Thursday, September 5, 2002
USA Basketball's flaws finally exposed
By Jay Bilas
Special to ESPN.com
Argentina's win Wednesday night over the United States in the World Basketball Championships has caused many to opine that the International basketball landscape will never be the same and that the United States has lost its invincibility. Both statements are true, but they were true in the 1990s, and in part, as early as the 1980s.
Let's not forget, USA Basketball's perception of invincibility ended in 1972 with the loss to the Russians. But that defeat in Munich was shaken off as being stolen from the United States, which I believe it was, but that belief never addressed the issue of why the mighty Americans were in such a tight game in the first place.
The USA team coached by Dean Smith in 1976 won the gold easily, but the USA team coached by Dave Gavitt did not play in the 1980 Olympics due to President Jimmy Carter's boycott of the Games in Moscow. Bob Knight's 1984 Olympic squad was good enough to beat any team in the world, and did, despite the Soviet boycott of the Games hosted by Los Angeles.
But, USA Basketball's invincibility took another blow in 1987, when Oscar Schmidt and Brazil upset the United States in Market Square Arena. Then the United States, led by a group of collegians and coached by a college coach, brought home a lowly bronze medal from the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and USA Basketball's invincibility was on life support.
All the United States needed, opined the experts, was to turn to the NBA. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson would save our country's hoops invincibility, and the United States would again be king of the hardwood. So, in 1992, the age of the Dream Team was born, and the rest of the world watched in awe.
However, when you bring your best, you must expect the rest of the world to bring their best in an effort to match your level of play. That is exactly what has happened. And, while the professionals brought home gold from three Olympic games, another thing was happening. The United States became complacent, believing again in the invincibility of USA Basketball. No longer were the best players lining up to play in international competition, and the United States began sending less than its best players. In addition, the pieces of the USA Basketball teams don't always fit together, and the United States has failed on more than one night to play as a functioning, cohesive unit. Combined, these factors equal vulnerability on a given night.
On Wednesday night, the United States' decade of domination came to an end with its first loss with professional players in 59 international games.
Make no mistake, the United States is still the premier basketball power in the world -- by a large margin. This United States team will still, in all likelihood, win the gold in Indianapolis. No other continent, let alone nation, can match the depth of basketball talent of the United States, from the NBA down to the high school ranks. However, Argentina isn't the only nation that can put five players on the floor to compete favorably against some of the USA's best on a given night.
For some time now, it has been clear that the United States cannot send less than its top-tier players into international competition and expect to win by 30 or 40 points against the best teams in the world. Another problem in assembling professionals to play in these international competitions is USA Basketball's lack of preparation when it comes to players training and playing together.
In 1984, Bob Knight was criticized for his decision to not select players like Charles Barkley and John Stockton to represent the United States. Instead, Knight chose a group of players that would play as a "team," and achieve the objective -- winning the Olympic gold medal. Remember, that is the goal, for the United States "team" to win, not to assemble the 12 best individual players. Injuries and disinterest kept some of America's best off Team USA, but it's clear after Wednesday night, simply assembling the best available NBA stars isn't a guarantee for gold.
Let's not overreact to this loss. The United States still has the best basketball teams in the world, and still has the best players in the world. The USA just doesn't have all of them anymore, and hasn't for longer than just the night Argentina won. The USA will still win the gold, but it doesn't mean that everything was right with the way this team was assembled, trained or performed.
Here are three areas that I think led to the loss to Argentina and need to be addressed by USA Basketball:
New Attitude Needed
|Paul Pierce, left, and Ben Wallace endure the final moments of USA's loss to Argentina.|
The USA must lose the attitude it's taken to the floor for most of these World Championships. It's clear the Americans have been playing with the idea that less than their best will be good enough to win, and no matter how poorly they play in the first half, they will eventually wear down whoever the opponent.
The United States did not guard anyone in the first half against Argentina, and gave up 53 points in just 20 minutes. Generally, the Americans did not pressure the ball, bump cutters, communicate on screens, see the ball on the weak side, or pursue the ball when it was loose or off the rim. Argentina did not run complicated offense, but ran some flex, some slice cuts, and continued to move and screen and be hard to guard. To compound the USA's lack of defensive intensity, which is always the measure of readiness to play and compete, the United States was loose with the ball on offense, and failed to score in transition and in the halfcourt. After all, the United States, after giving up 87 points with 20 minutes of horrendous defense, scored only 80 points on 37-percent shooting in a 40-minute game. If the USA had at least paid attention to detail on the offensive end, simply out-scoring the Argentines would have been sufficient to win.
Lastly, the look of shock and amazement on the faces of the Americans was disappointing. Players were heard to say that they took Argentina lightly and were surprised by how good they really were. Please. We have professionals playing for the United States, they should be expected to approach their performance as professionals. The idea is not simply to beat Argentina, it is to play the best basketball that this team is capable of playing. If this team, flawed as it is, played even close to its capabilities, Argentina would not have had a chance to win.
There's No 'I' in Gold
The United States must assemble its best "team," not just send our best players into international waters. Even without Shaq, Kobe, Garnett or Kidd, the U.S. team in Indianapolis has outstanding players. The entire 12-man roster is filled with the very best players in the world. But, they are not the NBA's absolute best, leaving the margin for error that much less for this squad.
The United States team is loaded with athletes, but not necessarily the best skilled basketball players. The United States team is devoid of good shooters, and relies mostly on one-on-one plays off the dribble instead of making passes and forcing the defense to move. Rarely do you see this United States team move the ball from side to side and give the defense the opportunity to break down and make a mistake. On the rare occasion that dribble penetration produces a kick-out to an open shooter, few of the American players are able to knock shots down on a regular basis.
Let's face it, the very best Europeans are better shooters, passers and team players, while the Americans are far superior athletes. Still, the best American "players" need to play, and the selection committee must use better judgment in assembling the best "team".
New Brand of Ball
The USA must adjust to international basketball, a game that is very different than the NBA. There are different styles of play to adjust to, and different rules to learn and adjust to. Players cannot afford to play off of their men, thinking they will attack the basket instead of shooting a deep shot while moving against the grain. The international game is one of player movement, not of isolation, one-on-one, and take it to the hole.
The United States must adjust to playing in the international community if it wishes to remain the premier basketball power in the world, which it still is and will be for many years.
Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst for ESPN.