Friday February 8th, 2008

Also in this column: Visiting with a top European coach Should Mavs stand pat at deadline? Revised predictions for West race

MOSCOW -- Didn't I pick a fine fortnight to leave the country? First Kobe Bryant returns to contention with new teammate Pau Gasol, then Shaquille O'Neal one-ups him via his trade this week to Phoenix. The former move is a no-brainer that can only help the Lakers; the latter has been decried -- in credible terms -- as a huge 330-pound (or more) gamble.

It's true, as his former European colleagues were quick to remind me, that the Suns' Mike D'Antoni has rarely gone with a traditional center going back to his coaching days in the Italian League. While I grasp the arguments of those who believe this will be the Suns' great undoing, my own gut feeling is that the rewards of Shaq can outweigh any problems he may create.

5. Improve their locker room. Since Shawn Marion's late-September request for a trade, the Suns have not been skipping along as blithely as their up-tempo style would suggest. So now they've traded one guy who felt unappreciated for another who feels grateful to be in Phoenix, and Shaq just so happens to be the biggest personality in the NBA. Mark this up as a huge gain in morale.

4. Improve their toughness. How many hard fighters were in the Suns' postseason rotation against the Spurs last year? Steve Nash? Raja Bell? Shaq gives them another leader who will fight -- especially now that the first half of the year is behind him, and the playoffs are closing in.

3. Improve Amaré Stoudemire. Early in his career with San Antonio, Tim Duncan learned by exploiting the opportunities created by David Robinson. The Suns have wanted Stoudemire to become their Duncan, but they've never paired him with anyone like Robinson. With Shaq partnering up with him in the frontcourt, Stoudemire will shift back to power forward, exploit mismatches and block shots as a help defender with more frequency. It's asking too much for him to mimic the career development of Duncan, but there's no doubting that Stoudemire will be harder than ever to neutralize at both ends of the floor.

2. An improved Shaq. I've been saying this all season and now we'll see if it's true: that Shaq has been a victim of a losing team in Miami. Of course he isn't what he was -- but he's also better than the 14.2 points and 7.8 rebounds he was putting up before the trade. In the company of Nash, Stoudemire, Bell, Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw, he should have more room to operate than he's seen in years, and he'll explore that space by scoring as well as passing. This is a passing team, and in that sense he'll fit in nicely.

1. Improve the half-court offense. The Suns started forward-center Kurt Thomas against San Antonio in the playoffs last season, and Duncan reacted by ignoring Thomas and guarding the rim to snuff out drives by Nash and Barbosa. This year that strategy won't be so easy. Help off Shaq and he will make defenses pay as the penetrators dish to him for dunk after dunk.

The Suns weren't able to run against the Spurs last spring, and that trend will continue against any title contender that plays disciplined defense. I say it's a mistake to focus on the Suns' breakneck style, because that style has not been available to them in the crucial moments of the playoffs. Hill's mid-range game was already beginning to change the way the Suns play offense; now Shaq gives them hope of winning in the half court, as well as in transition with Stoudemire and Nash still running on the break.

Arguably the best coach outside the United States, Messina is widely perceived as the leading candidate to become the first European to run an NBA franchise. The 48-year-old Italian, who coached his national team from 1993-97, has won two Euroleague club titles with Virtus Bologna of Italy and one with CSKA Moscow, where he is in his third season. His contract with CSKA expires this summer.

4. On dealing with Micheal Ray Richardson: In 1989-90, Messina was elevated to head coach of the Italian club Virtus Bologna in place of Bob Hill, who was returning to the NBA to become an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers. Messina was 29 when he took over the most famous basketball club in Italy.

My Americans were Clemon Johnson and Micheal Ray Richardson,'' Messina said. "I remember it was like this with Micheal: In my opinion, he was either a very difficult player to handle, or a very easy player to handle. I was very scared, honestly, of this. But one day, I remember, we have a problem in practice and I stop the practice and in front of the others I told him, 'Look, you can get me easily fired tomorrow morning. But then the next one will ask you the same thing I am asking you, if we want to win something in this league. If you want to shoot 25 times per game and play your game, then you will get another one fired and then another one. And then maybe one day they will fire you.' And he looked like he understood. And then he had two incredible seasons.

"And one day I was very happy because he told me, 'Look, I understand that here in Europe it's not important what kind of stats you put together, but how many wins your team has.'

