I had to write something about these USA Basketball tryouts. You might remember my opus about the "Nightmare Team" before its disastrous meltdown in the 2004 Olympics, with the premise being that we needed to stop slapping together All-Star teams and patch together a real hoops team. And it's an interesting column to reread, for two reasons:
1. That's exactly what they decided to do with this tryout process.
2. After the 18 months that have passed, it's much easier to see why that USA team fared so poorly. Just look at the guys who were on it. You had a Stephon Marbury-Allen Iverson backcourt only Isiah Thomas would have loved. You had Shawn Marion playing out of position at small forward, and it was eventually revealed that he's better as an undersized power forward. You had Lamar Odom, one of those deceiving great-on-paper guys, who has a knack for coming up short when it matters. You had Carlos Boozer, whose stock was artificially inflated because he was playing with LeBron James at the time. You had Richard Jefferson, who's not even the second-best guy on his own team right now. You had Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and LeBron, natural rivals who wanted to play and would have inevitably been discouraged if they didn't play. You had Emeka Okafor and Amare Stoudemire, two raw big men who seemed overwhelmed in Athens. And you had Larry Brown coaching this mess; it has since been revealed in New York that he's not the Miracle Worker everyone thought.
So given that they butchered that 2004 team to such a phenomenal degree, did they really have to go through this charade of having everyone try out and commit for two years? Probably not. But the blueprint from my 2004 column can be achieved with the 22 guys who made the first cut.
Here were the three absolute essentials for the team that I mentioned back then:
"1. A pure point guard who can penetrate, create shots for teammates, make open 3s and make good decisions in the open floor."
Sadly, there isn't an American point guard who fits that bill. Chauncey Billups probably comes the closest. Two years from now, Chris Paul could end up being the complete package. And I think Dwyane Wade could fit the bill, even if he's gotten into some bad habits in Miami (in terms of looking for his own shot all the time). Luke Ridnour also made it -- a major stretch since he can't guard anyone. And Gilbert Arenas made it -- phenomenal scorer, but not a pure point guard, and someone who always looks for his own shot. I can't imagine him making it.
But here's my question: Why aren't we convincing Steve Nash to pull a Tanith Belbin and get his U.S. citizenship? Come on! He's lived in the States for, like, 13 years. Can't we threaten to deport him unless he becomes a citizen? Somebody needs to get the ball rolling on this one. I don't care how many laws we break.
"2. At least two pure shooters, ideally three."
They did a good job here: Michael Redd, Paul Pierce, Kobe, Wade, Rashard Lewis, Joe Johnson all of them could thrive under international rules. Antawn Jamison was a waste of an invitation; he's clearly not good enough. And as much as I love the way Carmelo has been playing this season, I wouldn't have invited him -- I can't see him edging out Pierce, Kobe and Redd, much less LeBron, who obviously needs to be on the team. And we haven't even mentioned J.J. Redick yet (if they invite him).
"3. Big guys who can bang down low, set picks, shoot 3s and run the floor."
I think I was a little ambitious here -- there isn't an American big guy who does all of these things AND shoots 3s except Marion (who's not exactly automatic). Tim Duncan and KG killed them here by not playing. Whatever. They also have a standing invite out to Shaq; I would bet anything that he takes it, and only because he has clearly reached the "I see the end of the road ahead, now I'm positioning myself as a lovable character and a Pantheon Popular Athlete" stage of his career. This would be a nice swan song for him. And possibly lead to someone green-lighting "Kazaam 2."
Here were the big guys they selected to try out: Elton Brand, Dwight Howard, Brad Miller, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion (I'm counting him even though he's undersized). Brand and Marion are the two locks. Howard and Bosh could jump a level within the next 12 months. And what about Amare's knee? Will he look like the same player? I need to see him play this spring. And what about high schooler Greg Oden? What if he's better right out of the gate than Howard was? Tough to guess how this plays out.
My other requests from that 2004 column:
"Play Michael Redd more."
(A joke since he didn't make that 2004 team. Fortunately, he cracked the list this year. And if he doesn't make the team, I'm taking the Colangelo family hostage.)
"You would never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER see someone like Stephon Marbury on our team."
(He didn't get invited. Thank God. By the way, the more time that passes, the more I'm convinced that Isiah picked the 2004 team. He had to be responsible for that mess. And if he wasn't, I'm sure he was envious as hell.)
"Play Brad Miller more."
(Another joke, since he didn't make that 2004 team either. I'm waffling a little here because his game has slipped a little over the past two seasons. Here's a case where the tryout process is a good thing.)
