Power Ranking the Best Basketball Leagues in the World, Outside of the NBA
If there's anything we've learned from the 2012 London Olympics, it's that basketball is truly a global game.
And that the NBA doesn't own a monopoly on the hardwood.
To be sure, the Association remains the best professional basketball league in the world by a hefty margin. It's no wonder that so many ballers around the globe dream of playing under commissioner David Stern's watchful eye, and that the top gold-medal contenders at the Olympics also happen to be those with the most NBA employees on their respective rosters.
That's not to say, though, that there isn't any quality club basketball being played outside of North America.
The flocking of NBA stars to international-hoops havens before and during last year's lockout helped to highlight the quality of FIBA-rules ball and show how appealing it is for the best on the planet to take their talents to locales far beyond South Beach. Even if they wait until the twilight of their careers to do so.
With all of this in mind, let's have a look at how the biggest and best basketball leagues on earth (other than the NBA) stack up against one another.
7. French Pro A League
Nicolas Batum's groin punch to Juan Carlos Navarro notwithstanding, France acquitted itself well on the court in London and, in turn, shone a new, more favorable light on the French Pro A League.
The first division of French hoops has sent its fair share of talent to the NBA in the last decade or so. Tony Parker is the best and most decorated player from the home nation of Les Bleus—and even has an ownership stake in Lyon-Villeurbanne—but is hardly the only player of note to hail from north of the Alps.
Among active players, he's joined by Batum, Mickael Pietrus, Kevin Seraphin, Ian Mahinmi, Johan Petro, Boris Diaw and soon-to-be-rookies Nando de Colo and Evan Fournier.
As for famous retired alumni, Michael Ray Richardson and JR Reid both spent time in the French Pro A League after making their way around the U.S., while Bruce Bowen honed his craft in France before becoming a regular on the All-Defensive list in the NBA.
To date, though, only one team from French Pro A—Limoges—has managed to win the vaunted Euroleague title.
6. Chinese Basketball Association
No international league benefited more from the NBA's work stoppage than the Chinese Basketball Association.
A host of quality NBA veterans—among them Wilson Chandler, Aaron Brooks, JR Smith and Kenyon Martin—flocked to the Far East during the lockout to peddle their wares and gain exposure in the world's most populous market.
Strangely enough, they were all following in the footsteps of former All-Star Stephon Marbury, who's become something of a legend in China and whose team, the Beijing Ducks, erected a bronze statue in his honor this past spring.
The CBA has exported a handful of its own stars to America's shores, as well, most notably Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian.
But, as solid a league as the CBA may be now, its ceiling is limited by a host of rules that (perhaps by design) discourage foreigners from filling its rosters. Imports can partake in the CBA All-Star Game, but aren't given consideration for regular season or playoff MVP awards.
More importantly, league rules stipulate that teams can employ no more than two foreign-born players at a time.
5. Turkish Basketball League
Like the country as a whole, the Turkish Basketball League is a burgeoning power not just in Europe, but around the world.
A member of FIBA Europe, the Turkish Basketball League has yet to turn out a Euroleague champion, though that figures to change in the years to come. The league officially formed in 1969, but club ball has existed in Turkey since the early 20th century, with Galatasaray (1911) and Fenerbahce (1913) leading the way.
Today, those teams, along with Besiktas (among others), have managed to barge their way onto the international basketball scene, thanks in no small part to the successes that players like Hedo Turkoglu, Ersan Ilyasova, Omer Asik and Enes Kanter have enjoyed in the NBA.
Turkey's domestic growth and the wealth it's precipitated has also helped to lure a number of basketball luminaries to its courts—most notably Allen Iverson and Deron Williams—with Kobe Bryant (who endorses Turkish Airlines) considering joining those ranks after his days in the NBA are done, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.
4. Lega Basket Serie A
Italy has long been one of Europe's foremost basketball hotbeds. Just ask Kobe Bryant, who spent much of his childhood there while his dad, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, played professionally.
Or ask Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings, who circumvented the NBA's one-and-done rule by spending a year (albeit a difficult one) with Lottomatica Roma.
Or, better yet, ask the slew of Italian natives—Danilo Gallinari, Andrea Bargnani and Marco Belinelli—who grew up in Serie A before making the leap across the Atlantic.
Italy boasts a storied history as a playground for aging Hall of Famers, chief among them Bill Bradley and Dominique Wilkins. Kobe nearly put himself in that category during the lockout and may consider doing so again once his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers comes due.
Italy can also lay claim to the most Euroleague titles of any nation (13), though most of those were accumulated in the 1970s and the '80s. The most recent one came courtesy of Virtus Bologna in 2000-01.
It seems, then, that Serie A has fallen off to some degree over the years—though the fact that it remains among the most highly-regarded leagues in the world is a testament to Italy's continued prominence on the basketball map.
3. Liga Nacional De Basquet
The title of "Top Non-NBA Basketball League in the Americas" belongs squarely to Argentina's Liga Nacional de Basquet.
For years, Argentina's top league has served as a breeding ground for some of the best basketball talent in all of South America. The national team has been, and continues to be, stocked by stars who started in Liga A, including Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino, Fabricio Oberto, Andres Nocioni and incoming New York Knicks rookie Pablo Prigioni.
The success of Argentina's "Golden Generation"—which won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics and will renew its rivalry with Team USA on Friday—stands as a testament to the country's basketball chops and the quality of its top pro league.
The Liga Nacional hasn't had the same impact among imports as have some of its counterparts across the globe, though Argentina's continued ascent as an economic power and a destination nation figures to change that in the years to come.
2. HEBA A1
Greece's NBA exports have slowed to a trickle in recent years. Though, if anything, that's only strengthened HEBA A1, the country's top flight of club basketball.
It's no wonder, then, that Greek teams have fared as well as they have in the Euroleague since the 1990s. Panathinaikos and Olympiakos have combined to claim eight Euroleague crowns in the last 16 years, with three more runner-up finishes for Greek clubs coming in that same span.
As scant as Greece's presence in the NBA has been, Americans have never been shy to go Hellenic. Dominique Wilkins and Josh Childress are among the most notable Yanks to play in Greece, and college stars and NBA ex-pats regularly stock HEBA's rosters.
That being said, don't think that Greece doesn't produce plenty of its own basketball talent. The national team may not be in London, but it regularly ranks among the best in the world according to FIBA rankings, and knocked Team USA out of gold-medal contention at the 2004 Athens Games.
1. Liga ACB
Imports. Exports. Money. Lush locales.
Spain's economy may be tanking, but its sports leagues are among the best in the world. And not just those that play on grass.
The Liga ACB, the top flight of Spanish basketball, is a veritable breeding ground of talent for the Spanish national team as well as the NBA, and is among the most welcoming destinations for talent from around the planet.
The Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc, got their respective starts in the Liga ACB. So, too, did star point guards Ricky Rubio and Jose Calderon, as well as shot-swatting dynamo Serge Ibaka. It has seen the likes of Jorge Garbajosa, Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez grace its courts in the past, and the NBA is soon due to welcome Victor Claver next.
The ongoing success of La Roja on the international stage and the 11 Euroleague championships claimed by Spanish sides only serve to strengthen and elevate the profile of the Liga ACB as Europe's finest basketball outfit and the best in the world beyond David Stern's jurisdiction.