David Stern has had his mindset on expanding the NBA overseas for quite some time. He sees it as an excellent way to expand the influence of the league around the world. The whole mentality is essentially to take the best to the rest. In theory it is a good idea and looks to be a great opportunity to widen the influence of the NBA. This weekend the NBA, following in the footsteps of the NFL (not in terms of labor talks…yet), played its first regular season games abroad in London. Teams frequently travel to Europe for training came these days but this was different.
The first ever regular season games to be played outside of North America are a big deal. Therefore it makes sense for the league to send worthy ambassadors to promote the game and generate fan interest. Instead they sent the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors. Basketball fans in the UK must have been rioting at the ticket booth to see two teams with a combined record of 35-88 (prior to the conclusion of their second game). Their combined records will be 36-89 when all is said and done.
New Jersey has the 20th ranked defense in the league, in terms of defensive rating, and Toronto is ranked 29th. The first game was marred by a lack of defense and the second game has fared no better to this point. Fastbreaks are abundant. At least the fans who attend the games in London will get to see a final score that they can relate to if they follow cricket. In fact, their defense was so bad in the second game that each team played zone against each other for six minutes in the second quarter. This lack of defense counteracts the fact that the Nets are 29th in the league in scoring with the Raptors faring better at 16th.
Despite the complete insignificance that these two teams represent in the NBA this season, it makes complete sense to send the Raptors to England as representatives of the league. They are the only NBA franchise located outside of the United States making them the ideal candidates for international gallivanting. On top of that, Bryan Colangelo has gone out of his way to assemble and international cast of players on the Raptors. These players are sure to help draw attendance in London because they are from the continent.
Andrea Bargnani, Leandro Barbosa, Linas Kleiza, Jose Calderon, Alexis Ajinca, and Solomon Alabi are all international players. Each in some way, have made a name for themselves either in the NBA, the Euroleague, or for their respective national teams. Colangelo has assembled each one of them in Toronto to prove to the league that these players can in fact lead a team to a 17-45 record. Take that stereotypes!
Bargnani is the quintessential European big man who has yet to translate his game to the North American style of play. He is a big man who can shoot the ball from distance while occasionally integrating some limited post moves while declining to ever so any effort on the defensive end of the floor. On top of that, he fails to use his size to fight for more rebounds. That skill set translates well in Europe. Who needs help side defense anyway?
As for the Nets, well, they have quite a bit less to offer in terms of international flavor. (Before they traded for Deron Williams, they had very little to offer in general.) They do, however, have Dan Gadzuric, Sasha Vujacic, and Johan Petro. Vujacic is the best known of these players from his time spent riding the bench for a couple of NBA Championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. He does have an added draw in Europe aside from his jewelry, he is married to Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova. She is pretty…talented too. Speaking of Russians, the Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is one as well.
It makes sense that the NBA sent these two franchises to London to play two home games for the Nets. (Yes, the Nets were technically at home in London.) Why would the league not pick on the smaller kids on the playground? The big kids would only stand up for themselves and protest having to make such a long flight and deal with a large time discrepancy as the playoff race is beginning to unfold.
If the NBA was to expand in Europe in the near future, these two teams represent the level of play that European can come to expect for several seasons as expansion teams rarely play at a high level. Why get the hopes of fans up prematurely? New Jersey and Toronto are the perfect feeler teams for a potential fan base overseas. Loose, somewhat sloppy ball, highlighted by dunks and three-point shooting. Everyone can enjoy instant highlights.
It is only a matter of time before the league expands overseas despite foolish talk of contraction at home. Whether the expansion is as a full member of the NBA or a NBA Euroleague affiliation, it will happen. Maybe next year Stern can send the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Washington Wizards to be the league’s ambassadors. Maybe President Obama can make the trip too since the Wizards would be going and the whole thing can have a sheer vail of a diplomatic trip. Oh, wait, Obama likes the Chicago Bulls. Well, it was just a thought.
One thing is certain, though. It will be very unlikely that the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers will be sent to play in London. There is probably still just a little bad blood between the colonies and the crown. Plus, the fact that the city that dumped all the tea in the harbor takes its name from Irish culture might be a sensitive subject in London.