Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Photos, Video From Day Two Of Training Camp

We've finally got some moving pictures for you ravenous fans out there. Videographer Ron Quant put together a nifty little package with footage that you won't see anywhere else. Check it out, maybe a couple of times.

As for stills, I've got those for you as well. Below are some of the better pictures I took today at the practice facility, with the rest available in this photo gallery. Some action shots, some pics of guys lifting, a few closeups, and so forth. Be sure to subscribe to our Twitter feed to get first look at pictures from practice. And check out our Training Camp Central page, too. That's a lot of orders.

Onto the photos ...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A New Addition To The Practice Facility

The Trail Blazers had some business to tend to today at the practice facility before officially starting training camp. Before attention could be turned to the 2009-10 season, there was one remnant of the 2008-09 season that needed to be addressed: a Northwest Division Co-Champions banner.

Every banner you see in the rafters of the Rose Garden has a duplicate hanging up in the gym at the practice facility. The 1977 NBA Championship, three Western Conference Championships, four Pacific Division Championships, ten retired jersey numbers, a "1" for first owner Larry Weinberg, a "77" for Dr. Jack and a mic for Bill Schonely. And soon there will be the first of what we hope will be many more Northwest Division championship banners, though it would be preferable to win the next one outright.

Both the Trail Blazers and the Nuggets finished with a 54-28 regular season record in '08-'09, and hence, the two teams share the division championship. While it's true that Denver won the playoff seeding tiebreaker, that tiebreaker does not apply to division championships. If the Nuggets would have won the last game of the regular season at the Rose Garden they alone would have been Northwest Division champs. Instead they got beaten 104-76, so co-champions are we.

There was no pomp and circumstance. No boasting. No real announcement. Just the players, coaches and members of the front office staff pulling the banner to the ceiling, signaling the end of one campaign and the start of another. As far as anyone could tell, not one of the many members of the media who showed up noticed it. None of the players or coaches made mention of it in their interviews. It's a nice addition and a great reminder of a wonderful season, but as soon as it went up, everyone in attendance turned their thoughts to the new task at hand: getting another, better banner.

Bayless Getting To Know 'The Glove'

Most NBA players, at least the good ones, have extreme confidence in themselves. It’s a necessity when you’re going up against some of the greatest athletes to walk the earth. Some guys have a quite confidence, while others are more than willing to tell the world just how talented they are. Jerryd Bayless falls somewhere in between. He self-assured to the extreme, but he’s not necessarily going to be in your face about it, at least off the court. On the court, he’s as brash and competitive as they come

Usually, Bayless is one of the biggest talkers in the gym. I can say that because, during a live chat on media day, Bayless freely admitted he’s got the biggest ego on the team. But on the first day of training camp, Gary Payton, a legendary NBA player and trash talker, was on hand to take in the first run of the season, assuring that, at least for the day, Bayless wouldn’t be the king of bravado in Tualatin.

As it happens, one of the reasons Payton paid a visit was to catch up with Bayless. The two have known each other for some time, forging a friendship out of mutual interest and personality. For Bayless, it’s a chance to pick the brain of one of the all-time great point guards.

“He’s a hall of famer,” said Bayless of Payton. “I don’t really know what you can do better than that. I’m just trying to learn from him, but I’m also trying to learn from Andre, trying to learn from everyone here. Just trying to get better every day.

“I think he’s one of the most competitive guards who has ever been in the league. Taking that from him and learning from him and watching film of him. Knowing him, being able to talk and have a conversation with him, learning different things is something I’ve tried to do with him.”

From Payton’s perspective, Bayless has the skills to be a star in the league, but he needs to get past worrying about making mistakes, learn to trust that his skills are enough to keep him on the floor.

“I just told him I like the aggressiveness that he’s got now,” said Payton. “Last year he was a little bit passive, thinking ‘If I take a shot I’m going to come out of the game.’ or whatever. Now that he’s shown these guys he’s coming in here and he’s aggressive. His jump shot is getting a lot better. He’s getting aggressive, more confident. I just told him that’s the way he has to do it. Don’t think about coming out of the game. If you take a shot and you miss, think about getting a steal, show coach you’re going to do other things.

“When he gets down the floor he’s really quick with the basketball. I told him that. I told him that he’s going to have to add a little bit more to his game, when he gets by guys, pull up for a jump shot. He can finish. He can do all that. Now it’s just time to refine his game, make it where he can do everything. I see he’s trying hard on the defensive end, and that’s going to take time too. Everybody got to take time. Take time to become a better basketball player. And he’s got a lot of time.”

Bayless still has a long ways to go to get to Payton’s level, which, if you’re familiar with GP’s game, is no slight to Bayless. After all, “The Glove” was one of the premier point guards of his era and one of the best defensive guards of all time. But when it comes to being competitive and confident, Payton thinks Bayless is already his peer.

Said Payton: “He’s confident. I’ve always loved that about him. When I first met him we were doing “The Best Damn Sports Show”. I asked him ‘If you were the team to pick first, who would you pick?’ and he said ‘Bayless’, just like that. I said ‘I like you already.’ because you got a lot of confidence in yourself and that’s how we became real close like we are now, talking and everything. Ever since then I knew this kid was going to be good. I loved him because of his confidence. He reminds me of myself.”

Photos From First Day Of Training Camp

I had a chance to snap a few pictures from today's first training camp run at the practice facility. You got first look at some of these if you've been following pdxtrailblazers on Twitter, but for those of you who haven't broken down and opened a Twitter account, here are some of the best photos. The gallery of today's photos can be view over at

Monday, September 28, 2009

Media Day Video Chat

I've got to be honest: I think this season's Media Day live chat interviews were pretty good. At least better than last year. Getting better every season, that's all you can ask for, right?

So the video below is all the interviews that our friends at UStream would allow us to record. It starts with me saying something unimportant, then from there it's all players. Rudy Fernandez, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, Nicolas Batum, Jerryd Bayless, Juwan Howard and others. Unfortunately the interviews with Travis Outlaw, Ime Udoka, Andre Miller and the full of laughs segment with Joel Przybilla didn't record, so unless you were watching live, you missed out. Sometimes it's just an empty chair, so I'd fast forward through those parts. Some pretty interesting answers to some strange questions

Friday, September 25, 2009

Nothing Commercial About Przybilla

Joel Przybilla has no interest in pursuing a career in acting once his playing days are over, but he seems comfortable enough in front of the camera during a Ford commercial shoot in the parking garage of the Rose Garden. He’s loose, takes direction well and doesn’t seem bothered by saying the same line over, and over, and over again. But in no way is Joel enjoying himself. He’s not accustomed to, nor does he desire, time in the spotlight. For Przybilla, it’s probably the worst part of the job.

It’s tough anywhere to go through life incognito as a seven-footer, but in Portland, for Przybilla, it’s impossible. It's one of the reasons why he spurned my repeated attempts for summer interviews. As a favorite of the NBA’s most dedicated fanbase, his desire to be an anonymous face in the crowd will be forever unrequited, and he’s come to terms with that, but when I pull out my camera on the set, Joel utters a familiar phrase in his rejuvenated Midwest accent that I’ve not heard since the end of the season.

“You know how I feel about those things.”

I do know. Joel hates having his picture taken. Hates talking on camera even more, which is why I’m a bit surprised he’s as adept as he is on set. He’s only got one line (“Take good care of her”), which he is asked to perform as both “nice guy Joel” and “bad guy Joel” and he does a fine job channeling both personalities. He insists on shaking hands during the scene with the explanation that it’s what he would do in real life. The same goes for opening his own door rather than allowing his parking attendant co-star to do so. Even though he’s acting, he doesn’t want anyone to get the impression that fame and fortune have changed the kid of Monticello, MN.

He also doesn’t want anybody to get the wrong idea about his ambitions. Joel’s a working class guy with working class values, so he’s not interested in profile or name recognition. I know this to be true. While trying to convince him, for my own selfish purposes, that more exposure would be good for his image, Joel’s face shows nothing but disinterest.

