Czar’s End of Year Awards: Most Valuable Player

[nba-video vid=channels/tnt_overtime/2011/04/12/]

Gameday Dish: Lakers vs. Mavericks

With the light at the end of the 82-games-long tunnel fast approaching, the Dallas Mavericks will take on the Los Angeles Lakers tonight at the Staples Center in the second game of a unique SoCal road back-to-back for Mark Cuban’s 2011 title-contenders.

Dallas is on a five-game win streak. Last night, also at Staples, former league MVP and 13th-year do-everything combo-forward Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavs to a 106-100 hard-fought victory over the Los Angeles Clippers and soon-to-be ROY Blake Griffin.

Coach Rick Carlisle’s team is 27-10 away from Big D and has the NBA’s best road record. At 53-21 the Mavs are a mere .5 game behind the two-time defending NBA champs in the standings with 8 games to go before the 30 teams become the 16.

Coach Phil Jackson’s Lakers last played on Sunday and capped their regular-season sweep of  New Orleans with a 102-84 win in front of the Hollywood faithful. 15th-year lifetime Laker Bryant had 30 points against the playoff-bound Hornets. 10th-year PF Pau Gasol filled up the box score with 23 points, 16 boards and 4 blocks. Since the All-Star break and festivities in Los Angeles, the Lake Show has won 15 of 16 games.

Their current 7-game win streak, which coincidentally began on March 12th in Dallas with a 96-91 road W, has propelled Kobe and company to the second slot in the Western Conference. At 53-20 they are now 3.5 games behind league-leading San Antonio Spurs. Also, if victorious tonight, the purple and gold will finish their longest home stand of this season at 7-0.

The Mavericks bested the Lakers in their first meeting of this 2010-11 campaign 109-100. So tonight’s game, the third of three and the only meeting at Staples between these clubs, is an important ‘rubber-match’ on many levels. With less than 10 games left before the postseason, Dallas and Los Angeles stand neck-and-neck, jockeying for the #2 seed in the West and home-court advantage in the second round of the playoffs – a potential and likely matchup of these two talented and tough sides.

Reggie Miller will be back in the booth with Dick Stockton and me tonight. After having to learn so many names for his NCAA coverage, I hope Reggie still remembers who these NBA guys are. Tune in to TNT at 10:30 PM ET to see the NBA’s hottest team host the NBA’s top road warriors in a game with huge postseason implications.

Mike’s Take: Global NBA

Foreign Policy Digest’s South Asia Regional Editor Mahanth Joishy asked me to discuss the globalization of the NBA and the influence of international players on the league. Here’s an excerpt from our Q & A session:

FPD: I recently read that there are approximately 80 international basketball players from over 30 countries in the NBA. I’d guess there are many hundreds more on the radar screen of NBA scouts. Many are all-star caliber players: Dirk Nowitzki of Germany, Yao Ming of China, and of course Steve Nash from Canada, via South Africa. Do you believe this trend of bringing in foreign talent will continue to grow?

Yes, I think this trend will continue to grow, because the pool of talent is beginning to diminish here in the United States, which in turn has watered down our product somewhat. Nowadays, many players are turning pro after one year in college, before they are close to maturing to the point that they will eventually get to. So scouts will continue to look at international players who have perhaps been playing as pros since they were 15 or 16 years old, and have therefore matured at an earlier age. A player who has four, five, six years of pro experience under his belt and enters the NBA as a 23- or 24-year-old rookie can help contribute more quickly than one who leaves college after one year and has only 35 collegiate games under his belt and isn’t physically ready to handle the demands of the NBA. So yes, NBA teams will continue to look outside the United States for talent.

FPD: There is the oft-repeated stereotype that European players have better fundamentals, such as long-range shooting and passing, though they’re not always as “well-fed” or flashy at dunking, due to differences in training mentality. Is this true?

