Friday February 22nd, 2008

Also in this column: Main obstacles to European expansion • Small trades that could pay off big

5. Utah Jazz. They've gone 19-3 since acquiring Kyle Korver in late December. He's averaging only 23.3 minutes for the Jazz, but his career-high 46.9 percent shooting appears to complete their team by providing the three-point range they've long needed. The Jazz have issues defensively, but at the other end of the floor they are now completely overwhelming.

4. Phoenix Suns. During the regular season they'll miss Shawn Marion in transition, and at the same time the Suns didn't obtain a simple plug-and-play center by trading for Shaquille O'Neal. It's going to take a while to sort out their new look.

Come the playoffs, however, they're going to be glad they have Shaq. When the games slow down against the Lakers or the Spurs, they'll have a rim protector on defense and an inside-out target on offense who will liberate Amaré Stoudemire to be a force at both ends. The Suns took a lot of heat for making this trade, but the Spurs might not have dealt for Kurt Thomas on Wednesday if they hadn't respected the difference Shaq (as well as Pau Gasol) will make in the postseason.

Bringing in Shaq is going to be a slow-boiling move. Wait until the playoffs to judge whether it succeeds.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers. They directed an 11-player trade among three teams at the deadline Thursday while raising questions about the chemistry of their new lineup. But look at this simply in terms of Cleveland's rotation and it becomes a no-brainer: They gave up Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes; they got back Ben Wallace and Joe Smith up front and Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West on the perimeter.

On the whole, they're a deeper and more talented team. Emotionally, it's a big gain because the defending conference champions knew deep down that they couldn't continue to survive against the upgraded competition at the top of the league. Now they're sure to approach the remaining two months of the regular season with a newfound intensity as they hurry to incorporate their new talent. There is going to be a sense of mission and purpose that this team had been lacking (e.g. No. 22 in field-goal defense).

Not only will they play with more energy, but they'll also have better weapons. LeBron James needed more deep shooting, which Cleveland will receive from Szczerbiak and West; the latter will also provide mandatory depth at point guard. Three of the newcomers are tough defenders (it's easy to guess which one isn't). And it's not hard to imagine that Wallace will be rejuvenated in a number of ways: He'll be playing for the championship again; he could benefit while being paired with the length and shooting of Zydrunas Ilgauskas; and it's guaranteed that LeBron will create easy baskets for him every now and then out of respect. He'll be a far better player than he was in Chicago, you can count on that.

2. Dallas Mavericks. Maybe they could have made the trade for Jason Kidd without yielding a pair of first-round picks, but that's talk for another day. The Mavericks were at a crossroads, with coach Avery Johnson running out of ways to appeal to them. You could tell by some of the poor efforts they were showing in recent weeks. They were down and up and down again in a way that was surprising; not unlike Cleveland, they needed to make a move for spiritual reasons as much as anything.

How will Kidd change their team? They'll get more easy baskets in transition, obviously. But he will also assert leadership offensively. Johnson needed help in a big way here, as it was becoming hard to describe the Mavericks' style -- their identity -- anymore. Was Dirk Nowitzki trying to become a playmaker who scores as an afterthought, or were the Mavs still built around his shooting while expecting him to pass only when necessary? Of course, the game is more complicated than that, but a team under pressure needs to be capable of answering the simple questions.

Kidd will eventually restore Nowitzki's confidence and dominance while bringing order to the Mavs' offense. The Mavs gave up a lot to get him -- the defense of Devin Harris will be missed against Tony Parker and Steve Nash, and DeSagana Diop will be a huge loss around the basket -- but more than anything they needed leadership. Nowitzki's strength as the league's biggest mismatch was on the wane, and now you'll begin to see him playing like his old self again.

1. Los Angeles Lakers. That trade for Gasol turned the Lakers from a second-round playoff team (at best) into a contender. You can tell the impact by the play of Kobe Bryant, who is doing his best impression yet of Michael Jordan. He is demonstrating a killer instinct that scares every team in the league. You did notice he scored 41 points the other night with a pinky that requires surgery?

The emotional impact is a big component of these midseason trades. This is a league that rarely yields upsets in the playoffs, and the best players know better than anyone whether they have a realistic chance of going far. Last summer Bryant wanted out; now he might be unwilling to trade his roster for anybody's ... well, maybe San Antonio's. Or maybe not.

