With the start of the NBA season proper getting ever closer, we are reaching that time of year when the attention of basketball fans in Europe gets split, with one eye focused on either side of the Atlantic. Of course, the NBA remains the pinnacle of the sport, but just how different is it to the EuroLeague, both in terms of quality and ethos?
The NBA is, in itself, becoming international in nature. Last year, there were 64 European players on the opening night rosters, and this year, that number could rise still higher. But there is more to a team, and indeed a league, than the individual players who make it up.
Grass roots attitudes
The global nature of sports coverage has led to the broader popularity of basketball in Europe, and people have taken to it in the same way as they have to the NFL. The same applies the other way around, and soccer is more popular stateside than it has ever been. However, there is a difference between people being eager to follow a league and back their adopted team in the digital age and it being ingrained in their lives.
In the US, kids grow up shooting hoops from the moment they can walk, while in Europe, they kick a football around. This inevitably means the grass root talent is more likely to be nurtured and rise to the top in the States than it is in Europe. The next LeBron James will almost certainly be American, while the next Cristiano Ronaldo is most likely to be European.
Club versus player
The “superstar effect” is another big difference between the EuroLeague and the NBA. In part it is a result of this difference between the European and American games at grass roots levels and in part it is down to different attitudes. But the fact is that in America, the NBA is increasingly dominated by the superstars who are literally becoming bigger than the teams.
In the EuroLeague, it is more a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, there are talented players, just as there are in football, but nobody is indispensable. This has two effects, one on the court and the other off it. The first is that EuroLeague tends to be far more rigid, relying on pre-determined team strategies, while the NBA stars have more flexibility to go free-form.
The other is that among the fans, club loyalty is very high, whereas Stateside, you will see NBA fans whose allegiance might shift from one team to another. This is a phenomenon most recently seen with the countless LeBron James fans who have followed him from Cleveland to LA, where he recently made his debut.
Same game, different rules
The more free-form nature of NBA compared with EuroLeague is not just down to Europeans having more of a team mentality. The variation is also a result of subtle differences in the rules. Without going into the minutiae, EuroLeague has a shorter three point line and allows moving screens, but does not permit defensive three in the key. In the NBA, loose travelling is allowed, but you will see far less physical contact permitted.
And then there’s the money
EuroLeague basketball is big, make no mistake about it, and there is big money being ploughed into its infrastructure and development. This is particularly the case with those teams that are affiliated with major European football outfits, such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and CSKA Moscow. However, it would be disingenuous to suppose that this is anything more than pocket change compared to the NBA.
Again, it is a little like comparing MLS in America with the Premier League. Nice try, but no cigar. It’s not just about the popularity of the game per se, but all the trappings that go with it. It’s inevitable that if a kid wants a sports shirt in Europe, it is more likely to have Ronaldo or Kane’s name on it than that of this week’s top player in their EuroLeague team.
As the game continues to grow, merchandising will probably start to become a factor, but right now, it is something that EuroLeague teams barely even consider. That’s not a problem in itself, but it does serve to perpetuate the inequality between the leagues. Look at it this way, there are European starters in the NBA and there are American starters in EuroLeague, but in which direction does the talent flow?
Two continents separated by a common sport
A wise man once described the USA and the UK as “two nations separated by a common language.” The similarities and differences between NBA and EuroLeague make for equally compelling study. Ultimately, however, the point is that both make for a compelling sporting spectacle, and will be attracting our attention in equal measure over the coming months.