Friday, September 01, 2006

Random USA-Greece Thoughts (or a needlessly long post on the state of American basketball)


That's really sums it up right now. That game was frustrating/awful to watch. I'm not sure how much I actually want to talk about this, but here we go:

Greece is good. In the second half they scored on their first 10 or 12 possessions. They shot well from three, their big man, Papadopoulos, got some nifty shots in the post and they played a team game. The shot the ball extremely well and their defense (and our offense) kept the US from scoring easily.

The US offense stinks. Anyone remember how at times last season the Cavalier's offense would stagnate? LeBron would dribble and dribble while nobody moved? It was awful. Well, Team USA used pretty much the same offense.

The team defense wasn't there. Early in the game the Greeks didn't get many shots off because of the US's hounding defense. But midway through the second quarter Greece starting running more and more set plays and the US couldn't rotate fast enough. The US couldn't stop the pick and roll for the life of them. It was bad.

One on one doesn't always work. The US players (especially Wade and LeBron) would drive the zone and then force up shots. It was ugly. Speaking of which...

Does the US (NBA as well) run set plays? I remember a few years ago, the Magic needed a last second basket to win a game. Tracy McGrady dribbled the clock down and drove the ball and made a shot. After the game, when asked what play he ran, Doc Rivers said something to the effect of, "I didn't call a play, I just told Tracy to go get a bucket." A lot of people said how smart a move that was, Doc was showing trust in his players and letting them make their own decisions. I thought it was awful. This is our highest level of basketball and in a do or die moment, we can't even call a play. "Um, Tracy/LeBron/Dwyane/Kobe/Paul/'Melo, go do something neat".

How do we fix it? Besides, oh I dunno, focusing on fundamentals? I my amateur view, the NBA is full of players who can do many things very well, but not a lot of things great (if that makes sense). We have scorers who can get on hot streaks, who can break their man off the dribble, but who aren't consistent shooters. LeBron isn't. Wade isn't. Arenas isn't. Guys try to do everything instead of focusing on one dominant move. Jordan had his turnaround, Barkley was a beast in the post. The post is boring now, everyone wants to shoot three's and take their man off the dribble. Kevin Garnett said something to the effect of, "If I had gone to college they'd have made me a center, I didn't want to be a center." You know why Tim Duncan has won more titles than Kevin Garnett? He can play the post and has a dominant go to move: his bank shot. It's money. This blurb on TrueHoop reminded me of this:
Because the most celebrated players in our country are unable to hit an open mid-range shot or even a free throw with consistency. Remember when an aging, fat, Houston-vintage Charles Barkley was hitting turn-around jumpers from 20 feet like clockwork, often with an opponent in his face? He wasn't even close to being the best guy in the league at that point. But that was a generation, maybe two ago. That discipline has disappeared.
It got me thinking to guys like Reggie Miller. If you had to pick between Miller and McGrady, who would you pick? Most people will pick McGrady cause he can do so many different things well. And he can. But Reggie Miller can shoot. Period. He can come off screens and bury jumpers. Sure he may not drive the ball as well as McGrady or Iverson. But if Miller scored 20 off of 18 foot jumpers and McGrady scores them off drives to the hoop, what's the difference.

I've made a big deal of LeBron going into the post lately. Why? Cause he has the strength, height and quickness to destroy people down there. But he doesn't use it, why? Antoine Walker is another guy who would rather shoot three's than dominate down low.

In the US, we drive or we shoot threes. That's it. A few big men (and Sam Cassell) post up. You almost never see people shoot a mid ranger jumper with any regularity (besides Rip Hamilton aka Reggie Miller reborn).

Ok that was a rant, but I'm in a terrible mood after that game, what are some other reasons? Much has been made about the US not playing as a unit because of lack of preparation time. And it's true, Team USA got about 3 weeks. But a lot of the other teams (Spain, Argentina) have their players playing all over the world too. Their guys are all over the Euro leagues and the NBA. The difference is, most of the same guys come back for every world competition. Also, I'm sure the smaller, slicker ball had something to do with this as well.

