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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Analyzing Team USA's 12 Man Roster

On Monday, USA Basketball announced the 12 man roster that will comprise the 2008 U.S. Olympic basketball team. Five of the 12 have participated in the Olympics previously (Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Boozer, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Dwyane Wade); the only U.S. team that had more Olympic veterans was the 1996 squad--that unit welcomed back six players from the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, the only group that truly deserved the "Dream Team" designation. Eight members of the 2008 team played in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament, which Team USA won with a 10-0 record; here is a list of those eight players, along with some of their statistics from the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament.

Carmelo Anthony (21.2 ppg, .613 FG%, .578 3Pt FG%, 5.2 rpg, 1.4 apg in nine games)
LeBron James (18.1 ppg, .760 FG%, .622 3Pt FG%, 3.6 rpg, 4.7 apg in 10 games)
Kobe Bryant (15.3 ppg, .548 FG%, .459 3Pt FG%, 2.0 rpg, 2.9 apg in 10 games)
Michael Redd (14.4 ppg, .530 FG%, .453 3Pt FG%, 1.4 rpg, 1.5 apg in 10 games)
Dwight Howard (10.0 ppg, .814 FG%, 5.3 rpg, 18 blocked shots in 10 games)
Tayshaun Prince (7.3 ppg, .481 FG%, .357 3Pt FG%, 5.0 rpg, 2.1 apg in nine games)
Deron Williams (4.7 ppg, .613 FG%, 5-10 3Pt FG, 1.0 rpg, 4.6 apg in 10 games)
Jason Kidd (1.8 ppg, 6-10 FG, 5-8 3Pt FG, 3.3 rpg, 4.6 apg in 10 games)

Amare Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups played in 2007 but withdrew their names from the selection process this time around. Tyson Chandler played the fewest minutes on the 2007 team and Mike Miller had the second lowest field goal percentage on the 2007 team. Those four players have been replaced by Carlos Boozer, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade.

In addition to the Olympic and international experience listed above, the current roster has the 2008 NBA MVP (Bryant), four of the five members of the 2008 All-NBA First Team (Bryant, James, Howard and Paul) plus a 2008 All-NBA Second Team selection (Williams) and a 2008 All-NBA Third Team selection (Boozer).

Since the debacles for Team USA in 2002, 2004 and 2006, USA Basketball has emphasized that it wants a three year commitment from players so that the team can develop cohesion and chemistry. That is why the fifth member of the 2008 All-NBA First Team, Kevin Garnett, is not on the roster. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said of Garnett, "We never got any positive feedback of his interest. It was more about 'I've been there, I've done that and it's time for someone else to do it.' I had a number of conversations with his agent just to check the temperature of the water, and there was never any positive response. We would have loved to have had him...but obviously, it wasn't in the cards."

The key additions to the 2007 team were Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd; they quickly emerged as team leaders because of their professionalism, work ethic and defensive intensity, three qualities that had been noticeably missing on recent editions of Team USA. U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "Kobe is unbelievably committed to representing his country. Last summer playing for our team, the first time he saw his uniform, he got emotional...The first thing he did for us last summer, he was our best perimeter defender--and that's a role he wanted...I think we'll start out with the same thing because he knows he can play that way and expend the energy on defense because of the offensive talent of his teammates...We usually put him on the best perimeter player on the opposing team whether it be a point guard or a wing, and that's how we started the game. And that's how I want to start our practice sessions with that in mind." Bryant sacrificed some of his offensive game to concentrate on defense but still managed to finish third on the team in scoring and fourth in assists.

In a December 5, 2007 post, I mentioned some things that Suns General Manager Steve Kerr told me that then-Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni--a Team USA assistant coach--had said about Bryant's role on Team USA:

Prior to each game in last summer's FIBA Americas tournament, Bryant asked the coaching staff, "Who do you want me to take out?" In other words, Bryant wanted to know who was the toughest perimeter threat on each team so that he could study his tendencies on film and then completely neutralize him on the court. I said to Kerr, "That sounds like a sniper zeroing in on a target" and Kerr replied, "Yeah--and he was serious." Kerr went on to say that Bryant's "focus" and "bravado" added an essential missing element to the squad and elevated everyone else's play. Kerr noted that the previous Team USA squad had performed reasonably well other than the infamous loss to Greece but that it lacked a certain "swagger," as he termed it, and that Team USA did not have a "player who everyone feared." Kerr literally shook his head in wonderment as he described Bryant's impact on Team USA.

