Synergy, Team USA, and Point Guard U

Synergy, Team USA, and Point Guard U
Nov 13, 2006, 03:15 am

"The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects."

This is a simple, time-tested concept, and also a statement so vital to team success on the basketball court that for the greater purposes of this article, it could probably be revised to read “…agents or forces must interact so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.” Yet so often in today’s star-dominated basketball landscape, the importance of team basketball is under-emphasized, or forgotten about completely.

Once you start looking for it, the influence of synergy is readily apparent on all levels of basketball, at almost any given time in any given game. There are stars, and there are roleplayers. Stars take the shots, or create shots for the roleplayers. The roleplayers defer to the stars, and find ways to contribute that don’t involve looking for their own offense. Coaches like Phil Jackson, Larry Brown, and Greg Popovich have become legends basing their methods around the concept.

And yet, so many still struggle to understand why Team USA has fallen behind the curve on the international pedestal. Instead of looking at synergy, a concept that still determines success even in this modern era of star-emphasized, isolation heavy American basketball, shortsighted fans and pundits have a tendency to start throwing out negative terms like “lazy”, “selfish”, and “unpatriotic” in regards to America’s international failures. People are astounded by the fact that a team featuring five NBA superstars on the court at all times is capable of losing to a team that might have one or two NBA roleplayers-at-best.

Give the concept of synergy a minute or two of your time, and the events of this past summer will start to make a bit more sense. You might even come away with a more optimistic outlook on the state of American basketball, both in terms of our most visible NBA superstars and the future of the US team at the international level.

I previously stated that the influence of synergy can be found on any level of basketball, and the perfect example of this would be the schizophrenic nature of the Arizona Wildcat basketball program over the past decade or so. Lute Olson has developed a powerhouse program, utilizing up-tempo play driven by high-powered guards. With players like Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby, and Jason Terry truly turning Arizona into “Point Guard U”, Olson always has more than enough talent to pick from. He won the title in 1998, came in 2nd in 2001, and was oh-so-close to getting another opportunity in 2005 before his team’s collapse down the stretch against Illinois in the Elite Eight.

But when I said Olson always has more than enough talent to pick from, I meant it. Except for 1997’s historic underdog run, Arizona has featured more star power than all but a handful of programs on a yearly basis. But the results have been quite varied. Aside from a nice 2001-2003 stretch in which the Wildcats went National Championship Game-Elite Eight-Elite Eight, the successful years have taken place between underachieving ones. Once again, I must note that it is hard to say the teams that underachieved were any less talented, unless you tend to take a “hindsight is 20/20” style view on things.

In closely watching almost all of these teams, it is clear to me that the less successful years can be tied into a lack of team synergy.

First of all, Arizona teams have a tendency to be very unbalanced in terms of positional makeup. Olson is able to recruit elite guards, and his teams are almost always perimeter-heavy. Even when he does manage to land a talented group of big men, he tends to feature one so that his guards will have more space and enough shots to stay happy. The Arizona teams with a group of reliable post players are undeniably the ones that have found the most success.

It is also clear that Olson oftentimes has trouble getting his players to buy into his team concepts. He recruits guards that like to shoot early and often. His system works for the most part, especially considering the superior talent level he is able to employ. But oftentimes his secondary perimeter players don’t appear willing to defer to established go-to offensive options. Combined with the perimeter-heavy rotations, this leads to quick, poorly-timed shots, blown leads, and generally streaky basketball. This only builds on itself, as “hungry” offensive players often rush shots and lose focus on the defensive end.

In the “down” years, it is fairly clear that Olson is missing a few good roleplayers. Compare last year’s team to the dominant 2005 team, for instance. Hassan Adams was a natural complementary option next to Salim Stoudamire and Channing Frye, but wasn’t a great fit as a go-to scorer. He would have been fine, but the players around him weren’t good in their roles either. Right away it became clear that freshman Marcus Williams was a much better go-to guy than Adams. Senior Chris Rodgers was an elite-level defender on a poor defensive team, but Olson still had to give him a temporary midseason kick in the pants for his inability to play within the team concept. The same could be said about point guard Mustafa Shakur, who tended to dominate the ball and almost never looked to create for Williams or Adams.

