Due to particularly oppressive slave-driving from The Man, I was not able to watch any of the Team USA exhibition games. However, my good friend Kyle (my arch nemesis during hundreds of heated and poorly played pickup games during law school), has been breaking down the games and roster in a series of long emails that warm the soul during oppressive work weeks. Since his thoughts were so insightful, and with Kurt out of town, I asked Kyle to fine tune those emails into the following Team USA breakdown. — Reed
On Sunday night, the USA Basketball team officially begins its latest pursuit for Olympic gold and for recognition as the greatest basketball country in the world. In preparation of this, I have put together a breakdown of each player’s performance over the last few weeks during the exhibition schedule. While I tend to be a stat guy by nature, for this analysis I primarily used my observations of the games. I am not going to recap any of the games (plenty of other sites have done that), just the overall performance of each player. Unless noteworthy, I will not discuss their performances in any specific game, just my overall impressions. For those of you who have watched the games, your impressions may differ from mine so feel free to chime in. For those of you who didn’t see the games, don’t blast the analysis based on your NBA experience. As has been well documented on this site and others, the international game is vastly different from the NBA game and NBA skills do not necessarily translate into international skills or vice versa (see Carlos Arroyo). Away we go:
J. Kidd: The decline is significant, noticeable and not at all troubling (unless you’re a Dallas fan). Kidd will play the first 4-6 minutes of each half and then will likely sit out the rest of the time. He took two shots in five games, which is about right. He still runs an effective break but his ability (or lack there of) during half court sets hamstrings the offense. I am glad he is on the team for leadership and experience but even more glad he doesn’t get the bulk of the playing time.
K. Bryant: Pardon the blaspheme but so far, Kobe has not looked very good. He is gambling far too much on defense and when the other team scores in a half court set, it is usually Kobe’s guy that does the scoring. That can’t happen as Kobe is supposed to be our defensive stopper (our Doberman if you will). He needs to stop going for the home run on defense and stay put with his guy and stay more aware of back screens and back cuts, both of which have been used effectively against him. It is as if he is so juiced to lock his guy down, that he has forgotten all of the basic defensive principals that have made him one of the better defenders in the league over the last decade. Offensively, Kobe has looked out of sorts. He keeps taking long 3’s, which doesn’t make sense. If they are going to give you thee points for shooting a mid range jumper (the international three line is just behind the collegiate three line), take the mid range jumper. With all of the above said, Kobe has not yet had to guard any good players and when he finally does, I think he will shine. I would like to see USA use him more like Redd on offense. Set some off the ball screens for him and get him open 3’s, like they consistently do for Redd. He is just as good of a shooter when open, but since he doesn’t move on offense (not at all, not even a little), he ends up getting the ball four feet behind the 3 line and chucking up some terrible looking shot.
L. James: His strength is unbelievable compared to the international players. I think he is playing exceptionally well and will likely be the MVP of the Olympics (not sure if they have that award, but if they do, he will get it). On defense, he is playing consistently and doing a good job of getting into the passing lanes. He is rarely burned by his own guy and when he is involved in the pick and roll defense, USA is in good shape. His height and speed allow him to trap the ball handler and effectively prevent the pass to the screener. I think this has impressed me the most. On offense, he has played within the system for the most part and is I think our 3rd most effective offensive player (I will discuss the other two below). He attacks the rim, like he should, but he is also getting into the paint and creating little six foot jumpers that are essentially gimmes. He is also shooting well from the outside which makes him practically unguardable. He took over the Australia game down the stretch, which is the reason we won.
C. Anthony: Offensively, I have no complaints. He is a bit of a chucker but he has been tagged as the team’s first offensive option so I am ok with that and in some ways like it. For purposes of offensive rebounding (Howard), it is nice to know where a lot of the shots are going to come from. He settles some for his jump shot but it is consistent enough that I don’t mind too much. The only exception to this was the Australia game where he ended up going 4-13. It is imperative that Coach K keeps tabs on Anthony if we are going to win gold. When Anthony is on, he is perfect for international basketball because of his size, strength and quickness off the dribble (relative to the speed of his opponent, who is usually the 4). When Anthony is off (see Australia game), he is a gigantic liability as he is our worst defender (by a fair margin) and not committed to rebounding. As I said, on defense, Anthony is just terrible. Doesn’t move his feet and lets his guy get too many offensive rebounds. As he is the 4, it is critical that he spends a lot of energy on the defensive end fighting for position and keeping the other big off the glass. Anthony has not really shown a willingness to do that yet and it has hurt the team some. I think the good teams are going to use Anthony in the pick and roll and USA will have to rotate out of position to make up for his poor defense which will eventually leave some outside shooter open. This is what scares me the most right now.
