5 Ways That USA Basketball Can Adapt to International Play at the 2012 Olympics
USA Basketball's campaign for gold at the 2012 London Olympics is off to a flying start, thanks to a 98-71 win over a talented French team on Sunday.
As tidy as the final margin was, though, Team USA's effort was far from perfect. They hit just 43.1 percent of their shots from the field, committed a whopping 26 fouls, turned the ball over 14 times and held but a one-point lead over Les Bleus in the second quarter.
Not that anyone should "pooh-pooh" the Red, White and Blue's efforts. They shared the ball surprisingly well (21 assists on 31 made baskets), held France under 40 percent shooting from the field and dominated the battle of the boards, 49-33.
Still, tougher tests lay ahead for Team USA. Bigger, more rugged and more internationally cohesive squads like Argentina, Brazil and Spain figure to put the Americans on notice in due time.
What, then, can Mike Krzyzewski's squad do to ensure that its stockpile of talent translates to a spot atop the podium in August?
Defense to Offense
For all of Team USA's offensive firepower, the squad butters its bread first and foremost on the defensive end.
Coach K's squad has been at its best when applying full-court pressure, getting after the other team's ball handlers and cutting into passing lanes at every opportunity.
That's allowed the Americans to keep their adversaries from delivering the ball inside, where their defense is at its weakest, particularly if/when Tyson Chandler's in foul trouble.
More importantly, though, Team USA's pressing defense has been a boon to its transition game, forcing turnovers to fuel its breathtaking fast break and create easy scoring opportunities for the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant.
So long as the Yanks can wreak havoc defensively and push the pace back the other way, they should never find themselves behind for too long, if at all.
Sharing Is Caring
Of course, Team USA can't expect to score all of its points in transition. Like it or not, the Americans must find a way to generate offense more efficiently in the half court if they're going to dominate the world as they're expected to.
Team USA's quality of play in such settings has been anything but consistently productive or pleasant to the eye so far. Far too common are the occasions of American players overdribbling, jacking up difficult shots and generally trying to do too much on their own.
On the flip side, good things tend to happen whenever the ball moves and/or someone decides to penetrate and kick rather than float around the perimeter.
Easy shots should be just as easy to come by for Team USA, thanks to the wealth of talent that Coach K has at his disposal.
Granted, it's difficult to expect a consortium of guys who are used to having the ball in their hands and doing so much on their own in the NBA to suddenly shake the urge to play one-on-one.
But if the Americans can do just that, their road to the gold will be markedly smoother.
Crash the Boards
The Americans did well to clean the glass as a team against France, but will need to be even more diligent against the bigger, more bruising opponents to come.
Especially if Tyson Chandler continues to draw the ire of the officials' whistles and Kevin Love (three rebounds on Sunday) struggles so mysteriously in the paint, as he has with Team USA this summer.
The key is for the entire squad to contribute to that end, which shouldn't be too much to ask. USA Basketball may not be big and bulky up front, but what it lacks in sheer size, it more than makes up for in the sort of speed and athleticism that can be so valuable on the boards.
That much was clear against Les Bleus, with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant combining for 23 of Team USA's 49 rebounds.
Coach K will need all of his players to chip in from here on out, if only to overcome a collective unfamiliarity with FIBA's more liberal goaltending rules.
That is, unless he can somehow instill in his players an instinctual desire to chase after every ball that so much as grazes the rim, which isn't likely to happen in such a short span of time.
LeBron as Mr. Everything
Asking LeBron James, in particular, to devote too much of his energy to rebounding might not be the wisest use of perhaps the most versatile player to ever wear the Stars and Stripes in the Olympics.
Neither might having James operate as the primary passer and facilitator on the team, what with Chris Paul and Deron Williams ready, willing and able to serve in that role.
Then again, splitting up the duties as such didn't seem to infringe on Team USA's ability to dismantle France.
Quite the contrary, actually. James led all players with eight assists, including a jaw-dropping 64-foot bounce pass in transition to Kevin Durant.
It's not as though James needs to dominate the ball to be effective in such a capacity, either. He demands so much attention defensively as to open up the floor for his teammates, and need only have the ball in his hands for a moment to deliver pinpoint passes to those who are in position to hit open shots.
Team USA's lack of a traditional post presence is also far less disconcerting with LeBron on board. As he showed last season with Miami Heat (and, at times, on Sunday), James is more than capable of operating on the block with his back to the basket, be it as a scorer or a distributor.
Oh yeah, and rumor has it he's pretty good on the defensive end of the floor, too.
In other words, in LeBron we trust.
LeBron isn't the only American whose brilliance is well-suited to the FIBA rules, though. Carmelo Anthony has been known to light it up on the international stage from time to time, while Kevin Durant has made minced meat of many a box score since joining USA Basketball in 2010.
Those three—along with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Love and James Harden—give Team USA a core of versatile players who can man multiple positions on both ends of the floor and contribute to the cause in any number of ways.
That sort of overall skill and utility will help Team USA to mask its deficiencies in the middle by spreading the floor offensively and applying pressure up top defensively.
In a sense, then, USA Basketball's roster is perfectly suited to the international game, which rewards such versatility, even if the rules themselves are still somewhat foreign.
No matter, though. America's well-rounded ballers need only feed off each other's interchangeability to overcome their weaknesses and put themselves in position to claim gold.