If you’re a casual NBA fan, most of the players on the Olympic teams other than Team USA don’t ring any bells. You’ll recognize a few.
“Hey, that’s that point guard for the Canada team, right?”
“You mean, the Toronto Raptors?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said, the team in Canada.”
“Hey, didn’t that guy play for the Grizzlies one year?”
“Yes, he did, he’s actually..”
“Why didn’t he make it? He looks pretty good.”
Yet even to dedicated NBA fans, many of the players on these teams are unfamiliar, strange names and strange games. Dedicated fans of international ball, suddenly available in the internet age, are able to recite their names and games. But they remain a mystery to most U.S. fans. Yet even the players NBA fans know don’t resemble the players who run the floor for the A.
Jose Calderon? Veteran sharpshooter and dynamic offensive leader, not defensive sieve and spot-up shooter, as he is with the Raps. Juan Carlos Navarro was a small-minute reserve player for a single season for the Grizzlies. He’s one of the best players in Euroleague history with his Spanish team, FC Barcelona.
Maybe no player epitomizes the difference than Patty Mills, though. Mills is a fourth-string point guard for the Spurs, and a legitimate star for Australia. He was a big part of Australia hanging around with Team USA on Wednesday, hitting perimeter shots and driving inside.
So what’s the deal? How can these players look this different in international play relative to their performance in the indisputable best league in the world?
There’s a line of thought that suggests that internationalf coaches just know how to get the best from these players. That, of course, is insane. To suggest coaches like Dwane Casey, Nate McMillan, and Gregg Popovich don’t know how to evaluate the talents of these players and acclimate them throws out everything we know about NBA coaches. There are bad NBA coaches. There are bad international coaches. But the differential in production has more to do with style of play than it does quality of coaches. No one in the NBA is “missing” on these players. There’s a qualitative difference in how the NBA is played, and that style can bring out the abilities of players, with the more wide open structure, and the kind of defense that’s played.
This isn’t about which level of competition is more difficult, the NBA or international ball (HINT: It’s the NBA). It’s about a difference in approach and execution that leaves us with a game that is played with the same rules as the NBA, but is vastly different. Well, except for goaltending. That’s different. And some other things. And the ball is different. But other than that, same game. But the stylistic approach is where it diverges.
So we shouldn’t be surprised by these performances, nor should we slough them off. Calderon, Mills, Timofey Mozgov are all playing excellent, and deserve credit for leading their teams. But at the same time, we shouldn’t assume they’re capable of this in the NBA night after night, nor that there’s something wrong with how the NBA operates that they’re not executing at that level. There’s a great number of players who have struggled with the style in international play. Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, are two to start with.
Paul’s size gives him issues and the amount of pressure allowed in international play outside (while inside might as well be a demilitarized zone — no touching!) creates problems. He’s still very good for Team USA, because he’s Chis Paul. But he’s never the dominant point guard he is in the league.
Dwight Howard, absent from the 2012 team due to his recovery from back surgery, has similar problems. His game just doesn’t translate with the kind of floor spacing that goes on in international play and he accumulates fouls at a rookie-type level.
Do you really want to say that Chris Paul and Dwight Howard aren’t really that good at basketball?
Yeah, didn’t think so.
There’s nothing artificial about the players’ production in these games. It’s legitimate and honestly, refreshing as opposed to the slog of the NBA at times. But it’s no mistake made by the NBA or its coaches that they can’t excel. They are who they are in the NBA, and that’s how they should be judged, because it’s the best league in the world.
Unless you’re not an NBA fan. Then you can believe the ACB is. Or Euroleague. Or South American play. Anything you want.
But to bring the idea of somehow these games being indicative of who they really are as player is as disingenuous as saying their American counterparts aren’t trying. The world’s caught up with the U.S.. Well, not really. But they’re closer, and that leads to these fascinating ripples. Let’s not try and establish which way is better, let’s just enjoy the exposure on a different way to play basketball.