"Play Rip Hamilton more."
(Yet another joke -- they waited too late to invite him, then he said no. And he said no again this time around. Too bad. At the very least, his schnozzaroo mask would have terrified players from other countries.)
"We would look for underrated players who contributed to winning teams."
(They finally addressed this: Bruce Bowen, Shane Battier and Josh Howard all received invites. Personally, I would have invited Ron Artest to increase the odds for an international incident, but that's just me. Out of the three guys they picked, I like Howard the most.)
"Have two energy guys. Possibly three."
(Howard and Battier both work for this as well. So does Adam Morrison, actually.)
All right, here was my "Modified Dream Team" back in the summer of 2004. Keep in mind, some of these guys from the list of 22 hadn't emerged yet. And keep in mind, Iverson was still playing defense back then. And Brian Cardinal was still alive.
Duncan, Odom, Redd, Hamilton, Wade (starters); Iverson, Tayshaun Prince, Miller, LeBron, Stoudemire (bench guys); Cardinal, Fred Hoiberg (energy guys).
Using the list of 22, here's the team I would pick at this moment (assuming Shaq plays, and I think he will):
Starters: Shaq, Marion, Redd, LeBron, Billups
Just a monster starting five. They should be able to run, shoot, rebound and mesh together (especially if LeBron reaches into his inner Magic).
Bench: Brand, Pierce, Wade, D. Howard, Paul
Wade could (and probably will) finish games in Redd's spot -- you can't ask for a better 6th man since he can play two positions. I'm projecting two younger guys (Paul and Howard) as jumping a level within the next 12 months and filling two glaring needs (rebounding and ballhandling). And there's something special about Paul -- he makes everyone around him better. I can't leave him off the team and feel good about it. He's too important. As for Brand, he can rebound, block shots and make open 15-footers, and he's a good guy to boot (as well as one of the best 10 players in the league right now). He has to be there. Pierce gives you another shooter/rebounder/runner who can play three positions and wouldn't care about playing time; I think he's the best all-around player in the league right now. If you don't believe me, watch a Celtics game.
Filler guys: J. Howard, Bosh
Howard fills that defense/energy spot; Bosh gets the nod over Miller as the backup big man who won't care if he doesn't play, with the bonus that he's a great guy. Two logical picks.
(Of course, I didn't select a Token White Guy for the team and you know that's going to happen in real life because USA Basketball would never have the stones to trot out a team with 12 African-Americans. If you don't believe me, I have game-worn USA Basketball jerseys for Dan Majerle, Raef LaFrentz and Wally Szczerbiak to show you. My money's on Miller for the TWG spot, although Redick wouldn't shock me. Again, here's why we need to force Nash to pull a Tanith Belbin. Kills two birds with one stone.)
1. Kobe: Too much baggage, too much of a walking soap opera, spent too much time in a situation where he was the only viable scoring option. Even in something as dumb as the All-Star Game last month, you could see his rust in terms of playing team basketball; these last two Shaq-less seasons have been more damaging to him than anyone wants to admit. Plus, if he's on the team, you have to play him. And I don't think you need him -- not when you have Wade, Redd, LeBron and Pierce.
And then there's this: I don't care what transpired recently -- there's no way Shaq plays on this team if Kobe gets picked. I think he makes one of those behind-closed-doors, him-or-me threats like MJ did before the '92 Olympics (when he told them that he wouldn't play if Isiah was on the team). Personally, I'd rather have Shaq and Pierce than Stoudemire and Kobe. But given that this is USA Basketball, I'm sure we'll end up with the latter two guys. Fantastic.
2. Redick: A potential monster with the shorter 3-point line. Playing for any other country, he'd be the proverbial gunner that nobody could stop, right? Imagine him as J.J. Redickovich dropping nine 3s on us for Croatia yikes. I'm willing to reconsider this pick as we get a little closer. Not a bad option as the TWG.
3. Stoudemire: Only because he's such a force of nature. But I don't think you need him and Shaq. And he's a little too me-first for me. And what about the knee?
4. Kirk Hinrich: Whoops, they didn't invite him and tabbed Ridnour instead. Bizarre. And while we're here, if Ridnour ends up taking Chris Paul's spot for TWG purposes, that would be depressing on a number of levels. I'm going to keep writing about this once a month, just to be safe. We can't let this happen. Chris Paul is too important of a player -- we need more like him.
5. Artest: Obviously the best defensive stopper in the league unfortunately, he's also the best bet to cause World War 3. Too bad.