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

Saturday, September 14, 2019

We're Number Seven! Gregg Popovich is Defiantly Proud of Team USA's Worst Finish Ever

Team USA defeated Poland 87-74 to clinch seventh place in the FIBA World Cup. This is Team USA's worst result ever in a major FIBA competition, "surpassing" Team USA's train wreck sixth place finish in the 2002 FIBA World Championship.

If you think that this is a cause for concern or disappointment, Team USA Coach Gregg Popovich is quick to scold you: "If you don't win, some people will play the blame game. There's no blame to be placed anywhere. They play the shame game, like we should be ashamed because we didn't win a gold medal? That's a ridiculous attitude. It's immature. It's arrogant. And it shows that whoever thinks that doesn't respect all the other teams in the world and doesn't respect that these guys did the best they could."

This is not about "blame" or "shame." Popovich is throwing out red herrings and straw man arguments to distract from the real issue, which is very simple to articulate: Is a seventh place finish a reasonable result in the FIBA World Cup for a team of 12 NBA players being coached by one of the greatest NBA coaches of all-time?

If the answer to that question is "Yes," then we can move along and there is nothing to see or talk about here.

I believe, and I suspect that many other informed observers believe, that the answer is "No."

I have great respect for the other FIBA teams, and that is why more than a decade ago I advocated that Team USA take a more serious approach to FIBA events, particularly on defense. It took two disasters for Team USA to learn the lesson, but from 2006 until now things had improved. The 2019 FIBA World Cup was a setback for Team USA, and it does not help matters that the coach is in denial about that.

There is a difference between "blame"/"shame" and analysis. Frank Isola of Sirius XM Radio made the same point that I have recently made about Popovich's coaching: Popovich has demonstrated a pattern--in the NBA Finals and in the FIBA World Cup--of favoring small lineups and this preference has resulted in devastating losses (for his Spurs to the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals, and for Team USA versus France in the 2019 FIBA World Cup). Brian Scalabrine, Isola's co-host, retorted that we do not know that the outcome would have changed if Popovich had done something different in those situations, but Isola won the argument with simple logic: if what you are doing is not working (France's Rudy Gobert dominated all game long, finishing with 21 points and 16 rebounds) then you need to try something else. I would add that I reject the notion that the big man is or should be extinct and that small ball is the wave of the future. There is a role for the big man in basketball, and smart coaches will develop their big men so that they can be productive.

Anyone who has watched FIBA basketball understands the inherent challenges that Team USA will face in every competition:

1) We will never have a roster that has played together as long and is as cohesive as the rosters for the other top national teams. Team USA's roster is usually thrown together at the last minute and so Team USA does not get much practice time together before heading to an event.

2) FIBA rules and style of play differ from the rules and style of play to which American NBA players are accustomed.

Nevertheless, even Team USA's second, third or fourth string rosters will have more overall talent and depth than any other team in any FIBA event. While this is probably the first time that Team USA did not have the best or second best player in a major FIBA event, Team USA still had 12 NBA players.

The issues relate to organization, preparation and motivation.


For decades, Team USA could send almost any roster--even a roster filled with college players--to major FIBA events and expect to win a gold medal, usually in dominant fashion. That has not been the case for quite some time.

Therefore, more thought and analysis needs to go into the roster construction process, and the scouting process--both self-scouting, and scouting the opposing teams.

For example, it should have been obvious before the FIBA World Championship that in order to win the gold medal--which, contrary to what Popovich suggests, should always be Team USA's goal and expectation--Team USA would need to have an answer for big men such as Serbia's Nikola Jokic and France's Rudy Gobert. Team USA either needed to have big men on the roster who could at least slow those guys down, or Team USA needed to have an entire roster devoted to the proposition that Team USA would be a small, up tempo team. The first option makes much more sense to me, but perhaps the second option would work if the roster were actually constructed that way, and if the team prepared to play that way. What makes no sense is to devote three of 12 roster spots to big men (Myles Turner, Brook Lopez, Miles Plumlee) and then relegate two of them to the bench while limiting the minutes of the starting big man (Turner).

