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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Team USA Opens Exhibition Tour With 120-65 Win Over Canada

Team USA began its five game pre-Olympic exhibition tour with a 120-65 win over Canada in the State Farm USA Basketball Challenge at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Michael Redd led Team USA with 20 points each. Anthony added six rebounds and three assists, while Wade had three rebounds, two assists and three steals and Redd shot 6-8 from the field, with all of his attempts coming from three point range. Kobe Bryant contributed 15 points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals while filling the defensive stopper role that he has played with perfection since joining the squad last summer for the FIBA Americas tournament. Dwight Howard scored six points on 3-3 field goal shooting and grabbed a game-high seven rebounds as Team USA enjoyed a 38-24 rebounding advantage. Jason Kidd had a stat line that belied his real value to the team: five rebounds, zero assists and zero points (he did not attempt a field goal or free throw and was the only Team USA player who did not score). What those numbers don't show are how Kidd defended tenaciously, continually pushed the ball up the court and threw several great passes that resulted in scores but were not assists--not to mention the leadership that he provides for this team on a daily basis in practice. Team USA often used Chris Paul and Deron Williams at the same time, with Bryant sliding over to small forward; Paul had 11 points and a game-high eight assists (one more than Canada's entire team), while Williams added 14 points and five assists.

LeBron James did not play due to a sprained ankle. Wade started in his place and thus there were about 20-25 extra minutes of playing time to distribute, so it will be interesting to see whose minutes get cut once James returns; Wade will be the sixth man but he will probably play about the same number of minutes that he did in this game (18). Last month, in the comments section of my Analyzing Team USA's 12 Man Roster post, I predicted that in the Olympics Howard will average about 20 mpg, with Chris Bosh and Boozer each averaging about 10 mpg. Howard played 19 minutes against Canada, Bosh played 14 and Boozer made an eight minute cameo appearance. Certain matchups, foul trouble and/or injuries could of course change things in a given game but at the end of the Olympics I am confident that their minutes will indeed average out to right around 20-10-10.

ESPN broadcast this game, with Rick Kamla doing the play by play and Fran Fraschilla providing color commentary. Just before tipoff, Fraschilla listed three keys for Team USA:

(1) Build chemistry
(2) Establish pressure defense
(3) Make outside shots

These teams played almost a year ago in the FIBA Americas tournament, with Team USA improving to 3-0 after a 113-63 win that was remarkably similar to this contest in several respects: last year Team USA led 28-21 after the first quarter, 65-34 at halftime and 95-49 after the third quarter, while Team USA enjoyed 30-24, 61-38 and 95-56 leads respectively after the first three quarters this time around. Last year, Anthony led Team USA with 25 points, Redd scored 19 points and Bryant had 15 points.

Canada may be the weakest squad that Team USA faces this year but Canada was game ready simply by virtue of the fact that they had just played in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Athens (Canada lost to Croatia 83-62 and will not participate in the Beijing Olympics). It is interesting to see to what extent preparation can be an equalizing factor even for an overmatched team like Canada (yet another reason it is important for Team USA to not only insist on a three year commitment by players but also to play these kinds of exhibition games prior to the main event): Team USA looked sloppy in the first quarter, committing numerous turnovers and allowing Canada to shoot 5-8 from three point range. While people often talk about how important it is for Team USA to make three point shots, I have consistently maintained that it is even more important for Team USA to do a good job defending against the three point shot: most FIBA teams rely heavily on three pointers and if you take that weapon away from them their offenses are much less effective. The FIBA three point shot is only 20'6" (compared to 23'9" around the arc in the NBA and 22' in the corners) and the reality is that everyone on Team USA can make that shot fairly easily except for Howard, Boozer and possibly Bosh, three players who should not be shooting from that far out anyway; you don't have to be an NBA three point specialist to make 20 foot jump shots.

Team USA only led 30-24 after the first 10 minutes and neither team had scored a fast break point; the significance of that statistic is that Team USA will probably never execute a half court FIBA offense as well as well as FIBA teams that have played together for years so it is vitally important for Team USA to force turnovers and score in transition. Team USA's defensive intensity and focus picked up noticeably in the second quarter. Bryant forced a turnover that led to a fast break opportunity for Redd, who was fouled and split a pair of free throws. Normally, teams attack a defensive weak link, not a defensive strong link, but for some inexplicable reason Carl English went one on one versus Bryant on the next two possessions, missing shots both times. Bryant drove to the hoop and dished to Boozer, who was fouled and made two free throws. Then Canada hung English out to dry, having him bring the ball up the court against Bryant with no help; naturally, Bryant ripped English cleanly and sailed in for a fast break dunk and a 35-25 lead. Fraschilla mentioned several times that in FIBA--unlike the NBA--there are no rules against hand checking and consequently the perimeter play can be very physical. Bryant noticeably takes advantage of that difference, playing a much more physical and aggressive brand of defense in FIBA competition than he would be allowed to in the NBA; Kidd and Wade also do this and hopefully all Team USA perimeter defenders will adjust to this as well.

Late in the second quarter after Deron Williams drove to the hoop, looked to pass and drew a foul, Fraschilla observed, "If there's anything going on right now it's almost too much unselfishness by Team USA. A lot of the turnovers in the first half are caused by guys who are supposed to be big-time scorers trying to make the unselfish play."Anthony and Wade led Team USA with 12 points each in the first half, shooting 5-9 and 4-4 from the field respectively, while Bryant had nine points on 4-5 field goal shooting.

Neither team did much posting up and even though Canada is not a strong FIBA team this is typical of what to expect in FIBA play and illustrates the value of having a roster full of versatile perimeter players as opposed to one overstocked with superfluous post players. Keep in mind that Anthony is a great power forward in FIBA and that James is essentially the same size as Boozer and Boozer's Utah predecessor Karl Malone, so there is no reason that James cannot play power forward if necessary.

The second half was essentially "extensive gar-bage time," as Marv Albert would put it; Canada never seriously threatened. As the final horn sounded, Fraschilla said of Team USA's performance, "Impressive team chemistry. The defense was solid, the outside shooting was pretty solid. There is still some work to be done. They'll get better and better. It will be an interesting Olympics and it won't be easy."

Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski was pleased with his squad's pick and roll defense, an area that has been Team USA's fatal weakness in recent FIBA events. After the game, he said, "Two years ago (in the FIBA World Championship, where Team USA settled for the bronze medal) we didn’t X and O, we didn’t have time in building our infrastructure and all that, we weren’t as good X and O wise as we are now. We’ve taken the input from these guys of how they wanted to defend it, we studied it, we have a good plan. We have I think a very good plan against it and then you have to execute the plan. A lot of it is making sure that the pick and roll is played by five guys and not two."

