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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Team USA Defeats France (7.30.12)

Team USA Basketball faced off against France to begin their play in Group A of the Olympic Basketball Tournament this past Sunday, July 29, 2012.

Looking at the final box score, one might assume that the game was never even close. Team USA won 98-71, but as was the case in the exhibition matches against Brazil, Great Britain, and Spain, Team USA got off to another slow start — disappointing considering this time the game actually counted.

Cold shooting, shot selection, and turnovers especially plagued Team USA in the opening quarter. France, sporting eight NBA players, and led by Tony Parker, started five NBA players — Parker, Nicolas Batum, Mickael Gelabale, Boris Diaw, and Ronny Turiaf. For his own safety, Parker sported some nifty goggles due to the club brawl between Chris Brown and Drake that nearly took out his eye and ended his career. As bottles started flying, Parker got caught in the melee — doctors told him that the shard of glass that stuck in his eye was just millimeters away from rendering it useless. Due to the incident, Parker was unable to train for the Olympics — Parker was forced to stay in his hotel room and lie in darkness for over a week. Parker didn't get a chance to practice with his national team leading up to the games, and he was noticeably heavier and less explosive. Despite Parker's rust, and sluggishness, France capitalized on Team USA's cold shooting and executed their game plan by slowing down the game with post ups and numerous aggressive plays that led to free throws.

After picking up a steal on the first possession of the game, LeBron James came down and fed Tyson Chandler a lob for an alley oop finish. The strong inside play continued until about midway through the first quarter. Durant scored seven early points, with four points coming off of dunks and three points coming off of free throws that followed aggressive attacks to the rim. Durant's finest dunk came off of a beautiful outlet pass from James. James picked up the ball following a Parker missed layup in transition. With Durant streaking down the court, James held the ball with two hands over his head and he fired a perfect bounce pass that traveled about 3/4 of the court. Durant finished the dunk in stride, and-one. Following this, Kobe Bryant utilized an isolation to blow by Batum and draw a foul on an aggressive attack to the rim. Bryant sank the free throws, giving Team USA a 13-7 lead at the 5:44 mark.

Following Bryant's free throws, Team USA began jacking up three pointers and committing turnovers. Prior to this point, Team USA shot 0-2 from deep and committed one turnover, but they successfully capitalized on inside play. Subsequent to this point, Team USA shot 0-5 from deep and committed three turnovers in the remaining five minutes of the first quarter. Parker turned up his play by having his hand on eight straight French points, including two and-one plays and a dump off that led to a Turiaf dunk. Following Parker's second three point play at the 2:58 mark, Team USA scored just two points as they shot 0-8. As the game turned into a foul fest, and with Team USA playing sloppy ball, particularly Deron Williams — 0-2, 0 points, 2 turnovers, and 2 fouls in a two minute stretch — France closed out the quarter strong with a buzzer beating three pointer to make the score 22-21. The buzzer beater led to a glaring Coach K, who absolutely held a death stare on Russell Westbrook as Team USA walked over to the bench following a blown assignment on the final play of the quarter.

The first quarter featured some rather atypical moments. Chris Paul had a turnover due to a carrying violation on a transition opportunity, Williams traveled twice, and Parker slammed hard to the court as he went for an offensive rebound, yet Carmelo Anthony took the time to help him up as live play continued. The wackiest moment featured the officials and the scoreboard crew. After Chandler was fouled going for an offensive rebound with 43 seconds left in the quarter, the clock continued to run as Chandler stepped up to the line for free throws. The refs noticed the blunder and sought to fix the clock issue. After letting the clock run all the way down to zero, the officials decided to put 55 seconds on the clock. With an extra 12 seconds, who knows if Yannick Bokolo would have knocked down that buzzer beating three pointer to end the quarter. Doug Collins, the man at the forefront of the '72 USA squad that was absolutely robbed by the officials during a Cold War bout with the USSR in the gold medal game, made sure to point out the incorrect calculation on the clock.

To start the second quarter, NBC continued its series of blunders by coming back late to the telecast. Instead of seeing James hit a three pointer, the audience had the pleasure of watching a promo for Costas Tonight. James' three ignited an 11-0 run that pretty much signaled the impending dominance of Team USA. Following James, Bryant scored five straight points, and Paul capped off the run with a corner three following a drive and kick from James to put the score at 33-21. France climbed back in the game with deliberate post ups for Diaw that slowed down the tempo of the game. Batum capped off a 5-0 run for France following a post up from Diaw that Durant spiked away all the way to mid court. Batum ran down the ball and heaved up a desperate shot to beat the buzzer. Westbrook stupidly fouled Batum on the shot, giving him three free throws, but Batum only sank two to make the score 33-26.

