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Saturday, August 25, 2007

No, Canada: Team USA Rolls to 113-63 Win

Seven Team USA players scored in double figures in a 113-63 win over Canada in the FIBA Americas tournament. Team USA is now 3-0 and will close out Group B play with a game against Brazil (2-0) tomorrow. The familiar quintet of Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard again started for Team USA. Anthony's smooth offensive game was on full display, as he poured in a game-high 25 points on 9-12 shooting in just 18 minutes. Michael Redd added 19 points, while Kobe Bryant contributed 15 points, LeBron James had a team-high eight rebounds and Deron Williams accumulated a game-high six assists in only 13 minutes.

Team USA hit Canada with a 13-4 run to open the game but some defensive lapses enabled Canada to pull within 28-21 by the end of the first quarter. Olumuyiwa Famutimi made three three pointers and scored 11 of his team-high 17 points in the first quarter; defending the three point arc is always crucially important for Team USA in FIBA play and Team USA locked down in that category for the remainder of the game, allowing Canada's entire team to make only two more three pointers. Anthony had 12 points on 5-8 shooting in the first quarter and Bryant, looking for his shot more aggressively than he did in the previous two contests, scored eight points on 3-6 shooting. More importantly, he avoided the early foul trouble that forced him to the bench in each of those games, enabling him to play all 10 minutes in the opening stanza.

Bryant sat out the first 2:26 of the second quarter and Team USA used an 8-4 mini run to push the margin to double figures, 36-25. When Bryant returned, Team USA showed the defensive intensity that must be this team's calling card in FIBA play, holding Canada scoreless for nearly four minutes and effectively sealing the victory with a 19-0 run. Bryant went to the bench at the 3:08 mark and Team USA up 58-27. Team USA led 65-34 at halftime. This dominance was built on a 9-0 advantage in blocked shots (according to ESPN2's stats; the official box score only listed six blocked shots for Team USA in the entire game, which seems low) and a 22-13 rebounding edge; relentless pressure by perimeter defenders (notably Bryant and Kidd but also Williams and others on occasion) led to turnovers and awkward, easy to block attempts and these defensive stops inevitably created open court scoring opportunities, which Anthony (20 points, 7-9 shooting), Redd (13 points) and Bryant (10 points) fully exploited. That trend continued in the third quarter, as Bryant got a steal on the opening possession. Team USA did not convert that opportunity into a score but soon afterwards Bryant's sweet behind the back pass to Howard led to a dunk, though it does not appear that Bryant was officially credited with an assist on the play. Later, James fired a great bounce pass from the top of the key to a cutting Bryant, who made an acrobatic reverse layup.

At the 4:26 mark of the third quarter, Bryant headed to the bench for good with Team USA leading 81-39. Team USA coasted to a 95-49 advantage by the end of the quarter and outscored Canada 18-14 in "extensive gar-bage time" in the fourth quarter. This time, Team USA's scoring differentials were 64-28 with Bryant in the game and 47-35 when he sat out. Obviously, the intensity is not quite the same during "extensive gar-bage time" but I still believe that team defense and Team USA's scoring differentials with and without Bryant are two stories that are worth tracking; for one thing, these themes are related, because it was apparent from the opening tip of the first game that Bryant's defensive intensity is at a very high level and that this rubs off on the rest of the team (Kidd's defensive effort has also been excellent). A third theme that has developed is that this version of Team USA starts games strongly, whereas last year's squad often got off to slow starts in the FIBA World Championships. All three of these things will be critically important when Team USA faces the elite FIBA teams, whether that occurs in this event or next year in the Olympics. Redd's shooting is certainly a welcome addition to the team but scoring has never been a problem for Team USA and if Redd were to go cold there are more than enough other scoring options for Team USA to utilize in his place--and anyone who thinks differently should remember that Team USA scored 95 points (in a 40 minute game) in last year's loss to Greece.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:57 PM

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Reggie Miller Decides to Not Call it a Comeback

Reggie Miller has ended his brief dalliance with the idea of becoming the oldest shooting guard in NBA history, according to an article in The Indianapolis Star. Miller explained, "That's it. Physically, I know I could have done it. But mentally, when you do something like this, you've either got to be all in or all out. And I've decided I'm all out."

