TrueHoop: Team USA

Is basketball really a global game?

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
videoTeam USA has been squashing the competition at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, and with Spain knocked off, Mike Krzyzewski’s squad has an easy road to the title.

Really, I should be celebrating on behalf of my countrymen, praising Tom Thibodeau’s defense, heralding America’s ability to persevere through injuries and absences. Instead, I’m lamenting over how overmatched the rest of the world is.

It’s one thing when Team USA’s Olympic juggernaut (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kevin Love) runs roughshod over its FIBA foes. Anthony Davis was the 12th man on that squad two years ago. But to do this while half-trying? To best the earth with your C team? It speaks to how basketball might not be as global as we were promised.

There was a time around the mid-2000s when America’s basketball decline was a fait accompli. “The rest of the world has caught up,” is what we told ourselves. In 2002, Team USA finished sixth in the FIBA World Championship. The 2003 NBA All-Star Game featured a record five international players, including Yao Ming, symbol of China’s imminent growth into a world basketball power. A year later, Team USA suffered a humiliating defeat in the Olympics, somehow failing to win gold despite featuring plenty of Stephon Marbury. In the 2006 FIBA World Championship, the U.S. was upset by tiny Greece.

America’s basketball demise wasn’t exactly framed as a failure, either. David Stern was keen to promote his promotion of basketball on the global level. This was the natural consequence of the game conquering abroad. Blame the Dream Team, for they had dazzled the world into jerseys and sneakers.

The NBA tells a certain story about itself, about how it’s a global sport on the march. Today, China. Tomorrow, India. Basketball is constantly engaged in a benign imperial conquest of people across the ocean. That story lives on because it’s in part true -- there are basketball leagues over all the world. The story also lives on because it’s vague. We don’t quite have a handle on TV ratings abroad.

Can that story stand up to recent scrutiny, though? The onslaught of international superstars hasn’t arrived. Last year’s All-Star Game featured three internationals, and two also claim American citizenship (Tony Parker, Joakim Noah). It seems that Yao Ming was more a generational talent than a harbinger of China’s fast-approaching hoops dominance. After Yao retired, many of his countrymen found hobbies that weren’t televised hoops.

It is difficult to measure world interest in basketball, but these FIBA games may hint at how invested these other countries are in the sport -- just as our relative weakness in soccer is indicative of how we care relatively less about it.

The story the NBA tells itself about the emerging, globalizing force of basketball is a good one, and I wish it were completely true. I love how the 2014 champion San Antonio Spurs dominated with an international approach. The sport is better for diversifying, for absorbing perspectives and approaches from all over. AAU camps now teach American kids the Eurostep because Manu Ginobili brought his diagonal stylings to the NBA.

As thrilling as the collectivist Spurs are, they don’t boast potential international stars. Kawhi Leonard is from the Inland Empire. The horizon isn’t replete with young Manus, Yaos and Dirks.

Sadly, Team USA’s success represents a failure of basketball on the global level -- for now, at least. The sport hasn’t grown by leaps as it seemed it would in the mid-2000s. The NBA still uses the story of world conquest as a bulwark for the insecurity caused by football’s stateside dominance. That narrative can’t survive so many Team USA victories.

Top performers of FIBA group play

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss

Group play is done, and we’re into the knockout stage at the FIBA Basketball World Cup. The frenzied prelude to the round of 16 allowed us to watch some players Americans rarely get to glimpse, along with some players Americans rarely get to see lead a team. It’s been fun. Here are the 10 most notable performances, according to ironclad objective fact.

Pau Gasol, Spain

If all you knew of basketball was this tournament, you’d assume Pau Gasol is the greatest player in the world. When playing for and in his home country, he’s a man transformed. His disposition is sunny, his legs are springy and his trigger finger seems itchier than the scraggly hairs on his neck.

Now free of Kobe’s direct influence, FIBA Pau appears like a swaggering, 7-foot mamba out there. He’s averaging 21.1 points in 26 minutes of play. Even more impressive, he’s doing that on just 12.6 shots. His most enjoyable performance came against Brazil’s formidable front line. Spain needed to stretch Brazil’s bigs out from the key, so Gasol uncorked three 3-pointers with an eagerness and fluidity you rarely see on his NBA jumpers. Rest of the world, beware: FIBA Pau is a monster.

Marc Gasol, Spain

The statline looks pedestrian on the surface, but Marc has roughly twice as many points as he does shots. When he does shoot, it’s a thing of idiosyncratic beauty. Gasol not only has a pretty jump shot, but it’s the rare kind of jumper that lacks “dip,” the motion where a player pulls the ball down before actually shooting.

