Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Team USA - 2006

Does anyone else feel like the lovefest in Las Vegas last week might be a little premature? After a 6th place finish in the 2002 Worlds and a Bronze in Athens, USA Basketball was supposed to make significant changes to 'fix' the problem. And reading ESPN.com or si.com (or pretty much anything else that's being written), all of those writers certainly seem to think that Jerry Colangelo has pulled all of the right strings. To which I say, huh?

Let's go back and re-visit the 2004 Athens Olympics, shall we? Here's something that I wrote about the team (and more importantly the selection process) in August of 2004, before the Olympics. That is to say, before they lost to Puerto Rico and Argentina and came home with the dreaded Bronze medal.

Some of the 'changes' that were supposedly made this time around were that they were going to have a 'real' tryout, with players who really wanted to be there, and they were going to build a real team, not just a collection of superstars.

But here we are, with a roster of 15 players who are making the trip to Asia, and so far the cuts have been Adam Morrison (a rookie who has never played an NBA game) and Luke Ridnour (one of those supposed 'team' guys, whose selection in the first place was a head-scratcher.) And one of those 15 is Amare Stoudemire, who should not be playing signficant minutes in the Worlds from a health standpoint.

So what happened to the 'real' tryout? Conflicts and injuries happened, and you might say that there's nothing USA Basketball can do about that, but wasn't this supposed to be part of the fix, having truly dedicated players?

So Pierce, Kobe, Redd, Billups, Odom and Marion won't play in the Worlds, but are still possibilities for the 2008 Olympics. Great. Of course, five or six other guys (at least) are gonna have conflicts in the summer of '08.

So, why does everyone think this team is so much better? Let's look at the 15 going to Asia this week, versus the 12 who went to Athens.

Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas, Shane Battier, Chris Bosh, Bruce Bown, Elton Brand, Kirk Hinrich, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Antawn Jamison, Joe Johnson, Brad Miller, Chris Paul, Amare Stoudemire, Dwyane Wade.

2004
Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Boozer, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Richard Jefferson, Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion, Lamar Odom, Emeka Okafor, Amare Stoudemire, Dwyane Wade.

So, first of all, Anthony, James, Stoudemire and Wade were on the 2004 team, and Marion and Odom would probably be on the 2006 team if they were available. So they already know how to lose in an international competition. By the way, both Elton Brand and Brad Miller have lost World Championships as well.

Obviously, the single biggest factor in a hoped for improvement may simply be these four repeats. None of the four really cracked coach Larry Brown's rotation in 2004, but it would seem that USA Basketball is expecting 2 more years of basketball maturity to make all the difference for Melo, Bron, Amare and DWade. OK... if that's your plan, great. But if that's the plan, then maybe we need to re-assess the 'abject failure' of Athens. If we're trying to build a long term solution to compete with European and South American teams that play together for years, then suffering through Athens with the youngsters could be considered part of the solution, right?

OK, so those 4 will be better than they were, right? What about the other problems we had in Athens?

No true point guard - This is a problem with USA Basketball, not just with this team. Ever since Jason Kidd hung up his international sneakers, there is no one to play the point. And Colangelo did a good job of inviting pure points to his camp (Chris Paul, Luke Ridnour and belatedly Kirk Hinrich). But Gilbert Arenas? Isn't he Stephon Marbury redux? Gilbert Arenas can NOT be the point in an international competition. He can play the two, but not the one.

Chris Paul seems to be the long term solution, and I have a lot of confidence that he'll be ready in Beijing. But this guy should be starting his senior year of college in September. Remember that the reason we created the first Dream Team was because the other teams were beginning to destroy our college kids. I am very concerned about sending a boy to play against men, especially when the point guard is by FAR the most important position in these tournaments.

No shooting - I guess Arenas, Hinrich, Jamison, Johnson and Miller are supposed to address this problem. But does this team really have that much more shooting, on paper, than the Athens team? I personally believe that Larry Brown was the biggest problem with our shooting in Athens (everyone was tight because they knew Brown would yell and them and sit them down if they missed a jumper), but I'm not thrilled with the solution. I sure would like to have Michael Redd or Ray Allen.

No center - Brad Miller? OK, like point guard this is another inherent problem, as the talent pool just isn't there. But we're going to be playing power forwards (Brand, Howard) at center, especially if we want any shot blocking. At least there's more quality size, with Brand, Howard, Amare and Bosh available, where Boozer and Lamar had to play 4 (next to Duncan's 5) in Athens.

Too young - well, with Howard, Bosh, Hinrich, Johnson and Paul joining the team, if anything, it's younger than the team we took to Athens. Obviously, Larry Brown didn't trust the young players enough to use them. Will coach K? He'll pretty much have to.

Too much duplication - The 2004 team was pretty much all wings. This team has a little more balance. Even with the injury to Marion, between LeBron, Carmelo and Battier there should be plenty of athleticism at the 3.

Not a team - This remains the biggest problem. Did they give the players significantly more time together than in years past? Not really. A great point guard can hide these problems, by being a coach on the floor. This is why point guard is the most important position in these competitions, and it remains a weakness for Team USA. Larry Brown was the WORST POSSIBLE coach for Team USA (it takes a minimum of half an NBA season for players to 'buy into' what he is doing - it was a recipe for disaster to hand him the Olympic team.) Can Coach K build these guys into a team? We'll see.


International basketball competitions have changed for good (both irreversibly and for the better.) It won't be realistic to win every major competition, despite having more and deeper talent than the rest of the world. One bad game in the single elimination round and no Gold Medal for you.

Actually, I believe there is one way we could guarantee a win in every major international competition - send an NBA team (obviously one that is dominated by US born players.) Tell me the Clippers couldn't win the World Championships this year?

But that's never going to happen, so we're going to lose from time to time. In fact, in the last 4 major competitions (98 Worlds, 2000 Olympics, 2002 Worlds, 2004 Olympics) we have won 1 Gold and 2 Bronzes, and it's been a complete DISASTER, right? So part of this is adjusting our expectations. Those teams from Serbia, Lithuania and Argentina that won those other Golds (plus the teams from Spain and France, and the list keeps growing) are really good. Not as deep as the US team, but really good.

It is interesting to note that the 1998 team, made up of non-NBA players (because of the lockout) won a Bronze medal. In other words, in an era ofhyper-competitive world basketball, that team did as well as the Athens Olympic team and BETTER than the 2002 Worlds team, which were both made up of NBA players. Still don't think it's about playing team basketball?

You know, we lost 3 games in Athens, and the two best players on that team either weren't invited back (Iverson) or declined to play this time (Duncan). Why is everyone so sure that the problems are fixed?

Coach K may be the real solution here. If the player selection process has at least given him players that are willing to listen (and I have my doubts about Arenas and Jameson, at least), he can put together a winning game plan for them. And if the inclusion of D'Antoni on the coaching staff indicates a willingness to get out and RUN (utilizing athleticism and depth while diminishing the impact of having less time to practice together), then we may be on the right track.

We'll see how much has changed when the final 3 cuts are made. If you see an all-NBA player's name (like Carmelo Anthony, who is a one dimensional scorer on a team that has plenty of scoring), then things have changed. If Hinrich or Bowen or Battier lead the cuts (i.e. safe cuts that won't upset superstar egos) then we're right back where we started.