James responded by going into Magic Johnson mode. James used his stellar vision to feed James Harden following a back cut for an easy layup. Then he ran a side pick and roll to force France into a switch. With Parker on him, James posted him up until the double came. James easily passed out of the late double, and Durant nailed a wide open three pointer from the wing. Then James altered a Diaw shot, grabbed the board, pushed up the court, and fed Kevin Love a wide open three pointer from the wing — swish. James' three assists within 90 seconds pushed the score to 43-28.

After starting the game cold from deep — 0-7 in the first quarter — Team USA began knocking down treys with ease — 6-11 in the second quarter. With Team USA stroking the deep ball, France struggled to keep up in the second quarter. Despite receiving strong post play from Ali Traore — 6 points and 3 rebounds in the second quarter — France could not slow down the freight train of Team USA. James punctuated the quarter with a strong two handed dunk following a dump off from Harden in the paint, and then he stripped Parker in the lane and sent an outlet pass that led to made free throws for Durant — making the score 52-36 to close out the first half. Team USA followed up their disappointing first quarter with a dominant second quarter, winning 30-15.

To start the third quarter, Durant and Bryant dampened any hopes of a strong opening to the second half for France. Durant nailed an open three following an offensive rebound and kick out from Chandler, and Bryant sized up Batum from the far side to nail a three pointer in his face. Then James fed Chandler a pick and roll alley oop for a dunk, making the score 60-38 at the 8:15 mark. Team USA didn't score for the next two minutes, but France didn't do much better — totaling just three points. Despite shooting just 39% at this point, Team USA held a dominant 19 point lead.

James ended the drought with a baseline turnaround fade that looked right out of the Jordan/Bryant handbook. Then James provided the highlight of the night — unless you prefer his awesome outlet bounce pass. As Williams walked the ball up the court, James calmly walked up to the far wing before making eye contact with Williams and swiftly performing a back cut to the rim. As Diaw trailed him, James skied up for the lob and threw down a nasty two handed slam. James effortlessly glided through the air and seemed to almost levitate at the height of his jump. Following the dunk, Collins provided the biggest understatement of the night: "Normally Boris Diaw as a four, either adds some quickness, or mobility, or a size advantage — not with LeBron, LeBron has every advantage here." In a roundabout way, Diaw is kind of a poor man's James — it's pretty funny to think about considering Diaw usually carries an edge in at least one of the categories Collins mentioned. James followed his magnificent dunk with a no look pass that led to an Anthony dunk, ballooning the score to 66-45 at the 4:27 mark.

Following some nice plays by Batum and Kevin Seraphin that cut the deficit to 16 for France, Team USA closed the quarter on a 10-0 run in the final 2:50 of the quarter. Anthony, Williams, Durant, and Love got in on the action, and Westbrook dished out two assists in the stretch as Team USA closed the third quarter with a 78-51 lead. Team USA won the quarter handily with a 26-15 advantage.

With the game out of hand, France conceded and sat Parker the entire fourth quarter. Team USA stretched the lead out to 29 on multiple occasions, and France never got closer than 23 points in the closing 10 minutes. Team USA only scored four points (all off of free throws) in the opening three and a half minutes of the quarter, but France failed to capitalize on the drought. Anthony Davis provided three nice highlights in the quarter. The first was a Russell-esque block on Traore (who was actually quite solid on the block). Davis recognized Traore's impending turnaround hook, and he easily blocked the shot and controlled possession of the ball with one hand. Then Davis nearly threw down a nasty one handed slam following a pick and roll lob from Paul. Davis slammed the ball off of the back of the rim as he attempted the leaning one handed throw down. Davis responded on the next possession with a solid two handed throw down following a pick and roll lob from Williams.

Harden provided his own memorable highlight on the very next possession. Following some solid defense from Andre Iguodola, Harden took Iguodala's outlet and took off about one full stride inside the free throw line. Harden cocked the ball back with his left hand and threw down a gorgeous, thunderous dunk to put Team USA up 89-62 at the 4:34 mark. Westbrook closed out the game with seven of Team USA's next nine points, and Team USA wrapped up the match with a 98-71 victory. After a short huddle, every member of Team USA, including the staff, walked over to the stands and either hugged or shook hands with a Michelle Obama.

