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EuroBasket 2011 is Here! Feel the Excitement!

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So, no, it's not the NBA. The NBA is still locked out, there's barely even news of news. Nothing of significance has changed since June 30th when the lockout started. That's two full months of zip.

But at least there will be some top level basketball games that actually matter being played for the next couple weeks. Starting today and continuing until the Finals on September 18th, the EuroBasket tournament will be held in Lithuania.

The competition format is almost as foreign to American sports fans as the names of the Polish players (I'm assuming my readers are not very familiar with Szymon Szewczyk who plays for, I kid you not, Szczecin). Round 1 runs for the next six days and consists of four groups of six teams. Teams play round robin against all the other teams in their group, and the top three from each group move on to Round 2 of the tournament. Those twelve teams are broken into two groups of six, and again they play round robin. This time, the top four teams from each group advance to the knockout stage. That's right, the entire second round serves only to get the field from a dozen teams down to eight teams.

At that point, things start looking more ruthlessly American, with a single elimination type format. The twist in this case is that there is more at stake than just the champion for this tournament. The top two teams in EuroBasket 2011 qualify directly for the 2012 Olympics in London, making the semi-final matches arguably more important than the finals. The next four finishers in Lithuania earn spots in the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament, for one last chance to go to London. This means that in the knockout stage the losers continue to play so that the teams can be ranked from first through eighth at the conclusion of the whole ordeal. Instead of "win or go home" call it "win or keep on playing anyway".

There are plenty of NBA players in the tournament, including All Stars like Pau Gasol of Spain, Dirk Nowitzki of Germany and Tony Parker of France, but Clips Nation will be keeping an eye on a particular German who speaks not a word of Deutsch: Chris Kaman of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Kaman has been sharp in tuneups for Team Deutschland, leading the team in scoring, which is no small feat with Dirk around. Clippers management in years past has been less than enthusiastic about Kaman's dalliances in international hoops, but this year they are no doubt pleased. The feeling in Playa Vista is that Kaman's trade value is currently depressed below where it should be because of his injury riddled season. With so little basketball being played right now, a strong showing by Kaman might remind potential trade partners of the unique (if admittedly quirky) bundle of skills he possesses.

Skilled big men being such a scarce commodity, the NBA tends to find them regardless of their country of birth, so this tournament will feature a lot of centers you've heard of, but precious few point guards. In Group C alone Kaman will lineup opposite Serbia's Nenad Krstic (Celtics) and Kosta Perovic (a one time Warrior), Italy's Andrea Bargnani (Raptors), and France's Joakim Noah (Bulls) and Kevin Seraphin (Wizards). Marc Gasol of Spain/Memphis, Zaza Pachulia of Georgia/Atlanta, Kosta Koufos of Greece/Denver, Timofey Mozgov of Russia/Denver and Omer Asik of Turkey/Chicago are among the other centers with NBA experience that will be at EuroBasket.

Spain will be the odds on favorite to repeat as European champions - no other team has the top to bottom talent, with Rudy Fernandez and Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio and Juan Carlos Navarro joining los germanos Gasol. And in a case of the rich getting richer, Serge Ibaka, born in the Congo, has received his Spanish citizenship in time for this tournament. 

France and Turkey will also field teams with multiple current NBA players, but they may not have the balance to compete at Spain's level. Russia will have Andrei Kirilenko, who has had some huge performances in international play, and the Russians always very big and very well-coached by American ex-pat David Blatt. Serbia also seems to perform well at the international level. Then there are the hosts, and you would be unwise to bet against a Lithuanian team playing at home, especially one led by national basketball icon Sarunas Jasikevicius. At 35 Saras is certainly on the downside of his career, but he's a great player and one of the outstanding figures in European basketball in the last decade. The Lithuanians will also have 2011 top 5 pick Jonas Valanciunas, but don't expect the 19 year old to play a lot - EuroBasket is a man's game.

Team Deutschland is an interesting wild card in the tournament. Dirk is easily the best player in the field (the only other who can make a case is Pau, and based on the 2011 NBA playoffs, I think the question is pretty well settled), and you can never count out the team with the best player. Kaman gives the Germans a second go to scorer, and arguably the best center in the tournament (it comes down to Kaman, Noah or Marc Gasol). Furthermore, there's more perimeter help on this German team than there has been in years. Robin Benzing is a wing who could be an NBA draft pick in a year or so, and Heiko Scaffartzig can really stretch the floor if defenses decide to try to collapse on Dirk and Kaman. Benzing is among five players on this team who are 23 or younger. These are guys who weren't yet ten years old when Dirk first played in the NBA - it's a new generation of German ballers inspired by Nowitzki's example, just as Pau led a group of young Spaniards onto the world basketball stage a decade or so after the Barcelona Olympics. Unfortunately, the young Germans may not yet be the supporting cast the Dirk needs to win this tournament, and at 33 he may not have many big international tournaments left in him. But they would certainly love to qualify for 2012 London.

Germany's first game is today against Israel (playing without an injured Omri Casspi). The game starts at 9 PM local time, which I believe is noon in LA.