New York and Orlando previews

New York Knicks
Coach: Isiah Thomas
Starting five: PG Stephon Marbury, SG Steve Francis, SF Jared Jeffries, PF Channing Frye, C Eddy Curry
Off the bench: SG Jamal Crawford, SF Jalen Rose, SF Quentin Richardson
Most underpaid: As much as this season will be about Isiah Thomas survival, the Knicks long-term fortunes depend on Channing Fryes development. Frye was the one bright spot for one of the worst teams in history, averaging 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds as a rookie. He was on track to play in 80 games before suffering a knee injury in March that cost him the last 16 games of the season. Frye did return to play in the Las Vegas summer league. The Knicks at least can hope they have two cornerstone big men in Frye and Eddy Curry. Frye was a $5.5 million player who made $2.2 million on his rookie contract.
Most overpaid: Another season, another $150 million spent by the Knicks on the road to nowhere. That doesnt even include the final cost of Larry Browns settlement. The big question is whether Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis can coexist in the same backcourt. If their career averages are any indication, the two guards would take about 32 shots a game combined if they could. With Francis and Marbury owed a collective $108 million through 2008-09 and all but impossible to trade, Thomas has to find a way for the two to play together. He also should get Jamal Crawford some minutes, if only because the Knicks are paying him $43 million through 2010-11.
Outlook: As long as the players dont quit on Thomas the same way they did on Brown (and vice versa), the Knicks could win the 35 or so games necessary to save Thomas job. At least they wont have to pay Allan Houston any more after this season.

Orlando Magic
Coach: Brian Hill
Starting five: PG Jameer Nelson, SG J.J. Redick, SF Grant Hill, PF Dwight Howard, C Darko Milicic
Off the bench: PG Carlos Arroyo, SF Hedo Turkolgu, SF Trevor Ariza, C Tony Battie
Most underpaid: One of the overlooked individual performances last season was Dwight Howards 28-point, 26-rebound game against Philadelphia in April. In his second season out of high school, Howard averaged 15.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. Keep in mind he barely took 10 shots a game, left an average of three points at the foul line nightly and wont turn 21 until Dec. 8. If not for Ben Wallace, Howard would be the NBAs unquestioned best rebounder, with instincts that defy his age. He hasnt missed a game in his career and could be the NBAs breakout star this season. Howard was a $10.98 million player who made $4.5 million.
Most overpaid: This could be the end for Grant Hill, with his mega contract finally expiring after this season. Hill struggled to recover from a sports hernia last season and played in only 21 games for the Magic. That makes it 135 games played, 357 games missed since Hill came to Orlando. Once Hills contract comes off the books, however, the Magic could offer a maximum deal to bring Daytona Beachs Vince Carter back home. Hill was a $1.71 million player who made $15.7 million last season.
Outlook: If Kwame Brown could get $25 million from the Lakers, what will Darko Milicic command as a restricted free agent next summer? Thats just one question in what should be an intriguing season for the Magic, who finished only four games out of the playoffs and won 16 of their final 22 games last season.

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Milwaukee and New Jersey previews

Milwaukee Bucks
Coach: Terry Stotts
Starting five: PG Mo Williams, SG Michael Redd, SF Bobby Simmons, PF Charlie Villanueva, C Andrew Bogut
Off the bench: PG Steve Blake, SF Ruben Patterson, C Dan Gadzuric
Most underpaid: After passing on the chance to play sidekick to LeBron James in Cleveland, Michael Redd re-signed with the Bucks and was their leading man last season. He proved his worth as a maximum contract player and finds himself on a team headed in the right direction. Redd quietly had the best season of his career, averaging 25.4 points and shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range. He would have been perfect for USA Basketball, as well, but declined to play in Japan because he was getting married. Redd was a $19.31 million player who made $12 million.
Most overpaid: The opportunity will be there for Dan Gadzuric that wasnt last season, when the Bucks had Andrew Bogut, Jamaal Magloire, Joe Smith and Toni Kukoc all fighting for minutes at power forward and center. Magloire, Smith and Kukoc all have departed, leaving Gadzuric as the primary backup big man. He averaged only 5.2 points and 12 minutes in the regular season and barely got off the bench in the playoffs. Gadzuric was a $1.12 million player who made $4.8 million.
Outlook: The Bucks have all the makings of a sleeper team, with Charlie Villanueva arriving from Toronto and Bogut now a full-time center. They added two great bench players in Steve Blake and Ruben Patterson and should compete for the No. 5 seed (or more) in the East. Now if only they could get a new arena.

