More on Team USA

There were a couple of interesting comments on yesterday's post about Team USA.  Rather than bury my brilliant responses on the comments of that post, I thought I'd wring another entry out of it.  My contract with SBNation says I have to post 9 times per week, and that's not as easy in the off-season!

Citizen ZhivClip wants to know my thinking on EB's bypassing of Team USA duty this year.  I was very tempted to include that motif in the original post, given that this is ClipsNation and all.  However, the gist of the post being a critique of USA Basketball's plan for 'fixing' the process, EB's individual decision seemed tangential.

It is interesting to note that Brand is skipping this summer's tournament ostensibly because he is rehabbing some injury.  But of course in reality he's no more or less injured than he ever is.  As Zhiv pointed out, the lose-lose of being under- and ill-utilized in Japan must certainly have contributed to his reticence to give up another summer.  EB's ALWAYS been one of the guys that shows up when USA Basketball calls.  But watching Carmelo Anthony shoot threes while getting 4 plays called for him in 9 games may have rendered him somewhat less patriotic.  (Anthony attempted 50 threes; Brand attempted 54 shots.  That's just not right.)

As for the impact EB's Team USA duty had on the Clippers' 06-07 season, I've never really bought into that.  Was EB as dominant in 06-07 as he was in 05-06?  No.  Nonetheless it remains the second best season of his consistently outstanding career, and he shot a career-best 53%.  He received additional defensive attention, passed out of double teams, and consequently took fewer shots overall - I think you have to look at the drop off in almost every other player in order to find most of the missing 7 wins.

That's not to say that it didn't have an impact.  In fact, last summer for EB was the 'Perfect Storm' of off-season distractions.  After playing the first 12 playoff games of his NBA career, he went with Team USA to China and Japan, got married, opened a film in Toronto, and then the Clippers held camp in Russia (clearly the biggest villain in this melodrama of extracurricular travel).  His Team USA duty was one of many factors that led to some tired legs, and a slow start.  On the whole, I'm actually shocked at how well he responded to it all.  As it happens, with the Tournament of the Americas in Las Vegas, and training camp back in good ol' Santa Barbara, EB could probably play for Team USA this summer and be none the worse for wear.

Of course every decision of every player is constantly examined and analyzed, especially in a world where people are even mildly interested in what a guy who calls himself ClipperSteve thinks.  But it's pretty disingenuous to criticize Chris Kaman for not playing enough basketball in the off season while lamenting the fact that Elton Brand played too much.  What is the exactly correct amount of basketball to play?  These guys are young - unless they get injured playing in international competitions, then representing your country is an honor and an opportunity.  LeBron James led his team to the Finals last year and Carmelo Anthony was second in the league in scoring, and they both played a lot more minutes in Japan than EB.  I just don't buy a Team USA curse.

Citizen 69Knicks raised the question of significantly different approaches to USA Basketball.  I have seen it suggested that we field a true National Team (though I have not suggested it myself): a team that is put together and left together for a full season.  With the new rules governing the draft, there's even a ready-made pool of 18 year old talent to draw from - players who are not really interested in college ball, but are just biding their time until they are eligible for the NBA draft.  

It's an interesting thought - how would a team featuring Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Mike Conley, Javaris Crittendon, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes (among other first round picks) do in Las Vegas in August?  But I see several potential problems with this plan.  For one, it's far from clear that these guys would rather play for their country for one year than play for a school for one year, even if they really and truly are no the one year plan.  Oden and Conley game within a game of a NCAA title, and played in front of 75,000 people in the Final Four.  Maybe the Olympics could compete with that, but not the Tournament of the Americas.  The other problem is that the team becomes a better trained but ultimately YOUNGER version of the pre-1992 US teams.  The 1988 team in Seoul with Dan Majerle, Danny Manning and David Robinson was simply outplayed by the Soviet Union - men beating up on boys.  When Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner and Kenny Anderson lost to Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc in the World Championships in 1990, it was simply clear that the college kids couldn't compete.  And bear in mind that most of those players were college seniors - they were 22, not 18 or 19.  When USA Basketball began sending pros to these competitions in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics, it was clearly the correct decision.  

