will he face? What will be the main adversities he sees?

Where will Pitino coach?

Pitino will coach in Athens, Greece, where The Acropolis stands on a hill near the center of the city.

He will coach Panathinaikos in three different competitions: EuroLeague, the Greek League and the Greek Cup.

Now, EuroLeague and the Greek League are different kinds of “animals”, but both present unique challenges. Pitino must manage his roster to fit the competition Panathinaikos plays in.

While EuroLeague is the best league outside the NBA, Greek League is one of the least competitive domestic championships in Europe. Winning the titles is basically a two-horse race between Panathinaikos and historical archrival, Olympiacos Piraeus.

These two teams have been facing each other in the league’s Finals every season since 2006. Their dominance over the rest of the clubs is such that if another team beats them in a playoff series, it will be considered a surprise of epic proportions. Seriously.

Any loss in Greece constitutes an upset for Panathinaikos and Olympiacos. While it can happen, rarely, the only difference it will make in the long run for these two powerhouses is helping determine which of the two finishes the regular season at the top of the standings.

Unless something earth-shattering happens, Pitino and Panathinaikos will face Olympiacos in the Greek League Finals. Before that, the two powers will do battle in a knockout game for the Greek Cup semifinals at Panathinaikos’ home, on February 13th. If Panathinaikos beats visiting Olympiacos in that match, then Pitino will be really close to his first title outside the USA.

His “Greens” will be the mega-favorite in the Final, no matter who their opponent (either PAOK Thessaloniki or Kymi) is.

The Club

Panathinaikos is the most successful European club over the last three decades. They have won six EuroLeague titles and dozens of Greek League or Cup titles. In recent years, however, they have declined in EuroLeague and haven’t made the Final Four since 2012.

This season is no different. Panathinaikos is currently the only undefeated team in the Greek League (12-0), but they are just 6-8 in EuroLeague and 11th in the standings.

They have a rough schedule in the second part of the regular season with nine games away from home. Even less promising? The team has struggled on the road big time the last couple of seasons, and has won only one game outside OAKA arena this campaign. They are considered somewhat “cursed” when they venture away from home.

The 6-8 record, plus the disappointing quality of basketball the team produces is why the top brass decided to fire former head coach Xavi Pascual. Panathinaikos had taken a stressful win over bottom-placed Darussafaka Tekfen that snapped a three-game skid but what followed was a rather poor outing and a blowout loss on the road, this time to reigning champion Real Madrid. It was the last straw.

Now, Pitino is arriving to bring Panathinaikos back to a winning EuroLeague track, steering them away from a possible elimination from playoff contention for the first time in nine years. He will take over a team with many players he doesn’t even know in key positions during a period of crisis regarding the squad’s lackluster game and, of course, the results in EuroLeague.

For Panathinaikos to have at least a mathematical chance of making the Top 8 and advancing to the postseason, Pitino must win eight out of the 16 remaining regular season matches. (Preferably nine for security.) The team must drastically improve its performance, especially because other squads are also planning to tune up their rhythm during the second half of the regular season in order to maximize their output come Spring (Playoffs/Final Four).

Panathinaikos’ roster features former Memphis Grizzlies guard Nick Calathes, American players like two-time EuroLeague top scorer Keith Langford, forward DeShaun Thomas, forward/center James Gist and swingman Matt Lojeski, plus George Papagiannis (the Sacramento Kings’ 2015 first-round pick) and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, older brother of Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It’s a lineup with considerable weaknesses, the most notable of which is the absence of a good number of reliable shooters (something that Pitino has also mentioned) and, subsequently, spacing, plus lack of big and athletic bodies (a rim protector to be precise) in the frontline. Pitino has already said in an interview that his team needs strengthening and a couple of transfers (a big guy and a shooter) are expected.

The Management

(Pitino in his first practice with Panathinaikos next to forward James Gist. Photo courtesy of Panathinaikos/V. Stolis)

Panathinaikos owner Dimitris Giannakopoulos is more than the man who pours money into the club. He also has a say in some transfers and is behind essential decisions that would otherwise be taken by a GM (the GM’s role is not as significant in Greek clubs as it is in the NBA).

He’s the son of former longtime owner and president, the late Pavlos Giannakopoulos, a man who achieved legendary status in European basketball for his accomplishments and for basically having built the Continent’s top club since the 90s. Back then, he was the one who brought Dominique Wilkins in Europe in 1995. The “Human Highlight Film” later led Panathinaikos to the first EuroLeague title in the history of the club and Greek basketball.

ESPN showed a video presentation of who Giannakopoulos is, emphasizing the threats he once allegedly made towards referees following a EuroLeague game and the way he chooses to present himself on social media. A recent incident took place in November when, following a game vs. Olympiacos, the referees’ report mentioned that Giannakopoulos waited outside their locker room at halftime and accused them of “betting thousands” in the match. Club sources later denied this.

