Holding Court - FIBA final favorites are still US, Spain
The FIBA World Cup is well into its knockout stage but not much has changed regarding the odds on which team will likely fight it out for the championship. Well, a few teams have fallen along the way, like Argentina and Australia (which caused a furor on an obvious pulling-its-punch stunt it pulled off against Angola in group play), but is there any deceiving one’s self about an anticipated US-Spain duel in the finals?
The host Spaniards, starring Pau and Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and a host of capable perimeter players, have proven to be as potent as advertised. They pulverized the opposition in group play, accumulating a quotient of +126 for an average winning margin of 25.2 points. The silver-medalists in the last two Olympics beat Iran 90-60, Egypt 91-54, Brazil 82-63, France 88-64 and Serbia 89-73 in the group competition. They then looked overpowering in eliminating Senegal 89-56 in the round of 16, a victory that sent them into a rematch with France in the quarterfinals, not exactly a tantalizing prospect for the French despite their own NBA-steeped roster.
If there’s any lingering doubt about the Spaniards’ worth as the biggest threat to the defending champion Americans, that’s been erased by their performance so far.
“Spain has played better basketball than anyone through five games – including the Yanks,” Marc Stein of ESPN simply said. “The hosts have size, shooting, playmaking, better perimeter defending than you think (with Ricky Rubio and Sergio Llull) and, yes, a legit homecourt advantage. They also went 5-0 in Group A by their own gaudy 25.2-point average margin of victory, which includes spankings of Brazil (by 19) and France (24).”
Pau Gasol, whose worth has always been underappreciated, even by his NBA team of the past six years, the LA Lakers, has shown he still has the mojo to make his incoming teammates in Chicago excited. The 7-foot 1 Gasol ranks fourth in the tournament in scoring with a team-best 20.5 points in just 25.7 minutes, shooting a scorching 64.4 percent from the floor and 76.5 percent from the line. He also ranks just behind South Korea’s Lee Jong-hyun (2.6) and the US’ Anthony Davis (2.3) in blocked shots with an average of 2.2 per game, leading two other teammates – brother Marc (1.5) and Serge Ibaka (1.4) – in the top 10. This early, Gasol is making a strong case as the World Cup’s MVP, and if the Spaniards win the title, there’s no question who should get it at this point.
His brother Marc, who starts at center beside him, ranks second on the team in scoring with 11.3 points (70.6 FG and 72.4 FT shooting) and also averages a team-leading 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists in a team-high 26.3 minutes.
Ibaka, the third wheel in the Spaniards’ imposing frontline, norms 9.0 points, fourth on the team, and 6.2 rebounds while providing the kind of tough play that should come in handy against the Americans.
But perhaps a frequently-overlooked strength of this Spanish team given the attention its formidable frontline invariably gets is its potent perimeter corps led by NBA veterans Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez and Jose Calderon.
Rubio, the youngest at 23 among these veterans, leads the tournament in assists with 5.8 per game as well as in steals with an astonishing 3.7 per contest. The 6-foot-4 Minnesota point guard, a member of the Spanish national team since he was 17 – the youngest in history to have played in an Olympic final when Spain lost to the US 118-107 in 2008 in Beijing, also averages 5.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in just 19.8 minutes of floor burn, a testament to the Spaniards’ deep backcourt.
Navarro, who now plays for FC Barcelona of the Spanish ACB League after playing for Memphis for a season, averages a team-third-best 10.0 points (46.5 FG and 76.9 FT shooting) and 2.7 assists in 21.3 minutes. Fernandez, who played four years in the NBA with Portland and Denver and is now with Real Madrid, norms 9.0 points (50 FG and 90 FT shooting), 2.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds in 21.2 minutes, while Calderon, now with the Knicks, has played sparingly (15.0 minutes) and can certainly do more than his current 4.8-point norm in the big games ahead.
Two other backcourtmen – Llull and Sergio Rodriguez – average at least 14 minutes of playing time to make the Spanish team at least nine-deep. The 6-3 Llull, a former Denver draftee and currently a teammate of Fernandez with Real Madrid, averages 5.7 points in 21.3 minutes while Rodriguez, a four-year NBA veteran with Portland, Sacramento and New York, norms 5.2 points and 1.7 assists in 14.8 minutes.
