Looking Beyond the World Championships--the National Teams

Looking Beyond the World Championships--the National Teams
Sep 05, 2006, 03:29 am
Looking Beyond the World Championships—Team USA

Jonathan Givony

Despite the fact that American basketball showed some promising signs with their summer showing in International play, their 3rd place finish can’t be seen as anything else than a tremendous disappointment that further emphasizes the many problems that are evident with the lack of fundamentals and savvy starting at the Grassroots level of American basketball. And while many important measures have been taken to avoid the type of embarrassing efforts that characterized the selfish and stubborn teams sent to the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis and the 2004 Olympics in Athens, USA Basketball still suffers from a lack of understanding of what it takes to build the type of squad that can compete with the International powerhouses that routinely give the Americans fits when allowed to play under their FIBA rules.

Countless analysts have already touched on the very obvious deficiencies in this current team that came up when the going got tough for the US. They include the lack of ball movement and off the ball movement that the offense suffered from, as well as the fact that besides Kirk Hinrich, Shane Battier, and surprisingly enough—Carmelo Anthony (historically a poor 3-point shooter in the NBA)—there wasn’t a player who could consistently knock down shots from the perimeter when left open. Lebron James’ insistence on taking his man off the dribble and going one on one (as Fran Fraschilla correctly pointed out “going one on five”) every other possession perfectly exemplifies the way the US played right into the hands of what opposing defenses were trying to accomplish. The lack of defensive discipline in terms of going underneath screens on the pick and roll instead of switching (even if its true that the concept of a moving screen is not consistently enforced by FIBA refs) and complete lack of pride that almost the entire team (besides again—Hinrich and Battier) showed in their team defense can easily be solved by going deeper in exploring the problems the Americans faced. These issues along with the youth and inexperience of the American national team are all well established. Leaving the column at that without offering a long term solution would not be very productive, though.

The most obvious problem starts with the makeup and selection of the roster put together by Jerry Colangelo and co. Talent will never be an issue when considering the incredibly deep pool of stars that the USA Basketball has at its disposal at any given moment. On the contrary; what we are about to find out in the coming years is that more is certainly less when putting together a squad of this nature. Although Americans, with their SUV’s and Double Quarter-Pounders with cheese are famous for exaggeration and excess, the US would be well served to build a team off of, at most, one or two legit NBA superstars and then a group of hungry and more disciplined players that are willing to be “role players” in a collective effort.

Letting the Dwyane Wade’s, Carmelo Anthony’s and LeBron James’ of the world get some much deserved rest after grueling seasons and instead giving an opportunity to players who are used to being part of a supporting cast is the only way to emulate the type of International teams that are showing us the optimal way of succeeding in this type of setting. Mixing in some scrappy hustling role players in the mold of Josh Howard, Tayshaun Prince, Udonis Haslem, Eddie Jones, PJ Brown, Jameer Nelson and Bruce Bowen with a few experienced American players with a deep and thorough understanding of the FIBA game will make for a much better rounded group that can play the type of team and man to man defense that this current squad never had a chance to. Now that we’ve seen with our own eyes what are the aspects that work best in FIBA Basketball, why not actually try to build the team around players whose style of play is best suited to this style?

Adding proven Americans at the European level like Anthony Parker, Charlie Bell, Matt Bonner and Maurice Evans would give Team USA a dimension that was previously lacking. It’s foolish to expect that players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Brad Miller, Antawn Jamison, Joe Johnson and others who have never shown any type of ability or commitment to play stifling defense during the NBA season will be able to learn how to do so all of a sudden after three weeks of preparation.

Going away from the assembly of star power that just could not be benched and Coach K was either unwilling or unable to discipline through tough love the way his reputation as a college coach tells you he would is in Team USA’s best interest. Rather than addressing and calling out these NBA stars on their blatant and repeated mistakes (particularly on the defensive end) the way you’d expect him to at Duke, Coach K instead preferred to make arbitrary substitutions of three or four players at a time that aimed to postpone the problem and just hope it goes away.

We never saw the type of urgency in crucial moments from either the players or the coaching staff that you would expect on a stage of this magnitude. Watching the Greeks shredding apart the US defense with the greatest of ease and then seeing how the clinic the Spanish national team put on to show the world exactly how team defense is supposed to be played really emphasized the difference between the two squads. The Spaniards were not only incredibly active in their man to man defensive settings, they also showed a much higher level of commitment and better understanding of making rotations to help their teammates in the case that they got beat. This type of mental and physical toughness that the Spanish role players showed is a far cry from anything that 90% of the US squad needs to do as the unabashed stars of their respective NBA teams.

