The World Championships of Basketball get underway Saturday morning from Turkey. Now, I'm cognizant of the possibility that some people aren't as excited about the Worlds as I am. Or rather, I'm aware of the likelihood that most people aren't especially interested. Or really, I'm certain of the inevitability that the vast majority of people couldn't care less. But your apathy doesn't dampen my enthusiasm one bit.
How can you not love the World Championships of Basketball? For one thing, it's basketball - in August! If it wasn't for the Worlds, I'd be reduced to watching baseball (FSM forbid). There's also something intriguing about watching players compete for their country. I mean, I'm not a particularly jingoistic person, far from it in fact, but there is a little bit of additional pride on the line when it's says USA on the jersey. And then there's the fact that unlike the Olympics, the US has been far from dominant in the World Championships. They've only won the Gold medal three times in the 14 iterations of the event, and haven't stood atop the podium since 1994 in Toronto, despite sending NBA players to two of the last three tournaments. What I'm saying is, the outcome is anything but a forgone conclusion.
After the US failed to win the Gold medal in the Athens Olympics in 2004, Jerry Colangelo was named the director of USA Basketball to set things to right again. Although I personally am far from convinced that Colangelo has been much different than his predecessors, he did manage to get a coterie of super mega stars to commit to playing in the Olympics in Beijing two summers ago. The Redeem Team won the Gold in 2008, supposedly setting the world of basketball to right again. But if continuity was one of the goals of USA Basketball, they've come up considerably short; not a single member of the 2008 squad made themselves available for team this summer, for reasons both understandable (Michael Redd tore his ACL) and not so much (Dwight Howard is 'tired').
Their absence is an opportunity for some other US players, and the process has been fascinating, especially for a Los Angeles basketball fan. On the final 12 player roster announced Wednesday are a veteran Laker (Lamar Odom), a young Clipper (Eric Gordon), and two former Bruins (Russell Westbrook of the Thunder and Kevin Love of the Timberwolves).
Odom was more or less a lock to make the team from the moment he showed up at training camp in Las Vegas. The vast majority of the other players trying out for the team had little experience, particularly in big games. As the second oldest player in camp (only Chauncey Billups is older) and one of three who has won an NBA title (Billups and Rajon Rondo being the others), Odom brings veteran savvy and big game experience to the table. But whereas it was a given that he would be on the squad, NBA fans may be surprised to know that Odom, a combo forward for most of his NBA career, is the starting center for Team USA. Coach Mike Krzyzewski likes to play a smaller, quicker lineup in international events, and likes highly skilled bigs if possible. Odom fits that role, and has the length to defend the post and protect the paint as well. His ability to rebound, pass, handle the ball and shoot, make him the type of multi-talented player that Coach K wants on the floor. The fact that Lamar has progressed in his NBA career from a chucklehead who was twice suspended for violating the league's drug policies to NBA champion and veteran leader of Team USA speaks volumes to his maturation as a player and a person.
If Odom was a lock for the team, Eric Gordon was the longest of long shots. A last minute addition to the larger Team USA roster at their 2009 training camp, Gordon was given very little chance to make the squad when he returned to Las Vegas this summer. However, with Dwyane Wade concentrating on ruling the NBA universe, Kobe Bryant nursing various injuries, and Redd and Brandon Roy each recovering from knee surgery, there was room on the team for a shooting guard, particularly one who could stretch the floor. Still, the media covering the event had EJ on the bubble from the beginning. When the roster was cut from 19 to 15 after the Las Vegas training camp, Gordon was assumed to be one of the first cuts. When he made it to the second phase of the try out in New York, he was assumed to be the most likely player to be cut next. When he made it to the last 13 players who traveled to Europe to play tuneups against Lithuania, Spain and Greece, the conventional wisdom held that either Gordon or Stephen Curry of the Warriors would make the team as the designated shooter and the other one would be the odd man out. But when Coach K singled Gordon out as the player whose stock had risen the most throughout the process based on his work both in practices and in games, it became clear that there was a spot for him on the team: quite an accomplishment for the 21 year old guard who has labored in relative anonymity on mediocre to dismal Clipper squads for two NBA seasons. Gordon is actually an ideal guard for FIBA play. Since international rules allow any kind of zone defenses (i.e. there's no defensive three second rule), outside shooting is imperative, and Gordon has one of the purest shooting strokes you'll ever see. In addition, FIBA allows significantly more contact on the perimeter than the NBA, and Gordon's stout build allows him to fight through the inevitable pushing and grabbing that occurs. A day after Rondo withdrew from the team as the final cut, Gordon went out and led the US in scoring in their final exhibition against Greece, as if to say "I belong on this team."
