Ever since Team USA had to settle for bronze in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and to a lesser extent 6th in the 2002 World Championships, our perception of the talents of the rest of the world has as well as our perception of our own basketball abilities has drastically changed. Unfortunately, much of that changed perception has become seeped in hyperbole. Suddenly, each international squad from inferior athletes and basketball minds to the perfect collection of teammates who always produced results greater than the sum of their parts. Outside of the US was where people believed they could now find players who were the perfect teammates, who could play every position, and shoot from anywhere (after the appropriate screens and cuts were made of course.) Meanwhile, Team USA went from being known as a random collection of NBA superstars who were the greatest players on Earth and could never win by less than 20 much less actually lose a game to a bunch of overpaid, selfish, losers too arrogant to play the right way and too concerned with their images. All they cared about were dunks; where as the much smarter European players knew the immense value of the jump shot.
The description of people’s beliefs may seem a little over the top, but honestly that’s the perception that most people (especially the media) seem to have of today’s basketball world. How else to explain the way most people react after every game?
After Team USA survived its final exhibition game against Australia (winning by a final margin of nine,) few people discussed how Team USA had nothing to really play for as they had already developed the beginnings of decent team chemistry and had nothing to gain from the contest as Australia at the time was not even perceived as a team that was assured of a spot in the single elimination tournament. The only thing USA had to do in the game was avoid injury, which they did. What does it matter if Australia tried its hardest to beat an apathetic Team USA and came remotely close to doing so? In the end, Team USA played marginally hard when it had to, and came away with the win.
However, the media did not share this belief at all. Instead, the victory over an inferior opponent by a ‘meager’ nine points was treated more like a complete collapse and loss than anything else. Because the media still clung to the belief that Team USA was headed towards disaster while European and South American teams were headed toward triumph, everything was over dissected and spun around to show Team USA still fitting into the selfish, collection of talent/not team stereotype while other teams were shown as modern day Hoosiers. Victories in the opening round over China and Angola were not treated as a return to dominance; the blowouts were instead treated as evidence that there were cracks in the US’s armor. They were not nearly as invincible as they were back in the 90s.
What they have missed is that it is obvious they are not as good relative to their competition compared to the earlier Dream Teams. When Jerry Colangelo created this year’s edition of the team, he made no plans to emulate the Dream Team. He didn’t strive for invincibility, because those days are long gone. The rest of the world caught up. So instead, he strove for simply making a team that would be ranked as the best. There would still be deficiencies and potential for collapse, but that was simply in accordance with the times as all the other teams have just as many deficiencies and many have more.
Despite this, most of the media predicted disaster against Greece and if not then, then certainly a strong test from Spain who some even predicted would dismantle Team USA. Well, it did not happen at all. When faced with competition superior to past opponents, Team USA simply raised their level of play and dominated these two teams from the get go by quickly creating leads of 20 or so by the first half itself. This team plays incredible perimeter defense and can run the fast break all day thanks to its amazing endurance and depth. Against Spain, Team USA even managed to discredit the many pundits who believe their outside shooting is suspect by hitting 12 of 25 shots from three-point land. Obviously the team still has a few deficiencies that could potentially cause disaster, but as long as they stay confident and close chemistry wise, this team should be at the podium soon enough with their gold medals. Let’s see how the individual players have stacked up so far in order of importance:
1. Lebron James: He is the unquestioned vocal leader during games for this team, and he has done a superb job. He has led the way on offense by getting everyone involved and scoring when needed as well. Right now he is also the team’s best transition defender getting several jaw dropping blocks at the last minute to stop several fast breaks. He has taken a few three pointers too quickly during certain offensive possessions, which is a waste as his jump shot is still iffy, but despite that he clearly is reason one for why this team will win every game.
2. Dwayne Wade: Despite being relegated to the spot as sixth man, Wade is clearly the second most important player on this team behind Lebron right now. Every time he enters the game he energizes the whole team, and is often the catalyst who turns close games into blowouts. Fans of the Miami Heat should be overjoyed by his success as he has clearly proven he is in the same class as Lebron James and Kobe Bryant in terms of the elite swingmen that the NBA has to offer.
3. Kobe Bryant: He actually has been a bit of a disappointment early on as far as the offensive side of the ball goes as he went 1-15 on three pointers against Angola and China combined. Still, he sets the tone on defense by guarding the other team’s best perimeter player. Given that Team USA’s greatest strength is its perimeter defense (which has caused a ridiculous amount of turnovers so far,) Kobe deserves to be placed this high despite his lack of consistent offensive production. The mere fact that we expect much more, just shows how good he can be.
4. Deron Williams: He is probably the team’s second best three-point shooter right now due to Kobe’s inconsistencies. He is also easily the best point guard on Team USA right now as he stays focused on defense and more importantly does not try to force anything on offense that the defense won’t allow (or at least does so to a much lesser degree than the others.) Being the steadiest point man means he deserves more minutes should the game get close.