Kidd added, "Defensively we played well, we just have to work on not giving up so many 3-point shots, and then just taking care of the ball and getting good looks." Although Team USA held Canada to .333 field goal shooting, Canada shot 9-23 from three point range (.391) and they had too many open looks from deep, particularly in the first quarter. Team USA shot 11-22 from three point range but many of those treys came when they already had a huge lead and it is not hard to do the math and calculate that if they had made no three point shots they would have still won by 22 points. The number one key for Team USA is to play good pressure defense: that will shut down the three point shooting of opposing teams while also making it difficult for teams to establish a postup game.

Just like I did during my coverage of last year's FIBA Americas tournament, I tracked the on court/off court numbers of several Team USA players. Team USA outscored Canada 67-40 when Bryant was on the court and 53-25 when he was off the court. Carmelo Anthony played the vast majority of his minutes alongside Bryant, so his numbers were very similar (69-43 and 51-22 respectively). The blowout gave Coach Krzyzewski the opportunity to play Kidd for just 16 minutes; Team USA outscored Canada 47-25 when he was on the court and 73-40 when he was off the court. Team USA outscored Canada 52-29 when Dwyane Wade was on the court and 68-36 when he was off the court. Of course, these numbers are skewed a bit by the production of the reserve players when the game was well in hand, so it is perhaps more significant to note that Team USA outscored Canada by 15 (41-26) in the first half when Bryant was on the court, by 14 (41-27) when Anthony was on the court, by 13 when Wade was on the court (30-17) and by 12 (25-13) when Kidd was on the court.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:14 AM

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Scenes From "Road to Redemption"

ESPN is airing a series of shows about Team USA called "Road to Redemption." The first episode brings the viewer up to speed on the history of NBA players being members of Team USA. The 1992 Dream Team dominated in the first Olympics in which American professional basketball players participated (other countries had been sending their pros to the Olympics for years). The 1996 version of Team USA also won easily but by 2000 the rest of the world had improved to the point that Team USA had to survive some close games before capturing the gold medal. Then came the disaster in 2002 when Team USA finished sixth in the FIBA World Championship ("Road to Redemption" does not even mention that fiasco). In the 2004 Olympics, Team USA lost to Puerto Rico 92-73 in the first game of the tournament, the most lopsided defeat ever suffered in FIBA play by a Team USA squad comprised of NBA players. Team USA also lost to Lithuania but managed to advance to the medal round only to lose to Argentina; they settled for the bronze medal after winning a rematch against Lithuania. Two years later in the FIBA World Championship, Team USA once again had to settle for the bronze medal after losing to Greece in the semifinals. That meant that Team USA would have to at least reach the Finals of the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament in order to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Contrary to what a lot of people say, the primary problem in 2002, 2004 and 2006 was not poor shooting but rather poor defense, as I explained in a September 4, 2007 post titled The Real Story Behind Team USA's Losses in Previous FIBA Events. As Fran Fraschilla noted when I interviewed him, poor perimeter defense also compromises the interior defense because "the first post defender is always the man guarding the ball." Team USA's guards and wings did not defend well consistently and thus opposing teams feasted on open shots. Team USA scored plenty of points but their defense was bad (for instance, Greece beat them 101-95 in 2006--in a 40 minute game). Jerry Colangelo, the managing director for USA Basketball, understood that it was essential to improve the team's perimeter defense. Team USA also needed some veteran leaders to provide stability and set an example not only in games but also on the practice court. Enter Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd, the new starting backcourt.

Bryant is quite simply the best player in the world. That is true not just because he has no weaknesses in terms of his skill set but also because of his killer mentality. In "Road to Redemption," Colangelo recalls, "The very first play of the very first scrimmage there is a loose ball and there is Kobe Bryant diving on the floor. That set the tone." Coach Mike Krzyzewski adds, "He showed a selflessness right away in telling us, 'Look, I want to play defense. I want to guard the best offensive player every time.'" Mike Miller says, "He competes more than anyone I've ever seen in my life. He takes a challenge against everybody. He's got a different mentality and that's a mentality of being the best." As Miller's comments were aired, "Road to Redemption" showed some practice footage of Bryant breaking Miller down off the dribble and driving to the hoop. Someone--it's not clear who--said "That's off" as Bryant shot but the ball went through the net and Bryant responded triumphantly, "Shut up. Shut up."

Great basketball coaches and players understand that practice is supposed to be hard so that the games will be easy (or at least easier). Champions like Phil Jackson and John Wooden do their most important work behind the scenes and then the uninformed wonder why they sit on the bench impassively during games; the reason is that they did their work during practice and it is up to the players to execute during the games. Colangelo says of Bryant, "I think his presence alone makes us a much tougher team. Who was there every morning? Kobe Bryant, working out every morning--hard." Carmelo Anthony declares, "Kobe's work ethic is out of this world. Seeing him work, it just makes all of the other players elevate their games to a higher level."

Kidd's leadership is also important. He paced Team USA in assists in 2000, the last time that Team USA won a gold medal in international play, and he has never lost a FIBA game. Coach Krzyzewski says that Kidd "is like a coach on the floor--a really good coach on the floor" and he praises "the subtle things that he's doing in a drill or in a huddle." Several scenes of practice footage support that point, as Kidd pulls aside various players at different times to offer advice about how they should position themselves offensively or defensively. "He's kind of that missing piece that just bonds everyone together," Chris Bosh says. "I think he makes everybody better and when you can make guys like Kobe, Carmelo and LeBron better it just really takes the team up a notch."

"I'm so young and have a lot to learn about this game," Deron Williams admits. "I feel like he's the type of player that can teach me those little things I need to know to improve my game and take it to the next level."

Last summer, with Bryant and Kidd running things from the backcourt, Team USA rolled through the FIBA Americas tournament with a 10-0 record, earning a berth in the Beijing Olympics with a 118-81 victory over Argentina in the gold medal game. The next step on the "Road to Redemption" is a five game exhibition tour that starts tonight with a game versus Canada.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:37 AM

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How Chris Paul Improved His Shooting

Last season, Chris Paul emerged as the best point guard in the NBA and perhaps the biggest single improvement in his game was his shooting. Paul shot just .430 from the field as a rookie in 2005-06, including a dismal .282 from three point range. He elevated those numbers to .488 and .369 respectively in 2007-08. His increased shooting range and improved accuracy obviously made him harder to guard and that in turn opened up some more driving and passing lanes, enabling him to lead the league with a career-high 11.6 apg, breaking Steve Nash's three year run as the NBA's assist king (although I documented that at least some of Paul's playoff assist totals were inflated I do not dispute that Paul is a great playmaker).

How did Paul improve his shooting skills? It would be silly to say that he is a natural shooter. If that were the case then his percentage would not have been so poor as a rookie. No, Paul has become a good shooter via the time tested, proven way to success in any field: hard work. During the San Antonio-New Orleans playoff series, Reggie Miller mentioned that Paul's regular pregame routine--conducted well before the start of the game, when he is on the court by himself--involves making (not just attempting) 151 shots from a variety of locations. Miller said that this is reminiscent of his own pregame routine, something that he developed when he was in college and watched some tapes of Larry Bird. I covered some Pacers games late in Miller's career and can vouch for the fact that Miller had an extensive pregame shooting routine. Miller started out with shots very close to the basket and then eventually moved further and further out as he warmed up. You might think that at some point the game's all-time leader in three point field goals made would not need to practice layups but that kind of thinking is backwards: a major reason that Miller not only became such a great shooter but enjoyed such longevity is precisely the fact that he paid such diligent attention to detail on a nightly basis.

