7 Lessons for NBA Coaches from Team USA's Olympic Games
At first glance, there's not much that an NBA coach can reasonably glean from Team USA's run at the 2012 London Olympics because the international stage isn't something they're used to seeing.
The rules are different—the three-point line is shorter and the governance of goal-tending is far more liberal.
The officiating is different—more travel calls and ticky-tack fouls, less favoritism toward stars.
The coaching is different—Mike Krzyzewski butters his bread collegiately at Duke rather than professionally.
And, of course the roster is different—only in an All-Star Game will an NBA coach ever enjoy the privilege of overseeing such a stacked 12-man team.
But in the details lies a different devil, one of knowledge to be gleaned about the game as it's played and approached by USA Basketball. Team USA's experience on the international stage amidst FIBA rules may be Portuguese to the Spanish of basketball spoken in the NBA; but, like any two related languages, there are plenty of self-evident cognates that can be translated without the help of Rosetta Stone.
More Than Just Talent
Coach K's job guiding Team USA seems to be an easy one. After all, he's virtually guaranteed to pick up a "W" so long as all his players are in uniform and at the arena in time, right?
Not exactly. Having 11 All-Stars at his disposal is certainly a blessing from the basketball gods, but succeeding with such elite talent requires just as much effort on Krzyzewski's part, if not more so.
The reasons? Egos, overconfidence, a lack of time to practice and prepare...
The list goes on, but there are important of points to be picked up from both sides of this particular coin. On the one hand, developing chemistry—on the court and in the locker room—is crucial to the construction of a winning team. If players don't have a feel for each other and/or don't enjoy being around each other, then the whole operation is bound to fall apart at even the slightest misstep.
Part of that involves nursing a sense of trust between players and figuring out how to not only balance players' wants and needs, but also convince them to subvert those wants and needs for the greater good. Case in point, Kobe Bryant, arguably the most ball-dominant player in the NBA, has barely seen the floor in these Olympics so far and hasn't so much as raised a stink.
Of course, it helps that the Black Mamba is also among the most patriotic and dedicated to the cause of his teammates.
But the point is that Coach K has managed to harness his players' emotions—the desire to win, the pride of representing one's country—in a way that lends itself to team success.
In essence, it's the same old principle of playing to win and playing for the name on the front of the jersey, albeit with better, more dedicated players.
Pressure, Pressure, Pressure
Tactically speaking, any coach worth his weight in salt will admit that defense wins championships and, in turn, that winning begins on the defensive end. Team USA's play in these Olympic Games has only further confirmed that long-held notion.
But it's how the Americans have succeeded defensively—that is, by constantly applying pressure to the opposing ballhandlers and attacking passing lanes—that should give NBA coaches pause.
Team USA has thus far forced 37 turnovers in two games while playing a brand of pressing, ball-denial defense reminiscent of the sort that's made Coach K so successful at Duke over the years.
Granted, talent can't be completely ignored here. It helps Coach K's cause tremendously that he has the athletes and All-NBA defenders at his disposal to make such a system fire on all cylinders.
It also helps that so many of the players the US national team has faced and will face are hardly NBA-caliber and might even struggle to cut it in the D-League.
That being said, the disparity in success for Team USA between when it's pressing and when it isn't is startling, even to the naked eye. When the effort and focus to stop the ball and disrupt opposing offenses isn't there, the US tends to struggle.
But when they are there, the Americans are unbeatable as they should be.
Not that simply emulating such a strategy would ensure victory for just any NBA team, though the proper implementation of Coach K's defensive principles would certainly help.
Speed Kills...and Thrills
What makes pressure defense so crucial to the cause, though, is the way in which it fuels Team USA's lethal fast break.
Again, there's no escaping the reality that the US features a slew of incredible athletes—chief among them LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—who thrive in transition.
But the fact remains that turnovers lead to fast breaks, which usually result in easy opportunities to score points. And in today's NBA, where half-court defensive schemes are more complicated and confusing than they've ever been, taking and making high-percentage shots is of the utmost importance.
As such, teams that can get out on the break and make the opposition pay for its own mistakes are that much more likely to come up roses in the end. The Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, two teams that thrive on turnovers and transition baskets, made that clear when they met in the NBA Finals this past June.
Now, Team USA is doing its part to show once again that running and gunning can be and often is a successful approach in the sport, so long as it's accompanied (if not created) by stout defense.
Balancing Structure and Expression
By the same token, Team USA can't depend solely on its transition game to score points and pull out victories. Like any team, the US must be able to run an actual offense and find easy opportunities within a half-court context.
