Friday June 5th, 2009

5. Drazen Petrovic was a self-made star. Sunday will mark the 16th anniversary of the death of Petrovic, a 28-year-old Croatian coming off an All-NBA season when he was killed in a car accident in Germany.

"He was a basketball hermit. He didn't have a lot of social life other than basketball," said Kenny Grant, the American agent who helped Petrovic break ground by entering the NBA in 1989. "He believed he could make it in the NBA and he really wanted the opportunity to do it."

There were 75 "internationals" on NBA rosters this season, and many of them follow the example established by the 6-foot-5 Petrovic during the Cold War, when players from the Eastern bloc never dreamed of reaching the NBA. The political ins and outs of his departure from the former Yugoslavia are less relevant today than the story of how he became an NBA-ready talent in so distant and foreign a place. There was no secret to it other than hard work.

"He lived across the street from the gym, and even when his team practiced two times a day, he was in there before everyone else taking his 500 shots," Grant said. "Basketball was all he did. He had phenomenal scoring records back then, even though he was facing constant double teams and box-and-ones, and I remember when he was going to the NBA, he said, 'I'll be so happy to never see a box-and-one again.' "

In 1988, Petrovic moved from the Yugoslavian club Cibona Zagreb to Spain, where he played one season with Real Madrid. He joined the Trail Blazers a year later, and while he was frustrated by his limited role off the bench, he used his one-and-a-half seasons with Portland to lift weights and develop his body to deal with the physical NBA defenses. After being traded in 1991 to the Nets -- who had a need for backcourt scoring -- he became a revelation. Petrovic averaged 20.6 points in his first full season for New Jersey, followed by a 22.3-point performance in the season of his death.

"He was a great shooter, but he wasn't a natural shooter," Grant said. "He was a 'made' shooter because he shot so many times. He wasn't the kind of guy you watched and said, 'What a fluid stroke.' You didn't think it was going in because of the way he looked; it was going in because you knew he played a lot. He was a very tough, very competitive guy who worked for it."

4. A European will influence the championship. Four imports are playing a variety of important roles in the Finals. Lakers power forward Pau Gasol of Spain is the No. 2 star to Kobe Bryant. Hedo Turkoglu of Turkey is the starting small forward for the Magic as well as a part-time point guard, especially in fourth quarters when the games are in doubt. His teammate Mickael Pietrus of France is a three-point-shooting sixth man who defended LeBron James in the East finals and is guarding Bryant in the Finals. Sasha Vujacic of Slovenia is a shooter off the bench for the Lakers who fancies himself a defender as well.

"When you watch them in international events and you see them play against our best players -- and obviously we won [the Olympics last summer] pretty handily -- what you notice about our team is our athleticism is on a very high level," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. "But [the Europeans] are able to compete because of their skills."

And so Van Gundy launches into a constructive rant -- a tremendous, thoughtful sermon, a spot-on tirade, delivered without so much as raising his voice -- on the advantages of developing players overseas rather than in the United States ...

3. Europeans know what they're doing. "If you look around the league, it becomes pretty evident that the Europeans are quite a bit ahead of us in terms of skill development for players, especially [if you look] at the bigger players -- Dirk Nowitzki, Hedo Turkoglu, Peja Stojakovic," said Van Gundy, listing a trio of European shooters all 6-10 or taller. "We tend to take our big guys and stick them all around the basket. From a very young age, our coaches say, 'Get it to a guard' -- they get upset if our [big] guys even try to dribble the ball.

"The way we develop our players from a young age is just inferior to what they do there. They spend a lot more time on skill development. We want all our young kids here to play as many games as possible, to play in AAU tournaments from the time they're 8. You'll run into people who will tell you their son's team won the 8-and-under state AAU tournament -- like, who cares? But we're really into that for our kids, we want our kids to get recognition for being the best at a young age.

"In Europe, I think it's so much different. Their club teams practice a couple of times a day. One of those practices, I think, is just skills development. And then I think the other thing that helps them is, from a young age, when they're good, they move up."

By this, Van Gundy means that phenoms like Ricky Rubio grow up from their mid-teens playing against grown men in the European professional leagues. Instead of dominating their age groups at the AAU or high school level as American players do, the best European teenagers are striving to play to a much higher level among professionals.