Great players do not become great by accident or merely by "winning the genetic lottery," to borrow a phrase that Bill Walton often uses; they become great because of their tremendous work ethic. Obviously, a certain minimum baseline of talent is necessary, but what separates players at the elite level is how hard they work and how focused they are, because everyone at the elite level has talent. The "genetic lottery" could be more accurately said to separate the athletes from the non-athletes but not the great players from the good or the good from the below average in terms of the pool of players who actually make it to the NBA.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:08 AM

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Exclusive Interview with ESPN's Fran Fraschilla, Part IV

In Part III of my interview with Fran Fraschilla, he noted that in order to make sound player evaluations it is vitally important to watch NBA games. Statistical analysis is a useful tool but it cannot replace what Fraschilla calls "the trained eye." He added that college scouts should be required to watch a couple NBA games a month so that the stark difference in talent level between the NBA and the college game remains clear in their minds; otherwise, there can be a tendency to overestimate how well a college player will do in the NBA. The fourth and final part of the interview contains Fraschilla's observations about some of the differences between NBA basketball and NCAA basketball and his explanation of how he became ESPN's FIBA basketball guru.

Friedman: "Most people, even some people who analyze basketball on TV, do not understand the huge difference in speed, physicality and skill level between the NBA game and the NCAA game. They see a guy in college do something and they have no idea that there is no way whatsoever that this is going to translate into the NBA."

Fraschilla: "You’re right. I’ll give you an example. I just got done working with the LeBron James Skills Academy. We worked with the high school kids. We had Craig Ehlo, Kevin Eastman from the Celtics and a bunch of other coaches. The college players are coached twice a day by Tates Locke, who is a legendary coach who scouted in the NBA and whose big thing now is working guys out. We had this year at LeBron’s camp 24 of the best college players in the country, guys like Austin Daye from Gonzaga, Kyle Singler, Hasheem Thabeet from UConn, Jonny Flynn from Syracuse, who’s a great kid--some really good players. It’s amazing that when you are showing them something in a workout--for example, a bounce pass on the perimeter: a guy comes off of a screen and one of the college kids throws a bounce pass. Tates made the point, ‘Do you understand how much slower a bounce pass on the perimeter is compared to a pass that is in the air?’ By the time that ball gets to a guy who was open, in the NBA he is no longer open. There are little nuances of the game like that that make your adjustment--if you are a good enough player--from the college level to the NBA level a little easier but far, far, far fewer college players have that understanding than should have it. That’s a good example of one little nuance of the game that is completely different at the college level than it is at the NBA level. At the college level you might be able to make that bounce pass and a guy still gets an open shot. In the NBA, you’ve got Trevor Ariza closing out on a guy and that guy is no longer open. Does that make sense?"

Friedman: "Yes. The bounce pass is a situational pass that depends on your location on the court."

Fraschilla: "Absolutely."

Friedman: "It depends on how you are being defended, how the guy you are passing to is being defended--there is so much that goes into it. I was smiling when you were talking about that because I actually think that the bounce pass is overused a lot in college in situations where you can get away with it but it is not actually the proper pass--even if it worked, it was not the correct pass."

Fraschilla: "Absolutely. There are certain things like that that don’t really matter in college because you can get away with it because you are just better than the next guy but at the next level you don’t get away with it because it makes the game harder for your teammates to play."

Friedman: "I always get back to Redick because he is an obvious example and he is an example of a player who is well known so when I write about him my readers know who he is. He won the College Player of the Year but people don’t understand what exactly that means and how he won the award. There is a longer shot clock in college, the whole offense revolved around setting multiple screens to get him open, the players he was going against weren’t as good--and even though he is not a great athlete he might be better athletically than some of the guys he was playing against in college--and eventually he pops open and he is a good open shooter and he makes the shot. You get to the NBA, there is a 24 second shot clock and no team’s offense is built around a 6-3 shooting guard going around multiple screens; that is not practical for any number of reasons so he is just not going to get the kinds of looks in the NBA that he got in college."

Fraschilla: "That’s right."

Friedman: "I write that and to me it is self evident and some people understand it--but what is funny to me in this instance is that some of my readers seem to understand it better than some of the people who I see on TV talking about Redick or who comment about him in print. I had a friendly discussion with ESPN’s David Thorpe about this. He insists that Redick has the ability to be a starting shooting guard for a playoff team in the NBA. I just don’t see it. I respect Thorpe's ability to evaluate players and all the experience he has. I finally told him to tell me what he sees and I’ll quote him on my website, because I just don’t see it. He said some things and I quoted him. I think that he’s wrong in this instance. Maybe I’m wrong in other instances. Nobody is right every time. Switching gears, you mentioned being known now as the international guru and how much you really follow the college game."

Fraschilla: "I say that jokingly, by the way. If I pronounce the international kids’ names right on Draft Night people think, 'Wow!' Actually, I’ve spent every June over there for the last five years so I do have a reasonably good feel but that’s kind of like a hobby of mine. It’s allowed me really to work the NBA Draft because there is nobody at ESPN who has the interest or the inclination to want to learn about the young international players."

Friedman: "From a job standpoint what you did was very smart because you found a niche that nobody else is willing or able to fill and you filled it so you got a job doing that."

Fraschilla: "Yeah."

Friedman: "That makes a lot of sense from a job standpoint. During the era in which you came into college coaching there were very few if any foreign or international players. How did you develop this interest that you have in the FIBA game and how did you end up going over there so frequently and following it so closely? How did you transition from being an American college basketball coach focused primarily on scouting young American players to becoming so knowledgeable about the foreign players?"

Fraschilla: "That’s a great question. In part the reason that it happened was two former Manhattan players. I had a player from Spain who played for me for four years. He was a good, not great, player who later wound up being a role player in the Spanish ACB League. While he was at Manhattan with us we took a trip to Spain one summer and played throughout the country and just had a phenomenal experience. It opened my eyes to basketball around the world and after that I got a number of opportunities and invitations to speak at clinics in places like Spain, Iceland, Italy and I took people up on that and it gave me more of a broader sense of what was going on internationally. Finally, another former player of mine who I coached at Manhattan went overseas and played a number of years. Then he got hooked up with Reebok and became their international grassroots rep and parlayed that into an NBA scouting job with the Minnesota Timberwolves. His name is Pete Philo. Pete invited me to work the Reebok Euro camp five years ago in Treviso, Italy. You may have heard of Benetton Treviso."

Friedman: "Certainly."