The bottom line is that, from day one, the roster must be constructed with a clear understanding of how Team USA expects to play, and how Team USA matches up with the medal-contending teams.


Media members who covered Team USA in person this year noted with some bafflement that Popovich had a very light practice schedule. Practice was critically important this year even more so than in other years because Team USA consisted of our third or fourth string players. This team needed on-court time together to develop chemistry and to understand the game plans that would need to be executed against top FIBA teams. Defense is all about repetition, focus and execution.

Team USA did not look well-prepared during this event, and that resulted in panicky possessions at both ends of the court.


This may be the most challenging factor for Team USA. Players from other teams take enormous pride in representing their countries and in competing for a FIBA World Cup title. Team USA does not seem to have that pride or that focus. After the debacles in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and the 2004 Olympics, Jerry Colangelo did a great job of instilling/reviving that pride in Team USA from the top of the organization down. As players and leaders, Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd exemplified this pride, and set an example that they demanded be followed by the other players.

If Team USA's organization, preparation and motivation do not improve before the 2020 Olympics, look for more losses, and for more excuses from a defiant, baffled coach.

Labels: , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 12:59 PM


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Serbia Beats the Status out of Team USA

Gregg Popovich needs to spend less time working on his snappy comebacks to the media and more time trying to figure out FIBA basketball strategy. His Team USA squad can finish no higher than seventh place in the FIBA World Cup after losing 94-89 to Serbia. Serbia's coach ran his mouth about this matchup weeks ago, and Team USA made that guy look like a genius.

You know the old cliche about the game not being as close as the final score? Team USA trailed 32-7 at the end of the first quarter. Read that again: 32-7. Popovich took a team of 12 NBA players to China, and after 10 minutes of play the Serbians were beating their brakes off by 25 points. I wrote it yesterday and I will write it again today: when Popovich gave a sarcastic answer to a legitimate question about his fourth quarter strategy versus France, he may have been trying to deflect attention from the fact that he had no strategy.

An important step toward becoming a champion is to make no excuses--and there are no excuses for Team USA's performance in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Yes, Team USA could have assembled a better roster. Yes, Team USA would have benefited from better coaching, more practices and a greater sense of urgency, but the bottom line is that there is no way a roster that would easily qualify for the playoffs in an 82 game NBA season should finish seventh or eighth in this tournament. Team USA lost an exhibition game to Australia, should have lost to Turkey, lost to France, and was getting humiliated by Serbia before rallying to make the score respectable.

When Team USA is reduced to trying to make the score respectable, something is seriously wrong.

Serbia has a decent squad, and Team USA sent its third or fourth stringers--the superstars are at home "load managing" and counting their millions of dollars--but Red Klotz and the Washington Generals would not have trailed Serbia by 25 points after 10 minutes.

The key to success for Team USA in FIBA basketball--as I have pointed out for well over a decade--is not three point shooting or going small or anything pertaining to offense; the key is being able to simultaneously defend the three point line and not give up layups. It is easy to shut down one or the other, but it requires a good game plan--and good execution by the players--to do both. Team USA allowed Serbia to shoot .562 from two point range and .484 from three point range. John McKay once said of his hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers that they did not block, but they made up for that by not tackling. Team USA did not defend the paint, but they made up for it by also not defending the three point line.

Plus/minus numbers in a small sample size can be noisy, but Team USA was +8 versus Serbia with Myles Turner on the court and -13 when he was on the bench. He played 24 minutes in a five point loss, and I predicted a week ago that Team USA risked losing against some of the top contenders if Turner did not play at least 25 effective minutes. Would Team USA have beaten Serbia if Turner had played a few more minutes and if Derrick White--who scored two points in 11 minutes with a -14 plus/minus number--had played fewer minutes? White plays for Popovich's Spurs. I have not seen the postgame press conference, but it could have been interesting if any reporters asked Popovich some direct questions about his game plan and his substitution patterns.

