A Closer Look at Team USA's Persistent (if Hardly Damning) Weaknesses
No entity in sports is exempt from the possibility of failure. No matter how dominant a team or player might seem, a single game can produce any kind of improbable result. An exploited weakness, an uncharacteristic misstep, or an unfortunate injury could change the result of any major sporting championship. Though Team USA will conclude its preliminary group play as the hands-down favorites to win the gold medal in London, even its historic successes can't protect it from a potential loss.
This particular collection of elite basketball talent makes for a pretty tremendous product, but is nonetheless beatable in the right context. Thus far we've seen two particular weaknesses bear the potential for an upset down the line. Although an opponent would truly have to be at the top of its game to exploit the Americans' limitations, a few different national teams (Spain, Russia, Brazil) are theoretically capable of such a feat.
It all comes down to two factors—both of which can be identified with relative ease, and yet require tremendous talent and incredible discipline to use as the basis for a Team USA upset.
The oscillation of Team USA's offense
Despite boasting many of the top basketball players on the planet, Team USA hasn't yet figured out how to best manage its half-court offense. That's because the team's work on that end is largely an oscillation between two extremes: working within prescribed sets to create theoretically open looks, and improvising without any greater sense of continuity.
When the Americans aren't relying on their defense to create opportunities in transition, they're left operating in either too rigid or too loose a context. That is an outcome that's to be expected given the lack of familiarity within Team USA. Each player on the U.S. national team knows his teammates through practice and direct competition, but the roster lacks the kind of instinctive interplay that comes from consistently playing with a certain group of teammates.
To say that this team plays as five individuals isn't a nod to sporting cliche. The Americans are still very much in the process of figuring out the Team USA dynamic, and thereby leave themselves the slightest bit vulnerable.
When things begin to stagnate in Team USA's relatively unrefined read-and-react game, the Americans shift into a few fairly stale sets as a means of instilling order. It's a good thought, but considering that merely running a set play doesn't make American basketball players any more innately comfortable in working against zone defenses, the shift to structured sets is a bit of a moot point.
The result is a lot of aimless passing around the perimeter, all in an effort to probe for an opening that a single player can create by working off the dribble. It's a simple solution to a more complicated problem, and one with an underwhelming rate of success.
A team laced with such gifted passers should be capable of more, and yet much of what we've seen so far—particularly in Team USA's drier stretches—has fallen into one of these extremes or the other. Team USA is outstanding enough to score and win even as its offense wobbles back and forth. But if an opponent is able to prey on the Americans' lack of flow during these weaker moments, it could establish some momentum and create a bit of a scoring cushion.
Lineup missteps and help defense
Team USA is demonstratively better when at least one true big man is on the floor, and yet Mike Krzyzewski continues to experiment with five-man units with LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony as the functional center. That's all well and good considering that group play is a terrific opportunity for lineup experimentation.
But it was a bit concerning that when the margin was tight late in Team USA's game against Lithuania, Krzyzewski opted to again take Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love off the floor. Such a decision gives Team USA an unquestionable advantage in terms of speed, but it also sacrifices rebounding and—most importantly—help defense.
LeBron James, in theory, would seem to be able to address some of Team USA's help D deficiency. James is among the most versatile defenders in the world, and while his usual range of application is incredibly wide, he could be quite useful as the designated rotation man to help against dribble penetration. Opposing offenses have countered that idea by pulling James as far from the basket as possible and subsequently going to work on the opposite side of the court.
The help—which should be coming from an American closer to the strong-side action—has either come late or not at all as a result; Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant simply aren't used to functioning as back-line defenders, an area in which Chandler excels and Love, despite his defensive limitations, is at least quite familiar.
That's why we've seen the pick-and-roll create problems for the Americans thus far. A simple ball screen forces an opponent to defend as a team, and the current tilt of Team USA's rotation makes that incredibly difficult.
It's one thing if the U.S. players are able to generate enough turnovers to mitigate the impact of those breakdowns, but the pick-and-roll sequences that opponents like Lithuania have used to attack the United States are incredibly low-risk. It's basic dribbling patterns and simple reads, all against a defense that simply isn't oriented to properly defend it.
Playing Chandler and Love a bit more—or assigning James to cover an opponent's worst three-point shooter—would certainly help a bit, but the rotational scheme in general needs to be solidified. Many of the players simply aren't paying attention to when they need to rotate to protect the rim. In lineups without conventional big men, it's even more crucial that players on the court understands what's being asked of them.
Every game that passes without that understanding in place gives opponents a chance to make things interesting. Team USA's elimination is still an incredible improbability at this point, but second-tier teams can remain competitive on the basis of these two factors alone, and give themselves a greater chance to succeed than the talent disparity would otherwise suggest.
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