New Jersey Nets
Coach: Lawrence Frank
Starting five: PG Jason Kidd, SG Vince Carter, SF Richard Jefferson, PF Jason Collins, C Nenad Krstic
Off the bench: PG Marcus Williams, SG Eddie House, PF Clifford Robinson
Most underpaid: How many Eastern Conference centers would you take over Nenad Krstic? Shaquille ONeal and Ben Wallace, of course, but theres no clear-cut No. 3 after that. In only his second season, Krstic averaged 13.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and started 80 games. He has yet to establish himself as either a rebounder or shot blocker, but Krstics game will grow as he is only 23. Nearly half of all shots Krstic took last season were jumpers as well. The Nets can start talking contract extension with him next summer. He was a $9.53 million player who made $1 million last season.
Most overpaid: Rookie Josh Boone would have had every chance to be the Nets primary power forward this season until he injured his left shoulder in summer league play and underwent surgery. That should keep Boone out until December and cedes the job to the unremarkable Jason Collins. Although the Nets do play better with him on the floor than off, Collins barely shows up in the box score most nights despite averaging 27 minutes a game. He was a $2.94 million player who made $5.5 million last season.
Outlook: This could be the final season for Vince Carter, Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson to play together in New Jersey. Carter has a player option for 2006-07 and could find major free-agent money in Charlotte and Orlando. The Nets have gone 84-59 since acquiring Carter, although it is hard to see a path for them deep into the playoffs.

Indiana and Miami previews

Indiana Pacers
Coach: Rick Carlisle
Starting five: PG Jamaal Tinsley, SG Stephen Jackson, SF Danny Granger, PF Al Harrington, C Jermaine ONeal
Off the bench: PG Sarunas Jasikevicius, SG Marquis Daniels, C Jeff Foster
Most underpaid: For a team that finished 41-41, the Pacers had remarkably few players who outperformed their contracts last season. They traded their most undervalued player, guard Anthony Johnson, to Dallas for three bench players. That leaves second-year forward Danny Granger in this spot. Granger averaged 7.5 points and 4.9 rebounds as a rookie, above par for a No. 17 pick. He should have every chance to flourish starting alongside Jermaine ONeal and Al Harrington this season. Granger was a $2.14 million player who made $1.3 million last season.
Most overpaid: Only a day after Indiana acquired Peja Stojakovic and ridded itself of Ron Artest, Jermaine ONeal went down with a groin tear. The Pacers season might as well have gone with him. ONeal played in only 51 games as a result (the Pacers went 26-25) and has missed 69 games combined the last two seasons. He still has $82 million and four years left on his contract, but the Pacers could shop him if the team continues to stagnate. Entering his 11th season, ONeal needs to stay healthy and produce at a level that justifies making maximum dollars in the NBA. He was a $7.52 million player who made $16.4 million last season.
Outlook: The Pacers backed off making a $60-plus million commitment to Stojakovic, using a trade exception to bring back Harrington for almost half that amount. Unless ONeal and Jamaal Tinsley combine to play 93 games again this season, Indiana has to improve in a weak conference.

Miami Heat
Coach: Pat Riley
Starting five: PG Jason Williams, SG Gary Payton, SF Antoine Walker, PF Udonis Haslem, C Shaquille ONeal
Off the bench: PG Gary Payton, SG Dorrell Wright, SF James Posey, C Alonzo Mourning
Most underpaid: Would you have guessed Dwyane Wade? He left no doubt about being Miamis most valuable player in averaging nearly 35 points a game in the NBA Finals, leading the Heat to its first championship. He also became the first star player from the vaunted 2003 draft class to get a ring. For a player with limited range on his shot, Wade succeeds by attacking the basket; he shot 49.5 percent last season. The only concern for Heat fans is that Wade has played 112 games in the past 12 months, both for Pat Riley and USA Basketball. He was a $23.64 million player who made $3 million on his rookie contract.
Most overpaid: Would you have guessed Shaquille ONeal? To justify making $20 million a year, you need to play more than 59 games and average better than 30.4 minutes. The extent of ONeals diminished skills was evident in the Finals, where he missed 34 of 48 free throws and was less of a difference maker at times than Alonzo Mourning. The Heat will pay ONeal another $80 million for the championship he helped deliver last season. He was a $12.12 million player last season and will turn 35 in March.
Outlook: Even if they still have the most mismatched set of players in the league – – Antoine Walker? Jason Williams? – – the Heat has to be considered the favorite to come out of the East again this season.

