Friday, September 08, 2006

While We're On the EuroLeague Subject....

...let's once and for all put to bed the notion that the other teams in international basketball have some sort of systemic advantage that allows them to play together more. The Team USA excuse of "It's hard to play team basketball when you've only been playing together for 3 weeks" has got to be recognized for what it is: an excuse.

Of course, part of the problem is that the structure of European basketball is poorly understood here; and we're primarily talking about European leagues, since most of the good teams are European, and all of the great players (from Argentina, for instance) either play in the NBA or in the European leagues. So until China wins a Gold Medal (which will happen some day), we'll focus on the European leagues.

First of all, there is a difference between the EuroLeague, and the European leagues. Like the Champions League in European soccer, the EuroLeague brings together the BEST teams from various Domestic European leagues to compete against each other. The EuroLeague starts play in early November, and the Final Four is at the end of April, and I think people get confused and think those players are free to practice with the National team beginning in May.

But remember, these EuroLeague teams are first and foremost part of their own domestic league (Olympiakos is in the Greek League, Barcelona and Tau Ceramica are in the ACB in Spain, etc.) In the vast majority of cases, these leagues begin play sooner than the NBA, some as early as September, most some time in October), and their Championships mostly occur in June, just like the NBA.

So Dwyane Wade of the World Champion Miami Heat and Team USA had from June 20th until October 31 off this year. Juan Carlos Navarro, of Barcelona and WORLD Champion Spain, had from June 9 (Barcelona lost in the semis of the ACB) until October 1! That's correct. Wade has 30 more days to recoup after Japan than Navarro.

What does happen to be true is that the NBA plays more games. But not as many more as you might think. The NBA regular season is 82 games, followed by a maximum of 28 playoff games. So it is not unusual for NBA players to actually play in over 100 games in a season (Wade played in 98 last season.) Top European stars play a 34 game domestic league season, followed by a maximum of 15 playoff games. But then you can add in 25 EuroLeague games, and several more for their National Cup competition. When all is said and done, European players can easily play over 80 games in a single season. And of course a lot of them are playing NBA schedules along side DWade.

Henry Abbott at truehoop.com argued convincingly last week that the NBA season is just plain too long and of course he's right. But that is certainly not going to change, and any perceived disadvantage it presents to Team USA is simply not significant, as I've illustrated above.

Then there is the argument that the players from other national teams have simply played together more. Well, whose fault is that? Ironically, the fact that the talent pool is deeper in the USA probably contributes to this problem. Or rather, the relatively shallow pool in other countries puts the same players on the court together year after year. But we could do that too, right? And at any rate, are we really going to sit around and whine about how unfair it is to us because we're TOO TALENTED to have any consistency? How arrogant are we?

Of course, Kobe Bryant has been extended an invitation to each of the last three major competitions (the three the US did not win, btw), and initially said yes. He has NEVER actually played for Team USA. How good would Argentina be if Ginobili never played?

So all of these perceived, built-in disadvantages that supposedly stack the deck against the US in international competitions are all a bunch of crap. The other guys want it more, and they prove that by showing up when their country calls, by working hard preparing for these tournaments, and by playing their asses off. I'm not saying that this edition of Team USA didn't play hard - but I do think Team USA leadership is hesitant to ask them to do too much. If you're going to use 'three weeks of prep time' as an excuse, how about beginning practice sooner? My AYSO Under 8 Girls team practiced for a month before our first game, for Pete's Sake! And did anyone TELL Team USA to run an offense, or did they maybe think their overburdened superstars would handle it better if they just ran isos?

Stop making excuses for these guys. Either win the Gold Medal, or graciously congratulate the guys who did. But stop making excuses.