Fraschilla: "For many years they were the Boston Celtics of Italy. Treviso is a city with great basketball tradition. It is where (Andrea) Bargnani played prior to coming to the States and where Mauricio Gherardini was the general manager before he went to the Toronto Raptors. So all of these varied experiences overseas gave me a greater appreciation for international basketball. I became less jaded about how good the coaching was and how good the players were fundamentally. I almost came back like Paul Revere, telling my American basketball friends, 'The world is changing. They’re coming over. They’re going to get us.' Almost like ‘The British are coming.’ I’m a basketball purist. I just love good basketball, whether it is here in the States or overseas, and all of these various reasons turned me into an international basketball junkie, I guess, and it opened up an opportunity to cover the international players every draft night on ESPN."

Friedman: "Tell me a little more about Pete’s position with Reebok."

Fraschilla: "He’s like their European grassroots guy and their top international scout. He has a great feel for Europe. He’s a guy who played for me at Manhattan and we go back and forth about different players. I saw (Danilo) Gallinari play when he was 15 at a little junior tournament in Italy; Pete brought me to the tournament. When I work at the Reebok Euro camp now, David, there are 50 players there and 20 of them are eligible for this year’s draft either because of their age or because they put their names in as early entry candidates but the other 30 are guys who are potentially going to be drafted two, three or four years from now, so it is very rare that a guy will be on the NBA radar screen that I haven’t either seen play or coached personally at the camp. This year I worked out Serge Ibaka, a young guy who was drafted in the first round from the Congo, for two days before the camp started. I had (first round pick Nicolas) Batum from France on my team and I had (Goran) Dragic from Slovenia, who was drafted in the second round and is going to be with the Phoenix Suns this year. It’s just a great tool for me to follow these young players so that when they get on somebody’s radar screen at draft time there is a good chance that I know a lot about them and I’ve interacted with them personally."

Friedman: "Who was the first player from Manhattan? You didn’t mention his name."

Fraschilla: "Jeronimo Bucero. He came to us in 1993, a 6-6 small forward, and he not only was a solid player for us--in fact, he made three threes against Oklahoma in the 1995 NCAA Tournament when we blew them out in the second half--but he also ended up being a 3.97 (gpa) at Manhattan in international economics. That is a pretty competitive school. Being a basketball junkie anyway, the beauty of the international game caught my eye, as it has many other people who love the game."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:52 AM

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Exclusive Interview with ESPN's Fran Fraschilla, Part III

In Part II of my interview with Fran Fraschilla, he described his player evaluation methods. Player evaluation is no longer limited to GMs, coaches, scouts and TV analysts; in recent years, a veritable brigade of numbers crunchers have laid down the gauntlet and asserted that their formulas are more accurate and reliable than the observations made by the professionals.

Friedman: "Particularly in the past 10 years or so, a lot of statistical analysis has come into basketball, a process that started with Bill James’ baseball work. You see this a lot in the NBA right now. I think that there is value to it but I also think that the trained eye is important. Without leading you to an answer, I’d be interested in your perspective on where you fall on the continuum that ranges from old school people who came up in an era that relied entirely on the trained eye and used only the most basic stats to the people on the other end of the continuum like Dave Berri at Wages of Wins who has the attitude that he does not even need to watch games, that the eye is biased and all that he needs to do is crunch numbers in a certain way and then he knows exactly what is happening. You basically have two extremes: you have an old school guy who says, ‘I don’t care about the numbers because I know what I am seeing' and then you have Dave Berri who essentially says, ‘I don’t watch games. All I do is crunch numbers.’ Where do you place yourself on that continuum and what do you think of that whole debate?"

Fraschilla: "First of all, knowledge is power, so the more knowledge that you have the more likely you are to have an educated opinion about a player. I think when you have the opportunity to use the various statistical categories that we see now in basketball—you mentioned Wages of Wins, plus 82games.com, where guys get shots on the floor, whether a guy is better going to his left or his right, how effective he is in the pick and roll—all of that information coupled with the innate feel that you have from having a trained eye allows you to make an educated guess on whether a guy can play or not. There are certain things statistically that might really stand out positively about a player but at the end of the day I think your eyes will normally not lie. When there is an incongruence between what your eyes are telling you and what the numbers are saying, as an evaluator you need to figure out where you’re going wrong in terms of your opinion or where the numbers may be skewed to make a player who is a good player look even better. I think that all of the information that you can take in and then filter back out can only help you. So probably on that continuum I am right down the middle: give me as much information as I can possibly digest before I have to make a decision but ultimately it becomes a decision based as much on feel as anything."

Friedman: "I agree with you. I disagree with Berri’s opinion that anybody can understand the NBA game—or any game for that matter—without watching it. I don’t care how precise one’s numerical analysis is, it is still essential to watch the game with a trained eye. If you took Berri’s numbers or Kevin Mackey took Berri’s numbers or someone who actually knows basketball took his numbers then I agree with you that this information could be powerful—but for Dave Berri, who is an economist who in my opinion does not know basketball, to say that he does not have to watch the game to understand it better than an NBA general manager is absurd. To get to something specific regarding this issue, during the NBA Finals in my game recaps I made the point that Kobe Bryant played better than any of the other Lakers in that losing effort. Not to say that everything he did was perfect or that he could not have played better but he was clearly the best player on their team. They had a real problem—well, they had a number of problems but one specific problem that they had was that Pau Gasol did not play to the level that he did in previous series."

Fraschilla: "Right."

Friedman: "He did not set his screens as aggressively, he was not as physical, after he set screens he did not roll to the basket as aggressively as he had previously. When he caught the ball in the paint he did not finish with authority. I think that these are all things that you understood and saw as you watched those games."

Fraschilla: "Yes."

Friedman: "I understand them because I’ve trained my eye to the point that I can at least understand that much."

Fraschilla: "Yes."

Friedman: "So those things were all evident to me and I wrote about them during the series but when someone just crunches the numbers--Gasol’s high field goal percentage and some other numbers--the Wages of Wins verdict on the Finals was that Gasol was the Lakers’ best player in the Finals. I think that anybody who understands basketball and watched those games would find that to be an absurd conclusion."

Fraschilla: "It’s funny--I just talked today to (Boston assistant coach) Tom Thibodeau, who is a very good friend of mine. He was Doc Rivers’ defensive guy. He’s been anonymous for about 18 years. I was going to dovetail back to something you said. He’s been a good assistant coach all these years, for Jeff Van Gundy, for John Lucas and now Doc but here’s the interesting thing. I had a couple years when I wasn’t coaching and I had the chance to do advance scouting in the NBA for about a month or two at a time before my television season (in college basketball) started and the one thing that I always laugh about on Draft Night—I don’t get a chance to talk about the college players because everyone thinks that I am the international guy but I do 60 college games a year so I follow the college game 10 times more closely than the international game—but what I was going to mention is that I don’t think that our college guys who follow the draft understand how good the league is. That is why I always say that it does not matter who is picked because two thirds of these guys, statistically, are going to be busts, washouts—that’s just the way it is. A couple years ago I wrote a 35 page booklet about how I would organize an NBA front office from the personnel side and one of the things I would do is make my college scouts twice a month during the season go see an NBA game. In other words, if you are out in L.A. scouting USC and UCLA and the Lakers are in town then I want you to go see to the Lakers game the night before you see UCLA play USC. I would make my scouts do that at least twice a month because if you are not watching NBA basketball on a regular basis then you can easily get tricked by how good college players are."

