Thursday, September 6, 2007

Evaluating the U.S. After Vegas

The U.S. Senior Men's National Team capped off a dominant performance in the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship Sunday by crushing Argentina 118-81 in the gold-medal game. The U.S. led by 21 after one quarter and was never threatened by its most challenging rival in the tournament. With Saturday's win over Puerto Rico, the U.S. had already guaranteed a spot in the 2008 Olympics, but by finishing out the tournament at a dominant 10-0, they went a long way toward ensuring they will take at least the role of co-favorites heading to Beijing.

I didn't end up watching a ton of the FIBA Americas Championship, in part because the U.S. was so far ahead of the opposition. Minutes after I settled in to watch the U.S.-Argentina tilt for gold, the game was already long decided. The play of the U.S. men was in stark contrast to the disappointments of the 2002 and 2006 World Championships and the 2004 Olympics, all of which ended short of what is always the team's goal - nothing short of gold.

Nonetheless, I must say I was surprised at the level of adulation for the 2007 U.S. squad, with ESPN Insider Chris Sheridan writing a piece comparing this group to the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team, more commonly known as "The Dream Team." Given the Dream Team is widely considered the greatest single collection of basketball talent of all time, that's a pretty bold comparison.

Is it warranted? Maybe. The National Team's margin of victory in the FIBA Americas Championship was a strong 39.5 points per game. Still, that falls short of the 44-plus the Dream Team swamped opponents by in 1992. More impressive, perhaps, is the fact that every Dream Team victory came by 30-plus points, while Argentina did keep up with the U.S. in their pre-medal round matchup, losing by just 15.

It's tough to compare the level of competition; the international game has obviously improved by leaps and bounds in the last 15 years, but we're talking about strictly teams from the Americas as opposed to the entire world, and many of the best available players (Canada's Steve Nash and several Argentinean stars, notably Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni and Fabricio Oberto) were not in Las Vegas. As pointed out by Kelly Dwyer, blogging at TrueHoop, there were actually more NBA players on the silver and bronze medalists in the 1992 Olympics (seven) than in this FIBA Americas Championships (five).

Either way, that such a debate is even possible indicates that the U.S. is on the right track. At the same time, there's a cautionary tale just four years back. In 2003, the U.S. swept the FIBA Americas Championship. While the victory margin (+30.9) was not as strong, the National Team dealt a crushing 33-point defeat in the gold-medal game to an Argentina squad largely the same as the one that would hoist gold in Athens less than a year later.

While Argentina was breaking through, the U.S. went 5-3, winning bronze in Athens. Why the difference? An overhaul of the roster may have been a key factor. Just three of the 12 players who won in Puerto Rico in 2003 played in Athens. For various reasons, including security concerns, starters Jason Kidd (who underwent knee surgery), Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal (citing a knee injury) withdrew from the team.

Kidd's absence was particularly painful in the Olympics. His unselfish style of play is perfectly suited for the National Team's standout talents and the transition opportunities afforded by lesser competition. During this year's FIBA Americas Championship, Kidd handed out 47 assists and committed just five turnovers, a big reason the U.S. had a 2.49 assist-to-turnover ratio as a team.

While Kidd ran the break, it was Kobe Bryant who set the emotional tempo for the U.S. in Las Vegas with his single-minded devotion to earning gold. The tape Bryant watched to prepare for his international opponents quickly became legendary and stood in stark contrast to past reports of limited respect for the opposition from the U.S. team. Bryant averaged 15.3 points per game, but stood out with his defense.

Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, two of the three holdovers on this squad from the 2004 Olympics (Amare Stoudemire was the other) demonstrated their improvement in the international style of play from even last summer, when they played in the World Championships. Anthony and James took full advantage of the shorter FIBA three-point line, hitting a combined 49 three-pointers at a ridiculous 59.7% clip. They were the two leading scorers as the team put up points at the unthinkable pace of 138.6 points per 100 possessions.

The U.S. will face much more challenging competition next summer in Beijing and has yet to demonstrate that it has completely solved the problems - notably screen-and-roll defense - that proved to be its demise in the 2006 World Championships. Still, if the core of this year's roster comes back in 2008 augmented by injured Chris Bosh, Elton Brand and Dwyane Wade (in some combination), the U.S. should reclaim the role of favorites entering the Beijing Olympics.