D. Howard: Fouls way too much and lets the physicality of international basketball get to him. This is a major issue and makes me even more furious that Chandler didn’t make the team. What is Howard doing that Chandler can’t do? You cannot run the offense through Howard because there is too much zone defense in international play and because the trapezoid lane makes it difficult to get good post position. Howard is there to rebound (on both ends), block shots (doing that very well) and be available for the around-the-rim pass. All things that Chandler does just as well as Howard. The reason Howard is always in foul trouble is that in international ball, the refs (A) suck, (B) suck, (C) suck and (D) like to call petty fouls against the interior defensive players, even though the bigs may have been elbowing each other for 20 seconds before the offensive player got the ball. In terms of what Howard is doing, I love it and think he is great. A bigger concern right now for Howard is that he appears to be in Coach K’s dog house. Coach K doesn’t like how Howard has gotten chippy with the other players and Howard’s tendency to gloat after good plays (he did this a lot during the five exhibition games, more than any of the other players, which was frankly shocking to me as I thought Howard was the nice, humble Christian). This bugs me too as the days of US dominance are over. Lets hold off on the showboating and rim hanging until we actually win an international tournament that matters. Hasn’t happened in six years.
D. Wade: Remember when Wade was in the discussion for best player in the league with Lebron and Kobe? Me either. But I do remember when he was a lock for an All-Star spot. That Wade happens to be back, wearing red, white and blue and playing the best basketball on Team USA. His windmill ally-oop dunk the other night was jaw-dropping (I actually let out an And-1 Mix Tape Tour like ‘holla, and as a white, middle aged guy, that is something). He is playing angry right now and it is positively scary. He is attacking the rim and breaking ankles left and right. The best is that somewhere along the lines, he picked up the Ginobili side-step that looks like a travel but isn’t. To complete his comeback and to once again cement his spot in the All-Star game starting line-up, he has been consistently hitting his outside jumper. On defense, he’s omnipresent and getting his hands on every loose ball. I am not sure of the stats but it feels like he is getting a lot of rebounds for his position. Just a force of nature and has answered all the questions about his come back. I love him coming off the bench by the way (though I would have him in my starting line-up). He is Ginobili 2.0 (two Ginobili references in one paragraph, nice), All-Star quality that comes in after a few minutes when the other team is getting a little winded and just creates havoc.
C. Paul: Disappointment so far, though he had an improved game against Australia. Some flashes of brilliance when he takes the ball into the paint but way too many turnovers and terrible defense. His outside shooting has improved, which is nice, but he keeps trying to make street ball plays which is nonsensical (please accept the fact that we cannot run most of the teams in the Olympics off the court). I think he has been tagged as the Kidd back-up, which is fine, but he has still not found his international groove yet. Maybe he is just too small for the very physical nature of FIBA, I don’t know. What I do know is that he needs to settle down and play more conservatively or he is going to cost us a lot of points. As I mentioned above, in the Australia game, Paul looked much better. When he got by his guy and the Aussies didn’t rotate to him quickly enough, he used his little teardrop to effectively score. That is the Paul that is dominating in the NBA. Too fast to keep in front of you and smart enough to immediately decide if he should shoot or pass. I think he was trying to be too much like J. Kidd in the first few games. In the last game he played like Chris Paul and we need Chris Paul.
D. Williams. Second best player so far. He is the perfect FIBA PG and a pretty darn good SG. He is a bulldog guarding the ball and plays the passing lanes as well or better than anyone on the team. I think the coaches thought Redd would be the zone buster but turns out Deron gives you everything Redd does plus a ton extra. He runs the break almost as well as Kidd and certainly better than Paul (Paul is trying too many dumb passes). He is hitting his outside shot consistently and every ball that leaves his hands looks like it is going in. He rebounds well, both high (jumping for boards) and low (running in and grabbing the lose boards). As mentioned, he is defending superbly. Finally, his penetration is the best on the team at this point and he can finish around the rim with power and/or finesse. He was also involved in my favorite play so far. During the Russia game, the Russians ran a pick and roll against Williams, who ended up switching onto Russia’s giant center. The center then tried to get position on Williams in the paint. The center might as well have been trying to move a house. Williams didn’t budge and I’m pretty sure the center got an elbow in his kidney for his efforts.
M. Redd: Giving us exactly what we expected, if not a little more. I like his energy on the offensive end (running around screens and trying to get to the open spot) and his determination on the defensive end. He is a great addition to the team.
C. Bosh: Nancy, first class nancy. Doesn’t rebound well against big men, doesn’t finish around the rim (no jumping ability and small hands) and isn’t hitting his outside shot. I’m not sure how many times he is going to drop a perfect pass before Coach K goes with Boozer over Bosh. I hate Bosh and hate him even more because Chandler should be on the team, not him. To boot, he sucks on defense and makes terrible decisions on the pick and roll (consistently gets screened and then guards no one as his guy rolls to the basket forcing the other players to rotate, leaving someone open). The only positive thing I have to say about Bosh is that he hits his free throws, unlike the rest of the team. I’m telling you right now, if Bosh gets major minutes once the elimination games start, we will lose.
C. Boozer: I think he has played well. He is the second best rebounder behind Howard and does a good job defending the rim as the center, even if he is undersized. He finishes weakly around the rim but his weak finishes tend to go in (a la Malone). As I discuss more below, the best thing about Boozer is the way he plays with Williams.