Another issue that hasn’t been touched on quite enough in the mass media is the apparent lack of Advance Scouting the US conducted on their very talented opponents. For the American coaching staff and players to continue to refer to well established International stars such as Theodoros Papaloukas, Vasilis Spanoulis, Dimitris Diamantidis and others as “#4…#7…and #13” is not only insulting to players that have earned their stripes and have been on the radar (at least here at DraftExpress) for years now, it shows the type of ignorance of International basketball that you would not expect to find six years removed from the last major tournament the US has won. The way these players were allowed to operate to their strengths at all times and never forced out of their comfort zone leaves serious question marks about the way the US was prepared for these games.

Speaking of preparation, it was nearly impossible for this team to get ready for the style of play they’ll be facing when given the task of dismantling mediocre non-European squads such as Puerto Rico, China, Korea and Brazil in the preparation games. Playing against a fairly washed up Italian national team and a soft underachieving Slovenian were the only true “tests” the US faced until they reached the semi-finals against Greece.

In a 3 or 5 game playoff type series like the Americans are accustomed to coming from the NBA their chances of succeeding would have been infinitely higher against Greece, but for the time being, the US will not be able to enjoy any type of consistent long term success until more steps are taken to put the team on a level playing field when stacking up with their International counterparts.

Suggested 15-man roster for the 2007 Tournament of Americas and 2008 Olympics:

PG: Kirk Hinrich, Jameer Nelson, Charlie Bell
SG: Michael Redd, Eddie Jones, J.J. Redick
SF: Anthony Parker, Shane Battier, Josh Howard
PF: Tayshuan Prince, Udonis Haslem, PJ Brown
C: Dwight Howard, Elton Brand, Matt Bonner

The Different Perspectives of International Basketball

Dimitris Ritsonis

The World Championships of Japan are now history and, even if one is happy or not, there are many smiles around the world of international basketball fans regarding the different mentalities that are slowly arising around the globe.

A few weeks before the beginning of the tournament, it was pretty obvious to basketball analysts that four teams were the ones who would be sharing most (if not all) chances to go all the way. This had only partially depended on the team rosters; after all, team USA was and will always be a medal contender, when it comes to the quality of the talent.

However, when it comes to the rest of the bunch, Argentina, Spain and Greece, it became pretty obvious that there are other aspects on the final decision that turn a team into a World medal candidate for such a competitive tournament. Team spirit, locker-room stability and mental cohesion are now added to the already existing tactical part of the game, and it becomes even more analytical when you see many different systems ran on the floor by only one team.

All these different aspects are creating today’s team models that either exceed expectations or simply learn how to take advantage of their skills on court, working in the sequence of a body, where every player seems to be a different muscle, moving towards the same direction, the same goal. Spain, Greece, USA and Argentina had all the skills, all the talent and created the major team cohesion in order to then start moving towards the same direction. Having achieved that goal, they created different perspectives of the International game, depending mainly on the coach’s mentality and on the players that are playing the game.

New World Champions Spain is a large Mediterranean country with a strong basketball history, the best domestic league outside the NBA and a lot of potential. The big step of Spanish basketball towards dominance came with the 1980 born players, mainly the duo of Juan Carlos Navarro and Pau Gasol, who were both added to the National team at an early age as protagonists.

Veteran forward Jorge Garbajosa and crafty point guard Jose Manuel Calderon completed the core of this amazing team that had seriously underachieved so far, despite producing some of the best basketball in the continent during the past 5 years. Their gameplay was never limited, as the team always had a combination of athleticism, skills, team perspective, distributing big men, recognized stars and a deep bench.

However, the Spanish team had repeatedly choked in crucial moments of the knock-out games. Both analysts and fans had always been warning the Spanish team that they will need more than just team talent, motive defense, speed and good shooters to win a tournament. Well, they did win one this year and, guess what. In the only game that they needed not to choke, the opponent did. By beating Argentina in a dramatic semi-final, they came up strong in the final game, took an early lead and never looked back.

Having finally achieved their first Gold medal ever at the international level, while having played probably the most balanced game on both ends of the court this summer, the Spanish will be lucky enough to build around their new generation, Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez, as well as the upcoming 15-year old Ricky Rubio, who should be publicized as the next best thing coming from Europe for the following years. With these talents coming along with other, stable basketball prospects from the ACB league, it is pretty obvious that Spain should be a medal candidate in every upcoming tournament, regardless of the competition.

The runners-up, Greece, the team that went all the way last summer in Beograd, impressed many by their self sacrifice for the sake of the team in the Eurobasket, but it wasn’t only that. There was much talent that needed to come to the surface and be released for the others to see. In the Eurobasket, this frustrated, yet very productive and experienced generation raised mainly in the ULEB field of new age European basketball, wanted to win.

