Friday, August 08, 2008

US disadvantages in international play

The US team has drawn some fire in recent international competitions for not playing team basketball, not being as cohesive as you want to see from a true team. They have attempted to adjust with the 3 year commitment system instituted for this Olympic cycle, allowing at least a good portion of the players to practice play together over three years (and thus 2-3 months total) as opposed to the week or two of practice and throw them out there in a virtual all-star game approach of the past.

But I thought and still think that such criticism, to the degree it will continue (and it will) is unfair. The international teams have a huge built-in advantage over us, namely that they play together as a unit for essentially their entire careers. They join the national teams as teenagers or just into their 20’s, and stay there until they near or pass 30. And in many cases they have also played together for a number of years on junior national teams. Add in that they practice together for longer and more intense periods each year as well, because the European season is so much lighter than the NBA marathon, and you can see why their level of teamwork might make the US look silly at times – it’s not a failing of the US players or, certainly, the NBA, it’s a product of being a veteran team.

As an example, the biggest threat to the US this year seems to be Spain. Their core of Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon, Felipe Reyes, Raul Lopez and Juan Carlos Navarro have been playing together on the national team since they were 15. Argentina's core has been together since the ramp up to the 2000 Olympics. You just cannot overstate how big of an advantage that is over three (or one!) years of a few weeks of practice and play each year.

The rules also leave us at a major disadvantage on a number of fronts:

- The ball is smaller and has a different feel, which I would guess is at least some factor in our well-documented perimeter shooting struggles.

- The court is smaller, mitigating our huge athletic edge to some degree.

- The goofy lane all but takes away post play, a staple of American basketball since even before the days of George Mikan.

- The allowance of true zone defenses, combined with the much shorter three-point line, clog the paint so that the kind of spread the floor isolation and drive play that is so common in the NBA is made difficult if not impossible in international play;

- Knocking the ball of the rim is allowed; this is completely counterintuitive to anybody who has ever played basketball. This is an area where the three year commitment has really helped, as you see our players taking advantage of this rule for the first time this year.

- The game is much more physical, which just takes getting used to – with the exception of the thuggish Spurs and hacking Jazz (and Celtics, to a degree), NBA guys don’t see this much. In particular, the tendency to allow moving screens frees shooters for open (and short) threes that they would have to earn in the NBA.

None of this is meant to make excuses for the US team if they do not win gold; they still need to go out and get it done. But I just can’t sit quietly any more while hoop idiots try to use international results as evidence that the NBA is something other than what it is – by far the highest quality basketball in the world. The game that the US wins or loses by 5 points by FIBA rules is a game they would win by 30 by NBA rules. John Hollinger estimates that the best international teams would go about 18-64 in an NBA season, which sounds about right to me. They are vastly superior to the best US college teams, but just not in the class of NBA teams.

The good news is that the FIBA game is slowly moving back towards being what I consider real basketball. Beginning in October 2010, the three-point line will be moved back from its present 20’6.1” to 22’1.7”, with plans to move to the NBA distance of 23’9” within a decade. And the three-second area will change from the current silly trapezoid to a rectangle, is it should be since Mikan and Wilt made the concept of “the key” obsolete.

These two changes will greatly improve the quality of the game, and while they will benefit the US at first the world will adjust quickly, probably after the first pro season under the new rules has passed. And it will greatly increase the popularity and legitimacy of the international pro game, which is good for the sport in general.

All this is not to say that you should skip the Olympics, which start Sunday. Anytime you get a chance to see Kobe, LeBron and Wade on the same court or see the brilliant play of the Spanish or Argentinan squads, you should take advantage, this is special stuff.

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