Cleveland and Detroit previews

Cleveland Cavaliers
Coach: Mike Brown
Starting five: PG Eric Snow, SG Larry Hughes, SF LeBron James, PF Drew Gooden, C Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Off the bench: SG David Wesley, SG Damon Jones, PF Donyell Marshall, C Anderson Varejao
Most underpaid: Nobody in the league was more undervalued last season than LeBron James, who was worth about $27.39 million to the Cavaliers and made $4.6 million on his rookie contract. James carried Cleveland to a 50-win season and the playoffs as well as joined Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Michael Jordan as the only players to average 31 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in a season. But James did give Cavaliers fans reason to worry about the future, opting to sign a shorter three-year extension to his rookie contract that will give him an out after the 2009-10 season if he is unhappy with the teams progress. The team has improved by 18, 7 and 8 wins in each of his first three seasons.
Most overpaid: With a finger injury that was slow to heal, Larry Hughes played in a career-low 36 games. The Cavaliers were 23-13 when Hughes was available but it couldnt have been what owner Dan Gilbert expected in signing Hughes to a $60 million contract. Hughes, in addition, shot barely 40 percent last season, his steals per game were cut in half and the Cavaliers were worse defensively with him on the court versus off. Cleveland has to see return on their investment in Hughes, who now has missed 144 games in his career, especially for James sake. He was a $1.22 million player who made $10.3 million last season.
Outlook: The Cavaliers made only modest moves to improve their team – – re-signing Drew Gooden, signing David Wesley, signing Scot Pollard – – and that should worry James. What if we are all witnesses to Cleveland finishing fourth in the East year after year?

Detroit Pistons
Coach: Flip Saunders
Starting five: PG Chauncey Billups, SG Richard Hamilton, SF Tayshaun Prince, PF Rasheed Wallace, C Nazr Mohammed
Off the bench: PG Lindsey Hunter, SG Ronald Murray, PF Antonio McDyess
Most underpaid: Whether or not you agree, the numbers say Chauncey Billups is worth more than a maximum contract playing for the Pistons. He will have the chance at seasons end to opt out of his current deal and see what teams are willing to offer. Billups is coming off a career season in which he averaged 18.5 points and 8.6 assists and led the Pistons to a 64-18 record before the team crashed out of the playoffs. More than that, Billups leads the NBA in assists per turnover and is both a top 10 free throw shooter and 3-point shooter. The Pistons cannot allow Ben Wallace and Billups to leave consecutive summers for nothing in return. Billups was a $19.85 million player who made $5.9 million last season.
Most overpaid: After losing Ben Wallace, the Pistons quickly moved to sign free-agent center Nazr Mohammed. About the only thing the two players share in common is that they grab rebounds at nearly the same rate. Mohammed brings more on the offensive end and was a 78.5 percent foul shooter but wont come close to matching the tone Wallace set on defense. His greatest value to Detroit is keeping Rasheed Wallace happy by not forcing him to play center. Mohammed was a $570,000 player who made $5.5 million last season.
Outlook: Even with Ben Wallace gone, the top three teams in the East last season have between 12 and 15 games to make up to catch the Pistons. It was alarming, though, to watch Detroit struggle to shoot 40 percent and get outrebounded by Miami in the conference finals. This season could be a major step back.

Charlotte and Chicago previews

We’re going to try to post two team previews a day for two weeks, then make some predictions about the top eight in each conference. The previews for Atlanta and Boston can be found previously in this blog.

Charlotte Bobcats
Coach: Bernie Bickerstaff
Starting five: PG Raymond Felton, SG Gerald Wallace, SF Adam Morrison, PF Emeka Okafor, C Primoz Brezec
Off the bench: PG Brevin Knight, SG Matt Carroll, PF Sean May, C Jake Voskuhl
Most underpaid: If you look at their numbers after the All-Star break last season, the difference between rookie of the year Chris Paul and Bobcats point guard Raymond Felton doesnt seem like much at all. Felton averaged 16.7 points, 7.6 assists and shot 38.7 percent from 3-point range; Paul averaged 16.5 points, 8.0 assists and shot 27.4 percent from beyond the arc. Theres nothing more misleading than a player putting up numbers on a bad team – – the Bobcats finished a meager 26-56 – – but Felton left no doubt he is something special. His scoring average, assists per game and minutes increased with every month last season. Felton was a $6.68 million player making $2.8 million on his rookie contract.
Most overpaid: Theres not a lot of discussion any more about whether Orlando should have taken Dwight Howard or Emeka Okafor with the No. 1 pick in 2004. Okafor played in only 26 games and was on the court for just 22 percent of the Bobcats total minutes last season. His injured ankle never improved and he didnt play after Jan. 10. Okafor still can be a double-double machine (he has 63 in 99 career games) but he needs to show he is healthy this season. Okafor was a $2.23 million player who made $4 million; Charlotte can start talking contract extension with him after this season.
Outlook: The Bobcats have an intriguing mix of former college stars but Michael Jordan and Co. has some spending to do to get to the NBAs minimum payroll of $39.85 million. They could have upwards of $30 million to spend on free agents next summer, with a guard spot that has Vince Carters name on it.