"So they're always having to work and get better," Van Gundy said. "What we want to do is take our young [American] kids and put them on the covers of magazines and tell them how great they are and fill them up with adulation, instead of them having to work and get better.

"Think about what goes on in our youth sports. We cheat. We want to say the guy who is 13 is only 12, so he can play down [at an easier age level], whether it's Danny Almonte or whatever, so we can glorify them and win our championship. Instead of that, why not play the guy up with 16-year-olds if he's that good and let him learn that I can't throw the fastball down the middle, I can't overpower this kid? But that's not us. Our system is to do just the opposite. And why is a kid going to take two hours a day in a gym by himself, when he can go play in an AAU tournament and have somebody hand him a trophy and say he's the ninth-ranked sixth-grader in America and stuff like that? It's ridiculous, our system. Who cares who the top 10 sixth-graders in America are? Why would that even matter to anyone? It's certainly not going to aid their skill development as time goes on.

"The whole thing in our basketball is that the system is not conducive to developing players. You get a guy like Hedo growing up over there, and for them, what they're thinking of is the end in mind. They're thinking of the national team down the road and how do we make this guy better. But we're not thinking that way here."

2. No limitations. The NCAA limits practice time to 20 hours per week, and it is a well-intentioned rule meant to create time for athletes to pursue academic studies. But in the narrow sense of developing basketball talent, it creates an advantage for Europeans.

"That was one of the major things I noticed," said former Lakers shooting guard Coby Karl, the son of Nuggets coach George Karl, and a teammate of Rubio's at DKV Joventut Badalona this season. "I've talked to one of my dad's assistant coaches who loves working guys out, and a conversation we've always had is European players are always getting [relatively] better because of the NCAA system of not allowing you to work out."

Last month, when I was in Barcelona to report a recent feature on Rubio, the 18-year-old Spanish point guard who is likely to be the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, I was led through the arena of Rubio's club by his father, Esteve Rubio. On one of many practice courts adjacent to the main arena, 10-year-old kids were weaving through a series of drills teaching them to dribble with either hand. A sophisticated young group they were: Half of them were wearing the NBA jerseys of Spaniards Rudy Fernandez and Pau Gasol, as well as Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson and other stars.

"Over here, my team has probably eight to 15 [junior] teams underneath it, so you have kids running around here at the age of 6 who are working on skills that you don't teach in America until you get to middle school," Karl said. "So that's where you begin to understand why Ricky is as good as he is and why some of these younger guys on my team in Europe are as good as they are. It's because they learn these skills from when they could start walking and dribbling a ball, and that's a distinct advantage the European player has. They can work on their game from the age of 6 with a coach who knows what he's talking about in a proven way.

"I've seen some of the ball-handling drills they do and some of the pick-and-roll situations they go over with the middle-school kids. They do the slow European one-two change of direction like Sarunas Marciulionis used to do, or like Manu Ginobili or Ricky."

He is referring to the "Euro step" -- the move in which Ginobili sidesteps a defender by making a 90-degree detour before resuming his momentum toward the basket.

"They're teaching this to young kids here," Karl went on. "Some of the younger guys have been practicing with us from the [junior] team, so these guys are developing into players as the season goes along. They might be playing games [at their own age level], but they're also here in practice with us playing against top professionals, as well as practicing with their younger team in the same day. And they might have an individual workout on top of that. I mean, you could have a kid who's 18 years old having an individual workout at 10 a.m., going to practice with his team at 2 p.m., and then coming to practice with Joventut at 6 p.m.. It doesn't give much time for anything else, but you can definitely develop as a basketball player."

Karl had a frustrating season in Spain after joining the team in midseason, failing to establish a major role in the rotation. It's a common rookie experience for Americans in Europe, but instead of being discouraged he sees the merit in their system.

"The way they drill situations is far superior to any coaching system in middle school and high school that we have in America," he said.

Now he understands how Rubio has mastered so many tricks with the ball at such a young age: Rubio's creative talents have been fed and nurtured.

"A lot of that stuff has been taught," Karl said. "So it's not just him being a creative mind -- they teach the Steve Nash scoop layup, they teach the slow one-two. They teach a lot of these things from a young age, and those are things I want to improve on this summer, the use of pivots or the use of your two steps after you pick up the ball. Those are things I want to work on and use because they're very crafty things, and I think I already have a lot of that in my game but I want to have more."

