Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympic Updates

These posts on the Olympics will be mainly to look at NBA- and WNBA-related storylines. If you're looking for analysis of the games themselves and the tournaments, there are plenty of places who are covering things quite thoroughly. I've found that for the men's games, The Painted Area is a good place to look, while Ball In Europe covers a lot of the related storylines. For the women's games, Rethinking Basketball and StormTracker seem to have occasional coverage -- I'll post any links that are more in depth. And finally, for all-around behind-the-scenes Olympic coverage, Dan Steinberg at the Washington Post has been doing an amazing (and often hilarious) job with stories and interviews that won't be printed in newspapers, but are super-entertaining. In general, many of the links you see to the right will have Olympics-related coverage.

Anyways, I recently caught a couple of games -- Greece-Germany and China-Spain.

Greece looked really good in this game. The big guy, Sofoklis Schorstanitis, shaved his head, which I thought worth mentioning. On offense, Greece did a great job passing the ball and getting penetration. They ran a few really nice sets off of out-of-bounds plays to get themselves easy layups, and relied on the pick-and-roll in the halfcourt. On defense, they doubled Nowitzki every time he got the ball, and the rest of the German team didn't really make them pay, for the most part. The huge takeaway from this game was just how atrociously Chris Kaman played. He was lousy at defending the paint when guards penetrated off of the pick and roll, and on offense he had much more trouble finishing around the basket than he did against the much smaller Angolan defenders. Most noticeably bad, though, were his attempts at ballhandling. On a couple of plays he turned and tried to face his opponent from the elbow, where the defender easily poked the ball away for a turnover. Then, on two or three occasions, Kaman actually tried to lead the fast break, resulting consistently in turnovers and easy Greek baskets (and angry looks from Nowitzki). That's the catch with Chris Kaman in general, I think: you'll see him in some games -- such as the one in Angola, where, granted, the level of competition was much lower, but not enough to explain away how alternately dominant and then out of sorts Kaman was -- and he looks like a wonderful player, and then you'll see him a day later and his head is just not there, or he's trying to make a behind-the-back pass on a fastbreak as though he's Shaquille O'Neal at the all-star game. I hope he figures out how to be the former player, the one who scores with a variety of moves around the basket and knows his limitations, because it is satisfying to see him succeed.

And that brings up another note about Chris Kaman on this German team: there is something inexpressibly sad about him. I can't quite explain it, I noticed it even in victory in the Angola game -- he wears this vacant and lonely look all the time. I started to project a little, imagining he felt not a part of the rest of the team, but then I read this quote from an interview with him:

You know, I got the Rosetta Stone language learning thing, so I'm working on it. It bugs me, but everybody on my team speaks English, that's their second language....And I'm just like 'Yo what the heck is going on, like, can you guys PLEASE just speak English,' and they still speak German on the bus. So I just put my headphones in and go to sleep or just relax.

So I'm thinking my instincts were correct, and that sadness is real. Not to mention the patheticness of Kaman's own father rooting against him.

That China stayed so close before losing this game in overtime was a bit of a shocker. However, Spain seems to be fidgeting a bit with its lineups -- in this game Pau Gasol started (though he didn't start the first game) while Jose Calderon found himself on the bench at the beginning of this one, despite being the best point guard on the team. My theory is that the Spanish coaches are trying out various lineups in pool play to allow their players to rest a little and to be ready for more situations (as well as get more high-level experience for younger team members such as Ricky Rubio), and that things will stabilize in the next round. As for NBA takeaways:

Pau Gasol was brilliant, and watching him made me glad he's a Laker. One thing it's easy to take for granted is just how well he runs the floor at his size -- he looks like just another shooting guard out there but he can catch passes on the run that no one else can because of his height and length and his hands. Yao was playing hard, but in transition Pau regularly left him in the dust.

Yao Ming has been playing his ass off in both games so far.

I thought Rudy Fernandez looked pretty good in the first game, but this is the game that really got me believing he'll be successful in the NBA. He played the passing lanes well on defense and got a few steals, and on offense he was quick and got to the basket with and without the ball, finishing strong either way. Best of all, he completely took over in the fourth when the Spanish made their comeback. For a four or five minute stretch, he made every big play on both sides of the ball, and was everywhere. For more on Fernandez, you can check out Blazers Edge, where they're doing a recap of each of his games throughout the tournament.

Watching Yi Jianlian, I got some idea of how it is so easy for scouts to fall in love with him. He moves so fluidly and gracefully, that it's hard to believe that he's really 6'11", but he makes strong moves to the basket and can finish. Sadly, he seems to drift in and out of games, playing well for stretches and then suddenly disappearing.

Sun Yue is not an NBA guard right now. He's big, he seems like he can defend at times, and he can handle the ball a little bit. But his handles aren't strong enough to be the primary ball-handler, while his shot isn't currently good enough to play the 2. Obviously, he'll have plenty of opportunities to grow and improve, and I believe he will, but for this year he'll be in the D-League full-time, I'm sure. Still, it's exciting to imagine what he might be capable of with some skill development.

