If the goal is to win a Gold Medal in Turkey next month, then obviously having every member of the 2008 Olympic team decide to take this summer off is not a good start. Having a spate of big men get injured in training camp is not the best sign either. Still, I've been hopeful that this very young version of Team USA would end up being OK. For all the missing stars, they still have more talent, top to bottom, than any other team in the tournament (yes, that includes Spain), and they should still be considered the favorites, if not the odd's on favorites.
After watching them play against each other, I'm not so sure.
It's one scrimmage, and we certainly shouldn't read too much into one scrimmage. Among the myriad reasons that this is probably not the best way to judge the team:
- They were playing in a theater. I can't imagine that the backgrounds are particularly good for shooting, and the whole thing had to feel a little off.
- They were playing themselves. This is good and bad. They won't face any teams quite that quick and athletic in Turkey. On the other hand, they'll see some teams that are a LOT bigger.
- It's still early in the process, relatively speaking. The preparation time they have is clearly too short, but they've got two more weeks together before the competition starts, and they've been practicing together in New York for all of three days.
This reminds me of a problem I had with the 2006-2008 versions of Team USA under Coach K. Obviously one would hope that they'd shoot better than 7 for 36. But why are they taking so many threes in the first place? This strange half game (that went into sudden death overtime, or all things) lasted about 29 minutes according to the box score. In those 29 minutes, Blue took 19 threes and White took 17. For a full 48 minute game, that works out to 31 three point attempts for Blue, 28 for White. As a point of reference, Orlando led the NBA in three point attempts last season with just over 27 per game. So for two teams that on paper appear suspiciously lacking in three point shooters, that's a LOT of three point attempts. Team White's numbers look even worse when you consider that their best shooter, Eric Gordon, played only 9:36 and attempted only one three.
In addition to taking too many three point shots, the teams also turned the ball over way too much. This is understandable, at least to some extent. These guys have barely played together and they're still getting used to each other. It's also not surprising that the defenses would be ahead of the offenses at this point in the process. But still. 15 turnovers for Blue and 12 for White works out to 25 and 20 in a 48 minute game. I've mentioned many times over the years the importance of point guard play in the World Championships. With the possible exception of Derrick Rose, I'm not sure I saw the steadying influence the team needs last night.
The announcers repeated the oft-heard statement that Gordon and Curry may be competing for the final guard spot. As I've said before, if it's a choice between those two, then Gordon is staying home, because the team needs Curry. EJ is a fine shooter - but he's no Steph Curry. But after watching the scrimmage, I'm more convinced than ever that this is a false choice. Why would you choose to keep four point guards (five if you count Curry, who has a point's build and played point last season), a couple of whom are terrible shooters? In particular, watching the scrimmage, Russell Westbrook scares me on this team. He is exactly the kind of guard you DON'T want at the World Championships. Westbrook is a breathtaking athlete and a dynamic talent, but he's not a particularly good point guard, he's a terrible shooter, and he's prone to stupid mistakes. In the scrimmage he had four turnovers against one assist, and several of the turnovers were of the 'What was he thinking?' variety.
Over the course of an 82 game season, the good of Westbrook is going to far outweigh the bad. But in a tournament that boils down to a single elimination bracket of 16 pretty good teams, can you afford to have a point guard who's about as likely to throw the ball into the stands as he is to throw down a monster jam, who is pretty likely to have at least one truly terrible game during a four game knockout stage? Both Westbrook and Rondo worry me in this regard, and neither one can make a jump shot, so I am more convinced than ever that there's no reason to have them both on the team. Of the two, Westbrook's unpredictability seems to be more of a concern, so for me he'd be the odd man out. But as you may or may not be aware, I don't actually have any say in the matter.
I was pleased to hear Fran Frischella make a point that I've touched on; Gordon's bulk in the backcourt is going to be significant in Turkey. FIBA rules, unlike the NBA, allow handchecking in the backcourt. Gordon outweighs waifs like Curry, Westbrook and Rondo by 30 plus pounds. Perimeter defenders could be pushing most of Team USA's guards all over the place, but Gordon has the size to fight through those aggressive tactics.
The irony of this type of scrimmage is that from the outside, it seems that you have to do something to get yourself noticed in order to improve your chances to make the team. Let's hope that's not really the case - that the coaching staff is paying attention to practice as well, and is noticing the little things in games also. As we know from watching him with the Clippers for a couple of seasons, Eric Gordon can seem a little complacent at times and is willing to defer to his teammates. Guess what? Team USA needs guys like that. Someone has to be the fourth option. In the scrimmage last night, he played good defense, he distributed the ball, and he took the ball to the hole the one chance he got. I thought he played very well, and looked like the quintessential role player out there.
The most troubling aspect of this version of Team USA is definitely the lack of quality size. In this case, the format of the scrimmage served to mask the problem, since they were playing against themselves, but Durant and Granger don't really strike me as fours. I'm not sure what to read into minutes distribution, but JaVale McGee and Kevin Love both came off of White's bench, and played on 9:40 and 7:33 respectively. McGee, during his time on the floor, demonstrated very nicely what I said a couple of days ago - he's not ready. He looked completely lost on his first two touches. Love on the other hand grabbed 5 rebounds in his 7 minutes. So why did he play only 7 minutes? The consensus seems to be that Love will make the team, which is a good thing. Because what is going to happen when Team USA comes up against the size of Brazil (Nene, Varejao, Splitter), Spain (Marc Gasol, Vazquez) or Greece (Bourousis, Tsartsaris, Schortsanitis)? Is Kevin Durant really going to defend Tiago Splitter on the low block? If Chandler, Odom and Love end up being the three bigs the team is counting on in Turkey, then it seems to me that two of them are going to have to play together at SOME point. That didn't happen at all last night.
The minutes distribution last night was interesting, though it's tough to know how significant it is. White, playing with eight, used their five starters between 18 and 27 minutes each, and their three subs fewer than 10 minutes each. Blue, playing with seven, played six of them between 17 and 29 minutes, while Jeff Green played a game low 7:25. Since Green was the only big off the Blue bench, it would seem that there should have been plenty of minutes available for him; instead, he was Chandler's backup at the five. I think we can safely assume that he's not going to make the final squad. Love and McGee split time backing up bigs for White, and one might assume that one of them will make the team while the other will be cut - let's hope they get it right and keep Love. That leaves Gordon as the only guard that played fewer than 10 minutes (while the next fewest was Curry at 17). As wrong-headed as it seems to me, if you look simply at the minutes from last night, Gordon would appear likely to be the final backcourt cut.