The Real Story Behind Team USA's Losses in Previous FIBA EventsIn my game recaps from the FIBA Americas tournament, I frequently mentioned that, contrary to popular belief, the biggest problem that Team USA has had in recent FIBA events has come at the defensive end of the court. That is why I did a post before the tournament titled "Team USA Needs Bruce Bowen More than it Needs Michael Redd." The way things turned out this time around, Team USA did not need either player, going 10-0 without Bowen and with Redd getting the vast majority of his minutes and points after Team USA had built commanding leads. The fact that Team USA won without Redd making a meaningful contribution when the games were close essentially proves my point but, looking forward, it is important to understand the challenge that Team USA is likely to face in the 2008 Olympics. The FIBA Americas tournament did not feature the top FIBA teams; Argentina, the strongest squad that participated other than Team USA, essentially sent its "B" team and did not have the services of Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto and Walter Herrmann. When Team USA faces a fully loaded Argentina team plus the top teams from Europe it will be necessary to play defense with intensity and intelligence in order to win the gold medal. Fortunately, Team USA made great strides in that department in the FIBA Americas tournament, spearheaded by the backcourt defensive wizardry of Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd. Shutting down opponents' three point shooting while also denying dribble penetration leads to rebounds and steals that get converted into open court scoring opportunities. As Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant just proved with their exceptional shooting and their tremendous per minute scoring rates in the FIBA Americas tournament, when Team USA plays this way the addition of designated outside shooters to the roster is a luxury, not a necessity.
In 1992, Team USA sent NBA players to a FIBA event for the first time and the legendary Dream Team cruised to victory in the Barcelona Olympics. Team USA won 58 straight games in FIBA Olympic Qualifiers, the Olympics, the FIBA World Championships and the Goodwill Games between 1992 and 2002, although the margin of victory steadily dwindled during that time. In the 2000 Olympics, Team USA faced Lithuania twice, emerging with wins by nine and two points en route to the gold medal and in the 2001 Goodwill Games, Team USA was forced to overtime before vanquishing Brazil, 106-98. Team USA got off to a good start in the 2002 FIBA World Championships--held on home turf in Indianapolis--ripping off five wins by at least 17 points but then lost back to back games, beat Puerto Rico by just ten and closed out the event with a loss to Spain that resulted in an embarrassing sixth place finish. Let's look at why Team USA lost those three games, the first defeats tasted by NBA players in FIBA competition.
Anyone who thinks that the 2002 Team USA roster did not have shooters is sadly mistaken. Paul Pierce led the team in scoring with 19.8 ppg, shooting 33-67 (.493) from three point range. Michael Finley ranked second on the team with 13.0 ppg and shot 22-56 (.393) from three point range. Reggie Miller was also on the roster, though he did not receive much playing time. Baron Davis is a streaky shooter but he made a respectable 16-44 (.364) of his three pointers. Shawn Marion only attempted nine three pointers in the 2002 FIBA World Championship but he shot .393 from three point range in the 2002 NBA season. Keep in mind that the FIBA three pointer is a 20'6" shot, while the NBA three pointer is 23'9" in most locations and 22' in the corners, so even NBA players who are not considered three point threats can easily make the FIBA three pointer. As a group, Team USA shot 89-227 from three point range (.392) in the 2002 FIBA World Championship. In the game prior to its first loss, Team USA shot 15-35 (.429) from three point range and routed New Zealand, 110-62. That New Zealand team finished fourth--two spots ahead of Team USA. So did Team USA's players suddenly forget how to make 20 foot jump shots when they lost 87-80 to Argentina? No, what happened was that Team USA struggled mightily to stop Argentina from scoring and fell behind by 20 points in the second quarter. When you are not getting steals or defensive rebounds it is very difficult to score any transition points; even the 2007 edition of Team USA, the best FIBA team that the United States has put together in quite some time, looked much better on offense in the open court than they did when they had to set up a half court offense--but, led by Bryant and Kidd, Team USA played such stifling defense that they did not often have to run much half court offense. FIBA basketball is much like NCAA basketball in that guard play often takes precedence over inside play, plus the one and done format enables teams that have less overall talent to win. For example, check out the box score from Puerto Rico's 111-107 win over Brazil in the bronze medal game of the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament: Puerto Rico shot 15-28 (.536) from three point range, led by Elias Ayuso (39 points, 8-12 three point shooting) and Carlos Arroyo (30 points, 3-7 three point shooting). Team USA faced Puerto Rico twice, winning the first game 117-78 while holding Ayuso and Arroyo to 13 points (1-4 three point shooting) and 12 points (1-5 three point shooting) respectively; in the second game, Team USA won 135-91. Ayuso (22 points, 5-9 three point shooting) and Arroyo (21 points, 2-4 three point shooting) put up good numbers by the end of the game but when Team USA built a 57-42 halftime lead they held Puerto Rico to 3-11 three point shooting. Without Bryant and Kidd on the roster I don't think that Team USA would have made it through the FIBA Americas tournament unblemished.
