Five Observations About Team USA Heading Into Medal Round PlayBefore Olympic medal round play begins, it is worthwhile to take a moment to address a few issues relating to Team USA and its star players:
1a) Has there been a changing of the guard in the "best player in the NBA" discussion?
1b) Where does Dwyane Wade fit into the mix with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in that discussion?
Dwyane Wade (16.2 ppg, .721 FG%) and LeBron James (15.8 ppg, .608 FG%) are Team USA's leading scorers, with Kobe Bryant (12.6 ppg, .433 FG%) a distant third. Those scoring numbers and shooting percentages have been cited in some quarters as proof that James is the best player in the NBA and that Wade has regained his status among the league's elite players. It is important to understand that a FIBA event is not the proper forum for deciding who the best NBA player is: keep in mind that Pau Gasol was the MVP of the 2006 FIBA World Championship and that Luis Scola was the MVP of the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament; I don't expect either of their names to come up in NBA MVP conversations any time soon. Also, for those who don't know or have forgotten, in the 1992 Olympics Michael Jordan averaged 14.9 ppg while shooting .451 from the field and .211 from three point range; he was the only player on the Dream Team to shoot below .500 from the field other than little-used Christian Laettner and Jordan had by far the worst three point shooting percentage among the nine players who made at least one three point shot. Does anyone doubt that Jordan was the best player in the NBA in 1992?
Bryant was a landslide winner in the 2008 NBA MVP race because he led the Lakers to the best record in perhaps the toughest Western Conference playoff race ever and if that award needed "validation" then he provided it by carrying the Lakers to the NBA Finals, defeating the 2007 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs and the 2007 Western Conference Finalist Utah Jazz along the way. Bryant averaged 31.9 ppg on .509 field goal shooting in the Western Conference playoffs. James had a great 2008 NBA regular season, establishing himself as the second best player in the league behind Bryant, but his inconsistent outside shot enables elite defensive teams to sag off of him, resulting in low shooting percentages and high turnover rates: James averaged 22.0 ppg, shot .356 from the field (including .200 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game as the Spurs swept his Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals, while Bryant averaged 29.2 ppg, shot .533 from the field (including .333 from three point range) and committed just 2.4 turnovers per game as the Lakers beat the Spurs in five games in the 2008 Western Conference Finals. Similarly, James averaged 26.7 ppg, shot .355 from the field (including .231 from three point range) and committed 5.3 turnovers per game in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals versus the Celtics, while Bryant averaged 25.7 ppg, shot .405 from the field (including .321 from three point range) and committed 3.8 turnovers per game versus the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals. The Cavs play better team defense than the Lakers and that is why they extended their series with Boston to seven games while L.A. fell in six but Bryant clearly demonstrated his superiority over James based on playoff performances against the two most recent NBA champions--not that this comes as a surprise to any regular 20 Second Timeout visitors, because I have repeatedly stressed that as great as James is he will not surpass Bryant until he improves his outside shot (defense was also a problem area for James at one time but he has largely shored up that issue).
In my Team USA Olympic Preview, I predicted that Anthony, James, Wade and Bryant would be the team's leading scorers, so people who are acting like it is some kind of surprise that Bryant is not the top scorer on the squad simply are not paying attention; Bryant was added to the roster to be a defensive stopper, that is exactly what he has done and that is the main reason that Team USA has not lost a game since he joined the team. Don't forget that Anthony, James and Wade had two previous chances to win gold medals together in FIBA play without Bryant and they failed both times; 2004 Olympic Coach Larry Brown has been criticized for allegedly not utilizing those three players enough but Anthony has never played defense and neither James nor Wade were the defenders then that they are now and you are not going to get on the court for Brown if you don't play defense. The only slight blemish on Bryant's FIBA record to this point is his 1-15 three point shooting in the first two games of the preliminary round of the Olympics; he has shot 7-14 from three point range in the three games since then. I don't know why Bryant missed so many three pointers to start the Olympics but 14 missed three pointers in FIBA play do not change the pecking order in the NBA universe, where Bryant is still number one and James is number two.