I like Chris Broussard. Both of these columns are insider, but I'm gonna quote a few lines. From the first one, before the Worlds (emphasis added):

Enough about the opponents not fearing us anymore; enough about other teams playing together since they were 13 years old (last I checked Manu's been in SA for the past four years, not in Argentina playing with Pepe Sanchez, so save it); enough about us not taking these games seriously; enough about mismatched rosters.

And enough about the zone defense (in international play, a standard zone is allowed whereas in the NBA, it isn't because of the three-second defensive rule). Yes, I'd love to see the rules standardized around the world, but enough already.

I'm sick of all the excuses.

Breaking a zone is not that hard. People talk about it now like it's rocket science. Here's how you do it:

Just move the ball around with quick, crisp passing (no dribbling) to get the zone moving and soon holes big enough for Butterbean to saunter through will open up for cutters or penetration.

Penetrate the gaps for mid-range Js; penetrate gaps and kick it outside for longer jumpers; penetrate gaps, draw defenders from the back of the zone, and dish it to our big men for dunks and layups; or beat the zone down the floor by running.

It's as simple as that. Now tell me, what international defender can stop Dwyane Wade from penetrating the gaps? Plus, it's easier to grab offensive rebounds against a zone, so even when we miss, we should be dominating the glass.

Of course, asking guys not to dribble is like asking them not to wear $100 kicks. Gotta' show off that handle, right? (That's part of our problem).

No more excuses.

If we don't win this World Championship, then let's just take our medicine like men. Let's give the team that beats us its props, admit that our big men are soft, admit that our stars aren't as good as they think, admit that our coaches have been getting out-coached by their foreign counterparts, admit that our beloved NBA has become 30 one- or two-man teams, and go back to the drawing board.

I mean the big drawing board. The one that includes how we teach the game from elementary school on up. The one that includes the hype machine I talked about in my "Busting a 12-year-old" article. The one that includes the silly NCAA limits on the amount of time a player can be coached. The one that has the NBA marketing individuals over teams.

and after the loss to Greece:

Too often in the U.S., when we mention "skills'' we think of a fancy handle and pretty passing ability, but jump shooting is a skill. Free-throw shooting is a skill. And the bottom line is we don't do those things well. We shot 9-for-28 from 3-point land and 20-for-34 from the foul line against Greece.

Ultimately, it boils down to this. We are being schooled to the fact that basketball is still a team game. We've lost sight of that in America, where true team basketball is about as rare as a smiling rapper.

It's all about an individual's dominance in America, where our NBA is now full of one and two-man teams. LeBron almost single-handedly led Cleveland to the Eastern Conference finals. With Shaq struggling, there were long stretches when it was "all-Wade-all-the-time'' in Miami's march to the title. Philly is all A.I., the Lakers all Kobe.

And what do we say about LeBron, AI and Kobe? They need one more star. Why not build a full team around them, where all five guys are involved in the offense and touch the rock?

I got up at 3:30 Friday morning and watched the game against Greece and what I saw was a clinic. Greece's offense had almost perpetual motion. They used screens and cutting. They ran the pick-and-roll. They shot the lights out from the arc. They even pounded us inside with a 6-10 behemoth who had his way with Elton Brand, and then his backup, this cat called "Baby Shaq,'' just bulldozed us.

On the other hand, whenever we scored (especially in the second half), it was D Wade, Carmelo or LeBron going one-on-five. Greece had a sophisticated offensive scheme that exploited our defense to the max, and we had "give it to a star and let him break down his man and create.''

Which brings me to another point: we're being outcoached in these international affairs. I don't want to come down too hard on Coach K because I thought he did a great job of creating an unselfish atmosphere among the players and of getting them to really buckle down defensively.

But his offense was pretty unimaginative. The only movement for the most part was the man with the ball dribbling his way into the paint while everyone else just stood around. But it's not just Coach K; it was Larry Brown and George Karl, too.

These international coaches implement five-man offenses that we can't guard because we're used to guarding just one or two guys in the NBA, where a coach can all but say, "Forget the rest, they can't shoot anyway.''