The tendency was for this athletic group to fire up outside jumpers early in the shot clock, instead of moving the ball and creating good shooting looks for teammates. The quick shots led to plenty of transition opportunities for the opposition, and cold streaks often to even more individual-dominated, rushed offensive play. All that talent was put to waste, because while Rodgers, Shakur, and other Wildcat roleplayers would have made excellent primary options, they were downright terrible complementary ones. In other words, this team was very lacking in synergy. A similar pattern could be seen in Jim Calhoun’s marvelously talented Connecticut team a season ago.

Compare the tendencies of Arizona’s program to that of Roy Williams at Kansas/North Carolina and Coach K at Duke. Both coaches have their pick of the recruiting litter, and land immensely talented players every season. At the same time, they take a different philosophy when it comes to their roleplayers. It isn’t that they are any less talented than their Arizona counterparts, but for the most part they are kids that understand what synergy is all about. Duke’s offense is almost always built around two or three elite offensive talents, and a couple of natural complementary players. Roy Williams’ first recruiting class was made up of complementary players talented enough to take the lead when the stars of the 2005 title-winning team left early, but also very comfortable playing secondary roles when the elite talented re-entered the program. Don’t doubt it for a minute – Bobby Frasor, Danny Green, Marcus Ginyard, and Alex Stepheson are just as important to North Carolina’s success this year as Lawson, Ellington, Hansbrough and Wright. When these two programs have down years, they tend to take place because of a lack of talent or experience, not because of a lack of synergy.

Taking a closer look at Arizona’s successful teams, the aforementioned balance was already in place. It is fairly clear that synergy was achieved as well. After a disappointing 2004, Salim Stoudamire and Channing Frye emerged as the unquestioned go-to scorers in 2005. Everybody blasted Hassan Adams for his “underachieving” junior season, but it was his willingness to defer to upperclassman teammates that allowed Arizona to be great. And there can be no denying how great the Wildcats were in 2005. They were on the verge of handily defeating another great team in Illinois, when the “synergy bug” hit again down the stretch. The ultimate irony occurred when it was Adams missing at the buzzer to finalize the historic collapse, instead of Stoudamire - perhaps more suited to create a clutch shot than any player Olson has ever coached.

It is also interesting to see that Coach K was unable to translate the use of synergy within his Duke program to his coaching philosophy at the World Championships. Instead of coming up with a set rotation with a balance of go-to offensive players and complementary pieces, he went with 5-man substitution rotations at times and benched several of his more natural roleplayers. Even with USA basketball making an effort to balance out the roster a bit more by adding complementary types such as Kirk Hinrich, Joe Johnson, Shane Battier, Dwight Howard, and Brad Miller, the team still looked very much out of synch, and displayed many of the same characteristics Arizona’s “down year” teams do on both ends of the court. James, Wade, and Anthony looked lost without the ball in their hands, and the offense never flowed as well as it could have. If any of the “big three” didn’t get a shot every couple of times down the floor, you can be sure that a quick one would ensue at some point.

It isn’t that these players are selfish. They grew up in a basketball culture constantly in search of the next Michael Jordan, with the dunk emerging as the most popular play amongst fans and the isolation becoming NBA coaches’ offensive set of choice. Ball movement? Spot up shooting? Supporting roles? These players were thrust into superstardom before they had a chance to learn about these things. At the same time, many international teams are built around the concept of synergy. They understand that they will never beat the United States in a game where five equals five. But knowing that America’s five would struggle to be anything more than five, teams like Greece and Spain successfully made five equal ten.

There is no doubt that if the World Championship had been an 82-game season, the United States would have been the best team out there. 70 wins would have been very likely. Even at close to record pace, it still includes 12 losses. In single elimination, where the US is certain to have an off shooting night at some point, a night that will certainly be exacerbated by those tendencies of streakiness and poor shots at crucial times, is it any surprise that we dropped one to a team having the perfect shooting night? Greece’s players, whom the US coaching staff couldn’t even name at the end of the game, knew the reality of situation. Without synergistic concepts behind everything they did on the floor that night, the game would have been a landslide.

