Thursday, September 14, 2006

Kloster F*cked; Jay's Apologia

OK, please forgive me, I've been on vacation, so I'm way behind on these stories, but I just can't let the Chuck Klosterman and Jay Bilas stories on Team USA go without comment. Humor me, and I'll try not to write about Team USA again until next summer.

I'm confident that this will be my last comment because, with Klosterman's piece, we've truly reached the nadir, in terms of two cents coming from people who don't actually watch international basketball, but think they have all the answers.

In short, his solution to Team USA's inability to win gold medals on the world stage is to create a national team of college players not interested in school, yet too young to go to the NBA.

It is, incredibly, an idea even more ridiculous than the standard folly that the U.S. should send college players to international competitions.

As Klosterman says:
    "Here is the thing: THEY WOULD ALWAYS BE PLAYING TOGETHER. Always. And then -- after they unexpectedly win the gold (or after they valiantly lose) -- they could declare themselves eligible for the NBA (or the CBA) draft. And unlike most of their peers, they'd actually understand why basketball is a team game.

Here are the problems with the thing:
First, this team would not unexpectedly win gold NOR COME ANYWHERE CLOSE. Never. Out of the 24-team field at this year's Worlds, a Klosterman team would have been lucky to beat the three winless teams -- Panama and Senegal (both of whom, it should be noted, had several former NCAA players), and Qatar -- and that's it. Lebanon would have beaten them. Anyone who actually watched Angola play knows that that club would have CRUSHED this KlosterTeam.

If you want to send a team like this, fine, but just be prepared to accept that they would be a world bottom-feeder. They would not only finish dead last at the Olympics, when the field narrows down to 12, but I highly doubt they would be able to beat out Argentina, Brazil, Puerto Rico or Canada to so much as qualify for the Games out of this hemisphere.

Here, Klosterman makes two competing faulty assumptions that most casual fans make these days: not realizing that i) the quality of international players and teams have gotten much better and ii) that the quality of American college basketball has gotten much worse.

I suspect that the casual fan doesn't fully understand that the quality of the EuroLeague is much better than that of the NCAA - it's much closer to the NBA than the NCAA. Even though Greece didn't have any NBA players last year, players like Papaloukas, Spanoulis and Diamantidis have been studs in Europe, and that's not irrelevant just b/c Klosterman can't tell one player with the funny name from the other.

American players a year out of high school are simply not ready to compete on this level. Sure, a guy like O.J. Mayo has the talent, but he'd need to be surrounded by experienced veterans... not a bunch of other 18-year-olds.

I agree with Klosterman’s point that lack of team cohesion has been a major problem for Team USA in recent years, but his faultiest logic is the sense that his post-high school studs would play with superior cohesion.

I disagree with the implicit sense that the NBA is the source of American basketball’s decline in team play. I think that the quality of play on the NCAA level has become atrocious overall (with exceptions, of course), and it’s a rot which traces, in my belief, to the summer-league system which feeds the NCAA recruiting system.

As such, I don’t believe that a group of kids fresh out of high school, even it were O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love and Bill Walker, would be able to play with cohesion sufficient to match international teams, esp. considering they will be at huge disadvantages of experience and strength to start with.

Also, Klosterman makes a MAJOR factual mistake in believing that the revised NBA age limit is 20. It’s actually 19, and it takes a major chunk out of his assumption that these players would build cohesion by playing together for 2 years. They’d only have one.

I find it really amusing that people often suggest that we should send some form of college players – a clear loser – instead of pros, when there’s a logical alternative: send Americans who play in the EuroLeague. Players like Anthony Parker, Maceo Baston, Trajan Langdon, Drew Nicholas, Scoonie Penn, Tyus Edney and many recognizable ex-NCAA names have been vital contributors on the EuroLeague scene in the past few years.

These guys have some big advantages:
1) They are thoroughly familiar with the international game, in terms of the rules and such;
2) They are familiar with, and respectful of, the skills of the best international players (a major problem in the Greece loss);
3) They are simply much better players, much more experienced in general, than kids in college.

I’m in favor of continuing to send NBA players, but if we’re going to send a team of non-NBA players, it should be these guys. And I really do believe that we should reserve at least one roster spot for one of these guys, just to have on the bench to say, “Hey, Papaloukas can’t shoot, but he loves to drive left and he’s always looking to dish – go under the screen against him, for god’s sake!”

Second, again, I do agree that team cohesion has been a major problem for Team USA.
I would merely point you to this post from last month:
showing how Argentina and Spain have had similar teams together each summer, while the U.S. has changed everyone.
If I were to do a similar chart for Greece, I suspect it would look similar.

I think that Team USA is on the right path, in terms of getting three-year commitments out of guys, and I think this team will be right there in ’08, prob. playing for gold against a Spain team that shouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon – unless the Grizz refuse to allow Pau to play, of course!

On to Bilas… Underlying his opus of truths and myths about USA Basketball is a sense that his college coach, Coach K, should not be blamed for any of Team USA shortcomings.

In my mind, the Worlds displayed Krzyzewski’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a coach. He is an outstanding practice coach, who does a wonderful job of getting players to buy into the team concept and their roles, as well as a big-picture concept of how he wants to play. He’s never been better than in 2001, when he won a championship after losing Carlos Boozer, by instituting a free-flowing perimeter-based offense, or in 1991-92, when the basic philosophy of exploiting Christian Laettner on the perimeter vs. bigs, and inside vs. smalls maximized that team’s potential. And I think, by and large, he has done a very good job of setting a team identity and player roles for Team USA.

That said, I think his biggest weakness is in the area of game coaching, esp. because he doesn’t have experience with the adjust-on-the-fly style of pro basketball. This was, of course, most notably illustrated in the 1999 NCAA Championship game, when Coach K sent Trajan Langdon, a terrible one-on-one player, up against Ricky Moore, UConn’s top perimeter defender, in the game’s decisive play. This on top of giving minimal time to explosive freshman Corey Maggette. Of course, game-coaching is much more than this, but still, it was an indicative moment.

And I thought that Coach K had an atrocious game against Greece. The fecklessness against the pick-and-roll was painful to watch for a Team USA supporter. Most notably, there was absolutely no sense of defending based on players’ strengths and weaknesses. Honestly, it was as if no one had ever seen these guys play, even though Papaloukas, Spanoulis, and Diamantidis have been major players in Europe, Fotsis has played in the NBA, albeit briefly, and Schortsanitis has been on draft radars for years. Knowing the strengths of the opposition is the backbone of pick-and-roll defense on the pro level. And if we can’t figure out who to go under against, and who to go over against, then we need to have a matchup zone in our arsenal to change up the rhythm (we probably need one anyway).

The shift of LeBron to the top of the key on offense came far too late, even though it was clear that no matter what defense Greece played, they couldn’t keep him out of the middle. More should have been done to establish Brand’s low-to-mid post game, too.

And I’m sorry, Jay, but the fact that Coach K was identifying the Greek players by number rather than name in the postgame press conference was disrespectful. The names really aren’t that hard to pronounce, and they are prominent players to anyone who watches Euroleague (as he should have been doing all spring). But my biggest problem with it was that it reflected how his team played defense on the court: they looked like guys covering a bunch of interchangeable players with different numbers rather than players with identifiable strengths and weaknesses.

OK, enough. It's only two weeks until guards and forwards report.


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