Friday, September 01, 2006

Same Old Song and Dance


The USA Baketball team lost to Greece today in the semi finals of the world championships. The final was 101-95, but it really wasn't as close as the final score would indicate. The US was down by double digit for most of the second half and only made it close as the game came to an end. The US has now failed to win every international basketball tournament it has entered since the 2000 Olympics. That is a string of loses that would have been unimaginable just a short time ago.

The Dream Team came, saw and conquered the 1992 Olympics. They were the greatest assembly of basketball players ever put together and they destroyed everyone they played. The question was asked today on talk radio about whether that team would beat the international competition of today. While it seems ridiculous to think that they couldn't, it's actually a good question. The teams in '92 were just happy to be on the same court with Jordan, Magic and Bird. Today the intimidation factor no longer exists. The international teams of today would actually try and beat the '92 team. I personally don't think that they could, but they would put up a better fight than they did in '92.

This current US team will play Argentina for the Bronze medal tomorrow. If they win, it would equal the performance of the last Olympic squad. There are multiple problems with this team as currently constituted. First of all,coach K was simply outclassed today. The Greeks ran the pick and roll over and over again without the US making an adjustment to the play. The pick and roll is the most basic of offensive plays and the supposed basketball mastermind that is coach K should have been able to tell his players how to combat it. In fact they should have practiced defending that play over and over again. It was shameful to watch the Greeks shoot over 70% from inside the arc. The third quarter was like a layup drill. The US players seemed helpless as the Greek "offensive juggernaut" that had been averaging 80 points a game during the tournament, managed to score over 100 against them. That is a coaching failure, pure and simple. The Greeks had been running the same play all during the tournament, but somehow the inferior competition that they faced had managed to somewhat control them. The US looked like a high school team against the Harlem Globetrotters. They just watched as the Greeks ran the wheel play for the entire game.

The second major problem of the team is the lack of consistent outside shooting. The three point shooting over the past two games has been terrible. The US is shooting about 20% from behind the arc, and yet they keep on shooting. That problem should be addressed when Michael Redd joins the team for their next international competition. They are sorely lacking a pure shooter and their recent problems from long range have highlighted that fact. This brings me back to the coaching. The US clearly has the best players in the competition. They are all individually brilliant players, yet the best they can come up with against the zone defense is to hoist up three pointer after three pointer. Coach K, who plays against zones in colleges all the time and surely knows how to attack them, apparently decided that the best way for this team to attack the zone was to shoot from long range. That strategy only works if you have the players who can consistently make long range shots, which the US does not. They have a lot of scorers who can get hot, but they are not pure shooters. It was a faulty strategy and I can only blame the coach for that.

The third problem, which is squarely on the shoulders of the players, is foul shooting. How on earth can a group of players whose job it is to play basketball, shoot less than 60% from the free throw line? The US missed 14 free throws, they lost by 6 points. You do the math. At times when they were fouled, it was as good as a turnover. They missed both free throws and then Greece got the ball. It's a terrible comment on the state of basketball in the US when the supposed best the NBA has to offer can't make simple free throws. It's really exciting to see someone throw down a massive high-flying dunk, but two free throws count for exactly the same amount of points. Making a free throw is as fundamental to the game as defending the pick and roll. Oh, that's right. Never mind.

The US basketball committee actually did a very good job this time. They put together a team that was clearly capable of winning this tournament. The questionable strategies employed are what doomed this "Dream Team" to failure. The team will undoubtedly become even more talented when Redd and Kobe join the team. The question is still, will Coach K be able to lead them to a gold medal? I'm not really sure of the answer. Based on his performance in this tournament, I would have to say no. Larry Brown took a lot of flack for his team's performance in Athens. Of course he had to deal with the egos of Stephon Marbury and Alan Iverson. It seems clear that the players on this team don't come with the same type of baggage and yet coach K has been either unwilling or unable to get them to play anything other than one on one offense. The game plan for US success is turnovers and easy baskets. If that doesn't happen, plan two is to fire up three pointers. It almost embarrassing that this coaching staff hasn't given this team more ammunition to fight this battle. The days of just being able to win by superior talent are over. The US still has superior talent on the court, but perhaps they are lacking in superior talent on the sideline.

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