Of course, if Miller's heart was not in it then his body would not be able to go very far, either. I have no doubt that Miller is in good enough condition to suit up and play passably well in an NBA game. The real issue would have been whether or not he was prepared to survive the grueling grind of an 82 game NBA season. That takes mental and physical endurance. It is one thing to get into shape, it is another thing to get into NBA shape in terms of having the ability to simply compete--and then it is another thing altogether to condition one's mind and body to deal with the pounding, the nagging aches and pains and the travel schedule for months at a time. The interesting thing about older athletes--say, 35 and up--is that the dedicated ones are able to at least look the part but that does not always mean that they can play the part. Toward the end of their careers, Jerry Rice and Hakeem Olajuwon still had lean, well defined physiques, but their aging joints were no longer capable of performing the explosive movements that made them special during their primes. They were in great shape but they were no longer elite level athletes.

Miller insisted to the Star's Bob Kravitz that he will never again entertain the idea of returning to the NBA: "Please write, I will never, ever, ever try something like this again. Any of the 30 teams in the NBA, if you're interested, please don't call."

posted by David Friedman @ 1:06 AM

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Redd Hot: Michael Redd, Carmelo Anthony Each Score 22 Points as Team USA Routs U.S. Virgin Islands, 123-59

Team USA led 42-13 after the first quarter and was never seriously threatened in a 123-59 win over the U.S. Virgin Islands in their second game of the FIBA Americas tournament. Team USA again went with a starting lineup of Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. Anthony and Michael Redd shared game-high scoring honors for the second game in a row, this time with 22 points apiece. Tayshaun Prince led both teams with 12 rebounds, making up for his lack of offensive production (two points on 1-7 shooting). James and Kidd each had a game-high five assists, while Anthony, Bryant and Deron Williams each had four assists.

Team USA did not initially match the defensive intensity that it displayed at the start of the Venezuela game and the U.S. Virgin Islands briefly enjoyed a 4-2 lead. Team USA promptly went on a 15-5 run, as Bryant--who set the defensive tone in the previous game--contributed a steal, two assists and a three pointer. Bryant picked up his second foul at the 6:14 mark and sat out the rest of the first quarter. Against Venezuela, Team USA looked sluggish without Bryant but this time around Team USA did not miss a beat, scoring 17 straight points. Redd, who came into the game for Bryant, scored 15 points in the first quarter, with nine of them coming on three pointers. Team USA shot 8-10 from three point range, with Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Bryant, Mike Miller and Redd each making at least one shot from beyond the arc.

Team USA went into a bit of a lull in the second quarter and actually lost ground slightly in the first 3:27 as Bryant continued to remain on the bench. Even his return at the 6:33 mark did not provide much of a boost, as Team USA only outscored the U.S. Virgin Islands 14-13 before Bryant picked up his third foul with 2:13 left in the half. Bryant went back to the bench and Team USA finished the half with a 66-39 lead, despite being outscored 26-24 in the quarter. Team USA stepped on the gas pedal right from the start of the third quarter and led 90-46 with 2:20 left when Bryant sat down and applied ice to his knees, this squad's version of Red Auerbach's fabled victory cigar. Bryant finished with nine points, four assists and one steal. Team USA played well when he was on the court, with a scoring differential of 60-35, but also played well when he was out of the game, posting a scoring differential of 63-24. One cause for concern is that Bryant has picked up two quick fouls in both games and has had three fouls by halftime in each contest. This did not matter much against inferior teams but could be a problem against the better FIBA teams, if not in this event then in the 2008 Olympics. This is Bryant's first time playing in a FIBA competition, where the officiating is quirky to say the least. Tim Duncan was in constant foul trouble in the 2004 Olympics and vowed to never again play FIBA basketball. Bryant must adjust quickly to the officiating so that he can remain on the court in games when Team USA is more seriously challenged.

The 64 point margin of victory is the second best for Team USA in FIBA Americas tournament play, eclipsing a 60 point win by the 1992 Dream Team over Panama and a 58 point blowout of the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2003. Obviously, the U.S. Virgin Islands team is one of the weaker squads in this event, so we cannot draw any sweeping conclusions from this game. Team USA held the U.S. Virgin Islands to 17-65 shooting (.262), including 4-23 from three point range. That in turn led to many open court scoring opportunities, as Team USA shot 43-72 (.597), including a blistering 15-30 from three point range (.500). Note, though, that even if Team USA had missed every single three pointer they still would have won by 19; Team USA can win FIBA games whether or not they shoot the three pointer well, because the key is shutting down the other team's three point attack without falling prey to an endless parade of layups off of the pick and roll play. Of course, we will have to see this version of Team USA play against some stronger competition before we know whether or not they are up to that task. Team USA gets Friday off and then will conclude Group B play with games against Canada on Saturday and Brazil on Sunday.