“I’m happy with my profile right where it is,” he says, motioning his hand downward toward the concrete parking garage floor as if to indicate the lack of importance he puts on things like name recognition.

Which is why you won’t have to worry about Przybilla going into training camp. He is now, as he’s always been during his time in Portland, a consummate pro. He’s going to do what is asked of him whenever it is asked. Starting, coming off the bench, doesn’t matter. These things are of little importance to a guy who, in his tenth season, is ready to win now. Fans may worry about the importance of playing time and whether Nate McMillan can keep everyone happy when it comes to minutes, but when it comes to Przybilla, no such issues exist. And that’s not an act.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

09.23.09 Podcast

The offseason officially ends on Monday, so today's Podcast is sort of like the calm before the storm. Gavin Dawson of 95.5 The Game, Dave Deckard of Blazers and Casey Holdahl (that's me) of talk 40 MBs worth of shop.

In today's podcast we briefly discuss coaches/front office media day, Nate McMillan's training camp starters, the fight for the 15th roster spot, the impact of money, foreign or otherwise, in the NBA and both Gavin and Dave tease some upcoming announcements. It's mysterious.

Download the Podcast (40.2 MB)

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

09.21.09 Trail Blazers Courtside

You missed out if you didn't catch Trail Blazers Courtside last night streaming live right here at (and on Comcast Sports Net). Mike Barrett, Mike Rice, Brian Wheeler and a slew of new sound effects made for an entertaining show. Guests included Juwan Howard, Bill Bayno, Jason Quick and Merlin. You can watch the archive here, but I know most of you like to listen on your MP3 players, so I've provided the audio below.

Hour One

Download Trail Blazers Courtside (Hour One) (38.7 MB)

Hour Two

Download Trail Blazers Courtside (Hour Two) (38.7 MB)

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Monday, September 21, 2009

EuroBasket 2009: Spain Wins, France Fifth And Everyone Goes To Turkey

Spain's fall from international basketball grace lasted for all of four games before they woke up, remembered who they were and proceeded to beat the pantalones off every team that was unfortunate enough to line up opposite the Iberians in the knockout round of EuroBasket 2009. After starting the tournament 2-2, Spain rolled through their last five opponents, winning their first EuroBasket gold medal after defeating Serbia, a team that had beaten Spain in the first game of group play, 85-63 in Katowice, Poland Sunday night.

As for France, they beat Turkey and Croatia in their last two games to finish fifth, assuring themselves a spot in the 2010 World Championships in Turkey. It had to have been a letdown for Les Bleus to miss a shot at a medal after starting the tournament 6-0, but at least they staked claim as one of the up-and-coming team in European basketball.

Spain Still Reigns

First, a mini-recap of the gold medal game between Spain and Serbia. Spain leads by 10 after the first quarter, then by 23 at the half. Spain shot 59 percent from 2-point range, 30 percent from 3. Out-rebounded Serbia 42-24 (Spain had as many defensive rebounds as Serbia had total). That's about it. The sloppy, poor free throw-shooting, Pau readjusting to, Rudy-less team the Serbia's beat on the first day of the tournament were replaced by the Spanish team we're used to seeing, a team that moves the ball, helps on defense, controls the paint and generally dominates all but the very best teams in the world (cough, USA, cough).

Now onto our guys. Rudy Fernandez, simply put, was terrific throughout EuroBasket, and his performance in the final was no exception. The blowout nature of the gold medal game allowed Rudy to play just 27 minutes, though it was enough time to score 13 points, grab 5 boards and dish 3 assists. Rudy finishes the tournament averaging 13.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.1 steals while shooting 62 percent from 2-point and 37 percent from 3-point. But you had to watch Rudy play throughout EuroBasket to get a sense of how important he is to Spain's success. As an opponent, you always have to know where he's at on both sides of the ball. As Mike Born told me, Pau is Spain's best player, but Rudy is the most important. It's no surprise both were named to the all-tournament team, which is extra impressive when you factor in both were dealing with injuries (hamstring for Rudy and finger for Pau) throughout EuroBasket. Rudy played eight games in 12 days on a tender hammy. That's tough. Here's hoping he spends the next week cold kicking it before training camp starts.

EuroBasket 2009 goes down as a learning experience for young Victor Claver. He didn't end up playing any meaningful minutes outside of his performance in the Great Britain game, but at least he's got his foot in the national team door. If Claver can manage to stay positive and earn his stripes with Team Spain he'll be posed to assume an expanded role as guys like Jorge Garbajosa, Alex Mumbri and Felipe Reyes get on in years. Claver would probably play a good chunk of minutes if he were on any other EuroBasket roster, but you have to pay dues when you're rolling with Spain, and that means spending a lot of time riding the pine.

Spain walks away with their heads held high after a disastrous start to the tournament. It would be fascinating to know what exactly happened between their last friendly, a loss to Lithuania, before the start of Eurobasket and their second game of the qualifying round, also against Lithuania. Spain lost two games in that five-game stretch and looked like a completely different team than the wrecking crew that went on to win their final five games of the tournament by an average of 19.2 points. Was it a case of Pau and Rudy getting healthy? Did it have something to do with the rumors that some of the players weren't all that enamored with new coach Sergio Scariolo? Could it be that Spain just needed a scare to be reminded that they couldn't sleepwalk their way to the 2010 World Championships? We may never know the answer but I'll be sure to ask Rudy when I see him next week.

It's Not How You Start, It's How You Finish

It's probably not my place to question the folks at EuroBasket, but I have to ask: Is it fair for a team to go 8-1 through a tournament and finish in fifth place? That's exactly what happened to the French, whose only mistake at EuroBasket was drawing Spain in the quarterfinals. If Nando De Colo would have missed that last-second shot in France's last qualifying round game against Greece (something many assumed he was trying to do anyway) Les Bleus would have ended up playing Russia, a team they had already beaten, in the quarters rather than Spain. It makes it hard to be anything but cynical about the layout of the tournament when a team stands a better chance of medaling by losing games.

Oh well. France still qualified for the World Championships, which means they won't have to sweat out an at-large bid from FIBA. They get another year to improve and get healthy (Michael Pietrus could have helped France's cause versus Spain) before heading to Turkey next summer.

Nicolas Batum ended up averaging 9.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1 block per game throughout the tournament. He shot 54 percent from 2-point and 36 percent from 3-point, but just 50 percent from the free throw line. That as to improve if Batum is to see crunchtime minutes, both for France and the Trail Blazers.

(Photo credit: FIBA Europe)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hello Juwan Howard

There isn’t a whole lot that Juwan Howard hasn’t experiences in 15 NBA seasons. He’s played in 1042 regular season games, 23 playoff games. He’s been to an All-Star game. He was locked out during the 1998-99 season. He’s played for six different teams. He was on an episode of The West Wing. He’s signed huge contracts. But until yesterday afternoon, Howard had never been introduced to the media on a dock on the banks of the Willamette River. It was an indication to the newest Trail Blazer that we tend to do things a little different here in Portland.

While our introductions might be a bit nontraditional, our expectations of what a veteran like Howard should bring to the team are not. He’s here to provide experience, toughness, a stabilizing presence on the court and in the locker room. He’s here to do whatever he can to help a talent-laden team take the next step.

"I hope I can have a huge impact in the locker room.” said Howard. “But not only that, I also will hopefully have an impact and presence on the court, as well. I feel I can help this team on the court with my veteran (ability) and experience. I've played in over 1000 games. I've played in a lot of playoff games. That being said, I've been around, I know how to play the game, I still have a lot left in the tank. I feel I can help this team in so many ways”

That’s good to hear, but if all Howard can do is rebound, play solid defense and hit the open shot every now and then, that will be enough. The Trail Blazers as currently constructed don’t need much, just a savvy player with experience who can mix it up when need be.

“I haven't had a chance to spend a lot of time with (the current Trail Blazers),” said Howard, “but just from outside looking in and what I've heard from a lot of people, you have good-character guys. I'm looking forward to it, taking on that leadership role, being that veteran that you need on your ball club."