In Japan, they tried to impress and they managed to do it, despite their lack of athleticism. Their perimeter play seemed more coherent and balanced, their motive defense would not find inferior competition and the ability to have two different dominant centers in the paint may have given Greece an ultra successful future, despite the fact that they collapsed mentally in the final game versus Spain, after the semi-final upset of the U.S.-team.

Their combo-forwards gave them an alternative to go to bigger lineups when they lost experienced guard Nikos Zisis in the group stage, but it was their perimeter stars, Theo Papaloukas, Dimitris Diamantidis and the rising Vasilis Spanoulis that earned most of the wins, either by defending and running the court, or by creating and passing the ball inside, mainly to 21-year old big-sized Sofoklis Schortsanitis. Greece may not be producing the best talent at the junior level, but it is obvious that the players are maturing well enough in their leagues that they become better in a slower pace than most countries, yet pretty convincing as soon as they reach the senior level.

The United States, having felt a number of what they call “embarrassing” routes in the past two tournaments (World Championships 2002, Olympics 2004), came to Japan with a 3-year plan, led by a strict mentality led by accomplished Coach K. Their roster, filled with the golden 2003 NBA draft generation, promised a competitive tournament and a better perspective as far as international basketball is concerned. Basketball fans noted an improvement in the view of the game from the U.S. side. After all, the Americans demolished some important opponents, although it was a pretty easy tournament for the top-4 teams, when it came to all the rounds leading up to the semi-finals.

However, in the game against the Greeks, Coach K’s team showed a lack of defensive concentration, when, at the same moment, their opponents had a different play for every single possession and a 100% success rate running their pick and roll. The U.S. team received a huge warning for their defensive game for the future competitions, and it is not only a matter of adding one more perimeter shooter, one more role player, one more defensive force. It has to always start from the team. The more basketball is faced as a marketing product in the U.S., the more the players will be getting used to the individualistic perspective, and even these young players will find it tougher to escape from the one-on-one ways of life and get used to the international style.

Unlike the other three teams, where the potential and the continuity is obvious, Argentina’s future is still unknown. With their inside game being exposed for the first time in the past 5 summers, Argentina may be seeing some of their veterans resigning from the National team quite soon. The complete game of their wing players is simply amazing, and Pepe Sanchez may have provided the team with the best playmaking of the tournament. It is obvious that all these players know each other really well and they keep playing together for years, however some tactical issues forced a semi-final loss against Spain.

The uncharacteristic monopoly that Manu Ginobili established on shot-creating forced in the game’s second half, the snubbing of inside force Luis Scola by his teammates and the minimal shots that Andres Nocioni got in the last quarter forced Argentina to play and lose the 3rd place game. This tournament could have been the swan song of a wonderful basketball generation, quite likely the best team that the world saw playing basketball in this running decade so far, especially when it comes to team coherence, inside-outside equilibrium, physical defense and their natural feel for the game. Whether the new generation will be in the position to replace the veterans remains unknown and unlikely, as the talent behind the existing stars is not of the same level, especially when it comes to the 30-something year old frontcourt players.

As mentioned before, the rest of the teams were hardly as competitive as the leading ones, yet the potential for some of them might be even bigger. France, finishing fifth was quite successful without Tony Parker, but should be back in the contender’s caliber next year by adding a distributing big man in Joakim Noah – their major limitation over the past 3 summers – and some great potential from their NBA-prospect filled U-18 national team. The fact that most of the players are usually well acclimated from early ages along with being exceptional athletes gives the young Franch team infinite potential for the future, as long as ball distribution is accurate and the three-pointers fall.

Turkey’s team spirit helped them reach great success this summer, and the Ersan Ilyasova – Cenk Akyol duo is ready to take over for them pretty soon. They will both be carrying the necessary NBA/Euroleague experience for future seasons in a more star oriented role, once they both reach maturity, as the supporting cast of banging big men and smart point guards is there to help them. The young generations are always among the best and there are many players who will be helping out in the near future. If the Okur-Turkoglu duo wants to return to this team, then they have to enhance the team spirit that led them to an encouraging 6th place this summer.

Unlike the French team, of course, where the stars are already experienced, the Turkish talent should probably explode in the mid-term, yet the potential is there and patience is what they need right now in order to reach the top level International teams.

Lithuania may not return to dominance that quickly, at least without a clear-cut point guard with leadership abilities, someone like Sarunas Jasikevicius, who may not be playing anytime soon. However, Mantas Kalnietis has both the skills and the size to take over this position in the long term, as the next Euroleague season will be the guide of his potential. The frontline, regardless of their limited effectiveness in the World Championships or not, remains among the top in the world stage. As long as the ball distribution problem is solved, then both the bigs and sharpshooters like Arvydas Macijauskas and Simas Jasaitis will be really scary again and Lithuania will be better than their 7th place in this World Championships.

