Wednesday, October 26, 2011

2011-12 Basketball Books Overview

While we still don't know when or if we will get NBA basketball in 2011-12, basketball books are certainly not being locked out of the marketplace. We've unearthed more than a couple dozen books across NBA, NCAA, international and women's basketball in our admittedly exhaustive annual survey. It shapes up to be a pretty good season of hoop books overall, with solid depth and diversity in both the pro and college ranks. Let's get right to it, with the books broken up into subcategories to make things somewhat digestible.

The Dream Team: How Basketball's Greatest Team Came Together, Conquered the World, and Changed the Game Forever, by Jack McCallum (release date: July 10, 2012)
While there are several intriguing titles right here at the top, the combination of author and subject matter here makes The Dream Team my no-brainer choice for most anticipated basketball book of the season. McCallum has published great reads with Seven Seconds or Less, which followed the '05-06 Suns, and Unfinished Business, which followed the '90-91 Celtics. And of course, from the mid-'80s through the mid-'90s, McCallum was the definitive chronicler of the league as Sports Illustrated's national NBA writer. This one's right in his wheelhouse. Coming out with the team's 20th anniversary, just in time for the London Olympics. I can't wait.

Shaq Uncut: My Story, by Shaquille O'Neal and Jackie MacMullan (Nov. 15)
It's hard to imagine this one won't be an entertaining ride. Hall-of-Famer MacMullan has a gift for drawing out her subjects, as she did with Magic and Larry in their joint book When The Game Was Ours. And Shaq has no shortage of stories, such as the early one from the book unearthed by SLAM in which the Big Shakespeare claimed that President Obama was to blame for Rajon Rondo's late-season shooting slump.

West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, by Jerry West and Jonathan Coleman (released Oct. 19)
This is the third straight year this one has appeared in our basketball books preview, and it's finally been released. The delay appears to be due to West apparently pouring his entire soul into the book. It certainly appears to be an uncommon athlete bio - the LA Times calls it "brutally candid" - as West reveals a history of physical abuse as a child and clinical depression as an adult, in addition to his many experiences as the definitive Laker, both on the court and in the front office. Looks like a riveting read.
Jerry West: The Interview
A searing, searching autobiography (San Jose Mercury-News)

Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, by Jim Yardley (Feb. 14)
This one is probably my sleeper hoop book of the year. Yardley is a Pulitzer Prize winner who was formerly the Beijing bureau chief for the New York Times. In this book, he follows the Shanxi Brave Dragons (the team which signed Stephon Marbury) and its American coach, longtime NBA vet Bob Weiss. Yardley already contributed a fascinating account of the Chinese public's ambivalent relationship with the Bayi Rockets, the team which brawled with the Georgetown Hoyas this summer, for I'm particularly interested to learn how Weiss's signature magic tricks translated to a Chinese audience. Seriously, I'm hopeful that Brave Dragons can provide as fulfilling of a window into Chinese basketball culture as Pacific Rims did for Filipino hoops culture.

When the Garden Was Eden: Clyde, the Captain, Dollar Bill, and the Glory Days of the New York Knicks, by Harvey Araton (released Oct. 18)
As a longtime columnist for the New York Times, Araton is a proven commodity, so I'm expecting When The Garden Was Eden to be a professional work. The main question I'd ask is, Does the world really need yet another book about the early-'70s Knicks? Frazier, Reed, Bradley, DeBusschere, Jackson and Holzman all wrote at least one, in many cases multiple, books about their glory years in New York, and the glorious 1969-70 season has been well-covered in the likes of The City Game or Miracle on 33rd Street. I suppose enough time has passed that it's fair to get a fresh look at the entire era, but really, no other NBA champion has a higher ratio of books to rings than the early-'70s Knicks, and it's likely not close.
Excerpt: The Parable of the Pearl (

The Whore of Akron: One Man's Search for the Soul of LeBron James, by Scott Raab (Nov. 15)
Raab, a jilted Cavs fan, brings the vitriol in his anti-LeBron screeds. Raab's crossed the line a little too far for my taste, but that's just one man's opinion, as he's tapped into a vein of post-Decision anger and hatred of LeBron which certainly exists, and is possibly even prevalent in Cleveland.
Excerpt: Jew Over Miami (Esquire)

Joe Tait: It's Been a Real Ball, by Terry Pluto and Joe Tait (Nov. 4)
On a friendlier Cavs-related note, legendary NBA writer Pluto (Loose Balls, 48 Minutes, The Franchise) joins forces with Hall of Fame broadcaster Tait, whose distinctive voice called games on the radio for 39 of the Cavs' 41 seasons, before retiring this past April.

The Greatest NBA Teams, by Roland Lazenby (Nov. 15)
Veteran writer Lazenby - author of Blood on the Horns, The Show, and Jerry West, among many, many other NBA books - offers his take on the best teams of all time.

Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12, by Kevin Pelton and Bradford Doolittle (TBD)
Let's be optimistic and say that when the NBA lockout ends, Pelton and Doolittle will be two of the hardest-working men in NBA writing, in trying to turn around a season-preview book ASAP while trying to stay on top of what promises to be a frantic barrage of transactions. A new College Basketball Prospectus is right around the corner, as well. Both the NBA and NCAA versions of the Prospectus have quickly established themselves as essential season previews.

The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds That Changed Basketball, by Gene Wojciechowski (Jan. 5)
I distinctly remember watching the legendary Duke-Kentucky 1992 East Regional Final and thinking that it was the greatest college game I'd ever seen before Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater. I'm not sure if it was the last great game, though I do think that the early-'90s were the end of college basketball's golden era. Players entering the draft early en masse was the turning point for me. Wojciechowski has a tough chore to surpass the bar set by Alexander Wolff's epic piece, "The Shot Heard Round The World", published in Sports Illustrated in 1992.

