Before I discuss the basketball, let me share a weird experience I had last Thursday night. My so-called friend Roh (whom I regret hanging out with afterward every single time) invited me to go to the SDSU season opener against UTEP. Since I decided this would finally be the year I give College Football a chance - mainly due to the spectacular NCAA '07 video game - I had a modicum of knowledge about our team for once, so I figured, why the hell not?
Anyway, the game turned into one long surreal "Midnight Cowboy" type of night. I can't seem to draw interest from a female for the life of me, but I've discovered that if this whole writing thing doesn't work out, I have a long and fruitful (pun intended) backup career ahead as a gay male prostitute.
You see, during the game not one but two complete strangers, men in their 50s, picked me out of the entire crowd at Qualcomm Stadium to have conversations with. Why me? I have no idea. Perhaps it's because I don't have a great poker face and it was obvious to anyone who saw me that I wasn't really enjoying Roh's company all that much.
The first gentleman caller was a UTEP fan, and he sat down next to me before the game started and asked me all sorts of questions about what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I want to get into the newspaper business and he shared that that's what his brother does, and he had to spend several years in Venezuela I think it was writing primarily in English language newspapers to get his career off the ground. Inspiring stuff, really. The guy was nice and all, but in the end not only was I puzzled that he had chosen me to impart his wisdom to, but I was also kinda ticked because I missed out on our hottie dance team's performance right before kickoff.
SDSU has two separate Female Erection Production Squads (the FEPS), the regular cheerleaders whose uniforms make them look like a bunch of 11 year olds, and the dance team who get to wear much more flattering garments and perform routines that are let's just say more captivating for the audience. So while every other male fan in the joint was drooling and fantasizing about the two dozen ladies in red, gyrating their nubile young bodies, I had to level my gaze at some oblivious chatterbox weirdo. And I knew I must have missed one incredible performance because during their song even the UTEP fans were silent and paying rapt attention to the proceedings. They would not be so quiet for the next three hours.
Eventually the first guy left and the game got underway. The twenty minute stretch encompassing the two thirds of the 2nd quarter and the first two thirds of the 3rd quarter was especially harrowing, and my school was down 27-3. And the starting quarterback, Kevin O'Connell was no longer in - a perfect time for stranger number two to enter my life.
This guy was a bit younger than the last one, and he said he was just on a college football watching vacation, and that he had no affiliation to either team. Our backup QB, Darren Mougey came in and promptly led a touchdown drive to cut it 27-10. UTEP went three and out, we got the ball back and quickly scored again to make it 27-17. Right around this time we are regaled with opinions of this ex-athlete turned current drunk. He tries to convince us for the next hour that the 27-3 deficit was all O'Connell's fault, despite the fact that he was 10 of 10 at half time and coach Chuck Long would never let him pass on 3rd and short and their stupid "we don't care if you know that we're running, we're gonna do it anyway" philosophy wasn't working.
The guy said that starting MLB Joe Martin told him that O'Connell is full of himself and that nobody on the team likes him and they'll all play harder for Mougey, who he's convinced is the second coming of Steve Young. No, I don't think there's anything unusual at all about a member of our football team speaking freely about his feelings for his star teammate to a total kook.
All hell broke loose when UTEP QB Jordan Palmer (younger brother of Carson) threw his third awful pick of the evening, and on 4th and goal from the 1 we scored again to cut it 27-24. Now we actually sounded like a team with college football fans, and even though the place wasn't half full, one could imagine a scenario where every student would claim to be at the game in class next Tuesday. Of course I couldn't enjoy the bedlam so much because Roh was embarrassing the hell out of me by doing, I shit thee not, throat slashing gestures. Roh, to be kind, is a racially confused Indian. Unfortunately, not only does he think he's black, but apparently he thinks he's black and it's 2001. As my sister's ex-boyfriend would put it, "He saddens me."
Naturally Roh's poor sportsmanship ruined all our karma and the comeback fell short with SDSU went on to lose 34-27. Mougey threw a killer pick when we had the ball down three. Off the play-action he went for a lob pass and a huge play when just throwing a dart would've been good enough for a simple 1st down. By putting a huge arc on it, he gave a UTEP DB time to make up the ground and pick it off. They scored on the possession and that was that. A fitting end for a kooky evening, don't you think?
But oh no, my sports viewing for the night had just begun. Shortly after I got home the USA-Greece game started, and I was too enthralled to sleep. I think I started openly laughing at one point because the US was letting the Greeks score on the same play over and over and over again. By the end I could only come to the conclusion that the better team won because the Europeans played a team game while the US kept resorting largely to dribble drives by LeBron, Carmelo, or DWade.
