With the USA Men's Basketball teamed poised to take on China in what is quite likely the biggest sporting event in the long and storied history of the host country, as well as the first game of the Olympiad for both squads, now seemed like a good time to address the latest iteration of the Men's National Team.
Its no secret that this iteration of the Men's National team was constructed with the sole purpose of recapturing the gold medal. It's also no secret that this American team is as well constructed and talented a team as any that's been put together by USA Basketball since 1992. Jerry Colangelo, Coach K and the rest of the staff have done a fine job of assembling talent and motivating them to play together for a single purpose. However, this team is far from a lock to bring home the gold medal. In fact, I think you'll see them in a back and forth game with China going into the 4th quarter this morning. Simply put, this is still a very flawed basketball team. One that has the ability and raw talent to run teams off the floor but also one that, when faced with adverse circumstances is very likely to retreat inward and become a selfish and individualistic group of players on both ends of the floor.
Now, I don't mean to be what Darkmane is to the X Games here. I want the USA to win and do so in impressive fashion. However, I've also watched enough of this team to be more than a little concerned about how they'll react when faced with a patient team that executes its gameplan for long stretches of time without supplying the US Team with the turnovers that fuel most of its offensive runs. With that said, here are what I see as biggest potential problems for Team USA over the next couple of weeks:
Halfcourt Offense: As I mentioned, when the US is able to get out and run off of opponents' turnovers, they are unstoppable and a joy to watch. However, when they are forced to slow it down in execute in the halfcourt, things become decidely less impressive. This team has not played enough basketball together to have an innate sense of where each other are going to be on the floor, which stagnates ball movement and limits quick ball reversals. As a result of this, the US does not counter well when teams are able to stop the first two options on the initial pick and roll (This offense, like Duke's, is pick and roll heavy). At this point, the instincts of star players in the NBA take over and the rest of the possession often consists of a guard attempting to create something by going one-on-one.
Another problem in the halfcourt is the poor spacing that the US displays. The NBA game is played from the 3 point line in, meaning that NBA wings station themselves on the edge of the line in anticipation of kickouts. Once they receive the ball they are then able to decide whether to shoot or penetrate past an overzealous defender. However, the international line is nearly 3 feet closer than the NBA line and thus creates far less room for wings on kickouts. The US has yet to adjust its positioning to this difference. US wings need to position themselves a foot or so beyond the international line in order to create more space for their jumpshots, as well as better driving lanes for themselves and post up space for their bigs.
Finally, the US still lacks great 3 point shooting. Despite efforts to remedy this problem the selection committee really only gave Coach K one true 3 point shooter (Michael Redd). The rest of the perimeter players on this team are streak shooters, at best. Who's the second best shooter on this team? I'd go with Deron Williams or maybe Kobe Bryant, but even those guys aren't known as pure shooters. There is going to come a game when Redd can't hit a shot or get free and we'd better hope that Bryant or James and Carmelo Anthony are feeling it that evening.
Defense: Here is the team's biggest problem just as it was two summers ago at the World Championships. In the semifinal loss to Greece in Japan, the Americans were completely destroyed by nothing more than a steady diet of high pick and rolls. Once things started to go south, players stopped communicating, started worrying about their assigned men and eventually blew an 11 point second half lead to a team whose most well known player was Sofoklis Schortsanitis. From what I've seen, the pick and roll defense has still not improved tremendously. There doesn't seem to be a definitive plan for how to defend it each time out and too often one opposing player is left wide open as two US defenders smother the other offensive player. Teams that know each other well will find consistent success against the US by running the pick and roll and, at some point, the US is going to have to figure out what their plan of attack is. Do they trap it? Or should they switch and take advantage of the mobile big men at their disposal? Whatever the choice, the US needs to figure out a more effective way to defend basketball's oldest, most basic play.
As bad as the pick and roll defense has been, the US team's biggest problem is the propensity so many of its players have for gambling defensively. Think about it...Kobe, Paul LeBron, Wade, Williams...every one of them likes to play the passing lanes for easy steals. On their respective NBA teams, this is fine. However, teams cannot support two and three players constantly gambling for steals on defense. It results in too many help situations and too many wide open shooters. By refusing to play straight up chest to chest defense, the US is playing right into the hands of its opponents who want nothing more than to create wide open looks for their shooters. This penchant for gambling is the other side of the superstar syndrome that people rarely talk about, but its just as selfish and destructive as the one-on-one offensive play that has so often crippled America's recent international teams. Their has been a lot of talk about commitment to the team by these players in recent weeks but you'll know that they actually believe this when you see five guys talking, helping and playing good, well principled man-to-man defense every time down the floor. If they are able to do that consistently, turnovers will come and they'll come without the wide open momentum killing threes from the corner that Team USA has been giving up at an alarming rate so far in it's exhibition schedule.
Finally, if you're having a little trouble getting excited about this morning's game, allow Marvin to help get you in the mood...