T. Prince: Fine. He should be the 12th man. He is too skinny to be a great defender in FIBA. Still, he rebounds well, gets his long arms in the passing lanes and hits the occasional open shot. I like him but his game doesn’t translate too well in international basketball. I don’t see him getting many minutes at all. Sure would have been nice to use this spot for either another big (hello Chandler) or a player committed to playing in 2012 (hello Durant).
Now for a few general impressions on the overall team, though most of it you can glean from my thoughts above.
Offense: What I expected. Constantly pushing the ball to create easy offense and when forced, going into isolation or pick and roll basketball. If forced into a half court game, Wade and Williams, or at least one of them, need to be in the game. They give us our best chance of breaking down the defense and then hitting the open players around the rim or at the 3 line. I’m a little disappointed that we still don’t have any plays at all. Maybe they are being saved for the actual competition, lets hope that is the case. The only time our players seem to have a purpose on the offensive end (at least in half court sets) is when Redd is in the game. Then we run a Pistons type offense keyed at screening players to get Redd open shots. I like this offense but feel we should also run it for Kobe, Anthony and Williams, all of whom can hit the open outside shot. I would also like to see more pick and roll rather than throwing the ball to Anthony and Lebron at the elbow which is our go to play. I hate when we try the Shaq offense with Howard (throw the ball into the paint and hope he scores or they double him). Howard is not skilled enough yet and the bumping and grabbing allows by the refs almost always leads to unnecessary turnovers. Howard should only get the ball when he is in a position to finish, not when he will be forced to create.
Defense: I have mixed emotions about our defense. On the one hand, we are playing aggressive and seem totally committed on the defensive end. On the other hand, we are being too aggressive and getting exploited because of it. The best part of our defense has been our commitment to trapping the pick and roll and our efforts at pressuring the ball up the court. This forces teams out of their sets which is key, as well run offenses can still beat USA. What has hurt us the most on defense is that the players are so keyed on ball denial and high pressure on-the-ball defense, that they expose themselves to back cuts and back screens, both of which have been used effectively against Team USA. Kobe is especially guilty of this. While a high pressured defense creates turnovers and thus avoids us having to run offensive sets, it also leaves us vulnerable to the Princeton style offenses that are so prevalent in international play. What is most frustrating is that many of the players on the team are great team defenders (Kobe, Lebron, Wade, Williams, Paul, Howard) but for some reason, when they landed in China, they checked their defensive IQ’s at customs. Obviously we are more athletic than our opponents, but when a team has good guards and solid passing big men (hello Spain and Argentina), a high pressured defense often results in open baskets for the other team. Sorry to rant, this is really bothering me. We need to control our emotions on the defensive end and play a more team oriented style of basketball. Finally, our defensive rebounding is not perfect but what did we expect? We don’t have a four other than Anthony, who is Tin Man like in his heartlessness. I think the guards are doing an adequate job of trying to help out and Howard is really flexing his muscles when he can stay in the game.
Best Line-Up: This is obviously debatable, but I think our best line-up is Williams, Wade, Kobe, Lebron and Howard. Williams has been the best PG so far and with him and Kobe on the court together, Wade’s and Lebron’s penetration should lead to a lot of made 3’s. I would play a lot of pick and roll with Williams and Wade (using Howard as the screener). I would also try to run Kobe off of some screens and get him open looks. When the offense breaks down, we would have the 3 best playmakers on the court (sorry, Kobe isn’t one of them at this point). On the defensive end, we lack size but only just. Lebron is huge compared to most international players so he can play the 4 just fine. Kobe is certainly tall enough to play the 3 with ease. Williams is a big PG and can guard either guard position. In terms of subs, I think Paul goes in for Williams. No Kidd at all, he gets to play the first few minutes but then must cheer from the bench. As for Wade, when he comes out, I would either put in Redd or move Williams over to the 2 spot. Kobe’s primary back-up should be Lebron (i.e., Lebron or Kobe should be on the court at all times, same with Williams or Wade). For Lebron, bring in Anthony or Boozer. If Williams is in the game, I would make a special effort to use Boozer rather than Anthony. Though they didn’t play together often during the five exhibition games, when they did, the chemistry was palpable (shocking right, teammates for 82 games a year play better together than guys who play 10 games together each summer). Howard can be spelled by Boozer or Bosh. Prince and Kidd should stay off the court as much as possible, unless it is a blow-out.
Conclusion: I have serious, serious concerns about our team. We still don’t have an offense and on defense, we are too arrogant in thinking our athleticism will overpower our opponents. I am hoping beyond hope that Coach K has some offensive sets up his sleeve. I’m also hoping that we can figure out how to tone down our defense when needed. If my hopes are in vain, I think we lose in the elimination round, probably in the semifinals. If you have watched international basketball over the last five years, you know very well that America has the best players in the world, hands down, but that we are not the best team, probably not even top three. Can great players beat great teams? Didn’t happen in LA vs. Boston and I don’t think it will happen in the Olympics. Am I totally hopeless? Absolutely not. I trust Kobe and I trust Coach K. I think there is more there than they have let on, or at least that is what I’m going to be telling myself until August 24th (the gold medal game).