As the intrepid and ever vigilant Ken Berger of CBS Sports so aptly stated, the NBA lockout continues its long march into the fall and the first months of what will likely be an expurgated or totally vacated regular season—if you like depressing yourself check out Berger’s latest slew of columns pertaining to the aforementioned work stoppage.
But there was basketball. Professional basketball. And it was played recently. EuroBasket 2011 is in the books, but with 10 current or former NBA players starting the gold medal game—eight current, two former, and an NBAer here and there on both benches—it seems likely that Spain’s decisive victory over France will be the closest we get to actually NBA action in a long while.
Because of that, I think it might be prudent to spend a little time talking about the tournament and sharing my thoughts. I wasn’t there, of course, and mostly watched France, so my sense of the tournament as a whole is lacking to say the least. I also won’t be breaking down any individual games. For overarching stories and game recaps there are plenty of places to look (Wendell Maxey, Blazersedge, and NBA Playbook). What I’m going to do is present you with some general thoughts I had about the tournament as a whole.
So here we go:
The U.S. will win the gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012, but it won’t be easy.
I know it’s odd to start a wrap-up of EuroBasket by mentioning a team that did not play, the United States, and an international tournament that is still a year away, the Olympics. However, if there is one major thing that I took away from watching two weeks of European basketball it’s this: The days of the U.S. rolling over its opponents are over (let’s be realistic those days have been over since the U.S. failed to win the gold medal in 2004), but the best American players will still probably beat their foreign counterparts.
International basketball has improved tremendously in the last 10 years, and the best teams in the world will give the Americans a run in the Olympics, but the truth is even the world’s best and deepest teams are a far cry from the potential team that can take the court wearing the Red, White, and Blue.
Which leads me to:
Spain is incredibly deep, and it was that depth that allowed them to level the competition.
One thing that was clear in EuroBasket was that many of the teams lacked for depth. Most of the teams that reached the knockout stage could go six or seven deep and not much further. Even France, a team that started three high caliber NBA players and Boris Diaw, struggled with its bench. Florent Pietrus, Kevin Seraphim, and Nando De Colo gave France some punch off the bench. But Ali Traore should never be asked to match up against Pau Gasol; he just can’t do it.
France and Spain were the exceptions, though, when it came to depth, and Spain’s incredible ability to go deep into the bench put them over the top. Most importantly was naturalized Spanish citizen Serge Ibaka—who basically blocked every French shot for about three minutes in the finals—and the fact that there were at least five Spanish guards that could dominate the ball, dictate the pace of the game, and score.
In fact, I’ll amend that header to say: Spain’s depth and guard play were the difference in the finals.
A great segue into:
Ricky Rubio is totally overrated, and in my opinion is mostly hype.
Ricky Rubio may one day have an NBA career. Anything is possible. But when it’s all said and done, it’s very likely basketball writers will say that Rubio should have made the jump to the NBA directly after his performance in the gold medal game in the Beijing Olympics turned him into the hottest ticket in international basketball.
At least if he had done that the whole Ricky Rubio Experiment would be a) over since he might have been able to realize that he can’t play in the NBA and then returned to Spain or b) be a resounding success due to getting the expert training and development that makes the NBA the league we all know and love.
At this point, it’s in a state of limbo, teetering toward abject failure. And Rubio isn’t doing himself any favors. His EuroBasket numbers were absolutely atrocious: 1.5 points per game, 2.5 rebounds a game, and 2.1 assists. He surpassed 20 minutes played only three times, and managed to score in only four games. His gold medal game performance was the worst of the lot. Rubio played only seven minutes, and seemed to only be on the floor to foul Tony Parker, which he managed to do four times.
Now of course there have been stated issues with Rubio’s game, chief among those issues the fact that he seemingly can’t shoot, but when there are FOUR other guards on the roster that are playing at a much higher level—both Sergio Llull and Victor Sada were much more impressive than Rubio not to mention the excellent stewardship of the team provided by often under-achieving NBA vet Jose Calderon and the absolute cold-blooded assassin-ness of Juan Carlos Navarro—you have to question whether or not Rubio will ever live up to the hype. Smart money says he won’t
So Rubio lost EuroBasket, but:
Bo McCalebb and Nando De Colo won EuroBasket.
Think of EuroBasket like the NCAA tournament, and that header should make sense. Tournaments like this are basically an audition for the best basketball league in the world, made double by the fact that not a whole lot of real basketball was being played during EuroBasket. If these guys want to play in the NBA, and face it they all probably do, then having a big EuroBasket is the same as being the guy that comes out of nowhere to lead Tiny State University to the Final Four.
