The Three Year Plan for USA Basketball

USA Basketball will conduct a mini-camp in Las Vegas this weekend, July 20-22.  17 players are expected to attend, and the final team representing Team USA in the FIBA Americas Tournament in August will be chosen from among those 17.  

Much has been written since the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis about the problems with USA Basketball (both the organization and the state of the sport in this country).  I myself have opined on the subject on more than one occasion.  With Summer League completed we should all be prepared for a barrage of USA Basketball stories (although they could well be drowned out by Kobe stories, since Bryant will be attending camp this weekend, and therefore required to talk to the media at large for the first time since he fell off his rocker).  Bear in mind that the USA, which calls it's pro league playoff survivor the 'World Champion', the country that invented basketball and dominated major international competitions so thoroughly for so long that as recently as 1992 opponents tried harder to get an autograph than a 'W' (although neither was likely), has not won the World Championship or the Olympic Gold medal since 2000.  

Last summer Jerry Colangelo was named the head of USA Basketball and announced his plan to fix the program.  If the only acceptable outcome is an undefeated record, World Championships and Gold Medals, then of course he's already failed since the team finished third in the 2006 Worlds in Japan.  But part of the plan to 'fix' the program was to establish a core group of players from which to choose each team, thereby supposedly establishing continuity from competition to competition.  According to this long term approach, the core group established in summer 2006 would continue to practice together and form Team USA for not just the 2006 World Championships, but also this summer's tournament, and finally the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.  So the question is, how's it going?

Last summer, USA Basketball selected 24 players to be a part of its core group through the 2008 Olympics.  In theory, in addition to the established super-mega-stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the team would also feature defensive specialists and role players like Bruce Bowen and Luke Ridnour.  Furthermore, the 24 players already included compromises on the part of the organization - players like Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal, who represent the apex of both basketball and team play, were not included simply because they let it be known that they would decline invitations.  

The reality of the NBA off-season, during which players are recovering from the grueling and seemingly endless NBA season and playoffs, dictated almost every roster move.  In the end, the team looked very much like any other Team USA selection: the only players on the roster that had not previously made an all NBA team were Shane Battier (genuinely chosen as a role player, though the fact that the head coach's name starts with K undoubtedly helped his chances), Kirk Hinrich and Chris Paul (the state of point guard play in the NBA, especially when you eliminate the likes of non-US players like Steve Nash and Tony Parker, means the cupboard is less than brimming here).  The only mildly surprising cut was All Pro Gilbert Arenas, who did not take his dismissal well, vowing to drop 50 points on any pro coaches associated with his humiliation.  (As we recall, he was not quite capable of keeping his promise.)

At the conclusion of the 2007 NBA season, USA Basketball added 8 more names to the core group, giving them 32 players from which to choose.  Now I found that a little surprising in and of itself.  I mean, it seems more than a little strange to make a big deal about the 'continuity' of selecting one group to play from 2006 through 2008, and then to increase that group by 33% prior to the next competition.  Sure, new names emerge, and in the cases of Oden and Durant you may not want to wait until the 2010 Worlds before you add them.  But a plan is a plan.  If you're just going to add new players for each competition, how exactly is that different than what USA Basketball was doing prior to the Colangelo era?  I mean, if you add 8 more players next summer, then you're at 40, and you have enough players in camp to choose an entire 12 man team from players who were NOT in camp in 2006.  This is continuity?

Still, you say, at least the original 24 are going to be there, and they'll provide that continuity.  Only they're not.  When the players report on Friday, only 17 players total are expected show up, and 6 of those are from the new group of 8 (Oden is out because of his tonsils and Boozer is out, although I do not know why - not sure why you would add him on May 23 if he can't show up on July 20).  OK, so there are 11 from the original 24.  If all 11 of them were to make the team, that would represent significantly more consistency than Team USA has ever seen, right?  Well, not so fast.  Of those 11, 5 of them were NOT on the 2006 team that went to the Worlds, and 3 of them (Kobe Bryant, Chauncey Billups and Michael Redd) spent little or no time practicing with the team last summer due to injuries or other commitments.  Of the players that DID play on the 2006 team, only James, Anthony, Bosh and Howard are really locks to make this team - Battier is a likely cut in the suddenly full wing position, and Hinrich is now competing with Kidd and Billups, not to mention Deron Williams, at the point.  So it's very possible that at least 8 players on this roster will be different from the 2006 team, with 6 or 7 of them (including Kobe Bryant) wearing the red white and blue for the first time.  So much for continuity.  By way of comparison, the 2004 Athens Olympic team, the team that failed so miserably that it required a major overhaul of the process, featured 7 players currently in the core group - so there's approximately as much continuity going back to the 'bad old days' from before Colangelo's massive restructuring of the program as there is now.  

