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Friday, August 15, 2008
The Other Redeem Team: Spain


Big contracts, NBA stars, a new coach, a new approach, and -- after a disappointing loss in a recent major international competition -- something to prove.

More than anything, almost being able to taste Olympic gold, knowing that hitting shots and playing good defense will be enough.

No, I'm not talking about Team USA.

I'm talking about the squad they'll meet on the court in Beijing at 10:15 ET Saturday morning, and likely in the gold medal game on August 24.

I'm talking about Spain.

U.S. in the Driver's Seat
After dispensing China, Angola, and Greece, the United States team led by Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant has convinced nearly all observers that they are the favorites to win Olympic gold. Team USA's impressive depth, matched with a withering defensive attack on the perimeter, has produced long series of turnovers followed by the kinds of open-court layups and dunks that posters are made of.

But the Spanish team is also deep, also stocked with NBA players, and on something of a special mission.

Spain Unintimidated
The Spanish players are reigning world champions. To most of the basketball world, this is a more prestigious title than Olympic gold. The 2006 version featured 24 teams, with a grueling 16-team elimination tournament to wrap things up. (The Olympic competition, on the other hand, features 12 total teams, with eight making it to the knockout stage.)

Spain has also played the U.S. in elimination games twice in recent years. Many of these same Spanish players beat Paul Pierce and company at the World Championships in 2002. At the Athens Olympics in 2004, Spain cruised through qualifying for a top seed, while Team USA  stumbled to 3-2. With a high seed, Spain met Team U.S.A. in the first elimination game, and lost by eight. (In the next round, Team USA lost to Argentina, before beating Lithuania for bronze.)

Spain and the U.S. did not play each other in the 2006 World Championships, as the U.S. lost to Greece in the semifinals. Spain, with much the same roster they have this year, did not lose all tournament long.

Last summer, however, in one of the best games of last year, Spain lost to Russia by a single point in the EuroBasket final. 

These Olympics are Spain's chance to prove 2006 was no fluke.

Tick Tock
The roster of the Spanish national team has been one of the most stable in basketball. The team has long been built around the likes of Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jose Calderon and Jorge Garbajosa. 

In 2008, however, time is showing its effects. Youngsters like Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, and Marc Gasol are emerging as the rightful future centerpieces of the team.

How long will the more experienced players like Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro keep sacrificing their off-seasons for their country? It is unclear. It's certainly possible this team will look very different next time around.

Spain is an elite international team as is. Will it be so for the World Championships in Turkey in 2010? Maybe.

For a team that has always had high expectations, 2008 is time to seize the moment.

New Coach, New Approach
When Spain won the World Championships in Japan two summers ago, the offensive attack was built around now-Laker big man Pau Gasol. Time and again Gasol set up in the post, and used his grab bag of post moves and jumpers to poke and prod the defense as his teammates orchestrated series of dives, picks, and cuts to get themselves clean looks whenever Gasol was doubled. 

The team used the same approach, and the same roster, in 2007, when they lost a close game to underdog Russia in the final game of the EuroBasket. 

A month and a half ago, however (reportedly owing to internal politics in the federation that runs the team) Coach Pepu Hernandez was replaced by Aito Garcia Reneses.

Aito, as he is known, has a vastly different approach that wholly deemphasizes any single player's role.

Jorge Munoa, a journalist with the EFE wire service, has been covering the team closely for years. Having watched Spain's early games of the tournament I asked him if the team perceived what I felt I had seen, namely the emergence of young swingman Rudy Fernandez (headed to the Blazers next season) as the kind of leader the team turned to when things get rough.

Munoa scoffed.

John Paxson
An emerging force: Future Blazer Rudy Fernandez has excelled in big moments.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images.) 

"Absolutely not," he declared. "There are no leaders on this team. The leader is just a group. That is the key to this team. The group. There are no personal agendas or characteristics that are more important than the group."

That's pure Aito.

He is no control freak. He has a fairly loose hand in terms of style of play. On offense, the guards have the latitude to be as inventive as they'd like, and NBA-style isolations and shots off the dribble are no longer uncommon.

But no one gets to dominate. Of the team's dozen players, eleven average at least eleven minutes per game, and none averages more than 26. Six players, this far, have scored at least six points per game, and none average more than twenty. 

The stars of the national team's recent past, for instance Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro, often watch from the bench as younger teammates like Pau's brother Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez mop up key minutes -- thus far without complaint.

There is a particular karma to that. Both Navarro and Gasol played for Aito at FC Barcelona. As young players, they benefited from the same unorthodox distribution of minutes, playing far more than they might have on other teams. Aito later coached Badalona, where he similarly gave minutes to rising national team stars Rudy Fernandez and Ricky Rubio.