So, the two players that made the biggest splash at EuroBasket that have yet to see the lights of the NBA are easily Bo McCalebb and Nando De Colo. Hats off to those who had heard of Bo McCalebb before he led Macedonia to the semifinals. He’s an American, played his college ball at the University of New Orleans, and is the classic Yank abroad basketball story (the contemporary story being the one that is currently in creation by guys like Wilson Chandler and JR Smith).
His performance in EuroBasket was nothing short of amazing. As the unquestioned leader of the undermanned Macedonia squad, McCalebb was relentless in his attack of the basket and his ability to finish from both the inside and the outside. McCalebb joined European basketball gods Pau Gasol, Juan Carols Navarro, Tony Parker, and Andrei Kirilenko on EuroBasket’s All Tournament Team, and helped his band of merry men pull off the tournament’s biggest upset by defeating host nation Lithuania in the quarter finals. He may not become a star at the NBA level, but after the tournament he had, expect to see him finally get a shot at the big show.
De Colo, France’s speedy back-up point guard, would have been the big winner of the tournament had McCalebb not showed up, and maybe if France hadn’t been thoroughly wood-shedded by Spain in the Final. De Colo had a couple of great games. His best performance came against Lithuania, a game in which he scored 21 points and was basically unstoppable, and he also but together a great game against Greece in the quarter finals, saving France from what looked at times to be certain elimination. The Spurs drafted De Colo in the second round of the 2009 Draft, and we all know what San Antonio likes to do with foreign prospects. Expect to see him stateside at some point. Remember, San Antonio is starting to age, and they just shipped heir apparent George Hill to the Pacers.
Speaking of Americans abroad:
Joakim Noah’s decision to play for France makes no sense to me.
Naturalization is part of international sports; I have no problem with it. But I do think Joakim Noah’s choice of playing for France may have been a bit short sighted on his part. Chris Kaman’s decision to play for Germany makes sense. He’s not even on the long list for Team U.S.A., and playing for the Germans is probably his only way to get a shot at the Olympics. Noah, on the other hand, could very easily make the American roster.
Since falling down at the Olympics using the All All-Star team model, U.S.A. Basketball has stated that they are interested in building a team that plays actual team basketball. Noah is easily one of the rising stars in the NBA, and plays the type of ball that would give the Americans a huge advantage in international play. Very few foreign players play basketball the way Joakim Noah plays basketball.
I’m sure one of the reasons Noah chose to play for France was that he wasn’t selected for the much-celebrated Team U.S.A. that won the gold at the 2010 FIBA World Championships, but with much of the 2008 Redeem Team getting past the point that they would want to win another gold medal, there’s a good shot Noah could have competed for a spot on the 2012 roster. France qualified for the Olympics with its performance at EuroBasket, so he’ll get to live his Olympic dream, but they won’t win gold. He’ll be lucky to medal at all.
Now for something completely different:
The Blazers were very well represented.
Portland had a number of current, former, and potential players littering the EuroBasket rosters. The marquees were of course current Blazers Nicolas Batum and newly former Blazer Rudy Fernandez competing head-to-head in the final—if you watched the final game then you too got to see the moment when a hard foul by Rudy on Tony Parker nearly lead to a Nic/Rudy throw-down. Beyond those two, though, there were plenty of Blazers to go around.
Victor Claver (unsigned draft pick in case you forgot) played a couple of garbage time minutes here and there for the champs, Viktor Khryapa proved to me that he was still alive by dropping some three bombs for the Russians, Joel Freeland, Sergei Monia, and Petteri Kopenen proved to me that they exist by suiting up for Great Britain, Russia, and Finland in that order.
Seeing so many Blazers was somewhat bittersweet: sweet to see Nicolas growing into a force against European competition, and bitter because a lot of the potential from these players was either wasted or never tested (and in the case of Claver completely unclear).
Bringing me to this conclusion:
Of the things we’ll lose from NBA 2011-12, I’ll miss Nicolas Batum the most.
Watching Nicolas Batum is awesome. He has developed the kind of game that could make him an All-Star and an X-Factor in Portland. Throw in the added incentive to improve from the competition for his starting spot that Gerald Wallace brings, and we could be on the verge of seeing Portland’s next big thing. At EuroBasket, Nic provided three things that will continue to make him a star and a fan favorite in Portland, those things? Dunks, three pointers, and defense.
If we don’t see one Nicolas Batum dunk in a Blazer shirt in the next 12 months it will be a goddamn shame.