Monday, August 27, 2007

The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh

The title of today's article refers to a terrible movie starring Dr. J about a basketball team whose success is determined by mixing the correct astrological signs on the court (An Astrologist by the name of Miss Mona becomes the de facto GM of the team). USA basketball is now in search of the seeming elusive "chemistry" that has eluded it at the last three international tournaments. USA Basketball has only managed a bronze medal at the last two World Championships and the last Olympic games in Greece. While finishing third is not a disaster, it has to be considered a huge disappointment considering that the USA team has, by far, the most talent in the world. The problem has been that the team usually consisted of a group of one-on-one stars who were not used to sharing the ball or working against the zone defenses of the international teams. That was all supposed to fixed by the last World Championships, but the US was once again undone by a zone defense and an inexplicable inability to defend against the high pick and roll.

I thought the last US failure could be placed squarely on the shoulders of the coaching staff. Defending the pick and roll is one of the fundamentals of the game and the vaunted coaching staff, led by Coach K of Duke, even with its supposed emphasis on defense somehow forgot to prepare the team for the most simple of offensive plays. I have heard little criticism of the coaching (I guess Coach K is beyond reproach), while most of the blame for the loss was placed squarely on the shoulders of the players. I watched those games however and I know for a fact that given a workable defensive scheme, that team would have easily won the gold medal.

So now we come to the current team which is running roughshod through its competition at the FIBA championships. The best teams in the tournament (Brazil, Argentina, Canada) haven't even sent their best players to compete. The US meanwhile has its best players on the floor. The team is without Dwayne Wade, who is recuperating from off season surgery, but he has been replaced by Kobe Bryant, who is making his US international debut. The team has looked great playing against mediocre competition, winning its games by an average of 50 points. I have no doubt that the US will cruise through the tournament and easily qualify for the Olympics. And if there are no injuries among their top players, they will once again send the most talented team in the world to the Olympics. Dwayne Wade will probably replace Mike Miller and the US will be stocked with guard/forwards who are capable of dominating any NBA game.

The problem is that the international game is very different from the NBA. While the NBA puts a premium on breaking down the player in front of you, the international game is all about team play. The US has looked more team oriented in this tournament, but it's easy to look good when they are playing against glorified club teams. When Argentina and Spain put their best players on the floor, the US will not be able to use their superior physical talent to overwhelm the opposition. They have to rely on set plays and defense and that is where they have failed in their previous attempts at gold.

The team really does seem to be committed to defense this time around, but their offense is still predicated on turnovers and open court play. In last night's game, Brazil minimized their turnovers and were very proficient from the 3 point line and managed to stay very close to the US for most of the first half. The US depth eventually wore down the Brazilians and they pulled away early in the second half. That will not be the case against the better international teams. The US is still vulnerable to a team that takes good care of the ball, hit outside shots and can execute set plays on offense. USA basketball can still overwhelm lesser teams with pure athleticism, but that will not be enough to win the gold. They need to find that elusive quality called chemistry (Which in my mind really just means better coaching. Are you listening Coach K?). Perhaps they should consult with Miss Mona. I pretty sure the Pittsburgh Pythons (or Pisces, as they are renamed in the middle of the movie) are out of business.

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