With two games in the books, here is a brief look at how each Team USA player has performed (listed in order of minutes played, with ties broken by points scored):

Tayshaun Prince (43 minutes, six points, 17 rebounds, six assists): He has shot just 3-13 from the field (.231) but, as always, his floor game and defense are excellent. He has received "extensive gar-bage time" minutes in the two blowouts.

Michael Redd (39 minutes, 39 points, three rebounds, six assists): He has shot 14-26 from the field (.538), including 7-14 from three point range. His main job is to put the ball in the basket and he has done just that.

LeBron James (38 minutes, 19 points, four rebounds, eight assists): He has shot 9-11 from the field (.818), wisely eschewing three point attempts (0-0) for driving dunks.

Amare Stoudemire (35 minutes, 29 points, eight rebounds, two assists): He has shot 10-11 from the field (.909), mostly on rim bending dunks.

Mike Miller (35 minutes, 23 points, six rebounds, one assist): He has shot 9-22 from the field (.409), including 5-15 from three point range (.333). Either his shooting percentage needs to increase or his minutes and shot attempts need to decrease.

Deron Williams (35 minutes, 16 points, one rebound, five assists): He has shot 6-10 from the field (.600) and has been solid, if not spectacular, though most of his playing time has come with Team USA way in front.

Carmelo Anthony (33 minutes, 39 points, 10 rebounds, four assists): He has shot 12-22 from the field (.545), including 3-7 from three point range (.429). Anthony is a pure scorer who can get his points from anywhere on the court. His rebounding and passing have been good but the big question with him will be how well he plays defense against the better teams.

Kobe Bryant (32 minutes, 23 points, five rebounds, nine assists): He has shot 7-12 from the field (.583), including 3-4 from three point range (.750). Surprising his naysayers, Bryant is tied with Kidd for the team lead in assists, is nowhere close to the team lead in shot attempts and has spearheaded the team's defensive attack. He and Kidd are without question the team's leaders. The only blemish for Bryant so far is that he has been in early foul trouble in both games.

Jason Kidd (32 minutes, three points, five rebounds, nine assists): He has shot 1-1 from the field but his defense, ballhandling (just two turnovers) and leadership make him one of the most valuable members of the team. Kidd epitomizes why the worth of some players simply cannot be appreciated just by looking at the boxscore.

Chauncey Billups (30 minutes, 11 points, two rebounds, five assists): He has shot 4-9 from the field (.444), including 3-7 from three point range (.429). Like Williams, Billups has been solid while getting most of his playing time with Team USA enjoying commanding leads.

Dwight Howard (29 minutes, 21 points, 12 rebounds, 0 assists): He has shot 6-9 from the field (.667) but has struggled at the free throw line (9-16; .563). Howard's minutes will increase against the stronger teams and he is almost certain to lead Team USA in rebounding by the end of the tournament.

Tyson Chandler (26 minutes, six points, nine rebounds, 0 assists): He has shot 3-3 from the field. Chandler is an offensively limited player whose job is to rebound and block shots. His minutes and production do not figure to increase.

Anthony and Redd are the scoring leaders (19.5 ppg), Prince is the surprise rebounding leader (8.5 rpg) and Bryant and Kidd are the co-leaders in assists (4.5 apg). Bryant and Kidd have been the best perimeter defenders and have set the tone for the entire team at that end of the court. Howard is the leading shot blocker (2.5 bpg) but Stoudemire and Chandler have also done a good job of protecting the paint. The blowout wins have enabled Coach Krzyzewski to distribute the minutes very evenly but as the competition becomes tougher look for Bryant, Anthony, James, Kidd, Howard, Stoudemire and Redd to get the bulk of the playing time. Redd's shooting has been a nice bonus in the first two games against overmatched opponents but the key to victory against the best FIBA teams will be good, solid defense; that will enable Team USA to get plenty of open court scoring opportunities either in the form of uncontested three pointers in transition or soaring dunks by the squad's numerous great finishers.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:18 AM

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Team USA Beats Venezuela 112-69 in FIBA Americas Tournament Opener

Team USA never trailed en route to a 112-69 victory over Venezuela in the first game of the FIBA Americas tournament. Team USA started Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. Anthony and Michael Redd led seven players in double figures with 17 points each, Howard had a game-high eight rebounds and Bryant contributed 14 points on 5-8 field goal shooting, five rebounds and a game-high five assists in just 16 minutes.

