Euro value is up, thanks in large part to Nowitzki
When Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson returned from another trip to Eastern Europe in the late 1990s with a list of NBA prospects, his colleagues glared at him with understandable cynicism.
After all, European players had not made the expected big splash in the NBA that decade. Besides the members of the famed Yugoslavian team that won the World Championships in 1990, European players had gained a reputation of being perimeter-happy, unwilling to accept contact and allergic to defense.
So even when Nelson told his cohorts about a prospect named Dirk Nowitzki, many suggested he confine his efforts to North America.
“When my dad [former Celtic Don Nelson] turned me loose over there behind the former Iron Curtain trying to chase down some of these guys, it was a little bit of the Jackie Robinson [i.e. refusal to move from the status quo] and what our country went through with that, not as extreme,’’ Nelson said. “Yeah, there’s a little hazing that takes place. When that first wave came through, they had to earn their place.’’
Today Nowitzki has established himself as the greatest European player to play in the NBA and is one win from his first NBA title. He also helped spark an invasion of international players in the late 1990s and early 2000s that produced some stars — Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili (an Argentine) — but also Darko Milicic, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, and Jiri Welsch.
“Before Dirk, there were umpteen guys who built that bridge,’’ Nelson said. “And I’m really truly happy we’re a global sport.’’
Because of those aforementioned busts — especially Milicic — teams had toned down their excitement about such prospects, focusing more on American college players. Nowitzki’s development has made it vogue for NBA teams to draft overseas players and sell them to fans.
The soft stereotype has lingered, though. When a European player doesn’t perform — e.g. Gasol’s struggles in this year’s playoffs — the automatic reason given is a lack of competitiveness against the more rugged American player. Nowitzki dealt with the “soft’’ label for years, but finally shed it, especially with his performance during this postseason.
“I think we’re so off-base in this country,’’ said Nelson, “because I’ve seen and heard guys over there stand in front of Russian tanks, the whole Kosovo thing. What some of those players went through before they came here was just crazy, some of the hair-raising stuff.
“And to categorize somebody as soft or they are not tough enough, it’s just a different form of basketball. We’re just used to being out playing street ball or out playing on the dirt. It’s got nothing to do with toughness.
“You know what? We’re not sumo wrestling, MMA, UFC. It’s a skill sport. How many people would pick Kobe Bryant in an MMA match? We love Kobe because he’s incredibly skilled and talented.
“We’ve got to accept that these guys coming over are talented in a different way. You don’t pay top dollar for Pau because he’s going to throw you down in the third row.’’
Nelson has spent several years building the Mavericks and changing perceptions about the Euro player. Like their American counterparts, some are going to fail in this league. A very few will approach Nowitzki’s status. But it has taken years for Nowitzki, who was taken one spot ahead of Paul Pierce in the 1998 draft, to gain his due respect.
“It might be the first time in memory where the true alpha dog has been a European product,’’ said Nelson, “so, yeah, that is special. It’s a testament to the work Dirk put in before he even came to the States, when he was a 14-year-old in Germany.’’
Partly because of the elder and younger Nelsons, European players will be mainstays in the NBA landscape. Turkish standout Enes Kanter and the Czech Republic’s Jan Vesely are two of the top five prospects in this year’s draft.
Nowitzki has won an MVP, and has eclipsed the 20,000-point mark, scoring the most points of any non-American-born player in league history.
“It’s been tough for Dirk over the years, but he’s finally peaking at the right time,’’ Nelson said. “I am not of the ilk that all of the sudden here’s this new player. This is the same Dirk we’ve seen 11 of the last 13 years.
“He, in this particular playoffs, has put the team on his back. But he has done this before.’’
The Warriors no longer want to be the NBA’s version of a reality show — entertaining with no substance. They want to win. They want to play defense. And they want to hold their players accountable and actually create a stable environment.
Jackson hopes to help with that process, and he began his tenure with some lofty promises, including a guarantee that the 36-win team would reach the postseason in 2012.
Jackson said he will insist that his freewheeling players dedicate more time to stopping opponents from scoring, though he won’t try to rob them of their offensive identity. It’s nearly impossible in today’s NBA to play an up-tempo style and match that with respectable defense, but Jackson is going to give it a shot.
“You are not going to have a license to shoot when you are not getting it done on the other end,’’ Jackson said. “They will be held accountable and there will be a price to pay. I’ve come to the mind-set that the only way to win in this league and win big is defensively.’’
