The Inbounds: NBA schmoe, International Superstar of Mystery

8 Comments

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.”

Or:

“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.

Teams forced into difficult choices to trim traveling parties for restart

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

ASSOCIATED PRESS — The 22 teams participating in the NBA restart were all at the Disney campus together for the first time Friday.

None of them, however, made it to the Orlando, Florida, area with their usual travel party.

Leaving families behind for several weeks — or maybe even three months, depending on how deep a team goes in the playoffs — during a pandemic isn’t the only hardship that teams are dealing with during this restart. Space limitations within the quasi-bubble at Disney also meant that teams had to cut their official traveling parties down to 37, including players, so many people who usually travel with a club aren’t on this trip.

“We’re not able to take everybody — and that stinks, because of the amount of work that they all put in every single day,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve tried to identify how to be the most efficient we can be with people that can be excellent remotely as well. I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve had to identify. In some cases, their excellence remotely probably hurt their chances of going initially.”

It’s expected that as the bubble population shrinks after six teams are eliminated from playoff contention and then eight more are ousted in the first postseason round, teams will be allowed to bring in more staff.

But until then, while teams are playing games on-site at Disney, there will be plenty of work done back in home markets and home arenas as well. Some teams left player development coaches behind, some even left assistant coaches, and all teams traveled with only one media relations staffer and one equipment manager. In normal circumstances, some teams travel with as many as three people to handle media requirements and two for equipment.

“You know, it’s tough,” Orlando President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “We kind of shied away from some of the language that was being thrown around — the whole idea of essential (staff) and non-essential (staff). It’s not about that. This is a very narrowly defined circumstance, and it requires certain skill sets to address this circumstance.”

Players counted against the list of 37, and most teams brought the full complement of 17 players. That left 20 spots for coaches, assistant coaches, player development, video, security, strength and conditioning, athletic training, media relations and content creators.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the process of figuring out who goes and who doesn’t was brutal.

“We already have had a model of everybody sharing responsibilities,” Spoelstra said. “We already had a meeting about this where there’s an absolute understanding that this is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything … that’s not just for equipment managers, that’s everybody — coaches, trainers, weight room staff, head coach, coaches, we’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan also expressed disappointment that tough decisions had to be made on the staffing end.

He completely understands the NBA perspective. Keeping the number of people in the bubble manageable is a key part of the NBA’s plan for being able to finish the season; the more people in the bubble, the more risk there is of something going wrong.

“Everybody deserves the opportunity, but for the safety of the league and the players we can’t do that,” Donovan said. “So, what we’ve got to do is understand, whether it’s myself or assistant coaches, we may have to be setting up video equipment, we may have to have one of our coaches filming practice in Orlando. There’s things that we’re going to have to do that are going to be outside the box that will normally been taken care of.”

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

View this post on Instagram

Built for this 💪

A post shared by New Orleans Pelicans (@pelicansnba) on

What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.

Paul George: “I feel great again,” says Clippers finally fully healthy

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Paul George symbolized the Clippers’ health all season long. George missed the first 11 games of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, then all season long it was still a lingering issue — until the suspension of play gave him time to heal.

“The whole season, all the way up until maybe a month or two ago, I had to always do shoulder rehab stuff, warming the shoulder up,” George said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “Just so much went into stuff I had to do before I actually took a foot on the floor. Now I feel great again.”

It wasn’t just Paul George, the Clippers had Kawhi Leonard managing his knee/thigh issue and an assortment of other injuries that didn’t give Doc Rivers the full arsenal at his disposal. That was until around the All-Star break — after that break Los Angeles went 7-2 with a +11.5 net rating that was best in the league by far.

The season being shut down may have halted that momentum, but it also gave a banged-up Los Angeles roster a chance to get healthy.

“For this team, man, I think our aspirations, again, this time off has given us what we needed,” George said. “We had some guys that was banged up, nagging injuries. The more time gave us more time for us to aid those injuries and to get back to 100.”

Health matters — which is why Montrez Harrell brought his own personal, portable sauna, a secret Reggie Jackson let out of the bag.

Health matters to Rivers, too, but what he wants more is that team chemistry back — and the Clippers have a long way to go on that end in Rivers’ eyes.

“This is not a normal way of starting back,” Rivers said of the mini-training camp all 22 teams at the NBA restart will get in Orlando. “Usually going into training camp, guys have been scrimmaging for three and four weeks, they’ve been playing, shooting on hoops. That’s not happening. This is a group, some of the guys have not touched a basketball or seen a gym until two weeks ago. We got a lot of work to do on both ends.”

The Clippers are not alone, every team is going to take time to find its rhythm again. Pick-and-roll combos need to get used to reading each other (and the defense) again at full speed, defensive rotations will be a step slow, and a few passes are going to head into the bench rather than the player in the corner.

When the Clippers get that rhythm back, with a healthy roster — finally — they again become a legitimate threat to win it all.

First, they just need to navigate the bubble. And maybe borrow Harrell’s sauna.