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Operation Gold-Standard: Team USA Roster Analysis
by: Eric Weiss - Sports Aptitude
August 12, 2006
Much has been made about team USA’s most recent failure on the world stage, and popular wisdom finds it easier to compare the current crop of participants to those that most recently wore the mantel. While focusing on the obvious missing entrants such as Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, and Ray Allen, may be an easier story, it doesn’t accurately convey the diversity of talent and skill-set that makes this roster substantially more formidable than it has been in some time.

There is an obvious advantage to having “role-players” like Shane Battier and Bruce Bowen participating, as they are players who know their position and utility on this team. But, shot distribution and selflessness have not been the tell-tale problems for the US team during their recent struggles in international play. The issue has been the duplicity of similar talent and a distinct lack of strategic player selection when formulating a competent roster.



No one can question the level of talent each US team has had since the inception of the initial Dream Team back in 1992. But the roster has slowly eroded into more of a marketing vehicle for up and coming individual talents than an intelligent selection of team players who can cover for each others respective weaknesses.

Playing strongly off of this point, the simple fact remains that international competition has greatly improved as well. Foreign players are often lauded now for having an impact in the NBA, but when it comes to success internationally; it is a distinct advantage to play with FIBA rules and with European-style rotations. The US team has tried to impose its will on foreign competition for too long, neglecting to absorb the lessons learned by teams who were essentially using old-school basketball fundamentals in an unfamiliar system to effectively negate the strengths of the American’s individual skills.

Times have changed since 2004 however. Actually having some semblance of an open “try-out” served as an excellent psychological barometer for not only the mind-set of US basketball, but also for the players who were willing to participate in such a process. LeBron James may have said it best when mentioning that he’s “not used to trying-out” for anything. While this may be true, the fact that he did so speaks volumes for the quality of his character, as well as his desire to make right what once went wrong during his young watch.

However, the most important lesson has yet to be revealed as a lesson learned. This current team USA roster is rife with the diversity of skill-sets and attitudes that can realize tremendous success, but its actual utilization in the form of a competitive rotation is still unknown. When challenging the rest of organized basketball world-wide on unfamiliar ground using unfamiliar rules, the time has come to use unconventional weapons. Speed of foot and an emphasis on quick decisions and constant movement should be the order of the day for Team USA. An international-style lineup should benefit this team greatly, and there is no greater faith to be instilled in that regard, then that which Coach K and Coach D’Antoni can provide.

A systematic breakdown of the coaching staff and roster will examine the potential strengths of this team as it heads off into world competition looking to rectify the perceived inequities in the game we call our own.

Coaching Staff

Perhaps one of the most telling and most controversial decisions in the formulation of this team was the decision to have a college coach head this brigade. Of course, Mike Krzyzewski is more aptly described as the college coach, considering the amount of professional attention he’s received over the past few years as well as the ringing endorsement he received from the notoriously strong-willed Kobe Bryant a few summers ago.



Still, it is well-documented how difficult the translation from collegiate to professional can be from a team-management and motivation perspective. The absolutes and ultimatums one can levy against a scholarship athlete beholden to the program and virtually powerless to impress his ego or individual will on the situation, is in direct contrast to the pro game’s tendency to favor coaches who cater to personality management over hard-line tactics.

Because of this, there has been some sentiment that has questioned the ability for this relationship to work effectively. After all, Coach K is known to be the quintessential college field Marshall, demanding performance and exacting a terrible verbal wrath upon those who do not perform to task. Though this style may not be the most effective in managing NBA athletes over the long-term, the nature of international play, the pride and sense of unity, and the lack of importance placed on individual statistical performance, should be elements that play in Coach K’s favor. The US roster is filled with “character” performers and there is such a sense of embarrassment and pride that this team is carrying with it, the atmosphere seems right for subjugating ego and simply attacking the task at hand with veracity and singular purpose.