"Then, unfortunately, in my third year there was some kind of problem and we part ways. In particular, we caught him again with his problem. The problem was we were doing random tests that were not official. So it became a war because the [fans] did not understand why we were losing him.'' In short, Bologna released Richardson but couldn't explain that he had failed a drug test. "And I was right in the middle of all this, and it was very difficult," Messina said.

3. On his next career move: "I would like to somehow close the circle,'' Messina said. "I have been with three different clubs to the [Euroleague] Final Four, and I've coached I think in eight or nine finals of the Euroleague. So it might be to try to do it in another country. Maybe Spain.

"I would like one day to be in Spain.''

There are rumors that Messina could end up with the Spanish club Barcelona or Tau Ceramica next season, but he did not address that speculation.

2. On becoming a coach in the NBA: "I should need the chorus to say that, OK, I put everything aside and I go there to be an assistant for a while and see what happens. I don't know. I don't know, if after many years when you do things your way, you could be a good assistant. I should sit by myself and think a lot about this in order to be honest with myself and with the people that in case would hire me.''

It probably will depend more on the NBA team and the quality of your American colleagues, I tell him. "That's exactly right,'' Messina said. "So I will see. It's very important to see how this season will end and what will happen after the season.''

But it sounds as if he is leaning more in favor of coaching in Spain than in accepting an assistant coaching position in the NBA, which is the career sacrifice he would have to make in order to eventually become an NBA head coach.

1. On whether his style can work in the NBA: When I bring up the obvious issue that NBA players have more authority over their coaches than do the players in Europe, he said: "There is a reason for this. Because the system itself helps this. In the [NBA] system, except in very rare exceptions, the player is evaluated in your system by his statistics. And the record of the team comes after. In our system, it's exactly the opposite.''

In Europe, Messina noted, "The player knows he needs somehow to win with the team if he wants to be recognized. Even in football -- in soccer -- with Ronaldo. Famous Ronaldo. As soon as he started losing with Inter Milano, regardless of the level of his performance, he was finished. The same thing is in all of our sports. Because of this, the player is pushing toward the team aspect of the game.

"I'm not blaming the NBA. It's just a difference. It's different. I don't know for a European coach how much easier it would be to adjust to this. Again, it all goes back to the organization that you might be working in.''

Is there a universal way of approaching players that can work either in Europe or in the NBA?

"I don't know if there is one way,'' Messina said. "I know the way that I can do it. I'm extremely straightforward. I have to say clearly what I think. If this is appreciated, then it's a good way to relate with people. If this is not appreciated because people would like only to have some kind of smooth level of conversation and information, this could be considered a bad way of relating to people. It does not depend on me, unfortunately.''

He will not change his approach if he ever does come to the NBA. "Absolutely [not], no matter what,'' he said. "The problem is that sometimes in our world, it's misunderstood, the fact that you are a straightforward person, because it means that you pass only bad information or tough information. But no, it's not true. I can tell you [in an] extremely quiet and extremely relaxed [way]. Sometimes I get mad for sure. But most of the time I'm going to tell you honestly, look, I believe this-this-this-this-this. The way you take it makes the difference. Unfortunately, we always assume that there is a lot of emotion involved in passing severe information or corrections.

"So I understand that sometimes people try to be nicer and try to pass you a lot of information in a smoother way. But from what I've seen in my life, in the end it's a waste of time. So I prefer to be like I am.''

A lot of coaches speak this language, but Messina has been backing it up with championship trophies for two decades. In the right situation, with an NBA team dedicated to winning, he could become Europe's answer to Gregg Popovich or Jerry Sloan.

"I must say that I'm lucky that I'm in a position that I can do this,'' Messina added. "But I did the same thing when I was young: I said I will do it this way, because if I try to be different, I will lose respect and I will lose right away.''

3. Should the Mavs go get Jason Kidd if it means having to give up Devin Harris? -- Martin W., Miami

I'm starting to wonder if Dallas might be better off standing its ground. The Spurs are struggling with issues of age and injuries, while the Suns and Lakers and even the Rockets -- with the hiring of coach Rick Adelman -- have made major acquisitions that might take more than one season to integrate. The Mavericks have a nice blend of youth and experience, and if they avoid a major trade, they could be the most harmonious team entering the Western Conference playoffs.