While the Spanish depth is certainly not more than that of the Americans, the US nevertheless could have some problems if starting point guard Kyrie Irving doesn’t get back at full strength after hurting his lower back following a nasty fall towards the end of the US’ 95-71 rout of Ukraine in group play. Irving was in great pain in the Americans’ 86-63 romp over Mexico in the round of 16 (“I couldn’t even sit down on the bench,” he said) but against Slovenia in the quarterfinals early this morning, where Team USA dominated in the second half to score an emphatic 119-76 triumph, he looked alright.
Derrick Rose, Team USA’s other full-time point guard, also seemed to have regained some rhythm with 12 points, his highest since the opening win against Finland, and a game-high five assists while still feeling his way in. The 2011 NBA MVP, who missed all but 10 games the past two seasons because of two serious knee injuries, had struggled mightily with his shot and was averaging just 4.3 points while shooting an abysmal 21.6 percent (8-of-37) from the field (9.1 percent from trey country) before this game. He now has slightly better norms of 5.6 points and 29.8 percent.
“I’d like to see (Rose) go off,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said wistfully while the Americans prepared against Slovenia during a rare three-day break. Their blowout win over the Slovenians moved them to the semifinals against Lithuania, a 73-61 victor over Turkey. “He’s trying to get everyone involved. He looks for his stuff not just fifth sometimes, but sixth or seventh. And we need him to look like he’s 1 or 2 when he’s out on the court. Look to make plays for people, but try to make plays for yourself, too. He’s being very unselfish and trying to be a great teammate. Derrick is obviously a great guy, (but) we need him to be Derrick, the player. His focus isn’t on him offensively. And I don’t think he became the great player he was having that mindset. So hopefully he’ll have the mindset that we want him to.”
Rose’s coach with Chicago who is among Krzyzewski’s assistants, Tom Thibodeau, simply said the 6-3 guard’s working his way back to speed is probably the ideal way to make his comeback. “I think there’s been some good and bad in every game for him,” Thibodeau said. “When you haven’t played in two years, that’s to be expected.”
Krzyzewski actually has another point guard, Stephen Curry, who regularly plays the spot with Golden State but is the starting shooting guard on Team USA, but the 6-3 guard also struggled early in the tournament. He seemed to have finally hit his stride against Mexico, where he topscored for the US with 20 points after going 7-for-10 from the field, 6-of-9 from three-point range, but he was in foul trouble against Slovenia and scored just six points while missing seven of nine floor shots.
Curry is one of five American players averaging in double figures in the tournament, norming 10.4 points on 41.1 percent floor shooting (45.7 percent from beyond the arc) and 100 percent free-throw clip. He’s also averaging 3.6 assists (second only to James Harden’s 3.9) and 1.6 steals, one of seven Americans to average at least a steal (the others are team leader Harden, Irving, DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Anthony Davis and Klay Thompson) in a demonstration of the US’ excellent anticipation and quickness on the defensive end.
The other double-figure scorers for the Americans are Davis, the team’s leading scorer with a 13.7-point average, surprise package Kenneth Faried (13.0), Harden (12.7), and Thompson, who topscored for the US in the Slovenia victory with 20 points (12.3). Cousins, who impressed Krzyzewski with his defensive work against Mexico, just missed with a 9.7-point clip, while Irving has a 9.3 scoring norm aside from a 3.4 clip in assists, third on the squad.
Faried (8.1), Davis (7.0) and Cousins (5.0) are the team’s top three rebounders.
What’s especially encouraging for Krzyzewski is the play of the 6-11 Cousins, who against Mexico showed the kind of post defense that will surely be needed in the much-anticipated final showdown with Spain. In less than 14 minutes, Cousins banged with Mexican star Gustavo Ayon in the low post, put in two shot blocks, made all five of his floor attempts for 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds. He provided a preview of what he can possibly do to the Gasol brothers who, notwithstanding his wondrous skills, Davis would be hard-pressed to cover singly when they do meet in their projected final matchup.
