Get Those Stakes Up Higher

Team USA closed out the Tournament of the Americas this weekend in typically impressive fashion, thrashing Puerto Rico and Argentina to capture the gold and clinch a berth in the Beijing Olympics. No one can deny that this tournament was an unqualified success for the team, but, as I said last week, it became clear after just a few games that these games represent nothing more than a step on the road to the real goal: dominating the field next summer. As such, I’d like to focus on what comes next for Team USA, and what this tournament taught us about their chances in Beijing.

I have never been a big fan of Mike Krzyzewski, but he has done a terrific job with this team and program. While his attention to chemistry and overall player happiness has probably made an important difference in the locker room, I think his most important contribution has been to define the team’s system according to its biggest advantage. Other countries might be able to teach their players to shoot, defend, and play intelligently, but, until soccer becomes less popular around the world, Team USA will always have better athletes than the competition. As such, Coach K created an offensive system in which his players have freedom to improvise and a pressure defense predicated on forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. (Honestly, if I’d watched one of these games without knowing the coach, I’d have assumed this was a Don Nelson team) Given the personnel, this system is a perfect fit and a tremendous improvement over Larry Brown’s micromanaged garbage or the more structured system that Gregg Popovich almost certainly would have used. Barring historically terrible injury problems over the next few months, this is the system that Team USA needs to use for the foreseeable future.

That system should also determine any personnel changes that Colangelo, Krzyzewski, et al make before Beijing. In a general sense, this roster needs to serve as the base; they’ve proven that they deserve the chance to go for the gold. Several injured players, though, will certainly want to join the group, so I might as well address them now. In terms of skills, Dwyane Wade is a terrific fit for this team outside of his inconsistent jumper, but I’m not sure he’s selfless enough to be happy as a reserve. Regardless, Wade is making this team if healthy; I imagine he’ll take the place of Deron Williams or Mike Miller.

Chris Bosh probably would have started for this team if he hadn’t developed plantar fasciitis, so we must pencil him in for a roster spot, as well. Bosh could take Dwight Howard’s place in the starting lineup quite easily—the only possible issue would be that Bosh likes to handle the ball more often than Howard. At any rate, out goes Tyson Chandler. So far, so good.

Things get a little more difficult when Chris Paul enters the picture. The CP3/Deron debate is a tough one—Williams has the playoff experience and size, but Paul can probably run this type of offense more effectively. I don’t have a clear preference in this debate, although I’m a bigger fan of Chris Paul. However, I’m not sure Team USA even needs three point guards; with everyone on the roster playing a lot of minutes, Deron played a lot of time at off-guard, suggesting that a third PG would be unnecessary when rotations tighten up against better competition. If Colangelo wants to bring only two PGs to Beijing, then Wade will take Deron’s place and stand as the de facto emergency point.

Whatever decision the braintrust makes on the point guard situation will affect what happens at other positions. Carter and I are both fans of replacing Mike Miller with Kevin Durant, whose rookie year should determine his chances of making the roster. However, established players like Elton Brand might want to return to the team, which becomes an issue if Wade replaces Miller instead of Deron. Yet Brand does not quite fit with the super-athletic big men currently on the roster, so his inclusion would force a potentially damaging change to the system. Ditto Tim Duncan. On the other hand, Colangelo would have to think long and hard about bringing in Kevin Garnett, if he wants to play. Of course, that would create issues regarding who to drop, with that player likely being Tayshaun Prince or one of the young bigs.

As you can see, too many changes to the roster could create a mess. I think the smartest decision will be to bring in Wade, Bosh, and Durant at the expense of Deron, Chandler, and Miller, given the need to bring in athletic, young players who should get along with everyone involved. It might seem silly to predict roster choices a year early, but these are kinds of decision Colangelo et al. will need to make if they want to maintain this team’s greatness. Creating a collection of superstars might not always work, but, as this team has shown, creating a collection of superstars that complement each other works.

During this tournament, many have said that things will get tougher when Team USA plays teams like Argentina and Spain when they have all their players. That’s true, but let’s make some things very clear. Team USA doesn’t have all its players either (Wade and Bosh, at the very least, are improvements), although the differences between the missing players and their replacements are not as steep as those on the foreign teams. More importantly, we must remember that Team USA did not play its demolition crew starting lineup as much as other teams played their starters. Against better teams, the first unit will likely play more, allowing for more chances to dominate. Team USA will face stiffer competition, but let’s not act as if they can’t adjust to that situation. Adding all the factors together, I just don’t see this team losing in Beijing.

Random notes: Given that no one in this country cares about international basketball more than the NBA, Kobe’s happiness and LeBron’s jumper could end up being the most important stories from this tournament. If Kobe gets frustrated when he realizes that the situation in LA can’t compare to his time with this team, it’s entirely possible that he’ll force a trade for real (i.e. not rescind that demand immediately) and alter the championship landscape. LeBron, on the other hand, will become one of the best players of all-time once he develops a consistent jumper. If his play in this tournament is any evidence, that could happen at age 22—a situation without precedent. … I was shocked when Jason Kidd scored seven early points against Puerto Rico. Then I remembered that he’s Jason Kidd. It’s amazing how this team has freed up players to focus on what they’re best at, and it’s been a thrill to watch. … The referees called Saturday’s game as poorly as humanly possible. … Team USA shot 47% from long-range for the tournament. At first glance, that would seem to be a case of everyone getting hot at the same time, but I think that’s just what happens when the best players in the world shoot everything in rhythm.


Carter Blanchard said...

First off, well done to the youtube gods for choosing the Cranberries. An inspired choice.

In your roster self-debate, why don't you consider replacing Chauncey with CP3/Deron (other than the fact it won't happen)? I personally would go something like:
First unit: Kidd/Kobe/LBJ/Melo/Howard
Second unit: Paul/Wade/Redd/Prince/Bosh
Spares: Durant, Amare

And all I could think watching the Argentina game was, if LeBron can do this consistently from 23 feet when all the pressure's on him, he'll be the most terrifying match-up ever. I just hope he doesn't fall in love with it too much and forget than no one in the world can stop him from getting in the lane.

Finally, I can't believe you posted a drum circle.. Fucking nerd.

Ty Keenan said...

I didn't think about that because, as you say, there's no way either of those guys knocks Billups off the team. I'm not sure who I'd take over him, but I also think it's a moot point.

Do your hipster homework: http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/feature/44110-live-77boadrum

Carter Blanchard said...

A drum circle with cool dudes is still a drum circle. Which is to say, unacceptable.

And fuck Chauncey.

Trey said...

Also, what the people salivating over Argentina's close success without many of its players don't understand is that America has a humongously larger pool of talent to draw from at any time. We can easily (figuratively speaking) pull KG, Tim Duncan, Shaq, etc.

Nobody is scared of Ginoboli or Oberto.