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A Quick Rant on Team USA

My bags are packed, but the plane doesn't leave for another four hours.  The ClipperWife is grabbing a nap, and I figure I have 45 minutes or so to squeeze out one more post.

Long time readers of the blog (and the one or two of you who were there for the old blog) know that Team USA is a bit of a pet subject of mine.  If I had the time, I'd link to lots of things I've said before, but I'm in a pretty big rush.  You can just do the search.  Or I guess this one and this one should summarize what I was thinking in 2007 and 2006.

So, this rant isn't going to be particularly well-researched - more off the top of my head.  But the Olympics start next week, and I'm going to miss most of the pool play games while I'm in Costa Rica; so I thought I should get on the record before it's all over.

I was reading in the August 4 issue of Newsweek the other day about the basketball team (sorry, I couldn't find an online link).  It's always interesting reading about sports in a non-sports focused publication.  They're writing for a different audience, and they have to take a different approach.  I won't say they have to dumb it down, but they can't skip steps like a sports publication would.

At any rate, there was one very interesting thing (at least to me) in that article. 

Since [2002], despite a pledge to restore American supremacy at its own game, Team USA has added only a pair of bronze medals - at the 2004 Olympics and at the 2006 worlds.  So America's basketball brain trust regrouped and came up with a new plan:(1) apply pressure to elite NBA superstars to commit; (2) require all of them to play in early qualifying rounds so that a cohesive team shows up in Beijing, rather than a collection of All-Stars, and (3) include role players, notable defenders and long range shooters, to provide more balance.

Interesting.  And pretty much completely incorrect. 

The re-grouping (making Colangelo the head of USA Basketball, appointing the coaching staff of Coach K, D'Antoni and McMillan, etc.) came BEFORE 2006, not after.  And getting superstars to commit was NEVER really part of the stated plan - they wanted commitments, but not necessarily from the elite players.  In fact, in the above 'plan', number (1) would seem to be incompatible with numbers (2) and (3) since elite NBA superstars would in fact make up a collection of all stars and would presumably not include role players.

Of the three points above, only number (3) was actually a stated goal of USA Basketball, and of course that's the one that has been almost completely ignored (of the players in China right now, only Tayshaun Prince could be referred to as a 'role player' by any reasonable person).  But I don't think this is just sloppy reportage by a non-basketball reporter.  I think it's revisionist history, and I suspect we'll be in for a lot of it.  Win the Gold medal, and whatever you did must have worked.

What's interesting about Colangelo and company's attempts to 'fix' USA Basketball is that they have done almost NONE of the things they said they would do.  But of course, if they win the Gold Medal, they'll take all of the credit for fixing it nonetheless.  At the end of the day, simply getting Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd onto the court is what appears to be making a difference for this team.  And presumably any of Colangelo's predecessors would have tried to do that as well.

In fact, other than putting together a pretty good group of All Stars, which after all has been the approach since 1992 and was supposedly the approach that this new brain trust was going to avoid, one has to really worry about how this team is constructed.  Wasn't one of the big problems with the 2002 team in Indianapolis that it was made up of so many similar players?  Just a bunch of athletic wings?  Well, guess what?  Fully half of the 12 man roster in Beijing falls into that category. 

I said it last summer, and I still think it's true.  This team is built to beat opponents by 40 - or to lose by 4.  A team with more size and a low post presence would not win by as wide a margin, and would be less likely to lose at all.  Remember that when a Gold Medal is all that counts, Pool Play is meaningless.  When the single elimination rounds start with the quarter finals, that's when it gets interesting.  One loss and you're out.  What happens when this version of Team USA runs into an opponent that handles their pressure?  Take away the easy baskets that come from that pressure defense, and the team is suddenly going to take a lot of jump shots.  So three things have to happen for Team USA to lose.  The opponent has to handle the pressure.  The opponent has to make shots.  Team USA has to miss shots.  None of those seem extremely unlikely.  Sure, Team USA will probably win the Gold Medal, because they have the most talent.  But I don't think this team has been challenged since it's been together.  What happens when they get challenged?

Carmelo Anthony (a mediocre rebounder for a SMALL forward in his NBA career) is the team's power forward.  Dwight Howard is the only legitimate center.  What if Howard gets hurt?  What if he gets into foul trouble at the hands of the admittedly capricious international refs?  Actually, Team USA is lucky that Germany and China do not appear to be major medal threats, because both Kaman and Yao would have a field day against Bosh or Boozer.  But Greece has size AND a complete team. 

It's pretty hard to figure how anybody watched the Greece game in 2006 and said, "You know what our problem was?  Too much size."  Time and again the Greek pick-and-roll drew the only US player with any size (be it Brand or Howard, but they were never on the court at the same time) away from the basket, while a Greek big rolled down the lane being defended by a point guard, with the likes of Carmelo as the only help defender.  So, yes, by all means, go smaller. 

The Newsweek article goes on to point out something interesting about the goal of including role players on the team.  Eight of the twelve players on the squad led their NBA team in scoring.  Digging a little deeper, you'll notice that 3 of the other 4 are point guards - not a position that typically leads a team in scoring, but it's hard to argue that Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Deron Williams are any thing other than top tier NBA stars.  That leaves the aforementioned Prince as the only 'role player' on the team.  Let's hope there aren't too many roles.

Of course, nothing necessarily precludes players who are superstars in their NBA lives from becoming role players on this team.  And of course USA Basketball would tell you that's exactly what's happening.  But it's easy to play a role when you're ahead by 40.  What happens when this team faces some adversity?  Who will take the last shot, when the last shot actually matters?  Accepting a role in a blow out is one thing - accepting a role in a close game is quite another.  Who will be on the floor when they receive the inevitable challenge?  And how will the seven players NOT on the floor react to their new 'role' of benchwarmer?

I could go on about this for hours and hours, but I have a plane to catch.  Like I said, Team USA will probably win on talent alone.  But don't believe Jerry Colangelo when he tells you he planned it all.  The plan wasn't executed, but at least they brought some pretty good players to Beijing.