“We have believed in DeMarcus right from training camp,” Coach K said. “All the reports about him not making the team and all that were all not right. We felt he would be the perfect guy with or in place of Anthony at times, but more in the place of Anthony. I think his defense has really improved. He tried to take three charges today. He played Ayon pretty well without getting help. I thought he played… he’d get an A-plus from me today. Let’s just put it that way.”
Right now, the most pressing concern of Krzyzewski and company is the fact that the US has just had less than a month of being together since getting back in Chicago after their Las Vegas camp. Compared with the Spaniards’ years of working together that has bred much-needed familiarity among the players (10 players on the roster also played for Spain in the 2012 Olympics), that’s like matching up a pickup squad with a well-drilled team that has won championships in the past.
Charles Barkley, ever the maverick that he is (remember his now-strained relationship with former close friend Michael Jordan that he recently revealed?), picked Spain to beat the US if and when the two teams meet in the finals.
“I think that the United States is going to lose to Spain. No. 1, I think Spain has a terrific team. I think the biggest advantage Spain has, is, one, they’re playing at home, but also they’re not intimidated. All their players play in the NBA,” Barkley said. “If you look back, the biggest advantage we had in ’92 was these guys were so in awe of us. Everybody wanted to take pictures with us. They want your autographs. Serge Ibaka, Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol, they don’t want these guys’ autographs. They see them all the time. The US doesn’t have that intimidation factor. I think Spain wins.”
Sir Charles, on the basis of raw facts, has a point. Now, it’s all up to Krzyzewski, Davis, Harden and company to prove him wrong.
Tampering it was
It came straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Any kind of denial from hereon in would just be an effort to save one’s neck and deflect attention from a violation that was clearly committed.
We’re talking here about the trade of Kevin Love from Minnesota to Cleveland a few weeks back, and the circumstances attending that trade before, during and after it was completed. It does look now that LeBron James, and, by extension, the Cleveland Cavaliers, committed tampering when Love himself admitted, revealed, or just plain let it slip out by accident that James called him through the phone right after he signed his contract with Cleveland, which, as people know, took place on July 12, 2014.
“LeBron had signed to come back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and just a few hours post he called me and I said, ‘You know what? I’m in.’ That had a lot to do with my decision. I knew they had a lot of young pieces in place, a lot of great talent that has accumulated here as well, and I knew the city relatively well, but that had a lot to do with it.”
Now, just to be clear about it, James signed a two-year contract with Cleveland, never making it longer than that in anticipation of a new collective bargaining agreement that is expected to usher in a bigger windfall in player salaries. If that happens, James could become the highest-paid player in history with a $40 million-per-annum paycheck, surpassing the record $33.14 million Michael Jordan got from Chicago in 1997-98.
But we’re digressing. The day James signed that two-year contract, he called Love. This means that LeBron made the call to invite him, entice him, or ask him to work out a scheme so Love can join him in Cleveland and play and win championships together while Love was under contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves. That’s a no-no under the league’s tampering rules.
Mind you, we’re not trying to beat a dead horse here. It’s not even remotely imaginable now for Adam Silver and the NBA to look into this revelation of Love and do something to apply its rules. Heck, Silver himself was reported by Adrian Wojnarowski to have given Cavs owner Dan Gilbert permission to meet with Love during the Las Vegas Summer League late in July, more than a week after James’ Sports Illustrated essay saying he was coming back home to Cleveland came out on July 11. This, by the way, would be James’ second case of dubious recruitment after he did the same thing back in 2010 with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh even while his contract with Cleveland and Bosh’s with Toronto had not yet expired.
“Four years ago, when LeBron teamed with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, then commissioner David Stern did not ‘consider it colluding,’ which is a ridiculous statement,” Ben Rohrback of Yahoo Sports’ popular Ball Don’t Lie said. “It may not have been tampering, since all three were free agents (not exactly), but it was definitely collusion. Regardless, the difference here is Love was under contract in Minnesota, and James called immediately after signing in Cleveland.”
But since Silver and the NBA seem inclined to look the other way, this is just all about processing and analyzing the principles operating in the world’s ultimate basketball league, and whether there’s a double standard in the way it applies its own rules. You be the judge afterwards.
