<
>

Greece Slayed the U.S. Dragon

9/1/2006

As it happens, the U.S. lost to the plucky Greek team early this morning (US time), 101-95.

The Associated Press reports:

Greece used a sizzling stretch of shooting across the middle two quarters to turn a 12-point deficit into a 14-point lead, and beat the Americans 101-95 Friday in the semifinals of the FIBA World Championship.

The Greeks (8-0) can add a world title to the European championship they won in 2005 with a victory over either Spain or Argentina in Sunday's gold medal game. Those teams, also undefeated, met in Friday's second game.

The Greeks -- with no current NBA players on their roster -- danced in a circle at halfcourt after their victory over an American team put together after a series of recent failures.

I'm sure we'll be talking about this plenty more today...

UPDATE:

Thoughts:

  • We missed a major money-making opportunity. Vegas heavily favored the U.S. in this tournament.

  • Everyone thought the U.S. would play Argentina this weekend. Nobody realized it would be for third place.

  • Now the U.S. has to play well next summer to qualify for the Olympics.

  • I'm officially pulling for Greece in the Final. If Greece goes undefeated, and the U.S. can beat Argentina, it means the U.S. and Spain would both finish 8-1, with their only losses to Greece. Then it's practically like a tie for second--and the best possible outcome. Fourth would not be good.

  • In a number of ways... that game against Argentina? It really matters. The U.S. wins, and the story of the tournament is the U.S. had a mediocre game at the wrong time. The U.S. loses, and the story of the tournament is that there are plenty of teams that can beat Team USA. (Greece, Argentina, probably Spain, what about France if Tony Parker had played, Italy almost won...)

  • There's something kind of great about the fact that even though there were tons of doom-and-gloom prognosticators, just about everyone picked the U.S. to win this game. So no one that I know of (cue deluge of comments an e-mails proving me wrong) gets to strut around like a peacock today. We were all wrong.

  • Here's the big question: Would, say, the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Greek national team? What about the Atlanta Hawks? The Duke Blue Devils? No one really knows the answer to that, but a lot of this is about cohesion, not individual skill. I'm positive top NBA teams would win the whole tournament easily. But I'm not sure how to handicap the rest of the field.

  • Tough to think about right now, but in terms of inspiring fundamental changes in the way U.S. basketball players are developed, this could not have gone better.

My bigger thought: These players and coaches are not to blame. They really are the good guys, and some of the best players in the world. They are hard-working, and not at all indicative of the whole "what's wrong with the NBA" line of discussion. What's more, they played hard, they played unselfishly. No one was coasting.

But they were up against some serious obstacles: They were new to each other and their coaching staff. Some of them are young and don't yet instinctively know stuff like how to defend the pick and roll. They were using a different-sized ball which certainly affects shooting. And the opposition is really, really good--and I believe, extra motivated to crush us like grapes because at this juncture of history, thanks to U.S. foreign policy, Americans are pretty much seen as arrogant bullies.

This is an incredibly important tournament for all of the players here except the Americans. None of these players grew up watching the World Championships on TV. For the Americans, it's an after-thought. It has a tiny fraction of the importance of the NBA title. That's not true of their opponents. You heard Mert Uyar explain that everyone at Turkey was watching a consolation round game at work. In contrast, a lot of Americans don't even know this tournament is going on at the moment.

That's not an excuse, but it is a practical problem. The NBA off-season is shorter than the Euroleague off-season, especially for someone like Dwyane Wade. No part of his training was optimized to peak now. His body was tuned up for May and June. August and September? That's recuperation time in the NBA. And if he gets injured in the NBA Finals, it's a warrior going down in the heat of battle. If he gets injured in the Saitama Super Dome, the whole NBA sees it as a giant waste. What was he doing there anyway? What if it affects his real basketball career?

(And that same dynamic certainly hurt the team's ability to attract the Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnetts of the world.)

Mike Krzyzewski tried to work around those concerns with short minutes for everyone. I'm sure the players were in some ways tentative, either consciously or subconsciously.

Maybe some of that goes away when it's Olympic gold on the line. And, assuming the U.S. qualifies next summer, presumably this team will be better meshed by 2008, which should solve a lot of problems.

But what else can be done?

A WIld Tangent About the NBA Season Being Too Long

For a number of reasons, I am a huge (and, as far as I know, the only) advocate of shortening the NBA season. Not for FIBA-reasons. For NBA reasons. I feel the product has been cheapened by the reality that 82 games is too many games to play all-out, 100%, all the time. You go to a game in early December, and you can practically guarantee several of the players just won't be playing all that hard. And plenty of our greatest playoff heroes--Robert Horry, Shaquille O'Neal--famously coast for as much of the season as possible. (And don't you wish you could see Yao Ming well rested? So many games he just looks like he's running on nothing but fumes and willpower.)  If you're not in the bloom of your youth, it's arguably a good tactic to take it easy for several months of the season.

What's more, with an 82-game regular season, no one regular season game really matters. 1/82nd of a season, in any sport, just is never that important. It shows in the play.

I also think this is important: fewer regular season games means more people (as opposed to corporations) who can afford season tickets. That means more passion in the stands, more fun at the games, and more kids.

It also means each ticket itself is more precious. There are times when I am offered NBA tickets at the last minute, by some friend, and not only can't I go, but I can't find anyone who wants to go. On some level, you just know that there will be plenty more games, and tickets will be available. In the NFL, with its eight home games, you can always find someone who's ready to drop everything.

I can't tell you how often some old-timer tells me that he loves basketball but doesn't watch the NBA anymore because he can't stand the... (insert something that more than likely has racial overtones). If every player is killing himself playoff-style to win every game, that argument goes away. It just does. If you're digging out loose balls in crunch time, people tend not to question your character, your clothes, or your choice of music. No one cared, for instance, that Michael Jordan was a trash-talker. You can do almost whatever you want in a winning context. But if you're taking it a little easy, and the team loses,  people start looking for something to blame, and your clothes, your music, and your big mouth might enter the discussion. Coasting is a problem in the NBA, and a shorter season might fix it.

Of course, I know why the season is long: every game is a TV and ticket revenue opportunity. But that doesn't mean my proposal to shorten the season is a money-loser. First of all, what's the cost of a diluted product and a somewhat damaged brand? If I'm right, you could make the basketball better. You could increase the excitement level at every NBA game. You could improve TV ratings. You could sell more merchandise. You could take regular people and convert them into fans. And, you could at least experiment with the idea of saving money by having a little bit shorter bench (paying 12 salaries again, instead of 15, for instance), because fewer games has to mean fewer injuries.

And, if Dwyane Wade had been resting for a month before he started Team USA training camp? I think there's a decent shot Team USA beats Greece.

UPDATE:

A friend just sent this e-mail "The US just lost to Greece? Can that happen?"

My response:

They're the reigning European champions, and this is the biggest event of their basketball lives, for which they have been practicing together as a team for a decade. And they're big, well-coached, and got really hot.

For us? This is an off-season amusement, after a 100+ game season, and mostly something where everyone's going to get REALLY pissed if anyone gets hurt.

So, yeah, it can happen.