In the FIBA setting, we're seeing more of Gasol using that unusual form. Over his last two games, he’s equaled the amount of 3-pointers he hit all of last season (two). Oh, and he’s the best defensive player in this tournament. That should probably be noted.

James Harden, USA

Harden might as well epitomize this version of Team USA. Isolation-oriented, shaky defensively, criticized a bit, but ultimately very successful. Harden has been America’s best perimeter player. Given that, it’s a bit unfair that an Internet search of “Harden” and “FIBA” leads you to many posts about one defensive play he happened to take off.

Harden has taken his Eurostep to the source, turning defenders’ knees into cheese. Kenneth Faried has drawn raves for his 79.1 percent shooting clip in pool play, but he’s still not scoring as efficiently as Harden, who has 27 free throw attempts to Faried’s lone freebie.

Anthony Davis, USA

It was tempting to give this spot to Faried, whose slow motion replays look like your average player moving at full speed. Davis is the team’s best big and most important player, though. Not only does he protect the rim, but he also racks up fouls on overmatched opponents. He’s been brilliant overall, save for a few botched dunks and instances where he got knocked out of position in the post.

Luis Scola, Argentina

Luis Scola has retreated to the NBA fringes, but he remains a monster on the international stage. FIBA Scola is a little like “Olympic Melo,” a player who’s clothed in spectacular power when clothed in his country’s jersey.

Scola’s second in scoring among all players in this tournament, and he keeps doing it at the pace of a man walking on a putting green. The last major link to Argentina’s golden generation is alive and well.

J.J. Barea, Puerto Rico

An NBA role player point guard scoring big for Puerto Rico? We’re seeing shades of Carlos Arroyo’s 2006 FIBA tournament in this Barea performance, wherein wee J.J. leads all tournament players in points. Adding to the fun, Arroyo passes the torch while playing alongside Barea.

Barea is letting it fly in this setting, averaging four made 3s per game in his 29 minutes of play. Always the eager ref baiter, J.J. is hoodwinking credulous FIBA refs left and right, tallying 32 free throw attempts in pool play. Unfortunately, he couldn't save his team from an early exit. Too bad, because Puerto Rico probably underperformed relative to its talent.

Bojan Bogdanovic, Croatia

Bojan “Not to be confused with Bogdan” Bogdanovic has been a scoring maestro for Croatia. What he lacks in highlight plays he makes up for in shooting touch and feel for the game. The large wing has powered Croatia to the bracket stage by scoring 43 points on 20 shots over his last two games, both victories. If he plays anything like this for the Brooklyn Nets next season, maybe they’ll actually get through a year without a major firing or resignation.

Goran Dragic, Slovenia

Goran “Not to be confused with Zoran” Dragic has been as forceful on the court as he’s been on Twitter when accusing Australia for match fixing. Dragic really benefits from a chaotic FIBA setting where every team’s transition defense isn't exactly set. He’s been a one-man fast break, hitting more than 70 percent of his 2-point opportunities in part because he’s behind the defense on so many of them.

Ioannis Bourousis, Greece

You’re likely familiar with Giannis Antetokounmpo, but do you know about Ioannis Bourousis? And would you believe me if I claimed to have not copy/pasted either name? Of course you wouldn't.

Anyway, Bourousis has been a force for undefeated Greece, manning the middle, wrenching in rebounds and blocking Facundo Campazzo through the floor. The lumbering, ultraskilled center was the main reason Greece was able to best Argentina. It isn't all about the burly big man, though. Greece, as per usual, presents a balanced attack.

Leandro Barbosa, Brazil

You would have assumed that the notable Brazilian player would be a big man, given that its roster boasts Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao. Somehow none of its NBA starting big men have stood out so far, even as Brazil impressed with four victories in the group stage.

Much like Scola, Leandro Barbosa looks a lot better here than he’s been of late in the NBA. He actually reminds you of that “Brazilian blur” guy we saw in Phoenix, but with more shooting off the catch. Shooting 56 percent on 3s might not be sustainable for Barbosa, but he’s certainly playing well right now.

Should Derrick Rose be on Team USA?

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
Regardless of the knee issues, is Derrick Rose the best choice for Team USA?


NCAA a bigger threat to NBA than FIBA

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
videoIt’s truly insane that the NBA allows its best talents to risk their careers playing in a different league for different coaches, but sometimes tradition codifies insanity. Perhaps the latest gruesome injury will cause the league to reconsider.