Friedman: "That could be why some people thought J.J. Redick was going to be so great in the NBA but maybe it is not going to turn out that way. He was the College Player of the Year. Is that the kind of thing you are getting at?"

Fraschilla: "Yeah, exactly. I don’t have a problem with J.J. Redick. I think that he is what a lot of us thought he was going to be because he is a 6-3 guy who is an average athlete who obviously does one thing really well. That particular skill has not been utilized yet so maybe it’s just the system he’s in now but I do know that the Magic guard help desperately so it’s not like he has not gotten a chance. I absolutely think that it is important for anybody who talks about scouting or watching college guys with the intent of figuring out if they are going to be NBA players then you have to watch NBA basketball to understand that these guys are really good in terms of shrinking the floor, closing out on an open man--I’m going off on a tangent. There are a lot of guys in the NBA who do a great job scouting but sometimes when I am out on the road doing games on TV I wonder, ‘Why did that guy leave four minutes before the end of the game?’ or ‘Why did that guy show up two minutes into the game?’ It kind of boggles my mind sometimes at some of the decision making that goes on in the league, particularly when it comes to the draft."

Friedman: "In terms of the original question, I think this also applies to the people who are doing the statistical analysis. I think that a lot of them are doing some great work and some interesting work but when you get to the end of the continuum where they think that they can understand the game without watching it then I think that they have become a little too impressed with their own work and their formulas."

Fraschilla: "I agree with that completely--give me the statistical information and let me factor it in with what my eyes are telling me and what my 30 years of experience is telling me and see if I can’t put that all together to make an informed evaluation of somebody. I think that’s a good point."

On Thursday in Part IV of this interview, Fraschilla talks about the differences between the NBA game and the college game and he describes how he became ESPN's guru about FIBA basketball.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:08 AM

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Seven Pearls of Wisdom from John Thompson

During NBA TV's broadcast of Dallas' 93-71 Vegas Summer League win over Sacramento, Rick Kamla and Steve Jones interviewed former Georgetown Coach/current TNT commentator John Thompson. Here are some interesting observations from Coach Thompson:

1) "One thing that I think youngsters have to realize is that when you are trying out or working out for these teams you are also showing people what you cannot do. Most people tend to think that they are showing what they can do but these scouts try to find out what you can't do and hopefully you have enough intelligence to understand what you can't do and try not to do it."

2) (On Patrick Ewing's stated goal to become an NBA head coach) "It doesn't surprise me at all because I know that Patrick is a very intelligent person. The thing I like about what Patrick has done is that he has not been afraid to go out and be an assistant coach, work with players, learn the game. Now this summer in Orlando he had an opportunity to coach in the summer league. You've got to go through that experience because there is a total difference between possessing knowledge and motivating other people to do it. He is going about this the right way."

3) (On the most difficult aspect of motivating players as a coach) "I think the most difficult part of it is to make kids understand that you can't do what you want to do. You are just like an actor. When you go into Hollywood you don't tell the director or the producer what you are going to do. You take their script and then you act it out. Most of these kids come in trying to convince you what they can do as opposed to finding out what you want done and then doing it. You see that here with all the big guys outside throwing up three point shots when their team may need a post guy. You have got to determine what these folks want or you are just fooling yourself. You may make 100 threes but if can't rebound and block shots you are going to get cut."

4) (On Patrick Ewing, Jr., a rookie with the Sacramento Kings) "The thing that I like about young Patrick is the very thing that I just said. He is not competing to be a starter. He is competing to be a substitute and he is smart enough to know that if I defend, rebound and do the energy things for a coach then there will be a spot for me on the team. I can't come on every team and think that I am going to take the role of Kobe. Some of these guys better grow up and understand that they are auditioning for bench spots, not to be superstars. That is what I like about little Pat: he's a hustle player. How many guys do you know who have been drafted in the second round who were substitutes who averaged four points a game? So he had to be doing something that pro scouts liked and that was hustling, being enthusiastic, rebounding and defending."

5) "What I think is really stupid--and I've said this to a lot of Georgetown guys--you would not go to work at a corporation without asking the boss what it is he wanted you to do. I think that a lot of players make a mistake--and definitely some of the kids that are here (in summer league)--in that they listen to their agent and their agent tells them how to play. You need to go to the man who is auditioning you and say, 'Sir, what are you looking for?' and then try to determine whether you can do that or add that to the team because what you may be doing best he may have six guys who can do that better than you."

6) (On the Nuggets trading Marcus Camby to the Clippers for a second round draft pick) "What is the sense of that? A lot of times fans will look at that and say, 'What is wrong with the general manager? What is wrong with the coach in making that decision?' But a lot of times that is a purely money decision made by ownership and a not a decision being made by those people. These guys are smart enough to know the game...'Down the line,' 'potential'--what that does is get the coach fired. All these guys who make these money decisions never factor that into the Ls and Ws that some poor coach has to sit there and work for. Those decisions don't relate to his judgment as far as a person being able to play or not being able to play."

7) "You have to impress somebody. You are not here just trying to blend in...You have to make sins of commission, not omission--guy wants to get cut, sit out there and do nothing...Red's (Auerbach) motto was 'What have you done for me lately?' and he'd say that to (Bill) Russell, 'What have you done for me lately?' and you know what Russell did for so many years."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:53 PM

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Exclusive Interview with ESPN's Fran Fraschilla, Part II

Part II of my exclusive interview with Fran Fraschilla begins with the ESPN analyst revealing his thoughts about Team USA's roster composition. It is worth emphasizing why Fraschilla disagrees with those people who think that Team USA should have added another big man to the roster; he explains that FIBA play is more physical than NBA play, particularly on the perimeter, and that consequently it is vitally important to have many versatile players who can guard multiple positions on the perimeter. Fraschilla concludes, "I think that it is even more important to defend the perimeter than it is to defend the paint because the most dangerous players in this tournament are drivers, slashers and three point shooters--guys like Ginobili." I have been saying repeatedly for years that the main reason that Team USA failed to win the gold medal in several recent international events was that their perimeter defense broke down. That is why the addition of perennial All-Defensive Team guards Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd to the roster is a vitally important upgrade.

