Breaking down an Olympic loss for the ages
By Adam Hoff
Sitting in my living room, eyes squinting to try to make out the action on the television (because Comcast Cable is the worst company in the entire world and our cable has been out almost 24-7 for the three weeks we've lived in Chicago), I felt like The One. Not Neo, but the only fan of the US Basketball team left. Everywhere you went - every column, every radio talk show, every random conversation - you heard the bashing. The Scheme Team, the Nightmare Team, the Millionaires Who Don't Care Team. The list goes on.
Except here's the thing. It was our team. As in the United States. Love or hate the individual players that made up this squad, they were still representing our country. And they were still human beings with pride and emotions; blood, sweat, and tears. Do you think they tried to lose? Do you think they took solace in their bank accounts when they realized that their own country was rooting against them? Think again.
Sure, there were some valid reasons to be frustrated with this year's Olympic Team. For starters, Larry Brown isn't really the right guy to man the group (more on this a bit later). Plus, the personnel was dreadful (more on that too). I can understand that people are fired up about the selection process and everything else. But there comes a point where you have to say: "You what, what's done is done. This is the team and they are obviously trying their hardest ... I think I'll go ahead and root for MY FREAKING COUNTRY."
Instead, people got absorbed in negativity and began treating the United States basketball team like an abstract symbol. A symbol of what's wrong with the NBA. More to the point, a symbol of what's wrong with the United States basketball program. The problem is, these guys are more than symbols. They are actual people; athletes that were willing to give up their offseason (just look at how it affected Duncan last year – giving up the limited amount of rest is a big sacrifice) to compete for their country. They were willing to risk injury, put their safety on the line amid threats of terrorism, and play for the US. So they aren't symbols.
And even if they were mere symbols, isn't this the wrong time for points to be made? The most common argument I've heard for rooting against our own team is that failure will lead to change. That ultimately, losing and losing often this year will spur the selection committee to action. I suppose I can see that, but let me ask you this: Wasn't the 2002 World Championships the perfect opportunity for that to happen? It wasn't the Olympics so we were allowed to be even more cynical. We finished 6th and lost with NBA players for the first time in International competition. We had a completely mismatched "All-Star" roster. We lost on our own turf in Indianapolis. If a statement was ever going to be made, this was it! If USA Basketball was ever going to "get it," wouldn't you have thought that 2002 would have been the time?
I mean, the same thing happened then. We lost in stunning fashion and then lost again. All of the stories about losing our invincibility started sprouting up, the criticisms of the process were running rampant, and it felt obvious that the same mistakes could never be made again. Well, they were. So what makes people think that this time is going to be any different? Maybe it will. Maybe having the same thing happen in the Olympic Games will inspire action.
But maybe it won't. Maybe next time they go with the All-Star approach yet again because KG and Kobe and T-Mac are all promising to go and LeBron is vowing revenge. We'd win gold in 2008 and all would be right with the world of basketball. Until 2012 rolled around and guys started copping out again. It would just become a cycle of overcompensation and reaction.
Here is another thing that bothers me about the "Losing now will help us later" defense for rooting against our own country:
The idea that this is an All-Star team. It's not an All-Star team. People keep calling it that. It's not. Quick, name how many of the players on the roster were in the 2004 All-Star game. Here's the answer: Two. Iverson and Duncan were the only US Team members that were All-Stars last year. Of course, LeBron and Odom should have made the game, if not a few others, but the point is that calling this an "All-Star Team" is a misnomer. If it really was a Dream Team then the roster would have looked very different. If you want to say that an "All-Star Team" approach doesn't work, make sure it's actually a team made up of All-Stars first.
Okay, so now you know why I'm not buying "greater good" as an excuse for rooting against the US Team. In fact, let's just be honest, I'm not buying any excuse. There's no reason to root for your own countrymen to lose. Period.
However, I am willing to admit that things need to be improved. I personally don't think that drastic measures need to be taken, but there are three issues that need to be resolved in order to right the ship.
1. A National Team Coach. This is the biggest issue and it's the one thing that nobody seems to be talking about. Larry Brown was a total misfire as the head coach. George Karl was a disaster in 2002. The next coach will probably struggle as well. The reason for this is that they are approaching the game from an NBA mentality. It's bad enough that all of our players are used to NBA rules, officiating, and style of play, but now the coaches are too. We have nobody on that bench that knows the international game.