In short, these are skills that aren't usually taught to American players.

"But they don't have a choice," Karl said. "When you only have three hours a day to practice, you have to make everything team-oriented -- to work on your team defenses and those aspects of the game. But over here you have multiple hours in the day to work on individual and team."

1. Humility. Apart from the European club system that signs the best players in their mid-teens and works them through the daily factory of drills that further their skills, the Europeans have a psychological edge in viewing themselves as underdogs. To me, they draw strength from an inferiority complex: They look across the ocean to majestic athletes such as Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, and the Europeans fear they will never be able to match up. And so they work ever more.

The same anxiety helps to drive coaches in Europe. Maybe they lack the background of U.S. coaches who have been raised in the American culture of basketball. So the coaches in Europe study the technical aspects of the game and learn the finer points through clinics and textbooks and videos. To many of them, basketball becomes an academic, technical exercise, something to be learned step-by-step.

"You see an occasional LeBron James, but for the most part who are the great, highly skilled American 6-9 and 6-10 guys?" Van Gundy said. "I wish we would get to their system, because we still have the best athletes -- we've got people that have the potential to do all of those things.

"I look at a Dirk Nowitzki, and I find it hard to believe that we'll ever have guys of that size with those kinds of skills here. Because we don't take the time to develop them. We'll never have those guys."

No sooner has he said that than Van Gundy is backing away from that statement, because, of course, there are highly skilled U.S. players. Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh are two homegrown big men who can do a number of things with the ball.

"That doesn't mean we don't have highly skilled athletes, because we do," Van Gundy acknowledged. "But I think those guys have to somehow do it on their own. There's certainly not a system that's set up for us here to develop skills. It doesn't mean there aren't certain guys who just go in the gym and make themselves highly skilled guys, but we don't have a system to develop skills here."

4. With a fully healthy Jameer Nelson back in the Magic's starting lineup next season, where does that leave Rafer Alston? On the bench? On the trade block? Pouting? -- Bryan, Edison, N.J

First of all, Alston has made it clear that he will accept a secondary role behind Nelson, who was an All-Star before undergoing shoulder surgery. But his expiring $5.3 million salary next season may create the biggest impact. It will put Orlando into the luxury tax going into a season when the Magic may have to commit extra money to Hedo Turkoglu, who could opt out this summer. Alston is a valuable asset -- the Magic could not have reached the Finals without trading for him in February -- and his expiring contract will make him especially attractive for a potential trade either this summer or at the midseason deadline next year.

3. What do the Nuggets need to do to make the next step up the Western Conference ladder? Do they have the financial flexibility to make any changes? -- Tim S., Colorado Springs, Colo.

Like so many teams this summer, they'll need to be creative. They have four players making $10 million or more -- Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Chauncey Billups and Nenê -- and nine players under contract altogether at $69 million, which puts them virtually at the tax threshold. They don't have a first-round pick to weigh down their payroll, but will they be able to re-sign free agents Chris Andersen, Anthony Carter, Dahntay Jones and Linas Kleiza, all of whom played important roles this season? It will be interesting to watch.

2. Did Anderson Varejao's inconsistent play in the East finals cost him some potential dollars in free agency this summer? What are the odds he returns to the Cavs -- or was his last negotiation so contentious, there is no way he'll return? -- Richard, Mayfield Heights, Ohio

The negotiations were contentious on both sides, yes. But the Cavaliers can't afford to get caught up in that. It will be all about the bottom line of improving their roster in order to win a championship and nail down a new contract that keeps LeBron James in Cleveland.

Varejao isn't the problem. He provides a lot of important qualities defensively and around the glass that any championship team could use. He isn't a scorer, and so they should try to find a post player who can finish a play with his back to the basket.

There is no simple answer to your question, Richard. If Varejao opts out, as expected, and the Cavaliers can find better value elsewhere to replace him, then of course that's what they'll do. The point I'm making is that it's hard to find energetic big men, and players like him cannot be taken for granted. But it's impossible to say what will happen because it will depend on the market. For all we know, Varejao could wind up in a sign-and-trade package to Phoenix for Shaquille O'Neal.

