The Works: FIBA, the International Laboratory
But first, an exploration of international basketball as a hoops laboratory.
Intercontinental Experimentation: NBA teams' reasons for discouraging summertime international play by their stars is understandable. The risk of injury in full-throttled sport is too great, and one nagging malady can sink an entire season. The game is too big here to let them play there.
But in doing so, NBA teams do themselves a disservice, because you can learn a lot more from watching a player perform for his home country than you can from Summer League. International basketball is the window to the essence of a player's potential.
Look at Omri Casspi, star of an Israeli team competing in EuroBasket qualifiers. Casspi had a mixed-bag rookie season, so good early on some suggested he might finish second behind teammate Tyreke Evans for Rookie of the Year but so bad -- exhausted and lost -- later on he didn't even end up making either of the two All-Rookie teams. During the season, the Kings learned they had a shooter never lacking in confidence, an athletic wizard and a fearless kid.
But in Europe this summer, Casspi has revealed so much more.
Casspi has been a simply explosive scorer at the unfamiliar power forward position. In Saturday's win over the very good Montenegro, Casspi scored 30 points in 33 minutes on an array of deep shots and drives. The Kings thought they were drafting a potential poor man's Hedo Turkoglu. During Casspi's rookie season, he looked like he'd instead be a bigger Bobby Jackson. Playing for Israel? He looks like the second coming of Peja Stojakovic. If the Kings are paying attention, they will see new and exciting ways to feature the Israeli in the Evans-led offense next season.
Luol Deng is in a similar situation. As I wrote Saturday, Deng's Britain has played beautifully in Europe, with the Bull leading the way in just about every facet of the game. Of particular interest has been his willingness to and success in shooting threes. Deng almost never shoots from deep for the Bulls -- on his career he takes less than one per game. But he can hit them, at least from FIBA length -- he's 12-of-28 through four games. (Yes, that means he's taking seven threes a game.) Chicago has exactly one shooter on board -- Kyle Korver. Ergo, the Bulls could really use Deng's deep stroke, if it really exists. This summer explosion should surely set Bulls management on that investigative path when training camp breaks next month.
The greatest experimentation, however, stars good ol' Team USA. Kevin Durant at power forward, Lamar Odom at center, Andre Iguodala back home at small forward. Take notes, Doug Collins, this is your pre-preseason. Coach Mike Krzyzewski's tinkering has come from necessity; he simply couldn't legitimately carry JaVale McGee to Turkey. No offense to Washington's beloved Big Daddy Wookie, but McGee wouldn't even make Spain's roster, and probably would have trouble getting off the bench for Brazil and Argentina. Coach K had to know McGee was, at this time, untenable. Jeff Green's in a similar boat; just because you're big and you're on the hottest team in NBA circles doesn't mean you can hang when the competition reaches this level.
Some have criticized Coach K for cutting Green and McGee instead of one of the team's five point guards. The McGee cut, in particular, means that Odom will be playing plenty of center, as will Kevin Love potentially. Krzyzewski had mentioned Durant there. Competitively, it's a dice roll. But stylistically? It's brilliant! If Scott Brooks had announced to the world his OKC team had so much depth at guard and so little depth in the frontcourt he was starting Durant at center, the coach would win a Nobel.
Of course, when Coach K does it -- because of who he is, that snarl on his face -- it's seen as cocky, overconfident. As if he thinks his guards are so good, his scheme so sound he can play practical jokes on his opponents in the frontcourt. But really, Coach K is acting how our favorite coaches do: backing into a corner, they don't accept defeat and use overmatched but standard-sized players. They innovate. Coach K should be heralded as a genius for turning Lamar Odom into a center.
Well, unless that move leads to Marc Gasol crushing Team USA in the semifinals of the World Championship. In that case, forget I ever wrote this. (TZ)
Speak Ya Clout: Michael Jordan brought the Hall of Fame speech zooming back to relevance last August, with his irreverent piece of button-down trash talk. While Jordan presented Scottie Pippen this year, the HOF made sure that he spoke only in a highly edited video intro. At the same time, though, MJ's 2009 performance reminded us that induction speeches don't have to be Oscar night pap.
With that in mind, The Works presents the first annual Hall of Fame Speech Power Rankings.
1. Cynthia Cooper: The Houston Comets guard, who won three straight titles and helped lay the WNBA's foundation, still had an uphill battle to fight. The audience was starting to fidget, and frankly, in the presence of the Dream Team, even Malone and Pippen seemed like a sideshow. She probably did need to explain her entire "journey" -- one, because she wanted to give it more feeling than the video could, and two, so it would sink in with an audience that might not have given her the respect she deserve.
The speech was overly long, and certainly over-the-top. But you find me another player who joked about their late mother watching a flat-screen with Jesus (in HD -- "because that's how the Lord does it"), clowned her own archival jheri-curl and Karl Malone's draft day suit, and just generally won over a room that, believe it or not, does lose interest as the show drags on.
2. Team USA, 1960 vs. Team USA, 1992: Yes, the two crews accepted separately. But the tension between them, spoken or merely symbolic, was no joke. The Dream Team, then as now, was a caravan on angel's wings. It brought a glut of still-warm superstars into Springfield, and probably ratcheted up the celeb quotient of this event by a factor of 10. By contrast, 1960 clung tirelessly to both their own greatness and how easy the youngsters had had it.
