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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Team USA Faces Major Challenge in FIBA World Championship

The FIBA World Championship begins on August 28. This competition rarely receives much publicity in the United States but for many basketball-minded nations it is very important, equal to--if not even greater than--the Olympics in terms of prestige; American kids who play basketball dream of winning an NBA championship but kids in other countries dream of leading their homeland to the FIBA World Championship title.

The significance of this year's FIBA World Championship for Team USA is that the winner receives an automatic bid for the 2012 Olympics (Team USA captured the 2008 Olympic gold medal but the previous Olympic champion is not guaranteed a spot in the next Olympic games); if Team USA does not win the FIBA World Championship then the United States will have to qualify for the Olympics by playing in the 2011 FIBA Americas tournament and that could be a dicey proposition if the NBA endures a strike/lockout: during the 1998 lockout, the U.S. fielded a team of non-NBA players that worked very hard but only managed to win a bronze medal in the 1998 FIBA World Championship (after the lockout ended, Gary Payton, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Tim Hardaway led Team USA to a 10-0 sweep in the 1999 FIBA Americas Tournament to qualify for the 2000 Olympics). It is extremely unlikely that a Team USA squad consisting entirely of non-NBA players could win the FIBA Americas Tournament in 2011, so if Team USA fails to win the FIBA World Championship and the NBA suffers the work stoppage that many people are anticipating then the United States may not send a basketball team to the 2012 Olympic Games for just the second time ever (the first time was when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980 to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan).

Team USA sent the "A" team to the 2008 Olympics--including Kobe Bryant (the sport's best all-around player), 2000 Olympic gold medalist Jason Kidd (who has never lost a game in FIBA play), LeBron James (who subsequently won two NBA MVPs) and 2006 NBA Finals MVP Dwyane Wade--but for a variety of reasons none of the members of the so-called "Redeem Team" will be participating in this year's FIBA World Championship; this year's squad is headlined by Kevin Durant, who has never played for the national team before. Durant, Chauncey Billups, Danny Granger and Derrick Rose are the only members of the team who have ever been NBA All-Stars, while only Durant and Billups have made the All-NBA Team. Billups and Lamar Odom are the only Team USA players who have won an NBA championship. This year's team lacks star power, championship experience and FIBA experience.

Team USA has historically not fared well in this event, finishing first just three times in 15 FIBA World Championship appearances (in contrast, the U.S. men's national basketball team has captured 13 of a possible 17 Olympic gold medals); the last U.S. team to earn a FIBA World Championship gold medal was the 1994 squad (the so-called "Dream Team II") led by a star-studded cast including Shaquille O'Neal (18.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Reggie Miller (17.1 ppg, .526 3FG%), Dominique Wilkins (12.6 ppg) and Joe Dumars (12.6 ppg). After that came the lockout-depleted 1998 team that earned a bronze medal, the embarrassingly inept 2002 team that finished sixth despite enjoying homecourt advantage (in Indianapolis) and the 2006 team that settled for a bronze medal despite featuring some big name players (including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Chris Bosh) who have been in the news for various reasons this summer.

In a September 4, 2007 article titled The Real Story Behind Team USA's Losses in Previous FIBA Events, I refuted some misconceptions about why the United States suffered humiliating defeats in the 2002 FIBA World Championship, the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 FIBA World Championship. The points that I made in that article are still relevant regarding Team USA's prospects this time around:

1) Most FIBA teams rely on the ability to drive to the hoop, draw in the defense and then kick the ball out to open three point shooters. In order to be successful, Team USA's guards must control dribble penetration. Also, Team USA's defense must be "on a string" when opposing teams run screen/roll actions, because otherwise their opponents will either shred Team USA with wide open layups or bombard them from three point range.

2) It is certainly a nice luxury for Team USA to shoot well from three point range but it is far more important to shut down opposing three point shooters without compromising the interior defense; this requires communication, discipline and hustle, because otherwise at least one player will be out of position and the whole defense will fall apart, something that was a recurring theme during Team USA's dreary performances in 2002, 2004 and 2006.

FIBA play is more physical than NBA play, particularly on the perimeter; expect to see opposing teams be very physical with Durant, who did not fare well in the first round of the 2010 NBA playoffs versus Ron Artest's bump and run defense. No FIBA team has an individual defender who is as skilled and as strong as Artest but the FIBA rules allow for a lot more contact than NBA rules do so it will not be easy for Durant to rack up 25-30 ppg while shooting a good percentage from the field and he likely will not be granted as many free throw attempts per game as he receives in the NBA.