Sitting squarely on the bubble next to Gordon was Russell Westbrook, the second year pro out of UCLA. While others were saying that the final cut would come down to Gordon or Curry, I always maintained that in fact the last cut would be either Westbrook or Rondo. Among the last 13 players were six under 6'3" - even with Coach K's penchant for small ball, sending a roster half filled with half pints would have been half witted, so it was obvious that the last cut would come from the backcourt. Given the aforementioned possibility that opponents could pack the lane in tight zone defenses, Westbrook and Rondo were at a disadvantage. As breathtaking an athlete as Westbrook is, he has never been a strong perimeter shooter, converting fewer than 25% of his three pointers in his NBA career. That and his tendency to get out of control and turn the ball over were points against him. The idea of keeping two non-shooters like Westbrook and Rondo seemed ill-fated from the start and when RW didn't get off Coach K's bench until garbage time in the exhibition against France, playing fewer minutes than any other player, it did not bode well. Suddenly he was the presumed final cut.
That all changed in Spain. In back to back games over the weekend in Madrid, the kid simply played his way onto the roster. Against Lithuania on Saturday, he entered with the US trailing and immediately turned the game around. His defensive pressure, his relentless attacking of the basket and his pure energy changed the game - he even made his jump shots! He finished with 12 points, making 4 of 5 from the floor. He followed that up with a 4 for 7, 4 rebound performance against Spain on Sunday, while Rondo got a DNP-CD. Suddenly Westbrook was off the bubble and on the team, and Rondo was on a plane home. Although his game may not be perfectly suited to international play, in some ways it is absolutely ideal to have someone like Russell Westbrook coming off your bench. If things aren't going well, if the team lacks energy, if you need a defensive stop or a spark plug on offense, put in Westbrook. He's a game-changer.
Westbrook's college teammate Kevin Love has had a different path to Team USA. In addition to all of the members of the Redeem Team who took this summer off from international competition, the bigs for Team USA experienced a spate of injuries and other issues in training camp. Amare Stoudemire couldn't secure insurance to allow him to play, David Lee dislocated a finger, Brook Lopez was recovering from mononucleosis - Love essentially survived a war of attrition. The coaches were raving about him in practice, but the public hardly ever saw him in action as he missed all or most of the exhibition games nursing minor injuries. A leg issue saw him play only 4 minutes against China and 8 minutes against France. Then in garbage time against Lithuania he tried to draw a charge and suffered a slight concussion when his head hit the floor, which kept him out of the Spain game. When he finally got some extended minutes against Greece Wednesday he looked impressive, pulling down 12 rebounds (6 of them on the offensive glass!) in only 12 minutes. Wow. Avid NBA watchers know that Love is a rebounding machine, and he can be that for Team USA as well. If the squad has a weakness, it's that they're not particularly big. Tyson Chandler is the only player on the roster who plays center in the NBA, and Odom and Love are the only power forwards. Coach K is going with a small quick lineup that features NBA three men like Kevin Durant and Rudy Gay playing the four. But against some international teams with size, Love is going to be very important. Bear in mind also that five fouls equals a disqualification in FIBA play, so foul trouble for Chandler or Odom may necessitate more time for KLove. Don't be surprised if Love gets some DNPs (or is limited to garbage time) against some opponents - but likewise don't be surprised if he has to come up big at some point in the tournament. His rebounding, size, basketball IQ and ability to make the mid range jumper are ideal for FIBA play. I expect his number will be called at an important point in the tournament, and I expect that he'll respond when the time comes.
Almost as interesting as the LA NBA players that are going to Turkey are the ones who are NOT. Believe it or not, both the Lakers and the Clippers could have had four players in this tournament, though not all playing for the US.