Yes, I would agree that European players generally have better fundamentals than American players. One reason for that is that their game has always been more of a perimeter shooting game than the drive-it-and-dunk-it type game that we have here due to the speed, quickness, athleticism, and ball-handling abilities that we have in so many players in the United States. In other countries, their ball-handling skills have developed more recently and have gotten to a different level over the last 5-10 years.

Another factor is that they play only two games a week in Europe, as opposed to three or four games a week in the NBA, which affords them more practice time. It’s not unusual for European teams to have three practices in a day. One practice will be used to work on the skill areas: dribbling, passing, and shooting. Another will be for strength and conditioning. And the last will focus on playing the game itself. And when they have skills training, they do it with all the positions. That’s why so many of their big guys are good shooters. You haven’t had as many great low-post scoring players in international competition, which has something to do with the trapezoidal lane, which they are working to change. They are trying to make it the same as the NBA’s rectangular lane, so it’s consistent in international play.

FPD: Which country or region of the world may represent the next hotbed of undiscovered basketball talent, in your opinion?

It could be China, based on its population size and the growing interest in the sport. They have over 1.3 billion people, including a wealth of young men close to or over seven feet tall in the country. And they also have a great passion for the game now. Yao Ming certainly did a lot to promote the sport of basketball and upgrade the NBA’s image in that country. Now that the Chinese have had more exposure to basketball and understand what it’s all about, the sport has caught on. The Latin countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, also have a great passion for basketball now. And countries that have historically been very good are those that were part of the former Yugoslavia and former USSR. They have always had excellent teams.

FPD: It seems like national teams from other nations, such as Spain, Argentina, or Lithuania, are catching up with the US. What will the United States national team have to do better to continue to win at the highest levels of international competition, such as the Olympics or the FIBA world championships, and avoid disappointing upsets?

The United States national team will have to continue to get commitments from the best American players to go and compete, just as they did in the 2008 Olympics and in the 2010 FIBA World Championships. For the Olympics, they got top NBA players, such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, and Dwyane Wade to play for Team USA. And the young guys who had been their understudies when training and preparing for the Olympics, such as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and Kevin Love all made a commitment to compete in the FIBA World Championships in Istanbul, and we wound up winning the title. So that’s what it will take: the continued commitment from our best players to still be a part of our national team.

Click here to read the rest of our interview on Foreign Policy Digest.

Czar Asks You

Photo by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Late Sunday night in Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki and rookie point guard Darren Collison of the New Orleans Hornets traded basket for basket in a fourth quarter battle. Dallas won the game 108-100, but not before blowing most of a 25-point second-half lead. Collison’s 20 first-half points prevented this game from becoming an early wipeout. And his clutch fourth quarter performance nearly allowed the Hornets to pull off their second highly improbable comeback in days.

Rookie point guards continue to make headlines in the NBA. While Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings jumped out as early ROY candidates (and probably continue to be the favorites), Collison and Golden State’s Stephen Curry are making strong late season surges. Collison has made the most of his added minutes with the injury to starting point guard Chris Paul.

And Curry appears to be hitting his stride in a free-flowing Golden State offense that suits his skill set.  Johnny Flynn in Minnesota has also had a very solid rookie campaign as has Ty Lawson in Denver. At draft time last year, the expectation was that Blake Griffin might be the only potential star among the rookie crop – but these point guards may turn out to be the real story.

Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

And they’ve had the opportunity to compete among a number of greats who came before them. In the first round of last year’s playoffs, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo went toe-to-toe in one of the classic playoff series of recent years. Both also made their first All-Star appearances this year. Russell Westbrook is having a superb season with the surprising Thunder as is Aaron Brooks with the Rockets. This is even before mentioning the triumvirate of Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Tony Parker, who are hitting the prime of their careers, and the old guard of Steve Nash, Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd, all of whom are enjoying terrific seasons.

Together with the rookies, this group forms what may be one of the finest collections of point guards in NBA history. Kentucky point guard John Wall may soon join their ranks as many expect him to be the first pick in this year’s college draft.

Q: Do you think there has ever been a more dominant group of NBA point guards or are these guys in a league of their own?