Pressure's on Team USA's zone
Team USA is trying to perfect the zone, which many players have rarely used
New Pacers forward James Posey will not seek a buyout from the Hornets
Other topics: Rod Thorn's new job, Knicks love of Isiah, Nets offseason
NEW YORK -- It was a sight USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski liked to see, until it became one they didn't. During a scrimmage this week between the national team and select squad, the senior team was ratcheting up the defense. Full-court pressure from Russell Westbrook led to an eight-second violation in the backcourt. And a swarm of U.S. players led by Westbrook, Eric Gordon and Andre Iguodala trapped crafty Connecticut guard Kemba Walker in a corner and forced a turnover.
A few minutes into the game, a whistle blew and Krzyzewski walked onto the court, barking instructions.
"OK, guys, we're going to go orange," he said. "Orange for the rest of the game."
"Orange," in this case, was basketball code for zone. When Team USA broke camp in Las Vegas last month, before reuniting this week in New York for more workouts, implementing a zone defense wasn't even on its radar. Pressure was the word of the week, with U.S. coaches convinced that the team's length and athleticism would make it a dangerous pressing unit in the upcoming FIBA World Championships.
However, recent circumstances -- specifically the withdrawal of most of the team's top big men -- has led to a shift in that thinking. With Amar'e Stoudemire, David Lee and Brook Lopez bowing out of the tournament, which begins Aug. 28, rebounding has become a major point of concern. Tyson Chandler and JaVale McGee are the only natural centers on the roster, while Kevin Love and Lamar Odom are the only true power forwards.
Playing zone, coaches say, will position more bodies near the backboards. To that end, the U.S. has tapped assistant coach Jim Boeheim, who has employed the zone at Syracuse for more than three decades, to teach the principles of the defense to the U.S. team.
"I told Jimmy he has been on vacation for three years," Colangelo joked. "It's time to put him to work."
Most players are familiar with the zone, but few have played it since high school while some have never played it at all. And the early results showed: When the U.S. switched defenses during scrimmages, blown coverages often led to wide-open threes. And on one possession, an out-of-position U.S. team gave up three straight offensive rebounds.
"I tell our guys, If [international teams] get a look, they are going to make it," Boeheim said. "You have to really be active. A lot of people think zone is a rest period. It's the opposite. You have to be active and every guy has to work. If one guy breaks down, you're in trouble. We're trying to take away the three rather than let them have it."
While the pressure is on everyone to learn the zone, it's especially important for the guards. The benefit of having an extra body underneath means the two guards up top have to cover more ground and defend the pick-and-roll without the benefit of a big man stepping out to help. That's a foreign concept to NBA players whose minds are trained to expect help.
"It's harder playing that zone than man-to-man for the guard because there is so much room to cover," Chauncey Billups said. "You have to make sure you get to spots because if you don't, these international teams are going to kill you."
If executed effectively, the zone could be a major weapon for Team USA at the World Championships. Offensively, the U.S. wants to get in transition as much as possible. A solid zone should keep opponents out of the paint and long rebounds generally lead to fast-break opportunities.
"You can always run better off the zone," Billups said. "When the guards break out, they are tough to pick up on."
Defensively, the U.S. coaches see the zone as a change of pace that could throw off opponents that have adjusted to the Americans' relentless pressure.
"It can take away the inside and take away the offensive flow," Krzyzewski said. "If you really play it well, people think you give up the three in it but you can match up pretty well in it."
Said Chandler: "We're so athletic and long, we can funnel players where we want them to and get a lot of fast-break points. It also allows us to be settled on one end and fast on the other end. We're a fast team but on defense, we kind of have to slow it down. It's a struggle to learn how to pace ourselves."
While mastering the zone will take time, Boeheim says he has been impressed with just how quickly the players have started to learn the defense.
"They are unbelievable," he said. "If you go from A to C with a college kid, you're in trouble. You can go from A to M with this group. They are really good at picking things up. In a few days we can be a really good zone team."
About that four-team trade ...
James Posey's agent, Mark Bartelstein, told SI.com that the veteran swingman will not seek a buyout from Indiana. Posey and point guard Darren Collison were acquired by the Pacers in a four-team trade on Wednesday. While Indiana has a pressing need for Collison, it would appear to have little need for the 33-year-old Posey, who has two years and more than $13 million remaining on his contract. The Pacers used their lottery pick to draft Paul George in June and already have wings Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy, Dahntay Jones and Brandon Rush on their roster.
