NBA vs Europe: Style of Play
European basketball doesn’t cater to superstars… because the superstars are in the NBA.
by Casey Jacobsen
It’s too easy to reinforce the stereotype that the NBA is a one-on-one game and European basketball is more team-oriented. There is no point in writing an article about that, and to be honest, I don’t believe it’s that simple. As someone who has played a number of years at both the NBA and Euroleague level, I admit that the styles of play are vastly different, but how are they different? And why?
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: The game of basketball, in the NBA and in Europe, is a team sport. NBA observers need only to look back to last year’s NBA Finals for a reminder that it’s not always the teams with best individual players who are successful. Miami had the greater number of quality isolation players in LeBron, DWade and Chris Bosh. Of course Dallas had Dirk, but more importantly they had the better role players, which essentially means they had a better team. Every guy knew his job, especially in crunch time when the ball would go through Dirk. That’s the main reason Dallas won. Well, that and the fact that LeBron refused to shoot in the fourth quarter of that series.
The perception from some basketball purists that the NBA has turned into (or has always been) more of an individual game is both true and false. It’s obvious to anyone who watches NBA basketball that there is more individual play than at any other level, but there is a clear reason for this: The NBA has the best players in the world. When you have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the same team, it probably makes sense for those players to shoot most of the shots and make the majority of your team’s decisions. Admittedly, NBA games sometimes become too much about the star and not enough about the group. When fans talk about the “beauty of the game,” they usually are not referring to watching Kobe shoot 30 times to score 40 points. Right or wrong, the NBA gets a bad rap because it caters too much to the stars on and off the court.
European basketball, on the other hand, has the reputation of portraying team basketball at its finest. There is a lot of truth to this, but I could easily argue that European basketball is team-oriented out of necessity. All the best European stars in are in the NBA right now—Gasol (both of them), Parker, Nowitzki, Rubio, Fernandez, Pekovic, Batum, Ibaka, Gallinari, Calderon and Bargnani. If these players were in Europe, the style of play might look a lot different. But the fact is that they are not, and as a result, European clubs must rely on team play to be successful.
We could play the “what if…” game all day long, but that’s not a road that I want to go down. Instead, I’m just trying to shed light on the differences between the styles of play. To better understand this, let me show you a specific example. Let’s look at the top teams in the NBA and Euroleague, respectively, in the 2011 postseason and see how their stats break down from a scoring perspective:
Panathinaikos (2011 Euroleague champion) in 22 Post-Season Games:
Mike Batiste: 13.2 points on 8.9 shot attempts in 27 minutes per game
Dimitris Diamantidis: 12.5 points on 7.5 shot attempts in 30.6 minutes per game (MVP)
Drew Nicholas: 9.8 points on 8.8 shot attempts in 23 minutes per game
Romain Sato: 9.1 points on 6.9 shot attempts in 26 minutes per game
Antonis Fotsis: 8.4 points on 5.3 shot attempts in 24 minutes per game
Stratos Perperoglou: 7.1 points on 5.4 shot attempts in 18 minutes per game
Dallas Mavericks (2011 NBA Champions) in 21 Post-Season Games:
Nowitzki: 27.7 points on 19 shot attempts in 39 minutes per game (MVP)
Terry: 17.5 points on 12.8 shot attempts in 32.6 minutes per game
Marion: 11.9 points on 10.7 shot attempts in 33 minutes per game
Kidd: 9.3 points on 7.7 shot attempts in 35.4 minutes per game
Barea: 8.9 points on 8.2 shot attempts in 18.6 minutes per game
Chandler: 8.0 points on 4.7 shot attempts in 32.4 minutes per game
(Important note: NBA games are 48 minutes long, compared to only 40 minutes in the Euroleague)
The biggest thing that catches my attention is that the range from Panathinaikos’ leading scorer (Batiste) to its sixth scorer (Perperoglou), is only 6.1 points. The range from Dallas’ leading scorer (Nowitzki) to its sixth scorer (Chandler) is a whopping 19.7. Dirk is one of the best scorers/closers in the world so it makes sense he would get the most shots, right? Of course it does! They won a Championship. That’s all the proof you need.
But what about “team basketball?” A European fan would point to Panathinaikos’ team stats and argue that it’s hard to key on one player because they spread out the shots and minutes more than the NBA does. And they would be correct. But if Panathinaikos had Dirk on their roster last season, I guarantee they’d give him the ball every time in the final quarter of the game and have him shoot the ball the same way the Mavericks did.
The argument is hard to make because Panathinaikos doesn’t have Dirk or anyone else as skilled as he is on their team, so they have to play a different way. Again, they spread the ball around because they have to, not necessarily because they want to.
The bottom line in professional basketball is winning (and money). No matter what the stats look like or who gets the MVP award, this game will always be about winning teams and the players and coaches who make that happen. If that means that a winning team plays more one-on-one basketball than another team, I doubt any player or coach would argue against it. No matter what style of play you personally prefer, if it produces wins, I’m sure you wouldn’t argue either.
Casey Jacobsen is a former SLAM High School First-Team All-American and NCAA First-Team All-American. He currently plays for Brose Baskets in Bamberg, Germany.