Sounds good, but that means Jackson will have to overhaul the defensive systems and turn occasional defenders into full-time defenders. And that means Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, and Dorell Wright. The Warriors have had little trouble scoring over the years but they have lacked defensive toughness or even interest.
With the addition of Hall of Famer Jerry West as a consultant and former agent Bob Myers as a talent evaluator, the Warriors are taking major steps toward respectability.
They are looking to move Ellis for an athletic small forward or center, while they also look for anyone to take on the final three years and $27 million of Andris Biedrins’s contract.
Jackson is willing to work with whatever roster management presents him, but he made it a point to say he wanted Ellis back.
“I don’t see any cons [of an Ellis-Curry] backcourt other than size,’’ Jackson said. “I will play lawyer right now and point to Exhibit A, J.J. Barea starting in the NBA Finals. I would certainly say the Warriors’ starting backcourt is bigger than that of the Dallas Mavericks.
“The bottom line is, do you have the heart, the will, the desire, the determination to go out and get it done? And that’s part of changing the culture.’’
We’ll check back with Jackson in late March to see if he still has the same enthusiasm.
The collective bargaining agreement expires June 30, and the owners are insisting on a hard salary cap of approximately $45 million. The current soft cap is at $57.6 million and levies a dollar-for-dollar luxury tax starting at $71 million. The owners wanted a hard salary cap during the 1998 negotiations that nearly wiped out the 1998-99 season, but they reluctantly agreed to this current system.
With several new owners in place since then, there seems to be a renewed passion to implement a hard cap, which could greatly reduce overall salaries. But what happens to teams such as Miami, which has three players making more than $15 million, or the Celtics, whose Big Four will earn a combined $56 million?
The owners want to roll back salaries, and some observers believe they are willing to risk losing the season to win this war.
It would be ridiculously unpopular for owners to institute a work stoppage, but some would lose money at a slower rate if there were no games. Commissioner David Stern sounded less optimistic about an agreement last week in Dallas, while the players are taking the same tone as their NFL brethren — portraying themselves as victims who just want to play.
“I think it’s more about a split in the revenue changing the whole structure,’’ said Players Association executive director Billy Hunter. “I think it’s more about guaranteeing a profit to the owners, so it’s because of the size of their demands that we find ourselves struggling to reach an accord.’’
The Players Association understands there are flaws in the system when Rashard Lewis, Michael Redd, Andrei Kirilenko, Gilbert Arenas, and Yao Ming are five of the league’s top 10 highest-paid players. They are open to a deal that reduces the amount of guaranteed contracts and allows owners more flexibility to shed bad contracts.
But Hunter also realizes that a hard cap would give financial control of the league to the owners for decades, because it’s highly unlikely that they would ever relinquish that.
According to Hunter, the owners are asking for a 10-year contract. The players, conceding that they will lose some of their current privileges, want a five- or six-year deal. They are insisting that revenue-sharing among teams becomes part of a new deal, but the owners say that issue is separate.
Revenue-sharing creates factions of smaller-market owners and larger-market owners. Does Jerry Buss of the Lakers want to share part of his $3 billion television war chest with Herb Kohl so the Bucks can be more competitive?
“There is a uncertainty in the air, and sometimes uncertainty is a helpful fact,’’ said Players Association lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, who also works for the now-decertified NFLPA. “I think everyone in basketball is aware what’s going on in football, and as Billy said, it’s going to have some influence. I think everyone will watch in basketball what happens in football.’’
Layups Pistons general manager Joe Dumars realizes he can’t afford to miss on his next coaching hire the way he did with Flip Saunders, Michael Curry, and Kuester. He will take his time finding the right man. While Dwane Casey and Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank are in the mix, Dumars has to consider Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. Thomas wants back in the NBA and has remained largely noncommittal to Florida International University, while Laimbeer is looking for his first head coaching job in the NBA. Former Atlanta coach Mike Woodson is being seriously considered, but his teams were considered stale and predictable during his final years with the Hawks . . . With the 76ers shopping Andre Iguodala and the Warriors looking to move Monta Ellis, those potential deals could start an exciting trade period before the collective bargaining agreement expires and especially on draft night. There would be a moratorium on moves during a lockout, so teams looking to shed contracts and move unwanted players will be aggressive.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.