Wednesday, July 19, 2006

2006 FIBA World Champs.--Team USA Tryouts (Part II)-the Final Roster

In Part I, I gave a brief, recent history of international FIBA competitions and how the landscape has changed, particularly from the Team USA's point of view. I still see around the 'Net that some folks think that if the US squad just has guys like Kobe, Wade, & Bron on the team that the US is unstoppable or will just cruise to victory. Sorry, but those days are long gone. Even if Kobe was coming this year, the US team would have had a couple of close calls. It will not surprise me if the US squad went undefeated on their way to a gold medal, there is just no way they would be crushing all comers by 18 points a game. The new era of int'l basketball started in 2000, and every summer since, the US has had a close call every summer.

Below is the group of 12 players who I feel should be on the team, not who I think Colangelo & Co. will pick. I wish that Mr. Colangelo would have added more static shooters to the initial pool of players-- guys like Kyle Korver, Mike Miller, Ben Gordon, & Wally are missing from this mix. Why? Zones. Full-on, no-restriction, packed-in zones is what Team USA should be seeing. It's a no-brainer. If I was playing against the US, I'm always sitting in either a 2-3 or 2-1-2 zone with the "One-Foot-in-the-Paint" rule for all my defenders. If Team USA is going to beat me, they are going to do it with outside jumpers.

Call it the lesser of two evils theorem: Would you rather man-up the US & have them shred you apart, or would you rather have them prove themselves from the perimeter? I think the answer is pretty simple. Especially if you have guys like Wade, LeBron, or Paul on the floor together. Wade & Bron can be given a huge cushion outside as far as I'm concerned, and if they get hot, so be it, I'm still sticking in the zone or loose man2man. As well, you're keeping them off the foul line more, which is nice since Wade, Arenas, & Bron get a nice chunk of their offense from the stripe. Zones also cause problems for post-up options, either by just having multiple defenders around (ask Duncan) or by making the entry passing angles somewhat difficult.

If JJ Redick was still available, he should have definitely been on the roster, because he's the best catch/shoot option that the US had. You need guys like him that not only hit their jumpers, but who also are just a threat once they step on the court. Just having a guy like JJ on the floor forces your defense to make tougher decisions. Do they leave JJ open because he's guy who much more dangerous vs. a zone as opposed to a tough man2man. While guys like Wade, Bron, & Arenas are guys you would much rather sag off all day & prefer they would not drive the ball & possibly draw fouls. With JJ just on the floor, he hopefully opens up lanes for Bron & Wade; as of now I see very few guys in the US camp who make me want to consider for a second to come out of a zone.

The US team really needs to capitalize on their superior speed by fast breaking at every chance. It could be rough going in the half-court offensively, so they are going to need to push the tempo and try to get easy points in transition. I assume with D'Antoni next to Coach K, this will be part of the gameplan-- push the pace, increase the amount of possessions so to not keep inferior talented teams close on the scoreboard. Also, Coach K has to think about using this athletic advantage on defense as well, by throwing some full-court presses & traps into the playbook. This was something that I felt Larry Brown missed the boat on in '04 (with a myriad of other things he screwed up). Who wouldn't love to see LeBron & Wade let loose, flying around on the defensive end, creating a helter-skelter atmosphere. Also on the defensive end, Coach K & D'Antoni have to get their players accustomed to all the constant movement on offense that Team USA is likely to defend against. This is something that NBA players are not use to seeing, and it killed them in '02, & was a problem still in '04. This sort of ties in with their problems defending the 3pt. line in '04 as well. The bigs have to also be to prepared to defend on the perimeter more than they are accustomed to as well.

I do commend Colangelo on finding some pure points on the roster, something that was severely lacking in '04. Also, adding role players like Battier, Bowen, & Miller is a huge step forward in the right direction. Another thing that is an underrated factor for the US, is adding players who can hit the offensive glass. With the likelihood of facing zones, the offensive boards open up and this was something the US did well in '04 (they were one of the best in the tourney).
Here's my final 12:

Kirk Hinrich -- Glad to see him reconsider, and now Ridnour can be left in Seattle. Solid shooter (37% from 3pt. for career), emerging playmaker who displayed shades of Nash-like probing & passing in the playoffs. Maybe most importantly, his defense is superb (Ask D. Wade).

Chris Paul -- The other pure point on the roster. Gives the US a small, quick guard who create havoc similar to ones that usually provide problems to the US. Could be useful if Coach K chooses to run a lot. But might not be quite as effective as people think because the US should be seeing a steady diet of zones, so those driving lanes should be cramped. Also, Paul is nothing special of a marksman from the perimeter.