Coach K got criticized for telling the US team that it needed to “dominate” its competition, but that is the mindset this team should be taking into every minute of every practice each day until the task is complete. This statement isn’t about arrogance; it’s about goals and focus. If the standard is placed far above casual reach then the players striving for such a goal will not have the luxury of giving less than their all, and failure to do so by any player will make him susceptible to the type of harsh criticism and belly-fire that coach K is prone to release. This player will find no support from his teammates if he tries to defend his viewpoint and promote internal strife due to singed ego, for the team will all be focused on perfection and ready to step into the fire and test his mettle.

A perfect complement to Krzyzewski’s hard manner is the fiery, but affable Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni is the ideal lead assistant for this staff because of his experience with international competition at the highest level and his successful and highly appealing offensive style of basketball, which has made Phoenix a desired location for many NBA players.

D’Antoni represents exactly what this US Squad is attempting to display, a hybrid of both the American and International styles. Taking the fundamental principles of motion, floor spacing, passing, and team efficiency and combining them with the explosive power and athleticism that is the staple of the NBA game. Phoenix is known as a motion team that exploits every opportunity to run, be it off a turnover or even the quick inbounds pass. Phoenix relies on speed and skill to force its opponents into mismatches where distribution and decision making augment the pace of the game. There is no doubt that the US team will take these lessons to heart as they grow from a collection of talent into a formidable unit.

D’Antoni will more than likely have an active voice when giving instruction on movement on the court via explanation in huddles, with Coach K filling in and instilling the motivational messaging and re-iterating his points during live action. There will be plenty of collaboration and it would not be surprising to see the two coaches as virtually interchangeable depending on circumstance.



The player’s faith in D’Antoni’s direction offensively allows Krzyzewski to press his message of relentless defensive intensity. Rebounding, steals, and blocks guarantee possessions, and more possessions means more chances to run. Together, the coaches will keep the intensity and effort level piqued through solidarity. One hand washes the other, first you get dirty, then you get out in the open court and clean up.

Not to be overlooked, is the presence of Nate McMillan and Jim Boeheim. Once again, these two choices represent symmetry on a multifaceted level. Each selection keeps the balance between collegiate and professional coaches even, but more importantly the two coaches have expertise in areas that round out the overall coaching staff.

Nate McMillan is a brilliant half-court offensive strategist. His understanding of how to maintain effective spacing, generate shot opportunities through utilization of screens and motion, as well as his ability to spot match up advantages mixes perfectly with D’Antoni’s “guns-a-blazing’” system and demeanor. McMillan brings order and systematic execution to the frenetic and often chaotic offense that D’Antoni favors. Together, they can cover just about every situation that may arise.

One of McMillan’s strengths is generating singular match ups on the interior by running a perimeter attack with three spot up men and a rover running the court. When in Seattle, McMillan utilized this strategy so effectively that he came very close to upsetting eventual champion San Antonio by running Ray Allen around, spotting up two perimeter players and isolating Danny Fortson and Reggie Evans for countless second chance opportunities. Against International zone defense, it will be key to stretch the court as far as possible to allow the larger, faster, and more explosive US players generate these same types of second chances when the competition collapses into a ball blocking the paint for drives. The ability to put spot-up shooters on the court will create cracks in the zone that should give the American interior free reign over the offensive glass.

The understanding of zone defensive capability is exactly why Jim Boeheim is on this coaching staff. Boeheim is renowned for his ability to manipulate zone-defensive schemes to shut down often far-superior talent. Boeheim now has incredible talent in which to work with and while the US may play more man defense than zone, it will be the understanding of how to cover for teammates effectively and what to expect from the opposition that will make Boeheim’s experience and expertise a valuable tool in the US arsenal.

Boeheim also serves in a residual role due to his relationship with Carmelo Anthony. Anthony is reportedly been performing exceptionally well, to the point where he is a leading candidate for the starting lineup, something unlikely when training camp began. While Anthony may have some other motivating factors, such as friend Lebron James and their mutual failure on the past Olympic squad, Anthony has had his share of trouble in the past, both on the court and off in terms of decision making. Boeheim may very well be succeeding where Larry Brown failed in terms of getting Anthony to adjust his attack strategy to maximize his overall effectiveness.