2. Thanks for your insight on a few of the international draft prospects. [You can read about Italy's Danilo Gallinari here and France's Nicolas Batum here.] Having not followed the overseas game, I'm wondering if you can give me a sense for what the competition is like there. For instance, which European country has the strongest league? And, regarding the "exclusive" Euroleague, how good is the competition there? -- Jonathan Anderson, New York

For some time now the Spanish ACB has been the top national league in Europe, setting the standard for organization in its league office as well as among its top clubs. The Russian league, led by CSKA Moscow and a few other clubs, has become the highest-paying league outside the NBA amid reports that some players are making $8 million "net'' (which means the club takes responsibility for paying the player's taxes as well as providing him with a home and a car; a player making $8 million net in Europe will take home much more money than someone on an $8 million NBA salary who must handle all of those expenses on his own).

The Euroleague is easily the second-best league in the world behind the NBA, and far superior to the level of play you see in the NCAA tournament. If Euroleague teams had the opportunity, I'm convinced that clubs like CSKA and Panathinaikos of Greece would consistently outplay a few NBA teams such as the young Timberwolves or SuperSonics.

1. Was the Pau Gasol trade that bad for Memphis? I've always thought Gasol was overrated, and it's not like they ever won a thing with him. But they've been getting killed for not getting more for him. -- Carson, Dallas

The Grizzlies were looking to get out from under Gasol's salary. For the Lakers, he'll be worth his $13.8 million if he boosts them into title contention as a secondary star to Kobe. For a small-market franchise like Memphis, Gasol wasn't providing enough star power to be worth the $49.4 million he is owed over the three seasons to come. Memphis received the same kind of package Minnesota settled for in its Kevin Garnett deal -- an expiring contract (Kwame Brown) to provide cap relief, young prospects (rookie point guard Javaris Crittenton and Pau's younger brother, 7-foot-1 center Marc Gasol, who is playing in Spain), and draft picks (first-round selections in 2008 and 2010). KG commanded a bigger haul for Minnesota because he's superior to Gasol, but the dynamics of both deals are similar.

I've changed my mind in a couple of spots since putting forth my All-Star picks last month. The first five picks in each conference are my starters.

2. The East: I agree with the voters and coaches in every spot, but then there aren't a lot of hard choices in this conference. My insistence on grandfathering Shaq to the All-Star team was complicated by his return to the West, as well as his hip injury. Joe Johnson should be rewarded for guiding Atlanta into playoff contention, even if the Hawks are three games below .500 -- they're still ahead of preseason playoff contenders like New Jersey, Chicago and Miami.

C Dwight Howard F Kevin Garnett F LeBron James G Dwyane Wade G Jason Kidd C Chris Bosh F Antawn Jamison F Paul Pierce F Caron Butler G Richard Hamilton G Joe Johnson G Chauncey Billups

1. The West: I recant on Yao Ming and Tim Duncan -- both deserve to be starters, especially Duncan. The readers who called me out for starting Carlos Boozer ahead of Duncan were right. But I insist that the coaches were dead wrong for leaving Manu Ginobili and Baron Davis off the team. As much as Brandon Roy and David West are worthy of being All-Stars, Ginobili and Davis are even more deserving.

C Yao Ming F Tim Duncan F Carmelo Anthony G Kobe Bryant G Steve Nash C Amaré Stoudemire F Carlos Boozer F Dirk Nowitzki G Allen Iverson G Manu Ginobili G Chris Paul G Baron Davis

Recent trades have forced me to come up with a new regular-season forecast for the West:

1. Dallas: Suddenly may be the most solid contender. 2. Utah: Will seize a high seed while others are experimenting. 3. L.A. Lakers: Watch Kobe going for the kill. 4. Phoenix: Will drop back during Shaq's absence and integration. 5. San Antonio: Sacrificing wins in pursuit of postseason health. 6. New Orleans: Will drop down -- slightly -- because of bench. 7. Denver: A highly dangerous playoff team -- especially if it acquires a point guard. 8. Houston: Will eke into the playoffs. 9. Golden State: A lottery team with 48 wins. 10. Portland: A lottery team with 45 wins. 11 Sacramento: A lottery team. 12. L.A. Clippers: Sabotaged by injuries. 13. Seattle: Self-evident. 14. Minnesota: Ditto. 15. Memphis: Ditto.

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