Bringing in Howard, along with Andre Miller, gives the Trail Blazers the veteran savvy many thought they lacked last season. And with Howard, the Trail Blazers shore up the backup power forward position, allowing Travis Outlaw to move back out to the wing.

“"I'm definitely going to be one of the power forwards that backs up LaMarcus and gives him some minutes where he can catch a breather,” said Howard when asked about his role. “But be able to help the second unit out with some experience.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

EuroBasket 2009: Spain Returns To Dominance Versus France

I mentioned on the podcast that today’s Spain v. France quarterfinal game had some similarities to the Trail Blazers’ playoff series against the Rockets: a young team with more raw talent going up against a bunch of savvy vets who’ve been there before. And the result was the same. Spain, lead by Pau Gasol and Rudy Fernandez, jumped out to an early lead and never looked back, eliminating France 86-66 in the quarterfinals of EuroBasket in Katowice, Poland.

Started out as good games for both Rudy and Nicolas. Batum had two steals and the first points of the game, a three from Ronni Turiaf, to get things going, but then Rudy answered back with a steal and back-to-back three’s to get Spain on the board. Nic would go on to make just one field goal, whereas Rudy was just getting started. Fernandez drained another three and added two more steals before the end of the first quarter, and by that time, Team Spain was rolling.

Rudy ended the night with 16 points, 6 steals (!), 5 rebounds and 2 assists in probably his best game of the tournament. Nic finished with 7 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. Batum seemed like the best French player on the floor for most of the game, which isn’t really saying much in this instance.

The French made a few small runs here and there, but with Spain, and specifically Pau Gasol, firing on all cylinders, the chance of a comeback by an inexperienced team like Les Bleus was unlikely. Heck, even a veteran team wouldn’t have been able to get back in the game with Spain playing like the team that won the World Championship in 2006.

You have to wonder about the mindset the French took into the gam. France’s coach Vincent Collet stated that he wanted his team to beat Greece in the last game of the qualifying round, even if that meant having to play against Spain in the quarterfinals, but when he says prior to the game that “It's certain that Spain are the big favorites at the EuroBasket and it is unjust to face them at this stage of the competition but that's the way it is", one has to question whether he was being completely honest.

If it’s really was the case that the French were trying to duck Spain, then it’s no wonder that they lost by 20. If Les Bleus thought so little of their chances of beating Spain that they would have rather lost to Greece, then they were doomed before the opening tip. You can’t take that kind of self-doubt into an elimination game.

Confidence or no, stopping Pau Gasol wasn’t going to happen, at least not today. Turiaf was the only post who could hold his own, and he had to play soft after picking up three fouls in the first half. Pau finished with 28 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks in 28 minutes. He’s the MVP of EuroBasket and it’s not even close.

French were also undone by Tony Parker’s forgettable performance. Rubio seemed to really bother Parker defensively, something that had to be bittersweet for our friends in Minnesota to see. Parker finished with 6 points, by far his lowest output of the tournament.

France has no chance of medaling, but they’ve still got to win another game in the consolation round to assure a spot in the 2010 World Championships. Spain moves on to the semifinals to play the winner of the Greece/Turkey game. Either will be a formidable opponent.

(Photo credit: FIBA

09.17.09 Podcast

Well, since we recorded the podcast this morning Juwan Howard was signed and the Spanish put a beatdown on the French, but there's still plenty of reason to listen to this week's podcast with Dave Deckard of and me, Casey Holdahl, of (Gavin has the week off). Dave and I take turns steering the podcast ship in Gavin's absence, which has it's positives and negatives.

This week we talk about the importance, or lack thereof, of the preseason, whether you can trust anything you hear during the summer months, if Bayless, Cunningham and Pendergraph will see any minutes, Brandon Roy's weight and Dave's elementary school crush.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

EuroBasket 2009: Spain v. France

This is the game I've been waiting months for (same goes for Nico). When I looked at the EuroBasket table a month ago, I figured maybe France would get a shot at Spain in the finals, and I assumed if that were the case that the French would be the underdogs. Didn't exactly turn out that way. These two "Old Europe" teams meeting in the quarterfinals, with France technically the favorite (at least from a seeding perspective) is a rather unexpected twist. That's why they play the game (which starts at noon PST on

Spain v. France is a classic clash of experience versus youth. Spain isn't an old team by any stretch, but the core group of Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jorge Garbajosa and Felipe Reyes has been playing together at EuroBasket since 2001, with the likes of Rudy Fernandez, Marc Gasol, Carlos Cabezas and Alex Mumbru all returning from the 2006 World Championship team. They've played in big games. They can handle the pressure.

The French, at least as it pertains to the current roster, are the exact opposite. This is the first time this group, with Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, Ronni Turiaf and Florent Pietrus have played together for an extended period of time. You could look at that one of two ways. The positive spin is that they're young and still, in some respects, getting to know each other, so they're likely to improve every game. The flip side is that they've never been in this situation before as the favorites in the knockout round against a team most observers would consider the second best in the world (for what it's worth, FIBA has Spain ranked 4th, USA 2nd, Argentina 1st and France 17th).

If the French can, as Batum often says, "just play their game" without thinking about who they are and who the Spanish are, then their inexperience shouldn't be a problem.

While Spain might have the experience, the French have fresh legs. Vincent Collet, for one reason or another, rested most of his starters, including Parker, for much of their last qualifying round game against Greece on Monday. The Spanish didn't have to expend a ton of energy today against Poland, but a back-to-back is a back-to-back, regardless of the opponent. Tomorrow's game will be Spain's seventh in the past ten days and for that reason, I'd expect to see the French push the tempo early and often tomorrow.

The French also have post players to throw at Pau Gasol, a luxury most other teams in the tournament don't have. The elder Gasol has been nearly unstoppable since the first game against Serbia, a game that might have been his worst as an international. Top-10 in 11 different statistical rankings at EuroBasket, Pau is the straw that stirs the Spanish coffee. But the French have Turiaf, who probably knows Pau's game was well as anyone in the tournament, Boris Diaw and Florent Pietrus. Ali Traore and Alain Koffi, the resident bench bruisers for Les Bleus, probably won't be called upon unless the French have foul trouble (which has been an issue for Turiaf throughout the tournament), but they're big bodies who an bang on the defensive end. If the refs allow some rough and tumble in the post (which doesn't seem likely from what I've seen), the French stand a real good chance.

No one in the tournament has a guard who can keep Parker in front of them, including the Spanish. Rubio and Navarro are going to have a rough go containing, which could lead to Pau Gasol getting in foul trouble if he tries to contest at the basket consistently. Sending Pau to the bench would be more valuable for France than any points scored by Parker.

But the crux of the game, at least to my Trail Blazers colored glasses, is the showdown between Rudy and Nicolas. Rudy plays out on the wing with Navarro and Rubio starting at 1 and 2, and he's easily their most athletic back court player, so if I'm Collet, I'm tasking Batum with trying to shut him down. Nic is a real tough matchup for Rudy on both ends of the court (though the French don't seem to run much for Batum on offense). Then again, many a defender have been made to look foolish by Rudy's constant motion. Nicolas better be ready to closeout in a hurry.

My prediction? I'm going with the French. If Spain had an extra day to rest and prepare as France did, I'd probably go with the Iberians. But in this case, I'm betting on old age and treachery to succumb to youth and skill.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Winning Hearts And Minds At EuroBasket

It’s still well over two months before the start of EuroBasket and Nicolas Batum is thinking of the little things as he sits behind a desk at his agent’s offices in Paris. He’s thinking about the wedding he’s going to be late for and the hellacious traffic in downtown Paris; the difficultly of finding a parking spot in the city; whether he’s close enough to make a quick trip on foot to the Champs-Élysées.

But while flipping through basketball magazines with covers adorned by his fellow countrymen, Batum starts to consider the big picture. He’s pondering the future of basketball in France, a future he thinks could be much brighter depending on the outcome of EuroBasket 2009. The way he sees it, if the French senior national team, a squad thick with talent but thin on prior success, could come together just once, it could greatly enhance the popularity of a sport still considered niche by most in the land of the Franks.