Overall, the game was not Team USA's finest, yet they still won by 27 points. Team USA shot just 31-72 from the field and just 8-25 from deep — with six of those three pointers coming in the second quarter. Shooting just 43.1%, and 32% from distance, Team USA clearly did not overwhelm France with hot shooting — other than the second quarter. Instead, Team USA relied on their defense, and they received an assist from France's inability to knock down jumpers. France had some good looks, but they shot just 26-66 from the field, as well as a horrid 2-22 from deep. By holding France to 39.4% shooting, and 9.1% from deep, Team USA did an excellent job on the defensive end. Team USA forced 18 turnovers, which led to 20 points, and they picked up 10 steals and five blocks. Team USA dominated the paint by out rebounding France 49-33. With bricks aplenty to gather, Team USA did a decent job gathering defensive rebounds — France gathered eight offensive rebounds.

After utilizing some isolation ball in the opening quarter, which often did not lead to good shots or points, Team USA shifted gears and shared the ball. Team USA finished the game with 27 assists on 31 made baskets — quite impressive. Following an isolation forced jumper by Anthony late in the first quarter, Collins stated, "The United States has so many offensive weapons, I don't think there's any reason they need to take contested shots. This is a tough fading jumpshot by Carmelo Anthony. Move the basketball to the open man and get uncontested shots." Collins hit the nail on the head, and I'm sure Coach K implored more ball movement as Anthony's shot came just before the extended break due to the clock malfunction.

Although Durant led the way with 22 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks (all game highs), player of the game honors surely belong to James. James finished with this line — 9 points, 8 assists (game high), 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and just 1 turnover. James ran the point forward to perfection, and he controlled the action with ease. Chandler and Anthony tied Durant with nine rebounds each. Love flanked Durant with 14 points — by far his best offensive performance for Team USA 2012.

Traore provided an unexpected post punch to lead France with 12 points. Traore had his way with Love on a couple of occasions, and he displayed an effective post game. Team USA cannot afford to allow big performances from the opposing team's post play. Fortunately, Traore was unable to truly dominate the game. Team USA did an excellent job bottling up Parker — 10 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 4 turnovers. Obviously, Parker was not at full strength or conditioning, but France's only hope rested upon his shoulders, and his 26 minutes of play were rather underwhelming. Turiaf tied for game high honors by pulling down nine rebounds. De Colo led France with just three assists.

Traore and Turiaf's efforts continue to highlight Team USA's biggest weakness — lack of size — but they weren't dominant enough to truly strike fear into Team USA. Team USA eventually wore down France and were able to blow the game open with big runs in the second and third quarters. Team USA will look to dominate Tunisia on Tuesday, July 31. Tunisia doesn't have a single NBA player on their roster, and I'm sure Team USA will win in a huge rout. Hopefully Team USA will right their first quarter woes and stomp Tunisia from beginning to end.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Team USA Exhibitions Wrap Up (7.26.12)

As the official commencement of the 2012 Olympics nears, let's take a look at what Team USA Basketball 2012 has shown the world in five exhibition games.

Team USA started things off by absolutely destroying the Dominican Republic in Las Vegas. Team USA won 113-59. The Dominican Republic never stood a chance, but they did capitalize on one aspect of the game — offensive rebounds. The Dominican Republic gathered nine offensive rebounds on their way to scoring 13 second chance points. Despite playing against a smaller squad, Team USA, on numerous occasions, displayed lapses in rebounding fundamentals — namely boxing out. Sporting versatile athletes, Team USA must remember that boxing out is more effective than out jumping opponents for a rebound. Team USA obviously recognized that the Dominican Republic had no chance to win, but down the line such lapses could be haunting, especially against bigger front lines.