Venezuela won the opening tip but matters quickly went downhill for them after that, largely because of the outstanding pressure defense applied by Bryant and Kidd. Bryant, who tied James with a game-high three steals and also had numerous deflections, hounded Venezuela's Greivis Vasquez up and down the court; Vasquez finished with 12 points on 3-11 field goal shooting and he committed a game-high four turnovers. Bill Walton, commenting on the game for ESPN Classic, said of Bryant, "He has clearly been the hardest working player in training camp." When Bryant left the game at the 6:30 mark with two fouls, Team USA led 9-0. He sat out the remainder of the first period and Team USA was up 21-8 after the first 10 minutes.

Bryant returned to action at the start of the second quarter and immediately made his presence felt, getting a steal and passing ahead to James for a fast break layup. A couple possessions later, Bryant scored on a sensational reverse layup off of an inbounds play, putting Team USA up 27-10. Over the next few possessions, Bryant drove to the hoop and fed Anthony for a dunk, threw a lob to Howard for another dunk, dished to Anthony for a three pointer and sailed in for a two handed dunk made possible by a gorgeous behind the back pass from James. Bryant topped all of that off with a three pointer and Team USA led 39-16. By the time Bryant picked up his third foul at the 3:58 mark and sat for the rest of the half, Team USA had a 44-19 lead. At halftime, the score was 54-34.

In the 9:32 that Bryant played in the first half, Team USA outscored Venezuela 32-11; in the 11:28 that Bryant sat out, Venezuela outscored Team USA 23-22--and that is a statistic you can be sure will not show up in the articles by "experts" who think that the big issues for Team USA are whether or not Bryant can get along with his teammates and how well Michael Redd and Mike Miller shoot from three point range (we'll get to that story shortly). When Bryant was on the court, Team USA's defense was superb, which predictably led to easy fast break scoring opportunities; in some stretches, the defense followed by ball movement capped off by a dunk looked like the way that the one and only Dream Team played in 1992. Kidd had a lot to do with this too, even though his FIBA statistics never show his true value (he did not attempt a shot and finished with four assists, three rebounds, one steal and one blocked shot). It cannot be emphasized enough that when Bryant was not in the game--which was more than half of the time in the first half--Venezuela outscored Team USA and this Venezuela team is hardly a top FIBA squad. Yes, this is only one game but do not let the final margin of victory fool you--without Bryant, this version of Team USA looked every bit as vulnerable as the other recent editions have. It should be obvious why James told USA Today's David DuPree, "I've always been quoted as saying Kobe Bryant is the best player in our league, and I'll continue to say that. You automatically try to feast off of that. Why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you want to copy the best player in the world to better your game?" As the saying goes, game recognizes game; players, coaches and NBA insiders understand that Bryant is the best player in the NBA, which is why it is so amusing--and, at the same time, sad--to listen to some "experts" and bloggers who try to pretend otherwise.

The second half began just like the first half did, with Bryant and Kidd spearheading Team USA's great pressure defense, leading to numerous transition hoops. Bryant opened the scoring with a turnaround jumper to extend the lead to 56-34 and by the 3:10 mark Team USA led 79-45. "Kobe Bryant is driving the train," Walton said during the 25-11 run, which pushed Team USA's score while Bryant was in the game to 57-22. Bryant checked out for the final time at that point and midway through the fourth quarter he was already icing down his knees. Obviously, the remainder of the game was, in Marv Albert's lexicon, "extensive gar-bage time" but it is interesting to note that Team USA's sluggishness sans Bryant continued. Team USA only outscored Venezuela 20-18 in the fourth quarter; that, combined with a mini-run to close out the third quarter, left Team USA with a 55-47 advantage during the 24 minutes that Bryant was not on the court. As Walton noted, it is important for the reserves to develop some continuity while they are in the game. This tournament continues virtually non-stop between now and the gold medal game on September 2, so it is important that everyone on the roster is able to contribute when called upon. Miller, Redd, Deron Williams and Tyson Chandler received a lot of the fourth quarter minutes. None of them looked particularly sharp, although Redd padded his statistics late in the game with a drive and two three pointers. Prior to that, he had a lackluster shooting game, which someone who simply reads the boxscore will not realize; Redd shot 7-12 from the field overall and hopefully will be able to carry his strong finish over into the rest of the tournament. Miller looked terrible throughout the game, shooting 4-11 from the field, including 2-8 from three point range. He shot an airball on an open three point attempt and fouled out in just 17 minutes. To top things off, he appeared to injure his leg on his final play of the game when he committed an offensive foul and landed awkwardly.