“If we do something great with the national team, I think basketball will be great in France,” said Batum, “because now it’s just soccer and rugby. Basketball is not very popular in France, not very famous. But we’re going to make it great.”

Batum’s quest for greatness with Les Bleus isn’t just about winning medals or qualifying for future tournaments. Those outcomes are simply means to an end. He’s doing it for the good of the sport, a sport his father died while playing when he was just a young boy. And he’s out for respect, not only for himself, but for all of the other French ballers toiling away in relative anonymity in Le Mans and Cholet and Villeurbanne while their soccer-playing contemporaries dominate the headlines.

The French have been slow to pick up on hoops despite the growing number of NBA players hailing from within the country, but Batum is adamant about changing that, and he’s putting the onus on himself and his teammates.

“We don’t have a good record with our national team,” said Batum. “And that’s why this year is very important for us, because we have to do something. We have a great team.”

Keep in mind that Batum made these statements even before France had qualified for EuroBasket, before they advanced to the quarterfinals of the tournament with a perfect 6-0 record. While observers were waiting for the French to self-destruct like they had done many times before, Batum was declaring his team contenders.

“We have a great team because everybody is motivated. I think this is the first year where everybody comes. Tony is maybe one of the best point guards in the world right now. Boris Diaw had a great season. Turiaf did great. Me, I did great. Nico De Colo -- he just got drafted by the Spurs -- he had a great season. We really want to do something.”

Simply making it to he knockout round isn’t Batum’s idea of “something.” After all, no one will remember what France did in the preliminary and qualifying stages of EuroBasket if they end up flaming out in the quarterfinals. It’s going to take more than that for the French to plant their flag as one of the forces to be reckoned with in international basketball. Batum has an idea of what that something could be.

“We want to beat Spain in the finals.”

Les Bleus might not have to wait that long. France could face off against Spain as soon as their next game depending on the outcomes of the Spain/Poland, Serbia/Lithuania and Turkey/Slovenia games. Upsetting the defending World Champions (though it probably wouldn’t be considered an “upset” at this point) would qualify as a potentially transformative moment for French basketball. Should the opportunity arise, Batum’s high hopes for hoops in his homeland could be greatly aided by taking down their southern neighbors.

He’d also have something to hold over Rudy Fernandez’s head in the Trail Blazers locker room. And you can’t underestimate the value of that.

EuroBasket 2009: France Is Perfect

The French faced their biggest challenge of the tournament Tuesday in their final qualifying round match against the Greeks, and once again Les Bleus was up to the challenge, winning 71-69 and remaining unbeaten at EuroBasket 2009.

While it wasn't the most convincing victory, the French have to feel very good about the way they were able to grind out a win against one of the top teams in the tourney while getting mediocre play from their star players. Tony Parker went 2-for-7 in just 21 minutes, finishing with 12 points, 6 below his EuroBasket average. Ronni Turiaf collected 4 fouls in 14 minutes, scored 4 points. Boris Diaw went scoreless in 19 minutes and Florent Pietrus played 14 minutes, scoring but 2 points. Nicolas Batum, with 8 points, 4 rebounds an assist and a block, was the only starter to play more than 20 minutes, a rarity for a French squad that has relied heavily on the first five.

It's possible Vincent Collet wanted to rest his starters before the start of the quarterfinals, but a loss would have dropped the French to the second seed in the group behind Greece, so that seems unlikely. Or maybe he wanted to see what he had in his bench going into the knockout stage. Either way, the calculated risk payed off as Alain Koffi (14 points, 6 rebounds in 26 minutes), Ali Traore (10 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists in 19 minutes) and Yannick Bokolo (10 points, 3 rebounds in 17 minutes) all stepped up huge off the French bench.

France had the ball with 8 seconds to play, score tied at 69-69. Time for Tony Parker, right? Wrong. Collet kept Parker on the bench, opting to go with Nando De Colo. The gamble paid off, with De Colo hitting a turnaround jumper with 0.8 left. Huge bucket to keep France perfect at 6-0. And not only did it secure the No. 1 seed, but it also gave the French bench some confidence going into the quarterfinals.

Greece was lead by Vasileios Spanoulis, who finished with 16 points after hitting seemingly every shot he took in the second half. He even nailed a near halfcourt set shot with the shot clock at 1 second late in the third quarter. Batum, who was guarding Spanoulis on the play, even backed off defensively, obviously thinking it didn't make made sense to contest such a low-percentage shot.

France will have to wait until end of day tomorrow to find out who'll they'll play in the quarterfinals. It'll be either Slovenia, Serbia, Poland or Spain. I know which matchup I'm rooting for.

(Photo credit: Fiba

Monday, September 14, 2009

EuroBasket 2009: France Still Unbeaten, Spain Still So-So

While the NFL and college football dominated the sports landscape this weekend in the United States, EuroBasket 2009 continued in Poland, where football isn't nearly as popular. Or so I hear at least. Nicolas Batum and Team France continued their tear through the tourney, winning twice to remain undefeated through the first five games. Rudy Fernandez, Victor Claver and the rest of Team Spain, while still struggling with consistency, kept their chances of advancing alive by going 1-1 on the weekend.

It's Official: The French Are The Favorites

As the EuroBasket rolls on it is becoming more and more apparent that France, while neither deep nor veteran, is the most talented team in Poland. Their starting five, a combination of speed, length, and basketball IQ, is the best in the tournament. Vincent Collet pretty much plays an 8-man rotation, but you can get away with that when your starting five averages 25 years of age. And now fatigue becomes less of an issue with teams playing ever other day as opposed to every day during the preliminary round.

The French are now one of two undefeated teams left in the tournament (Turkey is the other) after Greece lost to Russia Sunday, a Russian team France already beat. Les Bleus already punched their ticket to the quarters by winning their first game of the qualifying round against Macedonia, but they've still got plenty to play for with a top seed in the quarterfinals up for grabs.

(By the way, that's one of the great things about EuroBasket: there is always something to play for. Teams are trying to qualify for the World Championships, so even though a team might not have a snowballs chance of winning the tournament, they're still going to go hard the whole time.)

There's really not much to say about France's 83-57 demolition of the Former Yugoslavian Republic Of Macedonia (that's not my explanation of Macedonia; it's what they actually go by) other than Les Bleus are a much, much better team. F.Y.R.O.M made the qualifying round despite going 1-2 in the preliminary round, but from what I can gather that's considered somewhat of a triumph for a team nobody expected much of.

Nic Batum finished with 13 points, 5 rebounds and a block in just 21 minutes. He only missed two shots and he made the only three-pointer he took. Collet got to rest all of his starters for the first time in the tourney, with no one in the starting five playing more than 21 minutes.

The French got more of a test yesterday against Croatia but still managed to come away with a relativity comfortable 87-79 victory. Batum struggled a bit from the field, going 2-for-6 on two-point shots, but he made up for it by going 3-for-5 from three and 5-of-7 from the from the line. Nic finished with 18 points, 5 boards and 2 steals in 36 minutes. Tony Parker did the heavy lifting again for Les Bleus, scoring 24 while getting 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Boris Diaw made 4-of-8 threes on the way to 15 points.

The weirdest line from the game courtesy of Croatia's Marko Popovic. Popovic scored 30 points in 27 minutes without attempting a single two-point shot. He went 5-of-7 from three and 15-of-18 from the line. I don't think I've ever heard of such a thing. And how does a guy who doesn't have a single two-point bucket get to the line 18 times?

Greece is up next for France on Tuesday. If the French can pull it out they lock up the top seed in the quarterfinals and establish themselves as the class of EuroBasket. That game is scheduled to start at 9:15 am Portland time and it's listed on the ESPN 360 schedule, so I'd recommend checking it out live if you have the means.

