Musings on Team USA's Lone Deficiency: Interior-Defense Depth
Let's make this clear from the outset: Team USA is deservedly a heavy favorite to win the men's basketball gold medal at the upcoming 2012 London Olympics. The U.S. is certainly The Painted Area's pick to win the basketball tournament.
Yet this team's roster, now somewhat depleted by injury, does have one distinct weakness: lack of interior-defense depth. Tyson Chandler, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin are the team's only bigs, with Defensive Player of the Year Chandler the only plus defender among the three.
In response to these facts, most observers suggest that the Americans "will be fine," and that is likely true, but let's also remain cognizant of the following:
- 1. This is an NCAA Tournament-style knockout competition once it reaches the quarterfinals. It only takes one crazy night for the breaks (and the make-or-miss shooting gods) to conspire against the heavy favorites, and send Goliath crashing down, as we see happen each March.
2. It only takes five fouls to be disqualified from the 40-minute FIBA game.
3. "FIBA sucks." That was Tim Duncan's infamous comment following the 2004 Olympics, in which he seemed to spend the whole tournament in foul trouble thanks to some classically dubious FIBA officiating throughout, a major underrated factor in Team USA's bronze-medal debacle there, as that team had little experienced depth up front.
FIBA officiating has improved since then, most notably because they (mercifully... finally...) added a third official in 2006, but the calls can still be erratic, especially so to NBA players not in the habit of how the FIBA whistles interpret the rules.
It can take just two quick fouls (as Duncan seemed to be saddled with when he went out for the opening tip in Athens) on the wrong guy to change the dynamic of an entire game.
But against top contenders like Spain and Brazil, Chandler foul trouble could open up a can of worms. The NBA combos of bigs for Spain (the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka), and Brazil (Nene, Andy Varejao and Tiago Splitter), could end up having a field day scoring down low matched up against Griffin and Love.
Certainly, one would expect the U.S. to counter in such a situation with small lineups featuring the likes of LeBron James or Kevin Durant at the 4, so it'd be incumbent upon the opposition to control the tempo and limit turnovers, but both Spain and Brazil have experienced, steady point guards in ESP's Jose Calderon and BRA's Marcelo Huertas (who nearly engineered an upset of Team USA at the 2010 World Championships), who could plausibly hold up.
Given the state of depletion of the U.S. bigs, I would have opted against adding James Harden, whose ample skills are well duplicated on the perimeter, and instead chosen to address the lack of depth in interior defense, the roster's only deficiency.
I actually would have favored the unorthodox move of reaching down to the USA Select Team and tabbing reserve Chicago Bull Taj Gibson as the 12th man. Gibson has simply been a defensive beast off the bench for the Bulls. In 2011-12, Chicago allowed 90.47 points per 100 possessions with Taj on the floor, as opposed to 102.42 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench, a defensive differential of -11.95 which led the NBA.
As a further measure of his value, Gibson also led the entire NBA in adjusted plus-minus in 2011-12, and ranks in the top 10 in this category over the past two years combined, amidst names like James, Howard, Paul, Nowitzki, Nash, Garnett and Gasol.
(I should also note that I would've favored Gibson even if Anthony Davis had been healthy. Davis has KG potential, but at this point, I don't think he's strong enough to match up in the post against veteran pros like the Gasols, and that Gibson is a better interior defender today.)
Listen, we're talking about a 12th man here, so we may well be grasping at straws in looking for a weakness, but Team USA may wish they had a player like Gibson to plug the lane in case of an emergency of red-hot Gasols going nuts on the blocks while Chandler is forced to watch from the sidelines.
While we don't see anyone beating the U.S. in London, an upset isn't unimaginable, and in the unlikely event that Team USA loses, we suspect it'll all start with Tyson Chandler getting in foul trouble against a team that can score inside.