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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Coaches Corner: Basketball Hall of Fame Welcomes Five Coaches--and No NBA or ABA Players

On Friday, the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrined its seven member 2007 class, consisting of coaches Phil Jackson, Van Chancellor, Pedro Ferrandiz, Mirko Novosel and Roy Williams, referee Mendy Rudolph and the 1966 Texas Western team that became the first squad to start five black players and win the NCAA championship. Each of the new Hall of Famers is worthy of this honor and it was enjoyable to listen to the various acceptance speeches. Jackson was the last to talk and he made a very important point: the game of basketball belongs to the players and nothing can be accomplished without them. That is what makes it so strange that the Hall of Fame did not induct a single NBA or ABA player this year.

I don't dispute the qualifications of this year's enshrinees and I don't want to in any way rain on their parades but there is no excuse for the Hall of Fame to not induct any professional players, particularly when there are many candidates who have already been overlooked for literally decades. For instance, consider Artis Gilmore, who is one of the greatest centers of all-time, a star in college, the ABA and the NBA: he is the all-time NCAA Division I career rebounding average leader (22.7 rpg) and the all-time ABA/NBA field goal percentage leader (.582). Gilmore ranks fourth in ABA/NBA career blocked shots (3178; he was third at the time I wrote the aforementioned article, but Dikembe Mutombo recently passed him) and fifth in ABA/NBA career rebounds (16,330). Other than Gilmore, the top 11 rebounders are either in the Hall of Fame or will be shortly (i.e., Karl Malone, who is not yet eligible for enshrinement).

Another player who should have been enshrined a long time ago is Roger Brown, whose pro career got off to a late start due to being wrongly blacklisted by the NBA. Brown later received a financial settlement from the league but he stayed loyal to the ABA, whose Indiana Pacers signed him when he was working for a General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio and playing AAU ball. By the time the two leagues merged, Brown had already retired, so most of the country never got to see him play. As Brown's teammate Mel Daniels--a two-time ABA MVP who also deserves Hall of Fame consideration--told me, "those who did not see Roger Brown or didn't know him, missed a treat." Julius Erving, Rick Barry and George Gervin--Hall of Famers who are also on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List--all waxed eloquently to me about Brown's unappreciated greatness. Brown and Daniels played on Indiana Pacers teams that won three championships in four years while being coached by Slick Leonard. There is no good reason that Leonard has not at least been enshrined as a contributor--he starred as a player in high school and college, played seven years in the NBA, compiled an excellent coaching record and has been a broadcaster for two decades.

I understand that the Basketball Hall of Fame recognizes accomplishments from both genders at all levels of the game from international play to college play but let's not kid ourselves: the highest level of the game is American professional basketball--the NBA and its nine year rival, the ABA--yet the Hall of Fame treats American professional players like afterthoughts at best. The ABA has basically been completely ignored except for a handful of players who "validated" their success in that league by performing well in the NBA--and Gilmore has been left out despite his prolific NCAA and NBA careers. Adrian Dantley is the 23rd leading scorer in NBA/ABA history (23,177 points; 24.3 ppg). He won two NBA scoring titles, had an outstanding NCAA career and was a member of the gold medal United States team in the 1976 Olympics, yet Dantley has been snubbed by the Hall of Fame for a decade with no end in sight. Everyone who is ahead of him on the career scoring list--other than Gilmore--is either in the Hall of Fame or a mortal lock to be enshrined when he becomes eligible.

If the Hall of Fame had snubbed Phil Jackson and his nine NBA championship rings that would probably be the end of the institution but how is it that Don Nelson has not been enshrined? In 1996, Nelson was voted as one of the 10 Greatest Coaches in NBA history; seven of the other nine (including Jackson) are already in the Hall of Fame and Pat Riley will undoubtedly get the nod as soon as he becomes eligible. Nelson has won the NBA Coach of the Year award three times and ranks third in career wins.

As much as I celebrate the honor that has been justly bestowed on this year's enshrinees--and I will write a separate post just about Jackson's legacy--I cannot let this moment pass without stating that there is something very wrong with the Hall of Fame's selection process. ESPN's Marc Stein addresses this subject in a column that contains this telling quote from NBA Commissioner David Stern: "It's absolutely unacceptable, the [selection] process. It's troublesome. It doesn't even bring the NBA in in a rational way." That goes double for the ABA, which is so woefully underrepresented in the Hall of Fame that two decades of neglect may only be correctable by a special induction like what MLB did for the Negro Leagues.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:02 AM

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Guaranteed Minutes for Yi? Only if his Contract is Entirely Performance Based

ESPN's Ric Bucher reports that Milwaukee owner Herb Kohl guaranteed Yi Jianlian that he would play at least 20 minutes per game next season and perhaps as much as 25 minutes per game. Bucher adds that a source close to the situation told him that if Yi does not receive the promised playing time that he can go to Kohl and request that the Bucks trade him to a different team. NBA contracts are fully guaranteed regardless of injuries or performance, so if I were Kohl and Yi came to me with this demand I would be tempted to say, "OK. We'll guarantee your minutes but if you don't reach certain performance benchmarks--say 14 ppg and seven rpg in those 25 mpg--then your salary will be decreased accordingly. We'll guarantee your money or your minutes but not both." Granted, the Players Association would shoot down that idea in about a nanosecond but if the Bucks are really doing what Bucher says then this is a mistake on many levels.

In theory, Yi and the Chinese national team want to ensure that Yi gets enough training while he is in the NBA to help him perform better for China in international competitions--but guaranteeing his minutes regardless of his performance could very well lead Yi to be complacent and not work hard enough to reach whatever his maximum potential is. If Yi's minutes are assured then what incentive does he have to push himself? Yi is going to learn a lot just by practicing against the big men on his own team and if he earns time on the court during games then that is great. Think about the impact that this will have on Yi's relationship with his teammates. He is already facing huge culture shock as he adjusts not only to the NBA game but to living in a foreign country. Now he has to face an additional barrier that separates him from the rest of the team because he is (allegedly) receiving preferential treatment. Yi's teammates--and his opponents--may very well decide to give Yi their own version of "preferential" treatment. Also, Bucks Coach Larry Krystkowiak is now in a completely untenable position. How can he possibly lead his team effectively if he does not control his players' minutes, which is the only carrot/stick that coaches have considering the massive amounts of guaranteed money that NBA players make?

If Bucher is wrong about this then Kohl and the Bucks better get in front of this story in a hurry. Otherwise, unless Yi shocks the world by being very, very good right off the bat, it is going to be a long and frustrating season in Milwaukee.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:33 PM

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Real Story Behind Team USA's Losses in Previous FIBA Events

In 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

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Team USA Dominates Argentina 118-81, Wins Gold Medal in FIBA Americas Tournament

When Team USA breaks out of huddles, the players chant "1,2,3, Dominate!" Team USA more than lived up to that slogan with a 118-81 victory over Argentina in the gold medal game of the FIBA Americas tournament. This is the first time that Team USA has won a gold medal in FIBA competition since the 2003 team won the FIBA Americas tournament and this triumph comes on the heels of very disappointing results in the 2006 FIBA World Championship (bronze medal), the 2004 Olympics (bronze medal) and the 2002 FIBA World Championship (sixth place). LeBron James had a game-high 31 points on 11-15 field goal shooting, including 8-11 from three point range. Dwight Howard shot 7-7 from the field en route to his 20 points, while Carmelo Anthony contributed 16 points and a game-high eight rebounds. Orchestrating Team USA's tenacious defense and crisp ball movement were starting guards Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd; Bryant scored only five points but he had a game-high eight assists, revisiting the playmaking role that he had on three Lakers championship teams, while Kidd did not attempt a shot but finished with six rebounds and four assists. Luis Scola led Argentina with 23 points and his consistent performance throughout the event earned him the Most Valuable Player trophy.

Team USA put up some gaudy offensive numbers--118 points, .575 field goal shooting, .488 three point shooting--but it is important to understand why Team USA could do this: stifling defense created numerous open court opportunities, including many one on none fast break dunks. Team USA held Argentina to .434 field goal shooting and .333 three point accuracy. Even those numbers don't completely tell the story, because they are slightly inflated by garbage time production. In the first quarter, when Team USA took a 35-14 lead, Argentina shot 4-11 (.364) on two pointers and 2-7 (.286) from three point range. Argentina is a composed, wily team and did not commit many turnovers but Team USA contested virtually every shot, grabbed the rebound and then took off downcourt at breakneck speed. NBA TV analyst Steve Jones noted that Team USA would make one 15 foot pass and then another and that Argentina could not keep up; there is no comparison between the marvelous job that Jones and play by play announcer Joel Meyers did and the shoddy, rambling "effort" put forth by ESPN's broadcasters, notably Bill Walton. Instead of babbling nonstop about geographical and political trivia, Jones and Meyers actually called the game and treated this event with the respect that it deserves. They noted when fouls were called and mentioned when substitutions were made and throughout the telecast they provided interesting information about both teams. Jones and Meyers also did fine work on the bronze medal game, a 111-107 Puerto Rico victory over Brazil.

In my most recent post I wrote, "It will be interesting to see if Team USA really tries to send a message and beats Argentina--whose only loss in this tournament is to Team USA--by more than 20 points." Team USA made it clear from the start of the game that it had every intention of sending a message to Argentina and the rest of the world. Argentina--even without stalwart players Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni and Fabricio Oberto--is a strong team and they kept things close for a few minutes but Bryant's three pointer at the 2:48 mark of the first quarter gave Team USA a 25-14 lead and the margin never dipped below that the rest of the way. Team USA led by as many as 31 points in the second quarter and was up 59-34 at halftime.

For once, the on court/off court scoring differentials that I have been tracking for Bryant, Anthony and Michael Redd told a story of domination throughout the game; the second unit did not take its foot off of the gas pedal as Team USA turned in not only its finest performance of the tournament but one of the best American performances in FIBA play in quite some time. For the record, during the first three quarters Team USA led 65-50 when Bryant was in the game and 28-11 when he was off of the court; he did not play at all in the fourth quarter as Team USA outscored Argentina 25-20. Anthony's numbers were very similar: 55-40 advantage when he was in the game during the first three quarters, 38-21 lead when he was off of the court. He made a token fourth quarter appearance, during which Team USA outscored Argentina 5-4. Redd played all of his minutes when Bryant sat, so his numbers through the first three quarters are exactly the opposite of Bryant's and then you can tack on the 25-20 Team USA advantage in the fourth quarter, during which Redd played every minute. Redd finished with five points, shooting 1-3 from three point range. The other designated long range marksman, Mike Miller, did not get in the game until one minute remained in the third quarter and Team USA led 89-59. Miller played the entire fourth quarter and finished with nine points, including 2-4 shooting from beyond the three point arc.

Just to clarify what I said before this event and have reiterated in my game recaps, I do not mean to denigrate either Redd and Miller nor do I mean to belittle the importance of outside shooting. My message is that to beat the best FIBA teams Team USA must play outstanding perimeter defense--particularly on three point shooters--without compromising their interior defense; it does no good to deny three pointers at the expense of giving up wide open layups. Obviously, since Team USA went 10-0 it can hardly be said that Redd or Miller hurt the team but it also must be noted that Miller never found his shooting stroke (his .439 field goal shooting was the second worst mark on the team) and that he and Redd scored the vast majority of their points in garbage time. In the 2008 Olympics, Team USA will likely face Argentina's "A" team plus several other squads that are stronger than the ones that they just routed in the FIBA Americas tournament and it would be wise to consider adding some more perimeter defenders in case Bryant or Kidd have to deal with injuries or foul trouble. In addition to James' lights out three point shooting versus Argentina, Anthony shot 4-8 and Tayshaun Prince shot 3-7. Bryant did not exert himself as a scorer in this game but we know that he can make 20 foot jumpers at will and even against the best defenders. For all those who think that Redd and Miller's shooting is vitally important please consider these three point shooting percentages from the FIBA Americas tournament: James shot 23-37 (.622), Anthony shot 26-45 (.578) and Bryant shot 17-37 (.459). I mentioned previously that even though Kidd does not have a great field goal percentage in the NBA he is a decent three point shooter and he lived up to that, albeit with a small number of attempts (5-8, .625). Meanwhile, Redd shot 29-64 (.453) and Miller shot 19-50 (.380). Take out Redd's 7-8 performance in garbage time versus Puerto Rico and his percentage was below .400 (that number is also padded by other garbage time efforts). Jones offered a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of Team USA's three point shooting in FIBA events than just about any other expert who I have heard or read discuss the subject: "In the past, they didn't pass, they didn't take the shot when it presented itself and then shooting becomes problematic...When you think of the way that these guys make shots during the regular season, that 20 foot jump shot is an easy shot for them to make. Why would it suddenly become difficult in international play?" Team USA's big problems in recent FIBA events stemmed from poor defense and bad team chemistry, both of which led to a complete lack of offensive flow; the issue was not a lack of shooters but basic flaws in the way that the team played overall. I will examine this subject in depth in a future post.

From day one, the 2007 version of Team USA has been markedly different from its recent predecessors. During his post game remarks, Argentina Coach Sergio Hernandez said this Team USA roster is one of the greatest teams in international basketball history, mentioning that they play hard, they play defense and they have tremendous chemistry. He added that Team USA clearly respects the other FIBA teams and they proved it by playing hard throughout the tournament; Hernandez explained that if a team is good enough to beat his squad by 40 then he wants them to do it and to not be satisfied to win by 20 and he said that because of this approach it was a "pleasure" to compete against Team USA. This is the attitude that the best FIBA teams have always had regarding the participation of America's NBA players in these events. While know nothings in the United States alternate between criticizing NBA players for not bringing home the gold and than lamenting when Team USA blows out smaller countries, people forget that it was at the instigation of the rest of FIBA that the United States put together the Dream Team in 1992. In fact, the United States was the one country that was initially opposed to the idea. The fact is that sending college players to compete against other countries' professionals is pointless; the college players cannot win in these kind of events and it is better for the development of the game for the best to play against the best. The NBA regular season MVPs won by Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash are emblematic of the growth of basketball worldwide and can be directly attributed to the lasting impact of the one and only Dream Team.

Team USA's statistics for the FIBA Americas tournament can be found here. While some "experts" have already issued their "report cards"--essentially giving out grades before the final exam--I waited until all the games were over. Without further ado, here are capsule evaluations of each member of Team USA, listed in order of minutes played per game (which hints at Coach Krzyzewski's evaluation, though the fact that every game turned into a blowout definitely padded the numbers for the bench players):

LeBron James (22.2 mpg, 18.1 ppg, 4.7 apg, 3.6 rpg, 15 steals, five blocked shots): James led the team in assists, ranked second in scoring and steals and shot an amazing .760 from the field, including .847 from two point range as he showcased a variety of soaring slam dunks. James is part of the "Fab Four" who will without question not only go to next year's Olympics but will be in the starting lineup (barring injury, of course).

Kobe Bryant (19.9 mpg, 15.3 ppg, 2.9 apg, 2.0 rpg, 16 steals, four blocked shots): Bryant led the team in steals, ranked third in scoring and ranked fourth in assists behind James and point guards Kidd and Williams. In his first taste of FIBA play he brought to the team the pedigree of a three-time NBA champion, a two-time scoring champion and a perennial All-NBA and All-Defensive team member--and he did not rest on his laurels, setting the pace for the team in workout sessions and providing an example of the defense and intensity that have been sorely lacking on recent editions of Team USA. Obviously, he is part of the "Fab Four."

Michael Redd (19.9 mpg, 14.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, nine steals, zero blocked shots): Redd played exactly the same number of minutes as the player who started in front of him, Bryant, thanks to the extensive amount of garbage time minutes that existed in these games. Redd is a designated shooter whose role is to camp out behind the three point line and wait to receive a pass. He does not create many scoring opportunities either for himself or his teammates. Many people seem to assume that he is a lock to be on the Olympic team but it will be interesting to see what happens if several of the players who weren't available this time can play in 2008. Dwyane Wade is of course a lock to be on the team. I would also prefer Shane Battier and Bruce Bowen over Redd, although Bowen may be out of favor with USA Basketball for not participating in the workouts this summer. A versatile big like Chris Bosh would also be a nice addition to the roster.

Carmelo Anthony (19.4 mpg, 21.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, six steals, three blocked shots): Anthony led the team in scoring and, playing the power forward position, ranked second in rebounding. He is a marvelously gifted scorer who is deadly from all areas of the court, though his free throw shooting in FIBA play tends to be subpar (.714 this time). Anthony is not a great defender but that weakness has less impact when he shares the court with Bryant and Kidd (and even James, whose defense is improving). Anthony is also a member of the "Fab Four."

Tayshaun Prince (17.9 mpg, 7.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.1 apg, six steals, three blocked shots): Like Redd, Prince generally only played in garbage time. His shooting was erratic and he was one of only three players to make less than half of his field goal attempts but his floor game was solid. With Wade, Bosh and others waiting in the wings, he is far from a lock to be on the Olympic team, particularly if USA Basketball decides to bring Redd back as shooting insurance.

Amare Stoudemire (17.7 mpg, 11.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, .7 apg, 11 steals, six blocked shots): I had assumed that Stoudemire would be the starter but as a backup he actually played slightly more minutes than Howard did. Stoudemire played solidly, though he did not block a lot of shots considering the amount of time that he was on the court.

Dwight Howard (16.8 mpg, 10.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, .2 apg, six steals, 18 blocked shots): As I predicted, Howard led the team in rebounding. He also led in blocked shots and field goal percentage (.814). Howard is the perfect big man for this team: he rebounds, protects the paint and does not complain about being a secondary offensive option. He's not in my "Fab Four" but he's an important member of the team.

Chauncey Billups (16.0 mpg, 5.6 ppg, 2.6 apg, eight steals, zero blocked shots): he produced almost exactly the scoring and assists numbers that I predicted, which is to say that he did not have a huge impact on the team. He had the worst shooting percentage on the squad (.378) and the offense did not run as smoothly with him in the game as it did with Kidd on the court, something that was noted by Bill Walton and Charley Rosen. I was a bit surprised that he made the roster, even though so many people stressed his importance before the tournament; if Kirk Hinrich and some other players had not dropped out at the last minute Billups may not have made the cut and it will be interesting to see if he is on the Olympic roster.

Jason Kidd (15.9 mpg, 1.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.6 apg, 13 steals, five blocked shots): He tied for second on the team in assists but the contributions of this member of my "Fab Four" are not adequately measured by his statistics. Kidd and Bryant clearly have the respect of the younger players on the roster, who followed their lead in terms of professionalism, work ethic and defensive intensity. It is a joy to watch him play basketball.

Mike Miller (15.6 mpg, 7.9 ppg, 2.1 rpg, .9 apg, seven steals, two blocked shots): He and Redd were this team's designated shooters but they rarely saw any action until games were well in hand. Miller struggled with his shooting throughout the tournament and I would be very surprised to see him on the Olympic team.

Deron Williams (14.3 mpg, 4.7 ppg, 4.6 apg, 1.0 rpg, four steals, zero blocked shots): Williams tied with Kidd for second on the team in assists but most of Williams' assists came on passes to Redd, Miller and other reserves in garbage time. He is obviously one of the young, upcoming point guards in the NBA and he did a decent job when he was in the game but we still don't know how he would do against the best FIBA guards in a close game, particularly on defense (note his low totals in steals for a team that played a lot of pressure defense).

Tyson Chandler (8.6 mpg, 2.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, zero assists, two steals, 14 blocked shots): Team USA's version of the human victory cigar, it seemed like Coach Krzyzewski did not want him on the court unless the margin was at least 25 points. Chandler ranked second in blocked shots despite his limited minutes and he got a lot of practice converting lobs into reverse slam dunks, the closest thing he has to a signature offensive move. Chandler has no post moves, cannot make a faceup jumper to save his life, has poor hands and is not a good passer, so he pretty much is the antithesis of a good FIBA big (contrast his skill set with Scola's). Do not expect to see him on the Olympic roster.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:03 AM

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Team USA Routs Puerto Rico 135-91, Earns Berth in 2008 Olympics

Team USA clinched a spot in the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a 135-91 semifinal round victory over Puerto Rico in the FIBA Americas Tournament. Puerto Rico kept the game close for a quarter and a half but Team USA began pulling away toward the end of the first half and ended up winning by an even bigger margin than they did in Wednesday's quarterfinal round matchup between these teams. Carmelo Anthony once again led the way offensively, scoring a game-high 27 points on 8-9 field goal shooting, including 6-7 from three point range. LeBron James added 19 points and a game-high nine assists, while Kobe Bryant (15 points) and Jason Kidd provided their customary leadership and defense in the backcourt. Kidd again had a stat line that does not do justice to his impact: eight points, four rebounds, two assists. Once the game was well out of hand, Michael Redd came in and put on an impressive shooting display, scoring 23 points on 8-10 shooting, including 7-8 from behind the three point arc. Dwight Howard led Team USA with six rebounds.