1. I see where some congressman wants to strike down the age minimum to enter the NBA. Is there any chance the NBA rescinds the rule? Isn't it patently unfair to restrict the work possibilities of these players? If a team is willing to offer them a job, why shouldn't they be able to sign a contract? -- Brett, Minneapolis

U.S. Rep. Steven Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, criticized the NBA minimum age of 19 years as "a vestige of slavery. Not like the slavery of 150 years ago," said Cohen in a New York Times report, "but it's a restraint on a person's freedoms and liberties."

I don't see the issue here. The NBA is a business, and the age limit is meant solely to preserve standards to enhance that business. If a player wants to play basketball professionally before he turns 19, he can play in the American minor leagues or he can seek work abroad. Did you know there are close to 2,000 American men playing basketball professionally outside the United States? It's not like there aren't opportunities elsewhere.

The NBA has a lot of problems, but abolishing the age-limit rule isn't going to improve the league. Nor is it going to improve society. Why is a congressman wasting his constituents' time by complaining about a business that paid its millionaire employees a total of $2.1 billion this season -- most of whom were African-American -- when he could be working to resolve the myriad real-life problems that have grown more pronounced in these hard times?

3. Don't overreact. The Lakers aren't so strong defensively as to continue holding Orlando to 29.9 percent from the floor, and the Magic aren't so hopeless offensively as to realize horrid production throughout the Finals from Dwight Howard (1-for-6), Rashard Lewis (2-for-10) and Hedo Turkoglu (3-for-11).

The Magic swept both regular-season games against the Lakers and they tend to recover quickly from bad losses, as shown by their second-round replies to poor results in Games 2 and 5 losses to Boston. Stan Van Gundy is too strong a tactician to not reply aggressively to the Lakers' defensive schemes, and his stars are too talented to be shut down for an extended run.

2. The Finals aren't too big for Andrew Bynum. The Lakers went to him in the opening seven minutes for eight points (3-of-3 from the floor for half of their early scoring) and four rebounds. From the start, he looked more ready to play than Howard.

If he continues to give the Lakers more than 20 minutes and a near double-double (nine points and nine rebounds in Game 1), he will severely diminish the opportunities for Howard to dominate inside.

1. Could J.J. Redick be more important than Jameer Nelson? In the long-term view, Nelson is a cornerstone, but at the moment -- coming off more than three months of inactivity -- it may be asking too much of him to suddenly heat up his jump shot. That should be less of a problem for Redick, who can provide the shooting necessary to help space the floor.

2. WNBA players will wear sponsors' ads on their jerseys this season. This was known before the commissioner gave his pre-Finals press conference Thursday, but he responded to a question about this new threshold by noting that European soccer players wear advertising on their chests.

So, too, do the players in European basketball, and the NASCAR drivers, and the arenas that sell naming rights to the highest bidder. I remember a few years ago that Rasheed Wallace considered having an advertisement tattooed on his skin. Wasn't there talk of baseball putting advertisements on the bases? The WNBA can't afford to turn down sponsorship money for a marketing ploy that prevails around the world, and I have little doubt we'll see other U.S. leagues moving in the same direction, bit by bit.

1. League revenues may decrease next season by as much as 10 percent. Stern wouldn't hint at such bad news unless he thought it would help prepare for negotiations with the union on a new collective bargaining agreement. He will announce an owners committee that will lead those talks next week.

"I have no doubt that in times like this, issues of relocation will surface," added Stern, also raising the likelihood of teams moving from one market to another. "There's nothing hot right this minute, but I think that's a possibility."

Again, this can be viewed as a warning shot to markets like Sacramento, where the Maloof brothers have been trying for years to develop a new arena. Will they be forced to move the franchise to Anaheim (or Las Vegas)?

For Stern and his owners, a silver lining of bad economic news is that it can be applied to negotiations in a hard-line way.

1. So James didn't shake hands with the Magic or give interviews after Cleveland's loss in the conference finals. I understand the criticism completely that he showed poor sportsmanship, and I also understand James' desire to send a silent message to the Cavaliers that they need to improve the roster to persuade him to re-sign in 2010 or earlier.

But here's a silver-lining view of my own: I don't mind seeing some sincere friction between a star and his opponents. One reason why there aren't as many rivalries as there were in the '80s is because the players all appear to be friends with one another. In that light, it wasn't so bad to see LeBron wanting to have nothing to do with Orlando's celebrations at his expense. It will serve to create more interest when the teams reconvene next season.

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