Blogging Through Europe 2008 (Part Two: France)

Blogging Through Europe 2008 (Part Two: France)
Nov 28, 2008, 05:20 pm
A quick three hour trip on the high speed train took me from Brussels to Paris to Le Mans, just in time for morning practice in anticipation of Le Mans’ big matchup the next day with Euroleague powerhouse Olympiacos. The team would be attempting to land their first victory in the competition after dropping the first four games, three of which came on the road.

The atmosphere in practice could be described as “business casual” compared to what we saw the day before in Charleroi. The four import players on the team: point guard Brian Chase [Virginia Tech], shooting guard Dewarick Spencer [Arkansas State], big man J.P. Batista [Gonzaga] and combo forward David Bluthenthal [Southern Cal] seemed to understand the task at hand quite well, and weren’t looking to put extra pressure on themselves—being the first ones in the gym regardless and taking a very active leadership role. Besides those four NCAA products, the team has two more American college graduates, big man Pape Badiane (Cleveland State) and small forward Maleye NDoye [Furman], giving the team a distinct Anglo-Saxon bent, especially when you factor in their Canadian born coach, J.D. Jackson.

Even though the team has yet to win in the Euroleague, they easily could have been 3-1 or 2-2 at this point with just a little more luck. They played Unicaja Malaga to a draw in Spain, losing by four points eventually, lost a nail-biter at home to Cibona Zagreb and took Maccabi Tel Aviv to overtime in Israel as well, playing extremely well for the most part considering that this is a completely new team led by a rookie head coach. The team plays a fast, attractive blend of basketball, which has helped push attendance levels up to record levels, and created a very unique atmosphere at Antares court against Olympiacos.

This was not a great week for French basketball in European competition. Nancy was dismantled by Siena in the Euroleague. Le Havre embarrassed by Khimki. ASVEL-Villerbaune put up no resistance against Lietuvos Rytas. A win would do wonders for the morale.

There was a big buzz around the team about local product Nicolas Batum—the player we came to scout this time last year—now starting for the Portland Trailblazers after being drafted in the first round last June. He had 15 points and 6 rebounds in the evening before the game, and is really acquainting himself well with American basketball. One of the journalists we met, Bruno Palmet of local newspaper Le Maine Libre mentioned having spoken to him that day and passed on how happy he is in Portland at the moment. The people in Le Mans are very happy to see Batum succeeding, as they put a significant effort into helping him develop.

It’s funny to look back a year ago and think about the evaluation we offered up back then—talking about a super versatile talent with incredible physical tools, but questioning whether he has the aggressive mentality required to be a lottery pick. A huge amount of confusion regarding the diagnosis of a minor heart problem, combined with his physical magically disappearing following a workout he conducted with the San Antonio Spurs, led him to being drafted by the Houston Rockets and then sent to Portland on draft night.

It’s not hard to pick up on the irony here. The team that diagnosed Batum with a heart problem—the Toronto Raptors—ended up selecting a player (Nathan Jawai) who’s career is now in doubt due to concerns over heart problems, while Batum is looking like one of the biggest steals of the draft. His perceived biggest weakness back when he was considered a potential lottery pick—a lack of aggressiveness—is exactly the reason why the Trailblazers love having him on the floor with their starting unit, as he brings an incredible amount of versatility to the table with his terrific defense, passing skills, basketball IQ and athleticism. His biggest weakness is now his biggest strength, having landed in the perfect situation, and he looks well on his way from what we can see early on.

Unlike in Charleroi the day before-- where we got to take a glance at the intriguing Nemanja Bjelica, who came out of absolute nowhere-- there would be no unknown NBA prospects on the floor this time around. Olimpiacos is arguably the richest team in the world outside of the NBA, sporting a deep and expensive roster filled to the brim with NBA caliber talent. Four former draft picks are present—Josh Childress (2004), Yotam Halperin (2006), Giorgos Printezis (2007) and Sofoklis Schortsanitis (2003), alongside numerous players who either played, could be playing or would have made it to the NBA in their prime had they shown more interest—including Theodoros Papaloukas, Nikola Vujcic, Lynn Greer and Yiannis Bouroussis.

