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Can Team USA race to world title?
If many NBA fans have minimal interest in the upcoming World Championship tournament that begins this Saturday in Turkey, the international basketball community is passionately interested.
As far as the rest of the world is concerned, LeBron, Kobe, D-Wade, et al, may not be on the latest Team USA, but the American players who are in uniform are all NBA veterans. So, for them, beating the latest version of Team USA means beating the NBA.
So, despite the fact that we’ve sent what amounts to a "B" team, the entire image of professional hoops in America is at stake.
Let’s take a close look at the ups and downs of the USA squad.
• Incredible team speed and enough basket-assaulting trigger-men and quicksilver wings to run dynamic fastbreaks.
• This warp speed will also make it virtually impossible for opponents to complete skip passes in their half-court sets. This is a critical factor that cuts opponents’ attack zones in half from north to south.
• In addition, Coach K’s guys have already shown rather soft help on high screen/rolls. The idea here is that the helpers can impinge any rolling action by the screeners, while still being quick enough to jump out and harass the shooters.
• Close-out defenders will be obliged to jump at potential three-point shooters to send them into the lane. Quick recoveries by these defenders will also be crucial in picking off kick-out passes.
• Speed and quickness also permits passing lanes to be effectively poached from a distance that will surprise opponents.
• Despite the big men’s lack of size and bulk, Tyson Chandler and Lamar Odom should be quicker to the ball than their opposite numbers.
• In Chauncey Billups, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Eric Gordon and Danny Granger, there’s an abundance of zone-busting shooters.
• In Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, the team has two players who excel at penetrating and either finishing or dishing.
• The team’s overall athleticism is far superior to any foes they might face. This, by itself, is probably worth 10 points per game.
• Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala and Durant are virtually unstoppable one-on-one scorers. A step below this trio are the iso-talents of Billups, Rose, Westbrook and Odom.
• When fastbreaks aren't available, look for a steady diet of isos, followed by kick-outs to open shooters when defenses try to two-time the ball.
• However, the USA’s most overwhelming advantage is its depth. While most international teams only have two or three dependable bench players, the Americans are 12 deep. As a result, there will be plenty of games in which opponents’ marginal players or weary starters will be confronted with fresh bodies. Look for the Americans to enlarge their leads late in the first halves and midway through the second halves.
• The most glaring is the absence of post-up scoring. Neither Kevin Love nor Chandler pose much of a scoring threat in the pivot, while the leansome Odom will be easily bumped off his favorite spots.
• Love represents the only bulky big, which is a major problem since all of the top teams in the tournament are stocked with bruisers. This means quick double teams, a necessary tactic that will leave deadly three-point shooters unattended.
• Controlling the defensive glass will be problematic, and put-backs will be few and far between.
• Odom's quite a versatile player, but he’ll have to be Mr. Everything against teams like Spain and Argentina. Trouble is Odom’s ability to sustain his focus has always been difficult.
• Playing one-on-one offense is severely inhibited when confronted with a zone defense.
• As quick and fast as the Americans are, the better veteran international teams aren't at all bothered by any type of extended pressure defense. This was the sad lesson learned by John Thompson’s Olympic team in 1988.
• Playing fast and quick team defense is admirable, but somewhere at some time, somebody’s got to be able to play good man-to-man defense. Unfortunately, Chandler's more of a shot blocker than a quality defender. Odom's slightly above average. Durant's average, but improving. Billups is savvy, but not as quick as he used to be. Westbrook's quick, but not as savvy as he needs to be. Granger, Gay, Love, Curry, Gordon and Rose are below average NBA defenders, but will be adequate at this level of competition. Indeed, Iguodala's the only top-flight defender on the team.
• Although there are three point guards on the roster — Billups, Rose and Westbrook — none of them are outstanding passers in set-up situations.
This team needs to run to succeed. But to run, they’ll need to create turnovers and play the kind of stifling defense that creates bad shots. If they prove unable to score at least a third of their points on the run, then they’ll also have to shoot a minimum of 45 percent from beyond the arc to discourage collapsing zones.
Can this team fail to win a medal? Possibly, but it's highly unlikely.
Can they advance into the medal round? Almost positively.
Can this team win the gold? Absolutely, but only if at least 10 players give peak performances against the other gold medal contenders.