After the collapse in 2002 I offered up the suggestion that the US hire a coach to serve in a year-round capacity. This person would be responsible for coaching all United States teams in international play, scouting overseas, developing a selection process and preparation program, and devoting themselves to global competition. Dean Smith comes to mind. Del Harris (who is already doing this for China, by the way). Maybe Jack Ramsey. That type of guy. It's not as important who the coach actually is, just that there is someone in place to find patterns that work in international play.
(Quick note on why Larry Brown was not a good choice. What was the biggest problem for our Olympic team? Shooting. What do Larry Brown's teams always struggle with? Shooting. Until Brown got to Detroit, where Rip Hamilton was already in place, his teams were just awful from the perimeter. In Philadelphia, he just screwed the 76ers by building a team of hard-nosed players who "play the right" way to surround Iverson with. Too bad none of them could shoot. If Philly would have had a Steve Kerr or Tim Legler type of player, I guarantee things would have been different. So it was no surprise to me that this team couldn't shoot. Larry Brown teams never can. And while the selection committee made the actual roster, you know Brown had some influence. Doug Collins actually informed us during a telecast that Brown turned away Brad Miller, saying, "he's not my kind of player." Why? Because he can hit a 15 foot jump shot? Anyway, it's obvious that you have to hit perimeter shots to win in today's international game. Therefore, it makes no sense to select a coach that shuns "shooters" and despises "specialists." Everything this team needed is everything that Larry Brown stands against. It was never going to work.)
2. Roster. This is the topic that has been beat into the ground, but it's worth mentioning. I don't have a problem with most of the guys on the Olympic team. People were calling for Marbury's head, but he was the only reason we beat Spain. Some don't like Iverson, but he plays harder than anyone. Marion is a terrific guy of the bench. Odom and Duncan and Boozer are all good pieces. Even the vilified Richard Jefferson got things turned around. The players I don't think should be on the team are the young guys. Dwyane Wade and LeBron are two of the most skilled players on the team, but they still shouldn't be on the roster. Here's why: when you are a rookie and you just played your first NBA season, there is no way you have anything left in the tank. Sure, these guys are young, but there is a tremendous mental strain that comes from playing 82 games at the professional level for the first time. Plus, Wade participated in a dozen playoff games. The guy needed a break! As for Carmelo, Amare Stoudemire, and Okafor, these guys were never going to play. Why have them on the team?
If you eliminate those five players from the roster, you have the opportunity to fill in the missing pieces. You can still have seven or eight NBA stars for marketing purposes and to keep the idea of making the team being an honor and a recognition, but you can also sneak in some role players and specialists. For instance, the extra five players could have been Fred Hoiberg (shooting and toughness), Earl Watson (pure point guard), Brent Barry (would go for 25 a night in International play), P.J. Brown (interior defense), and Brad Miller (everything you could possibly want). Maybe those guys break the rotation, maybe they don't. But at least you have some players that fit into defined roles. And if a team was trying to triple team Duncan, can you imagine what Barry and Hoiberg would do from the wings? Throw Brad Miller at the high post and let Iverson drive and dish. The United States could still lose, certainly, but never again for the reasons we're losing now. The days of Doug Collins telling us that "the US is being outscored 27-0 from behind the three point line" would be over.
Another great idea that was presented by ESPN's Chad Ford is to fill out the roster with American players who are studs overseas. Guys like Tyus Edny and Scoony Penn are proven commodities abroad. They would be the perfect compliment to NBA superstars.
3. Familiarity. It all comes down to how serious we are going to take this. If it's not that big of a deal then you will see very small changes and very little effort to put the US back on top. However, if we truly get down to business and take the goal of returning to dominance seriously, then the NBA and USA Basketball will make the effort to familiarize our players with the international game. That could mean taking a break during the season to get the national team together. It could mean touring overseas. It might mean playing preseason games with international rules. It might mean incorporating aspects of international play (trapezoid key, perhaps?) into our version. We'll see how badly we want to get back on top.
With more familiarity and practice, a consistent coach, and some subtle changes to the selection process, the US team should be able to return to prominence. Yes, the rest of the world is catching up and it will never again be as easy as it was in 1992 and 1996. However, the best basketball players in the world are still in our country. We simply need to become more flexible and we need to care more. We need to adapt and prepare and commit.
Hopefully we will. But even if we don't, the team that goes abroad and represents our country in the Olympics will always give it 100% and they will always deserve our support. And the only thing more disappointing than not winning the Gold medal in Athens is that this time around, our United States Olympic basketball team was playing without the support of their country.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.