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Monday, July 26, 2021

Assessing Team USA After the 83-76 Loss to France

Gregg Popovich is a lock to be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but it is fair to say that his FIBA exploits will not figure prominently in his Hall of Fame display. Team USA has lost five of the last eight FIBA games that he has coached since 2019, including France's 83-76 win over Team USA in Team USA's first game in the 2020 Olympics (being held in 2021). This defeat snapped Team USA's 25 game Olympics winning streak, dating back to 2004 when Popovich was a Team USA assistant coach for Larry Brown. 

It is fair to say that France's Coach Vincent Collet outcoached Popovich, who had the much more talented roster yet could not figure out a way to stop France down the stretch. This is just Team USA's sixth loss in Olympic competition, and it might have been the worst from a coaching standpoint, as Popovich's crew blew a 74-67 lead with less than four minutes remaining.

Evan Fournier poured in a game-high 28 points versus a Team USA squad featuring--among others--All-Stars Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, Khris Middleton, and Devin Booker. Before the contest, I wondered why NBC had relegated Team USA's games to Peacock streaming, but maybe NBC suspected that the U.S. squad--which should never, ever, ever again be called any kind of "Dream Team"--may become known as the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players." 

Rudy Gobert had 14 points, nine rebounds, and no blocked shots, but those numbers do not reflect the impact that he had on winning. He was very disruptive at both ends of the court, converting high percentage shots in the paint while also deterring Team USA players from venturing into the lane; Gobert did not block any shots at least in part because Team USA players were very reluctant to shoot when he was nearby. It should be noted that the official scorer possibly missed at least one Gobert block around the 3:19 mark of the second quarter on a Damian Lillard drive.

Jrue Holiday led Team USA with 18 points, but he shot just 5-13 from the field. Kevin Durant, who is closing in on the Team USA career scoring record held by Carmelo Anthony, had just 10 points on 4-12 field goal shooting. Lillard scored 11 points on 3-10 field goal shooting. Logo shots and one on one forays are not quite so easy when the opposing team is permitted to play defense, which is too often not the case in the modern NBA.

I am the last person to overreact to one game, or to assert something absurd such as a player's legacy or a coach's legacy should be defined by one game, particularly a game that is not an elimination game. However, Team USA's loss is embarrassing for a talented squad led by a highly respected coach. No matter what reasons and/or excuses are provided, Team USA should not lose to France. It is perhaps understandable for international teams that have several NBA players and more internal cohesion--based on playing together for a longer time--than Team USA to play competitively against Team USA, but when Team USA sends anything close to our A Team victory should be the only expectation. Popovich's indignant responses to legitimate media questions about this surprising loss and his coaching decisions are pathetic; if Popovich is truly not surprised that he lost to France coaching this roster then perhaps he is the wrong person for this job.

There is a tendency to seek simple, one dimensional answers/explanations, but the reality is that several factors contributed to this loss, and most of these factors are the same factors that led to previous Team USA losses in FIBA play. There are many commentators who insist that the most important thing for Team USA in FIBA play is to build a roster stacked with shooters, but the reality is that the most important thing for Team USA in FIBA play is to have guards who can pressure opposing ballhandlers, forcing turnovers to fuel the fast break attack. The best Team USA squads since the one and only real Dream Team in 1992 are the squads that had Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd in the backcourt. I interviewed Steve Kerr--then the Suns General Manager--in 2007, not long after he spoke with then Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni about D'Antoni's experience as a Team USA assistant coach and Kerr told me that D'Antoni raved about Bryant's defensive impact: 

Prior to each game in last summer's FIBA Americas tournament, Bryant asked the coaching staff, "Who do you want me to take out?" In other words, Bryant wanted to know who was the toughest perimeter threat on each team so that he could study his tendencies on film and then completely neutralize him on the court. I said to Kerr, "That sounds like a sniper zeroing in on a target" and Kerr replied, "Yeah--and he was serious." Kerr went on to say that Bryant's "focus" and "bravado" added an essential missing element to the squad and elevated everyone else's play. Kerr noted that the previous Team USA squad had performed reasonably well other than the infamous loss to Greece but that it lacked a certain "swagger," as he termed it, and that Team USA did not have a "player who everyone feared." Kerr literally shook his head in wonderment as he described Bryant's impact on Team USA.