Kidd's leadership came in a much subtler form; there is virtually no statistical evidence of it, other than the fact that he ranked second on the team in assists--but make no mistake that he played a very key role on the team. He has never lost a game while wearing a Team USA jersey and he made it clear that he does not intend on ending that streak now.

The usual starting lineup of Bryant, Kidd, James, Anthony and Howard generally led the team to such big early leads that players like Redd, Stoudemire and Williams put up a lot of their numbers in de facto garbage time. Though casual fans probably assume that Chris Paul will be the starting point guard, I expect Coach Krzyzewski to use the same starting lineup during the Olympics that he employed during the FIBA Americas tournament; Kidd only ended up playing 15.9 mpg because Team USA won so many blowouts but I think that it is important to start the game with a group that has played together before in FIBA competition. This is not some All-Star exhibition in which Team USA can rotate who starts. Paul may end up playing more minutes than Kidd, particularly if Team USA builds big leads, but I would be surprised if Coach Krzyzewski changes his starting lineup.

The main early criticism of the 2008 roster is the supposed lack of big men but I disagree with that assessment. Chandler hardly played at all in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament and although Stoudemire rebounded well he was not much of a defensive presence (six blocked shots in 10 games). Boozer and Bosh should be more than able to replace them, so this team is deeper and more versatile up front than the 2007 squad. Furthermore, the most effective style of play for Team USA in FIBA events is to go small, play pressure defense, force turnovers and score in the open court. Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James can easily play power forward in such a lineup, so on this team they are essentially "bigs" also. As for the perimeter players, Billups and Miller were two of the least productive members of the 2007 team, so it is difficult to believe that there will be any drop off by replacing them with Paul and Wade.

Thus, the 2008 team should be even better than the 2007 squad, though it is also true that the competition at the Olympics will be much tougher than the competition at the FIBA Americas tournament.

Anthony will almost certainly be Team USA's leading scorer. He feeds off of the open court scoring opportunities provided by the pressure defense of Bryant, Kidd and James and he is also a tough cover in the half court for most FIBA forwards. If anything, Anthony plays even worse defense in FIBA competition than he does in the NBA but he is such an efficient scorer--and the other four starters defend so well--that his offensive output outweighs his defensive liabilities (which was not the case in the 2004 Olympics, when Bryant and Kidd were not on the team and James did not defend nearly as well as he does now).

Some quotes from Anthony and Wade give an indication of why they failed to lead the 2004 and 2006 teams to gold medals. Anthony said that he joined the 2004 team expecting to have "some of the best workouts in the summertime with the best players in the world" and he assumed "the USA is supposed to win everything." Wade candidly admitted that being an Olympian had never been a dream of his, adding, "I didn't have a clue what I was getting into...Now, we respect the game so much. We respect the team basketball that they play internationally so much." You don't have to read too far between the lines to understand that in 2004 Anthony and Wade underestimated the competition that they faced and did not realize how much hard work and intensity would be necessary to win the gold medal. Now, they know better and the team has a much better leadership structure--with Bryant and Kidd on board no one will be taking any shortcuts in practice or at the defensive end of the court (well, Anthony probably will still take some shortcuts there but the team can survive that as long as he keeps shooting over .600 from the field).

The prevailing myth about Team USA's failure to win gold medals in the 2002 FIBA World Championship, the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 FIBA World Championship is that a lack of outside shooters proved to be fatal. However, as I demonstrated in a September 4, 2007 post titled The Real Story Behind Team USA's Losses in Previous FIBA Events, what really killed those teams was poor defense, particularly regarding the short three point shot (20'6" as opposed to 23'9" in the NBA) that FIBA teams love to launch. It is absolutely vital that Team USA shut down the three point shooters on opposing teams and that they do so without leaving the lane open to cutters; shooting well from the three point line would certainly be a nice bonus but perimeter defense will be the linchpin of Team USA's success. Good perimeter defense will fuel transition offense that will result in open three pointers and fast break dunks; the gaudy field goal percentage posted by Team USA in 2007 was largely the result of great defense leading to high percentage scoring opportunities in transition.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:28 AM

8 comments

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8 Comments:

At Wednesday, June 25, 2008 5:12:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

I don't like the team, specifically I do not like the frontcourt rotation. It's not just that I'd rather have a fourth big man (a proper, fulltime big man) than a third PG or a third slashing guard specially with Wade's health concern.

Their only dominant big man is Howard, and there is such a thing as foul trouble. Bosh and specially Boozer are lukewarm defenders and Anthony is a hole there. Even against a weakened Argentinean team, it was painful to watch Carmelo Anthony - yes, he scored at will with a impressive array of offensive moves, but at the other side Luis Scola seemd to have some sort of force field that kept Anthony five feet away at all times.

