20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Team USA’s FIBA World Cup Struggles and the Myth of “Olympic Melo”

Team USA has a 2-0 record in first round FIBA World Cup play with one game to go, and has already qualified to advance to the second round regardless of the outcome of tomorrow's game versus Japan. Team USA beat the Czech Republic 88-67 in their first game, but Team USA hardly looked impressive against a team that is not a FIBA powerhouse. In their second game, Team USA narrowly escaped with a 93-92 overtime victory against Turkey, another squad that is not a top contender.

This may be the weakest squad to represent the United States in a major FIBA event since the United States first put professional players on Team USA in the 1992 Olympics. Why is Team USA struggling? Team USA lacks talent, chemistry and size.

Team USA does not have the best player in this event--that would be Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 2019 NBA regular season MVP--or the second best player in the event, Serbia's Nikola Jokic, a member of the 2019 All-NBA First Team. One could debate whether or not the United States has the third best player in this event, but first one would have to stipulate who the United States' best player is, because that is not clear. Candidates include Donovan Mitchell, Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. Mitchell leads the team in mpg (27.1) and ranks second in scoring (12.5 ppg). Walker is second in mpg (25.1) and first in scoring (13.5 ppg). Tatum is third in mpg (24.3), fifth in scoring (10.5 ppg) and second in rebounding (7.5 rpg). Walker is the only current Team USA player who has made the All-NBA team even once (All-NBA Third Team in 2019).

One could argue that from players 1-12 Team USA has the best overall talent, but even that is debatable. In such conversations, it is easy to confuse athletic ability with basketball talent. Team USA's players might be able to run faster and/or jump higher on average than the players from other FIBA teams, but that does not necessarily mean that Team USA has better overall basketball talent.

Chemistry is often an issue for Team USA in FIBA events, because other countries have national teams that have played together in FIBA competition for many years, while Team USA's roster is usually put together at the last moment. Chemistry in this sense has nothing to do with players having a bad attitude, but rather refers to players not being used to playing with each other under FIBA rules and conditions. Here are just a few of the differences between the FIBA game and the NBA game: A FIBA game consists of four 10 minute quarters as opposed to four 12 minute quarters, goaltending/basket interference is allowed in FIBA play once the ball hits the rim, and the FIBA three point line is closer to the hoop. Some of these differences may not seem significant, but we have often seen Team USA struggle to adopt to one or more of these variations. Another difference is the quality and style of the officiating, which affects play at both ends of the court and can affect rotations based on foul trouble. You may recall that in the 2004 Olympics Tim Duncan, an all-time NBA great who is not a foul-prone player, was plagued by foul trouble.

Team USA has three big men: Myles Turner, Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee. Plumlee played five minutes versus the Czech Republic and did not play at all versus Turkey. Lopez is averaging 3.0 ppg in 9.0 mpg. Turner is fifth on the team in mpg (22.2) and leads Team USA in rebounding (8.0 rpg) but he is scoring just 7.5 ppg while shooting .357 from the field. Turner's rebounding and shot blocking/rim protection are important but he is barely playing half of the time, and the rest of the time Team USA is either going small or else utilizing a big man who is not particularly effective in FIBA play.

Due to the above issues regarding talent, chemistry and size, it will not be shocking if Team USA loses at least one game or even if Team USA fails to win the gold medal. This is not a dominant FIBA team. This is a team that, if it plays well and maximizes its potential, is capable of winning the gold medal, but this is a team that also might have to struggle to win a medal at all.

What about coaching? Gregg Popovich is an all-time great NBA coach but his FIBA resume is a bit thin, and not much to write home about. He was an assistant coach for two of the worst performances in Team USA's FIBA history: the 2002 FIBA World Championship (sixth place) and the 2004 Olympics (bronze medal). At the end of regulation of the Turkey game, Popovich went small, much like when he took out Tim Duncan near the end of game six of the 2013 NBA Finals. Taking out Duncan resulted in the Miami Heat getting an offensive rebound and Ray Allen hitting a three pointer that saved the series for the Heat; Ersan Ilyasova's offensive rebound/tip in with 12 seconds remaining in regulation put Turkey up 81-79 and Team USA would have lost had Tatum not hit two free throws after being fouled just before time expired.

Again, I am not saying that Team USA cannot win the gold medal, but I am saying that it will be difficult to win the gold medal and that they have to play better and smarter than they have played in the first two games.