Bryant was the difference maker for Team USA in the 2008 Olympics, and Kidd retired with a perfect record in FIBA play. There is a reason that Team USA's 2004 squad with young perimeter players LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, and Stephon Marbury did not win gold, but the 2008 and 2012 squads won gold after adding Bryant and Kidd. When Team USA loses in FIBA play, poor perimeter defense is usually a main culprit, resulting in wide open three pointers and/or easy cuts to the hoop. It is not essential for Team USA to make a lot of three pointers--Team USA can win with pressure defense, fast break points, and points in the paint--but it is essential that Team USA make opposing guards uncomfortable and ineffective. 

Team USA would not have lost to France with prime Kobe Bryant guarding Evan Fournier. Period. 

Another factor is that Team USA always has to make adjustments to the differences between the NBA game and the FIBA game. FIBA games are only 40 minutes long instead of 48 minutes long, the FIBA three point line is closer to the hoop, goaltending is permitted under FIBA rules after the ball hits the rim, there are fewer timeouts in FIBA, in FIBA timeouts can only be called by the coach, in FIBA a player is disqualified after five fouls (instead of six in the NBA), and in FIBA a technical foul also counts as a personal foul.

Also, NBA officiating has always differed from FIBA officiating, but the differences are now more pronounced than ever; in the NBA, offensive players can get away with murder on the perimeter--including traveling, carrying, and running over defenders--while any defender who is in close proximity to an offensive player (especially an offensive player who is viewed as a star) is liable to be whistled for a foul. In the loss to France, five Team USA players had more fouls than field goals made! Durant, Booker, Lillard, and the other NBA All-Stars who are big time scorers are used to not only attempting a lot of free throws per game but they are also used to (1) not being whistled for fouls, and (2) having a lot of space to operate because defenders are wary of being whistled for fouls that not only put them in foul trouble but also put their team in the penalty. 

I am not a "get off my lawn" guy who thinks that today's players are terrible and old school players were perfect, but I do think that if Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, and Michael Jordan played under today's rules they would be setting records. At his best, Maravich averaged 31.1 ppg in a league with handchecking and no three point shot. Erving at his best averaged 31.9 ppg in the wide open ABA, and 26.9 ppg in an NBA with handchecking plus a three point shot that was then considered a novelty, not an offensive staple. Jordan at his best averaged 37.1 ppg in a league with handchecking and a three point shot that was still more novelty act than consistent weapon. 

Maravich was a great outside shooter, while Erving and Jordan were just adequate--but if they had grown up with the three point shot it is fair to assume that Maravich would have been an even better shooter, and that Erving and Jordan would have been better shooters as well. Even if Erving and Jordan did not become premier three point shooters, if they played in an era during which (1) three point shooters opened up the floor and (2) defensive players could not touch them on the perimeter then there would be no way to stop them from scoring and/or drawing fouls. Maravich, Erving, and Jordan would not be as flustered by FIBA play as the current NBA stars are because players in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s understood how to effectively play through contact.

One Team USA loss does not invalidate Popovich's coaching legacy, nor does it invalidate the legacies of Team USA's players--but one loss does show that the people responsible for assembling and coaching this team either forgot or did not fully learn the lessons from previous Team USA losses. Popovich's poor overall FIBA coaching track record, dating all the way back to his time as an assistant coach for the 2004 Olympic team that settled for a bronze medal, gives one pause.

Team USA can still win the gold medal if Popovich can formulate an effective defensive game plan--and inspire his players to execute that plan. Great defense will generate easy scoring opportunities, which will in turn take pressure off of Team USA's sputtering half court offense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM



At Tuesday, July 27, 2021 11:19:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

it seems to me that coach Pop is out of his depth here despite years of experience as assistant and SAS having much success with foreign players on roster

At Tuesday, July 27, 2021 9:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Popovich claimed that he spent two years preparing for France, which makes Team USA's poor performance look even worse. Being able to coach foreign players under NBA rules does not correlate much with being able to coach American players under FIBA rules.

Team USA has the most talented team and thus could still win the gold medal, but Popovich's sarcastic press conference answers after being outcoached are classless, and I am much less interested in his political opinions than I am in his apparent inability to design an effective offense or an effective defense for FIBA competition, which is only drawing attention to the reality that the Spurs have not done much of note since the departures of Duncan and Leonard. Leonard already won without Popovich, and it is obvious that Duncan could have done so, but it is less obvious what Popovich can do without them (or maybe it is becoming obvious).

I hope that Team USA has a good replacement lined up for what will hopefully be Popovich's final appearance as Team USA's coach. Jeff Van Gundy has done a very good job with Team USA squads that did not feature the A level talent, and he has earned a shot at coaching the A team.


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