Monday, July 17, 2006

2006 FIBA World Champs--Team USA Tryouts (Part I)

I know there has been a lot of activity in the land of free agency, I'll have more on that later, but I want to focus my attention now on the upcoming Team USA tryouts for the FIBA World Championships in Japan in August. Personally, I am a huge fan of international competitions in any sports, but particularly basketball.

I've been following summer basketball competitions as far back as I can remember, probably starting with the '84 Olympics where MJ, Ewing, Mullin, & Co. put a hurting on their opponents. I still vividly remember getting my first glimpses of Sabonis in the '86 World Champs, and having the vision of this 7-3 giant leaping over the top of David Robinson for a follow-up dunk. (Yes, I indeed said leaping & Sabonis in the same sentence-- before the crippling knee & ankle injuries took their toll, this guy was downright scary, its just a shame people in the US never saw Sabas in his prime.) The next year I remember Oscar Schmidt single-handedly going berserk vs. the US, and leading Brazil to an upset at the Pan Am Games. This loss with the combination of the underachieving bronze medal finish by the US in '88, led the way to the US ditching the amatuers for pros that went into effect for the '92 Olympics.

After this move, the US pretty much blitzed their way thru the int'l ranks for the rest of the decade. They crushed all challengers in '94 & '96 (In '98, no NBA players played because of the labor strife.) But the US dominance was forever changed once the new century commenced, and the int'l basketball scene will never be the same. The tipping point came in the semi-final vs. Lithuania, where the US struggled mightily to secure a 2-point victory & were extremely lucky that the normally sweet-shooting Lithuanians decided to get nervous on the free-throw line down the stretch. Compounded with the early round struggle with the Lithuania (9-point difference) and a lackluster 10-point victory vs. France in the gold-medal game, this was truly a seminal moment where other countries realized they could compete with the US.

Then only 2 years later, the floodgates came crashing down when the US team sputtered to a 6th-place finish at the World Champs. in Indy. The bad times started actually before the fateful Argentina game, where the US had all they could handle with Dirk & Germany, and only a late 3rd quarter surge by the US, changed the tide of the rest of the game. I still can remember the press conference after the game, where most of the players seemed unfazed & only seemed to be mildly concerned with a possible matchup with Yugoslavia. But what still sticks with me is George Karl stressing to the reporting pool that his scouts were telling him that Argentina might be as dangerous as the Yugos. And he seemed to be trying to get this across to his players but it did not seem to register. How prophetic those words seem now. Argentina put on an absolute clinic vs. the US. Just an absolute clinic. It was a thing of beauty-- the passing, the cutting, the cold-blooded, flawless execution. Simply one of the finest basketball performances I've ever seen. The winning streak for a professional-led US team was over, and the int'l basketball scene was immediately changed for the better. The next night you figured the US team would have been tuned in, but they could not finish off the Yugos (who were underachieving themselves up to that point), and now were going home without a medal. Granted, the '02 team wasn't stocked with some of the top-of-the-line talent at the time, but they still had much more raw talent than any other country in the tournament. Even as an American, I thought this was great, because now it made int'l games more competitive as a whole. You basically could say everyone else is just playing for silver & bronze before, now there would be a little more welcomed uncertainity involved.

In '04, we all know what happened. The bad vibes began in the exhibition stage, first with Italy, where they got shellacked by another team that used a lot of constant movement. Then they needed a miracle 3-point heave to finish off Germany, a team that did not qualify for the Olympics. They seemed to be focused vs. Serbia, but they struggled twice vs. Turkey. I was still trying to convince myself that the US would win because I figured that Lithuania was the only team in their group who could give them trouble. Well, let's just say I was a little wrong on that assessment-- Puerto Rico added some punishment & Greece pushed the US team to the brink as well. They snuck into the quarterfinals & decided to shoot the ball well for once to slip past Spain. But they were once again bounced by their newfound nemesis, Argentina.

There was a ton of hand-wringing in the media for the reasons why the US lost, and most of them were pointing the finger at the players. It seemed the majority of the media were blaming the players for not caring enough & only being driven by money, etc, etc. A lot of these writers had a pre-existing agenda that the NBA was filled with "thugs" who only care about "bling-bling" and this poor showing in Athens gave them a huge opening to continue this line of logic. (Let's just say a lot of these guys fall into the Middle-Aged White Male demographic).

Believe me, it still gets me angry to this day when this notion gets brought up when talking about '04. Sorry, but the main reason the US Team lost wasn't not the players' fault, it was mostly the fault of David Stern & other Middle-Aged White Guys in charge of USA Basketball. They constructed a team filled with players who they thought had good marketing potential and in a sense put together an all-star team instead of considering a cohesive team. I realize that a certain amount of guys dropped out, but the Team USA fat-cats had the chance to add guys like Battier, Bowen, Korver, Wally, Aaron McKie & Brad Miller, but they decided to add guys like Wade, Melo, Amare, & Okafor because they had a higher Q-rating. It really did not seem to concern the bigwigs that this team was devoid of shooters and had too many guys who games were predicated on slashing, something even the casual FIBA fan knows doesn't translate that well. Then you try to have guys like Melo, Wade, & Bron play these roles of bench players, and those guys became frustrated & had no idea how to react to be role players because they were stars at every level they played at. Wouldn't guys like Battier & McKie have made more sense as your 8th or 9th man instead? Yeah, I think so.

I wasn't saying this after the fact, I remember being concerned early in the summer, and remember repeatedly shaking my head at the players they continued to add. I was calling for a guy like Battier at the time because I knew he was a great role player who could shoot the 3-ball well. Aaron McKie brought similar stuff to the table like Battier, and also he had played under Larry Brown before. Don't even get me going on Brad Miller. I don't know how many times I kept asking--"Where is Brad Miller's name?"--when they needed to add some bigs to the roster. But I guess a guy who played over in Europe, played on the '98 US team, and can shoot & pass from the high-post is not as valuable in FIBA play. Supposedly from what I understand, Miller never turned them down, Team USA just never followed thru with him, but now they seemed to have learned their lesson and even heeded my advice (highly doubtful I had any to do with it) by putting Brad & Battier in the pool of candidates

Again, The A-#1 reason why the US lost was--they did not have players whose game was predicated on perimeter shooting, period. The US team was repeatedly given wide open looks, and they could not convert with any regularity. The only reason they beat Spain in the quarters was cause they had their best shooting day of the tourney, especially Marbury, and if they shot the ball like they had been normally shooting, they don't win that game, end of story. None of this garbage about "they didn't care" or other nonsense, the answer was primarily a technical issue of not be able to shoot well enough. The problem with this angle is it does not sell copy, its not sexy & contreversial, its just dry & technical. Granted, I think not having the continuity of using the same core of players like other countries had been doing definitely played a part, I feel if the US shot the ball with more consistency they would have been in good shape (I believe Team USA had the lowest 3pt% of any team in the Olympics besides Spain).

Although, Colangelo & friends still did not seem to get the memo on the importance of catch/shoot players. A quick gander thru the 20 or so candidates and you're not seeing too many deadeyes-from-deep type players. JJ Redick was the best of the bunch and I would have had him on the final roster if he was healthy. To me this current roster looks like its heading for a constant barrage of zones. At least, as a whole, USA Basketball seems to be making a concerted effort to develop young players and have them play together for a couple years so to build some chemistry & continuity like the national teams of Argentina & Spain.
*-- In Part II tomorrow I will pick my 12 nominees for the final Team USA '06 roster.