What Went Right for Team USA, and Who Should Go to London in 2012?

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What Went Right for Team USA, and Who Should Go to London in 2012?
Kevin Durant, FIBA World Champion. (AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI)
While the majority of America likely was focused on the first spate of NFL games today and kicking themselves over not drafting Arian Foster in their fantasy leagues (I know that latter part isn't just me), 5000 miles away, the USA men's national basketball team overwhelmed home-team Turkey 81-64 and took home America's first FIBA World Championship gold medal since 1994.

Although it's easy (and gratifying) to mock those critics who called this year's USA team the "B" team now that the J.V. squad has accomplished what the star-studded varsity couldn't in 2006, it's important to note that the situation is completely different.

In 2006, the USA national basketball program, as it exists today led by head coach Mike Krzyzewski and godfather Jerry Colangelo, had only been in existence for two years. The players may have changed, but the leadership and system has been around for six years now. This plays out much like a blue chip college program, which further validates Coach K as the perfect leader on the bench.

Second, and just as important, this year the rest of the world was also missing some of the crucial players that led their teams back in 2006. Just like with Team USA, some players chose not to play, and others couldn't due to injuries (notably Jose Calderon, Andres Nocioni, and Nene).

On the other hand, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Chauncey Billups, Andre Iguodala, and Lamar Odom just led a much younger team with one All-NBA player and four All-Stars to gold while LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard could only get a bronze out of a much more experienced team with four All-NBA players and five All-Stars. That's a fact, if not a truth.

What went right?

1. Playing to their strengths: athleticism and versatility

Could this team have been as successful with a traditional starting line-up of Chauncey Billups at PG, Andre Iguodala at SG, Kevin Durant at SF, Lamar Odom at PF, and Tyson Chandler at C?

No, especially not with defensively-challenged Kevin Love as not just your first but also your only big off the bench. There's a reason Love barely saw the court despite being the best rebounder on the team. He played that last Leandro Barbosa lay-up in the Brazil game as well as he could play it, but that shot would've been erased from existence had Dwight Howard been down there.

Also, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and Eric Gordon were clearly among USA's best players, and all of them would've been pushed further down the rotation with Stephen Curry if players like Andre Iguodala, Rudy Gay, and Durant couldn't shift up to the 4-spot in a pinch.

Instead, USA opponents often saw multiple ballhandlers on the court at the same time. Meanwhile Iguodala played like a less offensive-minded Josh Smith as starting power forward. The second chances he created through his offensive rebounds and other hustle plays were invaluable.

This is how a real man plays defense. (AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI)
2. Playing to their strengths, Part II: Kevin Durant

Earlier in the competition, Krzyzewski stated that he hoped to keep Durant's playing time down.

Oops.

After the 121-66 rout of Angola, Durant played 37, 38, and 39 out of 40 possible minutes respectively in the last three games of the elimination round. Oklahoma City brass may not be too happy about that kind of workload in the off-season, but Durant was spectacular in all three games, which were all USA wins.

3. Pressure defense

The luxury of having Russell Westbrook coming off the bench behind Derrick Rose is that there was almost no drop-off in talent or athleticism, which allowed USA to keep the ball pressure on opposing point guards at all times.

More surprising was the defensive tenacity displayed by Eric Gordon, which made him valuable even when his shot wasn't falling (e.g. his 0-for-5 stinker against Turkey). We can only wonder how much stronger the team would have been in this department had they kept Rajon Rondo instead of underwhelming Steph Curry.

Overall, USA forced the its opponents to 38 more turnovers than it committed over nine games, but it also held opponents to 49 fewer field goals attempted and 90 fewer field goals made while being outmatched in size in every game except against Angola.

4. Assist rate

Though USA brought so many point guards to Turkey, the big knock was that they were all score-first guards, with the exception of Chauncey Billups. American basketball critics drooled over what seemed like a luscious opportunity to dig up the old "Americans play selfish, one-on-one basketball" rants.

Yet the Americans managed to keep those detractors' mouths shut with an assist ratio of 17.0% to their opponents' 11.3%. Furthermore, 53.4% of Team USA's baskets were assisted, while 46.5% of their opponents' baskets were.

Of course, USA's opponents also included inept offenses like Angola, Tunisia, and Iran that got clobbered. How did USA's assist rate compare to the other top six teams that all played on the final day?

Team Assist Ratio % of FGM 
Assisted
Spain 18.3% 61.2%
Serbia 17.5% 57.8%
Turkey 17.1% 52.7%
USA 17.0% 53.4%
Argentina 16.0% 53.1%
Lithuania 14.5% 48.7%

Not exactly Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson. Team USA's assist rates sit comfortably among the other elite teams of the tournament. As George Costanza would say, right in the meaty part of the curve: not showing off, not falling behind.

5. Injuries

It's vastly unfair to say injuries went USA's way, considering they lost Amar'e Stoudemire, David Lee, and both Lopez brothers before they played a single meaningful game, robbing them of virtually all frontcourt size.

Yet, at the very least, we should admit that the injury bug went both ways. When Tiago Splitter was on the court, the American bigs couldn't contain him. Nene never played a game, but Anderson Varejao chose to sit out that game to continue resting his ankle before coming back against Slovenia. His presence (and five fouls) could've significantly altered that two-point Brazilian loss.