Tyson Chandler is the only true center on the roster but I am not very concerned about Team USA being outrebounded or having a lot of trouble defending the post; Team USA is athletic enough to compete with anyone on the glass and the nature of the FIBA game (the wide lane and the general style of play) is such that it is very unlikely that opposing teams will just pound the ball into the low post. Team USA will certainly go "small" for a significant percentage of the time, putting Lamar Odom or another forward at the center spot.

NBA TV's Steve Smith declared that Odom is the second most important player on the team (behind only Durant) but, with all due respect to Smith's basketball acumen and Odom's skill set, if that turns out to be true then Team USA will settle for the bronze medal again. Derrick Rose has to be the team's second best player and he will have to be the go-to player in clutch situations if the opposing team smothers Durant. Rudy Gay may not be the third best NBA player on the roster but his size and athletic ability should enable him to have an impact from either forward spot; he could prove to be a real X-factor and should be one of the team's leading scorers after Durant. Chauncey Billups will likely be the other starting guard alongside Rose and the team will rely on him for calm, veteran leadership, rugged defense and timely three point shots. Odom's primary responsibility for Team USA will be the same as it is for the Lakers: rebounding. Odom may very well lead Team USA in that department. Other than that, Odom needs to monitor his shot selection (i.e., stop shooting three pointers and long jumpers) and cut down on his turnovers (he had a 6-3 turnover/assist ratio during the four game exhibition tour).

Andre Iguodala started all four exhibition games at small forward but he shot just .333 from the field and .125 from three point range, bringing back (bad) memories of Richard Jefferson's performance during the 2004 Olympics (Jefferson started all eight games despite shooting just .321 from the field and .261 from three point range). Iguodala should be a valuable player because he can score, pass and defend but it remains to be seen how well he will adjust to the FIBA game.

Eric Gordon's ability to both shoot and defend could earn him a key spot in the rotation but it will be difficult for him to supplant Billups or Rose; likewise, Russell Westbrook's athleticism could be valuable but there are only so many possible minutes at the guard spots (keep in mind that FIBA games last 40 minutes, not 48).

Stephen Curry will be this team's version of Michael Redd on the 2008 Olympic team: the dead-eye three point shooter who mainly gets in the game when--or, in this team's case, if--Team USA has a comfortable lead. Curry actually is a better all-around player than Redd, though, and his ability to play both guard positions could help him to carve out a slightly larger role than Redd had two years ago.

Danny Granger played sparingly during the exhibition tour and he struggled with his shot, so even though he has been an All-Star it will probably be difficult for him to move up the depth chart at this point.

Kevin Love is the designated 12th man, a rebounder/passer who will put up impressive per minute statistics during garbage time.

The nightmare scenario for Team USA (other than an injury or foul trouble sidelining Durant) is for an opponent to carve them up with screen/roll plays, hit a high percentage of three point shots and use physical defense to frustrate finesse wing players such as Durant and Gay. Team USA's players are mostly young and inexperienced and could get that "deer in the headlights" look if an opposing team hits them with a 10-0 run. Team USA lacks a lock down perimeter defender--a role that Bryant filled brilliantly in the 2008 Olympics--and does not have a defined go-to scorer other than Durant.

Team USA can win the gold medal if they play smart and tenacious defense, force turnovers and score a lot of points in transition--but even if this team plays the best basketball that they are capable of playing they will probably have at least one or two close games; it should not surprise anyone if Team USA fails to win the FIBA World Championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:10 AM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Friday, August 27, 2010 11:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MARCEL

team usa will struggle vs spain and argetina and will roll through everyone else. they will have a great player in durant and alot of young talent this is america b c team vs the world. i think we are better than world with b team barely a team is more significantly better. but if we gel we got a shot at the world championship. we just beat the great spain team.

 
At Tuesday, August 31, 2010 12:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

the thing about watching the game today is team usa is a small team. they have no inside presence. they are a outside shhoting team and a transition team. the previous two teams crotia and slovenia were not athletic teams so there advantage was big. brazil had quick athletic players so it evened it out more. they have no play makeing point guards rose and westbrook are not they are scoreing points more. brazil gave the game away they had a great chance to win because of those reasons they spread them out on there pick and roll and had outside shooters knock them down. usa should of got a couple more bigs because teams like spain and argentina could make it very very tough for them, this was a good test they showed muscle for a team thrown together and so young but need to get more easy baskets alot of one on one.