Wade won the 2006 NBA Finals MVP and then he averaged 19.3 ppg while shooting .576 from the field in the 2006 FIBA World Championship as Team USA won the bronze medal. Wade keeps claiming that last year he was written off faster than any other player of his caliber but while that is certainly a good motivational tool for him to use it is not really a fair or accurate statement; there is a difference between correctly stating that Wade did not play well last season versus making a blanket statement that he will never play well again. Wade is obviously healthy now and he has regained the explosiveness that enabled him to play at such a high level in 2006. However, the Wade that we are seeing in FIBA play is not new, nor does this necessarily indicate how he will perform during the upcoming NBA season. Wade's style of play results in him taking a physical beating and it remains to be seen if he will be healthy for an entire 82 game NBA season while playing at an All-NBA level. Based on how Wade looks now I certainly expect him to start out strongly in the 2008-09 NBA season but we'll see what happens after that. Bryant and James have proven to be more durable--and simply better all-around players--than Wade, so Wade's numbers versus FIBA teams do not convince me that he is a better NBA player than Bryant or James.
2) What happened to Carmelo Anthony's game?
The surprise for Team USA is not James or Wade but rather Anthony; many people considered him to be Team USA's best FIBA player coming into the Olympics. I never bought into that due to his shoddy defense but I certainly expected him to lead the team in scoring. Anthony's defense has, at best, shown sporadic improvement, but his offense has disappeared: he averaged 8.6 ppg on .467 field goal shooting in the five preliminary round games, ranking sixth on the team in scoring. Before the Olympics began, USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo criticized Anthony's conditioning level and shot selection but rather than using those words as motivation it seems like Anthony's game has gone into the tank. I don't understand how Anthony could get out of condition while participating in a training camp with Team USA.
3) Team USA is big enough and strong enough.
Team USA outrebounded the opposition 40.2 rpg to 38.0 rpg in the five preliminary round games and has not been seriously hurt in the paint at either end of the court. The "experts" who said that Tyson Chandler or some other big man should have been added to the roster did not know what they were talking about. Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh have been a good tandem at center, while Carlos Boozer has been available for spot duty when necessary. Meanwhile, Team USA's numerous big, quick and versatile wing players have wreaked havoc defensively and completely disrupted opposing offenses. Bryant, James and Wade deserve particular credit in this regard, while Bosh has done an excellent job on the perimeter when he has had to switch on to smaller players in screen/roll situations.
4) Michael Redd's shooting is a luxury, not a necessity.
Remember all the breathless stories about how important Michael Redd's three point shooting would be for Team USA? Remember how I kept repeating that Redd's shooting would have minimal impact on the outcome of these games? As I predicted, Redd has spent little time on the court when the score has been close. In fact, unlike his performance in last year's FIBA Americas tournament, he has not even shot well during garbage time, averaging 4.0 ppg on 8-28 (.286) field goal shooting, including 4-16 (.250) from three point range. Redd is shooting so badly that even with Bryant's 1-15 start Bryant actually has a better three point shooting percentage than Redd.
5) Team USA's gold medal chances depend on pressure defense/guarding three point shooters.
In the five preliminary round games, Team USA has forced 113 turnovers and held their opponents to 36-134 (.269) three point shooting. James and Wade have certainly contributed mightily to that defensive performance but the reality is that they did not play that way in FIBA events in 2004 and 2006. Team USA started playing this kind of defense only after Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd joined the team last year. Would James and Wade have seen the light anyway and played excellent defense this time around even if Bryant and Kidd were not on the team? We'll never know the answer to that question but there is no doubt that the number one reason that this version of Team USA looks like the best squad USA Basketball has put on the court since 1996 is that Bryant and Kidd set a defensive tone that permeated the entire roster. Kidd was USA Basketball's 2007 Male Athlete of the Year because of his role in the gold medal performance in the FIBA Americas tournament. We know that Chris Paul and Deron Williams are better NBA guards than he is now and they are receiving more minutes than Kidd is in the Olympics but it is amazing to me that people don't appreciate everything that Kidd has brought to the table for Team USA since 2006. Colangelo's idea was to use a three year plan to build continuity and to make Team USA a real national team instead of a collection of All-Star scorers. Kidd absolutely personifies everything that is right about this team and yet there are people who mock him for not shooting the ball and who seem to be openly rooting against him. What did Team USA look like when Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury were on the roster or when a young Paul and Kirk Hinrich were the point guards? Most likely, Paul and Williams will be running the show for Team USA in future competitions--maybe they will even be starting alongside each other, because they have performed well together as bench players for this year's team. Hopefully they will ultimately distinguish themselves in international play the way that Jason Kidd has throughout his FIBA career.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:55 AM