5. Chris Bosh: This is a bit of a surprise since he came into the tournament with low expectations, but he has played very well so far. Sure, his defense has been suspect, but considering all the big men on Team USA are prone to give the other team good looks in the paint and be late on rotations, Bosh’s deficiencies are easier to ignore. What you cannot ignore is his offense, which has been much more active. His highlight so far was leading the team (tied with Kobe) in points with 18 against Greece.
6. Carmelo Anthony: He was the leading scorer on the team last year, but has been far more up and down this year. He has not rebounded nearly as well as he hoped and his defense has been fairly mediocre up although it has been an improvement over his NBA level of defense. Still, he is very important as he has the best outside shot out of all the big men. Anytime he can stretch the defense. I would suggest he come off the bench in the future and try to provide a spark like Wade has been doing, because than more of his minutes can come against the backups of the rest of the world.
7. Chris Paul: He is the other point guard who might as well start over Jason Kidd. He is the best right now at running the fast break. In fact, Against Spain, I clocked him going from free throw line to free throw line in roughly 3 seconds. The flaw in Paul’s game right now is that he wants to showboat a lot, which leads to too many risky and dumb plays that result in turnovers. It is not a huge flaw considering the US has not been in any particularly close games, but that coupled with his lack of outside shot is why he is currently below Williams on this list.
8. Dwight Howard: He has been terrible on defense for this team. No offense to Howard, who is still young and learning, but opposing big men can do whatever they want on him, and opposing players who penetrate can breathe safe knowing his rotations will be late. However, whenever he has done anything right, the results are always a monstrous dunk or a spectacular block. His offensive repertoire has been steadily improving to as seen in the Spain game when he was able to loft a nifty hook over the outstretched arms of Pau Gasol.
9. Jason Kidd: He has been more or less useless in half court sets, and finally took his first shot (a lay up) in the Spain game. He is the worst point guard on the team, which is not that big of a deal considering the other two point guards on the team are Chris Paul and Deron Williams, but as a result is getting too many minutes simply because he is a veteran voice on the team. To his credit he has supposedly been a good leader for this team as he constantly reminds his teammates to stay focused. It is a little thing, and it doesn’t make up for his own sub par play, but it is something.
10. Michael Redd: He was brought onto the team specifically for his three point shooting, and whenever he is on the floor is almost the only time the team ever runs player specific plays at all. Unfortunately, his shot has not been much to marvel at lately as he has shot under 35 percent for the tournament so far. Speaking of players specific plays, why is it that there are so few plays run by this team? Everything seems to be starting at a set point and then working whatever isolation is the best mismatch or if not that then simply working the dribble penetration and kicking out to the open man. Everything else was a fast break. The only time that changes (except for once for Kobe Bryant in the Spain game) is when Redd comes in the game when suddenly the team expertly gets him a myriad of screens to work with. I know that Team USA is blowing out its opponents regardless, but would running a few plays kill us? The half court offense has been such an inconsistent force due to the lack of plays that a good team on right day could effectively shut it down using a 2-3 zone that specifically bogs down the middle and traps the wings. This is just something to keep in mind.
11. Tayshaun Prince and Carlos Boozer (tie): They don’t get too many minutes to show what they can do. Prince has shown flashes of a strong ability to score when he is in, but it rarely gets used. Boozer is too slow off of his feet to make rotations or even get certain rebounds. He has chemistry with Williams that is easily seen whenever the two share court time, but lately they have simply not.
Random Thoughts from the Opening Round:
· Yao Ming is a beast. Sorry Dwight Howard, but Yao Ming when healthy is now clearly the best center in the game. Against the US it was frustrating to see him be able to do whatever he wanted against our defense. Luckily for us, the Chinese head coach wasted this clear advantage by often simply having Yao set screens for his teammates rather than look for his own offense.
· Ricky Rubio is getting a lot of publicity and rightfully so. He is a definite NBA talent and could be a top-five point guard at some point down the road. His dribbling was able to get through the half court traps, and his passes were generally jaw dropping although a few were ill advised. His alley oop to Rudy Fernandez (who also looks like quite a player by the way) was the highlight of the Spain game. One thing he will have to work on is his shot, which is currently pretty flat. Still, he is only 17 and the sky is the limit.
· Russia sure hasn’t looked like the European champion lately has it? Andrei Kirilenko might finally be done as their premier player.
· There is too much hype for Australia’s back up point guard Patrick Mills. He looked much faster than he really was, because the United States had no reason to play his team tough. I do think he can be an NBA player but there is no way he is faster on a basketball court than Chris Paul is as he looked during that game.
· Next Column will be the much awaited transactions column.