Beyond the Phog: Untold Stories from Kansas Basketball's Most Dominant Decade, by Jason King with Jesse Newell (released Oct. 17)
Yahoo!'s King tells Jayhawks tales from the years bridging the Roy Williams and Bill Self eras at one of college basketball's most storied programs.
Multiple excerpts (

Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story, by Scott Pitoniak (Nov. 1)
Pitoniak, a longtime columnist for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, pens the bio of a man who bleeds orange, Hall-of-Famer Jim Boeheim, who starred for Syracuse in the '60s and has been the school's hugely successful head coach since 1976.

Don't Put Me In, Coach: My Incredible NCAA Journey from the End of the Bench to the End of the Bench, by Mark Titus (Mar. 6)
Titus made his name with his blog Club Trillion, and now delivers a book-length version of his life & times as an Ohio State benchwarmer. Titus can also currently be found writing for Grantland.

The Big Dance: The Story of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, by Barry Wilner & Ken Rappoport (Feb. 16)
Two veteran AP sportswriters offer a history of March Madness.

The College Basketball Book, by the Editors of Sports Illustrated (released Oct. 11)
Yet another in the series of handsome, richly illustrated sport-by-sport volumes from the editors of SI. Worthy of a spot in the library of any serious college hoops fan.

Wooden: Basketball & Beyond: The Official UCLA Retrospective, by Richard Hoffer (Nov. 1)
I got an opportunity to take a sneak peek at this one, and it's a beautiful collection of on- and off-court photographs spanning the entire dynastic John Wooden era at UCLA.
John Wooden: Up close and personal in pictures (UCLA Today)

An Illustrated History of Duke Basketball: A Legacy of Achievement, by Bill Brill (Feb. 8)
An updated edition of this official Duke basketball history is the last work by Duke alum Brill, a longtime journalist who passed away in April.

ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference, by J. Samuel Walker (Nov. 15)
Gotta love the passion of ACC hoops fans: J. Samuel Walker is a historian who normally writes about nuclear weapons/energy, but the man has enough love of the game to knock out a book on how the ACC cemented itself as a leading basketball conference from 1953 to 1972.

The Classic: How Everett Case and His Tournament Brought Big-Time Basketball to the South, by Bethany Bradsher (Nov. 11)
Speaking of Tobacco Road-related hoops history, Bradsher offers a history of The Dixie Classic, a prominent holiday tournament held in Raleigh from 1949 to 1960 which showcased the four big North Carolina schools (North Carolina, Duke, N.C. State, Wake Forest) and which was the brainchild of legendary N.C. State coach Everett Case.
Sample: Introduction (Whitecaps Media)
A Look Back at the Dixie Classic (Technician Online)

Blitz Kids: The Cinderella Story of the 1944 University of Utah National Championship Basketball Team, by Josh Ferrin and Tres Ferrin (Feb. 2)
Earlier this year, Alex Wolff and Michael Atchison wrote a story in Sports Illustrated which called this Utah team "The First Cinderella". Arnie Ferrin was the star of this team, and his son and grandson have teamed up to write a book celebrating these Utes.

Cowboy Up: Kenny Sailors, The Jump Shot and Wyoming's Championship Basketball History, by Ryan Thorburn (Sept. 5)
If we're getting a book on the 1944 NCAA champions, then why not the 1943 champs as well? Sailors was one of pioneers of the jump shot. A photo of him shooting in midair became iconic after appearing in LIFE magazine. The picture can be seen on the book's cover art, or at a web site called
Kenny Sailors: Father of Basketball's Jump Shot

You Let Some Girl Beat You?: The Story of Ann Meyers Drysdale, by Ann Meyers Drysdale with Joni Ravenna (June 12)
The autobiography of one of the greatest female basketball players who's ever lived, one of the pioneers of the women's game, Ann Meyers Drysdale, who starred for UCLA, once tried out with the Indiana Pacers, and is now the president and general manager of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury.

Inevitably, a few basketball books fall through the cracks of our previews written at the start of each season, as a handful that we weren't anticipating pop up on shelves both real and virtual. Here are a few additions to last year's list:

Basketball Junkie: A Memoir, by Chris Herren and Bill Reynolds (released May 10)
In 1994, Reynolds wrote the memorable Fall River Dreams, about a Massachusetts high-school team whose star was Herren, a McDonald's All-American guard. Almost two decades later, Herren, who never panned out in the NBA, has collaborated with Reynolds on a memoir detailing his struggles with drug addiction and recovery. Herren's story will also be told as an ESPN Films documentary called Unguarded, which airs next Tuesday.
Excerpt (SLAM)

Dr Jack on Winning Basketball, by Dr. Jack Ramsay and Neal Vahle (released March 1)
The product description says, "Dr. Jack on Winning Basketball will take fans on a 55-year journey as Jack recounts an endless array of basketall tales, legends and lore." Don't need much more than that to sell me on a product by the Hall-of-Fame coach and first-rate broadcast analyst.
Excerpt: How Basketball Saved My Life (

Mavericks Stampede: Dirk Leads Dallas to the 2011 NBA Championship, by Rob Mahoney (released June 17)
A little TrueHoop Network love, as Rob Mahoney of the Mavericks blog The Two Man Game knocked out a book on the Mavs' title run. Mahoney is one of the best and sharpest young basketball writers out there; his work can also be found on,, and about 47 other outlets.