As a versatile and deferential star, Gasol is an excellent complement to Bryant. Gasol, Lamar Odom -- who looks much more comfortable at small forward -- and Bryant are in their peak years, and they've gone 7-1 since Gasol's arrival. Imagine how they'll be after the return next month of Andrew Bynum, a center who doesn't need the ball. The Lakers may very well emerge as the team to beat in this conference.

During All-Star weekend in New Orleans I met with Jordi Bertomeu, the Spaniard who is CEO of the Euroleague. In the past decade, he has emerged as one of the most progressive leaders in basketball internationally, persuading the owners of the Euroleague clubs to aggressively seize responsibility for the league's marketing interests -- a novel concept in Europe. Now he is pushing his clubs to build new arenas that average 10,000 seats or more in hopes of developing ticket revenues, a previously neglected aspect of the business in European basketball.

Bertomeu has been trying to get the top clubs in Europe to view basketball as a business as well as a means of regional competition, the latter being the traditional Old World view. As such, he provides excellent perspective on the challenges commissioner David Stern would face in moving forward with plans to expand the NBA with five new franchises in Europe over the next decade.

Bertomeu doesn't necessarily see NBA expansion to Europe as a threat. "I don't think that when people are doing things for basketball that they are damaging basketball,'' he said. "Anybody who is trying to promote basketball -- no matter which is the way -- helps basketball.'' But he does have sincere doubts that the NBA model can succeed overseas.

4. The top European clubs don't try to make a profit. This has always been amazing to me, that the owners of basketball teams in Europe plow millions of dollars into their rosters without expecting to see a return on their investment.

"For me too, it is amazing,'' Bertomeu said. "But it is part of the culture. It is difficult to explain.''

It is going to be an enormous issue for Stern to make the case to fans that they must pay big money to support the financial interests of NBA teams in Europe. The fans of European basketball are not used to this responsibility.

"These owners,'' Bertomeu said of the top basketball clubs in Europe, "they think this is something they are giving to the community. If you ask Mr. Gilberto Benetton [who owns Benetton Treviso, one of the leading basketball clubs in Italy] why he is spending this crazy amount of money on the team, he will say that this is something I have to pay back to my region because I am from here, all of my business has been grown here, and I want to do this. So he spends money for the rugby team, for the basketball team, for the volley[ball] team, and he spends tons of money. And you talk about the owner of Panathinaikos [of Athens], he is proud to spend -- not invest -- every year 15 million Euros [equivalent to $22 million] just to cover the budget of the basketball team. He loves this. It is his passion. He is like some crazy fan.''

As bizarre as it may sound to us, Bertomeu is urging his clubs to make money a priority. "We are fighting to convince the clubs that they have to get money from TV, that their clubs have to be profitable,'' he said. "We are pushing them from many points of view to focus in this direction.''

In short, Stern will have to help create a new culture before he can hope to clean up financially in Europe.

3. Basketball is not viewed as mainstream entertainment in Europe.

This is another difference that's hard to explain, but there aren't a lot of casual sports fans in Europe. In basketball, especially, a fan of Benetton Treviso will follow his own team passionately, but he won't care much about a game involving Barcelona and CSKA Moscow.

"In Europe, we like the competition. We care about the result,'' Bertomeu said. "The fans like the show, but they prefer the competition -- to win or to lose. They are much more emotional about the result than they are to just enjoy the performance.''

The NBA will have to break new ground in getting audiences to watch basketball games as they would attend the theater or the movies.

"Our culture is not based in personalities [of individual players] but in the clubs,'' Bertomeu said. "People are crazy about Panathinaikos or Barcelona no matter who are the players. What we have is something more collective, rather than a culture of individuality. In Europe, the brand is not the player; the brand is the club.''

2. The laws change from country to country.

"When we are talking about some rule in Europe,'' Bertomeu said, "we have to interpret this with 13 different laws in 13 different countries. For example, we are working to develop a unified contract for the players. When we are working on that, we have to take into account 13 different [sets of national] laws, and not all of them allow us to do the same things.

"This is something that also the NBA has to take into account. Because the law in Paris is the French law, and nobody who plays in Paris can ask for a different law other than the French law. So I would like to learn how the collective [bargaining] agreement of the NBA works in Europe. That would be very interesting from the legal point of view.

"I also am interested to see what is the FIBA position on [NBA expansion to Europe] because FIBA is the body who runs basketball around the world. It's in their hands.''

1. It will be hard to sell European tickets at NBA prices.

"In Europe, one of the weakest points is still the ticket incomes,'' Bertomeu said. "That is why I'm skeptical about the NBA in Europe, because it's difficult in Europe for the clubs to have a significant part of the budget coming from the ticket. If you think about the NBA ticket price, definitely it's not feasible.