More telling is that there is only one player planning to attend this week who was 'cut' by USA Basketball last time around.  Of course Gilbert Arenas is legitimately recovering from a knee injury, and so it's reasonable that he's not going to be in Vegas.  But seriously, did anyone really expect him to show up after what happened?  Do you think Colangelo wants him to show up next summer for the Beijing try out?  Do you think anybody wants any part of cutting this guy AGAIN?  Think Agent Zero wants to risk that embarrassment?  Only JJ Redick (another Dukie) is bothering to show up this year after being cut last year.  No Bruce Bowen.  No Luke Ridnour.  No Adam Morrison.  Don't get me wrong - these guys were dubious inclusions to begin with, and none of them have any chance of making this roster.  But it's yet another example of how the 'three year plan' is little different than all the previous 'three week plans'.  NBA players aren't used to getting cut.  You cut a healthy NBA player, and that bridge is burned.  Very few of them are going to give you the chance to cut them again.  So you can talk all you want about how it's a real competition for roster spots and how you're going to take the 12 players that fit together best as a team.  But it's really just another all star team.  And, oh by the way, those guys that didn't show up are a lot of the 'glue guys', the role players that were supposedly going to distinguish this approach from prior years.  

From the 17 players expected to be in camp next week, 9 of them are mortal locks to be on the team (barring an injury or a conflict):  Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Chauncey Billups, Amare Stoudemire, Michael Redd and Jason Kidd.  These guys are in, not because they necessarily form the best possible team, but because no one associated with USA Basketball would dare dismiss any of them.  

That leaves 8 guys (Battier, Hinrich, Redick, Durant, Mike Miller, Tyson Chandler, Tayshaun Prince and Deron Williams) fighting for the last 3 spots.  

But there's a broader question of effectiveness on the court that needs to be addressed.  The team that went to Japan was clearly stronger on paper than the Greek team they lost to, or the Spanish team that won the Championship.  And of course the teams from 2002 and 2004 had the best talent as well.  So why is Team USA in a 7 year slump?  

The team that went to Japan suffered from four basic problems, two of them resulting from the personnel, and the other two being self-inflicted by the coaching staff.  The problems are poor point guard play, a lack of outside shooting, not enough size and a complete absence of a half court offense.  

Jason Kidd addresses the first issue all by himself, and Chauncey Billups helps there as well.  In fact, I've said many times that the absence of a great, pass-first, coach on the floor point guard is the single biggest factor in the decline of Team USA, and I've singled Jason Kidd out as the fix for that problem in the past.  In a situation where the team has so little time together, a true leader on the floor, who can orchestrate the offense, distribute the ball and control the game, is the single biggest success factor.  And therefore it's not surprising that the 2002 (Andre Miller, Baron Davis), 2004 (Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson) and 2006 (Chris Paul, Kirk Hinrich) teams came up short.  None of those guys are bad players.  But the half of them are shoot-first guys (Marbury, Iverson, Baron) and the others were either too young (Paul) or too limited (Miller) or both (Hinrich).  If Jason Kidd can stay healthy and lead the USA into Beijing, they will win a Gold Medal, whether they address their other issues or not.

Billups, Bryant and Redd (and Redick and Mike Miller, if they make the team) will help with the outside shooting.  However it remains puzzling that USA Basketball has had such trouble figuring this one out.  Despite the obvious impact that poor shooting had in 2002 and 2004, Team USA went to Japan with zero elite shooters on the roster once again.  The difference was, with Mike D'Antoni on the coaching staff, they seemed to THINK they were great shooters, and proceeded to launch 222 threes (out of 660 field goal attempts, over one third of their shots) in the tournament.  

Size looks as if it will be an issue again, driven by the NBA's overall love affair with wing players.  Team USA is actually lucky that Dwyane Wade will sit this one out.  It's going to get truly crazy when Kobe, 'Melo, LeBron and DWade are all on the same team.  In Las Vegas this summer, without Wade, Coach K will give 'starters' minutes to Kobe, 'Melo and LeBron, meaning that Anthony, averaging fewer than 6 rebounds and less than one half a blocked shot in his NBA career, will be playing the 4.  Meanwhile, Howard, Bosh and Stoudemire will split the minutes at the 5 and pick up some back up minutes at the 4.  If Tyson Chandler makes the team (they might do it in the name of depth at the center position), he'll never play.  Brad Miller and Chris Bosh were the 11th and 12th men in 2006 - I expect Coach K will bury his bigs again.

As for a half court offense, this is another area where having Kidd will help.  Having a great point guard makes everything look more organized, and conversely having the wrong point guard makes the most structured offense look like a mess.  Of course the offense in 2006 consisted of trying to run, and then giving the ball to Wade or Anthony to go one-on-one if the transition opportunity wasn't there.  This summer, with Kobe Bryant in the mix, the offense could essentially be exactly the same, but improve significantly, simply because Kobe Bryant one-on-one is better than Carmelo Anthony one-on-one.

To say the least, I am unimpressed with USA Basketball's 3 year plan.  They could prove me wrong of course - they could cut a superstar like Carmelo, or relegate some of the wings to back up minutes and play a real power forward.  But don't count on it.  They have already bastardized the 'core group' concept, and have long since abandoned the idea of true role players.  What was presented as a new approach appears at this point to be business-as-usual - let's pick an all star team (made almost exclusively of hyper-athletic wings), roll the balls out onto the court and watch them play.  The only thing the organizers have done relatively better or worse over the last 10 years is recruit Jason Kidd.  It's not a coincidence that the last Team USA that won a championship had Jason Kidd as their point guard (Sydney 2000).  So good job on getting Kidd to reconsider.  On the rest, I think we need a new plan.  

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