Coach K happens to be something of a guru in this respect, as well. He's long been known for running a rather disciplined system at Duke, with an offense that includes many of the same motion principles that he learned from his legendary mentor Bobby Knight.
Krzyzewski's Blue Devils are prone to executing set plays, but they are also taught how to read and react to certain situations depending on floor location, defensive reactions and so on.
He's been able institute some of those principles with Team USA, though the lack of practice time coupled with the more free-flowing style of the players and the pro game have birthed something of a hybrid model of system-oriented basketball.
Which, furthermore, has brought to the forefront the importance of finding the proper balance between structure and spontaneity within the team concept. Most NBA coaches are control freaks by nature, making the idea of giving players some measure of free reign on the court that much more difficult to swallow.
The key, then, is for coaches to instill the principles they want to see in their players and develop a sense of trust with those they're teaching. That way, coaches will feel more comfortable easing off the pedal and letting their players do what they do best, while the players will be better able to appreciate their coaches rather than come to resent them as they would overbearing parents.
Living (and Dying) by the 3
That is, so long as their players don't settle for jacking up long-distance shots as a primary option.
At times, Team USA has fallen in love with the shorter FIBA three-point line, to the extent that it allows inferior opponents the opportunity to stay in the game for longer than they should.
The problem, though, isn't the three itself, but rather how the Americans have gone about taking them. Instead of getting open outside shots on drive-and-kicks or as trailers on the secondary break, Team USA's players have too often pulled up for quick threes in the half court, particularly during the early stages of games.
Such shots are dangerous not only because they're low percentage, but also because they don't leave much opportunity for offensive rebounding and, in the same breath, lead to transition baskets for the opposition.
The same goes for the NBA, wherein players take a similar shining to the three-point line, regardless of how it compares to the international distance. The consequences are largely the same, if not worse because the odds of successful conversion are even lower.
For coaches, it's imperative to stress the importance of playing from the inside out on offense, with or without a traditional post presence to throw it into. The three-pointer has value as a weapon, but one that's best utilized as a secondary or tertiary option off of other action.
Size Doesn't Always Matter
As stacked as Team USA's roster is and as big a favorite as it is to win gold in London, it's still far from perfect. Namely, the lack of size up front for the US has forced Coach K to formulate a style of play and adjust his own rotations accordingly to turn a perceived weakness into a veritable strength on the hardwood.
So far, so good, as he's used the speed, skill and athleticism of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony to create mismatches and cover up for the fact that he has but three traditional bigs at his disposal; one of whom (Anthony Davis) is a 19-year-old NBA rookie-to-be.
With the way the NBA seems to be going, again referring to the Heat-Thunder Finals, size (of the sort that can operate with its back to the basket) no longer seems to be such an important part of competing at the highest level.
That is, in a league that's currently so short on quality big men, with rules that so clearly favor perimeter players.
What's more important nowadays is versatility and athleticism. Of course, teams that play the traditional way with five distinct positions are still capable of succeeding, but no longer hold such a distinct advantage over those with "tweeners" who can play multiple positions, if not go about the game in a way that defies clear categorization.
All of which favors the majority of coaches who don't have the privilege of putting the likes of Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum into their lineups on any given night.
Let the Young Guys Play
As architects of success as well as managers of risk, many coaches are prone to give preference to known commodities rather than allotting opportunities to young players and allowing them to grow therein. Phil Jackson and Don Nelson are among the most notable names from the NBA's past to have taken such an approach to divvying up playing time.
Even Mike Krzyzewski was of a similar mind at Duke, at least up until recently. He seems to have relaxed his stance on the matter a bit over the past few years, during which he's allowed superb talents like Kyrie Irving and Austin Rivers the leeway to run the show, for better or worse.
That new-found comfort with entrusting teenagers seems to be creeping its way into Coach K's Olympic approach. Slowly but surely, he's turning to New Orleans Hornets rookie-to-be Anthony Davis, who provide an additional dose of size, athleticism and defensive prowess off the bench.
And so far, Davis has delivered. He was particularly prolific against lowly Tunisia on Tuesday when he scored 12 points (10 on dunks) and added three rebounds, a block and a steal in 14 minutes of play for Team USA.
As always, the question of talent is an important one to consider. Most youngsters in the NBA aren't nearly as gifted or mature as Davis appears to be.
But, as Krzyzewski is finding out once again, coaches will never know of what their more unproven players are capable if they don't give them a chance to shine.