Who is the best European basketball player? For the past few years, the discussion has focused on two names, Pau Gasol of the Lakers and Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks. When the Lakers won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, not to mention Spain's EuroBasket Championship in 2009, a Gasol-consensus emerged. But when Nowitzki led the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA title (as the undisputed best player on the team it must be noted) he surged ahead in the debate. After all, Nowitzki was the Finals MVP, an honor that Pau Gasol has never won.
But Dirk was not the first European to win the Bill Russell trophy - that honor goes to Tony Parker, who won it with the Spurs back in 2007. And Parker would like to re-enter the discussion of best European baller, thank you very much.
He's making his case so far at this year's EuroBasket tournament in Lithuania. Through three days, Parker is leading all players in scoring at 28 points per game, and is second in assists. In a meeting of two teams unbeaten in the tournament, Parker led France to a decisive victory over Nowitzki's German team. And make no mistake - Parker was the best player on the court. He finished with 32 points compared to Dirk's 20, and was in complete control of the game as France pulled away in the third quarter.
Parker probably has a slight advantage in this tournament - European basketball has always produced better bigs than guards, so while Nowitzki and Gasol are facing NBA-level defenders consistently, Parker is slicing and dicing through a collection of guys who are simply not accustomed to his level of speed and quickness. The fact that FIBA refs allow something akin to hand-to-hand combat on the inside has some impact on Nowitzki's effectiveness as well.
Nowitzki is playing well in this tournament as well, and Gasol has been great if somewhat unchallenged in Spain's three easy victories so far. (Spain's next two games come against Turkey and host Lithuania, so Pau will get a chance to lead his team against a worthy opponent finally.) Pau is second in scoring behind Parker at over 23 points per game, and has scored his 70 total points in just 71 total minutes so far. He's shooting better than 73% from the field, and also grabbing 6 rebounds per game.
But right now, it's Parker who is the star of this event. As with the Lakers, Pau's supporting cast on Spain makes his accomplishments a little less impressive - Spain is a very, very good team, even without Pau (recall that they won the World Championship in 2006 AFTER Pau had injured his ankle). For France, Parker is the whole story right now, despite the presence of five other NBA players.
As for the daily recap...
Chris Kaman of the Clippers had an off day along with the rest of his German teammates today. He had 4 points and 4 rebounds in the first quarter, 8 points and 5 rebounds at halftime... and finished the game with 8 and 5. German coach Dirk Bauermann appeared to concede the game midway through the third quarter. He finished the quarter with Nowitzki, Kaman and third leading scorer Robin Benzing on he bench, and France built a 20 point lead. Kaman was limited to 22 minutes in this, his third game in three days. Germany had been helped a bit earlier in the day when Italy beat Latvia, and Germany, at 2-1 in group play, is looking very likely to advance to the next round. Bauermann may have felt it was better to keep his stars fresh than to fight what seemed like a losing battle today.
In the other Group B games, I've already mentioned Italy's win over Latvia. Serbia moved to 3-0 in Group play along with France, but had to come from behind in the fourth quarter against winless Israel to do so. Germany-Serbia on Sunday will be another big test for the Germans.
In Group A, Spain easily handled winless Great Britain and Poland beat Portugal to get their first win. But the match of the day, and of the tournament so far, was Lithuania versus Turkey. Both teams came in 2-0 and it went down to the final minute. With about a minute to go and LIT leading by two points, Darius Songaila was called for an intentional foul against Emir Preldzic. Songaila stood to be the goat at that point, as TUR would get two free throws and the ball out of bounds. But Preldzic missed the second free throw and TUR failed to score on the subsequent possession, and then Songaila made two free throws of his own to stretch the lead to three. In a matter of seconds, Songaila went from goat to hero and the home team hung on to remain undefeated. There has never been much mystery in Group A - Spain, Lithuania and Turkey are head and shoulders above Poland, Great Britain and Portugal, so the three advancers from Group A were always a given.
Groups C and D had the day off today, and will resume the tournament with six games tomorrow, as Groups A and B take their first rest day.