SIAULIAI, LITHUANIA - SEPTEMBER 01: Nicolas Batum of France throws the ball during the EuroBasket 2011 first round group B match between Israel and France at Siauliai Arena on September September 1, 2011 in Siauliai, Lithuania. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images)
If at the outset of this EuroBasket tournament you had simply taken the two teams with the most NBA players on their rosters you would have had the same Championship game we have in actuality, Spain versus France. Spain has five current NBA players on their roster (Pau and Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez and Serge Ibaka), one former player (Juan Carlos Navarro) and two draft picks (Ricky Rubio who will of course play next year, and Sergio Llull). France also has five names currently in the assoc. (Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum and Kevin Seraphin), one former player (Mickael Gelabale) and one draft pick (Nando De Colo).
It seems intuitive that teams loaded with NBA talent would do well in International competitions - it is clearly the best and most competitive league in the world, as even the most ardent EuroLeague fan would admit. At the same time, a significant NBA presence has hardly been a guarantee of success at the international level. And even in this tournament, teams like Turkey (four players with NBA ties but a second round exit) and Italy (three first round NBA draft picks, a first round exit) went home early, while F.Y.R. of Macedonia advanced to the semifinals without a single player with an NBA connection. So while the finals have a heavy NBA influence, it's not as if the whole tournament broke along NBA lines.
In fact, in recent years NBA-heavy rosters have not fared well at all. Ignoring Spain for a moment (who are currently in a class by themselves in European hoops), teams like France with loads of NBA players have tended to underachieve lately, while teams like Greece and Russia and Serbia have done quite well with relatively few NBA players
There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the players that catch the eye of NBA scouts aren't necessarily the same players that will help national teams win games. The biggest difference between the EuroLeague and the NBA is the athleticism - there are plenty of players who are great in Europe, who simply can't hang with NBA athletes. Meanwhile, more athletic players who are also less experienced and frequently less skilled get drafted. NBA teams also tend to look for home runs with international picks - everyone wants the next Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol. For singles and doubles, they're content to stay home for whatever reason. So players like Nikolosz Tskitisvkakldsjkl;ajf and Yaroslav Korolev are lottery picks at a young age because of their presumed upside, but then don't pan out (at least Skita was good enough to make Georgia's team at EuroBasket). Nicolas Batum is almost unique in the NBA right now as a successful role player from Europe - neither star nor bust.
Some national teams have had success without NBA players because their domestic league is so strong that players have little incentive to give the NBA a shot - along with a national and cultural pride that simply makes them content staying at home. Greece is probably the best example of this trend. Players like Dimitris Diamantidis and Theo Papaloukas could have been solid NBA players, but they were happier as superstars in the EuroLeague. It only re-enforced the trend of Greek players staying at home when Vassilis Spanoulis returned from his time in Houston with tales of being Jeff Van Gundy's whipping boy while riding the Rockets' bench. This occurs with the Spanish league, the ACB, as well, where Navarro returned after just one season. By any measure he had a solid rookie season in Memphis - he was All Rookie Second Team after all. But he was way beyond solid in the ACB and that suited him better.
American fans have a tendency to be NBA-centric in these international competitions, and if that's the case for you, you'll be pleased to see lots of familiar faces in this EuroBasket Final. But a large contingent of NBA players doesn't always lead to the podium in these tournaments, nor does an absence of them dictate an early exit. There's plenty of good basketball to go around.