Friedman: "I look forward to a potential USA-Greece matchup with Kobe possibly guarding Papaloukas. Kobe loves challenges and Greece is a team that embarrassed Team USA and I think that would be interesting. To me, it would almost be like when the Dream Team was playing Croatia (in the 1992 Olympics) and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen wanted to show something to Toni Kukoc because the Bulls were wooing him with so much money. I mean there are different reasons involved in this case, but a lot of times great competitors find a reason--or invent a reason--to go to another level. Kobe is so highly motivated anyway it is almost ridiculous to even say that he could be more motivated but I think that he would take a game against Greece particularly personally as yet another opportunity to show why he is the best player, why he is different from the players who we sent over in previous years who did not win. Getting back to Team USA in general, what do you think of the roster composition? Do you think that we have enough bigs? Would you tweak the roster in any way?"

Fraschilla: "That’s a great question. I’ve thought a lot about this. You could make the argument that they could use another big--although the point is somewhat moot now that (Tyson) Chandler injured his toe and will not be able to practice with the team--except that my feeling about international basketball is as follows: the game is played from outside in, whereas in the United States in college and the NBA the game is played from inside out. What I mean by that, Dave, is so much of international basketball is predicated on the three point line and you’ll see a guy--and I know you’ve seen this--drive to the rim and it looks like he’s going to get a layup and all of a sudden he throws the ball back behind him because he sucked five defenders into the lane and then someone knocks down a three. I think that the way they’ve constituted this team with a lot of versatility on the perimeter and guys who can guard multiple positions--LeBron, for example, can guard the two, three or four, Wade can guard the one, two or three, Williams and Kidd are in that 6-3, 6-4 range, Tayshaun Prince can guard four and maybe five spots--you go down the line and I think that the way that the game is played they’ve got an ideal roster. The international game, as you know, is more physical than the NBA right now because (in the NBA) they won’t let you get away with any hand checking out front. What these guys found out in 2006 is that the international game is more physical and it is particularly physical out front. I think that the way that this lineup is constituted with the versatility and size on the perimeter it’s going to bode well. Strategically, here is the issue. American basketball has always taught to defend from the paint on out: that means on a drive you provide help, you take away the drive, you allow the kickout (pass) and then you contest the shot. You cannot play that way in international basketball. You have to play your man straight up and the other three guys on the perimeter just cannot leave their men or it’s suicide. So it really puts a premium on one guy defending the basketball so that his teammates on the perimeter do not have to help. That’s what I mean by the international game being played from the outside in. That is the biggest concern that I have, because if we get sucked in because in high school, college and the NBA we are taught to defend the paint, that is where I think that we can get in trouble because the three point shot is the equalizer in international play. We almost have to allow the ball to get to the rim so that people don’t get the open three off the kickout, which is counterintuitive by the way."

Friedman: "Doesn’t some of that have to do with FIBA’s trapezoidal lane so there is not as much post play as we are accustomed to seeing in America where we have the more traditionally shaped lane?"

Fraschilla: "Yes. The trapezoid affects international play and in particular this Olympics as follows: if you really analyze it, there aren’t a lot of post players in this tournament who you can throw the ball to and they will get a basket. You can put Yao in that category, you might put Scola at times in that category even though he is only 6-8, Schortsanitis when he is in shape and not in foul trouble is a factor inside, but there are very few guys who you are really going to have to double down on and force them to kick it back out. That is because of the trapezoid and also because of the way international play is constituted. That is why I think that it is even more important to defend the perimeter than it is to defend the paint because the most dangerous players in this tournament are drivers, slashers and three point shooters--guys like Ginobili. Guys like Diamantidis and Papaloukas for Greece. Calderon’s three point shooting. (Juan Carlos) Navarro’s three point shooting. It gets back to what we talked about earlier. The way that the team is constituted--minus a severe injury to one of the bigs--I think that they have enough bigs to handle the type of size that they are going to see."

Friedman: "I think that is what a lot of people are missing. It is a 40 minute game. If you assume that (Dwight) Howard will play 20 minutes, (Chris) Bosh and (Carlos) Boozer 10 minutes each, as you said these other teams do not have a preponderance of post players so if we add more and more post up bigs to the roster then those players are superfluous and they’ll be useless. What you really need to have is a steady stream of versatile perimeter players who you can shuffle in and out to keep them fresh so that they can play pressure defense and Team USA can run. We are probably never going to execute a half court offense in a FIBA context as well as these other teams do. Even with superior players we are not going to execute as well because we don’t practice this as much but if we can push the tempo, get stops and steals and score in transition--that is what Team USA’s game should be. To me, the last thing that they need is to put another post player on the team. Chandler was essentially useless—he was like the human victory cigar in the FIBA Americas tournament and he did not play unless we were up by 20 points. I don’t understand why there was such a clamor that Chandler should have been put on the team."

Fraschilla: "Yes and two years ago Brad Miller was basically a wasted roster spot as well. Here is the other thing strategically--because I know how much you love this--I always said as a coach that the first post defender is always guarding the basketball. For example, China’s backcourt is very weak, so when you pick them up right at the halfcourt line with guys like Kidd or Bryant or Deron Williams pushing that Chinese offense five, ten, twelve more feet away from the basket, that makes it that much harder to get the ball into Yao. That is why I always say that the first post defender is always the man guarding the ball. Secondly, one thing international teams are not necessarily accustomed to is the type of team that can switch (defensively) at three or four spots. Their offenses are very intricate and well executed with a lot of screens but the minute that you can switch back screens and down screens you present a lot of problems for a team that is a methodical, half court oriented team. Does that make sense to you?"

Friedman: "Yes and I agree with that. We’ll see what the ultimate results are but I think that this is the best team that the United States has sent into FIBA play since the 1996 Olympics for a lot of the reasons that you just described--the defensive versatility, the attitude, the preparation. Obviously, the competition is better than it used to be but just comparing the various Team USAs outside of who they are playing but just considering whether this is a roster that is prepared to win while playing the FIBA way I think that this is the best team we have sent out in a long time."

Fraschilla: "I think that the scary part is that even with everything that has been done right by Jerry Colangelo and the coaching staff the difference between Team USA and the other top four or five teams has shrunk dramatically since 1992. I think that’s a given. This team is going to blow through the preliminary round. Even when they play Spain, Spain’s new coach is not going to show all of his cards. They’ll take a 20 point loss to the U.S.--as long as they know that they are advancing to the medal round--in order to not show their whole arsenal, whether it’s a triangle and two defense or a two-three zone. The new coach of Spain, the coach of Greece, the coach of Croatia and the coach of Lithuania--these guys know what they are doing. My point is that there is going to be a stretch—probably in the quarterfinals or semifinals--where for five or seven minutes Team USA is going to face some adversity. There will be some FIBA referee calls that you scratch your head and wonder where they came from or they’ll be a couple threes that somebody hits with the shot clock running down. There will be two or three times during the competition that they will come up against some adversity and how they react will determine how smooth the road to the gold is. If you remember, they were up double digits against Greece in the first half and then they just fell apart once Greece figured out that they had no answer for the pick and roll."