Chicago Bulls
Coach: Scott Skiles
Starting five: PG Kirk Hinrich, SG Ben Gordon, SF Andres Nocioni, PF P.J. Brown, C Ben Wallace
Off the bench: PG Chris Duhon, SF Luol Deng, SF Adrian Griffin PF Tyrus Thomas
Most underpaid: For as regularly as Kirk Hinrich is mentioned as one of the NBAs most underrated players, Luol Deng was Chicagos most undervalued player last season. The Bulls simply play better when Deng is on the court, an important fact to consider as long as he is backing up Andres Nocioni. Deng averaged 14.3 points and 6.6 rebounds in 33.4 minutes last season and wont turn 22 until April 16. He rated as the NBAs third most productive second-year player, behind only Dwight Howard and Andre Iguodala. Deng was a $9.6 million player who made $2.4 million.
Most overpaid: At age 37, P.J. Brown will be entering his 14th NBA season, which also happens to be the last for which he is under contract. Brown is exactly the kind of rugged veteran the Bulls need with such a young nucleus of players to nurture. And the good news for Chicago fans is that the team was able to recoup much of the money spent on Ben Wallace by shipping Tyson Chandler and his weighty contract to the Hornets for Brown. By letting the Knicks overpay for Eddy Curry, the Bulls made two shrewd moves. Brown was a $2.62 million player who made $8 million last season.
Outlook: The Bulls were the toughest team to hit a shot against last season (42.5 percent) and added a defensive anchor in Wallace. They beat Miami twice at United Center during last seasons playoffs and theres every reason to expect to see the two teams in the Eastern Conference Finals. As if that wasnt enough, the Bulls get the Knicks top draft pick again in 2007 as part of the Curry deal.

Luke Walton/Basketball Without Borders

I can’t imagine Luke Walton will take a trip of greater significance than the one he’s on right now. Free-agent guard Jim Jackson, who was with the Lakers at the end of last season, is in South Africa as well. Vladimir Radmanovic was supposed to come but Walton said he couldn’t make it.

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

Of all the roles he has played since coming to the Lakers, Luke Walton never could have expected one day he would serve as a basketball ambassador to Africa.

Three days into his stay in South Africa, though, Walton has seen more than he could have imagined. The 26-year-old forward is taking part in the NBAs Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg, led by Houston Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo.

In the mornings and afternoons, Walton has worked at an instructional camp for more than 100 of Africas most promising young players. He also has paid visits to two orphanages that brought home the realities of the continents HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The thing about it is we get off the bus and there are a thousand kids running, jumping and giving us hugs, Walton said by phone Friday. Its pretty amazing to see how happy and how much they love life when as an outsider looking on you feel so bad for how much they went through.

Walton said he was struck by how raw the African players were, even though they all have what he described as NBA bodies. The players had no trouble dunking as part of a drop-step drill, he cited as one example, but struggled when it came to converting layups.

But Walton could see marked improvement after only a couple of days and was encouraged by what he saw once the occasionally chaotic games started.

You can tell that they love playing,? he said, because when we start playing games, theyre yelling and diving for loose balls.?

Two numbers also have stuck in Waltons mind on the trip. The first was the 5.5 million South Africans estimated to be infected with HIV, the other was the 1.1 million children believed to be AIDS orphans in the country.

The players visited a youth center Thursday where most of the students come from families in extreme poverty and the majority are orphans as a result of political violence, crime and AIDS. The next day, the players toured an AIDS hospice for young children.

Its been pretty shocking to see that that type of stuff is really going on, Walton said. The orphanages were both in very poor parts of the city but the people who were in charge were doing an unbelievable job.?

The camp runs through Sunday, after which Walton will take part in a three-day safari. He has spent most of the off-season at his home in San Diego, working out with the likes of Kareem Rush, Brian Cook and Danny Granger. Training camp is less than a month away.

