Saturday, September 24, 2011

Why No Bo? The Story of Front Office Cognitive Dissonance

Of all the players to emerge in this year's Eurobasket tournament, few had a greater impact on the court than the naturalized Macedonian player formerly known as Bo McCalebb. By almost all accounts, one could say that Bo did not receive the same attention as many of the NBA media darlings coming into this tournament. Yet, as is customarily the case, when it actually became time to play the game, all the hype and name recognition were thrown by the wayside, as they should be. And, when this happened, it was the story of Borche McCalebbovski's (as he is now known) heroics that actually stole the show at arenas across Lithuania.

The diminutive 6'0 lead guard managed to will his adopted Macedonian squad to a fourth place finish in the Eurobasket tournament, upsetting the likes of Greece and basketball powerhouse/host Lithuania in the process. This unlikely feat brought the tiny country of two million people into the streets, parading and openly displaying an unprecedented sense of national pride- a unity that is sorely needed in this bitterly divided country.

In order to truly understand how important these victories were for this multi-ethnic state, one must contextualize them by examining FYE Macedonia's war-torn past. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the region now referred to as Macedonia was consolidated as a member of Yugoslavia. When nations began to break away from the Yugoslavian state in the early 90's, ethnic Macedonians fought to lay claim to their own state. On September 8, 1991, Macedonia was born.

While tensions were seemingly at bay during the early period in Macedonian history, the Kosovo War of 1999 dramatically changed this. As a result of that conflict, approximately 360,000 Albanian refugees flooded into Macedonia. Eventually, tensions escalated when insurgents attempted to obtain independence for Albanian-populated areas within this country. A civil war was fought, and it ended with a ceasefire agreement backed by NATO.

More recently, while strides have been made and Albanians have been successfully integrated into government, the "Macedonian Question"- as it has been called- still remains today, approximately 10 years after the country's ceasefire. Corruption abounded in Macedonia's previous administration, as the government forced the bankruptcy of an opposition-led television station known as A1. During the consequent legal proceedings, it was claimed by many that the judiciary lacked independence. Most viewed this as a way for the Macedonian government to silence Albanian opposition. Further, in his previous term in office, Macedonia's Prime Minister Gruevski strove to rekindle nationalistic sentiments of Macedonia's once glorious past, a past which Albanians had no part in. The Albanians, on the other hand, advocated a more decentralized government focused on promoting a bilingual agenda. With both sides pushing conflicting ideologies, something was needed to unify this country.

Enter Bo McCalebb and the Macedonian National Team. McCalebb led a spirited charge to the Eurobasket Semifinals, where their championship hopes were thwarted by eventual champion Spain.

While other players contributed significantly to this fourth place finish, McCalebb was clearly the driving force behind Macedonia's surprising success. In order to upset Lithuania, McCalebb not only provided the necessary fourth quarter scoring, but he also assisted the final game-winning three point shot to Vlado Ilievski and was responsible for a key deflection late in the game. Against Spain and their battle-tested NBA frontline, Bo got to the rim virtually at will and kept Macedonia close. And, in his final contest with Russia, Bo deflected the ball countless times, creating four extra possessions for his team. Further, Bo was dynamic slashing to the basket, utilizing excellent upper body strength to finish through contact and his basketball IQ to switch hands in mid air in order to avoid shot blockers.

Even though many had never heard of McCalebb coming into this tournament, his play in Lithuania was clearly not an aberration. After breaking his foot this previous season and returning in March, Bo played inspired basketball to lead his Siena club to the Euroleague Final Four, where they won the third place consolation game. This was Bo's second trip to the Final Four since he graduated college back in 2008; the first time he made it there, he played for Partizan.

These performances shed light on what Bo brings to the table as a professional basketball player. While he sometimes plays off the ball, Bo generally functions as a point guard, initiating for his teammates at every opportunity. He boasts a much improved handle and regularly splits defenders in order to get to the basket. Additionally, Bo possesses a superb first step and an understanding of when to employ the change-of-pace dribble, making him arguably the most complete slasher outside the NBA. And while NBA teams once believed that Bo was a liability with the ball in his hands, he proved that this certainly is not the case. He finished with the top Turnover Rate in the entire tournament amongst point guards, beating out Tony Parker and many others. Bo's versatility as a slasher opens up the floor for his teammates. While he does collect many hockey assists by driving in and hitting cutters, he also plays within his team's offensive scheme and willingly moves the ball around the perimeter. As such, his assist statistics in this tournament were fairly understated because of how often Macedonia moved the ball on the perimeter once Bo made the initial kick out pass. In spite of all this, he still managed to post an Assist Rate of 28.6%- the fourteenth highest percentage amongst all participants.

Aside from his obvious strength as a slasher, Bo has made some inroads as an outside jump shooter as well. He posted a 58.5% True Shooting Percentage and demonstrated that he can be deadly from the midrange if given enough space. Even though this is not his best asset on the offensive end, Bo shot a solid 43.8% from beyond the arc in Euroleague action with his Siena club. Also, Bo is fairly effective squaring his body to the basket on off balance, turnaround jumpers. Against Spain, for instance, he demonstrated a very quick release when hitting fadeaway jumpers over the length of Spain's big men.

On the defensive end, Bo has extremely quick hands and regularly deflects the basketball, giving offensive players headaches and creating extra possessions for his team. Additionally, Bo possesses exceptional lateral quickness and this allows him to stay in front of virtually anyone. With that said, he has a tendency to cheat on screens and this sometimes causes him to lose his man. But, he generally puts a lot of effort into his defensive assignments. Moreover, while he was not an impressive rebounder from a statistical standpoint in these Eurobasket games, Bo is capable on the glass and occasionally snatched rebounds away from much bigger opponents. Also, in his first season in the Italian League, he finished with an 11.9% Total Rebounding Percentage.

Overall, Bo McCalebb is an exceptionally quick and athletic point guard who has proven that he can finish over the length of quality NBA big men. This makes him an obvious candidate to transition to the NBA when his contract expires in a couple of years.

While he has recently proven that he can compete against NBA-level talent, this begs a rather tantalizing question: why exactly was Bo McCalebb passed up in his native country in the first place? To answer this, one must delve into the NBA front offices' practice of cognitive dissonance, whereby executives develop consensuses on players, and then go on to defend these positions despite all evidence to the contrary. One of the more common criticisms that players cannot seem to shake is the concern over a defined NBA position. For Bo, the general consensus amongst NBA player personnel was that he was too small to play shooting guard and that he did not have a skilled enough handle to make the cut as an NBA point guard. Does this criticism seem fair to anyone who watched this year's Eurobasket? While it may have been an accurate assessment when Bo was first entering the league, he has improved considerably since then. Yet, NBA teams generally fail to recognize this and thus end up missing out on talented late bloomers like Bo.

And, just as Bo was looking for another opportunity to prove these doubters wrong, so too was Macedonia in need of a national hero.

It only seems right- then- that approximately ten years after Americans (and European forces with NATO) quelled tensions and brokered a peace agreement between competing factions in Macedonia, that an American would once again unite this nation. While his battle was fought on the court and not on the battlefield, it is clear that Bo's impact extended far beyond the bounds of a simple basketball contest. I mean, how many players in this day and age can rightfully stake the claim that they brought together an entire nation through their play on the basketball court?

With all that said, what else should we have expected from Bo? Over the course of his short career, he has been in the business of defying expectations. If only an NBA front office could be moved by someone who plays with such a chip on his shoulder. But, alas, Bo is only 6'0 tall.

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