 
At Tuesday, August 31, 2010 4:42:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Team USA's screen/roll defense is terrible and if they don't improve in that area then they will have a tough time winning the gold medal, as I suggested in this post. When Kobe Bryant played for Team USA in 2007 and 2008 he consistently took out the other team's best perimeter player--he annihilated Barbosa (four points on 1-7 field goal shooting) when Team USA beat Brazil 113-76 in the 2007 FIBA Americas Tournament--but this version of Team USA does not have a defensive stopper (or a leader) like Bryant. Team USA is not getting beaten inside on post up plays but rather by players cutting to the hoop when the overall defense breaks down--and that has nothing to do with size but rather with execution. The defensive execution improved somewhat in the second half but there were still many breakdowns. Fortunately for Team USA, Brazil missed a lot of open shots; Brazil could have easily won this game by 8-10 points just by converting open opportunities.

The issue is not that Team USA needs more big men; Brazil did not succeed with size--and they were actually missing two of their best bigs, Nene and Varejao--but rather with speed and execution. Team USA was very fortunate to win this game, because Brazil missed many wide open shots and even had a point blank (albeit contested) attempt to tie the game at the final buzzer. It will be interesting to see if the Team USA players react to this game in the right way, namely by working harder on defense, or if the fact that they won gives them a false sense of security.

This version of Team USA reminds me a lot of the 2006 team that blew out some lesser squads but was totally befuddled by Greece's screen/roll action.

It is worth noting that after three games just about everything I predicted/mentioned has come about, including Team USA having to struggle to beat a good team, Curry being a non-factor in the rotation, three point defense being more important than three point shooting, Team USA's screen/roll defense being terrible (even though some commentators raved about Team USA's defense during the exhibition series), Odom rebounding well but contributing little else, etc.

Also, although Durant had a great game overall versus Brazil he did most of his damage on face up jumpers or in transition; there were several plays in the half court set when physical defenders bumped him off of his spot, resulting in turnovers or missed shots.

The video of the USA-Brazil game includes a blueprint to beat Team USA for anyone in this tournament that has the necessary talent to match up with Team USA; look for teams in the medal round to attack Team USA with screen/roll plays and to be very physical with Durant while trying to minimize his opportunities to shoot face up shots or score in transition. The top FIBA teams have no reason to fear this version of Team USA but I wonder if Team USA has the appropriate level of respect for the top FIBA teams.

The next two games (against Tunisia and Iran) will be blowouts for Team USA but the medal round will be very interesting.

 
At Wednesday, September 01, 2010 12:40:00 AM, Anonymous jackF said...

@David
How come Chauncey who is supposed to be the most experienced player on the team yet he makes the dumbest mistakes? Why is Team USA turning into Durant centric when they should move the ball to find the open man? Don't they know that international teams are hoping that Team USA players go 1 on 1 everytime down the court?

 
At Wednesday, September 01, 2010 5:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack F:

The mainstream media insist that Billups "changed the culture" in Denver (and the "stat gurus" praise his efficiency) but the reality is that Denver was already a very good team before he got there. If anyone's "culture" has been changed it is Billups' "culture," because--as you noted--he seems to be more apt now to take low percentage shots and make low percentage passes than he was when he played with Detroit. However, Billups is the only guard on this version of Team USA who has championship level experience, so he certainly has earned his starting role and the significant minutes that he has received and will continue to receive. In theory, Rose is the point guard and Billups is the shooting guard and those positional designations probably have something to do with Billups looking for his shot more often; I also get the sense that, particularly versus Brazil, Billups felt like his non-Durant teammates were tentative so Billups took it upon himself to try to generate some offense. The results were mixed, as Billups made some nice plays and key shots but he also forced some shots and committed some turnovers.

The team is "Durant-centric" because he is by far the best player on the team; I am much less worried when he goes one on one than when, say, Lamar Odom goes one on one. There is no way that Team USA's half court offense will ever be as good in FIBA play as half court offenses of teams that have played together for years under FIBA rules, so Team USA will always be reliant on pressure defense to force turnovers and missed shots that can be converted into transition scoring opportunities.

 
At Monday, September 13, 2010 1:55:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

the defense on team usa improved greatly and was a big reason they won this game. they stepped up on pick and roll won knockout by 55 10 15 17, and for a team just put together was exceptionally great. this was a b team on papper but k durant is a a plus player to me. he is best 21 year old maybe ever lebron was pretty good so was magic but this kid is amazing avg 30ppg in knockout in first fiba tournamento of career he was by far best player and after big 3 kobe wade lebron probably 4 in league. and i thin k will be in top 3 in next couple years. people laughed off kenny smith when he said he might be the best player in league in 3 years last year. but i dont think you laugh anymore he might well be the way he played. rose struggled westbrook was a very good player for team. odom was inconsistent but consistent on d and played well this game. billups was okay, curry barely played so did granger gay played well andre was decent, gordon played okay. it was mainly durant and great d that won this rather easily for what eveeryone thought.

 

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