Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The World's Game

Photo by Flickr user mushroom and rooster used under a Creative Commons license.

Yesterday, some of us who were scoreboard watching the NBA preseason may have noticed this little blip:

MEM 99, MAL 102.

Who is that team that Memphis lost to? I admit I had to do a double take to make sure it didn't say MIL or LAL or something like that (I sometimes feel like I am very minorly dyslexic), but in fact it turned out to be Unicaja Malaga, a team out of Spain that has produced such NBA as Jorge Garbajosa and Walter Hermann.

Now, Malaga are by no means cupcakes; they won the Spanish League Championship two years ago. However, I don't think people would consider them to be a European powerhouse in the way that Tel Aviv Maccabi, Panathinaikos, Barcelona, and CSKA Moscow are. Even Tau Ceramica, Olympiakos, and Benneton Treviso have, if nothing else, more name reconition under their belts. A quick glance of Euroleague playoff history shows that Malaga sometimes makes it to the Final Four, but never in their history have they even made it to the championship. I'd probably compare their relative strength to that of Cleveland in the NBA: a good team and probably a lock for the playoffs, but by no means a perennial championship contender like the Spurs.

We were shocked two years ago when a Chris Bosh-led Raptors team fell to Maccabi. We were surprised when Allen Iverson and the Sixers went down against Barcelona last year. I feel like this year, we are almost taking it in stride.

Though Memphis had the league's worst record last year, I thought they were going to be at least middle of the pack this year (I picked them to be 9th in the West, 16th overall). People forget that they were a playoff team 2 years ago with a lot of young talent waiting in the wings. Last season was lost because of the injury to Pau Gasol, but there was no reason that they wouldn't rebound this year, especially with the additions of Mike Conley Jr, Darko Milicic and Juan Carlos Navarro, along with the continued developments of Rudy Gay, Hakim Warrick, and Kyle Lowry.

In this game, Memphis did go deep into their bench, using 10 players in all, but not much deeper than it seems they'd go under normal circumstances. I can't see their rotation not including Navarro, Milicic, Warrick, Casey Jacobsen, or Kyle Lowry. Mike Miller and Pau Gasol, the team's headliners, performed well with 17-9 and 18-10 outputs respectively. But they still were beaten. Not only beaten, but fought to a standstill. The Grizzlies didn't lose like the Raptors did, leading the whole way and then giving it up with only 2 minutes to go in the game, they were even with or trailing Malaga the entire way.

Here is where I'm going with this. If Malaga is able to beat Memphis in this fashion, is it inconceivable that Panathinaikos is a better team than say the Atlanta Hawks? Over the past few years, we've come to the realization that the US National team is beatable in international competition, but that was because of our best players not showing up and fellow NBA'ers clogging international rosters. Now if we have to accept that European clubs are better than NBA teams, then what has happened to our product? Is such a development good or bad for the NBA as a whole? I have always enjoyed international competition, but the thought that the NBA might not include the best players, coaches, and overall teams in the world is scary to me.