The Roster

This section will be broken into two sections: Main Rotation and Bench/Situational players. This is purely a subjective opinion of what lineups may work well together and what players represent the best complementary mix of talent. The underlying philosophy behind the chosen rotation presented here is the idea that in order to field a competitive team for international play, the US team should emphasize mobility and passing prowess along with strong perimeter shooting to create the spacing needed to negate the zone defenses that have given this team trouble over the past few competitions.



Isolation offense is not a recipe for success in this forum, therefore the best way to successfully gain match up advantages will be to utilize motion, strong ball-movement, and perimeter shooting to create isolation in the post, where the American’s athletic advantages should be able to generate easy scoring and second chance opportunities when facing single coverage down low.

Main Rotation:

C - Brad Miller/Chris Bosh:

These two big men are ideally suited for the type of international competition that they will face from the center position. Both players are extremely reliable face-up shooters from mid-range. Their ability to draw the opposition out to 17-18 feet will be instrumental in creating space inside for the other interior player they are paired with.
Though Bosh may be considered the better player, Miller is a better facilitator of offense, averaging over 5 assists per game over the past two seasons playing Pete Carrill’s Princeton offense. Miller is a better catch and shoot player as well, where Bosh is more prone to hold the ball to create his shot. Miller’s playoff experience and overall team success in Sacramento gives him the advantage in a starting lineup that will feature plenty of other on-ball scoring threats. Regardless, both of these players represent the best choices to play Center for this US team although Amare Stoudamire fits well in this role when he returns to the team.

PF - LeBron James/Carmelo Anthony:

This is the position where the US team can truly excel past their foreign competition. The traditional post players on the roster such as Elton Brand and Dwight Howard are less useful playing this position in international play because of the zone defense rules limiting the methodical back-to-the-basket game. There was no better example of this than in 2004 when Tim Duncan was virtually neutralized due to excessive coverage by the opposition. Having superior shooting perimeter players helps to alleviate this to some degree, but speed and versatility at this position should slow the defensive decision making of the opposition.

It seems as if the versatility and overall ability that LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony posses make them ideal candidates for the Power Forward position. Both players are exceptional in the post, using their superior strength to overpower typically smaller wings in the NBA. In International competition it will be very difficult for an opposing team to effectively match-up with these two in the paint. Larger defenders will not be able to stop either player from squaring up for the triple-threat from 10-12 feet. Comparably sized 4’s simply don’t have the skill to keep up with the contingency moves each player possesses. Both can react with such speed that it becomes very difficult to double-down off another player to help limit their effectiveness, especially with James’ court awareness threatening to create an easy assist when the double comes.

SF – Carmelo Anthony/Joe Johnson:

This is an interesting position to keep an eye on. Both Anthony and Johnson are used to being more slasher/creator type players for their respective NBA teams. However, both players are very good spot-up perimeter shooters, so if they are willing to fit their game into the rest of the lineup their on the court with, this can be a very effective rotation at the 3.

It seems the team has committed to starting James, Anthony, and Wade together and this will have to be analyzed further to accurately gauge “goodness of fit”, but they do possess the type of floor game that can work when on the floor together if they each recognize the need to balance out their skills and not play a redundant style of basketball. Anthony should be very effective spotting up outside and acting as a secondary driver to Wade and Paul’s initial penetration when the spacing is right for a dive into the lane. However, the catch-and-shoot on the kick-out should be Anthony’s primary shot in this starting lineup because defenses are going to be packed down trying to contain the penetration of the two guards while having to deal with James’ post play.

Joe Johnson is the ideal sub for when either James or Anthony come out of the game because of his familiarity with D’Antoni’s offensive schemes as well as his prolific perimeter shooting. When James subs out, Anthony can easily move to the 4 as this will leave Johnson on the perimeter to benefit from the open looks he’ll receive from outside. Johnson’s excellent passing ability offsets the substitution of Bosh for Miller and allows for 3 high-level assist men to be on the court at all times.

SG – Dwayne Wade/Gilbert Arenas:

Wade and Arenas are ideal 2-guards to play alongside Paul and Hinrich because both have the ability to be primary ball-handlers while being very effective without the ball in their hands. Wade may actually be a better fit in the backcourt with Hinrich since Hinrich is a much better 3-point shooter than Paul. But, Wade will certainly slash effectively and the more the ball snaps around the perimeter the more opportunities he’ll have to hit a crease and utilize his amazing lateral skills to weave and bob his way into the lane.