Spain ultimately defeated Greece to win the 2006 FIBA World Championship. Spain just recently fired that squad’s coach--Pepu Hernandez--and replaced him with Aito Garcia Reneses but Fraschilla warns that despite this switch Spain must not be taken lightly.

Fraschilla: "Everybody is saying that Spain is in disarray but they’re not. They hired a guy who is probably the most well known coach in Spain and he has coached five of the 12 guys who are on the roster, including Gasol and Rudy Fernandez. I’m trying to think of a good example--it’s like firing someone who is coaching Kobe Bryant and then bringing in Phil Jackson."

Friedman: "They brought in someone who is more than capable of doing the job, even if most Americans don’t know who he is."

Fraschilla: "That is exactly right. I have a healthy respect for international basketball and I am as patriotic as they come but what I have enjoyed the past couple years as a coach and as a guy who gets a chance to call basketball on TV is that we now in America have more of an appreciation for the game globally. We have exported the game—Dean Smith, Louie Carnesecca, Hubie Brown and all the great coaches who went over there and did the clinics and helped coach national teams--and it’s all come home to roost, in a way. It’s healthy, in a way, because in America I see a greater sense from the grassroots level on up--high school, college--that you need to be fundamentally sound. Look at the next wave of players--Durant, Oden, Kevin Love, Brandon Roy and go down the list--these guys are all trying to learn to play the game the right way, just like Team USA has tried to do the last couple years. I think that it is going to filter down to the lower levels--not completely, because there is still a lot wrong with the game at the lower levels--but I think that the fact that international basketball has caught up to us has been an eye opener and will have a positive effect on our game from the NBA level on down."

Friedman: "You mentioned scouting and player evaluation a couple different times while answering some of the previous questions. You have a unique perspective because you were a college coach for a number of many years and now you have the opportunity to watch so many different teams and players while you are coming up with material to use during broadcasts. Explain the methodology that you use to evaluate players. Say that you are watching a player who you have not seen before and who you don’t have a lot of background information about but you are trying to figure out just how good he really is. What key things do you look for in that type of situation?"

Fraschilla: "That’s a great question. I loved your stuff with Kevin Mackey (A Scout's Eye View of the Game). We’re not close friends but I certainly am an admirer of his going back many, many years. I loved that stuff that you did with him. It’s funny, David, I think that the first thing is if you’ve watched enough basketball--and I grew up in New York in the playgrounds of Brooklyn and wanted to be part of basketball my whole life as a college coach and I’ve been lucky enough to be around the game probably for 35 years going back to when I was 15--you train your eye. That is the first thing. Anybody who evaluates--whether it’s college players for the NBA or high school players for college--I think that the first thing that you have to have is a trained eye. You have to know what you are looking for. In other words, it’s like the old story about the Supreme Court justice who said about pornography that he could not define it but he knew it when he saw it. I think that’s very similar to evaluating players; there are things that you see in a player instinctively that tell you that you have to watch this guy some more. So that’s the first thing: a trained eye. That comes from years of watching, coaching and being around really good players. I was lucky enough to coach 18 guys who played in the NBA. So, at every level you watch players and look for something that tells you that this guy is a little bit different; this kid has a good feel for the game or he’s athletic or his skill level is good and can get better. All those things are factored in right off the bat as you are watching somebody: you almost can tell ‘I don’t need to watch this guy over here anymore but I’m going to keep my eye on this guy because he may have something.’ The other thing I think is that being a former head coach when you look at players you are always looking at them from a coach’s perspective and asking, ‘Could this guy fit into a system? Could he fit into an offense or a defense? Could I incorporate a guy like that into my system?’ Or, if I was an NBA scout, having been a former coach, I would wonder if this guy could fit into the system of the coach of the team for which I was scouting. When I go to practice--I see about 50-60 college practices a year when I am calling these games--I look for attitude, coachability, basketball IQ, athleticism, skill level and it all becomes a combination of the above as to whether I think a guy can play or not. There are certain intangible factors and certain physical factors that have to be all added together."

On Wednesday in Part III of this interview Fraschilla offers his thoughts about statistical analysis and how it can best be utilized in the player evaluation process.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:10 AM

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Exclusive Interview with ESPN's Fran Fraschilla, Part I

Fran Fraschilla compiled a 175-100 NCAA head coaching record, earning 1995 NABC Coach of the Year honors and leading three different schools (Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico) to eight NCAA or NIT Tournament appearances in nine seasons. Since 2003 he has worked for ESPN as a game and studio analyst, primarily on college and FIBA broadcasts. On Sunday I conducted a wide ranging interview with Mr. Fraschilla just before he left for Las Vegas to participate in ESPN's coverage of Team USA's five upcoming exhibition games. Part I of this interview includes his observations about why Team USA fell short in previous competitions, what will be different this time around and who he thinks will win gold, silver and bronze in the Beijing Olympics.

Friedman: “What do you think of Team USA’s prospects in the Olympics this year?”

Fraschilla: “Let me give you some background. I am actually doing all five exhibition games for ESPN, so I will be at practice starting tomorrow (July 21). I think that we’ve gotten enough of a wake up call and enough of a slap in the face that this particular team has been put together with the idea that they will respect everybody that they play. When you think back to the World Championships in 2006, I think that Coach K did a great job in getting that first team ready to play until they played Greece, which as you know had a team that only had one marginal NBA player. Now that they have recovered from that loss, it is not just going to be the international teams that have NBA players that Team USA will have respect for. I think that it’s pretty obvious now that the world has caught up and, despite the fact that we have put (NBA players) on the Olympic team since 1992, this team is team oriented and will have a healthy amount of respect for everybody they play.”

Friedman: “When I watched that game with Greece (which I wrote about in a September 1, 2006 post titled Greece Shreds Team USA's Defense, Wins 101-95 and in a September 2, 2006 post titled Team USA Beats Argentina 96-81, Wins Bronze Medal) and then the aftermath of the game—and when I say aftermath I mean the postgame press conferences—what I found disturbing and what really bothered me is that when Coach Krzyzewski and some of the players were talking about Greece they did not mention (Sofoklis) Schortsanitis and the other players by name. By the end of that game even I knew their names and, frankly, I did not know who was on the Greek team before the game—but by the end of the game I knew their names and I had some idea what they could and could not do just by watching them. Even if they (Team USA) did not know about Greece beforehand I thought that it was very disrespectful—and kind of indicative of Team USA’s attitude—that they did not call the players by their names. Even if maybe they are difficult to pronounce, you at least try to do it. You don’t call these guys who just beat you by numbers and say, ‘Number five did this’ and ‘Number eight did that.’ I thought those statements in the postgame press conferences really gave me a lot of insight into why Team USA lost and I am interested to hear your thoughts about that.”

Fraschilla: “I could not agree with you more. I talked to a number of my European coaching friends after the game and, frankly, they were insulted on the one hand and also on the other hand they understood how a team with the talent of USA could get beaten—because of the lack of respect for a team that did not have NBA players on it and I really felt that that was the beginning of Coach K’s learning curve and he has admitted that they weren’t prepared for the type of coaching that exists at the international level and the type of talent that even non-NBA type players had. That particular Greek team had four or five guys who could easily be in the NBA right now but have chosen to stay in Europe and make, frankly, more money than they would make as the sixth or seventh man on a good NBA team. The other thing that came to mind is that we did a very poor job of scouting Greece. We didn’t really have any understanding of how to guard the pick and roll and how to defend the big guy inside—Schortsanitis is not a dominating player in Europe. He’s just a good, solid player. I could not agree with your analysis more but I also think that loss to Greece was the final slap in the face to get our country to understand that it is not just the Ginobilis and Nowitzkis who play great basketball around the world but it is also guys like (Greek players Theo) Papaloukas and (Dimitris) Diamantidis and a guy from Slovenia, Jaka Lakovic. There are so many good players around the world right now who are NBA-level players that we no longer can take anybody for granted.”

Due to a problem with the phone connection I did not clearly hear the word “insulted” from the preceding answer and when I asked Fraschilla what word he had used he repeated that sentence and then added some more remarks on the same subject.

Fraschilla: “I found that to be not necessarily Coach K and those players being disrespectful but I thought that there was a breakdown in terms of scouting and preparation.”

Friedman: “That was what I thought while watching the game.”

Fraschilla: “Here is my point. We have all these NBA guys doing the scouting for Team USA and this is not to throw anybody under the bus but simply put if I had given Mike Krzyzewski the Greek scouting report I would have said that you have got to know that Papaloukas is one of the great playmakers in the world. In other words, I would not have said ‘number seven.’ It would be ‘Papaloukas is one of the best players in the world and is a great playmaker.’ Diamantidis, the lefty, is Europe’s version of Ginobili. Schortsanitis is a big guy and although he is young he is a very physical player down low. In other words, it is incumbent upon the assistant coaches and the scouts to make sure that Coach K and those players knew that these guys are legitimate players. There is no question that if you were playing for Team USA and I said that you have to be careful of (NBA players like Manu) Ginobili or (Luis) Scola or (Fabricio) Oberto or (Carlos) Delfino or if I told you about Spain and said that (Jose) Calderon is a very underrated point guard and we all know how good (Pau) Gasol is—there is no question that if I were to present the scouting report to Team USA that way then those guys would have had a healthy dose of respect for those players because they play in the league. They didn’t have that same respect for Greece two years ago but I think that’s all changed. I think that has all changed. I think that there is a humbleness and a selflessness about this team that tells me that they are going to play very, very well together.”

Friedman: “How much of an impact do you think that the addition of Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd—neither of whom were involved in Team USA’s recent fiascoes—and the attitude that they bring to how you practice, how you prepare and how you play defense has impacted the way that Team USA is going to perform? I think that practice, preparation and defense were three deficient areas for previous teams.”

Fraschilla: “I think that they are both going to have a huge impact. Kidd is 44-0 in international play for Team USA and Kobe Bryant may not only be the best player in the world right now—at worst he is one of the three or four best—but he also is one of the three or four most competitive players in the world. The interesting thing about Kobe Bryant is that he has already gone to Coach K and said that when you need me to I want to guard the other team’s best perimeter player. I think that’s a heck of a statement. People worry about the egos on this team but if you look at what they did last summer in the FIBA Americas tournament—and the competition will be greater, obviously, in the Olympics—Kobe Bryant was their best perimeter defender, LeBron James may be their best all-around playmaker and Carmelo Anthony might be the best FIBA player in the world right now because he has not only led Team USA in scoring the last two years but he is like the prototype international player: he is strong enough and powerful enough and quick enough to score inside and get to the hole off the dribble but he also has a terrific perimeter game. In a sense, he is the classic Euro four man so I think that he will play a lot of power forward in this tournament because he has the versatility that you normally see when you describe the international four man. All-around, he may be the team’s best international player.”

Friedman: “My question about that or the concern that I have expressed about Anthony when I have written about previous FIBA competitions is his defense. I don’t think that his defense is that great in the NBA and I don’t think that his defense is that great at the FIBA level, either. I think that we saw that in the game with Greece but even in some of the games that Team USA won in last year’s FIBA Americas tournament it seemed like a lot of times he didn’t quite know what he was supposed to be doing on defense or he wasn’t quite in the right position. He seemed much more engaged, shall we say, when he had the ball. He’s a marvelous offensive player and you can’t criticize any part of his offensive game--and that goes double in FIBA for all the reasons you enumerated—but what do you think of his defense? Do you think that his defense at the FIBA level as bad as I have said that it is? Do you have some defense to offer regarding his defense?”

Fraschilla: “No, I don’t. I think that he has always been an offensive player. If you look back at his history, he never really has had to play defense, whether in high school or when they played zone at Syracuse or in the NBA he’s in a situation when they don’t want their best player to get in foul trouble. I would say that of Team USA's top six or seven players he is most likely to be the weak link defensively but, you know, you can’t have everything. I watched Nowitzki today get blown by a couple times in the FIBA Qualifying Tournament but he probably averaged nearly 30 ppg in the tournament (Nowitzki scored a tournament-high 26.6 ppg in five games as Germany clinched a spot in the Olympics). You can’t have everything. If you have Kobe Bryant guarding (the top perimeter player) and you have LeBron James at 6-8 260 who can guard a two, three or four and Boozer and Howard go over 260 then when it comes to Carmelo you are not going to get everything out of him. You are going to get far more on the offensive end. I don’t think that there is any question about that.”

Friedman: “Based on what you know and assuming that everyone is healthy, gold, silver, bronze—what do you expect to see in the Beijing Olympics?”

Fraschilla: “I have been toying with this question the last couple days. Obviously, I think that USA will win it. I picked them to win it last time but I was also reviewing a lot of the stuff that I wrote two years ago prior to the World Championships and I think that I had USA, Spain, Greece and Argentina. I think that those are the four best teams in the world again right now—when everybody’s healthy. If I had to predict the three medal winners, I would say USA—and I don’t know how this will work out in the quarters, semis and finals.”

Friedman: “The seeding could affect this.”

Fraschilla: “Yes, the seeding could affect this but I think that the three best teams in the world would be USA, Spain and I am going to go with Greece over Argentina just because Argentina will not have (Walter) Herrmann, they will have a banged up Manu (Ginobili) and they won’t have Pepe Sanchez for the first time in a while; (Pablo) Prigioni, the kid who plays in Spain, will be the point guard. To me, Greece is the best team in the world in terms of playing together as a team. Their ball movement, because they have been together for a while, is just incredible. They are one of the best coached teams in the world. So I think that Greece is going to edge Argentina out (for the bronze medal). That is just a hunch.”

Be sure to check back on Tuesday for Part II when Fraschilla offers more thoughts about Team USA and discusses his methods of player evaluation.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:27 AM

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