How can a sport trafficking in billions allow its brightest stars to fall into a nebulous area where top medical attention isn't assured? How can such a powerful corporation toss the reins to a bunch of slapdash programs that have little incentive to help the NBA and every incentive to win right now, even if the player suffers long term? In the parlance of Mark Cuban, it’s the epitome of stupidity that the NBA allows itself to be used so that other corporations make hundreds of millions, if not billions.

I'm talking about NCAA basketball, of course. Right now, quite a few owners and executives are fixated on FIBA, with some seeing Paul George's sickening injury in a Team USA scrimmage as a "game-changer," or at least a validation for long-held concerns. There's a revulsion at how an event NBA teams have no control over can alter the trajectory of an entire franchise. The aforementioned Cuban has emphatically tweeted in opposition to a system in which players don't get paid, the NBA doesn’t get paid and all the money flows to an opaque sports bureaucracy.

Thing is, that arrangement perfectly describes NCAA basketball -- just without the hand-wringing from NBA executives on how something must be done. How does this one major injury in the history of American international play prove that it’s a big, scary risk while the many college ball injuries aren't used as an indictment against that particular system?

NBA teams aren't technically linked financially to college players like the Indiana Pacers are to George, but injuries at the NCAA level can be just as devastating to pro franchises. Say you have a top pick in a year when the top prospect (say, Nerlens Noel) shreds his knee. There are few (and sometimes no) franchise guys in a draft, and now you're either incurring the risk of selecting an injured talent or casting your lot with a more dubious talent (say, most of the players drafted before Noel). The Pacers will probably be without George's services for a season. Missing on a high draft pick might haunt a team for a decade.

Injuries in college aren't just a threat to specific NBA teams and owners, either. Apart from the obviously negative impact on the afflicted player, they're an economic threat to players in general. The players' association loses incredible amounts of basketball related income (BRI) if the next LeBron James suffers something career derailing for whichever one-and-done mill.

And yet, there's little concern over how the NBA might be hurt by loaning out its talent to a game with different rules, part-time refs and medical oversight that runs the gamut. Even though the NBA's most famous stars (James, Kobe Bryant) reached that echelon without any help from college basketball, there's a pervading notion that the college game is a necessary component of the pro game, that this is a mutually beneficial relationship. Former commissioner David Stern even went so far as to help the college game with an age limit that keeps generational talents battling the likes of Alcorn State. Current commissioner Adam Silver isn't satisfied with that arrangement and lists raising said age limit as his "top priority."

The NBA just loves supporting college basketball, and it's not as if it faces opposition from owners and executives in the way it does for supporting these monthlong FIBA jaunts. Yes, a month, unlike the college system that's a season unto itself, one that actually runs parallel to the NBA's season.

It's often said that NCAA hoops is the NBA's "free farm system," but what kind of free farm system competes financially with the sport it feeds into? The cost of "free" is a postseason that's more popular than yours and runs smack-dab in the middle of your season. College football shows deference to the NFL product by being a Saturday event, leaving Sunday to the pros. College basketball runs on a "Whenever we please, NBA be damned," schedule. In fact, the NBA avoids holding its games during college basketball's championship tournament.

When you step back from warm associations with March Madness and curmudgeonly coaches in sweater vests, it seems as if the NBA just gives prized talent away to an ungrateful competitor. It's a competitor that hasn't proved it can develop talent for the NBA, either. The more time a player spends in college, the less likely he is to prosper as a pro.

Given the enumerated headaches the NBA gets in return for helping college basketball, it's a wonder there's pushback within the league against players helping out FIBA in their free time. Sure, the NBA can't wholly monetize international competition. It can't monetize the college game, either. Sure, there's a risk of NBA stars getting hurt playing in FIBA competition. There's a risk major draft picks get hurt playing domestically for colleges. At least the rare FIBA tournament helps spread awareness around the world about the NBA’s product. College basketball serves primarily as an advertisement for watching more regularly programmed college basketball.

So why is the NBA establishment content with college and uneasy with FIBA? It might have something to do with just how many people in the NBA establishment are college basketball fans. The NCAA fan demo skews older and wealthier than NBA fandom, matching up well with the demographics of those who actually run the NBA. There are many positive, nostalgic associations with the college game among pro basketball's power brokers. The FIBA World Cup just doesn't have that kind of emotional pull. College ball is familiar, playfully tribal. FIBA is quite literally foreign. Perhaps that difference is why one kind of basketball inspires fondness and the other evokes fear.