Dwayne Wade-- We all know what he can do in the NBA, but how much of that ability will transfer over in FIBA. I remember some times in these playoffs where he struggled for stretches vs. zones, and he will not be able to live on the foul line in int'l play like he did in the playoffs. In '04, he was just not very good offensively, and he did not look comfortable at all, and he's guy who needs to get his rhythm flowing to get his jumpshot to go.

LeBron James -- With Wade, the main drawing card for USA Basketball, no way they leave him off. Can play the 1-4 positions in FIBA, and would be nice to see him play some 4. Like to see Coach K use him as a roving, free-safety type on defense, and hopefully utilize him in some full-court presses & traps. I assume LeBron is going to be given ample opportunities from the perimeter & he is going to have to consistently hit his looks. I just don't anticipate the lanes to be given to him very much, even if he's hitting from deep-- if Bron's gonna beat me, he gonna beat with jumpers.

Gilbert Arenas -- Believe me, this was the last guy from the candidate pool who I wanted on the list, but with Kobe dropping out, I felt the US needed another proven scorer. It came down to picking between him & Melo, and the only reason I went with Gil, is he's a pretty decent 3-point shooter. Melo loves to post-up in the mid-range area & loves to work on the baseline, and I don't see him having those opportunities too often vs. the zones. But Coach K just has to promise not to play Gil at the point at all, make sure he's playing the 2 spot exclusively.

Elton Brand -- Probably the best low-post scoring option in the pool of candidates. Although, its difficult to post vs. the zones, Brand has a unique ability where he's perfected a sort of mid-postup game, which is also conducive to the trapezoid lane. Brings boards & shot-blocking. Also, brings a great attitude & will work seamlessly with Coach K.

Brad Miller -- Should have been on the '04 team before Amare or Okafor. (Still is perplexing why Stu Jackson & Co. excluded him). He is a perfect fit for attacking 2-3 zones: He can sit or flash in that soft spot around the foul line and drill the 15 footer or pass to shooters or hit baseline cutters. Also, should be a good teammate.

Bruce Bowen -- The Manu-stopper. He's here for the main purpose of looking ahead to a possible matchup with the Argentines. Obviously, he fills the defensive stopper role, but he's also valuable because he has shot the 3-ball well the last 2 years. Another great teammate to have that does not need touches & who's minutes can be varied game-to-game. I also assume Colangelo would not have asked him to participate in training camp if he did not really want him on this year's team because Bruce probably will not be considered in '08.

Chris Bosh -- A good, young 4/5 who can float out & hit jumpers. Also, has the athleticism to defend away from the paint. A guy that should be hitting his peak around the time the Olympics roll around. Not a bad shot-blocker either. Solid offensive rebounder.

Dwight Howard -- Should be able to command the glass even better oversees. Young stud who should be developed alongside Bosh. Not going to bring much offensively, but someone is going to have to sacrifice touches, might as well begin with Howard.

Shane Battier -- Basically the same things that Bowen brings. Can defend the 2-4 positions in FIBA, & maybe even some 5s. An underrated 3-point shooter. Maybe most importantly, a player who can play 20 minutes one game, then 5 minutes and it will not change his effectiveness or attitude, especially with Coach K around. (Battier would fill water bottles & personally cut orange wedges for the team if Coach K told him to, and do it with that big goofy smile of his.)

Antawn Jamison -- 3/4 hybrid who can float out & has good-range on his jumper, which comes in handy for a guy who can play the 4 in FIBA. Rebounds well, underrated offensive rebounder which comes in handy vs. zones.

-Marion was tough to leave off the team, and could be easily substituted for Battier or Bowen. But I went with those guys because they simply shoot the ball better from the perimeter. Granted, Marion is a good rebounder, but I feel the rebounding is well taken care of, while the shooting can use all the help it can get. With all that said, I would bet that Marion gets put on the team for politics--D'Antoni is an assistant & he might not want to ruffle Marion's psyche. I could easily understand subbing Amare for Howard, but I think with his knee situation, I prefer Dwight. This could be another area for some politics to arise, but in this case I could see D'Antoni preferring Amare sit this summer out, so stay tuned for that decision. Also, I was thinking long & hard about putting Morrison on the team instead of Arenas or Jamison. As of now, he's probably the best pure shooter on the full roster list, and could really thrive in FIBA play. I could still easily waver on adding Morrison instead, but I'm going with the vets right now. Brand, Bosh, Howard, Battier, & Jamison are all good offensive rebounders so that should be an advantage vs. zones.

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.