The yapping -- jocular for the kids, deathly serious coming from the mouth of Jerry West -- had begun several days earlier. West and Oscar Robertson spoke for the 1960 team; it's fascinating how West has only grown more grim (if more dignified) with age, taking the opportunity to talk about his late brother, war and mortality. And, naturally, the passage of time. Robertson, castigated in his day for not being cheery enough -- a charge never leveled at the turbulent West -- has learned to put on a brave face for public speaking engagements. If West has allowed his demons a seat at the table, Robertson's are just as retired as he is.
When Magic, Bird, Jordan and even Christian Laettner took the stage, Magic stepped up to the podium and nearly turned it into role-call or a kid-gloves roast. Bird, though, couldn't leave the searing elders alone. Somewhere between the tooth-and-nail pride of the 1960 team and his raucous 1992 crew (by which time he was retired from the NBA), he closed the evening -- and shut down the debate -- with the following: "I don't know who had the best team, but I know the team in 1960 was a hell of a lot tougher than we were," Bird said. "I couldn't imagine the '92 team getting in a covered wagon for eight days, going across the country, jumping in the Atlantic Ocean, swimming for six days, then walking 3,000 miles to the Coliseum in Rome for a dollar a day."
3. Karl Malone: I have never been the biggest Karl Malone fan. Thus, I am wary of pointing to his teary, generous speech as a model for what new inductees should do at the podium. Sorry, it's a habit with him.
Yet Malone was so earnest, so kindly unapologetic about who he was and where he came from, and most importantly, so intent on throwing self-awareness to the dogs, that his speech really won me over. The crying started as soon as he spoke, a flashback to his draft-night interview in 1985. Malone was smart enough, though, to immediately point out that he had lost a bet with Charles Barkley over this, turning what could have been a maudlin moment into something that even the blustery Chuckster could identify with.
There were allusions to his often confounding identity and his ring-less career, and yet if you buy "My Way", Malone had you hook, line and sinker. He really seized up when it came time to talk about his mother, who had passed away seven years to the day, and I doubt there was even a dry eye in the media galley.
At the time, I tweeted that it was Jordan's speech turned inside out; Malone intoned, almost pleaded, that "it was never just about me." I don't think anyone was about to argue otherwise. This is where sports clichés fail utterly -- there was no denying, after that outpouring of plain-spoken, dignified emotion, that Malone was just happy to be here. To see that a player of his caliber so overcome, as if he were for the first time ever being recognized, was fairly irresistible. To his critics -- and in his case, they are real, not imagined for motivation's sake -- he had an olive branch. He offered himself up: just a man playing the game we all love. It's been his life, right to the core. And that has to count for something.
4. Dr. Jerry Buss: You would really need a full transcription of Buss's speech to appreciate how weird it was. Even watching it, I got the sense that half the sentences sounded more like Babelfish than a professional speechwriter. Phil Jackson was "a guru with mythical statistics;" his early friendship with Magic, legendary for its decadence, became a time of ping-pong and chocolate-covered donuts. If Cooper, Malone, and West seemed utterly immersed in basketball, Buss sounded like a man writing a fanciful screenplay about an enchanted time that just so happened to be his adult life. There really was fairy dust in the air. I was bowled over by the presenters: Pat Riley, Kareem, and Magic. Now that's a power move:
5. Perry Johnson (brother of Gus): Of course, I had to put the Gus Johnson speech on here. Perry Johnson wasn't a brilliant speaker, but he did come off as an affable dude spinning yarns and fondly remembering the older brother he clearly idolized. A lot of the speech was about Gus breaking people's bones, including those of many Hall of Famers in attendance. There was a brief interlude during which Johnson wished us all a time machine, so we could go back in time and see what a monster Wayne Embry had been on the court. It was sweet, and recondite, a "you had to be there" that wanted so badly to be otherwise.
But Perry knew that for more than any other inductee, Gus's real legacy rests in the memories of all those who played against him. One quibble: I really wish Gus hadn't been portrayed as a low-key, friendly guy off the court. He wasn't a troublemaker, but Johnson sure was a character. I would like to think that there's a place in the Hall of Fame for that. (BS)
The New Economics: Mark Deeks of ShamSports.com unleashes more NBA contract knowledge than anyone, and his post last week on the creative methods teams used during this most recent free agency period is candy for the wonky basketball fan. Deeks explains in detail how the Heat managed to go from a $4 million payroll to one $62 million larger without breaking cap rules, why the Grizzlies' handling of Xavier Henry is not unprecedented, and why teams trying to cut salary sometime make moves taking back more salary.
The most interesting segment, though, is an explanation of why more and more teams are handing out contracts with unguaranteed years in lieu of team or player options. The rationale is fascinating, with the central advantage of unguaranteed contracts being that they can be traded at any time, whereas players with option years can't be moved until the option is resolved. Erick Dampier is the prime example. If his 2010-11 season was a team option, the Mavericks would have had to pick it up in order to trade him to Charlotte for Tyson Chandler. But instead, his large 2010-11 salary is unguaranteed, which allowed the Mavericks to move him, and could allow the Bobcats to move him again.
It's all just another power move by teams. The most well-run teams figure out these tiny advantages and use them over and over again.
While we're on the topic of wonky ... ever wonder whether expiring contracts are really worth that much? Akis Yerocostas of Pick and Scroll did the work to find out just how valuable expiring contracts of substance have become in the new NBA. (TZ)
The Works is a column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller).