With the upcoming Tokyo Olympics opening in July 23, Team USA Basketball set up some exhibition games to prepare their players for the task at hand. The goal is clear: retain that Olympic Gold at all cost. The consequence for losing the gold: an immense loss of prestige – not just for the country – but for the premiere basketball league in the world, the NBA. If Team USA loses, the NBA loses its credibility, it finally shatters the remaining shreds of invincibility and erodes in a big way that air of superiority it carries along with it. Finally, it discourages fans, it ruins possible endorsements, and ultimately, the NBA loses tons of money.
As of this writing, Team USA (Men’s) has lost 2 out of 3 exhibition games, the first against lowly Nigeria and the second against medal-contending Australia. It is certainly a cause for alarm. But don’t push the panic button. Not yet. There’s still some time to make the needed adjustments.
What ails Team USA?
First thing that comes to mind is the line-up. The roster includes: Bam Adebayo, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Jerami Grant, Draymond Green, Jrue Holiday, Zach Lavine, Damian Lillard, Kevin Love, Kris Middleton and Jayson Tatum. Without a doubt, it is a star-studded line-up. It has great athleticism, and superb firepower. However, it appears that the selection committee wants the team to cash in on the small-ball concept, using speed and an extended shooting range. It has only 1 legit center in Bam; and limited lockdown defense capability particularly down the middle with only Bam and Draymond – and Jrue, once he is finally done with the NBA Finals – answering the call.
The line-up’s weaknesses surfaced in the two losses, as the opposition outrebounded Team USA, and the team’s defense could not shut down a balanced in-out attack from both the Nigerians and the Ozzies. There was the lack of dominant bigs to anchor the rebound, and a lack of 2-way players to keep the defense on point, while maintaining an offensive edge. When the defense failed to stop the shots, the team lost control of the pace, which is key to their small-ball offense.
But other than the rebounds and defense, there is the lack of cohesion that needs to be addressed. With KD, Damian, Devin and Bradley, not to mention Jayson, Kris and Zach, you obviously have enough firepower to overwhelm any opposition. Problem is how to divvy up playing time and ball touches among these great offensive artists. How to get the players to set aside individual statistics in favor of a team win. And ultimately, how to get the players to totally buy-in to team defense and the idea that offense alone will no longer win games at this level. The line-up is filled with offense-minded stars in their respective teams. Individually, they have awards and records that have propelled them to their lofty positions in their teams. The players must be willing to sacrifice their personal stats in the meantime for the sake of Team USA.
Familiarity is a big problem. Not only among themselves, but also with the system. Small-ball depends a lot on a cohesive, well-orchestrated defense that provides help at all times, with a lot of switching and possible double-teaming, plus coordinating; and hence, detailed planning and more practice. The players will need time to bond and buy-in to the coach’s concepts. They need more playing time together. Specially in defense.
But it’s not enough for those players to be bonding. Unfortunately, 3 player are still active in the NBA Finals. How do we expect these three to be in sync with the rest once they’re done with that commitment? Can they get up to speed and focused in time for this crucial campaign for the Olympic Gold? A question raised recently was: if Devin, Kris and Jrue join the team just days before the Olympics, will it not upset the team’s chemistry? Will they be able to fit into Coach Pop’s system easily, considering they have limited experience with it? Ultimately, this raised the question of: shouldn’t the 3 be replaced soonest by other interested stars who can address the twin problems of rebounds and defense?
Suggestions for possible replacements? The likes of Pat Beverley, to beef up perimeter defense. He will not compete for ball touches in the offense, but his pesky presence in the defense will be enough boon for the team. And another dominant big like Andre Drummond. The lack of a dominant big has actually diminished the team’s versatility, as it is now mainly reliant on small-ball in order to make hay.
What is clear right now is that, through the years, the level of competition in basketball all over the world has improved. More and more foreign players have learned from the NBA. In fact, in the last 3 years, the NBA MVP has been a foreigner. More and more foreign players have joined the elite ranks of the All-Stars and are familiar with how the NBA game is played. Thus, it is no longer enough for NBA stars to show themselves and let their presence overwhelm the opposition. That myth has been clearly eroded. Opposing teams no longer are in awe of Team USA. Rather, they are eager to test themselves, and they will bring their A-game when faced against the mighty Team USA. Nothing to lose, and so much to gain – this is the attitude that will propel the opposition when pitted against the US Teams.
During the last FIBA World Cup in 2019 held in China, Team USA placed a humiliating 7th! This pre-Olympics, they have – for the first time ever – suffered 2 consecutive losses. There is now the sinking realization that if they still do not understand the sense of urgency, if they do not have the right mental attitude, if they do not imbibe and totally buy-in to the team philosophy provided by Coach Pop, if they do not work as a team in both offense and defense, then they could be beaten.
Damian Lillard summed it all up when he said: “I think the more time we spend on the floor together, the more we’ll figure each other out. And we’ll figure out ways to get the ball moving.” Question is: with Booker, Middleton and Holiday still in the NBA Finals, factor in a few days of euphoria or pain, will they still have enough time to be comfortable with their new teammates, and imbibe a whole new system?
For a closer look, just click on the pics. Cover pic courtesy of mb.com.ph. Other photos courtesy of: USAtoday.com, foxsports.com.au, nytimes.com, masslive.com, en.as.com, datelatinamerica.com, upi.com, people.com, archysport.com, reuter.com, sportskeeda.com, blazersedge.com, and washingtonpost.com.