Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Can We Fix It? Yes, We Can!

Maybe instead of Jerry Colangelo, Team USA needs Bob The Builder.

The bottom line for Colangelo and Krzyzewski and the players is that they said it was a three year plan - that a big part of addressing the problem is keeping a team together across multiple competitions. So, they're admitting up front that the problem won't be solved in 2006, which of course it wasn't.

But are they on the right track?

The two biggest problems with the 2004 Athens team were once again on display in Japan: not enough shooters, and poor play at the point. It's hard to figure how they failed to solve the shooting problem - aside from Michael Redd begging off, they just didn't really INVITE enough pure shooters into camp. As for point guard, they are at least moving in the right direction. In Athens, they played the WRONG point guards (Marbury and Iverson), shoot first guys on an all star team that still plays with just one basketball. Chris Paul and Kirk Hinrich are the right 'type' of point guard, but they're just young. They looked overwhelmed when the competition got tight (especially Paul). But they should be a lot better in Beijing.

But this team seemed to introduce a new problem. Suddenly Team USA is small. The 12 man roster included a grand total of 4 guys who play the 4 or the 5 for their NBA squad (Brand, Howard, Bosh and Miller). Miller was the 12th man. Bosh was the 10th or 11th. Only occasionally did they play two of them together during the tournament. Instead, the vast majority of the time, they played either Brand or Howard at the 5 (they both play 4 in the assoc.), and played Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James at the 4. And for several stretches (including most of the 4th quarter in the loss to Greece), they had NONE of their bigs in the game. (These stretches felt a little 'Emperor's New Clothes-y" to me. When Dallas 'went' small in the NBA playoffs, the announcers were all over it. But here was Team USA playing Carmelo Anthony at 5, LeBron James at 4 and Dwyane Wade at 3, and no one said a word. It was eerie.)

You can make an argument that Team USA's worst game was the loss to Greece (since it was the only loss), and that their best game was the Bronze Medal win over Argentina. In the loss to Greece, Brand / Howard / Bosh combined to play 30 minutes. (Miller got a DNP.) Now me, I'd be looking for that number to be up near 80, since these are the only legit 4's and 5's on the team, and the game lasts 40 minutes. But they didn't even combine to play all of the minutes at the 5! Against Argentina, they combined for 51 minutes (another DNP for poor Brad.) Look, I know they fell behind and were trying to catch up playing small(er). But 30 minutes? That's not just 'trying to catch up time'. Some of those minutes were definitely 'falling further behind time.' And it's not like Greece was smaller than Argentina. Rather than going to 5 small forwards and trying to play the pick-and-roll that way, did we consider putting Howard and Brand in the game, so that we'd have a shot blocker at the rim?

Why is the nation with the biggest and deepest talent pool getting out-bigged at the World Championships? Obviously, assistant coach Mike D'Antoni has a lot to do with it. He's had great success playing small lineups in Phoenix. But here's the thing - he only has small guys to choose from in Phoenix! "Let's see, should I play Leandro Barbosa or Brian Grant?" That's a different scenario than "Joe Johnson or Elton Brand." Besides, D'Antoni has success DURING THE REGULAR SEASON. In a single elimination tournament, why are we rolling the dice and shooting 40 threes against Germany?

After the Germany game, Coach K watched the tape and declared that of the 40 threes, only one of them was a bad shot. I say, don't be such a wimp. If it's a bad shot, say so. Any three this team took with more than 15 seconds on the shot clock, of which there were probably 30 in that game, was a bad shot. You can get a good look at a three any time. Why take one before you've even tried to get the ball inside? Oh that's right, there's no one inside to go to.

And it's not like there was ANYBODY on this team that I'm thinking, "YES, they're open for a three - that's money!" NOT ONE GUY. Do you know how many threes Chris Bosh made during the 05-06 NBA season? Zero. 0-13. Know how many he took in 8 World Championship games? 2 attempts in 8 games. In 108 minutes. That's almost 1 per 48. Now obviously two attempts is not a lot, but it's definitely 2 too many. WHY? Why is D'Antoni telling these guys to shoot the first open three they see? That's not who these guys are. The list goes on: Carmelo Anthony took 50 threes (50!) in 9 games. Over 5 and a half per game! And he shot 25% from three during the NBA season. Dwyane Wade took 18 threes in 8 games. That's more than he made in 80 NBA games (13). WHY?

It is interesting that, while Larry Brown was (deservedly) lambasted for mistakes as Team USA's coach in 2004, Krzyzewski has largely escaped criticism of any sort. What little criticism is out there, like this piece from San Antonio, doesn't even really hit the mark. The worst thing he did was cut Bruce Bowen? REALLY? Bowen single-handedly would have stopped the pick-and-roll? As it happens, pick-and-roll defense involves at least two players, and pretty much all five to really do it right. But whatever.

How about taking him to task for his team's lack of discipline in shot selection? How about taking him to task for making exactly ZERO adjustments to the Greek pick-and-roll? Or how about the fact that he appeared to have little or no idea who the guys on the other teams were? "Number 7", for your information Coach K, is Spanoulis, and he'll be with the Rockets next year. And, oh, one more thing: even if you had never scouted him (which it appears you had not), it took about three possessions for me to tell that he ONLY goes left, even if the screen is on the right. Yet the US defense never figured that out.

But by far my biggest criticism has to do with the total lack of a half-court offense. It was painfully obvious to me from the beginning of Pool Play that Team USA's entire game plan was to force turnovers and run. That's great. But good teams are going to handle the pressure, and stop the fast break. Then what? It turns out, the plan was to go one-on-one if the fast break wasn't available. And that's not a good plan.

Now, I'm not generally a conspiracy theorist, but the 'Melo-'Bron-Wade Holy Trinity is beginning to look mighty suspicious. David Stern and the NBA want / need for these guys to become the Magic-Bird-Michael of this generation. By making them tri-captains and apparently deferring to them at every turn, Coach K certainly appears to be doing Stern's bidding on this one. The problem is, unless you have Wade play the point, in order to play these guys at the same time, you're forced to play Anthony at the 4 and LeBron at the 3. These guys are all really terrific wings - the best in the business. But last I checked airplanes, birds, and basketball courts all have two wings.

And those of you who think Kobe Bryant is the answer (I'm looking at you, Tony Mejia) need to do the math also. Kobe Bryant will NOT subjugate his game to the Holy Trinity. Is he an upgrade over any one of those three? Sure, probably. But not a significant one, and that's not where the Gold Medal was lost, and you sure as HELL can't play all FOUR of those guys at one time. That's a custody battle waiting to happen, and who suffers? The ball, that's who.

Can Team USA win Gold in Beijing? Sure they can. They could have won Gold in Japan if not for a hot-shooting Greek team. But I'm far from convinced that they are the favorite. The Holy Trinity have to prove me wrong, and prove that they are as good as Stern / Krzyzewski think they are. And maybe playing together in a couple more competitions will make a big difference. Certainly some on court rapport would help immensely.

More importantly, Team USA has to get bigger, and more disciplined. Chris Paul will be better in two years than he is now, and that will be a HUGE improvement for the team. And we need more shooters. Michael Redd is the ONE guy from the current list that I would find a spot for, no matter what. And I'd ask Ray Allen to re-consider.

And maybe I'd look into some half court offenses. I hear this thing the 'Flex' is catching on.