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EuroBasket 2009 Update

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If you're looking for a broad-based, well-informed overview of the EuroBasket tournament, you haven't really come to the right place.  You might try The Painted Area for that.  No, I'm just going to ramble about the things that interest me, however tangentially, especially MBFGC, Sofo Schortsianitis. 

The tournament, as is often the case with these international affairs, has a structure that is more than a little bizarre to Americans raised on the win-or-go-home finality of March Madness.  They've played 24 games over the last 3 days, and that has allowed them to eliminate all of four teams, whittling the field down from 16 to a mere 12.  Win-or-go-home just became win-one-game-out-of-three-or-go-home.

Even more bizarre, the only team out of the four eliminated so far that actually did win a game, lost the tie-breaker in the final seconds of the game they won.  Latvia and Germany faced off in Group B Wednesday, with Latvia holding an 0-2 record while Germany was 1-1.  But with a win by 10 points or more, Latvia would go through to the next round based on point differential.  With 22 seconds left Latvia held an 11 point lead, which equated to a second round pass - but Andris Biedrins and company gave up 5 quick points to see the Nowitzki-less, Kaman-less Deutschers advance ahead of them.  So Latvia finally got a win in the tournament - but had its Baltic heart broken in the process.

Latvia join Israel, Great Britain and Bulgaria as the four teams who have to leave beautiful Poland.  (By the way, one assumes that Great Britain will be significantly more competitive when they host the 2012 Olympics with Ben Gordon and Luol Deng on the roster.)  In the process, the tournament loses it's leading scorer, Israeli Lior Eliyahu, whose draft rights belong to the Rockets.  Then again, why is Israel even competing in the European championship?  Doesn't FIBA understand geography?

Now that four whole teams have been eliminated, it's time to play 18 more games to get rid of four more teams.  So that's 42 games to cut the field from 16 to 8.  Hopefully the organizers are selling a lot of tickets to these games.  (And sure, before you tell me in the comments, I realize that the NBA takes between 4 and 7 games for each pair of teams to complete a round, but there's something so foreign about pool play.)   When they finally get down to eight quarterfinalists, they enter a single-elimination phase.  That's when it gets serious.

Lucky thing for Team Spain, too.  The 2006 World Champs, Spain entered this tournament as heavy favorites.  Most of their heavy hitters are playing - both Gasols, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, JC Navarro - essentially any Spaniard you've heard of except for Jose Calderon and Sergio Rodriguez.  Meanwhile, many NBA and EuroLeague names decided not to represent their country this time around.  2007 EuroBasket champ Russia is without Andrei Kirilenko, Germany is without the aforementioned Nowitzki and Kaman, Greece is missing their best guards Papaloukas and Diamantidis, etc. etc.  So with an absolutely loaded roster facing a diluted field, Spain figured to be a lock for the Gold.  They proceeded to lose to Serbia, struggled against winless Great Britain, and required overtime to finally beat Slovenia.  They finished the preliminary round with a 2-1 record that was even less impressive than it seemed.  But they're through to the next round, with plenty of time to start playing better and earn a high seed in the quarterfinals.

Three of the four pools in the preliminary round featured an undefeated team:  France (with a slew of NBA players led by Tony Parker and Boris Diaw), Turkey (with Hedo Turkoglu and Ersan Ilyasova) and Greece.  Greece is likely the most mysterious to US fans.  Kostas Koufos and Nick Calathes played in the NCAA, and three other members of the team have NBA experience.  But for some reason, despite being one of the strongest teams in Europe year in and year out, Greece has yet to produce a significant NBA player.  In fact, believe it or not, Koufos (who was actually born in Canton Ohio) played more minutes in the NBA last season as a little used Jazz rookie than any other member of the Greek team.  Many of the top stars from Greece simply aren't interested.  The NBA has pursued Papaloukas and Diamantidis for years, but neither wants to make the jump.  It didn't help that their countryman, Vassilis Spanoulis, had a miserable experience in his one season in Houston. 