But the trip to Africa has been an unforgettable experience. As tough as the realities of life on the continent can be, Walton paid his hosts the ultimate compliment Friday.

The people out here, he said, are the nicest people you could ever meet.?

The season preview begins

Every September, I start working on the annual season preview. There’s not a lot else to do a month before training camp, and it saves a lot of time when editors are looking for NBA preview copy in October. It’s basically doing capsule previews for each team, trying to get a feel for the players they have back and the players they have brought in.

Last season, I did team capsules based on a theme for the preview, which was players and the prime years of their career. Not surprisingly, Kobe Bryant was the feature story. The conclusion was that players had the single most productive season of their NBA careers at about age 26.5, after five years in the league. I looked at something like 180 All-Star players from the last 25 years and defined career seasons three different ways.

As part of the preview, I tried to identify emerging players who fit the description and could have career seasons.

Some of them I got right, including Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Andres Nocioni, Tayshaun Prince, Richard Jefferson, Chris Bosh, Josh Howard, Jason Richardson, Raja Bell and Caron Butler. Not to mention that Bryant, at age 27, had possibly the best season of any player since Michael Jordan.

Some of them I got wrong, including Dan Gadzuric, Jamal Crawford, Samuel Dalembert, Stromile Swift, Jason Hart, Marko Jaric and – – embarrassingly – – Devean George.

This season, I’m going in a different direction. The theme for the team previews is going to be the Fair Salary Ratings, which I referenced in an earlier blog entry. I find them fascinating, especially in terms of answering one of the most fundamental question for fans of who’s overpaid and who’s underpaid.

I will try to do two a day for 15 days, beginning in full next week when I get back from vacation. Here are the first two for the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics. It’ll be the Eastern Conference teams in alphabetical order, followed by the Western Conference.

Atlanta Hawks
Coach: Mike Woodson
Starting five: PG Speedy Claxton, SG Joe Johnson, SF Josh Smith, PF Marvin Williams, C Zaza Pachulia
Off the bench: PG Tyronn Lue, SF Josh Childress, PF Shelden Williams, C Lorenzen Wright
Most Underpaid: Speedy Claxton was one of the leagues best sixth men last season, backing up Chris Paul with the Hornets. Now Claxton will start at point guard for a Hawks team that was the NBAs youngest last season. Size is always a concern for Claxton, who is listed at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, as are health issues for a player who has averaged only 58 games a season. But Claxton can push the ball, play pressure defense and be the leader the Hawks need. Most importantly, Claxtons arrival allows Joe Johnson to play shooting guard full-time. Claxton was a $7.46 million player who made $3.6 million; he signed a four-year, $25 million contract as a free agent.
Most Overpaid: One of the key components to the fair salary rating is a teams success. The Hawks didnt have any last season, going 26-56 and missing the playoffs for a seventh consecutive year. Johnson played in all 82 games, ranked third in the league in minutes and averaged 20.2 points and 6.5 assists. But on a bad team, Johnson was a $7.2 million player who made $12 million. It also doesnt help that Boris Diaw was an $11.78 million player making $1.1 million in Phoenix.
Outlook: The Hawks doubled their win total from the 2004-05 season but remain one of the NBAs doormats. They would gladly take a decent start to the season – – Atlanta is 4-24 the last two Novembers – – and a promising year out of 20-year-old Marvin Williams.

Boston Celtics
Coach: Doc Rivers
Starting five: PG Delonte West, SG Paul Pierce, SF Wally Szczerbiak, PF Al Jefferson, C Kendrick Perkins
Off the bench: PG Sebastian Telfair, SG Tony Allen, PF Ryan Gomes, C Theo Ratliff
Most underpaid: In only his second pro season, Delonte West started 71 games and averaged 34.1 minutes for the Celtics, almost exclusively as a point guard. But West figures to play both guard spots this season in Boston, which acquired one point guard in Sebastian Telfair and drafted another in Rajon Rondo. West was a 38.5 percent 3-point shooter last season and is described in terms of being a player, as opposed to a position. But he is undersized for a shooting guard at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds. The Celtics have big decisions upcoming about extending the rookie contracts of West, Telfair, Al Jefferson and Tony Allen. West was a $7.73 million player who made $1 million last season.
Most overpaid: The good news for Celtics fans is that the team traded Raef LaFrentz for Theo Ratliff, saving more than $12 million in a deal for two players with hideous contracts. Ratliff will be 34 by the end of this season and played only 55 games last season in Portland. But Ratliff has averaged 2.7 blocks in his career and could be the veteran inside presence the Celtics need alongside Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins. Ratliff was a $2.71 milion player in Portland who made $11.7 million.
Outlook: A strange summer for the Celtics, who signed Paul Pierce to a $59 million extension but also talked about acquiring Allen Iverson. They traded away their top draft pick, then traded for Rondo, whom Danny Ainge had ranked among the draft’s top 10 players. All the Celtics (33-49) have to do is win seven more games to get into playoff contention.