However, if Posey does stay in Indiana, he could see time at power forward. The loss of Troy Murphy -- who was sent to New Jersey in the deal -- leaves Tyler Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts at the top of the Pacers' depth chart. Posey could step in and play the position in a small lineup.
Sixers nab Thorn
A solid decision by the Sixers in naming former Nets executive Rod Thorn as team president. Thorn is one of the finest executives in the league and will mesh well with GM Ed Stefanski, who worked under Thorn for eight years in New Jersey. With Thorn joining Stefanski and coach Doug Collins in Philadelphia, the Sixers now have one of the most experienced staffs in the NBA, a good sign for a team that has struggled both on and off the court in recent years.
To forget Isiah, Knicks must be proactive
That Knicks owner James Dolan continues to hitch his wagon to Isiah Thomas is positively puzzling. Even after the NBA told Dolan that Isiah couldn't work for him while coaching at Florida International, Dolan issued a statement saying he would continue to solicit Thomas' views. Why? Dolan has one of the NBA's most respected executives in Donnie Walsh running his basketball operations. He has a superb coach in Mike D'Antoni. Why does Dolan feel the need to consult Thomas, the man who orchestrated bad trade after bad trade and pushed the Knicks' payroll to more than $100 million?
The fear in New York is that whenever Walsh retires -- and his failing health is an indicator that his departure may be no more than two years away -- Dolan will bring Thomas back. If the Knicks hope to prevent that, they need to be proactive. The executive free-agent market has never been richer, with talented execs like Mark Warkentien, Chris Mullin, Kiki Vandeweghe, Rex Chapman, Danny Ferry and Kevin Pritchard all looking for work. A successor to Walsh needs to be put in place now so that the transition to a new regime will be smooth once he retires. The Knicks have a cornerstone star (Stoudemire), a young future star (Danilo Gallinari) and financial flexibility for the first time in a decade. Making sure the group that got them to this point remains intact should be priority No. 1.
More on the Nets' offseason
After a colleague pointed out a Nets blog item to me Wednesday -- one that questioned some of my logic in giving the Nets a C-minus grade in my Atlantic Division offseason report card -- I'd like to clarify. The blog slammed me for criticizing New Jersey for doling out $57 million in contracts to Travis Outlaw, Johan Petro and Jordan Farmar, citing the fact that the Nets have to sign someone to meet the NBA's minimum salary threshold, which is $43.5 million this season.
Of course they do. My problem isn't the money; it is the number of years over which the money is being paid. You want to give Petro $3.5 million per year? Fine. I mean, you have to wonder why the Nuggets, who were practically ready to hold open tryouts for a big man most of the summer, weren't interested in re-signing him, but whatever. You want to hand Outlaw $7 million annually? The Blazers traded him and the Clippers weren't in any rush to bring him back, but I'll buy that too. And $4 million on average for Farmar? Sure, go ahead.
It's the lengths of the contracts that are ridiculous. Five years for Outlaw. Three for Petro and Farmar. It's true, none of these contracts put the Nets over the cap, and with newly acquired Troy Murphy and Kris Humphries coming off the books next season, New Jersey will likely have $20-plus million to spend.
But when you are rebuilding a team from the ground up, maintaining as much financial flexibility as possible is the key. Multiple sources have told me that one of the key issues between Thorn and the staff of new owner Mikhail Prokhorov was the Nets' approach on how to reshape the franchise. Thorn, I'm told, like Prokhorov, was ready to go all out after LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Stoudemire. However, if the Nets whiffed on any of the marquee names, Thorn's preference was to roll over as much cap space as possible and use it down the road, either in a trade or for a future free agent.
Prokhorov didn't feel the same way. When Prokhorov met with a group of reporters shortly after he bought the team, he stressed the importance of a fast rebuilding effort, going so far as to say he thought the Nets could win a title in five years. That thinking was in direct conflict with Thorn, who certainly wanted to put together a winner as fast as possible but understood the process of getting there could take a little longer.
The acquisition of Murphy is an example of an ideal Nets trade. His skills will help the Nets in the short term -- he's a perfect stretch power forward who will complement Lopez and take the pressure off Derrick Favors -- and his large ($12 million) contract expires after this season.
Deals like the one for Murphy are the ones the Nets should be pursuing. Outlaw, Petro and Farmar aren't breaking the bank, but they will take up about $14 million in cap space over each of the next three seasons. The Nets have a solid core of Lopez, Favors, Devin Harris and Terrence Williams. Over the next few years, that money could be put to better use on someone else.
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