You know what, though? I bet the fourth and fifth starters on an NBA squad could cut off a back screen and hit a layup if a coach dared put in such a play. But it's easier to just give it to my flashy, dunking, dribble-happy, maxed-out swingman and let him do his thing.

I mean this from the bottom of my heart: if I were an NBA GM and I was looking for a head coach, I'd look to Europe.

It's becoming clearer every day why Mike D'Antoni, who cut his coaching teeth in Europe, consistently overachieves in Phoenix. His offense uses all five players.

And don't give me this jive about Greece, Spain and Argentina playing together so long. Those guys play on different teams, and sometimes in different countries, during the season. They're not holed up in some gym playing together year round.

And many of them have different roles on their professional teams than they do on their national teams. Do you think Andres Nocioni's the same player now that he was two years ago in Argentina? No way.

But the international players grow up playing team basketball. They grow up screening and cutting and shooting. So when they reunite, it's like clockwork.

The international players and coaches will never admit this publicly, but in their heart of hearts I bet they're beginning to view American basketball like America's "real basketball'' fans, players and coaches view And1 Streetball.

They probably think our over-dribbling, individualistic, high-flying style of play is entertaining and fun to watch, but that it'll never work in "real'' international play.

I also don't want to hear that we didn't send our absolute best to Japan. What American player would've changed the outcome for us?

Shaq would have been exploited mercilessly in the pick-and-roll, motion schemes of the international teams and on the other end, the zone defense would have hemmed him up (just like it did Duncan in '04).

Kobe, as great as he is, would've been just another superstar who needs the ball and goes one-on-five. Jason Kidd's lack of shooting ability would have made him a liability against the zone.

I hate to say this, but here's the ugly truth: our NBA champion is no longer the "World Champion.'' Not by a long shot.

Heck, I'm beginning to have serious doubts now that our best NBA teams would beat the best Euro League teams.

Give me one good reason I should believe NBA teams are better than Euro League teams. Seriously, I'm looking for a reason to still think the NBA's the best.

Because we dunk better? We're flashier? We're more athletic? We're blacker? We're marketed better?

Greece did not have one NBA player on its roster. In what line of work do individuals from a supposedly inferior company consistently ('02, '04, '06) outperform those of a supposedly superior company without replacing them as top dog?

What if a group of CBA players or Streetball players beat our NBA stars in three straight competitions, would we continue to say the NBA is the best league?

Most people now know that we need to change our system -- from grade school on up -- but that's going to take time.

A quicker solution would be for our coaches to begin teaching true team basketball again, where the offense has movement and screening and cutting, where we don't dribble as much.

If we don't do that, the only thing that will save us is if the international teams follow in our footsteps and become more individualistic. But that's not likely to happen because they know our individualism and lack of skills are our downfall, where their teamwork and abundance of skills are their strength.

We better recognize, because if we don't it'll just be more of the same in 2008.

Well said. Henry Abbott at TrueHoop has post with many basketball writer's thoughts about the game. He also has some suggestions:

But they were up against some serious obstacles: They were new to each other and their coaching staff. Some of them are young and don't yet instinctively know stuff like how to defend the pick and roll. They were using a different-sized ball which certainly affects shooting. And the opposition is really, really good--and I believe, extra motivated to crush us like grapes because at this juncture of history, thanks to U.S. foreign policy, Americans are pretty much seen as arrogant bullies.

This is an incredibly important tournament for all of the players here except the Americans. None of these players grew up watching the World Championships on TV. For the Americans, it's an after-thought. It has a tiny fraction of the importance of the NBA title. That's not true of their opponents. You heard Mert Uyar explain that everyone at Turkey was watching a consolation round game at work. In contrast, a lot of Americans don't even know this tournament is going on at the moment.

That's not an excuse, but it is a practical problem. The NBA off-season is shorter than the Euroleague off-season, especially for someone like Dwyane Wade. No part of his training was optimized to peak now. His body was tuned up for May and June. August and September? That's recuperation time in the NBA. And if he gets injured in the NBA Finals, it's a warrior going down in the heat of battle. If he gets injured in the Saitama Super Dome, the whole NBA sees it as a giant waste. What was he doing there anyway? What if it affects his real basketball career?

