Today, Team USA is taking part in part of its â€œgruelingâ€ tryout camp in Las Vegas leading up to its participation in the FIBA Americas Championship next month, an event conveniently also taking place in Vegas (only because the president of Venezuela can be a little nuts).
This upcoming tournament matters because the USA has to earn a 2008 Olympics berth by finishing in the top two in the event. The thing is, the talent of the other teams in this tournament is horrid â€” the only other team of note is Argentina (who will be without Nocioni and other key players). Brazil has had a decent team, but they will likely be without Anderson Varejao and others, so they shouldnâ€™t be a threat. After that itâ€™s the Canadas and Puerto Ricos of the world. Well, maybe I shouldnâ€™t dis Puerto Rico.
The point is Team USA should roll to one of the two automatic Olympic berths. But this mini summer season needs to be about more than that, it needs to be about laying the groundwork for Beijing 2008. Team USAâ€™s results in the World Championships last year in Indianapolis showed some improvement over previous outings â€” particularly in terms of team makeup geared toward international style basketball â€” but also showed some key weaknesses.
It is those weaknesses that need to be addressed. Letâ€™s look at three big problems from last summer and how to deal with them.
Defense. This was Team USAâ€™s biggest weakness last summer, and it may be the most difficult to address. Of the final four teams in last summerâ€™s tournament (USA, Greece, Spain and Argentina) the USA had the best offensive rating (of points per 100 possessions) by a whopping 9.1 points. (And that was despite the offensive concerns.) But Team USAâ€™s defensive rating was 9.2 points per 100 possessions worse than the next worst among the big four, which happened to be Greece. And we remember what happened when those two met.
This time around the USA has individual athletes on the wing who can defend â€” Tayshaun Prince, Shane Battier, Kobe Bryant â€” but the challenge will come on defensive rotations. That starts in the paint, last summer the USA team seemed to count on Carmelo Anthony to provide the inside presence, and heâ€™s not a defensive powerhouse. I think a combination of Howard/Bosh/Amare improves that somewhat, just in terms of athleticism, but inside presence could still be an issue.
On the whole, international teams (particularly the better ones) move well without the ball and all the players â€” even the bigs â€” can shoot the three. American players coming out of the NBA arenâ€™t used to seeing that.
Building team trust in defensive rotations is something that does not happen overnight, it takes time. And thatâ€™s one thing the USA and its schedule do not have. Itâ€™s a challenge for Coach K and his team, but in part he may need to count on an overwhelming offense and decent defense. If they can start playing that.
Outside shooting. Team USAâ€™s overall shooting percentage was the best at the World championships last summer, but nobody that watched them play thought their outside shooting was consistent. For the tournament they shot 36.8% from beyond the arc (not what youâ€™d hope for a 20-foot line), and they shot just 32% against Greece and 25% against Germany the their second to last game.
Here is one area where this summerâ€™s personnel could help. Last summer we dreamed of a Michael Redd like player on the squad, this year Redd is there. So is Kobe, who can shoot 40% from the international three point line with a couple hands in his face. Plus Mike Miller is in Vegas and if he makes the squad thatâ€™s another shooter. This is an area I expect we should see improvement this summer, although that may be dependent of factor number three.
Movement without the ball. Last summer, if the USA could not get into transition (they played at the fastest pace of the tournament, averaging 98.4 possessions per game), it looked like they wanted to go with the Phoenix â€œset the high pick and let the ball handler createâ€ offense. Except that the USA didnâ€™t have anyone with the experience and savvy of Steve Nash. And that meant guys stood out at the three-point line and let Paul/Wade/LeBron/Anthony drive, and they watched from a nice vantage point.
This summer, movement without the ball and better spacing will be the keys to an improved offense. The USA should keep the pace up and try to take advantage of their athletic superiority. But when forced into the halfcourt there needs to be more than the individualistic drive-and-kick we see in the NBA regular season. There needs to be guys moving without the ball, guys making the extra pass within the offense. I think if Billups is running the offense that is a plus, he will be more the facilitator and director rather than a scorer.
The USA has the talent, the question is execution.
Maybe thatâ€™s the key to everything, executing a game plan that fits with the International style of game. Certainly the USA puts forth the most talented team, even if there are weaknesses, but the lack of playing time together and a certain casualness (at times) has derailed talented teams in the past.
I do have some concerns about the makeup of this team inside, in terms of getting rebounds and providing a strong defensive presence. There is no question about the athleticism of the guys up front, but Amare and Bosh are really fours masquerading as fives. Howard is the one true center on the team, but he is green and his game doesnâ€™t seem suited for the international style (working from the high post, hitting the midrange jumper and longer consistently).
But that is a problem the USA can overcome. Itâ€™s one they need to overcome by next summer. And they need to lay the groundwork for that in the next six weeks.