Perfect: Bob Knight and Indiana's 2-Year Quest, by Bob Hammel (released March 24)
This is an e-book-only release which reprinted the books Knight with the Hoosiers (1975) and All The Way (1976) in one electronic volume. Perfect tracks the heyday of Indiana basketball, as the Hoosiers went 31-1 in '74-75, followed up by the last undefeated season in college basketball, a 32-0 run in '75-76. Hammel has been close to Knight for many years (he was the ghostwriter of the coach's autobiography), so expect good access, but a party-line view of The General.
Sneak preview (AuthorHouse Books)

The Defender: Manute Bol's Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back, by Jordan Conn (released July 8)
Another e-book release, and a mini-book at that, but I wanted to include it after TrueHoop called it a "must-read account" and "the real story of Manute Bol." Henry Abbott went on to say that "Conn's painstaking work, based on extensive time in the Sudan, tells of a far more fascinating, important, likable and fallible human than NBA fans ever got a chance to know."
Excerpt: Manute Bol: The Ultimate Defender (

Sarah Palin and the Wasilla Warriors: The True Story of the Improbable 1982 Alaska State Basketball Championship, by Mike Shropshire (Feb. 28)
She was the point guard known as Sarah Barracuda in those days, before she went rogue.

2010-11 Basketball Books Preview
2009-10 Basketball Books Preview
Basketball Books 2008-09
New Golden Age: 26 Intriguing Basketball Books from 2004-07

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

2011-12 Euroleague First Round Primer

With the NBA still in limbo, the top caliber of basketball in the world can be found in the Euroleague, whose 2011-12 season tips off on Wednesday with a slate of four games, highlighted by Fenerbahce vs. Caja Laboral. (CSKA beat Zalgiris on Monday.) Six games to follow on Thursday and one game on Friday. The first round runs until Dec. 22.

In the first round, 24 teams are divided into four opening-round groups of six teams apiece. Each team plays the other five teams in its group twice (home-away). The top four teams from each group move on to the the Top 16 round, which runs from Jan. 18-Mar. 1.

Then, the top two teams in each of those group moves on to the quarterfinal round, which starts Mar. 21. The four winners of each best-of-five quarterfinal series earns a trip to Istanbul for the EL Final Four on May 11-13.

As of right now (lockout could change things), the top five contenders are CSKA, Panathinaikos, Real Madrid, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Barcelona. Other strong teams slightly a level below the top five are Caja Laboral, Fenerbahce Ulker, Olympiacos, Zalgiris, AJ Milano, Efes and Montepaschi Siena.

It's a bit difficult to forecast this season as the NBA lockout could alter some rosters as we get deeper into the EL season. For example if the Gasols were to end up on Barcelona, they are the overwhelming faves.

In the U.S., will be showing many Euroleague games throughout the season.

(Teams listed in order of predicted finish)

1) Caja Laboral
2) Fenerbahce Ulker
3) Olympiacos
4) Bilbao
5) Bennet Cantu
6) Nancy

Summary: Would say Caja, Fenerbahce and Olympiacos are tightly bunched at the top of this group, while Bilbao is team that can't be overlooked and has sleeper-type potential.

Caja Laboral has lost Marcelo Huertas and Stanko Barac but still retain Fernando San Emeterio and Mirza Teletovic. Teletovic is another key offensive threat for Caja who is one of the best shooters in Europe. San Emerterio (EL 1st-Teamer in '10-'11) makes up for his mediocre physical skills with terrific smarts--very sneaky driver.

They also will have Reggie Williams to turn to to offer more scoring pop. SG Brad Oleson will take over for Williams if/when he has to go back to the States. Nemanja Bjelica (TWolves own rights) is a quality reserve at the forward spots.

Veteran PG Pablo Prigioni comes over from Real to take over for Huertas. One concern for Caja is the lack of length. Maciej Lampe might miss most of the first round with injury. Joey Dorsey is signed for the entire season while Kevin Seraphin is available as long as the lockout continues.

Turkish power Fenerbahce Ulker should be able to push Caja thanks to a deep roster. They have a bunch of talent on the wings with Bojan Bogdanovic, Emer Preldzic, Marko Tomas and Thabo Sefolosha available. Preldzic, Bogdanovic and Tomas can all handle the ball. Tomas and veteran PF Mirsad Turkcan are currently sidelined with injury and might miss a chunk of the first round. Roko Ukic and Curtis Jerrells give Ulker two good options at PG. Kaya Pekar and Oguz Savas provide servicable bulk off the bench.

This might be the weakest team Olympiacos has assembled in awhile. However, there is still a fairly deep roster that should allow this team to advance to the Top 16 round. With Milos Teodosic and Theo Papaloukas gone, the brunt of the playmaking duties will rest on Vassilis Spanoulis' shoulders.

Spanoulis is one of the better guards in Europe thanks to his penetration, but he's a TO machine. Recent Mich. State grad Kalin Lucas will try to lessen the playmaking burden on Spanoulis.

Oly's frontcourt rotation is two limited, lumbering bigs, Lazaros Papadopoulus and Andreas Glyniadakis, who will try to make up for the loss of Giannis Bourousis. Stretch-4 Pero Antic brings his dicey shot selection and chip-strap beard to the mix.

Recent Butler grad Matt Howard and combo forward Georgios Printezis (Raptors own rights) will also see minutes on the backline for Oly. Undersized PF Kyle Hines comes over from Germany where he had a nice season for Brose last year. Marko Keselj, Kostas Papinikolau and Panagiotis Vassilopoulos are a nice athletic fleet of small forwards.

Bilbao might be the sleeper in Euroleague field and can steal a game from any team in this group. Bilbao has some solid vets up front with Axel Hervelle, Marko Banic, D'or Fischer and Dimitrios Mavroeidis. Hervelle is still recovering from a leg injury he sustained during Euro '11 prep. SG Aaron Jackson leads this team and might have a future in the NBA. Alex Mumbru, Kostas Vasiliadis, Janis Blums and Raul Lopez round out a quality perimeter rotation.