The 2002 Team USA squad followed up the Argentina loss with an 81-78 defeat at the hands of Yugoslavia, who took a 9-0 lead at the start of the game. Pierce played just five first half minutes due to foul trouble and Team USA only had 36 first half points. This must have been because of a lack of three point shooters, right? Not exactly. Team USA had four fast break points in the first half. FOUR! That is what happens when you are not able to get defensive stops. Look at that 2002 roster again. Marion is a good defender but he is a forward, not a guard. Which guards on that team had defensive capabilities even remotely close to Bryant and Kidd, perennial members of the All-Defensive Team? The 2002 team had poor overall team chemistry and lacked the ability to pressure opposing point guards, who picked apart Team USA's defense, leading either to wide open three pointers or cuts to the hoop for easy baskets when Team USA overplayed the three point line. Team USA actually rallied to take a ten point lead over Yugoslavia before defensive breakdowns sealed their fate: in the fourth quarter, Yugoslavia did not commit a single turnover (which means Team USA's guards generated no pressure) while shooting 5-6 from three point range. Team USA can win whether or not it makes three pointers but most FIBA teams build their offenses around driving and kicking to open shooters, who often camp out behind the three point line; to beat them, you have to stay at home on the three point shooters while also being active enough to prevent cutters from getting layups. After defeating Puerto Rico, Team USA suffered its third loss, dropping an 81-76 decision to Spain. In that game, Team USA was outscored 25-10 in the fourth quarter. Yes, when you only have 10 fourth quarter points offense is a problem but the important thing to understand is why it was a problem: when you give up 25 points in a quarter in a slow paced game that means your defense is poor. Team USA could have had the greatest shooters in the world but they were not going to get open running a half court offense under FIBA rules. Look at Redd and Mike Miller's performance in this year's FIBA Americas tournament: they generally did not play when the scores were close and when they came into the game and scored they took advantage of open court situations--fast breaks and secondary breaks. How many times did Team USA run a half court offense that culminated in a made three pointer by either of those guys?
Team USA had a new roster in 2004 but did an even worse job defensively. The team's problems at that end of the court became apparent as soon as the second game on its pre-Olympic exhibition tour, when Italy defeated Team USA 95-78 on the strength of 15-35 (.429) three point shooting. It is true that the 2004 team did not shoot well from three point range (44-140, .314) during the Olympics but the number that sticks out is opposing three point shooting: 86-195, .441. Team USA lost 92-73 to Puerto Rico in the first game of the Olympics and many people like to point to that game's box score as Exhibit A in the case for bad shooting being Team USA's downfall--but look at Puerto Rico's numbers in that game: 31-55 field goal shooting (.564), including 8-16 (.500) from three point range. As Bill Walton might say if he were actually paying attention to the game, "That is TERRIBLE!" No defensive stops meant no transition offense, which led to a lot of standing around watching Allen Iverson jack up shots; he went 1-10 from three point range in that game. Poor defense and poor shot selection hurt Team USA more than a lack of shooters on the roster; the starting backcourt of Iverson and Stephon Marbury was repeatedly burned by Arroyo (24 points), Ayuso (15 points) and Eddie Casiano (18 points, 4-4 shooting from three point range).
Team USA then won close games versus Greece (77-71) and Australia (89-79) before losing to Lithuania, 94-90. Team USA shot 8-21 (.381) from three point range in that game, so poor outside shooting was not even remotely a factor. Once again, Team USA's defense of the three point line was simply ghastly, as Lithuania shot 13-27 (.481), including 7-12 by Sarunas Jasikevicius, who scored a game-high 28 points and should thank Iverson and Marbury's defense (or lack thereof) for the fact that he basically earned an NBA contract from this performance. Team USA Coach Larry Brown said after the loss, "We can't have a game like that defensively and expect to win against a quality team."
Team USA routed Angola (89-53) and won a close game versus Spain (102-94) before an 89-81 loss to Argentina eliminated them from gold medal contention. Defense was again the primary culprit, as Argentina shot 32-59 (.542) overall and 11-22 (.500) from three point range. Yes, Team USA shot poorly from long distance (3-11, .273) but, as Brown explained, you simply cannot win when you allow your opponents to shoot such astronomical percentages--except in rare instances: Team USA won the bronze medal game 104-96 over Lithuania despite allowing Lithuania to shoot 21-37 (.568) from three point range. Suffice it to say that this kind of "defense" is not a recipe for long term success. Team USA enjoyed huge advantages in rebounding and free throws made in that contest, narrowly negating Lithuania's stunning three point shooting barrage.
I extensively discussed the 2006 FIBA World Championship in posts that can be found in the August and September 2006 20 Second Timeout archive. Team USA finished 8-1 in that event, winning the bronze medal. Their failure to capture the gold medal is the reason that Team USA had to play in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament in order to earn a berth in the 2008 Olympics. As Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo recently pointed out, this may have been a blessing in disguise because it enabled the team to improve its overall chemistry (and add two defensive studs in Bryant and Kidd, who both also contributed a lot to the team's offensive flow). Team USA's lone loss came at the hands of Greece. Poor defense by Team USA was the biggest factor in the 101-95 decision, as Greece shot 35-56 (.625) from the field and 8-18 (.444) from three point range.
It is mystifying that anyone could believe that Team USA could have turned any of these recent FIBA losses into wins simply by adding three point shooting specialists to the roster; those kind of players would have done nothing to improve the team's shoddy defense and the lack of transition scoring opportunities would have meant that they would not have gotten many great open looks at the hoop. Three point specialists do not generally create their own shots and the half court offense that Team USA was running would hardly have provided them the time and space that they need to shoot accurately.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:01 PM