Down But No Where Near Out

The Spanish national team has been disappointing. There's really arguing that point. Maybe it's the absence of Jose Calderon. Say what you will about Ricky Rubio's potential, but he's no where near the player right now that a healthy Calderon is. Or it could be the team acclimating to the new coaching staff. Both Rudy and Pau not being 100 percent certainly doesn't help either. Whatever the case, it's probably to the point where it has to be assumed that the Spaniards just aren't going to round into their World Championship form, at least in this tournament.

Good news for Spain is that their qualifying group is pretty dang weak. Only two of the six teams in the two qualifying round group get eliminated, so the Iberians still stand an excellent chance of making the quarters. Lithuania was supposed to be one of the favorites, but they've already been eliminated from moving on, so that's one down. Spain need only beat one of the other three teams (Slovenia, Poland or Serbia, Turkey is guaranteed to advance) to move on. So lackluster performances aside, Team Spain still has a better than average chance of moving on to the knockout stage. My dream of a France v. Spain showdown is still alive.

Team Spain suffered their second loss of the tournament Saturday against Turkey, a team that has established themselves as legit contenders for the EuroBasket title, and they're doing it without getting huge numbers from Hedo Türkoglu. Hedo might be the leader, but it's guys like former Trail Blazers second round pick Ömer Asik and Ersan Ilyasova of the Milwaukee Bucks that are exceeding expectations at EuroBasket.

For what it's worth, Rudy did more than his fair share in Spain's 63-60 loss. Mallorca's Finest ended the night missing only two shots on the way to 16 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals. Pau Gasol had a decent game, finishing with 16 points and 9 boards, but outside of those two no one showed up offensively for Spain. Juan Carlos Navarro and Ricky Rubio, Spain's starting backcourt, went a combined 2-of-11 from three.

Hedo took five shots, making only one and he turned the ball over 4 times, yet the Turks still won. Asik had 13 points and Ilyasova put in 15. Two guys named Semih Erden and Kerem Tunçeri each added 11. Turkey had balance, Spain didn't. Ballgame.

Spain bounced back this morning with a 84-70 victory against a disappointing Lithuania squad. As noted above, the Lithuanian's are now eliminated with the loss, putting their chances of making the World Championship in jeopardy. Somewhere Arvydas Sabonis weeps.

The margin of victory gave Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo the luxury of resting the starters, Rudy and Pau specifically. Fernandez played 21 minutes and finished with 11 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and a block. Pau lead all scorers with 19.

Lithuania could do Spain a solid by beating Serbia on Wednesday, but that seems unlikely at this point since the only team they've managed to handle so far is Bulgaria.

You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned Victor Claver. Well, that's because he hasn't played but two minutes in the last three games. Seems like he's relegated to mop up duty behind Jorge Garbajosa, Alex Mumbru and Felipe Reyes at the 3/4 position. He showed some flashes of brilliance against Great Britain, but I guess it wasn't enough to earn anything more than garbage minutes. Too bad.

Spain draws Poland on Wednesday. A win assures Spain a spot in the knockout round. The Pols won their first two games against Bulgaria and Lithuania, but they've been 0-3 since. No game seems to be easy for Spain at this point, so even though Poland has struggled lately, there's no reason to think they'll be a pushover, especially in front of their home crowd with a shot of advancing on the line.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

EuroBasket 2009: Born On Fernandez, Claver And Freeland

Mike Born, Trail Blazers Director of Scouting, was in Poland for the start of EuroBasket 2009, so I caught up with him via telephone to get some details about Tuesday’s game between Spain and Great Britain in which Rudy Fernandez, Victor Claver and Joel Freeland all played.

"I thought all played pretty efficient, unselfish basketball," said Born. "All of them made good plays and played the right way. It wasn’t like Joel went out, got ten rebounds and played selfish; he played the right way. All of them made a lot of winning basketball plays and that’s probably the most encouraging thing when you look at all three of them."

Rudy Fernandez

Getting a chance to see Rudy playing with the Spanish national team was more of an ancillary bonus than anything else for Mike Born. He knows pretty much everything he needs to about Rudy after seeing him for years in Europe and last year in the NBA, but there’s never a bad time to see Rudy play. Tuesday’s game was no exception.

“They don’t win that game without Rudy is how I felt when I left the building,” said Born. Fernandez, who had been suffering from some variety of hamstring injury, got the OK to play the morning of the ESP v. GB game, which probably saved the defending World Champs from being prematurely bounced from the tournament.

“I felt like during the course of the game, Rudy provides for them an offensive terminal,” said Born. “He’s a guy that can give you offense but he’s also a guy that can draw enough attention away from other people as a passer and by moving without the ball. You have to be aware of where he’s at and you have to play him on the perimeter and you have to pay attention to him, so I think it allows Pau Gasol and some other guys to get more space on the floor.”

The statistical improvement from the Spain’s first game, a loss to Serbia, in which Rudy didn’t play, and their second game against Great Britain, this time with Rudy in the lineup, does much to support Born’s theory of Rudy as Spain’s “offensive terminal”. The Iberian’s showed significant improvement from Game One to Game Two in two-point field goal percentage (42.9 percent to 48.3), three-point percentage (10.5 percent to 52.6), free throws attempted (28 to 40) and assists (9 to 19), and one would figure at least some of that improvement is attributable to Rudy’s play. Serbia is considered by most to be a far superior team to Great Britain, which could have something to do with the improvement, but Rudy didn’t seem to be 100 percent healthy either.

“I just really felt like Rudy gutted it out tonight,” said Born.

Victor Claver

Victor Claver, the Trail Blazers’ surprise pick (though one guy had KP pegged) of the 2009 Draft, is still a curiosity to Portlanders. He’s not a big name player in Europe (at least not yet), he’s in his first stint with the Spanish senior national team so there’s no Beijing Olympics recognition and he doesn’t have general managers visiting bi-weekly in attempts to convince him to come to the NBA, so unless you’re the ultra-inquisitive type, you probably don’t know a whole lot about the ginger kid from Valencia. No worries; he won’t be making his way to the Pacific Northwest for at least a year, probably two, so you’ve got plenty of time to get schooled.

So here’s your first lesson: kid can play. He’s not getting many opportunities to show it at EuroBasket, but when he gets some tick, he makes the most of it. He played 7 minutes in the opening loss to Serbia, finishing with no points and 2 turnovers. And he didn’t once get off the bench in Spain’s last game against Slovenia. But when he got 17 minutes against Great Britain, he put up 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting, went 2-for-2 from the three point line, pulled 4 rebounds and handed out 3 assists. Not a bad night.

“He has a good feeling,” explained Born. “Part of that is how he has to play because of who he is, his age, he’s playing with the national team. They’ve got Navarro, they’ve go Rudy, they’ve got Gasol, they’ve got Gasol. Felipe Reyes is a really good European player even though he’s never played in the NBA. They’ve got Garbajosa. They obviously have some pretty darn good players and him and Ricky Rubio are the two younger guys on that team. I was glad to see him come out tonight he’s going to be a complimentary guy. When you say complimentary it doesn’t mean that the guy can’t get 25 a game, because they can, but he’s going to play off of other people and defer a lot to Pau Gasol and Rudy and some of those guys, which at this point he should.”

The notion that younger players should defer to their elders in international play might be one of the reasons Claver isn’t getting the kind of minutes you might expect the 22nd pick in the draft to get. When it comes to international play, unless you’re over-the-top talented, you’ve got to pay dues. He’s playing behind guys like Reyes and Alex Mumbri, guys who have a long history with the senior national team, not to mention that both play for Real Madrid, a much higher profile ACB team than Claver’s Valencia squad.

Spot minutes notwithstanding, Born has been encouraged by what he’s seen out of Claver,

“We drafted him on his potential of what he could be but we also know he’s a pretty skilled player. I think he’s done some pretty darn good things already with this team and part of these international teams is you don’t see guys score 25 or 30 very often with some of these teams because there’s such good balance. So when you see someone like Vic come in and have 12 points in a game and he’s playing with a bunch of pretty good NBA players on his team, it’s pretty encouraging.”

