Archives For International/Team USA

What Kobe Wants….

Kurt —  August 22, 2007

Just as I went on a few days of vacation a new rash of “What Does Kobe Want?” and “What Will Kobe Do?” stories and speculation hit the media. The LA Times, ESPN, just about everywhere.

I’m already sick of it, and as a Laker fan I guess I’m going to have to get used to a season full of it. Because everytime the Lakers head to a new city for a road game, that story will resurface. Let alone the constant drumbeat this issue is going to get in the local media (talk radio will beat it into the ground alone).

Personally, I think Kobe has been pretty clear about what he wants:

He wants to win. That’s it. He’d prefer to do it as a Laker but if the front office can’t pull it together he’ll look elsewhere.

Where the issue gets complex is how to make that a reality — issues of trades for other players to the Lakers or Kobe out of town are fraught with player quality and luxury tax issues. But from where I sit Kobe’s core message has always been very simple.

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I’m not going to blame the coming wave of Kobecentric speculative stores on the “mainstream media monster” because we asked for it.

Not us personally, I could live without it, but the fact of the matter is these Kobe stories draw readers/viewers. To use an example, you and I may mock “Around the Horn” but it wouldn’t be on the air if it didn’t get decent ratings. Say what you will about the media, but it is now a corporate-owned beast driven by the bottom line — which means if you are not reading or watching something, it goes away. Fast.

In a world where the goal is to generate “eyeballs” the “what does Kobe want/say?” stories are going to be a staple of the coming season.

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RIP, Eddie Griffin.

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Team USA gets going tonight against what-do-you-mean-we’re-not-hosts Venezuela. I’m going to be watching, although I’m not sure we learn much about the team from this game.

If you want to read more smart blogging about Team USA and the tournament as a whole, start with the good work at The Painted Area.

UPDATE: Quick thoughts on the game last night: It didn’t really tell us much. Yes, Kobe played good pressure defense and as a whole the USA forced 19 turnovers. Yes, Jason Kidd’s passing got players the ball in positions to succeed, something that became infectious. Yes, the USA as a team shot a reasonable 38.5% from three. Yes, the USA also showed some adjustment to the international game is still needed. But to my eyes this game looked a lot like an early game at the Worlds last year — this team is just way too talented for the competition it faced. The USA overwhelmed Venezuela. Until they play Brazil or Argentina I’m not sure how much we can tell. The coming destruction of the Virgin Islands tonight will look a lot like last night’s game.

My other thought — the mascot for this tournament may be the worst I’ve ever seen. One of the more creative bloggers out there needs to go after this one.

It’s the Defense, Stupid

Kurt —  August 15, 2007

Up over at Ballhype is my first post for them, a discussion of Team USA and it’s defense. The numbers will look familiar to regular readers of this blog, but this new post (made after further review of my notes and other thoughts at the time of the Team USA on the international stage, I think you’ll find it interesting.

As for me, posting may be light for a few days as the family and I head off to see the in-laws in Vegas. (Because summer is such a great time to go to the desert….) You may see some posts from other familiar names in the next few days.

Getting Team USA Right

Kurt —  July 20, 2007

Today, Team USA is taking part in part of its “grueling” 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 — 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 shouldn’t be a threat. After that it’s the Canadas and Puerto Ricos of the world. Well, maybe I shouldn’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 USA’s results in the World Championships last year in Indianapolis showed some improvement over previous outings — particularly in terms of team makeup geared toward international style basketball — but also showed some key weaknesses.

It is those weaknesses that need to be addressed. Let’s look at three big problems from last summer and how to deal with them.

Defense. This was Team USA’s biggest weakness last summer, and it may be the most difficult to address. Of the final four teams in last summer’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 USA’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 — Tayshaun Prince, Shane Battier, Kobe Bryant — 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 he’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 — even the bigs — can shoot the three. American players coming out of the NBA aren’t used to seeing that.

Building team trust in defensive rotations is something that does not happen overnight, it takes time. And that’s one thing the USA and its schedule do not have. It’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 USA’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 you’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 summer’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 that’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 “set the high pick and let the ball handler create” offense. Except that the USA didn’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.

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Maybe that’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 doesn’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. It’s one they need to overcome by next summer. And they need to lay the groundwork for that in the next six weeks.

Lessons Learned

Kurt —  September 1, 2006

Because as a nation we can often be both arrogant and impatient, sometimes it’s hard for us to admit things. Like that, playing the international game and rules, parts of the world have caught up to us in basketball. It’s hard to accept that the USA made strides toward being the best basketball team on the planet in the FIBA tournament despite the loss to Greece. Good steps were taken, but maybe we need to face up to the fact we had a long way to go and it couldn’t be done overnight.

But there is a deadline, at least in my mind, and it’s two years away. The real question is what steps do we take? How do we get there? I certainly don’t have the answers, but I’ll throw out some ideas for discussion.