A note in the game program that evening told the story perfectly about the difference between Le Mans Sarthe Basket and Olympiacos Piraeus—“1 Childress= 3 MSB!” Meaning that Josh Childress’ salary of 6.67 million dollars is equal to approximately three times Le Mans’ entire roster budget (1.8 million Euros).

Even though there were two draft-eligible players here who at least have a chance at being picked someday—big point guards Antoine Diot and Milos Teodosic, it was Josh Childress who we were most interested in seeing play.

The Childress experiment has been fascinating to say the least so far. Can an important NBA player adjust himself to European basketball and justify a ridiculous salary, and will additional NBA players follow him over in the future?

So far, it seems way too early to judge still.

Olimpiacos’ head coach Giannakis was not kidding he said “we did not bring Josh here to score 40, 30 or 50 points,” as he told ESPN after he landed. In fact, Childress is not even scoring 20, or even 10 points per game in the Euroleague—he’s at 9.8 points in 27 minutes per game, which is the lowest scoring output he’s produced since his freshman year at Stanford. His field goal percentage is also at a career low thus far (since college at least), and he’s shooting an incredibly poor percentage from the free throw line (53%) and 3-point range (14%) as well.

Needless to say, high-level European basketball requires quite a bit of adjusting to, even for an incredibly smart and versatile talent like Childress.

Need more evidence? Childress is so far turning the ball over on 1/4th of his possessions, far more than he’s ever averaged in his career (last season 16%, the year before 14%). Clearly he’s having a hard time with the incredibly crowded paint that European basketball is known for, and possibly his role on the team or the expectations, and he’s getting very few calls from stingy refs to help him with that transition.

Olympiacos’ style of play probably isn’t helping him, as they play a slow and ugly grind it out style based around pounding the ball inside incessantly to their bigs, high/low lobs between their power forwards and centers, and running pick and roll after pick and roll with the rapidly declining Theodoros Papaloukas (about a step and a half slower than he was two years ago) trying to create mismatches leading to drop-offs to their stable of mammoth big men.

It’s hard to fault them, as they have arguably the best combination of centers in European basketball between Nikola Vujcic, Boroussis and Schortsanitis, and are capable of fouling out an entire frontcourt with the heavy artillery they bring. The problem is that they become pretty predictable eventually and very susceptible to getting beat in transition. This is probably the slowest pace Childress has played at in his career, and it obviously doesn’t suit his strengths, particularly playing next to Papaloukas, a poor perimeter shooter as well, which allows defenses to sag in even more than usual. Where would they be without scoring machine and lightning in a bottle Lynn Greer (simply outstanding as a shooter/scorer) is anyone’s guess.

Offensively, most of Childress’ production comes in transition and off quick left-handed drives off isolation plays in the half-court, as well as some garbage baskets thanks to his hustle and smarts. His athleticism stands out in an incredible way at this level, resulting in highlight-reel caliber finishes every time he steps out on the court. Despite his poor assist to turnover ratio, Childress is clearly not a selfish player, doing his absolute best to fit in with his teammates, who seem to really enjoy playing with him based off what we could see in person and in the extensive game-film we took in.

The biggest problem Childress has faced is with his shooting stroke, which has looked very poor thus far. His mechanics have always been about as awkward as you’ll find (think of a cross between Shawn Marion and Kevin Martin), but in the NBA he made shots at an outstanding rate both from the field (57% FG in 07-08—outrageous for a swingman) and beyond the arc (a respectable 37% on limited attempts in 07-08).

Even in college he made 1.5 3-pointers per game as both a sophomore and junior, but that just hasn’t been the case at all in Greece, though, which is surprising considering that the European 3-point line is substantially closer than in the NBA. NBA players faced the same exact problem in International play competing with Team USA, so it’s a bit disappointing that the first great export the NBA sends the Euroleague ends up getting tagged with the dreaded “American athlete who can’t shoot” label.