For the Lakers of course Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are staples (no pun intended) for their respective national teams. Both however chose not to compete this summer. The wear and tear of the NBA playoffs would be reason enough of course - Kobe played 96 games this season, Pau played 88. Of course Kobe also had his knee scoped in June, not to mention his fractured finger so for him the time off is essential. Pau on the other hand suffered a broken ankle in the last World Championship four years ago in Japan, so Lakers fans no doubt feel much better that their two mega stars will not be in Turkey.
And then there's the strange case of Sasha Vujacic. Despite being one of five Slovenes in the NBA, the Machine will not be competing for Slovenia in Turkey this summer. Perhaps Sasha didn't want to be on the same team with his rival Goran Dragic.
For the Clippers, Blake Griffin would probably have been a lock for the team had he chosen to accept USA Basketball's invitation to try out in Las Vegas. However, despite being declared 100% recovered from his knee injury by doctors and Clippers management, Blake decided against international competition, a decision that certainly didn't make Vinny Del Negro and Neil Olshey mad. It's understandable I suppose. He's never actually played a game for the team that's paying him over $5M a year. It would be a little awkward if he was playing for Team USA before he ever played for the Clippers, and way beyond awkward if he actually got hurt. Clippers fans would no doubt have loved to see Griffin back on the court in Turkey, but they'll just have to wait a little longer. We're used to it.
Then there is Herr Chris Kaman. You may recall that Kaman obtained a German passport in 2008 via his German-born grandparents and went to Beijing with Team Deutschland. This despite speaking not a word of German. When the German Basketball Federation petitioned FIBA for one of the last wild card spots in the World Championships, they were certainly hoping that NBA All Stars Dirk Nowitzki and Kaman would agree to compete this summer. For his part, Kaman has said all along that if his buddy Dirk played, then he would play. When Dirk chose to forego the tournament, Kaman did as well, again to the relief of Del Negro and Olshey.
So that's three Clippers - who is the fourth? The fourth will actually be in Turkey, but is not actaully a Clipper. Long ago second round pick Sofoklis Schortsanitis will be competing for his native Greece in the World Championships. Big Sofo (affectionately referred to as My Big Fat Greek Center on Clips Nation because of his considerable girth) played with the Clippers in Summer League this July in Las Vegas. Unfortunately he did not have a very good showing, owing in large part to the fact that the Summer League is ill-suited to showcasing post players (particularly when the guards seem disinterested in getting the ball to them). The Clippers never extended him a contract offer, and Sofo returned to Europe where he signed with Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. Afficionados of International hoops may recall that Sofo destroyed the US four years ago in Japan, helping the Greeks upset the US in the semi-finals to deny them the Gold medal. I think we can expect that MBFGC will have even more to prove this time around, and if the US faces Greece in the knockout stages, Sofo will be hyper-motivated to show NBA fans (and the Clippers' front office in particular) what they're missing.
The tournament starts Saturday, and Team USA's first game is against Croatia. The first round of the tournament is relatively meaningless pool play - of 24 teams competing, 16 of them advance out of pool play and into the knockout stages. The US is in Group B along with Croatia, Slovenia, Brazil, Iran and Tunisia. There's no question that they will advance, though it is certainly advantageous to win the group in order to avoid the top teams from other groups as long as possible. The tournament gets serious a week later, on Saturday September 4th when the single elimination phase begins. Think of the Sweet 16 during March Madness; win or go home. As the US found out against Greece four years ago, one lackluster game against a talented and motivated team can be the end of the tournament. The Gold medal game will be played on Sunday, September 12th.
Team USA has a great shot at the Gold medal, despite their youth and inexperience. They'll likely go as far as Kevin Durant can take them - he's the one legitimate superstar on the team. But with five wins and zero defeats against some top contenders during their exhibition games, the team is entering the tournament with a lot of confidence. It also helps that so many international stars, like Pau and Nowitzki and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, are not competing. Team USA's pressure defense and fast break offense will be entertaining to watch - but the first opponent that can force them to play a half court game may be their last opponent this summer. They've got a great chance to win - but they're not a lock.
And I can't wait.