EUROPEANS IN THE NBA
|Spanish international Marc Gasol is now regarded by many experts as the top European player in the NBA|
According to the authoritative ESPN.com, Spain's Marc Gasol is ranked as the best player among all Europeans that will take to the floor during the 2013/14 NBA season, which tips off on Tuesday night.
The 28-year-old center of the Memphis Grizzlies, who led his nation to the bronze medal at EuroBasket 2013, took 10th place overall in the NBA Player Rankings that ESPN published shortly before the start of the new season.
Marc Gasol's only official individual accolade in the NBA remains the Best Defender Of The Year award that he earned last year.
However, the fact that in the opinion of so many experts on the other side of the Atlantic the Spanish big man has now surpassed the likes of EuroBasket gold medallist Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, or his own brother, Pau Gasol, is undoubtedly a great tribute - albeit unofficial - to his continuous improvement in the last years.
Parker was ranked 12th overall, fellow Frenchman Joakim Noah took 23rd place, Nowitzki was in 26th, Pau came in 29th, Serge Ibaka was voted at 39, Luol Deng followed at 46 while Ricky Rubio was the eighth and last European player to make the Top-50, occupying the 49th spot.
CONTENDERS IN THE WEST
|German international Elias Harris has landed in the bright lights of LA for his rookie NBA season with the Lakers|
Marc Gasol will be accompanied this year in Memphis by two more European players, Greek internationals Kostas Koufos, who joined from Denver, and Nick Calathes, in his rookie season in the NBA.
While the prospect of the Grizzlies clinching a first-ever NBA title would therefore be fantastic news for Europe, the chances of this scenario materialising are slim.
However, our continent has plenty of good chances to see a European player win the coveted champion's ring, three years after the success of Nowitzki with the Dallas Mavericks.
In the western conference, it's hard to dismiss the chances of the San Antonio Spurs, who age like good French wine.
The Spurs have long been a European-friendly team and this year Italy's Marco Belinelli has joined the EuroBasket-champion trio of Parker, Boris Diaw and Nando De Colo on the roster.
The Houston Rockets are one of the most ambitious sides this year and will also be a favourite with European fans, as Israel's Omri Casspi has joined the likes of Turkey's Omer Asik and Lithuania's Donatas Motiejunas.
The third Texan team has been a staple for viewers in Europe ever since a star-eyed Nowitzki arrived in the NBA over 14 years ago.
This year, Spanish international Jose Calderon, who signed as a free agent after finishing last season at Detroit, and Israeli rookie Gal Mekel will back up Dirk in what will be one of the German star's last attempts to win a second title.
The Oklahoma City Thunder of Ibaka and Switzerland's Thabo Sefolosha have been somewhat overlooked by the experts at the start of the season, but once guard Russell Westbrook returns from injury before Christmas there is no reason to suggest that they could not repeat - or improve on - the deep run of 2012 which saw them reach the Finals.
As always, the Los Angeles Lakers will be in the mix, especially as Kobe Bryant seems to be breaking every rehabilitation record in medical history.
This season Pau Gasol will form a frontcourt partnership with German international Chris Kaman, with fellow German Elias Harris also joining the storied franchise in his rookie NBA year.
It is the Lakers' cross-town neighbours however, the Clippers, that are billed by many as the favourites to win the Western Conference title, whilst reigning NBA champions Miami Heat remain the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
CAN CHICAGO DETHRONE MIAMI?
|British player Luol Deng and the Chicago Bulls have the strongest chance of dethroning the Miami Heat in the East|
The Clippers and Miami facing off in the title series would be something of a worst-case scenario from a European perspective, as it would rule out European representation in the NBA finals and mark a break from the experience of recent years, where so many players from the old continent have thrived in the NBA and won or at least challenged for the title.
If there is one team that can spoil the plans of Miami in the East, it has to be the Chicago Bulls of Noah and Deng.
The French and British internationals have recovered from the injury and illness problems that dogged them towards the end of last season and will once again be paramount in the Bulls' efforts to usher in a new era in the East.
Chicago will most likely be one of the best defensive teams in the NBA and the return to action of star guard Derrick Rose after over a year of absence will provide them with the extra offensive punch they were lacking.
The opening night of the NBA season, where the Bulls travel to Miami, should provide us with a more educated prediction of Chicago's chances this year.
The only other obstacles to the Heat's dominance in the East come in the form of the young and tough Indiana Pacers, the always intriguing New York Knicks and the ambitious Brooklyn Nets.
Ian Mahinmi of France had a promising first season with the Pacers last year and will continue to provide them with a solid presence in the frontcourt.
Andrea Bargnani of Italy made the big move in the summer, joining the Knicks after seven seasons with the Toronto Raptors and will be looking to swift his career into a new direction.
New York have also added Beno Udrih to their roster and will be the Slovenian point guard's and will be the Slovenian point guard's sixth team in his NBA career.
Last but not least, the Nets, who once again splashed out on some prestigious reinforcements, have lured in EuroBasket 2007 winner Andrei Kirilenko, from Minnesota.
The Russian star will team up in Brooklyn with a European duo who is looking to make an impact in the NBA after a tough rookie season, in the charismatic Mirza Teletovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the talented Tornike Shengelia of Georgia.