Friday, August 29, 2008

USA Basketball: All-Stars and Role Players

One last post on Team USA to wrap things up before we put this Olympiad to bed, and start on the road to London 2012.

As USA Basketball stumbled on the international stage throughout this decade, many observers, casual and serious alike, have asserted that a perceived lack of role players has a major deficiency for Team USA.

Many have surmised that a big problem for Team USA has been that they've allegedly tried to slap together an All-Star team rather than building a real basketball team. Jerry Colangelo himself was quoted as saying, "Athens showed that All-Star teams can get beat, so we needed something different, a real team."

However, in looking at USA Basketball rosters over time, what's notable about the 2008 roster is that the U.S. actually did bring a team of All-Stars for a change - the roster actually hasn't resembled an All-Star team so much since 1996. Perhaps part of the Team USA struggles this decade can be attributed to the fact that they haven't had enough stars, rather than not enough role players.

Here's a quick analysis of USA Basketball rosters in the Olympics/Worlds since 1992 (skipping the 1998 Worlds team, which used non-NBA players during the lockout), with notations for which players were on All-NBA teams and/or All-Star teams in the NBA season leading into that summer's competition:

All-NBA 1st: 5 (Jordan, K Malone, Mullin, Robinson, Drexler)
All-NBA 2nd: 4 (Pippen, Barkley, Ewing, Stockton)

All-Stars: 11 (add Bird and Magic (not bad))
Non All-Stars: 1 (Laettner)

All-NBA 2nd: 2 (Kemp, K Johnson)
All-NBA 3rd: 4 (Shaq, D Wilkins, Price, Coleman)

All-Stars: 7 (add Mourning)
Non All-Stars: 5 (Majerle, S Smith, L Johnson, Dumars, R Miller)

All-NBA 1st: 4 (K Malone, Pippen, Robinson, A Hardaway)
All-NBA 2nd: 4 (Payton, G Hill, Olajuwon, Stockton)
All-NBA 3rd: 4 (Richmond, R Miller, Shaq, Barkley)

All-Stars: 12
Non All-Stars: 0

All-NBA 1st: 3 (Payton, Garnett, Kidd)
All-NBA 2nd: 1 (Mourning)
All-NBA 3rd: 1 (Carter)

All-Stars: 7 (add Houston, R Allen)
Non All-Stars: 5 (Baker, T Hardaway, S Smith, McDyess, Abdur-Rahim)

All-NBA 3rd: 3 (J O'Neal, Pierce, B Wallace*)

All-Stars/All-NBA: 5 (add Brand, B Davis (both were injury replacements to A-S))
Non All-Star/All-NBA: 7 (A Davis, LaFrentz, Jay Williams, R Miller, Finley, Marion, A Miller)
* B Wallace did not make All-Star team

All-NBA 1st: 1 (Duncan)

All-Stars: 2 (add Iverson)
Non All-Stars: 10 (James, Wade, Anthony, Odom, Jefferson, Stoudemire, Boozer, Marion, Marbury, Okafor)

All-NBA 1st: 1 (James)
All-NBA 2nd: 2 (Wade, Brand)
All-NBA 3rd: 1 (Anthony*)

All-Stars/All-NBA: 5 (add Bosh)
Non-AllStars/All-NBA: 7 (Jamison, Howard, Paul, Hinrich, Battier, B Miller, J Johnson)
* Anthony did not make All-Star team

All-NBA 1st: 4 (Bryant, James, Paul, Howard)
All-NBA 2nd: 1 (D Williams*)
All-NBA 3rd: 1 (Boozer)

All-Stars/All-NBA: 10 (add Wade, Bosh, Anthony, Kidd)
Non All-Stars/All-NBA: 2 (Redd, Prince)
* D Williams did not make All-Star team

Listen, we know this analysis is fairly reductive and simplistic. In terms of international basketball, 1992 is apples and 2008 is oranges, in large part simply because the competition is so much better. We suspect that that 1994 cast of characters would be in big trouble in FIBA play today.

And please don't get us wrong: we actually love the inclusion of guys like Tayshaun Prince, Michael Redd and Shane Battier (2006) in designated role player slots. Tayshaun was pretty much the ideal 10th man -- ready to come off the bench cold and unexpectedly, and contribute in myriad ways; always alert on the sidelines, and engaged with his teammates.

It's just that the perception of what needed to happen was this.... we call on Bill Simmons, in no small part because his voice is so influential to the casual fan and in creating/reinforcing conventional wisdom.

In 2004, Simmons correctly forecasted doom for the Olympic team before the Games even started. However this was his prescription for an alternative:
    [Simmons and his buddy House] see a chance to build a superior basketball team from scratch -- not an All-Star team, a basketball team. Choosing from 300 of the greatest players in the world, we would want one dominant big man; one quality point guard; one great scorer immediately designated for Alpha Dog Status, two other good shooters, two other rebounders, one athletic swingman who can defend the other player's best shooter, a backup point guard, two energy guys, and a 12th man who will hustle in practice and just be happy to be on the team. If we pick the right guys, we know we're winning the tournament and possibly ending up on ESPN Classic. It's just a fact.
This was the roster that he came up with:
Starters: Duncan, Odom, Redd, Hamilton, Wade
Bench guys: Iverson, Prince, Brad Miller, LeBron, Stoudemire
Energy guys: Brian Cardinal, Fred Hoiberg

Even keeping in mind that some of these guys were significantly better in 2004 (Duncan, Iverson, even Brad Miller was an All-Star in '04, if a dodgy one), this team -- replete with role players, including the ever-present Redd in the starting lineup -- would have been a shadow of the star-studded team which just won gold.