A few observations in the post mortem: I hope this game puts to bed once and for all the notion that best 420 basketball players in the world play in the NBA. This is simply not true. There are plenty of foreigners out there who don't play in the association for various reasons ranging from pay, to not wanting to play far from home, to the NBA style of game not suiting their skills. I don't understand why it's such a hard concept to grasp for some.
Suppose all of a sudden somebody like that Russian oil magnate who owns the soccer club Chelsea decides to start his own basketball league and he invokes a policy that the minimum salary will be 8 million US dollars and superstars will get 50 million. Would every NBA player all of a sudden jump ship and go over there? Struggle with a new language, a new culture, new everything? Some guys would make the move, but many wouldn't. Now take into account that many European stars get paid better in Europe than they would in their rookie NBA contracts, and the choice is even harder right?
Don't forget, Manu came to the NBA because it was his dream, not because of the money. The Spurs paid him relative peanuts for his first two years. If money were no factor whatsoever, Luis Scola would've been a contributing Spur the past two seasons.
In the end it was comical, and almost cruel, how easily and efficiently Greece, a team that came into the game only averaging 81 points, could score against USA. Coach K had to play Shane Battier many more minutes than he wanted I'm sure because nobody else had even a clue what they were doing on their own end of the court. Just to clear up any misconceptions, let's get this straight - LeBron, Wade, and Carmelo are all AWFUL defensive players. I mean simply atrocious.
While their poaching of the passing lanes looks all neat and impressive on SportsCenter against some of the weaker teams, the clubs with veteran point guards who know what they're doing can make them look rather silly. Somewhere Jordan and Pippen must have been watching this game, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. It's simply inexcusable for players so athletic to be so bad on defense. I mean we're talking Dominique or Barkley kind of awful here.
A lot of so-called experts took Coach K to task afterward for his bungling of the game, but I think the problem isn't his to solve. It's more systemic. If kids in Jr. High, High School, the AAU camps, the sneaker camps, and in some cases college weren't thought how to properly play team basketball offensively and defensively, there's nothing another coach can fix in three weeks. Changing a lifetime of poor habits in a month or less? It's a joke.
Think about it. Many of the stereotypes and criticisms of past Team USA squads were either squashed or corrected with this team. For the most part there were no assholes, no showboats, all the guys wanted to be there, they all tried hard, and a few them could even shoot decently. And I'm convinced that they respected their opponents, with maybe one or two (I'm looking at you Joe Johnson and Chris Paul) exceptions. Larry Brown, with his almost disturbing level of disregard for foreign players definitely did not do this.
I'm not convinced that Colangelo could put a better team out there, given what he has to work with. Sure, Bowen would help on one end of the floor, but hurt you on the other end. Plus, I think he's overrated defensively anyway, and not much help if he doesn't have a primo shotblocker behind him. Michael Redd and Rip Hamilton are good shooters, but terrible and unwilling defenders. Ditto for Amare Stoudemire. Kobe will completely botch and sabotage any offensive concept.
No, the problem isn't solvable from a personnel standpoint. The US got a dream draw this time - no Spain or Argentina until the final - and still came up empty. What happens if you put them in a situation where they play Italy in the round of 16, the Greeks in the quarters, the Argentines in the semis and Spain in the finals? There's no way they could survive that foursome unscathed. I don't know if any of those five teams are good enough to beat the other four consecutively if they had to.
The other teams take a lot more pride in the international game than we do, and they play with the FIBA rules and style of play year round. Their main advantage is that the players grow up in their basketball academies from a young age and play together forever. Forget this quaint notion of a "3 year commitment" that Colangelo is asking for. These other teams have made lifetime commitments. They stop playing for their countries only when their respective federations no longer want them; not the other way around.
As a consequence these teams can often communicate to each other without even speaking. They are able to take their games to the next level, playing with all five men on offense and defense. Here, if an NBA team manages to integrate just three players in a successful play, we hype them up like they're the reincarnation of the '70 Knicks. On defense if one guy successfully switches on a screen without giving up a wide open jumper we go nuts. Talent wise, we're still ahead the pack, but intellectually we're in preschool while they're taking graduate courses in an Ivy League school.
Manu - The Hustlemaker
Before I get into The Sickness, let me illustrate what I was talking about before. Several times in the Argentina-Spain game I noticed that when an Argentine defender was screened off or for whatever reason several steps behind his man on a cut, he would just stop the pursuit and switch on to the nearest Spaniard to him and the closest Argentine defender to the man who had gotten the step on the first guy would now guard the Spaniard who was open. And they would routinely make this switch without even gesturing or yelling instructions. It was just instinctual. Now just think about that for a second. This is Mensa-level team defense.
It's one thing to switch off a pick on defense when one of the two players involved has the ball. Obviously everyone pays attention to the ballhandler. However, it's quite another level of thinking to perform a switch on defense when neither of the two offensive players involved have the ball. No NBA team does it, not even the Spurs. What it does is take away the automatic baseline jump shot or drive that every team gets twenty five times a night.