I agree, the American's are kind of behind the 8 ball here. They're being paid big money to win for Miami or Cleveland. There's more:
For a number of reasons, I am a huge (and, as far as I know, the only) advocate of shortening the NBA season. Not for FIBA-reasons. For NBA reasons. I feel the product has been cheapened by the reality that 82 games is too many games to play all-out, 100%, all the time. You go to a game in early December, and you can practically guarantee several of the players just won't be playing all that hard. And plenty of our greatest playoff heroes--Robert Horry, Shaquille O'Neal--famously coast for as much of the season as possible. (And don't you wish you could see Yao Ming well rested? So many games he just looks like he's running on nothing but fumes and willpower.) If you're not in the bloom of your youth, it's arguably a good tactic to take it easy for several months of the season.

What's more, with an 82-game regular season, no one regular season game really matters. 1/82nd of a season, in any sport, just is never that important. It shows in the play.

I also think this is important: fewer regular season games means more people (as opposed to corporations) who can afford season tickets. That means more passion in the stands, more fun at the games, and more kids.

It also means each ticket itself is more precious. There are times when I am offered NBA tickets at the last minute, by some friend, and not only can't I go, but I can't find anyone who wants to go. On some level, you just know that there will be plenty more games, and tickets will be available. In the NFL, with its eight home games, you can always find someone who's ready to drop everything.

I can't tell you how often some old-timer tells me that he loves basketball but doesn't watch the NBA anymore because he can't stand the... (insert something that more than likely has racial overtones). If every player is killing himself playoff-style to win every game, that argument goes away. It just does. If you're digging out loose balls in crunch time, people tend not to question your character, your clothes, or your choice of music. No one cared, for instance, that Michael Jordan was a trash-talker. You can do almost whatever you want in a winning context. But if you're taking it a little easy, and the team loses, people start looking for something to blame, and your clothes, your music, and your big mouth might enter the discussion. Coasting is a problem in the NBA, and a shorter season might fix it.

Of course, I know why the season is long: every game is a TV and ticket revenue opportunity. But that doesn't mean my proposal to shorten the season is a money-loser. First of all, what's the cost of a diluted product and a somewhat damaged brand? If I'm right, you could make the basketball better. You could increase the excitement level at every NBA game. You could improve TV ratings. You could sell more merchandise. You could take regular people and convert them into fans. And, you could at least experiment with the idea of saving money by having a little bit shorter bench (paying 12 salaries again, instead of 15, for instance), because fewer games has to mean fewer injuries.

And, if Dwyane Wade had been resting for a month before he started Team USA training camp? I think there's a decent shot Team USA beats Greece.

I'm doubt the NBA would have less games, but it wouldn't be a bad idea. Also, lets cut the first round of the playoffs back down to a best of 5. Also, I wouldn't mind the NBA going to a full blown zone system. You can do it in college and high school. And international. Why have the NBA be the only one with "defensive 3 seconds".

Finally, Chris Sheridan has been getting a lot of shit for sayin the US wasn't the best team at the Worlds. Some people have hard time when someone criticizes the US, be it for basketball or for let's say... the Iraq war. You hear a bunch douchbags say some shit about "wanting to helping the terrorists" or someshit just because you disgree with a US policy. Chris Sheridan's example:
I got one from a U.S. Marine based in Okinawa after the game who said he bets I'm wrapping myself in a Greek flag and celebrating, and he went on to say how disgusted he is to be defending a country of which I am a citizen. That's extremely disturbing and unfair to me, and I can't fathom why people thought I had an agenda through all thi when what I've been trying to do is educate and explain to people that there were warning sides that could not be ignored leading up to tonight, and I was merely trying to do my job to the best of my abilities in pointing those things out. Some people can;t handle the truth, and they go all jingoistic on you and question your patriotism and attack your character. It's beyond disturbing.


Alright, this post has gone on way too long and I am just kind of rambling now. But to sum up: The US got beat by a TEAM, our offense stunk and our team defense stunk. That about sums it up. The fix? If the US wants to win these international competitions, our players need to see zone more frequently and have consistent jump shots.

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