What You Can Expect Against Team U.S.A.
When Spain plays the U.S. on Saturday, in group play with little at stake, Spain will be unlikely to display its full bag of tricks. 

Making certain no one gets hurt will be the most important priority for both teams -- both are undefeated in the early rounds and have no worries about making it to the next stage.

However, removing the cloak of invincibility from the U.S. team could be a handy achievement leading into a potential rematch in the gold medal game. 

In addition, the Spanish team is adjusting to a new coach, and a big win would do wonders to build the unit's confidence in the system.

Against the U.S., Aito's approach could have several effects.

Turning Superstars into Jump-Shooters
One of the things the U.S. players know less about -- and have had to work on in training -- is beating a zone defense. In recent years, Team USA's opponents -- from Greece last summer to Angola a few days ago -- frustrated the U.S. into scoring droughts with an extremely active zone.

Zones typically make it hard to get to the rim, resulting in more long shots. After three games, the U.S. has the worst three-point shooting percentage of any team -- men's or women's -- in Beijing.

The U.S. roster is also famously thin in the middle. Dwight Howard as the lone burly big man. The Americans certainly have the multi-faceted advantages that come with an endless supply of supersta
r wing players. But they have also faced stretches of games launching errant long balls, while also lack a dominant physical presence in the paint. In general, in basketball, that's a dangerous combination.

To negate those potential weaknesses, the U.S. has been killing opponents with speed.

By having five fresh players on the floor at all times, Spain hopes to be able to get back on defense and slow the American offense. 

"With the short minutes," explains Munoa, "everyone should be fresh. Lots of zone defense, with high intensity, and a lot of activity." 

Working the Referees
The Spanish team has a history of using theatrics to get the most out of the referees, and would love to see Dwight Howard get into early foul trouble -- which can happen quickly in a system where a player is ejected after just five, instead of the NBA's six, fouls.

Meanwhile, the short minutes the Spanish team players are playing almost guarantee no Spanish players will see foul trouble at all. Thus far, only one player, young guard Ricky Rubio, is averaging even three fouls per game.

One very effective method of pressuring the U.S. big men into fouls is Spain's honed ability to get big men like Pau, and especially his younger brother Marc (soon to join the Memphis Grizzlies), the ball on the move towards the hoop.

John Paxson
Future Grizzlie Marc Gasol is young, big, and active.
(Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

Thus far in the tournament, Marc Gasol has proved to be very deft at using his large frame to set high screens.

What happens next varies from play to play. Sometimes the ball handler uses the space the screen has afforded them to create their own shot.

Sometimes Gasol "slips" to the hoop, in essence faking that he will set up the screen, to get the defense fixated on the ball handler, before diving to the hoop to create a scoring opportunity for himself.

Many other times he sets the pick and then "rolls" quickly to the rim.

It's all standard basketball, but it's a play the U.S. famously had trouble defending against Greece in a loss at the 2006 World Championships. And in the case of Marc Gasol, it results in a very large, aggressive, and skilled big man headed to the hoop.

That's a big dare to Dwight Howard to recover and protect the rim, and those kinds of challenges often result in fouls on the defender.  

Handling the Pressure
In the end, the story of any Team USA game this year will likely be how opponents handle the generous amounts of on-ball pressure Team USA delivers.

In 120 minutes of tournament play, the U.S. has forced a remarkable 68 turnovers. Opponents trying to pass over, dribble near, or sneak past the Team USA have been robbed again and again by an impressively hyperactive NBA defense, that is, like Spain, fueled by a deep bench and short minutes.

Most of Spain's ballhandling falls to Raptor point guard Jose Calderon, whose turnover rate is among the lowest in NBA history. But while Calderon may be unlikely to cough the ball up much, one ball handler can not defeat a tough five-player defensive strategy. Other Spanish players will handle the ball plenty. Ricky Rubio and Rudy Fernandez have each been coughing the ball up, against much weaker competition, more than once for every ten minutes they play, and Juan Carlos Navarro, Calderon, and Pau Gasol are not far behind.

If the U.S. can keep creating turnovers at a high rate, it will be nearly impossible for them to lose. Not only do turnovers tend to lead to fast breaks, but they also keep Spain from opportunities to really test America's pick-and-roll defense, get Dwight Howard in foul trouble, and get to the line.

On the other hand, if Spain can hang onto the ball, and if its many talented offensive players get an opportunity to ply their trade, don't be at all surprised if Spain makes the U.S. sweat.