Sure, this defense can be exploited if the guy you're passing to makes a pass immediately to the mismatch in the post, but he never will, because his motor functions of playing the game his whole life are used to getting the ball in a "triple-threat" stance and getting ready to jack up a shot or drive, depending on how good of a shooting night he's having and who the defender that's coming out on him is. The point is the player is used to having time and space to make a decision.
But if you take away the time and space, then the advantage is gone. The only way you beat this switching defense is for the player getting the ball to know he's going to make an immediate pass into the post before he even receives the pass. And I'm not sure any American player can think this way. And forget the US, even Spain struggled mightily with this tactic.
Luckily for them, they were able to return the favor in kind to Argentina, giving them fits on offense, taking away their first, second, and third options time and again. It was an ugly game to watch, as often the case is when two teams know each other inside and out. Argentina had to resort to three pointers because Spain was doing an excellent job of closing out the paint and the front court of Nocioni, Scola, and Oberto wasn't giving them a whole lot, and neither were Hermann or Wolkowisky. Nobody had any room to do anything.
Spain ultimately prevailed in this battle of wits not because an Argentine player made a mental mistake, but because their coach did. With the score tied at 74 and only 21 seconds to go and Pau Gasol out injured, Argentina's coach Sergio Hernandez didn't trust his defense or the prospect of overtime and instead elected to intentionally foul Spain's Jose Calderon. He made one of two free throws and the last possession was in Manu's hands, as it always is. He drove, people got in his way, he passed it to a wide open Nocioni in the baseline, Chapu missed the shot, game over.
I guess this is a good time as any to mention that the announcers this whole tournament were terrible. At one point in this game they called Manu "The Hustle Maker." Kind of like those Mentos "Fresh Maker commercials I guess. I suppose that when he was in his late teens or early 20s, Manu looked exactly like the type of actor who'd star in one of those ads. I think I'm going to call him The Hustlemaker this year. Matthew can keep The Sickness for himself.
Also, with 30 seconds to go, with a mike picking up Hernandez's instructions to his players, where he was telling Manu that his passing options were Pepe Sanchez (who was brilliant in the game by the way, can't hit an open shot my ass, I wish he were a Spur) or Nocioni. Except he didn't say Nocioni, he said Chapu. It took me like two minutes of reading an Argentina message board a few months ago to figure out Chapu is Nocioni's nickname. Yet this broadcaster had no idea what "Chapu" meant. Nice research guys.
But yeah, Manu's had one hell of a star-crossed year hasn't he? All those game winning plays and close wins in '04-05, both for his national team and the Spurs are now going the other way. He is consistently coming up at the short end of the stick, sometimes in circumstances that are his fault, sometimes not. But watching him against Spain was pure hell. Manu shot 6 of 21, - 2 of 12 from two - and it looks like his legs are shot. Whatever ailed him in '05 didn't get any better with rest, so maybe it wasn't an ailment at all. The guy simply can't jump like he once did. The explosion isn't there, and he can't cram it on anyone anymore.
Does that mean he'll only be an average or just merely "good" player for the Spurs the next two years? No, I don't think so. Spain played him more effectively than I've ever seen done. More effectively than I thought possible really (but again, the '04 version of Manu would've done better I think). They knew every move he was going to make before he made it and constantly gave him shots in the lane ranging from difficult to Kobe-level impossible. They clearly had a thorough battle plan for him coming in and took away all his angles. It didn't hurt that FIBA rules let them put a big man in the lane at all times and allow more physical play without a whistle either. And Argentina doesn't have a Tim Duncan to account for.
Defenses in the NBA will be nowhere near as intelligent, prepared, or committed. Most teams still don't realize Manu likes to drive left and I think if you ask most NBA players which hand Manu shoots with, the majority would guess incorrectly. I still remember last year when Smush Parker of the Lakers confused The Hustlemaker with "Rick Barry" in a postgame show (I think he meant Brent). So really I'm not worried about that. I still think we have an All-Star level shooting guard, I still think he'll be our most efficient player on most nights, (much more so than Frenchie McWonderbutt anyway) and I still think he's as clutch as anyone in the league. It's just that more and more he'll have to do his damage from the 3 point line, and the days of posterizing Amare are probably gone for good.
Wayne Gretzky talked about this phenomenon in his final year with the Rangers. He said that it wouldn't bother him if he were compared to other contemporary players, because in most cases, he'd still come out ahead. What he didn't like was being compared to the Wayne Gretzky of 1984 or whenever that was racking up 200 point seasons. In the same way I think Manu will still come out smelling like a rose when we compare him to most opposing two guards, but it's going to be unfair to expect to see the '04-05 Manu ever again. That was his Halley's comet year, a perfect convergence of ability and opportunity, and its like will never come around again.
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