Thursday November 15th, 2007

It's not exactly news that international players have become a fixture in the NBA. But from time to time that fact comes across in eye-opening fashion, as was the case last week when I took in the Chicago Bulls-Toronto Raptors game at the United Center. At one point, seven of the 10 players on the floor were non-Americans, and it could've been eight except that the Bulls' Luol Deng had been sent to the bench by coach Scott Skiles, who had purged his starting lineup because of poor play.

It's not like teams don't become champions until they have marquee foreign-born players. The Los Angeles Lakers won three straight titles from 2000-02 with only two international players (Canada's Rick Fox was on all three teams and a starter on the last two, and Ukraine's Slava Medvedenko was a reserve in '01 and '02). The Detroit Pistons' 2004 championship team had two foreign-borns, but one of them was Darko Milicic, who at that point was a bench-sitting curiosity. (The other was Mehmet Okur, not yet an All-Star but in the rotation.)

But several contenders in recent years seem to have a roster full of internationals -- some, of course, coming from the U.S. college system -- and that got me to thinking about which teams right now are getting the most out of them.

Boston, the Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana and New York are the only teams right now without a foreign player (the Pistons have Senegalese rookie Cheikh Samb, who has taken Milicic's old seat on the bench). That doesn't necessarily speak to team philosophy -- the Pacers, for example, make it their business to scout internationally, and the Celtics decided, well, why don't we put Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen together with Paul Pierce and see how that works. Which to this point seems to have been a helluva idea.

To calculate which 10 teams are doing the best job capitalizing on international talent, I comprised a point system to rate the international players:

10--Elite Player (EP) 7--Productive Rotation Guy (PR) 4--Solid Contributor (SC) 1--Warm Body (WB)

It's worth noting that there were some tough calls assigning a PR or SC to certain players. Herewith, the results, based largely on this season's performance:

1. San Antonio Spurs

Players: Tim Duncan (EP), Tony Parker (EP), Manu Ginobili (EP), Fabricio Oberto (PR/SC), Francisco Elson (PR/SC), Ian Mahinmi (WB)

Total: 42 points

Notes: Oberto and Elson would be PRs on most teams but cancel each other out. I assigned them 5.5 each.

It's no surprise to find the Spurs here. Their scouting system is impeccable, they've had stupendous luck (with Parker and Ginobili) and coach Gregg Popovich, a world traveler, is willing to put trust in foreign players.

2. Phoenix Suns

Players: Steve Nash (EP), Raja Bell (PR), Leandro Barbosa (PR), Boris Diaw (PR), Sean Marks (WB)

Total: 32 points

Notes: Yes, Canada counts as international. Bell, like Duncan, was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Marks, who seems as American as they come, was born in New Zealand.

No surprise to find Phoenix here, either. When the Colangelos were in charge, they left no foreign stone unturned, and coach Mike D'Antoni had a legendary playing and coaching career in Italy.

3. Toronto Raptors

Players: Andrea Bargnani (PR), Jose Calderon (PR), Carlos Delfino (PR), Rasho Nesterovic (SC), Jorge Garbajosa (WB)

Total: 26 points

Notes: Calderon makes the most of his minutes. Garbajosa, a key contributor last season, has struggled in his return from a broken leg.

With Bryan Colangelo in charge, the Raptors are becoming some combination of the Spurs and Suns of the East. The former Phoenix GM loves to think outside the box ... and the country.

T-4. Golden State Warriors

Players: Mickael Pietrus (PR), Kelenna Azubuike (PR), Andris Biedrins (PR), Marco Belinelli (WB), Stephane Lasme (WB), Kosta Perovic (WB)

Total: 24 points

Notes: Belinelli, a rookie who has played sparingly the last few games, could become an SC as the season progresses.

Coach Don Nelson's son Donnie was one of the first far-and-wide scouts and coached the Lithuanian Olympic team, so the Nelsons have always invested in foreign assets. And in Nellie's wide-open system, new players often get a chance to shine, as has been the case with Azubuike, who is from England.

T-4. Utah Jazz

Players: Okur (EP), Andrei Kirilenko (EP), Gordan Giricek (SC)

Total: 24 points

Notes: Okur, an All-Star last season, and the on-the-rebound Kirilenko are, I suppose, barely EPs, but I gave them that distinction.

6. Denver Nuggets

Players: Linas Kleiza (PR), Eduardo Najera (PR), Nenê (SC), Yakhouba Diawara (SC)

Total: 22 points

Notes: However much the Brazilian-born Nenê has been a disappointment -- he slipped to SC status with a slow start that preceded a thumb injury -- coach George Karl is getting a lot out of three-point bomber Kleiza (Lithuania) and the Frenchman Diawara. And the glass-pounding Najera, in my mind, has long been an underrated player.

7. Dallas Mavericks

Players: Dirk Nowitzki (EP), DeSagana Diop (PR), Jose Juan Barea (SC)

Total: 21 points

Notes: Everybody is looking for another Dirk, and the Senegalese center, Diop, seems to have found himself this season.

8. Chicago Bulls

Players: Deng (PR), Andres Nocioni (PR), Thabo Sefolosha (SC), Viktor Khryapa (WB)

Total: 19 points

Notes: Things aren't going well for the Bulls right now, and -- who knows? -- maybe Deng and Nocioni could be on the block. But wherever they go, they will be valued. And Sefolosha could be a PR somewhere someday.

9. Memphis Grizzlies

Players: Pau Gasol (EP), Milicic (PR), Juan Carlos Navarro (WB)

Total: 18 points

Notes: The much-maligned Milicic at last qualifies for notice as he gets minutes with a young Grizzlies team. You can make the case that Navarro is closer to an SC right now.

T-10. Houston Rockets

Players: Yao Ming (EP), Luis Scola (SC), Dikembe Mutombo (WB)

Total: 15 points

Notes: Look for these numbers to go up as Scola becomes a PR and the 117-year-old, shot-blocking Mutombo perhaps rises to an SC. For a long time, remember, Deke was an EP.

T-10. Los Angeles Lakers

Players: Vladimir Radmanovic (PR), Ronny Turiaf (PR), Sasha Vujacic (WB)

Total: 15 points

Notes: Radmanovic, a Serbian, seems like a California surfer dude. The French-born Turiaf, serious buds with San Antonio's Parker and Phoenix's Diaw, never seems concerned when Kobe hollers at him. Vujacic, a former SC, has taken up residence on the inactive list.

T-10. Milwaukee Bucks

Players: Andrew Bogut (PR), Yi Jianlian (PR), Dan Gadzuric (WB)

Total: 15 points

Notes: Will either Aussie Bogut or Jianlian -- China's Yao Lite -- become elite players down the road? Too early to tell. I'm perhaps undervaluing the Netherlands-born Gadzuric as an WB, but he needs a little more production to be called a "solid contributor."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.