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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