With the Olympic Ceremony already happening (we’ll get to watch it at 7 p.m. on NBC if you’re out here in the West Coast), Team USA hoops is right around the corner. Before they take the floor for the first time in this tournament against Tony Parker’s French National team, lets take a look at some of the positives and negatives that I’ve noticed from Team USA on the floor.
The Stretch Four
Throughout the five games Team USA played, one of the problems that we consistently saw was a propensity for taking way too many long range shots. The athleticism on this team should call for a lot more penetrating and finishing around the rim and posting up mis-matches. Everyone who has handled the ball around the perimeter has taken at least one ill-advised three pointer. However, two guys were able to somewhat-consistently knock down shots from behind the arc during the course of the five games — Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. During the five games, Durant and Anthony combined to shoot .489 from range while the rest of the team shot .404 (it should be noted that Anthony Davis shot a perfect 1.000 from three, he was one-for-one). Furthermore, a lot of those threes were a direct result of either pick-and-pops or guys penetrating, drawing defenders and kicking out to either Durant or Anthony. Of course, both of them took their fair share of ill-advised threes off the dribble, but Durant and Anthony shooting off the catch have been better than anyone else on Team USA. Also, having those two straddle the perimeter or as the pick man in P&Rs have taken opposing fours away from the rim and opened the lanes for guys like Paul, Williams, Westbrook and LeBron to do what they do best. Truehoop’s Beckley Mason has even gone on to say that Melo can take his role as the four for Team USA.
Small Ball Defense
With a roster featuring only one true center, Coach K has had the liberty (or has been forced to depending on how you look at it) to play around with some unique lineups, seeing both LeBron and Anthony spend some time at the 5. While this is a big cause for concern on the interior with the lack of size, it has allowed all five parts of the defense to move interchangeably through screens. With five athletic guys who can all defend along the perimeter, it has given the defense — in these small lineups — the freedom to switch on nearly everything. Because of this, rotations become shorter, they’re able to use their collective athleticism to jump into passing lanes, and it takes the pressure off of one guy to have to work too much on an offensive player who moves around a lot. In the game against Argentina, Kobe was assigned to Manu Ginobili. With the Argentinians running the Flex offense, Ginobili often started sets in the corner and is run through a series of screens to free him up for open jump shots or cuts through the lane. One on possession in particular, Ginobili ran Kobe to one screen and Anthony picked him up. Ginobili ran Anthony to another screen and Deron Williams picked him up. Ginobili then ran Williams to a screen and LeBron picked him up. Ginobili didn’t touch the ball on that possession and a contested jumpshot was taken. Of course, they’ll try to avoid any match ups in which a point guard is forced to take on a big, but they have the speed along the perimeter to really disrupt what opposing offenses are trying to do with their small ball lineups.
The biggest hole in Team USA’s game is their inability to show any consistency attacking zone defenses. Starting late in the 2nd quarter, Argentina really just packed the paint and allowed the Americans to fire away from the perimeter, keeping Argentina in a game that they were down early. There was very little gap penetration, and all ball rotations were just along the perimeter. Yes, shots opened up, but it was the shots the Argentines wanted Team USA to take. Against Spain, things didn’t look any better against zone defenses. The score doesn’t really coincide with how much Team USA struggled with getting shots around the rim against Spain’s zone because they hit 13-three pointers as a team. The reality is that they shot 54 percent from three against man-to-man and only 25 percent against the zone (numbers per ESPN Stats and Information’s Ryan Fieldman). LeBron has been the best at busting zones, especially when he’s able to catch the ball near the free throw line and either attack or facilitate, but even he has been prone to just taking perimeter jumpers like the rest of the team. We should expect to see many more zones against this Team USA, and I’d like to see them counter with gap penetration and jumpers only after the ball has touched the paint. Putting pressure on the defense by attacking the rim is the easiest way to get teams out of the zone, and if they’re going to try to shoot themselves out of zone defenses, Coach K might want to have both Melo and Durant on the floor simultaneously.
Protecting the Rim
Earlier, I noted how well Team USA has defended teams around the perimeter, stopping them from getting into their sets and forcing contested jump shots and turnovers. On the flip side, they’ve been susceptible to back cuts and hard rolls in P&R sets, especially when Tyson Chandler is on the bench. Case in point is Serge Ibaka’s personal 10-point run early in the game against Spain. Chandler got in early foul trouble and Ibaka scored on a series of P&Rs and back cuts. When the defense wasn’t able to keep the ball on the perimeter, Ibaka had a field day with being guarded by Durant/Anthony/James in the paint. Furthermore, perimeter defenders were repeatedly beat back door in games against Brazil, Spain and Argentina. I remember at least two times where Kobe himself was beat back door by Ginobili in the Argentina game. These things are less of a problem with Tyson Chandler holding down the fort, but with only five fouls allowed in international play, Coach K will really have to watch his minutes should he get in any early foul trouble.
That said, Team USA are the clear favorites to take home the gold as their positives far outweigh their negatives — but their close calls against Brazil and Argentina show that this team is beatable under the right circumstances. Their opening game against France is at 2:30 p.m. local time, which would make it 6:30 a.m. PST, if it did that right (feel free to correct in the comments if necessary).