Serbia’s new start has commenced, and it was indeed very ugly. But the future, depending mainly on the continuously successful generations that are coming from the junior levels, is still bright. However, it has become obvious that the junior talent in the Balkans only rarely translates to success at the senior level and the Serbian federation needs to take over in that before the Serbs sink again. Team mentality is yet to be achieved, but the return of Nenad Krstic and his co-operation with Darko Milicic in the paint already provides them with a great frontline for the next decade. Igor Rakocevic didn't fail as their new leader, but he will need some serious backcourt support in the upcoming tournaments, while the Serbs might be thinking of inviting back some of the rejected veteran stars in order to improve experience off the bench for the future, competitive tournaments. In any case, don't expect immediate success by Serbia, especially given the lately rising competition; a 5-year plan would work miracles for them, especially if their younger stars see more playing time in their domestic games.

Like Serbia, Italy also has a brand new team and it is still unknown whether some veterans like Massimo Bulleri will return to the team in order to help from the bench. The Belinelli-Mancinelli-Bargnani tandem could carry the team in the next decade, while some more significant role players (Gigli, Da Tome, Gallinari) will be in the mix promising some encouraging results pretty soon. The Italians have one of the best schools in the International basketball when it comes to creating skilled defensive teams. Learning the basketball fundamentals well and following a really successful, yet now outdated generation, the young players will be tight on defense and patient in offense, always looking for the best shooting opportunity, even if they lack some dominant inside force. Add in the mix the improved athleticism that these young Italians have, Bargnani’s potential inside-outside force, and the future is brighter for them, despite - similarly to the Serbs again - failing to make it in the quarter-final round in Japan.

China, the 2008 Bejing Olympics host, had a hard time this summer, barely making it to the top-16, but their potential seems better on paper with their young, long and daring guard mixture of Chen Jianghua and Sun Yue joining the Yao Ming-Yi Jianlian big men combo, adding ball distribution and athleticism for the years to come. However despite the future smiles that the Chinese fans may be already forcing, things will be anything but easy for them. China was exposed in these Worlds for the lack of a team plan and continuity, while the defensive game was really tough to solve. Coach Kazlauskas surely has a lot to translate before China has real hopes for a brighter future, while immediate success in the Olympics seems like a bad joke right now. Miracles don't happen that often, but step-by-step work may help them progress after some time.

Brazil seems like a lost case right now. A waste of their great inside game potential and athleticism, mainly due to the lack of a real ball distributor couldn’t even help them surpass the group stage. Take out Tiago Splitter, and all the other team stars (Marcelino Huertas, Leandrino Barbosa and Anderson Varejao) underachieved and were forced to unnecessary turnovers and bad shot selection throughout the tournament. Understanding the basketball fundamentals and better team-coaching should be the lesson for them next summer in the Americas tournament in Venezuela in order to keep this generation on a good track for the Olympic games.

We are not leaving Russia and Croatia out of that discussion, although they didn’t participate in the tournament, as they should be really competitive next summer onwards. The story for these two teams is all but similar. The lack of a true point guard and the weak offensive focus has severely hurt the athletic Russian team, which should solve these problems, as long as Andrei Kirilenko and his wing athletic counterparts (Sergey Monia, Viktor Khryapa, Yaroslav Korolev) are still interested in the National team. The many talented point guards that the Russians included in their U-18 team might be a good start, but then the plan is probably a mid-term one, not that effective before the next World Championships. However, the fact that those youngsters belong to the strong Russian clubs has severely limited playing time for them in ULEB competitions and therefore their ability to quickly contribute in the senior level.

Croatia should be looking for a medal next summer in the Eurobasket, as long as Nicola Vujcic returns to the National team and plays the post the way he knows how to, like a point guard. What the world saw in Belgrade was an excellent mixture of athleticism, great ball distribution from the young guards, terrific perimeter shooting, and quick and smart big men, who are ready to pass the ball and create when needed. However, their lack of concentration and weak team character cost them the qualification in this Championship.

The different aspects of the game do not end here. It all begins with the work that basketball federations and the players themselves show us on a daily basis, not only at the international level, but also, when it comes to the Euroleague games, the coaching tactics, the NBA imitation (or lack thereof) on a worldwide basis and the ability of teams and players to become flexible towards the need of a specific game and/or a specific opponent. When there is something new, then a young basketball school is being born and you have to study it well.

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