Coming into a double-round week after which the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague will be more than two-thirds finished for most teams, there clarity at the top of the standings.
With the standings continuing to evolve rapidly week to week, there was one game in Round 21 that had obvious implications to the crowded middle group as Olympiacos Piraeus traveled to Lithuania to take on Zalgiris Kaunas. Leading for much of the first and third quarter, Zalgiris nonetheless needed a late surge to tie the game at 79 before Thomas Walkup came up with a steal and score in the final seconds to close out a hard-fought home victory. Moving one win above four other teams on a last-second play might be a good omen as Zalgiris finds itself in the middle of the 10-team group within two victories of one another that extends all the way from third to 11th place.
EuroLeague Efficiency Landscape
At this point last season, parity reigned. The teams between the ninth and 18th spots in the standings were separated by just 2 wins and the suspense was more in the seeding from second to fourth than anywhere else. With just six teams over .500 then, the heirarchy of the season was already well defined. This season, the EuroLeague standings has kept the parity but ditched the heirarchy, with 11 teams above .500 through the end of Round 21.
The graph above places each team's marker based on how far above or below the EuroLeague average they are in offensive and defensive points per possession. It paints a pretty clear overview of just how crowded things have gotten.
FC Barcelona remains this season's gold standard thanks to its defense, though they fell noticeably towards the others during a three-game losing streak in late December. While it has certainly righted the ship so far in January, Barcelona still has the fewest wins of any top seed at this point of the season in modern EuroLeague history.
While Barcelona's play has been impressive, more than anything else, this graph depicts how little separation there is in the thick of the playoff picture. AX Armani Exchange Milan, Zenit St Petersburg, Real Madrid, Anadolu Efes Istanbul and Olympiacos Piraeus have all played to a near-standstill in terms of overall efficiency, with only Olympiacos falling below the playoff cut-line at this point. Fenerbahce warrants mention in that group, as well. After starting the season 5-10, its current six-game winning streak could land Fenerbahce in the playoff mix sooner rather than later.
Outside of the main cluster, teams like FC Bayern Munich, Zalgiris Kaunas and Valencia Basket many not be especially balanced, but they've been consistently good enough on offense or defense to overcome their less remarkable play on the other end.
With those distinct groups covering 10 of the 11 teams above .500, that leaves only the enigmatic CSKA Moscow defying description. While sitting on the lower end of the hyper-competitive cluster of teams in the playoff picture, CSKA sits twin wins clear of all of them in the standings, offering a preview of what the 2020-21 EuroLeague season figures to boil down to. Though it ranks ninth efficiency margin, CSKA's efficiency has simply been timelier than its peers. In a season with so little separation among a really good group of teams, clutch play is going to be a huge factor in how things evolve as it seems almost inevitable that several really good teams will come one bounce short of a playoff berth.
Looking ahead to Round 22
Zenit St Petersburg has been the surprise team of the 2020-21 campaign, exceeding its victory total from last season after just 12 games. After coming up with several very impressive victories over quality opponents, Zenit heads to Spain this week to take on an FC Barcelona team that it beat 74-70 back in Round 2. Ranking fourth in both offensive and defensively efficiency, Zenit will face a significant test from Barcelona, which has won its last four games, reclaimed its spot at the top of the standings, and is on pace to be finish the season ranked among the best defensive teams this decade.