Kidd and Kobe overwhelmed opposing backcourts in the Tournament, and may do so again in the Olympics with the help of Prince and an improving LeBron (even though the opposition will be way harder), but they need big men that'll cover them.

And they do not have them, other than Howard. Even though I agree that Team USA's best tactic is the open game, you must be able to stop the other team at some point. You need tactical flexibility, but this roster forces you to score in bunches or lose.

In 2006, Team USA would have scored over 100 points against Greece if they had hit some free throws. And they would still have lost, because they let the other team score at will. It's hard to execute flawlessly and speedily against Team USA, but if you do then it's a layup drill.

I am amazed that they don't try and cover that eventuality.

 
At Wednesday, June 25, 2008 5:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

This team has a better frontcourt rotation than the 2007 squad; I'd rather have Boozer and Bosh than Stoudemire and Chandler. Boozer and Bosh can both stick the outside jumper and rebound. I expect that their defense will be adequate. Stoudemire had some highlight reel dunks in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament but his defense was not great. Chandler was a spare part who only played once the score reached blowout proportions, so I am mystified why some people act like his presence will be missed; I said during last year's FIBA Americas tournament that I did not expect him to be on the Olympic team.

Of course, even if you agree with me that the 2008 frontcourt rotation is better than the 2007 one you still may believe that Team USA should have added one more big to the roster. I understand that argument but it seems to me that the Team USA strategy is to use one of the three bigs (Howard, Boozer or Bosh) alongside four of the "smalls," a term I used advisedly since Melo and LeBron are bigger--and certainly more athletic--than the frontcourt players they will face. If Team USA is only playing one "big" at a time then I don't think that foul trouble is really going to be a serious issue. Assuming that none of the bigs end up with Chandler-type minutes, they each can use five fouls in roughly 13 minutes of court time. Howard will probably play 20 mpg, with Boozer and Bosh playing 10 mpg each but if Howard gets in foul trouble I don't think that it would be a crisis to have Boozer or Bosh out there for an extra five or 10 minutes. The bigger concern would be if one of the bigs got hurt but even in that case the two remaining bigs could play 20 mpg each.

What killed Team USA in recent events was poor perimeter defense. I expect Kidd, Kobe, Prince and even LeBron (who has improved as a defender) to play good perimeter defense for this team. Wade and Paul will get a lot of steals.

I don't think that Team USA has to score in bunches to win but I think that their good perimeter defense will help them to score in bunches against most FIBA teams.

I think that this is the best team the United States has sent into international play since 1996--not necessarily the most talented, though it is very talented, but the best team in terms of mindset, focus and perimeter defense. I think that people forget how good the 1992 and 1996 USA teams were defensively; this team hearkens back to those squads, though it will of course be very difficult (if not impossible) to match their victory margins because of how much the FIBA teams have improved in the past 10-15 years.

Do you think that Team USA will win the gold medal? I have not been this confident about Team USA winning the gold medal--other than last year's FIBA Americas tournament--in quite a while.

 
At Wednesday, June 25, 2008 2:47:00 PM, Anonymous jn said...

They will have to go through Spain to get there. Of course, Spain is going through its own bit of turmoil at the moment and they have fired the coach who won the gold medal at the WC just a couple months before the Olympics. His replacement, Aíto, is a great coach, but you don't want to go into the Games with an unsettled team. And unless Garbajosa finds a magic pixie that cures ankles, the Garbajosa-Jimenez defensive axis will not be there to be the backbone of the team.

I think that Team USA will win gold, but I am not any good at predictions. This is a better team than the 2006 version, but I do think that they could easily have sent a more balanced and stronger team with just a couple modifications. Chandler never found his role, and obviously if you are not going to use him then it makes no sense to take him along just for the ride a la Brad Miller in 2006.

But I don't see why you take only one pure inside defensive force in a 12-player roster. Even if going "small ball" (as small as balls can be with Kidd, Kobe, LeBron and Anthony around) is your gameplan, I do not see why you can't have the tools to go big if need be.

Against Greece, Team USA did not seem to have a plan B and they lost. Against Argentina, Spain found itself locked in a grinding-out, physical game quite different from their style, but they managed to wrestle back the game and win. And then trounced Greece in the Finals using Reyes and Marc Gasol to cover up for injured Pau.

I don't see that kind of versatility in Team USA, and I don't really see why. Just a couple roster changes would achieve it.

