It’s scenes like this that many basketball fans are hoping for in the coming weeks. Nikola Jokic dribbles with his back to the basket, he is pushed into the corner of the field by his defender, attack time is running out. At the last second, the Serb spins the ball on one leg in a high arc over Giannis Antetokounmpo’s octopus-like arms. It’s actually an impossible attempt, especially for a 2.11 meter center. But Jokic scores and the audience freaks out. That’s what happened in the World Cup qualifier between Serbia and Greece last Thursday in Belgrade.
Antetokounmpo and Jokic are among the biggest stars in their sport. In the North American basketball league NBA, they have had a duopoly for the “Most Valuable Player” award, MVP for short, for four years. The Greek even won the championship with Milwaukee a year ago. They are also among the absolute draft horses at the European Championships.
From Thursday on, 24 teams in Cologne, Milan, Tbilisi and Prague will be playing for a place in the finals in Berlin. From September 10, the arena at the Ostbahnhof will be all about who will succeed the Slovenians, who secured the title for the first time ever in Istanbul five years ago. The German team will get a foretaste of the qualities of the defending champion this Sunday (3 p.m., like the entire EM live on Magentasport).
In the World Cup qualifier, the DBB selection meets Slovenia in Munich. In the preliminary round group B, the German team in Cologne will also face NBA superstar Luka Doncic and Goran Dragic. Two more heavyweights are waiting in France and Lithuania. Then there are the outsiders Bosnia and Hungary. Fourth place and thus qualification for the round of 16 in Berlin is the minimum goal.
When a preliminary round of the European Championship was last held in Germany in 2015, the DBB team was eliminated with just one win from five games. Fortunately, the images of Dirk Nowitzki coming back to the arena at Ostbahnhof long after the end of the game after his last appearance for the national team and being celebrated in tears by the fans were more memorable than the disappointing performances of the team.
In 2015, some NBA professionals were there too: Nowitzki, the great Spaniard Pau Gasol, Rudy Gobert for France, and Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas. Superlatives are always readily available before such tournaments, but there has never been a star line-up like this September at a European Championship. Many experts see Antetokounmpo (27), Jokic (27) and Doncic (23) as three of the top five players in the world, who can also shape the sport for a long time due to their age. There is also a mixture of good NBA role players such as Dennis Schröder from Braunschweig, Danilo Gallinari from Italy or the Hernangomez brothers from Spain – and all sorts of Euroleague stars.
This concentration of exceptional talents, talents and experienced warhorses makes a prognosis extremely difficult. While the USA is usually superior at World Championships and Olympic Games, the differences in quality at the European Championships are significantly smaller. After all, with the exception of the United States and Argentina, all the top teams come from Europe.
The top favorites are primarily Slovenia and Serbia, who already faced each other in the final in 2017. Greece and France also have legitimate hopes of a medal, while Spain, after two decades of dominance, are currently the underdogs in the tournament. The full German team should certainly have been among the favorites, after the many injuries, the team of national coach Gordon Herbert is more of a grab bag.
But in addition to the high density of the large nations, there is a second aspect that makes predictions extremely difficult. Since the world association Fiba, the NBA and the organizers of the Euroleague have not been able to agree on a common framework schedule for years, the national teams have practically no time to warm up. In the qualifiers, at least the top nations have to do without most of the top performers and they can only be seen at the big tournaments in the best of times.
If any. Because Schröder was absent in the summer of the Olympics due to insurance problems, for example, and Maximilian Kleber from the Dallas Mavericks preferred to forgo the European Championship after a long NBA season with a number of minor ailments.
A level of coordination like in football, where the best players meet with the national team several times a year, cannot be achieved in this way – and it is also difficult for the fans to identify themselves if the country selection is not important at all apart from the World Cup, European Championship and Olympic Games plays. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why there are still tickets available for the German team’s games just a few days before the start of the tournament.