Good Steps For Team USA

Kurt —  August 31, 2005

It’ll be next summer at the World Championships before we really know (or maybe the 2008 Olympics), but the early indications are that USA Basketball may have learned some valuable lessons from the 2004 debacle in Athens.

Case in point: The rape trial kept Kobe out of the last Olympics, but it appears the new efforts to build a team better designed to play international ball for 2008 will include Kobe, according to team architect Jerry Colangelo.

“I’ve gotten word that (Bryant) is waiting for a call,” Colangelo said. “I think this would be a great opportunity for him.”

The olive branch extended to Bryant means there is no chance of Shaquille O’Neal playing for Team USA, although he’s not the type of player Colangelo is looking for, anyway.

There are good signs out of this quote, and it has nothing to do with whether or not Kobe dons a USA jersey in 2006 or 2008 (although I think he should). Rather, that quote starts to show that Colangelo and USA Basketball gets what it needs to do.

Bringing in Kobe means the team is looking players who can shoot from the perimeter — particularly the three. If there was one clear deficiency in Athens it was that Team USA, to use a Chickism, couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean.

It sounds as if Colangelo is looking to build a team suited to play the international style of basketball — and he’s right, Shaq doesn’t fit that. He really never did, although a younger (fitter) Shaq still would have caused so many problems and was such a physical force he would have been unstoppable on any court or in any style.

This needs to be a more perimeter based and versatile team, with bigs who can play inside and out and not just a plethora of slasher guards. Kobe can fit right in that on the perimeter. That Colangelo is thinking along those lines is a good sign.

By the way, I don’t buy into the “the USA team lacked fundamentals” argument. Yes, jump shooting is a fundamental, but the core of that argument is that USA players couldn’t or wouldn’t pass (Team USA led the Olympics in assists, and it wasn’t close), had no idea how to play team ball (despite only being thrown together for that tournament) or that they didn’t care. I think it was pretty clear they did if you watched the games, but the deck was stacked against them.

In putting together a team that could sell jerseys but was not built for the international game (where the three-point line is more like college and the base of the lane is wider) Team USA was expected to win on pure talent. They needed shooters but Michael Redd never got an invite. To add to the problems they brought in a great coach (Larry Brown) but again whose teams do not play a style that fits well internationally. Plus, Brown didn’t want to play his kids so LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Amare Stoudemire were glorified spectators, despite their game being better suited to the Olympics than some that played a lot.

What you were left with is a team that scored 105 points per 100 possessions and gave up 103 (the tournament average was 103). For comparison, the original dream team averaged 116 and gave up 105 (tournament average 108). Dean Oliver has these and other numbers in a great piece he did on problems with the Olympic team last year.

Team USA needs to get its act together because it is clear the rest of the world is catching up on pure talent. Check out this work by Dan Rosenbaum, showing just how much of the young talent in the NBA is imported.

I think bringing in Colangelo was a good first step, although more needs to be done. USA Basketball needs to tell the NBA what players it wants, not the other way around. Shooters, versatile big men, a couple of shut down defenders. Basically, a team, not a collection of stars.

Also, they need a full time coach. It was pretty clear Larry Brown and staff did little or no scouting — when opponents big men wandered away from the basket out to the three-point line USA players watched them go, a bad move in international ball where bigs can shoot the three. That happened way too often and in key situations. A full time USA coach could scout these things. Plus, it would bring a consistent system and style to Team USA, as opposed to an All-Star game every four years.

We’ll see what happens — remember one of the big problems last time was so many NBA stars turning the team down. The days the USA can just roll the ball out and win on talent alone are gone, this needs to be a team now. It sounds like they are moving in the right direction.

Kurt

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