Team USA shot .547 from the field and .385 from three point range. If Team USA has a shooting weakness it is not on three pointers but rather on free throws, where Team USA shot 20-29 (.690); Team USA also did not shoot well from the free throw line in the 2006 FIBA World Championships. Part of this has to do with who attempts the free throws. Howard shot 4-7 but the mystifying case is Anthony, who also shot 4-7. Anthony shot very well from the field in the 2006 FIBA World Championships but only made .630 of his free throws, well off of his career NBA rate of .798. Maybe the "experts" who are so convinced that Redd and Miller will be the difference--as opposed to Bryant and Kidd--can figure out a way to convince FIBA to allow Redd or Miller to shoot Anthony and Howard's free throws for them. Of course, Redd and Miller are unlikely to earn many free throw attempts on their own (they shot 0-0 from the free throw line in 37 combined minutes).

In any case, notwithstanding the shaky free throw shooting, offense has not been a problem for Team USA in recent FIBA competitions, contrary to popular belief, and it will not be a problem this time around, whether or not Redd and Miller shoot well from beyond the arc. Anthony, Bryant and James will carry the bulk of the scoring load and Howard (12 points, 4-5 shooting) and Amare Stoudemire (16 points, 4-4 shooting) will pick up the rest of the slack. The main concern for Team USA will continue to be defense. Team USA forced 19 turnovers, most of them while Bryant was on the court, and held Venezuela to .338 shooting--but Venezuela shot .381 from three point range. The verdict after one game is that Team USA's defense is very good when Bryant is on the court but average at best otherwise--the projected 40 minute score with Bryant would have been 142.5-55, while without him it would have been 91.7-78, which is a little too close for comfort against a less than elite team. Note, also, how better defense leads to fast break opportunities that pump up the offensive numbers as well.

As the tournament goes on, it will be interesting to monitor Team USA's defensive performance and to keep track of the scoring margin when Bryant is on the court versus when he is out of the game--and if you want to follow those stories your best bet is to come here because those themes are unlikely to be discussed anywhere else.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:33 AM

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Eddie Griffin Killed When his SUV Collided with a Train

Eddie Griffin, whose life and NBA career were plagued by his struggles with substance abuse, died last week when his SUV crashed into a train in Houston. He was just 25 years old. The reason that it took a week for this announcement to be made is that Griffin's body was burned beyond recognition after the accident, necessitating the use of dental records to make a positive identification.

Griffin had some well publicized run-ins with the law and has already been the subject of some tasteless comments that were posted shortly after word of his death became publicly known but the people who knew him paint a picture of a good person who was deeply troubled. Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander said, "I found him to be a very quiet, sweet, charming, nice person. It's a shame somebody this young has to die this way. The whole Rockets organization is devastated. Our wishes and thoughts go out to his family and friends." Griffin was drafted seventh overall by the New Jersey Nets in 2001 but the Rockets, believing that he could be their power forward of the future, acquired him in exchange for three first round picks. Griffin made the All-Rookie Second Team in 2001-02, averaging 8.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 1.8 bpg. Very gifted athletically, Griffin blocked at least 100 shots in each of his first four NBA seasons, ranking 10th in the NBA with 2.1 bpg in 2005-06. By that time, he was a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who signed him in 2004 after the Rockets and Nets had released him in the wake of Griffin's numerous legal problems and chronic unreliability.

Rusty Hardin, Griffin's attorney, described the Griffin he knew: "Eddie was like a man-child. He was a wonderful, gentle soul, but he was an alcoholic. Alcohol always got in the way. The one thing the Rockets didn't know and none of us knew was the extent of the problem. It's really tragic. What people don't know is Eddie didn't go out partying, he didn't go wild or was a jerk. He was secretly drinking. He would have been the savior power forward the Rockets needed if not for (alcohol). When alcohol wasn't involved, he was one wonderful, gentle giant."