In case you are wondering, Carmelo Anthony would not have helped because he does not defend and he cannot guard Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic or any other true center. If Anthony had been on this team he would have been a distraction, and in the end he would have shouldered the brunt of the blame that--as we can see--should be directed elsewhere. It was much better for Team USA and for Anthony that he was not on the team.

Team USA bounced back from the embarrassing 2002 and 2004 performances not just by adding talent but also by focusing on defensive execution, spearheaded by Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd. If Team USA expects to win the gold medal in the 2020 Olympics merely by recruiting a few superstars but without changing the team's mentality and game plan then things will not end well.

Labels: , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 8:35 PM


Look for Lindy's Pro Basketball 2019-20 in Stores Now

I am always happy and excited when I see the new Lindy's Pro Basketball in stores, because that means the NBA season is just around the corner. The 2019-20 edition has 30 team previews, plus nine feature stories: "Scopin' the NBA" by Mike Ashley (recapping the major off-season stories), "Giannis the Splendid" (Gery J. Woelfel profiles the 2019 NBA MVP), "Whither the Big Man" (Michael Bradley analyzes the sport's evolution to small ball), "Mighty Zion" (editor Roland Lazenby looks ahead to Zion Williamson's much-anticipated rookie season), "Keeping the Faith" (Gery J. Woelfel explains why the Pacers are so happy to acquire Malcolm Brogdon), "NBA Report Card" (Lazenby grades each team's off-season moves), "A Look Ahead" (Jeremy Treatman scouts the 2020 NBA Draft), "NBA Fantasy Guide" (Ashley provides advice for fantasy basketball enthusiasts) and "A Look Back" (Lazenby recalls Michael Jordan's rookie season).

I wrote six team previews and sidebar articles this year: Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings. My sidebar articles discuss, respectively, Kevin Love, Luka Doncic, Steve Kerr, the Thunder's former "Big Three," Damian Lillard and Vlade Divac/Vivek Ranadive.

This is the 12th year that I have contributed to Lindy's. I am grateful to Roland Lazenby for providing the opportunity and I am proud to be associated with the finished product.

If you cannot find a copy of the magazine in a store, you can order a copy online.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 AM


France Defeats Team USA 89-79 in the FIBA World Cup

At least Team USA qualified for the Olympics--barely. Just one win after ensuring an invitation to the 2020 Olympics, Team USA lost to France 89-79 in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals. Team USA will not win a medal, and the highest Team USA can finish is fifth--and that will require a victory against Serbia, whose loud mouth (but possibly prophetic) coach said before the tournament that Team USA would need divine intervention to beat his squad. As it turned out, Serbia lost 97-87 to Argentina to join Team USA in the (no) consolation round. It is not clear if Team USA is interested in and/or capable of making the loud mouth coach eat his words, particularly with no hardware at stake, but one would hope that Team USA will still strive for the best finish possible.

What should we make of Team USA?

This result is not shocking, or even surprising. As I explained a week ago, "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...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."

While not surprising, this result is nevertheless disappointing. Granted, this was not our A team or even our B team--one could legitimately argue that this is our third string or possibly even fourth string squad--but should the United States be satisfied that a squad comprised entirely of NBA players finished no higher than fifth? It would be nice if our elite players understood the significance of representing their country and of being ambassadors for the sport, but a squad that, on paper, is easily talented enough to qualify for the NBA playoffs should not be bowing out before the medal round.

Gregg Popovich will likely be given a pass for this failure. He is popular with--or at least, respected by--the media, and already there have been articles published saying that Popovich is not to blame and that he did not do a bad job. Perhaps both of those statements are true, but it is evident that he did not do a great job, either--unless you buy the premise that a team with 12 NBA players maximized its potential by finishing no higher than fifth. Consider that France's starting lineup versus Team USA was Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier, Nic Batum, Frank Ntilikina and Amath M'Baye. Team USA started Myles Turner, Harrison Barnes, Joe Harris, Donovan Mitchell and Kemba Walker. We know that FIBA playing conditions are different, and that most of the other FIBA teams have more experience playing together--but NFL Coach Bum Phillips once said of the legendary Coach Don Shula, "He could take his'n and beat your'n and he could take your'n and beat his'n." If Popovich could not win with the starting lineup that he had, I am less than convinced that he would have won if he switched seats with France's Coach Vincent Collet; it seems more likely that Popovich could have lost with either squad, kind of the FIBA anti-Don Shula. Keep in mind that Popovich was also an assistant coach for Team USA in the 2002 FIBA World Championship (now known as the FIBA World Cup) and the 2004 Olympics--and the less said about those squads, the better, but just know that Popovich has now had three chances in FIBA tournament play as a coach and he still does not own a gold medal.