In this particular game, Childress definitely silenced the crowd, pulling up off the dribble for a clutch jumper from 18-feet with 48 seconds left in regulation to put Olympiacos up by two points, which surely will help silence his growing number of critics, for at least another week.

After all, there is a reason why Childress is leading this team in minutes played, and not really by a small margin. He’s clearly their best defender, showing great size for the wing position, outstanding length, and terrific lateral quickness. He’s also exceptionally smart, tough and crafty, doing a great job contesting shots and playing with a very high level of focus and intensity—which Coach Giannakis obviously loves. He’s also rebounding the ball extremely well, actually ranking second besides the super productive Yiannis Bouroussis (who by the way is averaging an ungodly 25.5 points and 17 rebounds per game on 59% shooting per-40 minutes, and is an NBA player all day long like we’ve been screaming from the hills about for years now).

As Childress continues to learn the European game, he’ll very likely become a more productive and efficient player. This is a totally new brand of basketball he’s learning, and for some players it takes years to fully master. There is a reason after all why the “ex-NBA” tag doesn’t hold anywhere near the same appeal it used to in high-level Europe a few years ago—and Childress obviously isn’t helping with that.

The reason Olympiacos can “afford” to let Childress be a role-player, and take his time figuring things out, despite being far and away the highest paid player in Europe, is because of the quality they sport throughout their roster. A look through the distribution of minutes between the two teams’ rotations playing tonight gives us a great deal of insight into the difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots” of European basketball. Olympiacos ended up using 12 players in this game, while Le Mans used 8. On the season, Olympiacos has 10 players who are averaging anywhere from 13 ½ to 27 minutes per game at most, while Le Mans has just 7 key players, averaging between 19.4 and 38.4 minutes.

The advantages are pretty obvious. One team can afford to have its players give 120% on every possession, particularly on the defensive end, with no regard whatsoever for foul trouble or anything of that nature. The other can be systematically whittled down over the course of a game by fatigue and the whistles of the referees, to the point that they really can’t offer any resistance at all at the end of a game due to their severe lack of depth. That particularly rings true when both of your point guards foul out in overtime, like what happened here… When you are going up a veteran coach like Panagiotis Giannakis who knows how to put the proper pressure needed to influence the officials to call the game the way he wants them to, it puts another huge hurdle in front of a team with a budget 1/20th the size—just another thing they need to deal with, in this very biased and wholly subjective observer’s mind at least.

Regadless, Le Mans shockingly jumped ahead 24-10 in this game, going to the locker room for half-time up 52-41. They did not capitalize on countless advantages to extend the lead, though, shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly by blowing layups in transition, being unable to advance the ball past half-court against pressure on numerous occasions, and missing wide open shots from 15 feet in money time.

With that said, they played extremely well for the most part, executing the game plan perfectly--passing the ball unselfishly, making shots from all over the court and playing outstanding defense throughout the game, obviously having come prepared for everything Olympiacos was going to run from what I saw in practice and walk-through that morning.

Their four import players did their part too, combining to score 69 points on excellent percentages, but in the end the team just did not seem to have the experience, mental toughness or luck (take your pick) needed to close the deal and come away with the victory—a common theme in this Euroleague campaign.

They will have to recover quickly, as they have just a day to prepare for one of the biggest games of their season the in the domestic French league, as long-time former Le Mans coach Vincent Collet is coming to town with his very high-profile Villeurbanne squad, a possible preview of the French league playoffs finals.

We’d love to stick around for that one, but we have a flight to catch to Moscow tomorrow to watch a game between two teams with NBA-caliber rosters and coaches—CSKA against Dynamo. We’ll keep you posted of course.

Next Games: CSKA-Dynamo Moscow, Dynamo-Lukoil Akademik, Dynamo-St. Petersburg

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