But first, a look at the most forgettable superstar import the NBA may ever see.
A Spur's Spur: Tiago Splitter won't be a superstar in the NBA -- he'll be good, maybe fantastic, but not a superstar by any definition. But he's certainly a superstar in Spain, where he's played professionally for years, and Brazil, where he's currently leading his home nation on an escapade through the bright lights of the FIBA World Championship's Group B.
Monday, Splitter led Brazil to a near-upset of ever-hulking Team USA, totaling 14 points and 10 rebounds and generally making everyone in America rue the day they trusted Lamar Odom to handle a pretty straightforward pick-and-roll.
Splitter is due in San Antonio in one month's time, joining the team which drafted him two years ago with the understanding he may never cross the pond due to excessive European buy-out issues. Honestly, everyone knew Splitter was one of the best players of the 2007 NBA Draft -- heck, they'd been hoping he'd declare in 2006; many pundits seemed crushed when he didn't. But Splitter fell deep in the bottom of the first round in 2007 because of buy-out issues and a perceived lack of interest in Splitter coming to America. Or, it was this philosophy: a decent prospect tomorrow is better than a great prospect perhaps in three years.
Sound familiar? It's the Ricky Rubio fiasco writ black and white. With Ricky, all is gray, as there are serious questions about whether it might be four years or more before he can make a positive impact in the NBA. And, as it so happens, the team who was said to have passed up Ricky in part due to buy-out issues -- the Sacramento Kings -- did so primarily because its front office fell in love with a certain Tyreke Evans, a romance that has paid off well.
With Splitter, it was simply buy-out related, and every team but the Spurs demurred. San Antonio has always rolled the dice with European prospects with the team's late first-round and second-round picks. Sometimes, it works (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili). Sometimes, it leads to heartbreak (Luis Scola, Robertas Javtokas). Splitter flirted with the latter before consenting to leave Spain a few months ago after leading his team to the ACB championship over Ricky's team.
And now? He becomes a pretty ho-hum arrival. Despite his illustrative name and years of a building myth, he's a pretty basic player. He is, as Odom learned Monday, a fantastic pick-and-roll player. He can play in the post despite a slender body. He's a rebounding machine, and a fairly athletic player. But really, he's closer to your bread-and-butter Big 10 product than he is most European prospects. He's not as intellectual as Pau Gasol on the court, or as good a shooter as Dirk Nowitzki, or as skilled as Hedo Turkoglu, or as jaw-dropping as countryman Nene, or as ubiquitous as countryman Anderson Varejao. He is, for the lack of a better comparison, a younger Scola -- crafty, skilled, tough, athletic and hungry, all in manageable doses.
He, like so many international products before him, leaves Europe a king and arrives in America one of the guys. It goes doubly so in ego-less San Antonio, where he may be backing up the relic formerly known as Antonio McDyess, and sitting next to a ball of electric wire called DeJuan Blair. When European heroes venture to the NBA, most understand they will be respected but largely ignored. Splitter -- due to his style and circumstances -- might end up forgotten before he arrives. (TZ)
In Search of Firepower: In Team USA's nail-biter of a win over Brazil, one man distinguished himself above all others. Derrick Rose attacked the basket a few times -- seven total field goal attempts -- and Chauncey Billups quietly put up 15. But as Splitter thundered about in the paint, and Souza ran wild, Kevin Durant was Captain America. The Thunder team captain went for 27 points and 10 boards, and chipped in three steals as part of a strong defensive effort.
It wasn't just that Durant scored a lot, or led his team in scoring. Or that he scored when no one else could, or would. Or that he made plays when the team seemed lost, and just generally put it on himself to keep Team USA in the game. Yesterday, Kevin Durant was Team USA. It was as ethically spotless, and totally called for, as such things are. But there's no way around it: Durant was a one-man team.
When a country can claim most of the best hoops talent in the world, this shouldn't be happening. Granted, this is a lesser crop of players than 2008. Still, though, they shouldn't have to depend on one player taking over. It shouldn't even be possible. We're used to demanding America's teams find structure to sublimate egos, maybe even as a form of checks and balances. Not because they're lost and need a safety net.
I know, there's a plan in place here. Durant does Durant. Rose attacks. Billups shoots. Andre Iguodala dunks. Lots of unselfish, genial athletes. Unfortunately, there's neither an iron-clad system running nor anyone other than Durant much interested in asserting themselves -- enough. That might be uncivilized.
Kevin Durant is indeed a great player, and this tournament offers yet another opportunity for him to show that. But that shouldn't keep us from asking where the rest of the team is. KD can do this every night, and with minimal support, Team USA can go far. It would be nice, though, if there were at least one other worthy teammate demanding the ball, or glaring at Durant for not doing any of the dirty work.
It's almost like players have a mental block against just treating this like an All-Star team, when that's exactly what the United Stated needed to pull ahead. If Rose or Billups had launched a few more shot attempts, or we had seen Eric Gordon more or Stephen Curry at all, maybe this contest wouldn't have been so close. I hate to say it, but what this country needs now is a few good ballhogs. A few more of them, rather. Sometimes, there's nothing wrong with that. (BS)
Bigger, Not Badder: FIBA would like to expand the 24-team World Championship to 32. ESPN's John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) makes an interesting case that a bigger field will lead to a few more bad teams being included, which will lead to more blow-outs and potentially more meaningless group play games.
But, with some smart tweaks, it doesn't have to be so. For one, Hollinger's dead-on criticisms of teams like New Zealand and Tunisia taking up spots can be addressed through the way in which FIBA qualifies nations for the tournament.
New Zealand is a problem because the Oceania region automatically qualifies two teams for the World Championship. Only two teams -- NZ and Australia -- competed in the Oceania qualifying tournament, which means both advanced without breaking a sweat. That's just dumb. If Oceania can't have a legitimate regional tournament, combine the zone with Asia, which could use the added contender in Australia (and the sometimes solid NZ). Advance two teams from FIBA Asia to the Worlds automatically, and drop Africa's bids from three to two (eliminating Tunisia, which was a nice story at the regional level but simply doesn't belong at the Worlds).
Give Europe four spots and the Americas three from their respective odd-year regional tournaments, bringing the automatic qualifiers to 11. Omit the berth for the reigning champ, and take the host spot from that team's regional allotment. Let FIBA pick 20 more teams for an invitational round to open up the World Championship. Seed these 20 teams based on world ranking, and send them through two rounds of single-elimination play. (This would make it so teams like Germany, who was awarded a wild card berth to the Worlds last December, has to bring its big guns -- Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman -- or risk being one-and-done at the tournament.) The five remaining teams from the invitational fill in the empty spots in four groups of four, which would make up the group play round. After single round-robin play, the two top finishers in each group (with standings ties settled with one-game playoffs) move on to the quarterfinals, and so on.
Or you could do it some other way. The key here is getting these quite good teams from Europe (Montenegro, Macedonia, Great Britain) and the Americas (Dominican Republic) into the tournament, and removing the Tunisias and New Zealands. Shrinking the tournament isn't the answer -- making every game mean a bit more is the key. Adding some NCAA-style drama would help interest early on while weeding out the weaker competitors. As the fans of Slovenia and Lebanon have shown, even nominal competitors can spark amazing passion. Why would you cut half those squads out of the tournament? (TZ)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.