John Lucas, the number one overall pick in the 1976 NBA draft, suffered his own bouts with substance abuse and did his best to help Griffin. "Eddie is free now. Eddie was just a special basketball talent. He was doing well for periods. He would go up and down mentally and spiritually. But Eddie was a good person."

posted by David Friedman @ 4:49 PM

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Team USA Roster for FIBA Americas Tournament is Finalized

Team USA's roster for the FIBA Americas tournament, which starts in Las Vegas tonight, consists of Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Kobe Bryant, Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Mike Miller, Tayshaun Prince, Michael Redd, Amare Stoudemire and Deron Williams. Essentially, the team has three "bigs" (Chandler, Howard, Stoudemire), three point guards (Billups, Kidd, Williams) and six wing players (Anthony, Bryant, James, Miller, Redd, Prince). If Coach Mike Krzyzewski wants to use a big lineup then he can pair any two of his "bigs" with Bryant or James handling the ball alongside any two of the other wings; if he wants to use a small lineup then he can use Kidd at the point, Billups or Williams at the shooting guard, Stoudemire at center and any two of his wings as the forwards. Other combinations are also possible considering the versatility and athleticism that is present on the roster. One would expect the "normal" starting lineup to be Kidd, Bryant, James, Anthony and Stoudemire; James was Team USA's leading rebounder last year in the FIBA World Championships and can certainly be the nominal starting power forward. It is also possible that some of the starters will be switched from game to game, but I would like to see Team USA develop a regular rotation like every other FIBA team does. There should not be any disputes over who starts or who gets minutes; the most effective lineups should get the most time together, period.

For a variety of reasons, several of the players from last year's squad are not participating this time; the most prominent absentees are Dwyane Wade (second in scoring, 19.3 ppg, and fourth in minutes, 22.9 mpg), Elton Brand (fourth in scoring, 8.9 ppg), Chris Paul (third in minutes, 23.7 mpg, first in assists, 4.9 apg) and Kirk Hinrich (fifth in minutes, first in three point shooting percentage, .462). Their roles will likely be filled by Bryant, Stoudemire, Kidd and Redd (or Billups) respectively.

How will the minutes and shot attempts likely be distributed? I suspect that James, Bryant, Anthony and Kidd will each average between 23-25 mpg. Stoudemire will probably get the most minutes among the "bigs," provided that he does not get into foul trouble. Anthony and Bryant will be the two leading scorers. Kidd will almost certainly lead the team in assists, followed closely by James and then Bryant. Howard will get more minutes than he did last year and will probably lead the team in rebounding, followed by James, Chandler and Stoudemire. Just for fun, here are some hypothetical numbers:

Bryant: 18.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 3.8 apg
Anthony: 18.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.5 apg
James: 15.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.2 apg
Howard: 9.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg
Stoudemire: 8.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg
Redd: 6.5 ppg
Miller: 5.5 ppg
Billups 5.3 ppg, 3.1 apg
Kidd: 4.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 5.8 apg
Prince: 4.7 ppg
Chandler: 3.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg
Williams: 3.3 ppg, 2.0 apg

posted by David Friedman @ 8:08 AM

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You are Looking Live at Carnival of the NBA #48

I always wanted to do a Brent Musburger imitation. By the way, is it possible to be looking "dead" at something? I guess the NHL might qualify...

Anyway, Carnival of the NBA #48 is being hosted by Taking it to the Rack. This is the sixth straight Carnival that has included a contribution from 20 Second Timeout. A tip of the cap, as always, goes to Matt at Blog-a-Bull for overseeing the Carnival of the NBA project.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:21 AM

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Team USA Needs Bruce Bowen More Than it Needs Michael Redd

According to the "experts," Team USA has been "plagued" by "inconsisent three point shooting" in recent FIBA competitions. The addition of Michael Redd to this year's squad will purportedly solve what is alleged to be Team USA's greatest weakness. I have two questions for anyone who agrees with that line of thinking: Have you actually watched any Team USA games in the past several years? Have you looked at Team USA's statistics from those competitions? Complete understanding can only be obtained by both watching the games and examining the statistics; it is vitally important to observe how teams accumulated the numbers that they put up. For instance, bad perimeter defense can lead not only to open three pointers but it also can result in a layup being scored because other defenders got lured out of position trying to help the first player who messed up (just watch a tape of Team USA's 101-95 loss to Greece in last year's FIBA World Championships and you will understand what I mean).