Cantu can challenge Bilbao for the final Top 16 bid in Group A, though they rely on some older guys and are not the most athletic bunch. Former Oregon Duck Maarty Leunen is their top frontcourt option. Athletic SG Manuchar Markoishvili is the main perimeter option who can hit off screens or spotting. Cantu will count on two 36-year-old shooting guards, Nicolas Mazzarino and Gianluca Basile, to provide sharpshooting off the bench. Recent acquisition Giorgi Shermadini was much needed as starting center Denis Marconato (36 years old) can only go limited minutes.

Reigning French league champ Nancy has added Nic Batum for the time being, but not much firepower after him. Former NCAA standouts PF Akinlolu Akingbala (Clemson), PG John Linehan (Providence) and Jamal Shuler (VCU) will try to help Nancy stay competitive.

2) Panathinaikos (PAO)
3) Zalgiris
4) Unicaja
5) Brose
6) Zagreb

Summary: Solid group led by title contenders CSKA and PAO. Zalgiris, Unicaja and Brose should compete for the last two Top 16 bids in the group.

CSKA is coming off a somewhat disappointing '10-'11 EL campaign where they failed to get out of the first round. CKSA is a legit 12-deep, has good size at each position and can put out a variety of different lineups with many players being able to play multiple positions. CSKA has added Andrei Kirilenko, Nenad Krstic and Milos Teodosic to an already stacked roster.

Even if Kirilenko doesn't finish the season, CSKA is a Final Four contender. Kirilenko is not obligated to go back to the NBA since he's an unrestricted FA and would not be surprised if he stays the whole year with CSKA. With Andrei, I would give CSKA the slight edge to win the EL title.

Teodosic, Alexey Shved and Jamont Gordon give CSKA three dynamic ball-handlers, though all three guys can be prone to careless TOs. Trajan Langdon and JR Holden are recently retired but CSKA still has the services of vet SF Rimas Siskauksas. Siskauskas is another playmaker at CSKA's disposal.

Much like on the Russian national team, Vik Khryapa and Kirilenko provide CSKA with all-around threats at the forward spots. Andrey Vorontsevich gives this team another versatile 6-9 forward off the bench. Darjus Lavrinovic and Sasha Kaun are two other nice options at center behind Krstic. Anything short of a Final Four appearance would be a disappointment.

Defending champ Panathinaikos kept most of their its intact and should challenge CSKA for Group B supremacy. Last season's Euroleague MVP Dimis Diamantidis returns to cause problems for the opposition on both ends of the floor. '10-11 Euroleague 1st-team selection Mike Batiste remains one of the most dangerous roll men in Europe.

When Aleks Maric is healthy, he's a top-notch big who can pound the glass and draw fouls. Romain Sato teams with Diamantidis to form a destructive defensive tandem on the perimeter. Should be interesting to see if PAO misses Antonis Fotsis' shooting and defense at the PF spot.

PAO added Saras Jasikevicius back into the mix and he showed at EuroBasket he can still be effective in limited duty. Saras' shooting ability allows him play minutes at the off-guard and he can play alongside NIck Calathes off the bench. David Logan is another proven perimeter option for Coach Obradovic to call on.

Zalgiris' most heralded addition has been Denver PG Ty Lawson. If/when Lawson has to go back to the States, Zalgiris won't be in bad shape as Mantas Kalnietis is a capable PG. The poor man's Juan Navarro, combo guard Marko Popovic, is a potent offensive option in the backcourt. Sonny Weems is signed for the entire season and adds some more scoring pop alongside Popovic. Veteran bigs Robertas Javtokas, Paulius Jankunas and Milovan Rakovic provide toughness on the frontline but not great scoring.

Unicaja is anchored by one of the top bigs in Europe, Joel Freeland. Freeland (Blazers own rights) can do damage inside and out, and he could be a quality rotation player in the NBA right now. Unicaja will rely on on a trio of Americans--Earl Rowland, Gerald Fitch and Tremmell Darden--to provide some scoring pop on the perimeter.

German representative Brose is led by former Stanford standout shooter Casey Jacobsen. Besides Jacobsen, Brose gets key contributions from other former NCAA standouts like PJ Tucker (Texas), Marcus Slaughter (San Diego St.), Julius Jenkins (Ga. Southern) and Brian Roberts (Dayton). Brose is solid team that could push Unicaja for the final Top 16 berth.

Zagreb doesn't have much of a chance of getting out of this group. They have already changed coaches after a poor start in the Adriatic league. The frontcourt is not in bad shape with the likes of Sean May, Mario Kasun and Josh Heytvelt available. But the the backcourt is hurting for talent.

1) Maccabi
2) Real Madrid
3) AJ Milano
4) Efes
5) Partizan
6) Spirou

Summary: Group C seems to be the proverbial "Group of Death". Maccabi and Real are very closely-matched and both are serious Final Four contenders, while a very solid team (possibly Partizan, Efes or AJ Milano) won't make it out of the first round.

Even though they lost Jeremy Pargo--who was one of the best players in the EL last season--Maccabi has a very deep roster that can make a repeat run to the Final Four. Expect this David Blatt-led team to execute crisp sets and repeat the strong defensive play from last year.

They have turned to two Americans to bolster their backcourt, Jordan Farmar and Jon Scheyer. Farmar will have to return to the Nets if the lockout ends, but Scheyer is signed for the season. Veteran playmaker Theo Papaloukas moves over from Olympiacos to give Blatt more ball-handling options.

Maccabi could be even more dangerous as they are currently in pursuit of Omri Casspi and Keith Langford. Maccabi has retained their solid veteran forward rotation of Lior Eliyahu, Richard Hendrix, David Blu and Guy Pnini. Eliyahu is a key scoring option close-in with is array of flip shots while Pnini and Blu bang jumpers.