Team USA still has room for improvement

July, 25, 2012
By Ryan Feldman
ESPN Stats & Information
Bob Donnan/US PresswireLeBron James and Team USA celebrated a 100-78 exhibition victory over Spain.
Spain is widely considered Team USA’s toughest competition in the 2012 Olympics. But in USA’s final tune-up before London, the Americans made it look rather easy with a 22-point win over the Spaniards.

How did Team USA get it done?


With so many tough defensive matchups for Spain, or any other team for that matter, USA tends to create an abundance of unguarded outside jumpers. But of course, it’s a matter of making those shots.

USA had 17 unguarded 3-point attempts and made 10 of them (59 percent). USA shot 5-for-6 on unguarded transition 3-point attempts, including 4-for-4 by Carmelo Anthony on those attempts.

A key for Team USA’s opponents will be hitting outside shots themselves.

Spain had 11 unguarded 3-point attempts and made just three of them (27 percent). That’s a tough formula for success against the Americans.


Team USA’s biggest strength is perhaps its transition game.

USA shot 13-of-14 on transition plays (93 percent) but also turned the ball over seven times in transition. Spain shot just 4-of-8 (50 percent) on transition plays and turned it over four times.


Team USA was impressive on Tuesday, but Spain was without Marc Gasol, and there are plenty of areas of concern for the Americans.


It’s no secret that Team USA doesn’t have a wealth of post players, while Spain sports a trio of Serge Ibaka, Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol (didn’t play on Tuesday).

Spain had nine single-covered post-up plays against USA. On those nine plays, Spain was 3-for-5 on field-goal attempts and was fouled on the other four plays. USA had just three total post-up plays, none of which were double-teamed.

Is double-teaming the post a possibility for Team USA?

USA double-teamed Spain just twice on Spain's 11 post-up plays. On both of those plays, the ball was kicked out to the perimeter for a missed 3-point attempt.


On pick-and-roll plays against Spain, USA scored nearly three times more points per play when the defensive didn’t commit as it scored when the defend did commit.

USA shot 30 percent with four turnovers when the defense committed but 67 percent with one turnover when the defense didn’t commit.

Spain shot 73 percent on pick-and-roll plays against USA. When the defense committed, Spain shot 7-for-11 with three turnovers. When the defense didn't commit, Spain shot a perfect 4-for-4 with four turnovers.


USA had 15 offensive plays against Spain's zone defense, all in the second half. USA shot just 3-of-12 from the field (25 percent) and 1-of-4 on 3-pointers with three turnovers, scoring eight points on those 15 plays (0.53 points per play).

Against man defense, USA shot 18-for-38 from the field (47.4 percent) and 7-for-13 on 3-point attempts with six turnovers.


Team USA shot well from the perimeter and excelled in transition against Spain. But the Americans might need to figure out a way to better defend the pick-and-roll and post-up plays. If these teams meet again, the Americans may face more zone defense, and that could be an issue if they don't repeat their hot outside shooting performance.

Kobe or Kyrie? Who wins one-on-one?

July, 13, 2012
By Ryan Feldman
ESPN Stats & Info

Getty ImagesKyrie Irving challenged Kobe Bryant after a Team USA practice to a game of one-on-one.
Who would win a one-on-one matchup? Kobe Bryant or Kyrie Irving?

Irving challenged Bryant to a one-on-one game with the loser donating $50,000 to charity.

In order to analyze this hypothetical matchup, let's take a look at how each player performed last season on various play types that represent pure one-on-one situations using Synergy Sports Technology.



The majority of a one-on-one matchup between two guards would likely be comprised of single-covered isolation plays.

Irving scored the second-most points per play on single-covered isolation plays last season of the 63 players with at least 100 plays, trailing only Chris Paul. Of those same 63 players, Kobe ranked 21st. Irving shot 49 percent, while Bryant shot 38 percent.


On defense, it's a different story.

Of the 99 players to defend at least 75 single-covered isolation plays last season, Kyrie allowed the third-most points per play. Only Steve Blake and Dorell Wright were worse. Of those same 99 players, Bryant ranked 24th. Kyrie allowed opponents to go to the free throw line 15 percent of the time, the sixth-highest percentage, while Kobe only sent opponents to the charity stripe on six percent of those plays, the 10th-lowest percentage.



Irving only had nine single-covered post-up plays last season, but he was very effective on those nine plays, shooting 5-of-9 (55.6 percent) with no turnovers or free throws.

Although a small sample size, Irving's 1.11 points per play on single-covered post-up plays was better than Bryant's 0.94.

Of the 225 players with at least nine single-covered post-up plays last season, Irving scored the sixth-most points per play, while Bryant ranked 53rd.