Joel Freeland

Ah, Freeland. Ever since he was selected with the last pick of the 2006 draft, Trail Blazers fans have waited patiently for the day when he would finally come over to the NBA. That wait will continue at least one more year, as Freeland recently signed a contract with Unicaja Malaga of the ACB, but the decision makers in the Blazers front office are still keeping close tabs on the 22 year-old Brit.

“He got started late in playing basketball so his feel for the game is still a work in progress,” said Freeland. “There’s some things about his game: he sees the floor pretty darn good for a guy who hasn’t played a lot of basketball. Part of it is because he’s a European player. They make passes that you feel like they don’t hesitate. If they see an opening, and because they’re so used to ball movement and swinging the ball and stuff, if a guy is open they don’t even think a second about it. It’s out of their hands. Joel has that too. There were a couple of times where he was dribbling the ball and he picked it up and boom, right to a guy.”

Aside from improved passing, Born noted Freeland looked much more at ease on offense. Good news for a player drafted primarily because of his raw physical tools.

“He did some good things,” said Born. “He didn’t back down. He had that one little baseline move where he dropped it over the front of the rim. You can tell he’s getting better and playing with confidence.

“Shoot, the play where he stole the ball from (Pau) Gasol, that whole play was pretty impressive. He picked him and then took it the length of the floor. I don’t care if it’s Shaq or Gasol or anybody else chasing you. For a big 6-11 guy to put it on the deck for five dribbles then go in and punch it, that’s a pretty impressive play.”

09.10.09 Podcasts

No more excuses. The Podcast is back. No more trips out of the country. No more vacations. No more studio remodels. Just Gavin Dawson of the MSP on 95.5, Dave Deckard of and me, Casey Holdahl, of talking Rip City for a little over 45 minutes.

This week we discuss who has been working out at the practice facility, if it’s necessary to show up for training camp early, how Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum and Victor Claver are getting along at EuroBasket, which small forwards have the most to gain and lose, rumors of Juwan Howard and Stromile Swift, which training camp position battles are the most intriguing, the return of Maurice Lucas to the Portland bench, whether NBA refs are replaceable and whether 60 wins and winning 25% of road games against Western Conference playoff teams is feasible. Check it.

Download the podcast (41.8 MB)

Subscribe to Trail Blazers Podcasts on ITunes

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

EuroBasket 2009: Mike Born On Spain VS Great Britain

You’re never going to hear Mike Born, our Director of Scouting, complain about his schedule. The man loves his job. But when I got him on the phone Tuesday afternoon after Spain’s 84-76 victory against Great Britain, he sounded a bit road weary.

“It’s about midnight here,” Born explained. “I went the camp in Johannesburg (read about Born at Basketball Without Borders) at 11:30 pm, flew all night to Amsterdam, got there at 10:30 in the morning, had a four hour layover, then took the flight from Amsterdam to Warsaw. I ended getting in around 5 pm. I had two bags. Got one, didn’t get the other.”

With no time to fill out a claims report, Born left the airport a bag short, took a quick shower at the hotel, then made his way over to catch the start of preliminary play at EuroBasket with the goal of seeing as much Rudy Fernandez, Victor Claver and Joel Freeland as he could. So there was probably no one in the arena more relieved than Born to see those three players on the court at the same time Tuesday in Warsaw. At least it was two hours he wouldn’t have to board a plan or flag down a taxi.

“Spain Was Fortunate To Get Out Of There With A W”

For Born, the final score of the game isn’t incredibly important. He’s here to see players, not teams. But he's a basketball junkie down to the core, and given the choice, he’d much rather see a close game than a blowout. And from a scouting perspective, the information you gather from a tight contest generally tells you more about a player than stats put up in a beatdown. So Tuesday’s game, a blowout-turned-fourth-quarter-barnburner, satisfied both Born the fan and Born the scout.

“I think the first thing with the game is it was a great game,” said Born. “I think Spain was pretty fortunate to be able to come out on top. I thought, other than the start of the game -- I think they were down 12-0 -- Great Britain played pretty inspired basketball through the next 30-plus minutes.”

That inspiration manifested as a 17-3 run by the Brits to start the fourth quarter. Everything Great Britain threw near the basket seemed to go in. But the Union Jack’s couldn’t hold it together up 73-69 with fewer than five minutes to play and with the defending World Champions on the ropes.

“It was a four-point game there,” said Born. “Rudy obviously had a big steal, goes down lays it up. Great Britain comes down, turns it over. Spain gets in transition, Rudy makes another good play to get Navarro a three, and now Spain is up one. Great Britain doesn’t score, then (Pau) Gasol hits the three and all of the sudden it goes from Great Britain up four to down four. You could just sort of feel like the wheels were sort of coming off Great Britain. And shoot, all they had done was go three possessions without scoring.”

Spain ended up outscoring Great Britain 10-3 in the final three minutes of the game, turning what would have been one of the biggest upsets in international basketball history into nothing more than a close call for the Iberians.

“It’s not like Spain has got some no-names out there making plays,” said Born. “That’s part of the reason why Rudy, Navarro and Gasol are such good players: they make plays. I thought Great Britain played really well and I thought Spain was fortunate to get out of there with a W, and I imagine they’d probably tell you the same thing.

“As far as our guys, I felt like all three of them, for the amount of minutes that they played, I thought they all three played really good basketball."

Coming tomorrow: a detailed breakdown's from Born on the play of Fernandez, Claver and Freeland

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

EuroBasket 2009: France Advance, Spain Plain

If you missed the first update from EuroBasket 2009 as it pertains the Trail Blazers, check out the post below. It's a little outdated now, but it couldn't hurt to get a little refresher course on what has transpired so far in Poland.

France Takes Control Of Group B

At first glance, it might seem like the French would suffer from having to play their way into EuroBasket. While the other 15 teams were practicing and playing warm up games, the French were fighting for their EuroBasket lives. But the way the tournament is shaping up, it's looking more and more like the French might be benefiting from all of those extra games. They've got a 2-0 record and a spot in the next round to prove it.

Les Bleus locked up a spot in the qualifying round (named as such because it determines which teams qualify for the World Championships) by beating Latvia 60-51 (video highlights here) today in Gdansk, Poland. France can't completely relax considering results in this preliminary round can determine which teams advance from the qualifying round, but at least they know their tournament run will go on regardless of the outcome tomorrow against Russia.

Nicolas Batum finished with another nice line: 7 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, a block and a steal in 36 minutes, but it was Tony Parker who carried the French through an otherwise anemic offensive performance. Parker scored the last 10 points for the French on the way to a game-high 23. He also pitched in 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals in 36 minutes. No other French player scored in double figures.

"It was a difficult game for us, because in the beginning we did not score, as the ball did not want to go in," said Batum postgame. "We had pressure to win the game - from ourselves, from fans. It helped us and I think it will help us to win our game tomorrow."

The Latvians were paced by Kaspars Kambala, a former professional boxer and one mean looking dude (check the tattoo on the chest), who scored a team-high 18 points to go along with 7 rebounds. Andris Biedrins, he of Golden State Warriors fame, only managed 6 points on 3-of-10 shooting, but he did pull down a 20 boards in the process. Latvia is now winless in their first two games and need a victory tomorrow against Germany to have any chance to avoiding elimination.

With the Spaniards having a rough go in the first two games of the tourney (more on that in a second), one might consider the French, along with the Greeks, as the new tourney favorites. Only problem for Les Bleus is that their starters have played a ton of minutes in the first two games. Batum played 32 and 36 minutes against Germany and Latvia, respectively, in back-to-back games. Parker played 34 and 36 minutes. 34 and 37 minutes for Boris Diaw. 24 and 31 minutes for Florent Pietrus. Only Ronni Turiaf, who played only 12 minutes against Latvia, got any kind of rest in Game 2. With another game tomorrow (that's back-to-back-to-back, by the way) it'll be interesting to see if French coach Vincent Collet gives his starters a break.