Sofo Schortsanitis is the primary interior option and Big Sofo is coming off a terrific '10-11 campaign that earned him a EL 1st-team nod. The one minor concern is the lack of size. Maccabi recruited former NCAA shot-blocking ace Shawn James to add some much-needed bouncy length.

Like Maccabi, Real Madridwill try to make a return to the Final Four and they have a loaded roster that's as formidable as Maccabi's. For combo guard Sergio Llull, it will be interesting to see how he handles increased point-guard duties with the departure of Pablo Prigioni. Sergio Rodriguez will take some of the ball-handling burden off Llull.

The frontcourt rotation of Ante Tomic, Felipe Reyes, Nikola Mirotic, Novica Velickovic and Mirza Begic is very talented. All five guys can create offense down low--Tomic and Mirotic are two of the most refined players in Europe. Unlike Tomic, Begic actually uses his size to cause problems on the defensive end.

Real has Rudy Fernandez signed for the time being. If Rudy can stay the whole season, it would be a boon as the SF position could use some depth. Could see Mirotic and Velickovic sliding over to the 3-spot sometimes. Velickovic needs to regain his '09-10 form after struggling last year to adapt to Mirotic getting more minutes. If Rudy has to go back to the Mavs, Real can turn Martynas Pocius and Jaycee Carroll for some scoring on the wings.

Efes and AJ Milano are both intriguing teams with a lot of raw talent but how the talent jells together is the big question. Milano has a quality veteran roster with plenty of new pieces thrown together. A nice potential starting lineup of Omar Cook, Drew Nicholas, Danilo Gallinari, Antonis Fotsis and Giannis Bourousis (all five guys new to Milano). This lineup can really spread the floor with Fotsis and Bourousis' ability to face-up.

Even if Gallinari won't finish the season in Milan, they can to turn to Stefano Mancinelli and Malik Hairston to take his spot. Leon Radosevic is a promising young big that should provide quality support off the bench. Clearly a ton of talent, but how will all of it mesh together is the real question.

Like Milano, Efes has added quality vets to the roster like Sasha Vujacic, Terence Kinsey, Stanko Barac, Esteban Batista and Vlado Ilievski.

Ersan Ilyasova is also currently on the Efes roster. And if Ersan has to go back to the States, Efes can turn to Dusko Savanovic (another new addition) to take his starting spot. PG Kerem Tunceri is one of the few returning players and usually provides any team he's on with a steady influence.

Partizan will have a hard time getting out Group C. The good news for Partizan is they will likely have Nikola Pekovic for most of the first round. The frontcourt is also bolstered by Miroslav Raduljica and Milan Macvan (recently loaned out from Maccabi). Both guys have some skills on the offensive end. Acie Law is signed for the entire season and should get the starting nod to run the offense.

Spirou recently just advanced through the mini-qualification tourney to earn one of the last two bids but was done no favors by being placed in this brutal group. Their chances of getting out of group play are slim to none. Spirou's slim chances took a hit when Mickael Gelabale recently left the team. Christophe Beghin is a decent scoring option in the post and possible draft prospect Tornike Shengalia is a strong rebounder and finisher.

1) Barcelona
2) Montepaschi Siena
3) Galatasaray
4) UNICS Kazan
5) Union Olimpija
6) Asseco Prokom

Summary: Group D is probably the weakest group with Barca and Siena clearly a level above the other four teams. Barca and Siena should easily roll into Top 16 relatively unscathed. Would not be surprised to see Barca go undefeated in group play as Barca's only competitive games should be vs. Siena.

Barca is once again is loaded with primo talent led by Juan Navarro and Erazem Lorbek. Ricky Rubio is gone but Barca filled the vacancy with Marcelo Huertas, one of the top PGs in Europe. They have also added multi-skilled combo guard Chuck Eidson to provide more quality playmaking to the backcourt. Barca also retained quality vets like Pete Mickeal, Fran Vazquez, Joe Ingles and Boniface Ndong. Right now the Gasols are practicing with Barca and if the NBA season is cancelled, if either one of those guys (or both) are signed, hand Barca the trophy.

Most of the same players who helped Siena advance to last season's Final Four return this season. Bo McCalebb is the featured player for Siena and he's no doubt the most feared penetrator in Europe. Bo has quality auxiliary support in the backcourt from Rimas Kaukenas, Nikos Zisis and Pietro Aradori. DaJuan Summers should start at SF and is signed for the season.

After an unsuccessful stint in the NBA, David Andersen returns to Euro ball to help Siena's frontcourt. Energy forward Shaun Stonerook and PF/C Ksystof Lavrinovic return to bolster the frontline rotation.

The last two Top 16 berths in Group D should be up for grabs as not much separates Galatasaray, Union and UNICS.

Even though Galatasaray was one of the last two teams to qualify, they have enough veteran talent to compete for a Top 16 berth. This Turkish club has upgraded its roster by adding Jaka Lakovic, Ender Arslan, Darius Songaila and Zaza Pachulia. (Songaila is signed for the year while Zaza has an out-clause). Former NCAA standouts Josh Shipp and Preston Shumpert round out the rotation.

UNICS is a veteran-laden club with a heavy American influence. Have a trio of quality scorers in the backcourt with Henry Domercant, Lynn Greer and Terrell Lyday. All three guys will share ball-handling duties. Former Wisconsin standout Mike Wilkinson and Kelly McCarty are other viable options at the forward spots. Nathan Jawai and Alexey Savrasenko are a servicable center tandem. This team ain't young--most of their key guys are over 30

Slovenian champ Union Olimpija will be able to compete for a Top 16 spot thanks to its collective ability to spread the floor. Union will call upon two former UNC Tar Heels, Danny Green and Deon Thompson, to play big roles. Thompson bolsters a solid frontline that includes stretch-4 Damir Markota and old-school bruiser Ratko Varda. Ben Woodside and Aleksander Capin will split PG duties. Recent Spurs draftee Davis Bertans and Sasu Salin give this team two young sharpshooters off the bench.