1) Getting many of these guys back for next summer’ Olympic qualifying tournament. The problem was never really the USA’s offense — sure, there are some gearing weaknesses, but even in the loss to Greece the USA scored a fair amount of points. But defense takes a team. A team that has seen the pick and roll enough as a team to know their roles in stopping it. Learning defensive schemes and rotations do not happen overnight. Up until they faced Greece, team USA’s defense had gotten better over the course of the tournament. Playing together next summer makes these guys more familiar with each other and the team’s defense.

2) Outside shooting. While Team USA’s overall shooting percentage was the best in the FIBA tournament, nobody that watched them play thought their outside shooting was consistent. For the tournament they shot 36.8% from beyond the arc (not what you’d hope for a 20-foot line), and they shot just 32% against Greece and 25% against Germany the game before. I don’t have the stats from the midrange (sorry I didn’t get up at 3 to chart games) but it didn’t feel impressive either. This can be solved with personnel — Redd and Kobe are places to start, but more outside shooters are needed.

3) Movement within the halfcourt offense. If the USA could not get into transition, it looked like the USA wanted to go with the Phoenix “set the high pick and let the ball handler create” offense. Except that we don’t have anyone with the experience and savvy of 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. I’m not saying run the Princeton offense, but there needs to be some movement, particularly against the zone.

4) Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream. Believe it or not, this USA team looked better than the one I remember from two years ago. It starts with a process that was better for selecting players and getting them in synch. The up-tempo, aggressive style was an improvement. They’ve got two years to build on that.

The Final Four

Kurt —  August 30, 2006

There are just four left, the world’s Final Four. The USA deserves to be there. But after looking stats and watching the first half of the USA/Germany game live this morning (thanks to an unhappy baby who apparently wanted to be up for the game at 3:30 on the West Coast), I still have concerns about what happens when the USA reaches the finals.

I’ve discussed the stats for Team USA before, but compared them to NBA numbers, which is not the best context — a better one is how they compare to the other 22 teams in the FIBA tournament. So, thanks to deepak_e at the APBR board, here are some updated stats for the four remaining teams, with their ranking among the 22 teams next to it).

Team eFG% Pace Off. Rating Def. Rating
USA 56.9% (2) 98.4 (1) 129.2 (1) 98.4 (7)
Spain 57.9% (1) 92.6 (8) 120.1 (T-2) 89.0 (2)
Argentina 56.2% (3) 89.7 (12) 120.1 (T-2) 87.3 (1)
Greece 53.9% (5) 86.6 (19) 111.5 (6) 89.2 (4)


(A quick key for those of you new here: eFG%: Shooting percentage combining two and three pointers; Pace, possessions per game; Off. Rating, points scored per 100 possessions; Def. Rating, points given up per 100 possessions.)

Yes, the USA has been the best-shooting team in the tournament, but after watching them against Germany I still am not comfortable. The Germans did not turn the ball over, so the USA had to rely on its half-court offense and in the first half they missed a lot of open jumpers. And they led by one (40-39) at the break. For the game they shot a weak 43.5% (eFG%) and just 25% from three.

That likely will be good enough against Greece. Looking more closely at the stats (I have yet to watch a Greece game), they can’t stop a team from shooting well, allowing opponents to shoot 53.5% (eFG%) against them in the tournament (that’s 18th out of the 22, for comparison the USA allows 49.8%, 10th best).

What Greece counts on is creating turnovers —30.6% of opponent possessions end in a turnover (for comparison, the gambling USA defense has led to 29.1% of opponent possessions becoming turnovers).

Except that is a bad mix against the USA — Paul, Wade, LeBron, Hinrich, really none of the USA primary ball handlers are going to give up many turnovers. And, if you don’t stop them from shooting well… let’s just say it should be a long night for the Greeks. Look for the Greeks to try to slow the tempo way down, and I’m curious how the USA will adapt.

But both Spain and Argentina play a better, more traditional defense. And they are not going to turn the ball over much. For that game, the USA will need its half-court offense to click. But let’s worry about that hurdle once we’re past the Greeks.

5-0, and now it gets serious

Kurt —  August 25, 2006

Superior athleticism funneled into a pressure defense has netted Team USA four impressive wins at the World Championships — it’s the Italy game that is the outlier. That’s also the game gave a blueprint to teams like Spain and Argentina, and it’s going to be harder to come from behind against those teams than the physically-outmatched Italians (who should have gotten away from man-to-man in the second half).

Just how impressive has Team USA been? Here are a few stats through five games:

They are averaging 82 possessions per game — actually not far behind the number of possessions a game as the NBA’s slowest-paced team last season, the Memphis Grizzlies (85.9), who played 8 more minutes a game. The fastest college team in the nation last season was Campbell University at 77 possessions per game (Long Beach State was second at 75.8) in 40 minutes (although the shot clock is 35 seconds in college, 24 in International ball.

Team USA has an amazing offensive rating of 133.9 (points per 100 possessions), compare that to the best team in the NBA last year, the Phoenix Suns, at 113.9. Team USA’s defensive rating is 100.3 (points per 100 opponent possessions), which would have been the best in the NBA last year (the Spurs were at 100.9).

Team USA is averaging 14.8 more free throws per game than their opponents.