Popovich's snarky routine with the media is getting more than a little old, too. I will be the first to admit that many media members ask stupid questions, but Popovich is often rude even to questioners who make legitimate inquiries. After the loss to France, Tim Reynolds asked Popovich if France's defense took away Donovan Mitchell or if Team USA just went away from Mitchell down the stretch. That is a fair question considering that Mitchell, who scored a game-high 29 points, did not score in the fourth quarter. Popovich replied, "Just write, don't coach. Just write."

I don't pretend to be a better coach than Popovich, but it is fair to say that many media members did their jobs better during this tournament than Popovich did his job, and there is no excuse for Popovich to brush off a legitimate question--unless his sarcasm is meant to mask the reality that he did not in fact have a good answer. If I had asked that question and Popovich had provided that answer, I would have followed up with, "Based on that non-answer, is it fair to say that you and your coaching staff had no counters for the fourth quarter strategies employed by France's coaching staff?" Popovich likes to star in little press conference soundbites, and most reporters are too scared or slow-witted to fire back, but respect is a two-way street and accountability should be expected of a Team USA coach who will return home without a medal.

Popovich is an all-time great NBA coach but he may not be a great FIBA coach and--regardless of how great he is--he should treat other working professionals with the respect that they deserve.

Popovich has a propensity for going with small lineups at questionable times. This possibly cost the Spurs the championship during the 2013 NBA Finals when Tim Duncan watched from the bench in game six as the Heat grabbed an offensive rebound that led to Ray Allen's series-changing three pointer. This almost cost Team USA in FIBA World Cup play against Turkey--and this played a role in Team USA's loss to France that eliminated Team USA from medal contention. Myles Turner played just 10 minutes; as I noted a week ago, Team USA was not going to beat any of the top notch FIBA teams if Turner played less than 25 minutes. Brook Lopez played less than five minutes and Mason Plumlee barely played a minute. Turner's benching while Rudy Gobert dominated Team USA's smaller players (21 points, 16 rebounds, three blocked shots) makes no sense, nor does it make any sense that Popovich used/wasted two roster spots for Lopez and Plumlee if he did not plan to incorporate them into the rotation.

Contrary to recent popular belief, small ball is not the cure for all ills, particularly when the opposing team has a dominant big man. Contrary to another persistent myth, the key to Team USA success in FIBA play is not that Team USA make a ton of three pointers; Team USA's advantage is having the size and athletic ability to play stifling defense.

France outscored Team USA 26-13 in the fourth quarter. FIBA quarters last only 10 minutes, so over the course of a 48 minute NBA game France scored at a 125 points per game pace during the decisive final stanza. Again, maybe this is not Popovich's fault and maybe he did not do a bad job--but he clearly did not do a great job in terms of roster selection/management, and in terms of developing a defensive game plan that this roster could execute under pressure.

Of course, Team USA's fourth quarter offensive output of 13 points is nothing to write home about, either, but Team USA led 74-67 with less than eight minutes to go in regulation. If Team USA had played lock down defense the rest of the way, they could have still won even without having an offensive explosion.

If Team USA's A team or B team shows up in the 2020 Olympics, Team USA will probably win regardless of who coaches, but it would be nice if Team USA--from top to bottom--took this more seriously and had a more professional approach regarding roster construction, player rotations and in-game strategy.

Maybe this was not a bad job--but it was not a great job, and it did not represent the best product that Team USA is capable of putting on the court, even considering the absence of Team USA's superstar players.

Labels: , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 1:02 AM