Spain Survives British Invasion

Spain losing to Serbia in their first game could have been considered an anomaly, but after their performance today against Great Britain, it might be time to reevaluate the reigning World Champs' chances of taking the gold at EuroBasket.

Sure, Spain ended up winning 84-76, but the result couldn't have been too encouraging for a team that has (or at least had) championship aspirations.

Spain had a 16 point lead at one point in the second half, but didn't manage a field goal until the 5:56 mark in the fourth quarter, and by that time the Brits had taken a 70-68 lead. A Rudy Fernandez steal-turned-dunk sparked a game-closing 14-3 run to tilt the scales in Spain's favor, all but proving that without Rudy's expertise, the Spanish are sunk.

Fernandez, who didn't look like he was 100 percent healthy after the game, finished with 12 points and 2 assists in 21 minutes off the bench. Victor Claver, who played only 7 minutes in Spain's loss to Serbia, scored 12 points, all in the second quarter, to go along with 4 rebounds and 3 really nice assists in 17 minutes of burn. Pau Gasol scored a game-high 27 points, 11 of which came from the free throw line, and 11 rebounds.

Joel Freeland had a nice, albeit foul-plague, performance for Great Britain, finishing with 10 points, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in only 14 minutes. Freeland's aggressiveness and physicality, two of the strengths of his game, resulted in 4 fouls, 3 of which came before the end of the first half. He didn't get a chance to see much run late, as British head coach Chris Finch had to go small to get GB back in the game.

With the win, Spain gives themselves a decent chance of moving on to the next round. A win against undefeated Slovenia tomorrow would assure that (I think. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong). The Brits can move on if they beat the Serbs tomorrow (I think).

A more detailed look at the performances of Rudy Fernandez, Victor Claver and Joel Freeland coming soon.

(Photo credit: FIBA

EuroBasket 2009: Frances Escapes, Spain Aches

The first day of EuroBasket '09 was hit and miss from the Trail Blazers perspective. Nic Batum and Team France cleared their first hurdle, beating a star-less German squad 70-65, while Team Spain, still without the services of Rudy Fernandez, was semi-shocked by the Serbs, losing 66-57 in their first contest of the preliminary stage.

A Victoire Is A Victoire

I've paid quite a bit of attention to international basketball over the past three years, but I am no where near an authority on all things FIBA. But I feel fairly confident in saying the French must be the hardest team in the world to get a read on. They've got the talent, they've (recently) got the system, and from what I can gather, they've got the chemistry. But when the sneakers hit the hardwood, all of that seems to fly out of the gym. Simply put, the Team France is Team USA circa 2006: supremely talented yet highly beatable. So when I saw that Les Bleus needed a fourth-quarter push to beat the Germans, I wasn't too surprised.

But you take 'em any way you can get 'em, and the French got their first win of the tourney after fighting tooth and nail to even make EuroBasket, so there's no use expounding on the negatives. The great news is that Nicolas Batum returned to his earlier form, putting up 12 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists in 32 minutes (France's starters played 154 of the possible 200 minutes in the first game. It'll be hard to keep that up throughout the tournament). Ronni Turiaf was once again the French MVP, posting 14 points, 15 rebounds and 3 blocks. And Tony Parker did what he usually does, tallying 19 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals.

Not many names most of us would recognize on the German roster, but name recognition never won a basketball game. Sven Schultze led Deutschland in scoring with 13 points off the bench. Demond Greene, who was born in Texas, put up 12 points and Patrick Femerling rounded out the German double-figure scorers with 11 points. Fermerling added 8 boards and 2 blocks as well. Tim Ohlbrecht, who played in the Hoop Summit at the Rose Garden in 2008, had 2 points. Huzzah!

Worth noting that the Germans beat Russia, one of the better teams in the tournament, 76-73 earlier today, so perhaps France's close win says more about the quality of the German side than it does about the shortcomings of France's squad.

France just came away with a 60-51 victory over Lithuania, which all but guarantees Les Bleus will advance to the next round.

The Pain In Spain

Spain dropping their first game of the tournament to Serbia was the big surprise of the first day. The quick breakdown of the loss: Pau Gasol goes 1-for-8 from the line, Rudy sits, Alex Mumbru and my boy Jorge Garbajosa, both starters, combined for 8 rebounds and no points, Spain turned the ball over 14 times and the Serbians are a nice young team. That's probably a bit too simplistic but the page has already been turned.

For some reason Victor Claver, who was starting and playing big minutes in the friendlies leading up to the tournament, played on 7 minutes off the bench. Maybe a reason for Spain's struggles? Let the kid play!

I'd go into a bit more detail, but Spain is already halfway through their second game of the tournament (you can watch live online on ESPN 360). They currently lead Great Britain 44-35. Rudy, in his first game back from injury, already has 8 points. Claver got nice in the second quarter, scoring 12 points in the second frame to go along with 3 rebounds and an assist. Joel Freeland has 8, but he's already got three fouls. Have to work on that.

If Spain can hold on to win they put themselves in good position to advance. More coming soon

Friday, September 4, 2009

Are You Ready For Some EuroBasket?

Starting on Monday, 16 teams will meet in various locations across Poland to compete in EuroBasket 2009, which is known unofficially as the European championships. Plenty is riding on the outcome, including pride, bragging rights and bids for the World Championships in Turkey in 2010. Just to give you a sense of how important that is, most countries, aside from the United States, consider the Worlds to be the most prestigious international tournament, more so than the Olympics. With six bids riding on the results of EuroBasket, you can be sure every team, even those with little chance of winning the tournament outright this time around, are going to play hard the whole way through.

The quality of basketball in Europe is improving every year, with almost every EuroBasket roster claiming at least one current NBA player. The Portland Trail Blazers have two players, Rudy Fernandez of Spain and Nicolas Batum of France under contract and two players, Joel Freeland of the United Kingdom and Victor Claver or Spain, whose rights are owned by the team who are participating in EuroBasket, so from a Portland fan perspective it’s definitely worth taking a more detailed look at the tournament.

Role With It

It’s always interesting to see how an individual’s play differs depending on what team he’s on. A role player in the NBA could very well be the best player on his national team, and while it’s not necessarily the norm, a high-level NBA player might not put up big numbers for his national team due to any number of reasons. This change of persona can give the international game a bit of added intrigue, especially if you’re a Trail Blazers fan.

Rudy Fernandez, who in his first NBA season showed a tremendous ability to score from the perimeter, is one of the leaders on the Spanish national team, a holdover from the 2006 team that won gold at the last FIBA World Championship in Japan and the 2008 silver medal Olympic team. He’s used primarily by Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan as a scorer off the bench behind Brandon Roy, but under Spanish national team coach Sergio Scariolo, Fernandez is one of the first options. Between the ’06 Worlds and the ’08 Olympics, Fernandez bumped his averages in scoring (9.1 ppg to 13.1 ppg), rebounding (2.3 rpg to 3.5 rpg) and assists (0.9 apg to 2.1 apg), and a similar statistical jump could be expected in the upcoming Euros.

“Rudy will be a focal point offensively for Spain and you will see the ball in his hands a lot, especially since Calderon is not playing and if Pau is not 100% healthy yet,” said Chad Buchanan, Trail Blazers Director of College Scouting. “I think you will see Rudy looking to score the ball a little more than he does for us.”

For Nicolas Batum, the distinction between his role on the Trail Blazers and the French national team isn’t as distinct. He starts at small forward for both teams and should be considered one of the best defenders on either squad, but according to Buchanan, he does take on more of the scoring load when he’s playing with Les Bleus.

“Nicolas has made great strides this off-season and his role on French team is a little different than what you see from him for us,” said Buchanan. “Tony Parker is obviously the focal point of the French team and he is the primary decision maker the majority of the time, but you will see the team run some plays for Nic to put him in position to go score the ball. He plays more aggressive with the ball for his French team than he does for us, but that is because we don’t need him to be looking to attack as much – we need him to help keep the floor balanced and spread. With the French team he has become the second or third option for them offensively – and he will guard literally every backcourt position at times for them.”