I watched every game that Team USA played in last year's FIBA World Championships; my game stories about that event can be found in the 20 Second Timeout archives from August and September 2006. Let's take a closer look at what I wrote on September 5, 2006 in the wake of Carmelo Anthony's selection to the All-World Championship team. I noted that although Anthony averaged 19.9 ppg--the second highest scoring average ever by an American player in World Championship competition--his defensive deficiencies during the event were quite glaring and very costly. Those who believe that Team USA's problems happen at the offensive end of the court either don't understand basketball or are in denial of reality. The FIBA three point line is more than three feet closer to the hoop than the NBA three point line; Anthony shot .440 from three point range in the 2006 FIBA World Championships, Shane Battier shot .476, Kirk Hinrich shot .462 and the team collectively shot .369. More significantly, Team USA ranked first in scoring (103.6 ppg, nearly 15 ppg more than Spain, the team that won the tournament) and first in field goal percentage (.506) but only 16th (out of 24 teams) in points allowed (83.1 ppg), 16th in defensive field goal percentage (.462) and 13th in three point field goal percentage allowed (.349). Team USA's performance in the latter category was actually even worse than the middle of the pack ranking suggests, because if you remove the numbers from Team USA's blowout wins against outmatched teams from Australia and Senegal the percentage drops to .378, which would rank 21st. For those of you whose eyes glaze over when reading paragraphs that are loaded with statistics, here is the bottom line: in the 2006 FIBA World Championships, Team USA performed extremely well offensively but was mediocre at best defensively and struggled mightily to defend the three point line.

How can anyone watch the games or look at the numbers and think that the solution is to bring in more shooters? I am not against bringing in good shooters but Team USA's focus has to be on the defensive end of the court; they must do a better job contesting three point shots and they must be more effective in their pick and roll defense. Team USA was one of the best rebounding teams in the 2006 FIBA World Championships and those numbers would be even better if they improved their defensive field goal percentage; that in turn would lead to more fast break opportunities and more layups, making Team USA's offensive statistics even more impressive.

Michael Redd is a very good player--but the idea that his shooting prowess will save Team USA is absurd. The competition in the upcoming FIBA Americas tournament is not as good as what Team USA faced last year but when Team USA faces the very best squads in next year's Olympics the deciding factor will not be how many three pointers Redd makes but how well Team USA plays defensively. Bruce Bowen is an outstanding three point shooter from either baseline and a much better defender than Redd and could actually make a more valuable contribution to this team. Anthony is not a great NBA three point shooter but, as noted above, he put up Reggie Miller-like numbers in the 2006 FIBA World Championships by feasting on FIBA's short (20'6") three point line. Kobe Bryant can shoot easily from that distance, as can Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups and even Jason Kidd, who does not have a great overall field goal percentage but makes a decent percentage from behind the NBA's 23'9" three point arc. Literally half of Team USA's roster can very comfortably shoot FIBA three pointers even if Redd and Mike Miller were not added to the squad--but if Redd, Miller and Anthony have bewildered looks on their faces as opposing teams lose them in pick and roll plays and nail open three pointers, then Team USA could fall short of its goal. That will not likely happen next week but it could be a problem in the Olympics.

Team USA can change the active roster before the Olympics; even if there are some defensive lapses in the FIBA Americas tournament, Team USA will probably still win the gold and then the powers that be can reevaluate what the team's real needs are before heading to Beijing in 2008. Also, when Team USA has to get defensive stops Bryant and Kidd will most likely be on the court--barring injury or foul trouble--and they figure to provide a defensive presence on the perimeter that Team USA has not had for quite some time. Still, it only takes one bad defender to break down a team's defense. Veteran FIBA teams are masterful at running pick and roll plays and at driving to the hoop and kicking the ball out to three point shooters and it takes a good team defensive effort to deal with all of that ball and player movement.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:49 AM

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

How Does the FIBA Game Differ from the NBA Game?

It should be obvious at first glance to even the most casual observer that the FIBA brand of basketball is much different than the NBA game: the FIBA court features a trapezoidal lane, a much shorter three point shot (20'6" compared to the NBA's 23'9"), and a shorter game clock (40 minutes compared to the NBA's 48). Yes, these differences have existed for quite some time and did not make a bit of difference when Team USA sent the Dream Team to the Olympics in 1992--but the basketball world was completely different then; the idea that a 6-3 Canadian point guard would someday win two NBA MVPs, followed by a 7-foot German forward winning the MVP the next year, was beyond unimaginable. The talent gulf between the USA and the rest of the world was so great that rules differences and stylistic quirks did not matter but even at that time it should have been understood that this would not always be the case. After all, it was just four years earlier that a team of the best U.S. collegiate players failed to win the gold medal in the Olympics. Now that the NBA has a significant population of players who are not from the USA, the intimidation factor that used to mitigate against Team USA's lack of familiarity with the FIBA game is completely absent.

