It’s been beaten into the ground by now that Team USA’s only major weakness is a lack of size. No team has been able to exploit this liability consistently in exhibition play and the Olympic opener, though Spain (Marc Gasol) and France (Joakim Noah) were each missing players who might have made the Americans’ life more difficult over the last two games.
It’s true that the U.S. has only three true big men, including one (Anthony Davis) who doesn’t play until garbage time. Kevin Love is an average defender on good days, though fairly solid in the post, leaving Tyson Chandler as the team’s only reliable big-man defender. Chandler has been prone to foul trouble, an issue for many previous U.S. power forwards and centers in international play. We tend to think of the size issue as one that would come up mostly in post play, such as Spain’s Pau Gasol shooting easy hooks over Carmelo Anthony as U.S. help defenders swipe at the ball, leaving Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez open somewhere around the arc. But the problem, to the degree it exists, pops up in other ways on defense.
Wing players are forced to do some unaccustomed things like patrolling the back line while Chandler defends a pick-and-roll up top, or jumping out on a high pick-and-roll when an opponent uses Anthony’s man (or LeBron James’, or Kevin Durant’s) to set the screen. The lack of bigs also means that the U.S. has several similarly sized players on the floor together, encouraging coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team to switch on screens all over the floor. That’s a nice thing to be able to do because switching screens on and off the ball prevents any opposing player from using a pick to get a head start.
But it also brings downsides, especially for a team learning to play together on the fly. There will be occasional communication breakdowns, with one Team USA player assuming he and a teammate will switch, while the other teammate assumes they are sticking to their original assignments. And even a wing-wing switch can create mismatches. For example, Kobe Bryant is not nearly as capable as James of defending France’s Boris Diaw down low.
The best-prepared and most-talented opponents will try to run plays that take advantage of all of these things at once. In Team USA’s final exhibition, Spain had point guard Jose Calderon dribble one way around a high pick, step back and use that same screener to go in the opposite direction. It’s a criss-cross designed to get the defense moving back-and-forth, create confusion and perhaps open a hole somewhere because of a miscommunication. The Spaniards attacked Anthony on high pick-and-rolls, hoping (with some success) that he wouldn’t be able to jump out to contain Calderon’s dribble and easily recover to his original man. That might require Chandler or someone else to stop Anthony’s man from rolling open to the rim, which in turn means the Knicks’ forward (or whoever is in his position) must find another opponent, probably spotting up on the wing, to defend.
Spain looked at ways to make that simple switch tricky, including by having the screener roll toward the wing and set a pick for a spot-up guy instead of rolling down the lane. Pair this kind of thing with some weak-side action, and a good team can at least test the U.S. defense. Get everyone moving and switching in unpredictable ways, and perhaps the defense will break.
France is not on Spain’s level, even before losing Noah to an ankle injury and nearly losing Tony Parker to an eye injury. But in a 98-71 loss to the Americans on Sunday, the French at least tried some basic elements that I’d expect other teams to use — especially Argentina and Lithuania, the U.S.’ last two pool opponents, both of whom run lots of pick-and-roll and flex-style motion stuff. For instance, France worked simple cross screens under the rim to force switches and get Diaw (or Kevin Serpahin) posted up against a smaller player. At the start of this clip, watch the bottom of the screen near the basket, where Nicolas Batum sets a pick on LeBron with the goal of stopping James’ pursuit of Diaw, and forcing Bryant (Batum’s man) to take the burly Frenchman:
It’s a testament to James that he has earned the status of “post defender to be avoided if possible” against many opponents, even an accomplished interior trickster like Diaw. And Diaw’s ground-bound trickery is enough to draw loads of help and cause Bryant huge problems. But France has something else at work on the weak side as the Americans’ heads are turned toward Diaw on the right block. Parker runs right at Batum’s man (Anthony) to at least mimic the impact of a screen. The simple action seems to work at first, with Anthony pointing at Chris Paul to switch (a gesture that perhaps should be known as “The Melo” or “The Vince Carter”) and Paul seemingly missing the signal, instead lingering around the paint:
But Paul ends up lingering for a purpose — to help on Ronny Turiaf as Turiaf’s man, Chandler, tends to the spinning Diaw — and is primed to run out at Batum when Diaw kicks the ball there. Batum, in turn, creates a nice look for Parker. The Spurs’ point guard misses, a not uncommon result for a bad-shooting French team. When you see simple cross screens under the rim produce open looks like this, it’s fair to wonder how a more polished shooting team, such as Spain, might punish the U.S. for that initial Kobe/LeBron switch.
Here’s another cross-screen play designed to get Diaw matched up with Bryant on the left block:
As Diaw handles the ball, watch how Mickael Gelabale (No. 15) cuts to the foul line and nails Batum’s man (LeBron) with a pick — another screen designed to create some confusion between James and Durant over who should guard whom if Diaw draws help and kicks the ball out.
And finally, here’s one last cross screen, a play that draws a Kevin Love/Anthony switch and frees Seraphin, the Wizards’ promising big man, to look for a score against Carmelo:
Watch again at the top of the screen as Yannick Bokolo (No. 10) and Nando de Colo criss-cross, a move that (in theory) complicates the decision between Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook as to who should help on Seraphin:
The play ends badly for France. Seraphin can’t get a great look against Anthony, a stout post defender when he wants to be, and Williams and Westbrook coordinate well. Williams swipes at the ball and blocks Seraphin’s route to the middle, and Westbrook stations himself nicely between the two French shooters on the perimeter near Seraphin.
That’s the thing: A lack of size has been an alleged issue for the U.S. in a few recent international competitions — including the 2010 FIBA World Championship, where Lamar Odom often played center — but no team has been able to take advantage to the point of endangering Team USA, which compensates with its speed and ability to force turnovers. Opponents obviously will try, though. Teams with one really good post-up threat — Argentina’s Luis Scola, or perhaps Lithuania’s Jonas Valanciunas — may work these kinds of cross-screen plays, hoping to get their interior star a mismatch if the U.S. is willing to surrender one. Spain may try it when only one of the Gasol brothers is on the court; another Spanish big man, Serge Ibaka, is not the sort of accomplished interior scorer who could hurt a James/Anthony type with back-to-the-basket plays. This kind of action may not even be relevant when both Gasols are in the game because one will have a friendly matchup against a smaller player as long as the U.S. keeps sticking with lineups that only include one big man.
As the Olympic tournament progresses, it will be interesting to see if any team can really hurt Team USA down low, and whether the Americans can adjust if necessary.