Ricky Rubio is a bit of a smartass sometimes. On defense, he uses his long arms well to defend opposing ballhandlers and poke the ball away, but his constant gambling and poking will leave him out of position against better point guards. Against China, he was able to recover quickly and get into the passing lanes, but it'll be interesting to see how he holds up against better opposition. On offense, he has good control of the ball, so that's good. He also made one really silly but pretty play, grabbing an offensive rebound and then lulling the defense to sleep by turning his back to the basket and dribbling out as though he were resetting the offense, and then out of nowhere dropping a behind the back bounce pass to a wide open Pau Gasol under the basket for a dunk.

Wang ZhiZhi isn't in the NBA anymore, but I just wanted to point out that he had a wonderful game.

One thing that was noticeable about Spain was how susceptible they were to transition offense. China made it a point to get out and run off of defensive rebounds, and the got a lot of easy baskets that way. The U.S. scores most of its points in transition, so it's hard not to see U.S.A. vs. Spain as a horrible matchup for Spain . . ..

Side note / rant:
The China-Spain game was also intriguing for a completely gossipy reason, as a couple of days ago this picture surfaced in the Guardian UK:

The picture, without any context looks stupid/insensitive enough, but I didn't comment on it at all at the time because I didn't know any of the backstory. I thought the Guardian story that accompanied it, though, by saying nothing about the picture but instead devoting most of the words to examples of racism in Spanish sports, was sort of sensationalistic and uninformative.

I'm not sure about how it is in Spain or other places, but in the U.S., our historic and ongoing inability to face race has led to all discussions of race being treated with absurdly restrictive binaries. The logic regarding this picture tends to run like so: the picture is not P.C.. Racism is not P.C.. Therefore, the picture is racist. Therefore, the people in the picture are racist. [Optional: Therefore, all Spanish people are racist]. This logic is encouraged by the story presented in the Guardian.

There are a number of problems with this thinking, but I'll keep it to the relevant points. First of all, the term "racism" as a conversation-stopper has been bandied about until it's lost most of it's meaning. It's a blanket term to cover everything from slavery to unequal housing and education opportunities to television shows that feature only white characters, generally applied to prove something inherently wrong or evil about each. It's clearly too blunt of an instrument to really uncover anything useful about a situation. In any case, some issues: the idea of P.C. is a little muddy when you try to apply it to different contexts -- the picture above is surely insensitive in some way (and in the U.S., we expect people to find it rude and unacceptable) but at the same time, it's not a picture of the Spanish team murdering Chinese babies, either (should we complain when people in other countries are seen wearing white after labor day?). What is Spain's history and relationship with its Asian population? (From a U.S. perspective, think of similarly insensitive images that get ignored for the most part, for instance the Washington REDSKINS or the Cleveland INDIANS). None of this is really explored in the Guardian story. Secondly, un-P.C. is not the same thing as "racist." As described above, it's unclear at this point what using the term "racist" even means in a lot of contexts, other than providing an easy way to gain satisfaction by acting offended. There's not a lot of harm in these steps, but the last step ("these people are racist") is both the most insidiuous and the most applicable to sports.

The idea that a moment, taken out of context (in this case, captured on film), is an indicator of some underlying and fixed aspect of a person's character, is just too lazy. And it's so easy to move from verb to verber, that sometimes we can't resist. Bill Clinton lied about who he slept with, making him a liar, meaning we can not trust anything he ever says about anything. That's easy, but lazy, and just generally bad logic.

The reason I'm dwelling on this issue is the relevance of this sort of dispositionalism to the analysis of basketball. Basketball is a beautiful game -- that's why we watch it -- and yet there is so much pressure to hammer the context out of everything and flatten everything into dead but pat generalizations. A nice example is Allen Iverson -- for several years with the 76ers, he would average over 25 shots a game. Combined with his average to below-average efficiency, he got characterized as an inefficient chucker, or, by basketball moralists, "selfish." Besides completely overlooking the aesthetic reasons to admire Iverson (the quickness, the crossover, the creative finishes in the paint, the toughness, etc.), this is a complete denial of context.

Last year, in his first full season in Denver alongside another skilled offensive player, Iverson lowered his usage rate (to a career low) and increased his efficiency (to a career high, and among the best in the league for non role-players). In fact, in terms of offensive efficiency, Iverson last year had a season very similar to Manu Ginobili, a player who is never accused of being selfish. Iverson was 32 years old last year -- it makes much more sense to attribute this change in his efficiency to the dramatic change in context he experienced than it does to imagine he had some sort of personal transformation.

But looking at context isn't easy. It's much easier, and apparently more preferable, to stick to frozen characterizations of players (as well as the accompanying moral absolutes). Do assists signify a player's role in an offense and his ability to fulfill that role well, or are they some inherent quality belonging to a player and indicative of his general goodness? When Jason Kidd beat his wife, did it hurt less because he is such a good passer?

Anyways, back to the picture of the Spanish team. In the comments to a follow-up story at Ball In Europe, someone posted a link to this picture of members of the Lithuanian team dressed up as Spanish bullfighters. Is it offensive?

On a completely unrelated sidenote, I found this to be a good read.

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