While I have made some negative comments about Arizona, the NBA and American basketball in general, this article isn’t meant to have a sour tone to it.

As far as Arizona goes, the results speak for themselves. Olson has been to two Final Fours, multiple Elite Eights, and hoisted a championship banner over the past decade. My comments have more to do with the Wildcats struggling to get the most out of their players on a consistent basis, not Olson being a poor strategist or motivator. Over the past twenty years, his track record in terms of wins and losses as well as player development can only be topped by several coaches. Arizona’s reputation as Point Guard U is self-fulfilling, giving the staff better recruiting opportunities from within the guard pool. It should also be noted that Olson consistently identifies when his guards aren’t playing their roles, and is constantly attributing his team’s lack of success to just that. Interestingly enough, Olson has been one of USA Basketball’s harshest critics since August’s disappointing finish, and specifically mentioned basketball being a team game as one of the reasons for the struggles.

In terms of American basketball in general, the reality is that the recent US world championship team was constructed with synergistic concepts in mind. Adding guys like Hinrich, Battier, and Howard was absolutely a step in the right direction, but a complete change probably isn’t one that could take place overnight without alienating some of our country’s biggest stars. As the Committee continues to emphasize ways of finding international game-specific success and takes further steps toward building the traditionally synergistic roster, expect USA basketball to make a major comeback within the next five years.

It should also be mentioned that the NBA isn’t an inferior form of basketball just because it appears to have headed away from synergistic concepts. The reality is that every team that has found long-term success in the past decade has without a doubt also shown fantastic synergy. This goes from MJ and the Bulls, to Duncan and the Spurs, to Larry Brown’s Pistons. The issue stems from everybody else attempting to follow the Jordan-Jackson lead, and oftentimes overlooking the fact that players such as Robert Horry and Steve Kerr also have a fairly consistent history of success. Bloated, dysfunctional teams such as New York and the turn of the century Trail Blazer squads give the NBA its selfish reputation, not the Spurs, Lakers, or Pistons. Throwback systems are popping up across the NBA and at the end of the day, a balance of play styles is only going to make American basketball stronger.

As a case study, let’s take a look at Lute Olson’s current squad, whose 2006 debut at Virginia ended in defeat and included a blown double-digit first half lead.


In terms of talent, the Wildcats are as stacked as ever.

Once again, Arizona is loaded in the backcourt. Many were expecting point guard to be an issue if Mustafa Shakur went pro (not me), but Shakur eventually decided to return for his senior season after realizing the odds were against his getting picked in the first round. Marcus Williams also deliberated making a run at the league, but ended up back in Tuscon as well. A future lottery pick, Williams should lead the ‘Cats in scoring this year. He is joined on the wing by several other big names, including powerful junior Jawan McClellan, a former top recruit and healthy for the first time in a while, as well as McDonald’s All-American freshman Chase Buddinger, an instant impact star at the wing. Shakur will have plenty of help with the ballhandling duties. Williams is an excellent distributor, while sophomore JP Prince and junior Daniel Dillion both are considered combo guards. Freshman Nic Wise is an aggressive ball of energy who has already earned himself minutes in the rotation.

The frontcourt is led by senior Ivan Radenovic, a crafty power forward who isn’t going to overwhelm anybody physically but has quietly emerged as one of the better big men in the Pac-10. The comparison to Darius Songaila has been made by members of the DX staff, and it is legitimate. Olson will use a platoon next to the senior, made up of still-slender senior C Kirk Walters, raw but explosive sophomore Mohammed Tangara, second year combo forward Fendi Onobun, and promising freshman Jordan Hill. Hill is cut from the “raw, long, slender, and explosive” mold, but has risen from expected redshirt to rotation regular. There will also be times in which Olson will use a 4-guard lineup.