As a team the USA is now hitting a decent 39.5% on threes, although our opponents are shooting 43.4%. Overall, the US has an eFG% of 58.7%, compared to 51.9% for their opponents. Individually, Carmelo Anthony is shooting 66.9% (eFG%), LeBron James is at 64%, Chris Paul at 68%, and both Elton Brand and Dwayne Wade at 60%, all incredible numbers.

It goes on and on with impressive stats for Team USA, although to be fair blowouts like the Senegal game skew the numbers. But that should not take away from how good the USA has looked or how important it was to win the group and get the easier path to the finals (I’m not worried about Australia).

But the USA has some flaws, which Italy exploited. Italy got the ball inside on penetration then kicked out for open-look threes — the best international team do that well, as Team USA advances they will see more of it and needs to defend it better. Italy didn’t turn the ball over as much and slowed the pace. The good news about the USA defense is they showed they can get away from the full court pressure defense against the Slovenians, which was smart against a team that can handle the ball so well. Fortunately, Slovenia wanted to run with more athletic USA squad, a foolish error.

What worries me is that team USA’s half court offense often reverts to the kind of isolation basketball that cam be a death sentence in international ball. Team USA does not move well without the ball, particularly when there is a pass inside to a big. They can become stagnant, and the better teams can defend that, leaving team USA to hope Carmelo gets hot (like he did against Italy) or someone else can step up and carry them. There needs to be more movement in the USA’s offense.

Team USA has impressed, they are amazingly skilled and, and I like how they fought back against Italy. But right now they are just one of the favorites and their best games had better be in front of them if they are going to win the gold.

2-0, but…..

Kurt —  August 20, 2006

After watching both Team USA games in Japan (thank you TiVo), it’s clear that we deserve to be undefeated. And it’s clear we still have reason to be concerned.

The reason for my nervousness: outside shooting. The same issue that plagued the team in Athens two years ago and that some of us were concerned about early on. Through two games, Team USA is shooting just 31.9% from three (compared to 48.9% for their opponents). Overall their eFG% is 55.7% — good if you’re an NBA team but not great for a team with a three-point line nearly three-feet in from what you’re used to and a team counting on easy baskets from fast breaks.

UPDATE: I wasn’t expressing my other concern because it had been only two games, but it should be noted that the gambling USA defense has not slowed other teams scoring. Through two games USA opponents are averaging 113.5 points per 100 possessions, for comparison Argentina is at 95.6. I decided to bring it up after stats guru and Cav’s employee Dan Rosenbaum started discussing it on the APBR message board.

I have a theory on why Puerto Rico hung close– they have an NBA guard handling the ball much of the time and they were facing the USA for the fourth time in the last few weeks. The Puerto Ricans were used to the defensive pressure. China was not – their guards were not as good and they had seen the USA only once.

The USA has not looked bad, but the weaknesses are clear. Against a team with good guard play that will not turn the ball over 24 times in a game (like China) the USA is going to have to rely more on the half-court offense. And that means better shooting – guys like Wade can break down a zone with penetration but you still need other players to take advantage of the kick-out passes off the drives, or bigs who can find space when there is defensive rotation. Right now the USA just has the penetration part down.

Kirk Hinrich is an exception, he is hitting 66.7% from three, and Joe Johnson and Shane Battier have hit 40% of theirs. Wade was great against China. Dwight Howard is a force on the boards as well. But those are the only people worth mentioning. This team clearly misses what Redd and Kobe could bring.

The next game, against Slovina, should give us a better idea of this team’s capability. I still expect them to get through group play undefeated. Hopefully the remaining games will give the team the chance to work on its deficiencies before things get serious.

What about the rest of the world?

Kurt —  August 7, 2006

We saw Team USA demolish Puerto Rico, and get to see them again tonight against China and tomorrow against Brazil — but what about the other top teams going to the world championships? Just how good are they?

Commenter Xavier, who lives in Barcelona (don’t you love the Internet, where would we have gotten this kind of info 15 years ago?), gave us a quick preview in the comments and I thought this was worth passing along.

The main front runners apart from the US are Argentina, Spain and France.

Argentina has a strong starting five, lead by Ginobili and Nocioni at the wings, Prigioni (a pass-first PG) and a frontcourt with two players that have dominated the paint in European basketball, Scola and Oberto. A tough team to play against.

Spain is one of the most explosive teams in this tournament. These guys have high basketball IQ and the press defense and different kind of zone defenses are the main characteristics of Spanish coach Hernandez. (Memphis’) Pau Gasol as main star but there are also NBA players at PG in Calderon and PF in Garbajosa (Raptors), plus NBA project Rudy Fernandez, the best shooting guard in the Euro-League JC Navarro and a solid backup for all of them.

This team loves the outside game — Navarro, Fernandez and Garbajosa have good three-point range. Watch out for Navarro, the first scoring option in this outside game, a terrific scorer, and Gasol, who has started this season to show more aggressiveness (not to mention his beard).

France will be with Spain, the most explosive team. Toni Parker is one of the quickest players and will have Mickael Pietrus and soon-to-be Sonic Gelabale who are both great athletes, the do-it-all sun Diaw and John Petro that will bring toughness to this team. Turiaf will be maybe 6th-7th man in rotation.