Friday, August 04, 2006

The Italian Job
By Imtiaz Mussa

I can’t help but watch what’s going on in Toronto. The Raptors are already an outsider in the NBA since they play in Canada but now, they are taking more steps toward becoming truly international.

It started with the hiring of General Manager Bryan Colangelo from the Phoenix Suns. In his time in the Valley of the Sun, Colangelo helped architect the transformation of the Suns into a team that pushes the ball and doesn’t play much defense. He made Mike D’Antoni, a man considered to be one of the greatest minds in Italian basketball the head coach and signed Steve Nash. During the 2004-2005 regular season, Phoenix set the NBA on fire as Nash became MVP of the league and the Suns finished with the best record in the NBA at 62-20. Unfortunately, their lack of defense cost them in the playoffs as they lost to Spurs. Despite losing Amare Stoudemire for the season and having to trade away Joe Johnson for Boris Diaw, he still built a team (before resigning at the end of February) that finished 54-28 but lost again in the playoffs to the Dallas Mavericks.

One of his first moves as GM was the hiring of Benetton Treviso general manager Maurizio Gherardini as assistant GM. Under Gherardini, Benetton soared to four league championships (1997, 2002, 2003 and 2006), three Italian supercups (1997, 2001 and 2002), made four appearances in the Euroleague's final four (1993, 1998, 2002, and 2003), and helped them capture seven Italian Cups (1993-1995, 2000, 2003-2005). In 2003, Gherardini was interviewed for the Charlotte Bobcats general manager position. It was the first time in the history of the NBA that a non-American citizen has been interviewed for a top job on an NBA team. Although he was seriously considered for the job the Bobcats hired Bernie Bickerstaff instead.

They hit the jackpot when they won the draft lottery and received the first overall pick in June’s draft which they used to take forward Andrea Bargnani from Benetton. They cleared room for him to start by dealing last year’s first round draft pick Charlie Villanueva to Milwaukee for point guard T.J. Ford. The Raptors also traded for Kris Humpries, Rasho Nesterovic, and signed Fred Jones. They also signed Anthony Parker from Maccabi Tel Aviv to a three year, 12 million dollar deal. The Raptors continued to tap the international market by signing forward Jorge Garbajosa to compliment Spanish point guard José Calderón, who struggled in his debut year and Uroš Slokar who also played for Benetton last year. Currently, the roster features five European players and an American who spent a few years in the Euroleague. This roster is starting to look like a less talented version of the Phoenix Suns.

Will this team compete for a playoff spot? I doubt it’s going to happen this year but the Toronto fans will take progress. But Toronto’s shift toward the Italian style of play is continued evidence that shows that the NBA is slowly moving toward a more European style of play. However, the only way it will gain full legitimacy in the NBA is when a team wins a championship playing that style. People look at the Suns and say that they are a great regular season team but can’t go all the way because they can’t play defense. If the Raptors eventually become a contender under Colangelo and Gherardini, the same questions will be asked of them as well.

One of the only reasons why the European style of basketball even matters in this country is because of the recent failures of Team USA basketball. For this year’s World Championships and with a view to the 2008 Olympics, the US changed their philosophy by bringing in Coach Mike Krzyzewski and making players try out for the team. Also, the team will not necessarily be the best 12 American players. Players will fill certain roles like Bruce Bowen and Shane Battier who will counted on for their perimeter defending and Brad Miller for his ability to pass the ball despite being a center. Also, Mike D’Antoni is on Coach K’s staff because he is knowledgible on the European game and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is also there for his expertise on the zone defense which is something Team USA could have some trouble playing against.

Speaking of Team USA, they played very well last night as they blew out Puerto Rico. Unlike the teams of 2002 and 2004, this one showed a lot hustle, a desire to play defense, and made it clear that they not only wanted to win, but wanted to dominate and take back the title of being the best team in the world. In order to do that, they will need to beat the rest of the world at their own game.

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