Much has already been said about Team USA’s accomplisments at the FIBA World Championships 2006 tournment, but I felt some points were drowned in the deluge of media narratives.
The most important difference is not the style of play, or the rules, or the different ball, or even everybody’s favorite punching bag, the refrees. It’s the tournament set-up. The NBA players are used to much longer series, 5 or 7 game series. Hell, if it was best of 3, the US would’ve beat Greece, and Spain and Argentina as well. However, in single-game elimination tournament, a hot-shooting team always beat good defensive teams, and levels the playing field, especially with talented teams. We often see similar Upset Specials in the NCAA tournament. Just pick any year.
Now, I think too much ado is being made out of this loss – as if the Americans couldn’t possibly lose in a single game tournament. I know there is a flaw in the system (talented players do not really study the game, acquire fundamentals early, for they are coddled throughout high school and college, college coaches do not coach, cuz they’re little more than glorified recruiters). Yes, we did not send our absolute best players (Shaq, Kobe, Artest, Duncan, Kidd, or Allen). The difference between FIBA and NBA rules is enough to impact the instinctual reactions of the players.
But a single-game tournament makes the biggest difference of them all. One way to match hot shooting teams is with excellent perimeter shooting. Even if we had Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, the Americans weren’t going to beat Greece that day.
For one thing, the USA team is reaping the fruits of the seeds sowed by American basketball system, replete with all its flaws. For another, the much remarked claim that the other teams play together for years is bunk: they don’t play together year-round. Most, if not all teams are composed of professional players who play for other teams, just like the Americans.
Thirdly, Coach Krzyzewski has been proved to be an arrogant coach by demonstrating a general inflexibility towards the circumstances. The only way we can judge a coach’s merit is not whether he wins or loses, but how he adjusts during games and gain advantages for his team. Moreover, professional basketball games are won and lost by coaches, which isn’t the case with the other major pro sports.
NFL, coaching 50-plus players on the team is done by specialty assistants, whose responsibilities were concentrated on specific skill sets: offensive line, defensive line, d backs, linebackers, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, quarterbacks, and special teams. The supervisors of those assistants are “offensive” and “defensive” coaches. The head coach himself, while imposing personality and strategic flavor, is an overseer, a general discussing options with his staff. MLB works the same way with specialized coaches: infield, outfield, hitting, bullpen and bench coaches. Plus the 10-12 pitchers on a 25 man roster required their own coach. The manager is, like the head coach of NFL team, a supervisor. Where the manager made in-game decisions, the NFL head coach is entirely dependent on their assistants. He might make a crucial call on fourth down or when to toss in the penalty challenge flag. NHL coaches determine style of play and subbed lines. But the pace of game, where end to end sorties reach 40mph speeds, and the unpredictability of each puck possession reduces the coach’s control to an expectant father.
As for the professional basketball coach, with a small roster, and the obligation to make immediate decisions thousands of times during the games, he can dominate the game time with his personality and philosophy. Coach K failed here: he didn’t switch to zone in order to counter the pick and roll (Greeks ran this as if they were the reincarnation of Stockton and Malone).
But it must be said that Team USA did improve on the performance of the 2004 team coached by Larry Brown. Carmelo Anthony broke out and has emerged as a modern day version of Bernard King. Lebron James has begun the sublimation of his immense talents. Chris Bosh found his groove in the 2nd half of the tournament. Kirk Hinrich turned out to be just as good on defense as he is on offense. When Dwight Howard played, he dominated the boards and shut down the interior.
Although Wade flourished in the open court, he hasn’t perfected his halfcourt game. Chris Paul’s perimeter shooting needs to improve. Coaches need to add variations to the offense (more ball movement, less 1 on 5), grow a pair and make difficult decisions, etc.
In order to bring back the gold in 2008, Team USA needs more all-around players who are equally effective in both the half court offense and the open court, and a greater sense of team defense (when to rotate and close off the lane). By then, the young guns will be at another level physically and mentally, Kobe Bryant will be at the peak of his career, and the perimeter snipers like Michael Redd or Billups will be ready to bomb away.