Prokom did not fare well in EL play last year and the Polish champ's chances are not any better this year as they have a weaker roster. Recent Rocket draftee Donatas Motiejunas comes over from Treviso to lead this team. Alonzo Gee (has an out-clause) and Devin Brown will try to help Motiejunas make Prokom respectable.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Early Take: London 2012 Olympic Basketball Power Rankings

After China edged Jordan 70-69 last Sunday for the FIBA Asia championship (in what was likely the most-watched basketball game in the world this year), the qualifying season for the 2012 Olympic men's basketball competition ended for this year.

As we did four years ago, we're taking an early look at sizing up the 21 countries which are still alive in the race for Olympic gold - both the nine countries which have qualified for the 12-team field in London, and the 12 nations which will compete at next July's pre-Olympic qualifying tournament that will determine the final three spots.

So, here we go with some early handicapping of the 2012 Olympic field, with some FIBA Power Rankings:


Anything can happen in a one-and-done setting, but if anyone other than the U.S. and Spain is playing in the gold-medal game in London next August, it'll be an upset.

1. USA (Qualified as: FIBA World Champion)

As we work our way down this list, the key recurring variable which causes uncertainty is the question "Who'll be playing in the summer of 2012?" While Team USA has plenty of roster uncertainty for London 2012, they've also certainly earned the right to top these rankings, after an entirely new lineup of players with little international experience followed up 2008 Olympic gold by impressively marching through the 2010 FIBA World Championships. The system implemented by Jerry Colangelo and Coach K is now a well-oiled machine, and the Americans should have several of the 20 or so best players in the world on their team one way or another. The foibles of the 2002-06 era are in the past, and Team USA is once again a strong favorite to win Olympic gold.

2. SPAIN (Qualified as: EuroBasket Champion)

After a disappointing performance without Pau Gasol at the 2010 World Championships, Spain roared back with an impressive run to its second straight EuroBasket title, with a point differential of +13.5 for the tournament. MVP Juan Carlos Navarro was in full La Bomba mode during the knockout round, but it's Pau Gasol who is the lynchpin for this side. Pau easily led the EuroBasket with a whopping 36.9 PER (20 & 8 on 54% FG in 26 minutes per game).

While the return of Pau was essential for Team EspaƱa, the addition of newly naturalized Serge Ibaka was an intriguing personnel game-changer for Spain. Ibaka, who was a force in the gold-medal game with five blocks in 21 minutes, adds a welcome dose of athleticism. The equation of Gasol bros. plus Serge might well equal the best rotation of bigs in London, depending upon the frontline players Team USA is able to assemble.

While there are heavy favorites for gold and silver, the picture for bronze is wide open. Any of the three teams listed here in Tier II - plus the 3 teams which qualify at the pre-Olympic tournament (see below), who will all probably ultimately slot in somewhere in this tier - has at least a decent shot getting onto the podium.

3. FRANCE (Qualified as: EuroBasket 2nd Place)

With some of the best talent and athleticism in world basketball (they easily have the most NBA players of any non-U.S. country), France has been a FIBA underachiever in recent years, but they put it all together in Lithuania, qualifying for their first Olympic appearance since 2000.

Considering that Joakim Noah was France's key addition, one would think that the team's improvement was on the defensive end. The numbers, however, show that France played its best offense in years, finishing 4th in the tournament at 76.6 points per 70 possessions. This gang that too often can't shoot straight also finished a surprising 4th in three-point percentage, at 38.4%. Here's where France has ranked in points per possession in recent major FIBA tournaments (thanks to the essential for the numbers):
                   RANK      /  PPP (70 poss)
    2006 WC: 17th (of 24) / 64.6
    2007 Euro: 8th (of 16) / 72.2
    2009 Euro: 7th (of 16) / 73.2
    2010 WC: 14th (of 24) / 71.4
    2011 Euro: 4th (of 24) / 76.6
Certainly, the return of Tony Parker after a year off was critical to the French offense. Parker was the best guard in the tourney, averaging 22.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.7 steals in 35 minutes per game. Also, Nic Batum delivered a fine EuroBasket, averaging 13.8 points and 2.0 steals with 53.5% FG in 31.5 minutes, an improvement on his play in Turkey in 2010 (12.5 points and 1.3 steals with just 42.9% FG in 28.5 minutes).

France still has room for improvement, as they could potentially add players like Ronny Turiaf, Roddy Beaubois or Mickael Pietrus to this year's squad.

(Qualified as: FIBA Americas 2nd Place)

5. ARGENTINA (Qualified as: FIBA Americas Champion)

Speaking of years of underachievement, after years of dismal coaching, Brazil turned over the reigns to Coach Ruben Magnano, architect of Argentina's 2002 Worlds silver and 2004 Olympic gold, and they qualified for their first Olympic basketball tournament since the days of Oscar back in 1996.

We touched on this at length last month, but we fully expect 2012 to be the year in which the torch of South American basketball officially gets passed from Argentina to Brazil.

To review, at the recent FIBA Americas tournament, Argentina was expect to dominate the competition, playing at home and with essentially its full complement of players. Instead, Argentina lost to Brazil 73-71 in second-round play, and had to dig down deep, with the support of a passionate home crowd, for a late fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Brazilians 80-75 in the dramatic gold-medal game.

Not only can Brazil add players like Leandro Barbosa and Andy Varejao to this year's lineup, but they also have several young players in their primes or improving. Meanwhile, every good player for Argentina is on the wrong side of 30, and there's no significant young talent waiting in the wings. Brazil is on the rise, Argentina is in decline.