 
At Wednesday, June 25, 2008 11:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

When Pau Gasol does not have Kobe drawing two defenders I don't think that he is going to do well going against Howard or Boozer, though he could do OK against the less physical Bosh. Plus, not only will Gasol be without Kobe's help but Kobe (and Kidd) will be pressuring Spain's ballhandlers relentlessly.

Who do you think that Team USA should have taken to be the extra big? Keep in mind that USA Basketball wants a three year commitment from players now, so they are only selecting from a pool of about 30-35 players. Duncan has vowed never to play FIBA basketball again, KG was not interested and Amare decided that he needs to rest his knee. I'd rather have a useful wing than a useless (in FIBA play) Chandler.

Team USA's roster is set up to ensure that they have big, quick and physical wings who will disrupt the three point shooters and the screen/roll game that have killed Team USA in recent events.

 
At Thursday, June 26, 2008 7:30:00 AM, Anonymous warsaw said...

Friedman

You talk like Pau Gasol has never been able to create his own shot or as if he was worthless before Kobe.

Remember that Gasol made good numbers in the Grizzlies for many years, when he was doubled in a daily basis, and also against Boozer or Bosh.

He will have good passers too. Kidd doesn't strike me as a player that has ever been able to shut down Calderón, and both Navarro, Rudy, Marc Gasol or Reyes are capable passers.

I'm not saying Spain are going to win, but I don't think Team USA will shut Gasol down easily.

 
At Thursday, June 26, 2008 12:11:00 PM, Anonymous jn said...

Kobe and Kidd are the main difference from 2006, but it's an improvement in personnel not an improvement in roste balance. Team USA '08 will try to play much like Team USA '06, only better. It's a fair bet, they only lost one close game so maybe this improvement is enough to get the gold. It's just that I'd improve my tactical options as well, just to be on the safe side.

Be aware that Pau Gasol is a very different player in FIBA. Right now, he is positively the most dominant player in international competitions (taking over from Nowitzki, who was the previous king of the hill). That does not make Spain unbeatable, of course, only that few teams have managed to contain him (usually by trying to drag down the game to a physical contest, which is not his fare of choice). There is the possibility that he arrives tired after having a much longer season than before, but I don't see Boozer stopping him. [As an aside, I would not use Howard either, as that would mean having Howard roam away from the rim where he is more effective; I'd try Prince or any similar forward who combines lateral quickness and strength.]

You can't possibly imagine what it means for a middle age Spanish basketball fan to have a Pau Gasol. We had great temas in the mid-eighties, but no major star of similar caliber. I grew up watching Petrovic, Sabonis, then Divac, Kukoc, and finally Stojakovic, Nowitzki, Jasikevicius. I never expected to have one on our team.

That's why I'd take Chandler along (or any other defensive big man). He's improved this past season, and I still think he never played well because they never found a niche for him. In the Finals, Spain brought in Marc Gasol to play a variation of box and one and thus we crushed Greece, a great team.

Flexibility and options.

 
At Thursday, June 26, 2008 3:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Warsaw:

Not at all. Gasol is a good player with or without Kobe. All I am saying is that (1) he played the most efficient basketball of his NBA career with Kobe (check out the FG% before and after the trade) and (2) I don't believe that Gasol is going to outplay Team USA's bigs, at least not to the extent that Spain will beat Team USA. Gasol will almost certainly play more minutes than any one of Team USA's three bigs, so he may finish with more points but with Kidd and Kobe pressuring the guards I think that it will be more difficult for Spain to get great looks for Gasol. I could also see a scenario in which Team USA holds Gasol somewhat in check while building a comfortable lead and then Gasol puts up some numbers after the outcome has been decided.

Bottom line: I am not concerned that Team USA will have trouble dealing with Gasol.

 
At Thursday, June 26, 2008 3:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

Clearly, Team USA has chosen to have "roster flexibility" with its "smalls" instead of its "bigs." When Team USA has lost in previous years it has been the FIBA guards and three point shooters that have done most of the damage.

I don't see Chandler as some kind of "Gasol stopper," certainly not any more so than the guys who are on the team. Chandler does not strike me as someone who will ever be particularly effective in the FIBA game because he is not a skilled shooter or passer. Boozer can bang Gasol much more than Chandler can and Boozer can hit that midrange jump shot that FIBA big men need to hit with that trapezoid lane.

I mentioned Howard because I was picturing Gasol posting up. Of course, if Gasol is going to play a face up game than Prince could guard him--but Prince won't be starting and Gasol will, so that can't be the matchup at the beginning of the game.

 

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