Giannakopoulos isn’t simply the owner of the club but also a massive fan with an immense passion for his team. He had quite the heated feud with EuroLeague CEO Jordi Bertomeu last season during which the boss of Panathinaikos uploaded obscene images of Bertomeu and curses towards him on his Instagram profile. EuroLeague imposed multiple fines on Giannakopoulos, plus a 12-month ban that was later revoked.

Giannakopoulos and Bertomeu have restored their relationship since summer, but his fines were later reactivated due to what allegedly took place following the match vs. Olympiacos.

Adjustment

In a recent interview with Eurohoops.net, Olympiacos guard and former Gonzaga player Nigel Williams-Goss mentioned that it will be most interesting to see how two-time NCAA champion Rick Pitino adjusts to European basketball.

It’s not only about adaption to the game on the court, but fully grasping the quite special, totally unique and highly tricky European basketball dynamics.

Pitino’s only direct acquaintance with international basketball took place during a brief stint with the Puerto Rican national team in the 2015 FIBA Americas. He has never coached in Europe. And while he’s aware of the rules, most EuroLeague teams and probably seen some of them play, the overall European basketball sphere is completely alien due to his lack of valuable firsthand experience.

For example, when Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry was asked about the game vs. the Golden State Warriors back in November, he simply answered that “it’s just a regular season game” (when referring to a “rivalry” matchup). When reporters wanted him to elaborate, he insisted that it’s just is what it is: A regular season NBA game.

You will hear no EuroLeague player talking like this before a match. Not even someone from top-placed Fenerbahce Beko ahead of facing last-in-the-standings Darussafaka. Coaches won’t hear anything of it, and this kind of think-out-loud attitude by a player might even be punishable in a place where players/coaches have been threatened with fines for disappointing records and/or performances.

Simply put: There is no “it’s just a regular season game” type of thinking in Europe.

“Pressure” is a key word here: Teams, and especially coaches, are breathing, eating, drinking pressure.

While there aren’t EuroLeague knockout matches until the Final Four, nearly every result out of the 30 games in regular season matters. Even the margin can be crucial since it determines the tie-breakers in the standings.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the importance of each and every result, (and coaches getting squeezed even early in the season), than the fact that by Round 14, five out of the 16 EuroLeague teams had axed their head coaches.

Most of these clubs feared falling way behind in the playoff race and, in some cases (including Panathinaikos), the fired coaches were coming off championship titles in their domestic leagues.

There is little patience—especially clubs with renowned history (again, like Pitino’s Panathinaikos)—by the management and even the fans. The latter will often express their frustration openly and quite vocally (not in a pretty way too) during games.

High-aspiration EuroLeague teams never undergo a rebuilding period. They can’t even afford it when they need it. In Greece, heavy, and often degrading, criticism comes from every corner. No one is safe, not even highly decorated coaches or players.

How much does this affect someone?

It all comes down how much he’ll get involved with it.

What will help Pitino in this often cutthroat situation is his experience with college basketball and the “do-or-die” games of March Madness. Pitino’s assistants will also facilitate the transition since the staff of former coach Xavi Pascual is expected to stay.

But while Pitino is a master in preparing college teams to fight in matches with no tomorrow, he hasn’t done that at a level with professional squads and players.

He last coached in the NBA playoffs during the 1980s with the New York Knicks. EuroLeague is a different kind of beast.

Fans

Forget the “standard” procedure of a match in the USA where you get to the arena, grab a bite to eat, something to drink and casually enjoy the game. Hey, even high-five a superstar opponent after he had crushed your team by dropping 45 points. In Greece, you might even get ridiculed for simply wanting to attend the game and watch the action quietly, if the only noise you make is the sound of chewing nachos and sipping cola.

And the games between Panathinaikos and archrival Olympiacos? The atmosphere is sometimes hostile, even “warlike.”

While nothing outside of much noise, curses and many NSFW chants will take place in EuroLeague match, Greek League games between the two Greek powerhouses have sometimes gone insane.

There have been cases of fans attempting to storm the arena in a threatening manner. Rocks, bricks, bottles with urine and stool (yes) being thrown at players or even firing airgun pellets. Some Olympiacos players were sent to the hospital after Game 3 of the 2006 Greek League Finals at Panathinaikos with wounds from airgun pellets plus burns.

Things can get ugly out of the arena too. Prior to Game 1 of the 2012 Finals, rocks were thrown at the bus of Panathinaikos, shortly before it reached the gym of Olympiacos. Two Panathinaikos players were injured and the game had to be postponed.

Games have been interrupted, and the arena evacuated because firecrackers were being thrown by fans. Most recently, such an incident took place during Game 5 of the 2017 Greek League Finals vs. Olympiacos, in the Reds’ arena.

Pitino is planned to make his EuroLeague debut in the game versus contender CSKA Moscow at home Friday (28/12) and then he’ll meet Olympiacos on the road on January 4. So he will soon get a taste of what kind of game the famous “derby of the eternal archrivals” is.

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