Suffice it to say that the NBA rule on tampering is very clear about the prohibition on what James did in this case. This is because the rule on tampering goes this way: “Tampering is when a player or team directly or indirectly entices, induces or persuades anybody (player, general manager, etc.) who is under contract with another team in order to negotiate for their services. The NBA may impose suspensions and/or fines up to $50,000 if tampering is discovered, however the league's practice has been to wait until a team lodges a complaint before investigating (but that’s not to say they don’t continue to monitor the league and won’t take action independently if they discover that tampering has occurred).”
Of course, applying this rule fairly and equally now would be laughable simply on the basis of who are the parties involved. How can this happen when it is James and his team Cleveland that are guilty of the violation? How can an investigation be made, much less tampering be declared when every party, even Minnesota for the obvious benefit it would get after having been painted into a corner by Love, is a partner to the crime? The league in fact was willing to facilitate a deal by allowing negotiations to take place even before it could legally be allowed. Remember, Andrew Wiggins, who along with Anthony Bennett went to the T-Wolves in the trade for Love, signed his rookie contract on July 24, and he could thus not be traded until one month later on August 23 based on the existing CBA, which means no negotiations could be made as well.
But tell that to the Marines. The charade orchestrated, or at least allowed, by the league had made it possible for all parties concerned to gloss over the rules.
James wanted Love on the Cavaliers simply because he provides a second go-to guy who can dominate the boards besides, and he won’t have to do as much teaching as he would had Wiggins and Bennett, the top overall picks in the last two drafts, stayed behind. The Cavs, of course, would always do their favorite son’s bidding. Minnesota, meanwhile, will never lodge a complaint simply because it’s fully into all this from Step 1, making off with a handsome package of Wiggins, Bennett and Philadelphia forward Thaddeus Young in exchange for an All-Star who would never re-sign with the club anyway.
This had actually been our primary beef with Stern when he was commissioner. The league’s top honcho, all right, has powers that allow him to make Solomonic decisions for the good of the league, but Stern often exercised those powers with some slant towards the path of least resistance, which means that if it would rock the boat, he wouldn’t do it no matter if it was right.
Silver certainly won points when he spearheaded the removal of Donald Sterling as LA Clippers owner for racist remarks that became public, but he has yet to prove that he is willing to take unpopular stands, or risk the ire of personalities and their fans who he knows are vital to the league’s commercial success, and one of them is James. But this begs the question: Is there a double standard in the application of league rules? Why fine the Toronto Raptors, for example, when their global brand ambassador Drake instigated a “KD” chant among fans in a concert attended by Kevin Durant, then look the other way when James is involved, and when a much more serious case of tampering really seems to have been committed?
The Cavaliers, in fact, were reported to have committed a second violation of the tampering rules when they supposedly reached an agreement with Love – even before his trade could be completed – to opt out of his contract after the 2015 season and sign a five-year extension worth more than $120 million. That’s, of course, a no-no for anybody as it represents an illegal deal between two parties that are not allowed to reach such an agreement – yet – Love still being a property of the T-Wolves at that point. But would Silver even bat an eyelash once this claim that leaked out to the press indeed assumes concrete shape when such a deal is forged between Love and the Cavs a year from now?
This is not rocket science. If indeed Love opts out and signs that contract, then that would prove a prior agreement between him and the Cavs indeed took place even before his trade to Cleveland could be completed, a clear case of tampering under league rules. Then, nobody could deny there was indeed something underhanded – and illegal – that took place under the very noses of the NBA and Silver.
The question now is, what does one do when the NBA and its supposed guardian of morals, the commissioner, look the other way and play blind? What happens when there indeed seems to be a double standard being observed by the league, one for LeBron and one for the rest of the hoi polloi, or at least the lesser citizens outside the ranks of the superstars?
What I'd like to see is somebody else doing exactly the same thing and let's watch what the league does about it. When that happens, Silver and the league would have lost all moral authority to impose their own rules simply because they never did when a previous situation called for it. – Rappler.com
Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a sports column for QC and Metro Manila Life as well as, until this summer, a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.