August 31, 2011
Ready to see competitive basketball again, if only on a small screen stuck in your browser window?
Ready for some ball movement, screens set away from the ball, and the sort of play calling that often doesn't show up in NBA arenas, much less summer league showdowns?
Interested in watching a fluid tournament with parity to spare, but without having to sit through the less-talented stylings of your typical early round NCAA game?
Well, we've got a treat for you, if only briefly. It's the 2011 FIBA Eurobasket tournament, and it's available for free over on ESPN3.com. And unlike your anonymous-until-March NCAA lineup, or the summer league action that might feature one NBA star shooting over a series of scrubs, this tourney is loaded with NBA talent from the top on down.
The tournament isn't single-elimination, so we can't make a direct parallel to March Madness, but the madness is just the same. Ostensibly, the point of Eurobasket is to flesh out the qualifiers for the 2012 Olympics, with the top two teams earning automatic bids to the London games and the next four squads earning invites to a pre-Olympic tournament that takes place next July. Stamping a ticket to Great Britain, however, is far from the primary goal for these teams.
No, Eurobasket championships are what these men play for. NBA glory is nice, and a strong World Championships run (with Team USA in the bracket) is a dream, but it's this relatively localized tourney that shoots to the top of the "gotta have it" list. These groups play with pride, and they'll play hard. The teams involved want the trophy, and could care less about an automatic Olympics bid at this point. Best? These are professionals -- grown men -- duking it out. The same cannot be said for the kids on CBS we see every March.
Who is the odds-on favorite? Spain is clearly in a class of its own as it prepares to defend its dominant 2009 Eurobasket run. And you'd expect nothing less from a squad featuring the most versatile big man in the game (Pau Gasol(notes)), a throwback center with touch and smarts (Marc Gasol(notes), very related), a competent NBA-level point guard (Jose Calderon(notes)), and one of the game's top up-and-coming talents in Serge Ibaka(notes). Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio(notes) will also see minutes, but he's working through a sprained ankle.
Really, it's their tournament to lose, and with single elimination not starting up until the second round of the tournament, they'll be tough to take out.
Of course, the best thing about these sorts of international tournaments is that the competition always features teams that are better than the sum of their parts. This is where a team like Lithuania steps in. The squad might not be a clear number two, but they also seem to play over their heads, remarkable when you consider that the Lithuanian player you're likely most familiar with (Linas Kleiza(notes)) will be out due to recovery from microfracture surgery, and the team's latest NBA hopeful (Raptors draft pick Jonas Valanciunas(notes)) won't see much action as he cedes minutes to the grown-ups.
Working on the flip of that spectrum would be Italy, featuring NBA players like Danilo Gallinari(notes) (pictured at the top of this post), Marco Bellineli, and the much-maligned Raptors center Andrea Bargnani(notes). Bargnani is also Italy's center, which tells you all you need to know about their level of strength up front. Lots of star power, but not a lot of consistent board-work from these guys. Still, when you can shoot, you'll have a chance. And Italy sure can shoot.
France and Russia, by most accounts, can't really shoot straight. Those two squads have as good a chance as any to unseat the reigning champions from Spain with stout defense and physical play. France in particular is loaded with good star power in the form of Tony Parker(notes), Joakim Noah(notes), Boris Diaw(notes) and Nic Batum, and athletic Wizards prospect Kevin Seraphin(notes). Still, consider that lineup. There aren't a lot of smooth scorers in that crew, and Parker's influence in international play is lessened considerably because of the preponderance of zone defenses that limit his driving lanes. And if you thought Noah's interior moves with the Chicago Bulls were ugly, wait until you see him go up against a phalanx of zoned-up defenders in the paint.
Russia isn't far off, and their most famous attribute remains highly regarded coach David Blatt, an Israeli expat who has his team working hard and executing well. Andrei Kirilenko(notes), firmly in his wheelhouse amongst the international ballers, leads that crew.
On the German side, Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman(notes) will not be in his wheelhouse (he doesn't speak any German, yet somehow FIBA keeps allowing the German-ancestored big man a spot on the team), but Dirk Nowitzki(notes) will be around to clean up the mess. Dirk's German squads have overachieved in their last two international showings, and it will be interesting to see if he can lead his noted underdogs even closer to the championship.
Luol Deng(notes), working without the British-born Ben Gordon(notes) at his side, will go at it alone for Great Britain. The Bulls forward has put up some gaudy numbers in international play, but the British team isn't very highly regarded.
Serbia, however, is. They were Spain's combatants at the last Eurobasket final (though Spain dominated the Serbs with a 22-point win) in 2009, and they feature a deep squad short on NBA names but long on versatile athletes. With a distinct level of parity setting in just below Spain and possibly running six or seven teams deep, there is no clear cut number two. Serbia knows that they're the defending number two, so to speak, and they'll be as tough an out as ever.
(Charged with researching and glomming onto information about a tournament I knew little about over the last two days, I can also safely tell you that the most accessible site to visit for scouting and international breakdowns would have to be The Painted Area. It's the first place I started to look, and though I've been all over the interwebs in the days since, M. Haubs' work remains the cream of the international crop. Give it a bookmark, if you haven't already.)
ESPN3.com is the place to tune in for the tourney, which runs from Wednesday until Sept. 18. Just in time for what will no doubt be the most pivotal week of the NBA's current lockout.