Puerto Rico seemed to play with a lot more fire and intensity early in this game than they did on Wednesday. ESPN Classic analyst Bill Walton went so far as to suggest that Puerto Rico played possum in that contest, saving their best effort for this game, where a victory would earn a trip to the Olympics. Puerto Rico employed a zone defense on Sunday, daring Kidd to shoot from three point range. Kidd had attempted just six shots from the field in the previous eight games but even in the NBA he is a solid three point shooter and the closer FIBA three point arc is not a real challenge for him: Kidd foiled Puerto Rico's strategy by shooting 2-3 from three point range and scoring all eight of his points in the first quarter. Making the FIBA three point shot is not difficult for any reasonably talented NBA player but the important thing for Team USA is to play good defense and create open court scoring opportunities; Team USA will probably never run a half court FIBA offense as smoothly as the teams that are more accustomed to playing under these rules but in a fast paced game Team USA can bury teams with a barrage of dunks and wide open three pointers. Puerto Rico led briefly early in the game but never by more than two points and their last lead was 10-9 after a Carlos Arroyo drive. An Arroyo jumper provided the last tie at 15-15 but by the end of the quarter Team USA was up 33-27.

During this game we were once again "treated" to FIBA's quirky officiating. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, overall the calls have neither favored Team USA nor gone against Team USA; they have just been strange. For example, Amare Stoudemire drove baseline, clearly stepped out of bounds but was allowed to continue to the hoop and score. Early in the second quarter, Bryant cleanly blocked an Elias Ayuso three pointer but was called for a foul. Walton commented, "Even with three referees they still missed that one completely." On another occasion, the wrong Puerto Rican player attempted a free throw as James frantically protested; that one was eventually straightened out. After a replay of a Tayshaun Prince foul, Walton noted that Prince had made contact with the shadow of a Puerto Rican player. The key thing for Team USA is to realize that these calls go both ways and to not get frustrated.

Team USA clamped down defensively in the second quarter, limiting Puerto Rico to 15 points and taking a 57-42 halftime lead. The statistics told a familiar story: Team USA held Puerto Rico to 43% shooting, including 3-11 (.273) on three pointers. This led to many transition scoring opportunities and Team USA took advantage by shooting 66% from the field, connecting at a 7-16 rate (.438) on three pointers. As usual, it was not the designated shooters--Redd and Mike Miller--who did the damage from long distance when the game was competitive. Rather, it was Kidd (two three pointers), Bryant (two three pointers), Anthony (two three pointers) and Prince (one three pointer) who connected from three point range in the first half. Redd played just six scoreless minutes and Miller did not even get in the game.

Redd and Miller remained glued to the bench in the third quarter as Team USA blew the game wide open, relentlessly pushing the ball up the court for a host of fast break layups and transition three pointers, most of the latter being delivered by Anthony, who scored 16 points in a little over six minutes. Walton praised how well Anthony has shot the ball throughout this tournament but also noted two factors that weigh heavily in his favor: (1) Team USA has gone with a small lineup that puts Anthony at power forward, matching him up against defenders who are way too slow to guard him; (2) "The defense is stacked against Kobe and LeBron," observed Walton at one point, so Anthony rarely sees any double-teams. By the 3:30 mark, Team USA led 88-62 and Bryant and Anthony headed to the bench. Up to that point, Team USA led 77-48 when Bryant was in the game and trailed 14-11 when he was off the court; Anthony's numbers were 70-44 and 18-18 respectively. Meanwhile, Team USA trailed 17-14 during Redd's scoreless minutes and led 74-45 when he was not in the game. Of course, anyone who did not see the game and just glances at the boxscore will think that Redd played like a star. This is not meant to belittle Redd, who is a fine player, and it was nice to see Redd and the entire second unit actually extend the lead while playing for the entire fourth quarter--but there is a big difference between making shots when your team is up 25-30 points or more and making shots when the game is close.

Team USA has already accomplished its main mission in this tournament by qualifying for the Olympics but it is still important to beat Argentina in the gold medal game on Sunday--especially considering the fact that this is Argentina's "B" team due to the absences of Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto and others. Team USA does not want to give Argentina any added confidence for their likely showdown in next year's Olympics. Luis Scola had a huge game (27 points, 10-14 shooting, nine rebounds) in Argentina's 91-80 win over Brazil in the other semifinal matchup and Team USA's frontcourt players should relish this opportunity to play better against him than they did in Team USA's 91-76 victory on Thursday, when Scola had 20 points in just 18 foul-plagued minutes. It will be interesting to see if Team USA really tries to send a message and beats Argentina--whose only loss in this tournament is to Team USA--by more than 20 points.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:28 AM

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