Arenas works well with Chris Paul for the exact reason that Wade works so well with Hinrich, one player shoots extremely well from the outside while the other is more effective while slashing. Arenas certainly can be devastating on the drive, but having the option of swinging the ball late in the shotclock to Arenas on the perimeter is a comforting feeling during the possessions when the opposing defenses are simply not giving an inch on the interior, a problem the last US team faces innumerable times.

These two guards are probably the best circus-shot finishers on the team. Both Arenas and Wade absorb contact and make off-balance shots off the glass, on the reverse, or with a simple flip, better than almost anyone in the NBA. The 2-guard position on this team is going to be the principle driving position and this makes their high degree of difficulty shots a valuable asset.

PG – Chris Paul/Kirk Hinrich:

Two different style Point Guards, but both very effective at setting tempo and directing their teams. Paul is one of the best pure playmakers in the game, even coming off his rookie season. Paul will be impossible to keep out of the lane with single coverage and his ability to read plays in advance of the action will allow him to take advantage of the double-teams he’ll face when driving in the half-court sets. Paul is also an excellent rebounder for his position, which will help the US team to secure extra possessions during the course of a game, which is going to be essential since the US team will probably have to rely on heavy perimeter shooting to establish offensive rhythm.

Hinrich has the shot and the poise to be an effective sub for Paul as well as giving the team the option of sliding him over to the 2 and playing in the backcourt together, something Hinrich is quite used to coming from Chicago. The ability to hit shots off of screens and make floaters will serve the team well as they really learn how to use each other to create offensive opportunities.

Bench/Situational:

Elton Brand/Dwight Howard

Brand will probably see a fair bit of time in the frontcourt rotation because of his rebounding and shot blocking ability. But both of these players are going to have some difficulty offensively because they aren’t great face-up shooters, do not have the greatest court-vision, and are pretty deliberate with their post play.

However, both players have excellent defensive ability and when the US team puts 4 perimeter shooters on the court along with them, both players can absolutely dominate the offensive boards and generate points off of put-backs. As help defenders these two will be able to limit interior baskets by the opposition and provide good size and strength for when the team faces the occasional tough interior foe.

Antawn Jamison –

Jamison actually has a very good game for this type of competition because of his versatility. Jamison can play both the 3 and the 4, and if Anthony and James start together he’ll get the opportunity to get in the mix to see who has the hot hand. Jamison is extremely crafty on the inside, though he’d rather face-up and has drifted to the perimeter over the past few seasons. The fact that he knows how to hit the glass, particularly on the offensive end, is obviously a plus.

Shane Battier/Bruce Bowen

These two are on the team because they are excellent defenders and can hit the outside shot with regularity. Battier is a more complete player though, and he will most likely see more playing time than Bowen. Both are smart players, and will be able to communicate well with their teammates and limit mistakes made while they’re on the court. It will be a welcome addition to this team having two perimeter shooting subs who can make things happen on the defensive end and won’t lose focus even when they don’t have the opportunity to play significant minutes.

Outlook



This roster seems to be very well put together. However, it should be noted that this team will need a decent amount of time playing together to truly mesh as an effective and potent unit. It would not be surprising to see quite a few close games and this team can easily lose to some of the elite international squads early on in its existence.

While their will be opportunities for the US team to add more prominent names as this process roles on, it may be wise to stick with the initial roster and focus on chemistry building through comprehensive analysis of performance and utilization of this analysis to improve performance by repetition. The Olympics are 2 years away and that gives this squad ample time to practice as a team and learn their strengths and weaknesses in order to develop into a championship caliber roster.

“I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the right ones.” Herb Brooks said that when formulating the 1980 “Miracle” US Olympic Hockey team roster. With continuity, attentive study of performance, and a continuing dedication to improve, there is no reason why this squad can’t realize Olympic gold as well.
 


Feedback for this article may be sent to eric.weiss@gmail.com .

 

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