Team USA has a coaching problem
The United States men’s basketball team had another close call Sunday — its third in four days.
The Americans beat France 100-97 to finish the group stage 5-0. The three-point win came two days after a three-point victory over Serbia and four days after a 10-point win over Australia in which the Americans trailed in the fourth quarter.
The U.S. team that entered the Olympic tournament as a significant favorite — despite having significant questions — is playing with fire as it heads into the knockout stage.
Yes, the United States is yet to be beaten in these Games — the Americans have rattled off 50 straight wins in major FIBA events now — but a loss doesn’t seem impossible anymore. One could argue that the loss is looming, and every close call only adds more pressure to the dam.
One loss, and it’s 2004 all over again — only this time in a tournament where the competition is inarguably weaker. To fail to win gold in 2016 would be the greatest Olympic failure in the history of USA basketball.
The reason the United States’ situation is so precarious is simple — the roster is a hodgepodge collection of All-Stars. The U.S. took two ball-dominant point guards and a variety of isolation-favoring jump shooters (and two centers) to Rio and apparently never bothered to figure out how to make them work together.
Furthermore, despite having a team full of decorated professionals, the United States isn’t running anything that resembles a professional offense, and the defensive effort has been lackluster at best. The Americans are playing pickup ball in the world’s most important international tournament.
The U.S. is coasting on its talent, and despite receiving three straight wake-up calls it doesn't seem interested in changing course.
That, friends, is a coaching problem.
Mike Krzyzewski has an air of infallibility around him because of his success at Duke University and his job in bringing back USA Basketball following the 2004 debacle, but he appears asleep at the wheel of this 2016 Olympic team and should be the held accountable for its failures.
Many will point to the lack of talent on the U.S. team, compared to previous Olympic squads, as the problem, and though this team might not have LeBron, it is significantly more talented than its competition — perhaps more so than in any other Olympics this millennium.
The talent is there, but it’s mismatched. It’s a coach’s job to make the talent work together, and thus far, Krzyzewski has failed to do that. Instead, he’s allowing the five guys on the court to alternate playing isolation basketball on offense (while the other four players stand and watch) and go through the motions on defense.
Every now and again you’ll see the U.S. run some high pick-and-roll action on offense, but those play calls are fleeting and underwhelming at best — turning the one-man game into a two-man game isn’t necessarily deserving of praise.
Meanwhile, the Americans’ opponents are playing beautiful basketball — moving as a five-man unit on both offense and defense.
The fact that the U.S. is winning these games only speaks to the talent level on the squad.
Meanwhile, Krzyzewski seems intent to sabotage this squad’s chances. The team’s main problems — defense and offensive movement off the ball — aren’t being rectified, and the one player on the team who specializes in both areas — Draymond Green — is stapled to the end of the bench.
Green is hardly a beloved player around the sport, but he has provided the Golden State Warriors with an ineffable amount of drive and grit. Golden State wouldn’t be the team it is today without Green’s abilities. The former Michigan State star is a Swiss Army Knife — doing all the little things and getting the big jobs done in a pinch, too. In the international game, he should thrive — particularly as a smallball center.
Sure enough, Team USA plays with a lot more cohesiveness when Green is at the 5.
Those moments have been rare this tournament, though. In fact, Krzyzewski has failed to play Green much at all, regardless of position. Sunday, he didn’t play Green for a single second in the first half against France.
If someone else were providing the defensive spark and ball-moving versatility Green is known for giving, the Warrior’s benching wouldn’t raise an eyebrow — but as Team USA continues to test fate with an almost anti-international style of play (the style of play that did in the U.S. in 2004) it’s shocking to see Coach K ostracize the one big man on his team who can defend, screen and pass with proficiency.
For that and several other reasons, the United States will enter its quarterfinal contest Wednesday without any idea how it’s going to win the game, outside of the system of “we’re more talented” that has carried them thus far.
After 10 games — five exhibition and five group-stage contests — is a single-elimination game the best time to be figuring this stuff out?
This U.S. team is hardly perfect, but it’s still immensely talented and has more than enough to win the gold medal in a landslide manner. It was up to the coaching staff — particularly the head coach, Krzyzewski — to turn this group of talented players into a team. So far, that is yet to happen, and it might be too late to do anything about it.