Kobe to the rescue

Theres not a lot I know for certain but one thing is that Kobe Bryant isnt coming home from Beijing in 2008 without a gold medal. If youre a USA Basketball fan thats the only consolation to be found in Fridays 101-95 loss to Greece at the FIBA World Championship.

Bryant was one of the first players to commit to Jerry Colangelos new national team program but was unable to play in Japan after undergoing knee surgery. Now he will set the tone for a U.S. team that is need of redemption after three consecutive international tournaments without a gold medal.

If he succeeds, it would be a fitting chapter for a player with a very, very complicated legacy in the game.

No matter what you think about Bryant as a player, here are a couple of things I know he wont be doing on the floor the next two summers:

He wont commit mindless fouls, the kind that put Greeces Vassilis Spanoulis on the line for six free throws in the second quarter of Fridays semifinal. Look at the final score and youll see how important those fouls were.

He wont miss free throws in critical situations, which the Americans (20 for 34) did all too often. Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James both turned foul shots into turnovers by bricking a pair with the U.S. desperate to stay in the game in the third quarter.

He wont miss open 3-pointers from barely 20 feet – – the Americans were 9 for 28 against Greece after going 10 for 40 against Germany – – and he wont let his team get beat possession after possession off the pick-and-roll without making an adjustment.

He wont let opportunities slip away in a 40-minute game. Thats eight fewer minutes than an NBA game, eight fewer minutes for a team with superior talent like the U.S. to come out ahead. Every possession in a shorter game counts.

Most importantly, Bryant will bring an intimidating quality to a U.S. team that lacks one. Theres nobody more ruthless on the court than Bryant, who should lead while Dwyane Wade, James, Anthony and everyone else follows.

Thats the only hope from a loss that was stunning but not unexpected. The clues were there for anyone who watched the Americans beat Italy and Germany, two games in which the final score was more impressive than the play on the court.

The U.S. was playing a two-game tournament once it reached the semifinals, with Greece, Spain and Argentina also undefeated at the world championships. They didnt even get to the second game, and now must head to Venezuela next summer to qualify for the Olympics.

Say hello to Hugo Chavez next summer, Kobe and Co. Maybe Raul Castro will be there as well.

After Joe Johnson connected on a 3-pointer to put the U.S. ahead 33-21 in the second quarter, Greece outscored the Americans 44-18 over the next 10 minutes to go in front by 14. Greece shot 62.5 percent and totaled 101 points despite having only 14 at the end of the first quarter.

It started with four abysmal possessions for the U.S. after going up by 12. Johnson missed an open 3, then Kirk Hinrich rose for a 3 in the corner only to come down with the ball and travel. Hinrich missed another 3, and Wade couldnt get a shot to fall, either.

Greece used a 9-0 run to get back in the game, then let Sofoklis Schortsanitis take over. Schortsanitis finished with 14 points in 17 minutes and had four baskets in a row, running the floor for a dunk, scoring at will off the pick-and-roll and posting up Chris Bosh inside.

It was notable that Schortsanitis – – a former second-round draft pick by the Clippers – – played more than Elton Brand in the semifinal. Brand started the game but played only 12 minutes in all.

The Americans, meanwhile, will never forget the pick-and-roll that Greece ran to perfection. One play was all it took for a team with no NBA players on its roster, with a center in Lazaros Papadopoulos who couldnt get off the ground, to beat a team of All-Stars.

They couldnt stop Schortsanitis from rolling to the basket and getting the ball deep in the lane. They switched on the pick-and-roll and watched Greece exploit mismatches inside. They went under screens and left Spanoulis to bury 3-pointers. There were no answers.

Greece scored an incredible 63 points in 20 minutes for the second and third quarters. The final dagger came as Hinrich committed an intentional foul against Schortsanitis late in the fourth quarter, giving him two foul shots and Greece the ball on the restart.

Schortsanitis missed both free throws but Spanoulis drilled a 3-pointer – – off a pick-and-roll, of course. It was 2:30 a.m. PDT, and somewhere Bryant had to be watching.