Kobe’s most effective post-up move is facing up from the right block. Of the 31 players with at least 20 of those plays, Bryant had by far the most points per play (1.46) and highest field-goal percentage (71).


Neither player spent much time defending single-covered post-up plays, but when they did, Kobe was more effective. He held opponents to 28 percent shooting and the ninth-fewest points per play of the 265 players to defend at least 25 single-covered post-up plays.

Of those same 265 players, Kyrie ranked 63rd in points per play allowed. He held opponents to 38 percent shooting. Irving's strength defending those plays was the ability to not commit fouls. His opponents only reached the free throw line on five percent of those plays, the 13th-lowest percentage. Kobe's opponents got to the free throw line 15 percent of the time, which ranked 189th.



Kobe gets the edge in jumpers off the dribble. He shot 40 percent, which ranked 26th of the 95 players with at least 100 jumpers off the dribble last season, while Irving shot 35.3 percent, which ranked 62nd. In effective field-goal percentage, which factors in 3-pointers as well, it's a little closer. Kobe was 41 percent (ranked 42nd), while Kyrie was 40 percent (52nd).


Kobe held opponents to 33 percent shooting on jumpers off the dribble last season, the 24th-lowest percentage of the 157 players to defend at least 100 jumpers off the dribble. Irving's opponents shot 42.2 percent, which ranked 133rd.

2012 Team USA: Better than Dream Team?

July, 12, 2012
By Ryan Feldman & Gregg Found, ESPN Stats & Info
US PresswireWould the current U.S. Olympic team have a chance against the Dream Team?
Kobe Bryant believes the 2012 U.S. Olympic team would beat the 1992 Olympic team. Is he correct?

According to AccuScore, which ran 10,000 computer simulations, the 1992 team would win 53.1 percent of the time and by an average margin of one point per game.

No one will ever know the true answer, but let's take a look at the Next Level analytical facts about the rosters at each point of their careers to help make the case either way.


Much has been made about the current team’s weak frontcourt. The 1992 team had four players who grabbed at least 15 percent of available rebounds in 1991-92 (Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, David Robinson). The current team has three players at that rebound rate last season (Tyson Chandler, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love).

The 1992 team had two players (Ewing, Robinson) who blocked at least 5 percent of the shot attempts they faced in 1991-92. No 2012 player had a block percentage higher than 3.4 last season (Chandler).


Four current members had a true shooting percentage (a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws) of at least 60 last season (Chandler, Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James). Chandler (70.8 in 2011-12) led the NBA each of the past two seasons. Only one of the 1992 members had a 60 true shooting percentage (Barkley), although three others fell just short of that threshold in 1991-92 (Malone, Robinson, John Stockton).


Five Dream Team members assisted on at least 25 percent of their teammates’ field goals in 1991-92 (Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Stockton), plus Magic Johnson had a 49.3 assist percentage in his most recent NBA season (1990-91). LeBron, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams had a 25 assist percentage or better last season, but none were as high as Stockton (53.7), who was in the midst of leading the league in assist percentage for 10 straight seasons.


The 1992 team was about 2½ years older on average (28.8-26.2). Other than Bird and Magic, every Dream Team member was 30 years old or younger. Every member of the current team is 29 or younger, other than Kobe, who is 33.

But the NBA experience level is about the same. The 1992 team had, on average, 7.3 years of experience per player. This year’s team has 7.1.

As far as NBA titles, give the edge to the 1992 team. Its players had a combined 12 championships as they entered the Olympics -- five by Magic, three by Bird and two each from Jordan and Pippen.

The 2012 version has seven championships among them, carried by Kobe’s five. LeBron and Chandler each have one. The current team has members of each of the past four NBA champions, while the 1992 team had members of the then-past two champions.


Using average win shares per 48 minutes in their previous NBA seasons, (including Magic’s 1990-91 season and not including Christian Laettner), the 1992 squad’s average is higher by 9 percent (.215-.198). Prefer player efficiency rating to win shares? The Dream Team’s PER was 3 percent higher (23.8-23.0).


Other than Laettner, all 11 Dream Team members are Hall of Famers. And only two could be considered in the twilight of their careers. Bird had just finished his last NBA season, while Magic had retired the previous year, although he made a brief comeback in 1995-96. As for this edition, one could make the case that all but the 33-year-old Kobe on the roster could appear on another Olympic team again.

The 2012 team gets under way with an exhibition game Thursday against the Dominican Republic on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET. Only time will tell whether this team is the modern-day Dream Team.