Radenovic appears poised for a true breakout season and gives Olson something to work with in the post, but six of his top seven players are perimeter players. There is a glut at the wing, with Williams, Buddinger, and McClellan all capable of being go-to guys, and some very talented players will end up sitting or not getting the amount of shots could probably get within other programs. After tonight’s game, it looks like Prince and Onobun could be odd men out already. Post play is a big question mark after Radenovic, with Walters behind the curve after an injury and Tangara not expected to contribute. Hill looks like the best bet to emerge as Olson’s second interior option, but had his ups and downs against Virginia. It appears that the Arizona coaching staff will once again be torn between getting their best players on the floor and keeping a traditional interior presence in the game.


Arizona came out firing on all cylinders, knocking down perimeter jumpshots, getting to the basket, and flying up and down the court. They kept Virginia lead man Sean Singletary in check most of the first half, and took advantage of their overall athleticism edge. However, things deteriorated very quickly after the Wildcats pushed the lead into the teens. Instead of baby the lead and playing more cautiously like every successful team tends to do, overeager Arizona guards continued to fire up early jumper after early jumper.

Particularly noticeable were the poor decisions of Shakur, McClellan, and Wise in taking rushed, low percentage shots after made baskets on the other end. Williams, the obvious go-to scorer, became visibly frustrated with his teammates’ lack of discretion and faded in the second half. Buddinger, who ought to be option number two, was the only Wildcat perimeter player to defer and look for his teammates in the half court setting.

Arizona looked terrible on the defensive end, with nobody ever taking responsibility for slowing down Singletary’s quick strike penetrations. He was able to get into the lane at will, where the help defense was lethargic and soft. Virginia’s big men, senior Jason Cain in particular, did a great job of finishing around the basket, while Dave Leitao’s group of raw wing forwards beat the Wildcats to loose balls all night and clearly out-physicaled their Arizona counterparts.

Radenovic had the impossible task of holding down the paint by himself against a constantly rotating group of Virginia bigs, but did an admirable job. He looked very good stepping out and hitting a couple of timely 3-pointers, and found a way to contribute nearly every time he got his hands on the ball. Radenovic finished with 24 points on 7-8 shooting while adding 8 rebounds and 5 assists.

Down the stretch, things really imploded. Wise took several poor shots, and ball movement never really entered the equation. Singletary took advantage of the transition misses to dominate the open floor, and frustration led Williams to join his teammates in firing up ill-advised shots down the stretch. He missed two big free throws and then fouled out after committing an unnecessary, costly foul. The snowballing pattern of quick, poor shots leading to easy transition baskets and more quick shots by single-minded teammates was in full effect the entire second half.

Projecting Arizona

Obviously it is way too early to start drawing any conclusions about whether this team will turn out more like the disappointing 05-06 group or the successful 04-05 one, but it is clear that Olson and his coaching staff will likely have to navigate the same pitfalls that ended up sinking last year’s season. This group is guard heavy, shallow in the post, and features several complementary guards who want to shoot like they are go-to guys. McClellan in particular could be a problem, even though he produced very well tonight. Several ill-timed perimeter jumpers really hurt Arizona’s cause, and it could be tough to get enough shots for Williams, Buddinger, and the junior. The first 5-10 minutes of the season were phenomenal, but the rest of the game felt a lot like Arizona’s first contest a year ago, in which they locked down a timid Kansas team but nearly cost themselves the game with such poor shot selection.

It is always hard to tell which direction Lute Olson’s teams are going to take. When he connects with his players and they take on proper roles, Arizona is as formidable a postseason foe as you will find. Their trio of wings is off the charts in terms of talent, but finding that synergy might be tough yet again.

(It should also be noted that Olson continues to load up on perimeter talent. With Shakur’s graduation and either Buddinger or Williams expected to leave early, perhaps only two spots will be opened in an already loaded perimeter rotation. Arizona signed 4 perimeter players this week, including potential one-and-done talent Jerryd Bayless and freakishly athletic wing Jamelle Horne. At the same time, Radenovic is gone and project Alex Jacobsen was the only big man to ink. Perimeter log jams are a part of Arizona basketball, but next season appears to be an extreme case – even for Point Guard U.)

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