Tuesday, August 17, 2004


Broke Ballers

For a few years, basketball purists in the United States have decried the quality of play in the NBA. Critics have cited the frequency of sub-90 point games, the lack of fundamental play, the fact that a 40-year-old John Stockton could still execute well playing the grueling position of point guard, and losses the U.S. national team suffered at the World Championships in Indianapolis two years ago. Note to Tiger Woods: the low scores you're looking for are in the NBA. Those who defend the game say scores are low because the athletes defend better, scouting is more sophisticated, and more shots were taken 25-30 years ago. I attribute a lot of that to excess dribbling, deep into the shot clock. There was much more catch-and-pass in the 120 point era.

Recently, The Scream Team has lost games to Italy and Puerto Rico. Despite the presence of MVP-caliber players such as Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, the U.S. trailed Puerto Rico by 22 points at the half. No U.S. Olympic men's basketball team had lost a game since the U.S. began using professional players to help sell singlets and erase the memory of a bronze medal finish in Seoul and a Goodwill Games loss to Puerto Rico in 1991. Interestingly, though the media won't cover them, the American ladies' team is playing quite well, and giving a clinic on team basketball. Haven't ladies' defenses improved? Aren't women better athletes than they were in Anne Meyers' day? The United States will be crowned with gold, despite not having DeLisha Milton or Chamique Holdsclaw, and Katie Smith is benched with an injury.

The 1991 Goodwill Games team from the U.S. featured All-Americans Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner, and Jimmy Jackson. They faced a veteran Puerto Rican contingent that played together in international and Latin American tournaments- the nucleus of which was Jerome Mincy (starred at Alabama-Birmingham), Jose Ortiz (a former Pac 8 player of the year at Oregon State), James Carter, Edwin Pellot and Mario Morales. Their victory over the college kids was no upset. In 1976, a Puerto Rican team starring Raymond Dalmau, Butch Lee, and scoring machine Neftali Rivera came within a point of defeating the USA in the Montreal games. That American team, coached by Dean Smith and John Thompson, starred Adrian Dantley, Scott May, Quinn Buckner and Phil Ford. Had they lost, I don't think NBA'ers would have played in the next Pan Am Games or Olympics. The U.S. has lost to Cuba in baseball, and not resorted to sending Piazza, Clemens and Bonds to the Games. Cuba has won more boxing medals than the U.S. since 1992, yet Mike Tyson and Roy Jones did not lace up the gloves for the old red, white and blue.

What's missing from the college game, the NBA, and every high level of American basketball save the women's game is intelligent play. Team concepts can derail great athletes (Princeton beat defending NCAA champs UCLA in the 1996 NCAA Tournament by using timely cuts to the basket and decisive passing). The Argentines, Italians, and Puerto Ricans play the game as the 1970 Knicks or 1982 Tar Heels did. They don't dribble to excess. Players without the basketball move with a purpose. The post players pass well. The players can shoot jumpshots, which is important when facing a packed-in zone. The screens that are set away from the ball and at the high post remind one of, well, a Bob Knight team. We've taught the game well, we just haven't taught it at home. Blame ESPN's "Sports Center" for emphasizing the highlight dunk, blame the dependency on the three-point shot, blame "Hot Sauce" and the guys from And 1, but basketball is still a team game. Isolation plays for one talented player do not spell triumphs. Neither Wilt Chamberlain nor Michael Jordan won NBA championships their first seven seasons or so, for lack of a supporting cast. Shaq and Kobe didn't cop last season. Lebron James alone cannot catapult the Cavs into the Finals. It takes role players and group effort.

The WNBA Olympians work as a unit, despite the fact that Sheryl Swoopes or Diana Taurasi could drive by their respective defenders at will, and that Lisa Leslie is far more coordinated than most of the pivot players she'll face. In a game vs. the Czech Republic that posed a challenge, the Americans rallied by tightening the screws on their defensive press, rattling the Czechs. FIBA rules allow more contact and less traveling than the NBA. The lane is wider, but the three-point line is closer. USA Basketball should have selected a team comprised of savvy passers, 20-foot jumpshooters, and players who understand how to set and use screens. A team of slashers (Stoudamire, Iverson, Jefferson, Marion, Wade) no longer frightens the FIBA opponents. The original Dreamers were not one-dimensional, Stockton and Magic were two of the four greatest passers the game has ever seen. Bird is the premier passing forward in history. Jordan, Stockton and Magic understood how to use screens. not that they needed them against Angola and Venezuela. John Thompson took the wrong type of squad to Seoul (only Hersey Hawkins was a jumpshooter, and he got hurt- Rex Chapman and Danny Ferry were cut). Larry Brown's team is not suited for FIBA play. Iverson has no Answers and LeBron cannot Save them. Lesson One- don't learn the players, learn the game.

gdavis8848: I agree 100%. I wonder though, what happened to the vaulted NBA defense to offset the poor offensive play? I saw the guards from PR go past Iverson and Co. at will. I just don't understand that.
Just a simple lack of effort, desire?
I think it is more difficult to defend against passers and screeners. The U.S. players such as Stoudamire and Iverson are transition defenders, who may get lost playing against so much motion. Carmelo has little excuse- his national championship team played a 2-3 zone.

what killed me was the decision to constantly go under the screen when the other team was seemingly hitting every open three pointer. was that brown's decision or a habit formed from the NBA with its longer 3 point line (wait that shouldn't matter because the other team was hitting its threes; you have to over the top especially if you have shot blockers behind you) or as i fear the george gervin school of defense popping up (i will outscore you ). the problem with the latter is that our guards couldn't shoot like gervin though they certainly shot as much.
bijan, i read your stuff on apbr. thanks for all the good stuff.
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