Analyzing Team USA's 12 Man RosterOn 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 Those four players have been replaced by Carlos Boozer, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade.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.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:28 AM