Wednesday, July 25, 2012

2012 Olympics: Extreme Team's Chances

The final score of the USA-Spain exhibition game belies the weakness Team USA showed. Spain blitzed to an early lead and embarrassed the favorites with crisp passing, Pau's post game, and a sloppy US squad. Of course, the lead after the first quarter was only two points and by halftime the US had already usurped them; by the end of the game it was a blowout. But there's a legitimate thread of reasoning for concern now that's surfaced in the lauded '12 Extreme(-ly small but athletic) Team. 

The most important point about this game is that Spain wasn't looking to win. It was an exhibition game whose result had absolutely no direct bearing on the Olympic tournament. A win would be just an abstraction. Maybe it would help the Spain's confidence during the following games, but that's the only type of loose benefit the team could extract. Since there is nothing objective to gain from winning, all important strategies against Team USA would be pointless to employ. Thus, any special play will be shelved until they meet again and a weapon like a zone defense or pick and roll should not be used frequently so the Americans can't learn to defend or play against it. Also, they don't need to force a player with an injury (Marc Gasol) onto the court or play their most important pieces large minutes. An insanely deep team like USA doesn't need to worry about that, but other teams usually have a few stars they hope could play the entire game. (USA arguably has LeBron in that position, showing how amazing he is.)

Team USA, by contrast, cannot even lose in an exhibition game because of the enormous expectations placed on them. So it was no surprise to see LeBron and Durant to play 28 and 29 minutes, respectively, while Gasol and Calderon only played 24 and 27 minutes. The amazing bench from Team USA couldn't even close the gap for reducing minutes.

The Extreme Team's glaring weakness, centers and subsequently frontcourt defense against big players, is a terrible match-up for Spain (and Brazil). Both Gasol brothers are legitimate 7-footers and USA's only counter is Tyson Chandler. Against only one Gasol Chandler fouled out in eight minutes; that does not bode well for the future. With Chandler out of the game here are their options: Kevin Love, who was destroyed defensively and stands 6' 8" with no vertical leaping skills and fairly short arms; Anthony Davis, who has not even played a single minute in the NBA; or a small forward like their two leading scorers Durant and James.With both Gasol brothers one of those other options will need to cover (most likely) Pau, and in the doomsday scenario, which is not entirely unlikely, Team USA will need to defend both without their only center. Pau scored 19 points in a little under 24 minutes while drawing ten fouls. It's frightening to consider what they could do when they're both playing well.

The primary strength of Team USA is their combination of speed and athleticism, which allows them to smother opponents in the backcourt and start transition plays that typically end in a dunk. Spain, however, has Jose Calderon, a player who's led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio three times over the past five seasons including an incredible 5.38 in 07-2008. Appropriately, Chris Paul is his nearest peer and has led the league the only two times Calderon hasn't. With a steady hand at the helm, their full-court defense and ball pressure is rendered ineffective, stunting the Retread Team's offense -- no easy dunks in the open court means there are more possessions with an all-star team that's still uncomfortable playing a half-court offense. Against Tunisia this will work, but not against a good backcourt.

Another concern is luck. In a one-and-done tournament, something as chaotic as the result of a three point shot has a huge effect on the outcome. The Extreme Team was 13/23 from three point land and Spain 5/19. It could have easily gone the other way, and with Marc Gasol playing suddenly Spain looks venomous. Carmelo Anthony isn't a marksmen from outside despite his superstar label; don't expect him to hit 5/8 of his shots from there with regularity. If we're speaking of luck, some will point out that Rubio isn't playing, but Team USA has an all-star team from guys who are also out with injuries -- Dwight Howard (they really need him too), Derrick Rose, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, etc.

The Miami Heat and Team USA have a lot in common defensively. Team USA relies on switches and quick coverage overwhelming teams with athleticism. They also like to field a team with little variation in height; this allows for more switches on pick and rolls and a defense that is basically an amorphous, interchangeable system of parts. Joel Anthony is Miami's nominal center, but even he's a bit short and the team likes to play without a traditional center. Versus Oklahoma City this was fine because Perkins wasn't going to score 30 in the post, but against the Gasol Brothers (plus Ibaka, strangely enough, who seems to be liberated offensively) and Brazil's line of Nene-Splitter-Varejao. Another weakness of this approach is that Miami will often leave shooters open in the corners. While it's not entirely accurate to assume the same will happen to Team USA, constant switching and a swarming, pressuring defense can be defeated by crisp passing. If you swing the ball around enough even the fastest players in the world can cover every square foot of the court. Calderon is also adept at finding big men inside, and if Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love are part of the frontcourt there will be little resistance at the rim.

I still believe Team USA is the favorite to win the gold medal in London. One disadvantage that won't be (as) present is the home-court advantage for Spain since they were playing in their home country, and England is fond of the Americans as almost any European country. The FIBA officials will still be horrendous, but probably not as bad. (There were some calls during the game that were laughably bad; please watch FIBA basketball to gain back your respect of NBA officiating.) The Retread team is still a vulnerable team, however, especially in the frontcourt. Their best hope is that Anthony Davis gets more playing time and establishes himself as a part of the rotation because they'll need his shot-blocking and length. One Tyson Chandler is better than none, but the problem with having one of a kind is that teams can focus on getting him in foul trouble where only five gets you thrown out in the Olympics. The difficulty level has risen to "expert", and one wrong move will derail this cast of talent. It will take more than brute strength to repeat with gold; this time they will need guile, will, cunning, and a little bit of luck.

Interesting finds from the cumulative exhibition game stats:

-Tyson Chandler has more fouls than points.

-Anthony Davis has more points than Kevin Love.

-Their leading rebounder is Durant, although Love isn't too far from the lead in like 40% of the minutes.

-Leading shot-blocker is Davis even though he's only played 27 minutes.

-Westbrook has the best free-throw percentage on the team.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! Can’t wait for the next one. Keep stuff like this coming.
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