Team USA, the clear front-runner to win the 2014 FIBA World Cup, faces a dilemma.
On one hand, head coach Mike Krzyzewski is fielding a roster far superior in talent to any other country and could steer the offensive ship toward isolation play. This would allow his players to maximize the one-on-one advantages all over the floor, putting weaker defenders on an island against some of the NBA's best scorers.
On the other, he could prompt more ball movement and team unity by establishing defined offensive sets and clear player roles. While this might limit the offensive ceiling, it would prevent a single player from shooting Team USA out of a game.
Coach K has chosen neither and both of these options. In the handful of tuneup games we've seen from the Americans, the offense resembles a mixture of both. The staff has installed loosely defined sets that keep players somewhat organized, but wiggle room within the plays is not stifling individual creativity.
Against the weaker competition leading up to the World Cup, Team USA has probably not unleashed its most complex and/or effective play designs. There's no need to break out the heavy artillery until the World Cup actually begins, and we likely won't even see it until the Americans play against Spain and other top opponents.
Still, glimpses of the concepts behind Coach K's preferred style have been revealed. Team USA is consistently finding and targeting favorable matchups by weaving specific opponents through various screens, then hitting a teammate with a pass to attack the compromised defenders.
Whether pre-movement leads to an isolation, pick-and-roll or post-up, Team USA isn't simply dumping the ball to a player and watching him go to work.
What might look like pure isolation or simple pick-and-roll play is only occurring after defenders get caught with their momentum heading away from the rim or get hit with a screen.
Two sets in particular have been utilized multiple times throughout exhibition play: a cross-screen action and "Pistol" (Coach K might use different terminology because he's not an NBA coach).
In Team USA's most recent game against Slovenia, Coach K utilized the cross-screen action at both the start of the first and second quarters—when the play's featured players, Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry, were in the game.
The actual movement and screening of the set aren't very complicated. It starts with Curry shifting from the strong-side block to the weak-side block, setting a cross screen for Davis. As point guard Kyrie Irving dribbles the ball on the left side of the floor, Davis uses the Curry screen to establish post position on the strong side.
The purpose of using a guard as the screener is to prevent the defense from switching. If Slovenia's defenders switch instead of fight through the screen, USA will have two mismatches: a guard on Davis and a big on Curry.
By eliminating this defensive option, Team USA is now forcing Slovenia's big to battle through the commotion and stick with Davis. Davis uses his size and strength to slip over the screen and call for the basketball.
After getting hit with the screen, the defender is now trailing Davis and in danger of getting pinned below the rim. Davis recognizes this and shifts down into a stance, keeping his defender on his back while remaining in prime position to catch an entry pass.
On this particular play, however, it's the secondary portion of the play design that Team USA focuses on. After Davis clears away from Curry, Kenneth Faried slides down the edge of the paint to screen for him. Once again, the big-on-guard screen eliminates a possible switch.
Amid the commotion of handling the cross screen, Faried finds a way line up and get in the way of Curry's defender. Curry pops to the three-point line in a wide-open position, able to launch an immediate three-pointer or pump fake and drive to the rim.
Here, Curry fires the catch-and-shoot three.
It's not flashy, but it's very effective. Davis in deep post position or defenders flying at Curry create easy scoring opportunities for the Americans in semi-isolation situations.
We've also seen plenty of "Pistol" out of Team USA, a very common NBA action that is run by most teams throughout the league. It starts with a dribble handoff between Irving and Derrick Rose on the right side of the floor:
You'll notice that Irving dribbles directly at Rose's defender to execute the handoff, a subtle but important technique that's often ignored. Irving's effort in this regard allows him to screen and hand the ball off simultaneously.
Though the play is executed a bit higher on the floor than intended, Rose's decision to lift out of the corner and approach Irving as opposed to staying put initiates a sort of chase mode for his defender. Already behind Rose as he receives the ball moving toward the middle of the floor, he has to alter his pursuit around Irving to avoid getting smacked by a screen.
The precision and timing of any Pistol action is crucial, and Irving and Rose execute it perfectly here.
But this play is more than a simple dribble handoff.
DeMarcus Cousins, who's trailing the play, rolls in directly after the handoff to set a side ball screen. In the span of two seconds, Rose's defender now has to deal with three obstacles: chasing him, avoiding Irving and circling around Cousins.
That's a lot of clutter to get through, so it comes as no surprise that by the time Rose is swerving around Cousins, his defender is desperately trying to catch up from behind.
If Slovenia doesn't double-team the ball here, Rose is probably streaking to the basket. To undercut this likely counteraction, the Pistol builds in a wide pin-down on the opposite side of the floor.
When Rose is forced to give up the ball, Klay Thompson is flying off a Rudy Gay screen as a release valve. If Rose has a clear path around the Cousins screen, Thompson might curl and head to the rim. But recognizing that Rose is under pressure, Thompson simply pops.
Rose's willingness to swing the ball quickly allows Team USA to capitalize on two of Slovenia's defenders stuck well out of position above the three-point line. With Cousins rumbling down the lane and Irving spotting up in the corner, there's only one defender in position to deal with two players.
All Thompson has to do is read this defender. Should he pinch in on Cousins, he can throw an easy cross-court pass to Irving for an open three. If he hesitates in any way and gives Cousins inside position, he can send it down to the big man for an easy two points.
When the latter happens, Cousins finishes an alley-oop pass with a layup.
Even though Coach K and his staff have installed an offense that Team USA can break out at any time, most points will come from transition play and early offense.
Pick-and-rolls before the defense is set, long outlets leading to drive-and-kick opportunities and hitting big men who establish early and solid post position will account for much of what we see on the floor.
Think of these offensive sets as a strong backup plan. If Team USA is not succeeding with free-flowing basketball, Coach K will slow it down and rein the offense in a bit.
That's when we'll see a Pistol, cross screen or whatever else the coaching staff has concocted in its basketball lab.
Especially in the earlier rounds, expect to see less organization and more freedom of play. When Spain and other international giants come knocking, that's when these sets will become most crucial.
Given how well Team USA has run them so far, don't be surprised if they're relied upon when things get sticky in the FIBA World Cup.