"Here in the NBA, you are working with one country [along with one Canadian team]. So there is a difference between Los Angeles and Memphis -- for sure it is different. But the difference is much bigger between Barcelona and Belgrade. Or Moscow and Belgrade. Or Tel Aviv and Zagreb, in terms of economics. So in Tel Aviv, the average ticket can be 100 euros [close to $150]. In Belgrade, it can be 2 euros or 3 euros [less than $5].''

I would imagine that Stern's retort would be that the NBA will bring a new, fresh approach to Europe in hopes that some of the traditional concerns would not apply. The Championships League of soccer has turned into something of a mainstream entertainment throughout Europe, as has Formula One auto racing.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the concerns raised by Bertomeu, because he in his own way is trying to introduce parts of the NBA model to European basketball -- and he is finding it extremely difficult to persuade the Old World to view things in a New World way.

"It's not only about business. The question is if all of the parties involved can find a way to cooperate or not in this project,'' Bertomeu said, referring to the project of growing European basketball and turning it into a profitable business. "Or if this is not possible, if we all are going to compete in the same market, then who will be in the better position? Will it be a strong, very recognized brand like the NBA, or will it be the traditional leagues in Europe? We will see.

"No matter if the NBA is coming or not coming, we definitely have to grow basketball in Europe. If they come, then they will come and we will see what happens. I have my doubts about it if -- this is very important -- they want to export the American model in Europe. In terms of the approach, the ticketing, the TV and the main business, this is the question mark.

"I am sure that David knows [of these issues] because he knows almost everything." But of the issues he raises regarding NBA expansion to Europe, Bertomeu said, "I don't see the solutions.''

3. What gives with those UGLY and CONFUSING All-Star uniforms? -- Marvin Pedersen, Fresno, Calif.

I was afraid to complain in fear of exposing my ignorance of fashion. But I too was not a big fan of those outfits or of the clothes worn by the evil character Two-Face (played by Tommy Lee Jones) in one of those tiresome Batman movies a decade ago.

2. Expanding the NBA to Europe would be a huge mistake. No 19-year-old kid -- let's face it, the future of the draft will be full of them -- coming out after one year in college is going to want to go live in a foreign nation, surrounded by a culture he has little knowledge of. Is it right to uproot someone that drastically? -- Brian, Austin, Texas

Is it right to pay a 19-year-old kid $3 million or more per year one year after he left high school? If he doesn't want to play for a team in London, Rome or Berlin, then good luck to him finding another job that pays as well.

It's OK for a teenager from Serbia, Italy or France to travel here to play professionally, but it's asking too much for young Americans to move abroad in pursuit of their career? You're not giving enough credit to the ability of young Americans to adapt. More than 1,500 American men are playing professional basketball in countries outside the United States, and all are earning less than the average NBA salary of $5 million.

1. What are your thoughts on just relocating teams instead of starting new franchises? There have been talks of relocation for Seattle, New Orleans and Memphis, and low attendance in a handful of others. To avoid the talent drain, I think it would make much more sense for relocation until there is more than enough talent to go around. -- Dylan Phelan of Green Bay, Wis.

These teams are going to need local ownership. If George Shinn had trouble finding common ground with the people of North Carolina, then I don't like his chances in France or Spain.

As for the drain on talent, these teams would be relying on a predominance of international players as well as coaches and executives. Depending on the ambitions and contract situations of people like Ettore Messina (the Italian who currently coaches CSKA Moscow) and Maurizio Gherardini (another Italian who is currently VP/assistant GM of the Toronto Raptors), I'm sure the NBA would want to involve them in the new clubs.

2. San Antonio acquires Kurt Thomas. He raises their average age, but the 35-year-old gives them a reliable defender and shotmaker for the playoffs as insurance in case Robert Horry begins to wane. Thomas will be crucial against the front line of the Lakers or Suns.

1. Detroit acquires Juan Dixon. Sometime during the Eastern Conference finals, don't you know that Dixon is going to come off the bench in the second half to hit big jumpers against the Celtics? One can almost fill in the box score already.

1. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Can we give it up already? There are so many more interesting stories. It's far more intriguing to see how Shaq will marry himself to Nash and Stoudemire than how he may do against Kobe's new-look Lakers. It's like focusing on the friendship of Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor, this continuing backward preoccupation with Shaq and Kobe.

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