Certainly, the Olympic schedule won't be as punishing as the 10-games-in-13-days slate which wore out the Argentines by the end of the FIBA Americas. Still, I don't think Argentina will have enough depth or youth to compete with the top teams in 2012. This Golden Generation of Argentina basketball has been one of my favorite teams to watch, on any level of basketball, ever, so it hurts me to say that I will be surprised if they make it out of the quarterfinals in London.

The Tier III teams are unlikely to be near the medal podium, but are talented and scrappy enough to pull off an upset or two.

6. AUSTRALIA (Qualified as: FIBA Oceania "Champion")

After surviving the grueling best-of-three series vs. New Zealand that is FIBA Oceania qualifying, Australia is back in the Olympic basketball tournament for the 11th straight time, dating back to 1972. The health and availability of Andrew Bogut will likely be the determining factor of whether the Boomers can compete into the knockout round, or if they'll be eliminated in the Group Stage.

7. GREAT BRITAIN (Qualified as: Host)

British basketball is still a program in development, as they contested their first EuroBasket in 2009, and are now using host-nation status for their first Olympic appearance since London hosted the 1948 Games. For such a nascent program, the Brits have been surprisingly competitive, consistently well-coached under Houston Rockets assistant Chris Finch (not, mind you, this guy). Great Britain nearly shocked Spain without Luol Deng at the 2009 EuroBasket, and they were a respectable 2-3 in the brutal Group A (Spain, Lithuania, Turkey) at the 2011 EuroBasket.

G.B. has a legitimate go-to guy in Deng, who led all players in scoring with 24.6 points per game at the recent EuroBasket. Finally corralling the services of Ben Gordon onto the national team would obviously provide a huge boost, as would the return of Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who missed the 2011 EuroBasket due to injury after being a stalwart on the boards in Euro qualifying play. I expect the Brits to upset somebody before the home crowd.

Enjoy the fortnight in London.

8. CHINA (Qualified as: FIBA Asia Champion)

With Yao Ming's retirement, China moves back from Tier III to Tier IV. After making it to the quarterfinals in 2004 and 2008, China will be fortunate to win a game in London, and should be bounced in group-stage play. Yi Jianlian was the FIBA Asia MVP after delivering 25 points, 16 rebounds and the game-winning free throw in the gold-medal game, but Chairman Yi is no Yao. As always, though, we're excited to see the Dodger, Wang Zhizhi, who should be bringing his lefty stroke to the fourth Olympic Games of his career.

9. TUNISIA (Qualified as: Afrobasket Champion)

Tunisia will be happy just to be in London, and they should be rightly thrilled after knocking off Angola 67-56 in the Afrobasket final, becoming the first African nation other than Angola to make the Olympic basketball competition since 1988.


In 2008, the three teams which emerged were all from Europe, and in 2012, the six teams which likely have a chance to qualify for London consist of four European nations and two from the Americas. In other words, this tournament is something of a joke. At least one, and possibly two, more automatic bids should be awarded to Europe, and any playoffs should be contested head-to-head (a la FIFA qualification playoffs) between teams from Europe and the Americas, only.

We're for the global expansion of basketball as much as anyone, but until more teams from Asia and Africa can consistently compete on the world stage, they do not deserve more bids. It's simply not fair to players who play full club seasons to have to put their bodies on the line for a supplemental, ultimately unnecessary, tournament.

Strong contenders

1. RUSSIA (Qualified as: EuroBasket 3rd Place)

2. GREECE (Qualified as: EuroBasket 6th Place)

3. LITHUANIA (Qualified as: EuroBasket 5th Place)

These three European teams are awfully close as favorites for the qualifying tournament, and who ends up playing should be a hugely decisive factor.

With Andrei Kirilenko and Viktor Khryapa back healthy and in action for the first time since the 2008 Olympics, Russia was back near the form they showed in winning the 2007 EuroBasket in surprising fashion. David Blatt might be the best coach in FIBA world basketball. Blatt gets the maximum out of Kirilenko and Khryapa, who are like a pair of FIBA Pippens under his expert deployment, wreaking havoc with smart, athletic, unselfish, versatile play on both ends of the court. If those two play, Russia should be favored to win the qualifying tournament, especially because many believe that FIBA will award the tournament to the highest bidder, and Russia should have the inside track to host based on that criteria.

We place Greece ahead of Lithuania narrowly at no. 2 due to greater upside. And the Greeks were competitive in the 5th-place game (a 73-69 loss) in front of a raucous Lithuanian crowd even with a depleted squad. Vassilis Spanoulis should be back next year, though it's unclear if Sofo Schortsanitis will be. The key for the Greeks could be whether they can coax Dimis Diamantidis out of national-team retirement.

The 5th-place finish at home in the 2011 EuroBasket has to be considered a disappointment for Lithuania, who were widely expected to make the semifinals at worst. When the shots weren't falling in the quarterfinal loss to (FYR) Macedonia, the Lithuanians really seemed to miss having a player who could create his own points the way Linas Kleiza did at the 2010 World Championships, when he averaged 19 points per game to lead Lithuania to a surprising bronze medal (though, to be fair, Lithuania was 2nd in offensive efficiency, and just 13th on defense, for the tournament overall). Kleiza's full recovery from microfracture surgery on his knee is critical for Lithuania, and the continued development of Jonas Valanciunas with all deliberate speed would certainly be helpful as well.

4. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC (Qualified as: FIBA Americas 3rd Place)

Make no mistake, we certainly consider the Dominican Republic a strong contender to grab one of the three remaining Olympic qualifying spots. The Dominicans took a big step forward in 2011, nearly qualifying outright at FIBA Americas, as they lost a tough semifinal to Brazil, 83-76. Adding a top-quality coaching staff headed by John Calipari, with respected assistants like Del Harris and Billy Bayno, was a big help.