Of course one Greek player whom we hope to see in the NBA sooner rather than later is MBFGC, the Clippers' second round draft pick in 2003.  As has been documented this summer, he is in the best shape of his career, having lost a seemingly impossible amount of weight, and he's been a handful in the tournament so far (check out D.J. Foster's posts about him over at Clipperblog if you haven't already.)  In limited minutes, he's made 10 of 13 shots and 11 of 21 free throws.  He scored 11 points in 14 minutes against Macedonia, and 16 points in 15 minutes in a start against Israel. 

I watched his 6 minute first quarter stint in the team's second game versus Croatia.  Statistically, this would have to be considered his 'off' game.  He was a mere 1 for 2, and a dismal 2 for 8 from the line and finished with 4 points.  But let me tell you - this guy is an absolute force on offense.  When he was in the game, Greece went to him literally every trip.  Despite the presence of Mario Kasun (formerly of the Magic), Croatia was forced to double him every time.  I would not say that Sofo handled the double team perfectly, but he handled it well, ringing up one assist while I was watching.  The guy is simply huge and commensurately strong - but what sets him apart is that he is startlingly quick for a guy that size, with almost flawless footwork on his post moves and tremendous hands.  Check out the slide show of him on the Eurobasket site.  Look at his hands on the basketball.  That's the same basketball they use in the NBA, folks.  That ain't some kid size ball - it just looks like it his massive mitts.

Is he just beating up on inferior competition?  In a word, no.  Not that any centers on Macedonia or Israel have NBA resumes, but the simple fact is, this is the European Championships.  This is a big time international tournament, that features NBA centers Andris Biedrins, Marc Gasol, Marcin Gortat, Primoz Brezec, Nenad Krstic, Ronny Turiaf and others - and none of those guys are shooting 77 percent or averaging 26 points per 36 minutes.  Sofo stands out - even in a tournament featuring a handful of starting NBA centers.

It's too bad he doesn't get more minutes for the team.  There appear to be several reasons for this.  For one thing, Greece's best player is probably Ioannis Bourousis, who also plays center.  Oh, and they also have Koufos and Andreas Glyniadakis.  So they're just deep at that spot.  (Incidentally, MBFGC has the same issue on his club team - Bourousis and a couple other quality bigs also play for Olympiakos.)  He also has a tendency to get into foul trouble, and one wonders if his conditioning is limiting his minutes as well. 

It's also possible that some of the other holes in his game are forcing him to the bench.  He's a machine on offense, as his 77% shooting and 31 points in 43 tournament minutes will attest.  He's actually a surprisingly good defender, though certainly not a shot blocker.  But he's always been a terrible rebounder for a guy his size and his free throw shooting has always been atrocious.  As it is, one strategy for defending him is simply to foul.  When he consistently shoots 75% from the field but 50% from the line, it's the lesser of evils.  If he could improve his free throw shooting, he would be even more of a handful.

It will be interesting to see as the tournament progresses and the competition improves how Greece uses Sofo.  Their next couple of games against Germany Friday and Russia Sunday shouldn't provide too much of an obstacle for either Greece or MBFGC.  But the game against France and Ronny Turiaf next Tuesday could be a nice test.  And from there, it's on to the elimination phase.

As we've discussed, the Clippers wanted to use Sofo in Las Vegas this summer but their request to do so was denied by FIBA as he's still under contract to Olympiakos.  With a roster spot available and a reasonable buyout on his Greek contract, it's not impossible that he could come to the NBA this season, a dream that Citizen Zhiv won't let die until the season begins.  But don't count on it.  This is the final year of his Olympiakos contract, so there's no buyout if they just wait another season.  More importantly, with Chris Kaman, Marcus Camby and DeAndre Jordan all on the roster, it makes little sense to add another center, even a big fat Greek one.  But if he can stay in shape all year and avoid injury, I expect it will be a priority for the front office to get him into a (very large) Clippers jersey a year from now.