Charley Rosen just wrote an excellent article detailing the differences between the NBA game and the FIBA game. Here are my thoughts on some of his observations.

1) In FIBA play, the ball can be touched by any player as soon as it contacts the rim, while in the NBA the ball cannot be touched if it is above the cylinder. Rosen says that because NBA players are not instinctively used to playing this way they tend to not take advantage of the opportunity to deflect and/or rebound such balls. He is right about this but, unlike the lane or the three point line, this is not a rule that comes into play on every single possession. Given the overall athleticism of Team USA, this is one rules difference that could actually play to Team USA's advantage if the players are mindful enough in the heat of battle to take advantage of it.

2) Rosen points out two ways that the trapezoidal lane affects post play: (1) Post players must catch the ball further away from the hoop than they do in the NBA, necessitating extra dribbles to get to their sweet spots. Rosen says that this is why the FIBA game favors big men who can shoot quick turnaround jumpers, because otherwise there is more time for help defenders to arrive; (2) offensive rebounders have a better angle to the hoop after free throw attempts in the FIBA game than they do in the NBA.

I would add that it is overly simplistic for fans and writers to say that Team USA struggles at times in FIBA play because American players have gotten away from the fundamentals; the reality is that some of the "fundamentals" of FIBA play differ from those of NBA play and the post is one area that this is very evident. Think back to when Tim Duncan played for Team USA. He is perhaps the most fundamentally sound big man in the NBA, but he struggled in the post offensively and defensively, looked uncomfortable and hesitant and also sometimes got into foul trouble (see point four). After the 2004 Olympics, Duncan vowed that he would never again participate in FIBA play.

3) The 40 minute game allows less time for comebacks. Rosen also could have mentioned that it puts less of a premium on team depth.

4) Conspiracy theorists may not believe it, but Rosen says that FIBA referees "make three times as many" mistakes as NBA referees do. He is engaging in a bit of hyperbole here--but only a bit. FIBA officiating is not only bad it is inconsistent and hard to predict from play to play. Rosen notes that moving screens and hand checking are two violations that tend to be overlooked. Also, five fouls leads to disqualification instead of six and a technical foul counts as a personal foul.

5) Traditional NBA defensive strategy tends to backfire in FIBA play; NBA teams try to discourage penetration into the paint and force their opponents to shoot jump shots--but most of the good FIBA teams are built around excellent outside shooting. Rosen writes, "...because the internationals are such accurate 3-ballers and are generally not very creative finishers, Team USA's strategy in Las Vegas should be reversed. Pressure the perimeter, tag the outside shooters even when a ball-handler enters the lane, send only one potential shot-blocker to help, and drop a weak-side defender to discourage any interior passwork. Team USA's defensive rotations must avoid overpopulating the lane, and must also be under control whenever they close out 3-point shooters." As I have said on numerous occasions--most recently here--
it is vitally important for Team USA to make a concerted effort to effectively defend the three point line; this is much more critical than Team USA shooting well from behind the arc, though of course it would be a nice bonus to do that, too.

Rosen dismisses the importance of the familiarity factor but I disagree with him on this point. All of the other countries have national teams that have played together for years under FIBA rules; their players are familiar with each other and with the FIBA rules. Yes, Team USA's players have played against each other in NBA play--and in some cases in college--but they do not have the same collective experience as a group playing under FIBA rules. This is not to be lightly dismissed. Even in the NBA it can take a good team a season or two to jell into a contender, so it is asking a lot to put a team together after a whole NBA season has just concluded and expect it to have the same chemistry and familiarity that veteran FIBA teams do.

There are some minor things that Rosen did not mention that further indicate how different the FIBA game is--for instance, only coaches can call timeouts, not players.

One thing in Team USA's favor regarding next week's FIBA Americas tournament is that the level of competition will not be as high as it was in last year's FIBA World Championship. Rosen concludes, "Anything less than a gold medal, won in convincing fashion, will be a severe disappointment. But, at least against this subpar competition, there's no reason why Team USA shouldn't triumph." The FIBA Americas tournament should be a good tuneup for this group of Team USA players to get in the right mode to win the gold medal in next year's Olympics.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 PM

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