Posted: Saturday September 2, 2006 4:22PM; Updated: Saturday September 2, 2006 4:22PM
The idea that Team USA should be taking the first and best available shot made sense, seriously, but in the end the game plan was a bit of a miss -- horrible pun intended. One issue that plagued the 2002 and 2004 also-rans was a hesitant touch, especially from the perimeter. You could hardly call those teams heady, or unselfish, but they still passed up on good looks early in the shot clock, mainly for fear of a quick yank from Yank coaches George Karl and Larry Brown.
With this newer team's perimeter know-how, and a series of strong athletes and offensive rebounders ready to haul in long rebounds, it seemed like a good idea to keep the defense on its heels by tossing up the first good look from the outside. Problem was, the shooters on this team are still refining their touch, and the offensive rebounders are still developing their timing and rhythm on the glass. Next summer, the idea should work, as it should in 2008 if the same roster returns; mainly because this young team will continue to develop on its own. The 2006 team, however, just wasn't ready for that kind of all-out offensive onslaught. And, to Coach K's discredit, he should have developed a series of pet plays (however basic) to fall back on.
The complaints about the unceasing use of a man-to-man defense are well-founded, especially as Team USA was consistently in the middle of the pack in terms of defensive efficiency during this tournament, but a zone defense was not the answer. Maybe that's a failing of mine, expecting individual defenders to hold their own and learn from mistakes, but I can't see these players as disciplined enough to run a sound zone offense for the duration of a 24-second shot clock, and still haul in a rebound.
Yes, maybe more than a token look at a zone (according to ESPN commentator Fran Frischilla, the U.S. played only four possessions of zone in the games before the win over Argentina) would have helped against some teams, but it wouldn't have acted as a defensive panacea. All tournament long, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony played significantly better on-ball defense than they had during their NBA careers -- but they were outright sieves when it came to help defense, consistently whiffing on cutters coming to the basket and costing Team USA too many buckets. In LeBron's case, it may have cost his team the win over Greece.
I'm not going to get too upset over the fact that Team USA spent too many possessions trying to score with a one-on-one attack. It wasn't pretty to watch, and at times during the loss to Greece, it was downright infuriating to behold -- but don't expect it to change until these players age a bit and start to see the court better.
College and international teams usually utilize more ball movement in their offenses because they need to, those players can't score on their own, and oftentimes the most efficient way for an NBA team to score is to clear out and let a spectacular scorer go at things by himself. You can scout and prepare for certain cuts and five-man offenses, but there are some players that you just can't counter defensively, and Team USA boasts a whole host of these players. Asking this group to pass the ball five times before looking for a shot would be an exercise in futility -- nobody wants to see a spaced-out motion offense more than I, but not at the expense of winning.
And while LeBron James and Chris Paul rack up assists in the pro game, those are NBA-style assists; obvious passes that are only made when all other options have been exhausted. These youngsters just aren't ready for that sort of all-inclusive play, yet, because they haven't played alongside each other enough. By 2008, that should change.
At the risk of sounding like a bad impersonation of our 41st or 43rd presidents, this team has to stay the course, with the same players, and understand that significant progress has been made in spite of the loss to Greece. Frustrated U.S. fans have forgotten just how young this team is, and just how good international basketball can be in 2006. By giving these youngsters so many minutes in this year's World Championship tourney, Krzyzewski ensured huge payoffs for this improving squad in the years to come. You couldn't say that after the 2002 and 2004 embarrassments, with rosters that were penny-wise and pound-foolish in their creation.
The bronze medal stings, as did the way in which Team USA dispatched the underwhelming Italian and German squads, but it will only get better from here on out.