Friday, September 01, 2006

Team USA

I was one of the (probably few) crazy people watching the US men's basketball team in their World Championships semifinal game against Greece, which started at 3:30 AM ET. I was treated to an alternately good and frustrating game, with an unwanted result. The Greeks beat the US, 101-95. The US will face Argentina for the bronze medal.

It's been 18 years now since the US last fielded an Olympic basketball team of amateurs. That year - 1988 - the team lost in the semifinals to the Soviet Union and rebounded to win the bronze. Two years later, in the World Championships, a team with an average age of 20, again lost in the semifinals and brought home a bronze. Those two competitions came right about the point where the NBA was reaching its pinnacle of popularity, riding the wave of the Lakers-Celtics/Magic-Bird era into the Jordan era. Add to that the fact of other countries using professionals on their national teams (the 1990 Yugoslavian team that beat the US featured 5 future NBA players, including Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, and Toni Kukoc), and USA basketball made the knee-jerk reaction to use NBA players on our own national team.

There were just a couple of problems. At that point, our collegians were still competing with the other countries' professionals, but the other countries' professionals were not close to the level of our own. And nobody with USA basketball had the foresight to imagine that the world would soon catch up.

So 1992 gave us the Dream Team, which was probably the greatest basketball team ever assembled, even with a deteriorating Larry Bird & Magic Johnson, and somehow leaving Isiah Thomas off the roster for token college boy Christian Laettner. But I digress. That team featured a collection of basketball players - 12 guys who could do a little bit, if not a lot, of everything - handle the ball, pass the ball, shoot the ball, and play defense, all as part of a team. On most of the teams since then, we've featured amazingly talented athletes, but without the same skill set. The NBA began its devolution into a copycat league searching for the next Michael Jordan, and so Team USA began to be filled with 12 guys trying to play one on one (or one on five).

Another problem was that we found the need to replace the team each time. Players would sign up to go get the gold to add to their personal collection and check it off their career to-do list. Then 2 or 4 years later, Team USA would be an almost entirely different squad. Meanwhile, other countries were building programs and taking notes.

Well, we finally started to get a clue and named a national team coach - Coach K, and sought out a 3 year commitment from players, then had them go through a tryout camp. But the problem remained - these are still NBA players whose instinct is to do it on their own. And they were still given a relatively short time to prepare and build team chemistry.

This all culminated in the loss to Greece. They had their moments - starting the game off with suffocating pressure defense through the first quarter and into the second quarter, building a 12 point lead. But then the Greeks went to their pick-and-roll plays, and dropped into a sagging man-to-man help defense, daring the Americans to shoot over it, which they did without much success for the second consecutive game.

ESPN Insider Chris Sheridan has been following the team and had this to say about the loss:

I know the top two questions folks back home in the United States are going to be asking once I get back: How could this happen? Who is to blame?

To the first question, I'll answer this: It's been happening for more than four years now, folks, and it's been happening because Team USA keeps changing its roster, never developing the chemistry and familiarity that the best teams from other parts of the world have developed as their greatest strength. The Greeks had two or three plays that worked over and over and over again, just like Argentina's plays worked two years ago in Athens, and Team USA didn't have the cohesion a team needs to play the type of halfcourt defense required to win in these kinds of tournaments. The second and third quarters of Greece's 101-95 victory Friday were absolutely stunning to behold. I'd call it a layup drill, except for the fact that there were enough wide-open looks being converted that it broke up the monotony of the pick-and-roll exploitation the Greeks were pulling on the Americans.

The pick-and-roll is not a hard play to defend, but these guys simply couldn't. Anybody with two eyes could see that Greece guard Theodoros Papaloukas liked to drive to his left, but not once did any of the Americans force him right.

Greece was a team that came in averaging only 81.4 points in this tournament, yet the Americans surrendered 101 and allowed them to shoot an astonishing 63 percent from the field, 71 percent from 2-point range.

Want to know why? Mostly it's because the Greeks have been playing together long enough to have a repertoire of plays that they know will work, and once they saw they were working to perfection, they stuck with them time after time after time after time.

The Americans were helpless to stop them.


The basketball world has changed, folks, and Americans have fallen behind. I feel like I'm yelling into the wind when I keep saying how and why it's been happening, but maybe now folks back home will start to understand.


Some might call this Team USA a failure, but it isn't. It's too soon to make any call.

We can judge them two summers from now when they get back from Beijing. Until then, they're a work in progress, a team that's had its eyes opened to how vulnerable and beatable they can be. There is nothing for them to be embarrassed about. They just weren't as good as Greece.

That's the way the basketball world is these days, and if Team USA wants to restore the Old World Order, they're going to have to work at it. You can't just become the Redeem Team overnight. It might take three years, and it might take even longer. For now, they'll learn Saturday against Argentina whether they're the planet's No. 3 or No. 4 team. Then they'll have two years to work together toward being No. 1.

Well said, Chris. Hopefully we'll turn it around and the international style of play - with the emphasis on team basketball over one-on-one isolation - will trickle its way back into the NBA.

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