If we tried to put together a standing national team from older players, we'd have a different problem.  Namely, what happens if the NBA calls?  There's just no way you could get a commitment from American basketball players, even if you paid them the NBA minimum.  If the door opens for them to get into the Assoc, they're through it before it closes.  

The simple fact of the matter is that wins are no longer guaranteed in international basketbal.  The competition has gotten too good.  The Argentine team is good.  The Spanish team is good.  When you get to the knock out round of these top tournaments, when one bad game ends your shot at the Gold Medal, it's simply unrealistic to expect to wind up on the top step of the podium every time, even with the best talent.

Still, to continually have the same problems, and to continually make the same excuses, is more than a little galling.  By the way, what happens to all these 'the NBA season is so long' excuses if Argentina beats the US in Beijing?  Ginobili, Scola, Oberto, Nocioni, Herrmann and Delfino are all playing NBA basketball now.  Will that make them too tired to win the Gold?

Ironically, the depth of the talent pool in the US undoubtedly contributes to the lack of consistency.  The core of Argentina's team has indeed been together since they were playing in U19 tournaments, but that's partly because those are the 10 or so really top players.  Furthermore, there's no question that Manu is THE MAN.  But who's going to be the Man for Team USA this summer?  Is it Kobe?  Or LeBron?  Or Melo?  And when Tim Duncan declines to play for the team, it is on the assumption that there are plenty of great players waiting to step in, so any guilt he may feel is assuaged.  If Manu Ginobili decides to take a major competition off, he knows he's dooming his team to failure.

But as it happens, I do have a couple of different suggestions for how the team could be constituted for international success.

The simplest, most obvious plan is to send an existing NBA team.  Obviously it would need to be a team that is not particularly dependent on foreign players - so for instance the Mavericks and the Suns would not be options.  But tell me the Pistons would not have won the World Championships, even without Carlos Delfino.  Or for that matter the Clippers.  They would have had to muddle through without Yaroslav Korolev, but that's no different than the regular season.  If you send an NBA team, they have plays, they know their roles, and they know how to play together.  It eliminates almost all of the issues USA Basketball has been facing.

The other plan would be to mitigate the time disadvantages by selecting a team exclusively from players whose teams did not make the playoffs.  While the NBA Finalists are playing an extra two months and 25 games, you could choose a national team from half the NBA talent pool, give them a real training camp, and ask them to play 9 or 10 games.  Sure, the best players lead their teams into the playoffs - but here is a partial list of American players who were sitting at home when the playoffs started last April:  Jermaine O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Elton Brand, Chris Paul, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Eddy Curry, Zach Randolph, Mike Bibby and Michael Redd.  I think I could build a decent team out of that group.

Of course, neither of these plans is tenable.  Sending an existing NBA team, while seemingly simple on the surface, has many issues.  For one thing, free agency and other off-season complications would make it difficult for any franchise to field a full team.  Furthermore, sending a single team concentrates all the fatigue and injury risk on that team - think Mark Cuban dislikes seeing his investment play for Germany?  Wait until some owner sends his whole team.  The only way it would work would be if it were construed as an honor - like qualifying for the Champions League in European soccer - which is not likely to happen any time soon.  And of course it would help mitigate the issues if there was something in it for the owner - like a portion of the gate.  

Forming the team from the non-playoff talent pool gives those players more time together.  But of course the players complain about spending four weeks on national team duty as it is.  None of them is likely to willingly give up eight or ten weeks of their summer for their country.  

Here's an idea that just might work.  Let players form their own teams, and then play a mini-tournament to see who gets to represent Team USA in the international event.  Kobe would at least be honest enough to surround himself with role players - there wouldn't be a question on Kobe's team that it was Kobe's team.

The bottom line is that it's just not important enough to our players, and we're going to continue to field last second all star teams unless and until there is a sea-change in the attitude towards these events.  That's fine.  Team USA will win more of the events than any other country over time, but they certainly won't win all of them.  The powers selecting the team will continue to kowtow to the super-mega-stars in the league, meaning that we'll continue to send teams loaded with hyper-athletic scoring wings, with no one to do the dirty work.  If we happen to get a great true point guard to play, we'll probably win.  If not, we'll probably lose.  

Just like it is now.

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