The problem for Team USA was not that they didn't have enough role-player types and it certainly wasn't that they had too many All-Stars.

Take a look at that 2002 team. They had Jay Williams, prior to his NBA rookie season; Raef Freakin' LaFrentz, for crying out loud; Ben Wallace, whose lack of skill rendered him useless in the international game; and Antonio Davis. That was the worst team of pros the U.S. has ever fielded, and one of its big problems was that it had no one who created any offense outside of Pierce, who apparently behaved so badly that he was blacklisted for life by USAB.

Rather, the problem was (among other things) that they didn't turn their collection of players into a cohesive team.

(Back on the eve of the 2006 loss, we ran a chart comparing the rosters of Argentina, Spain, and the U.S. from 2002-2006, showing how most of the ARG/ESP key players had been there the whole time, while no Americans were. That has changed, and it's important.)

That's the thing, we agreed 50% with the Colangelo quote -- "Athens showed that All-Star teams can get beat, so we needed something different, a real team." Simmons echoed the same point: "not an All-Star team, a basketball team."

They *did* need to become a real team. They needed roles to be defined, understand and accepted, which happened. It just seemed like the conventional wisdom was that they needed lesser talent to do this, and that's not the case.

We believe the key reasons that the U.S. stumbled between 2002-2006 included the following:
1. Lack of team cohesion
2. Lack of respect for opponents
3. Lack of scouting knowledge of opposition players and teams
4. Trouble with international rules & refs
5. The world has gotten better

The cold, hard truth is that we think there's another simple reason which should be included: the best players haven't played.

Put Shaq and Kobe on that 2002 team, even at the height of their hatred for each other, and there is a likely a different result. The 2003 team looked outstanding in Olympic qualifying, crushing 2004 champ Argentina in the FIBA Americas qualifying final. Then most of the best players withdrew in '04.

Yes, they've had enough talent to win, but not to overcome huge deficiencies in the five factors listed above. The thought was that they needed a basketball team instead of an All-Star team, when in fact they got something better: an All-Star team that was also a cohesive basketball team. The best of both worlds.

Coach K and Jerry Colangelo both deserve an immense amount of credit for building a real team, but don't underestimate the credit that Big JC also deserves for talent evaluation, for foreseeing back in 2005-06 that guys like Paul and Howard would be among the best in the game by 2008.

Before we go, let's also wrap up another scapegoat over the years: outside shooting.

As far as three-point shooting goes, here's what the U.S. has shot in the last four major competitions (Olympics/Worlds):

2002 .392
2004 .314
2006 .369
2008 .377

The dreadful 2002 team was actually quite good from behind the arc. The pathetic 2004 team was horrendous, and shooting actually *was* a big problem for that team, but Argentina had the same .314 mark from three and they won the gold medal. Just saying: there were even bigger problems than shooting which sunk that Athens cruise ship (including the lack of a coherent offense to actually set up good looks from outside).

In 2006, the U.S. was a solid but not spectacular .369, and now they're in about the same place: .377, 6th out of 12 in the tournament.

I guess the point is that, for all the people who thought that outside shooting was such a decisive factor for Team USA... well, this team is leaps and bounds better than the 2002 team, and also significantly better than the very good 2006 team, but on balance, the outside shooting is about the same. They have their good days behind the arc and their bad days, like most teams, though the 2008 team has indeed shot better from distance as the Olympics have gone on.

For all the times I've read about what an important, vital addition Michael Redd was to the ballclub... well, the cat played 10 mpg, mostly garbage time at that, and hit 5-18 on threes. Wasn't a factor whatsoever. And it didn't mattered whatsoever.

For all the talk of how shooters needed to be added after 2004, the best shooters ended up being D-Wade (8-17, .471) and LeBron (13-28, .464), guy who were on the 2004 team in the first place.


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At 4:34 PM, Blogger Mo Sweat said...

Great blog.
And great analysis about Olimpic games, I'm from Spain and I put your blog in my "favorite blogs list" in my blog, Fo Fo Fo...(Moses take us to the promised land)

At 12:18 AM, Blogger Nitin Savant said...

another awesome post, great stuff guys!

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous tesch said...

just stopped by for the first time and read this was an excellent piece. keep up the good work, i look forward to reading more of it.

At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is probably the most accurate and well written piece of literature that I've read about team USA's 2002-2006 woes and recent success in Beijing. This is the first post I've read here, but there is a good chance it won't be the last.

At 2:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great article. first time reading this blog - definitely not the last. I've always been curious - has USAB ever considered sending a near complete NBA team. Take the best team with the most americans (at least 7 of their rotation players) pad the rest of the roster and ship em off to the olympics. Could Spain beat the Celtics? The Pistons? I only mention these two as they don't have any prominent foreigners to my knowledge.

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