Most of all, though, they have Al Horford, who was an absolute beast at FIBA Americas (averaged 19-9-3 plus 2 steals and 1 block), and should be the best player at the qualifying tournament. Rugged FIBA Americas revelation Jack Michael Martinez looks like a FIBA Ben Wallace - he led the tournament in rebounding. The Dominicans need better play from NBAers Francisco Garcia and Charlie Villanueva, who shot an atrocious 36% from the floor in Argentina.

Decent contenders

5. PUERTO RICO (Qualified as: FIBA Americas 4th Place)

Puerto Rico nearly pulled off the shocker of the qualifying season, losing a FIBA Americas semifinal 81-79 on the road to Argentina in a game that Manu Ginobili called "one of the toughest games I've ever played." If the Puerto Ricans had prevailed, they would have qualified directly for London, and sent Argentina reeling into this tournament. That follows on the heels of their hard-luck slot in 2008, when they were the last team eliminated from this pre-Olympic qualifying tournament, losing the 3rd-place game to Germany.

Led by an experienced FIBA backcourt of Carlos Arroyo and J.J. Barea, P.R. has to be considered at least outside contenders to grab one of the three qualifying spots. It would be helpful if 7-3 P.J. Ramos were to return.

6. (FYR) MACEDONIA (Qualified as: EuroBasket 4th Place)

I think that we here at The Painted Area have made it eminently clear that we love us some Bo McCalebb, about as much as anyone outside Skopje or New Orleans, to be honest. McCalebb had a truly remarkable EuroBasket, averaging a 21-3-4 with 2 steals as he carried (FYR) Macedonia on his back to a stunning 4th-place finish, deservedly earning a First-Team All-EuroBasket nod. (For the record, I agreed with the First-Team selections of Bo, Pau, Parker, Kirilenko and Navarro, though Jay Aych and I both would have given the MVP to Pau instead of La Bomba.)

All that said, I think it's going to be very hard for Macedonia to replicate its run next year. This team is so heavily dependent upon Bo; there is very little other offensive talent. For the tournament, Bo shot 47% from the floor, while the rest of the team shot just 35%, as the likes of Pero "The Macedonian Boozer" Antic jacked up five threes a game to the tune of 29% success.

Overall, (FYR) Macedonia averaged just 69.8 points per 70 possessions, ranking 15th of 24 teams in EuroBasket, and had an overall point differential of just +1.8 points per game. They pulled out four different games by scant two-point margins, and benefited heavily by the draw, which placed them in the much weaker Groups C and F (though it should be noted that (FYR) Macedonia was competitive in all four losses, three of which came vs. top teams Spain and Russia).

Listen, I still consider (FYR) Macedonia one of six teams that's a contender for the three remaining Olympic spots, and again, we love love love us some Bo, I just think it's going to be tough for them to recapture the magic of Lithuania.

Just not enough talent

7. NEW ZEALAND (Qualified as: FIBA Oceania LAST Place)

New Zealand certainly had the easiest road to the qualifying tournament, as they didn't even have to win a game to finish 2nd (out of 2) in the ridiculous FIBA Oceania qualifying process. The Tall Blacks are usually a well-drilled team which gets the most out of its talent. At the 2010 World Championships, the Kiwis surprisingly qualified for the Round of 16, and went 3-3 overall, with wins over France, Canada and Lebanon. New Zealand is led by Kirk Penney, who was second in scoring at the 2010 Worlds with 24.7 per game, but ultimately, they are too outmanned to have a strong shot at the top three.

8. VENEZUELA (Qualified as: FIBA Americas 5th Place)

Greivis Vasquez of the Memphis Grizzlies was a stud at FIBA Americas, averaging 19.3 points (2nd in tourney) and 5.8 assists (1st) for the running, gunning Venezuelans, who averaged 94.8 points per game (10 more than anyone else) and earned the final qualifying tournament entry under the guidance of former NBA coach Eric Musselman. Venezuela probably doesn't have enough talent to get into the top 3, but they should regularly be competitive in this tournament.

9. ANGOLA (Qualified as: Afrobasket 2nd Place)

Not only did Angola fail to win the Afrobasket after winning the last six, and 10 of the last 11 - thus making them unlikely to make the Olympics for the first time since 1988 - but they were fortunate to even make this tournament, as they needed a miracle rally from down five with 10 seconds left to beat Cameroon in the quarterfinals. That said, Angola has been a frisky side at recent World Championships, getting out of the group stage and into the Round of 16 in both 2006 and 2010. They have the goods to pull off an upset or two in this tourney, but not enough to make it all the way to London.

No chance

10. JORDAN (Qualified as: FIBA Asia 2nd Place)

Jordan narrowly missed its best chance to make the Olympics, when - after knocking off favored Iran in the quarterfinals - their upset bid on the road in China fell just short. Coach Tab Baldwin led New Zealand to a 4th-place finish at the 2002 World Championships - it'll take that kind of miracle for him to lead the Jordanians to the top three in this tournament.

11. NIGERIA (Qualified as: Afrobasket 3rd Place)

If Nigeria can get Hakeem Olajuwon circa 1994-95 to play, they might have a chance to grab a qualifying spot. Might.

12. KOREA (Qualified as: FIBA Asia 3rd Place)

Even though the FIBA Asia 3rd-place slot had little chance to advance any further, I have to say I'm bummed that Korea got it, because it meant that they ended the dreams and the Cinderella run of one of the greatest basketball-loving nations on the planet, the Philippines, who lost the third-place game in a heartbreaker, 70-68. The 4th-place FIBA Asia finish was the best for the Philippines since 1987.