Friday, February 24, 2012

The Week That Was: February 20-26, 2012.

It was a slow week in the Association.  Games were played.  Jeremy Lin lost more than he won.  Gilbert Arenas still hasn't signed with the Lakers yet.  Boh-ring.

But, regular features don't write themselves, so we press on.  On tap for this week: revisiting one of my favorite lockout flings, a succession plan in San Antonio, and the gathering storm clouds of relocation.  Let's get to it.
1. It's pronounced: "Yool."

From July until early December, the NBA owners locked out its players, and no games were played.  Perhaps you remember this.  While other displaced fans found more productive things to do instead of watching basketball, I just desperately looked for more basketball.  I ended up watching a lot of Euroleague, which ESPN streamed in an effort to catch wandering NBA fans.  It worked hook, line, and sinker with me, and I instantly became a bandwagon Euroleague fan.  Much like Americans during the FIBA World Cup, I excitedly pontificated about a league that I knew nothing about, and showered adoration on players and ball clubs that I had never, ever heard of before.  The basketball was okay, but it wasn't really about the product itself.  It was about the high it provided until my regular dealer got back in town.

While I wached Euroleague to get my fix, I developed an affinity for a number of players.  Milan Macvan was pretty cool.  Milos Teodosic is a baller.  Jamont Gordon probably belongs in the NBA.  But no player delighted me as much as Sergio Llull.  He immediately caught my attention as one of the better players on the best team in the league, Real Madrid.  As a 6-3 combo guard, Llull was able to take his man off the dribble, or step back and hit long jumpers.  He struck me as sort of a more talented Luke Ridnour -- a smallish guard that could play both the one and the two, but a far more capable defender, and a more natural scorer.  His numbers this season don't look that impressive -- 10 points and 4 assists in roughly 24 minutes per game -- but European basketball seems to have a way of skewing stats.  For example, both Ricky Rubio and Brandon Jennings had poor statistical seasons in Europe before they came to the NBA.  Llull would likely see similar success.  And his name would be a hit.  It's just fun to write.  Llull.  Llull.

So good news, everyone!  If I'm reading this Google-translated article from Spanish news website Encestando correctly, it seems as if Llull is thinking about coming to the NBA after this summer.  He was drafted by the Rockets in the second round back in 2005, and they still retain his rights.  He also still has two years left on his contract with Real Madrid, but buyouts are always an option.  I would love to see him stateside, and you would too, whether you know it or not.

Llull would immediately make an impact with an NBA club.  He belongs in this league.
2. Rebuilding While Contending.

For many years, I thought the San Antonio Spurs had a limited window to compete.  That was back in 2008, after they lost in the second round to the Los Angeles Lakers.  Yet, here we are in 2012, with the Spurs still at the top of their game.   They're second in the West at 24-10, have gone 9-1 in their last 10, and even rallied off a 9 game winning streak.  If OKC is the prohibitive favorite in the West, San Antonio is probably their main challenger.

Despite the Spurs' brilliant record, this is most definitely a rebuilding year for them.  The crown has been passed from Tim Duncan to Tony Parker, and the Flying Frenchman wears it well.  He's averaging 20 points and a career-high 8 assists per game.  His player efficiency rating of 22 is second best in his career.  And, most impressively, he's doing all of this in 34 minutes per game, which is only a single minute above his career average.  Indeed, coach Gregg Popovich may be turning in his best coaching performance of his career, relying on Tony Parker, resting Tim Duncan (who has found a fountain of youth and is averaging 14 points, 9 reboards and a block in only 28 minutes per game), and riding his new cast of smart, athletic role players like Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter.  It's been a thing of beauty to watch (if you have League Pass).  Team vets like Richard Jefferson, Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair have been as valuable as ever. And they've done all of it without Manu Ginobili, who has missed most of the season with a broken left hand, and was lost again last week with a strained oblique.

That said, the future is bright for the Spurs.  Common wisdom seemed to say that Tim Duncan would retire when he could no longer be the featured player on the team.  However, based on the way Duncan has been able to produce when his minutes are carefully monitored, it doesn't seem like he's falling apart in any sense of the word.  I could see Duncan transitioning seamlessly to the bench, becoming one of the league's most steady backup big men.  If Tiago Splitter continues to improve, and becomes a legitimate starting power forward, the young guns continue to develop with big game experience, and Gregg Popovich keeps coaching, the Spurs will be contenders for years and years to come.

And guaranteed, every single year, we will say: "this is the Spurs' last chance. They're too old."  

3. Musical Chairs.

The gears of the NBA's relocation machine -- a machine used with some surprising frequency over the last fifteen seasons -- is starting to warm up again.

The big news last week was that Chris Hansen, a San Francisco hedge fund manager and Seattle native, was interested in funding an arena and potentially heading an ownership group to bring an NBA team back to the Puget Sound. However, other headlines slipped under the radar as well.  In Sacramento, news came out that David Stern and major (and former NBA All Star) Kevin Johnson announced a joint "work plan" to reach an arena deal by March 1.  If that plan is agreed upon, the Sacramento City Council will vote on the arena deal at a council meeting on March 6.  While Mayor Johnson is confident that the "city will hold up its end of the bargain" buy putting forward nearly $200 million up front to pay for the arena, no one is sure about how much the Maloofs and the Kings organization will contribute to stay in Sacramento.  The City of Sacramento is asking for between $70-$125 million dollars.  I'm not sure the Maloofs have either the funds or the desire to put that type of money on the table.  It's still to early to tell whether this is a positive sign, or a negative one.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, David Stern, who is the closest thing to an owner that the Hornets have, let it be known that there is "one frontrunner and one backup" in the ongoing saga to sell the team.  The frontrunner is presumed to be Raj Bhathal, a 70-year-old retired businessman based in Los Angeles, who is heading an ownership that also features Mike Dunleavy.  The backup plan is an ownership group lead by New Orleans businessman Gary Chouset, who walked away from negotiations to buy the Hornets twice in 2010.  I wouldn't call that a terribly interested buyer.  Stern has always said that he would like to keep the team in New Orleans, but choosing a Los Angeles-based owner seems to be a softening of that stance.

It's still fairly early in the game, and it doesn't look like any moves are imminent.  But these are developments to keep your eye on.  Especially if you want to see basketball in Seattle in the near future.

Look for a special All Star Game roundtable this afternoon!

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