With Batum, maybe more than any other player in the tournament, what we see at EuroBasket could be a window into the progress he’s made this summer. At 20 years of age and with just one season of NBA ball under his belt, Batum has a lot of room to grow, both physically and mentally.

Joel Freeland could be considered the ying to Batum’s yang when it comes to the differences between who they are with their international teams and who they are or would be with a team in the NBA. Freeland, who recently signed a contract with Unicaja Málaga of the Spanish ACB league, has never played a second of NBA basketball outside of the Las Vegas Summer League, so we can only speak in hypotheticals when discussing what kind of player he’d be in Portland, but according to Buchanan, what you see out of Freeland the British national is probably what you’d see out of Freeland the Trail Blazer.

“Joel’s role for Great Britain is much the same as it will be in the NBA – to rebound, defend and finish simple plays offensively. When he is healthy he provides a physical presence and he does a really nice job on the glass.”

Freeland, who has been battling a shoulder injury leading up to EuroBasket, is one of the building blocks for the United Kingdom, a team not historically known for their basketball prowess. If the Brits can ever get all their eligible players together, which includes Luol Deng, Ben Gordon and Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Freeland could be the guy who does the dirty work for a talented squad.

“Joel is not going to be a guy that teams build their offense around,” said Buchanan. “He is a complimentary big who is going to throw his body around for you.”

When it comes to Victor Claver, the player Portland selected with the 22nd pick in the 2009 Draft, playing with the Spanish senior national team is a new experience. Also 20 years old, Claver is still cutting his teeth on the international scene, but the fact he’s earned a spot on the Spanish team, especially considering the stable of players that country boasts, speaks to his talent and versatility as a ballplayer.

“Victor is making a big jump right now as he is playing significant minutes at a young age for one of the elite national teams in the world right,” said Buchanan “He has done a great job so far of trying to fit in with a group of players that have been playing together for a long time.”

At 6-9, 225 lbs., Claver can play both the small and power forward positions, with range out to the three-point line, though he can also finish well near the basket. He’s started a number of tune up games leading up to EuroBasket, scoring 13 against Lithuania and 12 against Israel, and with the Spaniards having to deal with a myriad of injuries, he might be looked upon to provide more offense once the tournament gets into full swing.

According to Buchanan, Claver has been able to find a groove playing alongside his more experienced teammates, a skill that could prove beneficial when he finally makes the jump to the NBA

“He takes advantages of his opportunities on both ends of the floor and does a nice job of still deferring to his veteran teammates,” said Buchanan. “I think he will be a nice spark for the Spanish team and that this experience will help catapult him into a more significant role in the future for the Spanish national team.”

International Play: A Long Way From The NBA

There’s no denying the NBA has the best collection of players in the world, but as Team USA found out during the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 Worlds, having the best group of individuals doesn’t necessarily equate to wins. Having roster stability, as most European national teams do, plays a part in the ability to win with inferior talent, but that’s only part of the story.

“NBA talent does not always translate to winning in the European game,” said Buchanan. “The style of play, officiating, coaching is different from the NBA game in so many ways. I think the familiarity with their teammates helps, especially for a veteran team like Greece, but it is not like these guys play all season together, so the basketball IQ aspect comes into play for these teams as well.”

Team basketball IQ is a facet of the international game that teams from America have only recently learned, but it’s old hat in Europe, where teams utilize advantages in the more cerebral parts of the game to make up for physical limitations.

“The European game is about ball and body movement, where as the NBA game is much more centered around matchups,” said Buchanan. “There is no illegal defense in the European game, so weakside defenders can shade the paint and clog driving lanes that are more available in the NBA game so European coaches have to occupy weakside defenders with more movement off the ball. This creates more ball reversals, inside-outside passing, cuts weakside. The Greeks and Spaniards are masters at this and that is why a team that may not be filled with a ton of NBA-caliber talent can be so difficult to defend. They are fun to watch because they put five skilled players on the floor together at all times and when you put smart and unselfish players together with multiple skills – that can be really hard to defend.”

The Spaniards possess the best of both worlds. With a roster full of current and former NBA players who have come up through the international ranks together, Team Spain enters EuroBasket with the talent and intelligence necessary to win the tournament.

“Spain plays your traditional European style where ball and body movement are the focal point,” said Buchanan. “They do a tremendous job of utilizing Pau and all four players on the court do a great job of playing off him. Spain is unique to most Euro teams because they have such a skilled low post player in Pau and they maximize his talents.”

France is the only team in the tournament that can put has much talent on the floor as Spain, but they’ve yet to come together as a unit in the same way the Spanish have. The French, thanks to the personnel at their disposal, employ a style of play that is more reminiscent of what we see in the NBA, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

“France plays more up-tempo than other European teams and that is a reflection of their point guard,” said Buchanan. “They are the opposite of Spain in that they run more NBA-type sets and give Parker the freedom to go make plays for himself and everyone else.”

EuroBasket ’09 is the first big tournament where most of the best French players have come together at the same time, which is why many consider Les Bleus to have an outside shot at gold.

The (Born) Contenders

As noted above, Spain is the odds-on favorite to take the top spot at EuroBasket ’09, assuming injuries to Rudy Fernandez and Pau Gasol don’t keep both players off the floor for too long.

“They’re just a team with tons of experience,” said Mike Born, the Trail Blazers Director of Scouting. “They’ve got that good chemistry. They’ve played together forever, Rudy, Navarro, the Gasol brothers, Garbajosa, a role player like Suarez. Those guys have been teammates for six, eight, ten years. There can run, they can pass, they can shoot it, they play together, they have experience, unselfish. And then they’ve got good players, so they’ll have a chance.”

Greece, Lithuania, Russia, France and Turkey all have a legitimate chance to taking down the Iberians, depending on which players show up.

“Greece as a team have a ton of veterans,” said Born. “They play really well together. They do a terrific job of moving the basketball. When I went to the Olympics last summer in Beijing, it’s like I could sit down and watch those guys play five games a day because of how they play. They play the game the right way. The guys understand who’s on the floor, what their job is when they’re on the floor. They make the extra pass.

“Lithuania is probably pretty similar. Again, good depth. (Linus) Kleiza plays with them. So do the Lavrinovic twins. They’ve just got a lot of experience. Really shoot and pass the ball well, really good toughness. They really play the game the right way and together. They’re going to go out and give themselves an opportunity to win every game just because of the combination of all the things they have. They’ve got good, smart players who know how to play, good skill sets.

“France is kind of an up-and-coming team. They’ve always been pretty successful because they’ve had good athletes, they can get out and run, pretty good defensively. And again, you look at all the NBA guys they have on their team now: Parker, Diaw, Batum, Pietrus, Turiaf. Those aren’t just guys who are making it in the NBA; those five guys alone are all pretty good players, and obviously a guy like Tony Parker is really good. Moving forward they’re going to have a chance to be pretty darn good, and with the development of some of the younger players like Nic it’s going to make those guys stronger. They’ve got size, they’ve got talent, they’ve got athleticism. They may be a team that challenges moving forward.”

Climbing The Golden Ladder

The layout of the tournament bracket can get a little tricky, as is sometimes the case when it comes to FIBA competition. Here is an attempt to breakdown the path though the EuroBasket ’09 table.

The preliminary round has four groups of four teams. They are as follows:

Group A

Group B

Group C
Great Britain

Group D

Each team plays one game against the other teams in their group. After that round, one team from each group is eliminated. Next, a new group is formed combining the three remaining teams from each group, with Group A and Group B forming one group and groups C and D forming the other. Teams are also seeded at this point based on their win totals. In this round, teams play three games against the teams that were not in their original group, after which the bottom two teams from each newly formed group are eliminated. Results from the teams in the same preliminary round groups count when determining what teams are eliminated. From there it goes into standard tournament play, as in quarterfinals, semifinals, finals. “Loser” brackets are also formed in the quarters, as seeding for the World Championships are determined by which teams finish where.

For a more visual explanation of the tournament progression, check out the EuroBasket ’09 competition system page.