Brazil's healthy frontcourt duo of Varejao and Splitter. (REUTERS/Mark Blinch)
Also, in the championship game, Hedo Turkoglu rallied the Turks to a 17-15 lead before leaving with a leg injury. When he finally returned, nearly two full quarters later, his team was down 20 and the game was pretty much in the bag.

This not to say that USA wouldn't be coming home with gold right now had they lost to Brazil or had Hedo been healthy, but a few lucky breaks (ew, a pun) did go their way.

What went wrong?

1. Post defense

USA had no answer for Brazil's Tiago Splitter or Russia's Timofey Mozgov, but luckily they were two young and mistake-prone players who couldn't avoid foul trouble.

USA got lucky and completely avoided these effective veteran bigs:
  • Greece's Sofoklis Schortsanitis (who decimated the 2006 team)
  • Argentina's Luis Scola (Mr. Video Game God Mode)
  • Spain's rotation of Marc Gasol, Felipe Reyes, and Fran Vasquez
  • A healthy Anderson Varejao alongside Splitter 
Had USA battled any of them, the underwhelming frontcourt of Lamar Odom (undersized), Tyson Chandler (couldn't stay out of foul trouble either), and Kevin Love (a giant bean bag on defense) would have been exposed.

2. Scoring depth

This is my segue to asking what the hell happened to Danny Granger? Aside from Durant, Granger was the only player on this team who is the undisputed leader and best player on his NBA team, and yet he averaged seven-and-a-half minutes a game with two big fat DNP-CDs.

Granger was also the only player on this team who could put up a stat line anywhere close to Durant, averaging 24.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks, and 2.6 3-pointers a game last year for Indiana. And that was an off-year in which he struggled with injuries compared to his MIP campaign the year before.

He really didn't stand out or play all that well through training camp or the exhibitions, but the belief must have been that he could provide the virtuoso offensive performances that would allow Durant longer breathers. Apparently his lack of focus on defense doomed that idea. I would go a step further and also add that he never seemed to find any role other than scorer (nor was he assigned one) within the flow of the game like Iguodala and Rudy Gay did.

No one on the team ended up with even half of Durant's 22.8 ppg average. Hidden behind all that defensive tenacity and Durant's miraculous shots was the truth that this team had lots of problems creating opportunities against strong teams when Durant wasn't around.

Danny Granger in a familiar spot with Team USA: on the bench. (Getty Images)
Who should go to London for the 2012 Olympics?

Based on the players currently in the Team USA program, what team would give the United States the best chance at a third consecutive gold medal, something that hasn't happened since the first three dream teams?

Ignoring players like John Wall and Blake Griffin who are too unproven to predict how they'll turn out by 2012, this would be the roster I'd bank on to win it all in London:

Starters
  • PG Chris Paul - Injuries dimmed his star last year, but still the best point guard in the world.
  • SG Kobe Bryant - Will be 34 by then, but can provide that Jason Kidd-like veteran leadership and Bruce Bowen-like defensive presence.
  • SF Kevin Durant - He just spent all summer proving why he belongs here. I'll go a step further and say any time Durant is on the court, he should be their #1 scoring option.
  • PF LeBron James - Lots of success playing the 4 last time in Beijing. No, I don't expect him to actually take a summer to learn post moves, but his size, strength, and athleticism allow him to guard any 3s and 4s on the planet.
  • C Dwight Howard - Best rebounder and post defender in the world.
Bench
  • 6 Dwyane Wade - Same as last time.
  • 7 Deron Williams - Best back-up PG since Stockton played behind Magic in 1992. Maybe better.
  • 8 Chris Bosh - Likely will still be the best post scorer on the team.
  • 9 Andre Iguodala - The versatility he demonstrated this summer means he should always be able to find a role.
  • 10 Greg Oden - Of course I'm assuming his next two years are major injury-free, but he'll likely be the second-best defensive big man in the league by 2012. I'd put Andrew Bynum here, but he's never been in the Team USA program and hasn't been the picture of health either. If both are still what they are now, go ahead and bump Carmelo Anthony in.
  • 11 Brook Lopez - Then again, maybe he'll be the best post scorer on the team.
  • 12 Eric Gordon - Every team needs a zone-buster off the bench, but Gordon's defense sets him apart from past ones like Michael Redd and Mike Miller.
Notable Omissions
  • Carmelo Anthony - He was the best player on the 2006 team, but he proved to be expendable in 2008 and is a far less efficient scorer than Durant.
  • Amar'e Stoudemire - We need defense. Chris Bosh gets the nod over him on account of having zero knee surgeries to Stoudemire's five.
  • Kevin Love - Again, defense.
  • Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo - All great players, but Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade can both do what they do except better, although that certainly may not be the case by 2012. What none of them can do right now is consistently make three-pointers, which is why Gordon got the last spot.
See you in 2012. Or not. (AFP PHOTO/ARIS MESSINIS)
Being World Champions, the next time Team USA ever needs to play another FIBA game will be for the Olympics. Until then, no more international basketball articles! See you during the NBA season!


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