As Team USA's tryouts were being held, Carmelo Anthony, who has washed out of the NBA, publicly expressed his interest in playing for Team USA, and Team USA publicly expressed their interest in not adding him to the roster. Would Team USA be better off with "Olympic Melo" leading the way?

No! "Olympic Melo" is a mythical creature. I am not sure when, why or how the myth began, but the myth is not supported by statistics, the eye test or any other meaningful player evaluation system. Consider Anthony's performance in the 2008 Olympics: he had the second lowest field goal percentage on the team (.422, including .382 in medal round play) and he was benched for the final eight minutes of the gold medal game. During medal round play, Team USA outscored the opposition by 25 points when Anthony was in the game; Team USA outscored the opposition by 52 points when Kobe Bryant was in the game, and they outscored the opposition by 50 points when LeBron James was in the game.

Anthony performed somewhat better in the 2012 Olympics, though his overall numbers were skewed by his stat-padding 37 point explosion versus Nigeria during pool play. Anthony scored eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting during the gold medal game, and throughout the tournament he was often on the bench when the score was close.

In the 2016 Olympics, Anthony scored seven points on 3-7 field goal shooting in the gold medal game. He also had seven rebounds, one of which came after he was reinserted late in a blowout win so that he could set the Team USA Olympic record for career rebounds; he has not been a dominant Olympic rebounder but he holds the U.S. record for most Olympic appearances (four) and most Olympic games played (31, seven more than anyone else), so it is not surprising that he set some career records.

This recitation of facts is not meant to bash Anthony or to diminish his accomplishments and his dedication to Team USA. Here is what I wrote about Anthony after the 2016 gold medal game: "I am not a huge fan of Anthony's game and I am not surprised that he again came up small in the biggest games but I must say that I was moved by how overcome with emotion he was in the moments right after the game. It is obvious that representing his country is very important to Anthony and I commend him for that, particularly since so many players over the years have turned down that opportunity; Anthony has answered that call four times and the flaws in his game do not diminish the dedication that he has demonstrated in support of America and of USA Basketball. Each player on the team committed himself to sacrifice for the greater good; this may not have been a Dream Team but it was an American team that represented America well and it was a pleasure to watch them play the right way in the gold medal game."

All of that being said, Anthony would not have been the answer for Team USA's 2019 challenges. This version of Team USA needs "Olympic Spencer Haywood." In 1968, the 19 year old Haywood led a depleted U.S. roster to the gold medal by setting numerous Olympic and/or Team USA records. As demonstrated above, Anthony was hardly an impact Olympic player during his prime--he rode the coattails of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Jason Kidd--and it is silly to expect a player who cannot crack the eight man rotation of an NBA playoff team to lead Team USA to a gold medal.

Anthony's former teammate Chauncey Billups recently provided the best explanation for why Anthony is not in the NBA now--and this also explains why Anthony would be a poor fit for Team USA: scoring 30 points in a game means too much to Anthony. Billups recalled that Anthony would be happy even after a loss if he scored 30 points, and he would not be as happy after a win if he did not score 30 points.

When your primary concern is scoring 30 points, and you can no longer score 30 points consistently or efficiently, you are no longer valuable to a basketball team. Vince Carter is playing into his 40s because he long ago accepted a reduced role not only without complaint but with enthusiasm. Anthony is wired differently; he has a right to think about himself, his game and his legacy however he wants, but teams also have a right to decide to not sign an aging, declining player who is in denial about his current capabilities.

What about Team USA? I expect Team USA to produce a mixture of flawed, unimpressive double digit wins against lesser teams and close calls against the upper echelon FIBA teams--and possibly even some close calls against lesser teams, as happened versus Turkey. In order to win the gold medal, Team USA needs to develop more chemistry/cohesion at both ends of the court, and someone needs to emerge as the go-to option down the stretch in close games. Those two tasks might sound divergent but they are not. Cohesion and chemistry keep things together for most of the game, but in a close contest you need to have a player who is so confident and so deadly that he must be double-teamed; that in turn opens up opportunities for players who are not good enough or not confident enough to create their own shots down the stretch. Against the better teams that also have skilled big men, Team USA will need at least 25 productive minutes from Turner.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 10:20 PM



Post a Comment

<< Home