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Requiem for a Dream Team

Two big ways to improve U.S. team in wake of Athens disappointment

Posted: Monday August 30, 2004 3:05PM; Updated: Wednesday September 1, 2004 6:26PM
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Rick Pitino
Can this man save the U.S. team from another disappointing Olympics?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

And now, the real work begins.

Despite sending 12 highly talented individuals to Athens -- emphasis on individuals -- the once-mighty American team settled for the bronze. The descent began with a humiliating loss to a U.S. territory ('scuse me ... commonwealth) and, adding insult to injury, was capped by a semifinal loss to a team with three NBA players and several Fabio impersonators.

First, let's dispel two popular myths about the American squad: They didn't care and they didn't know how to share the ball. The guys who didn't care were the ones who chose to stay in the States. As for not sharing the ball, the U.S. led all teams in assists at these Olympics by a wide margin.

Granted, there were real troubles -- they couldn't make jumpers and they couldn't defend. The jumpers were mainly a problem of roster selection, not some wider malaise afflicting the NBA as many seem to think. For all the hand-wringing about poor American shooters, seven of the top 10 3-point shooters in the NBA last year were American.

The poor defense owed mostly to a lack of preparation and practice, making what were in truth some pretty average players look like superstars. Manu Ginobili, for instance, played an entire NBA season last year and scored as many as 29 points exactly twice, but shredded the U.S. for 29 in the semis.

So it came down to roster selection and preparation. Given those shortcomings, the question now is what can be done to improve U.S. teams in the future?

I'd like to humbly put forward two important reforms that could result in a much better team representing the U.S. at the World Championships in 2006 and eventually in Beijing in 2008.

First, USA Basketball has to distance itself from the NBA. The league had a huge amount of input in the selection of the USA team, which would be unthinkable for any of the other national squads. This is doubly confounding since the commissioner is all but openly rooting for other teams as part of his international marketing blitz. (Seriously, does any other pro league, in any sport, in any country keep separate stats for "international leaders" on its Web site?)

Unfortunately, the word that accurately describes the relationship between USA Basketball and the NBA isn't printable on a family Web site. This needs to change. The job of USA Basketball is to win tournaments, not to help David Stern sell merchandise. The obvious first step would be dismissing Stu Jackson, who is both the National Team Committee Chair and the NBA's discipline czar, third from Stern's throne. Involving him in personnel selection is ludicrous given his horrendous mismanagement of the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies. The U.S.'s mismatched roster offered further proof.

More importantly, the next time it's "suggested" that the U.S. select a highly touted young player (Dwyane Wade) who doesn't fit the team's needs, USA Basketball has to have enough gumption and confidence to politely decline. It's the national team, not Stern's. If he's so geeked up about the international players, he can pick a squad for Guatemala.

The more important reform is that somebody's gotta be in charge. That's right: It's time for the long overdue step of hiring a full-time national team coach. Several other countries already do this, including Spain, which was easily the best-coached team in the tournament.

I mean no disrespect to Larry Brown and his staff. While perhaps the Olympics were not Brown's finest hour, the simple truth is that he had no chance from the start. Having to go through the mental grind of the NBA playoffs and immediately jump into the crucible of the Olympics was too much to handle, and the team suffered for it.

A full-time national coach would have several advantages. For starters, the scouting would be much better. Take one example from the Argentina game. I don't think the U.S. coaches had any idea that Alejandro Montecchia could make 3-pointers, because he hadn't done squat in the other Olympic games. But he shot 39 percent from downtown in Euroleague games last year, making it no surprise that he hit 3-of-6 when the U.S. continually left him open by going under the pick on screen-and-rolls Saturday. A full-time national coach would have the time to scout these guys and design a game plan accordingly.

What's more, the coach would be much more tuned in to the international game. One of the big problems with treating the coaching gig as a three-week temp assignment is that the coach is learning on the fly while trying to wean himself off an NBA mindset. A full-time national coach wouldn't have that problem. He would know instinctively when to use a zone or what offensive sets work the best.

Additionally, there could be a distinct U.S. style. Instead of constantly importing an NBA coach's "system" and trying to ram that square peg into the round hole that is international basketball, there would be offensive and defensive sets fine-tuned for the international game. As an added plus, players who played for the U.S. team over a period of years (a pipe dream, I know, but hear me out) wouldn't need to train for as long because they would already be familiar with the team's system.

Take it a step further. Most of the players who join the national squad are on the young side, because the older players all bail to rest, be with their kids or guest-host the MTV awards. Many of these players gain experience with the international team by playing for the U.S. as collegians in the World University Games or Pan Am Games or as pros in the pre-Olympic Americas tournament. So wouldn't it be great if all those teams ran the same plays and used the same defensive sets? Wouldn't that make more sense than the current rag-tag set-up?

Of course, we need somebody to run this thing. A few names pop up as guys who would have the time and ability to do it. Mike Fratello is still in touch with the game for instance, and has plenty of free time. If Jerry Sloan retired from the Jazz, he would be a good choice too, except that he might kill one of the incompetent international refs with his bare hands.

But there's one guy who would be best. He loves the 3-pointer, which is a staple of international hoops, and knows how to use it to great advantage. He likes to press and trap, a huge weapon for the U.S. that has been massively underutilized by the pressed-into-service NBA coaches. He's familiar with the pro game from coaching two NBA teams. He's undoubtedly looking for a new challenge. And he has the time to do it because his season ends in March.

Yes, that's right ... Rick Pitino.

Think about it. His style couldn't be more perfect for international basketball, and his boundless energy is tailor-made for the NCAA Tournament-like style of the Olympic schedule. Moreover, his biggest weaknesses will be a non-issue -- he can't possibly grate on the players because they aren't on the team long enough, and he can't trade for all his Kentucky guys because he won't be in charge of personnel. Just to be sure, we can put in his contract that he can't have Walter McCarty or Antoine Walker on the team.

Fast forward to the World Championships in 2006. Imagine a team of, say, Gilbert Arenas, Chauncey Billups, Michael Redd, Mike Miller and LeBron James in the backcourt, with Corey Maggette, James Posey and Carmelo Anthony on the wings and Emeka Okafor, Carlos Boozer, Zach Randolph and Brad Miller in the frontcourt. Miller, Redd, Billups and Anthony would be bombing away on 3s, Arenas, LeBron, Posey and Maggette would be terrorizing ballhandlers in the press, and the other guys would be laying down the law in the frontcourt. With a balanced team running a real system and not some mildly modified NBA offense, led by a full-time coach who has scouted all the opponents, the U.S. would be nearly impossible for other countries to handle.

Appointing a full-time coach wouldn't be a panacea. The world is catching up, and international hoops by nature is more fluke-prone because the elimination round is one-and-done and the 3-point line is so short. But no matter the rules, it seems preposterous for a nation with so much basketball talent to go 5-3 over eight games in the Olympics. Getting rid of the NBA's undue influence over the proceedings and hiring a full-time coach seem like two good ways to put the U.S. back on top.