Overall, Team USA stifled the competition. Tyson Chandler and LeBron James completely shutdown Al Horford, a quality big man for the Atlanta Hawks and the focal point for the Dominican Republic, by forcing him into a terrible 1-12 shooting performance — good for seven points. Team USA picked up 12 steals and four blocks on their way to forcing the Dominican Republic into 27 turnovers. Team USA capitalized on the turnovers, but not how you would expect — Team USA finished with only eight points on the fast break, far shy of the 38 total points converted off of turnovers. Instead Team USA calmly ran their offense and took numerous open shots. Team USA shot 21-28 for 42 points in the paint, compared to just 16 point on 8-22 shooting for the Dominican Republic. As the Dominican Republic packed the paint defensively, Team USA let the three ball fly. Kevin Durant led the way as he shot 5-6 from deep, and the team finished 13-33. 33 attempts is a lot, but it's hard to fault Team USA's wing players for taking wide open three pointers. Falling in love with the three ball is dangerous, but I trust Coach K. to lead this squad and squelch overzealous shooting. Team USA started the game 5-5 from deep and never looked back. In fact, the ball movement for Team USA was quite impressive — 27 assists on 42 made baskets. In the end, Durant led the way with a team high 24 points and 10 rebounds, and Deron Williams led the team with 10 assists. 

With President Barack Obama in attendance at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Team USA provided a shaky performance against Brazil. Sporting NBA talent, with quality guards such as Leandro Barbosa, Alex Garcia, and Brazil's version of Steve Nash — Marcelo Huertas, along with a solid front line of Nene, Tiago Splitter, and Anderson Varejao, Brazil provided Team USA a formidable opponent. In fact, Brazil raced out to a 7-17 lead within the first six minutes of the game, and they finished the quarter ahead 17-27. Alex Garcia led the Brazilians in the first quarter with a scorching shooting performance — 12 points on 4-5 shooting, 2-2 from deep, and 2-2 from free throw line. Team USA couldn't buy a jumper in the first quarter, and it dug them into an early hole. While Brazil shot 10-16, 2-2 from deep, in the opening quarter, Team USA shot a measly 7-20, and 0-5 from deep. Many of Team USA's shots were wide open and came off of excellent ball movement. Besides James, no one shot over 33% for Team USA in the opening quarter. With the President in attendance, such a slow start was quite embarrassing. 

Team USA turned things around in the second quarter. Utilizing depth, versatility, and athleticism, Team USA increased their defensive intensity and forced Brazil to commit 12 turnovers. Brazil finished the second quarter with just five total points on 2-9 shooting. Team USA capitalized on the turnovers and turned them into 13 points. With Huertas needing a breather, Team USA punished the Brazilian backup point guard, Neto, by forcing him to commit four turnovers in the quarter. Although Team USA continued to struggle shooting in the second quarter, 8-19 and 1-7 from deep, their defensive efforts allowed them to regain the lead with three minutes remaining in the quarter, and they finished the quarter ahead 37-32. Despite playing nearly the entire second quarter, Garcia was absolutely shut down following his impressive opening performance — 0-0, 0 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 2 turnovers in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, Team USA looked to blow open the game, but they couldn't pull away. Team USA got off to a fast start and led by 13 points within the first four minutes, but Brazil was able to stay within striking distance to close the quarter. Team USA entered the fourth up by just eight points. 

The fourth quarter featured more of the same. Despite stretching the lead up to 12 points, and itching to increase that margin, Team USA could not blow the game open. Brazil countered with a nice run on the heels of Nene and Varejao to cut the deficit to just six points with six minutes left in the game. With the game up for grabs, James took over and scored 12 points in the final six minutes. Brazil had no answer and watched the game slip away as the Team USA won 80-69.

Overall, Brazil highlighted some Team USA weaknesses. Brazil scored 32 points in the paint on 16-25 shooting. Nene, Splitter, and Varejao combined for 26 points on 11-21 shooting, along with 25 rebounds. Their size definitely had an impact on the game, both offensively and defensively. Brazil out rebounded Team USA 38-30, further emphasizing the impact of Brazil's size. If Brazil had not committed an egregious 26 turnovers that led to 28 points for Team USA, Brazil would have been in the driver's seat — Brazil won many important categories (shooting percentage, assists, rebounds). Brazil shot 28-55 compared to Team USA's 29-71 (both teams struggled from deep, Brazil 4-15, USA 6-24). Huertas also exposed a supposed strength of Team USA — point guard play. Huertas finished the game with 11 points and 13 assists, two assists more than the entire output of Team USA. Huertas ran the show in his 30 minutes of burn, committing just 3 of his team's 26 turnovers, as he set up teammates all over the place for easy buckets. Team USA's pressure did not affect Huertas, but it did force fatigue upon him. Whenever Huertas subbed out, Brazil struggled (especially in the second quarter) — Team USA picked up 19 steals and capitalized by scoring 19 points on the fast break. 

Fortunately for Team USA, James provided a magnificent performance en route to the victory. James played nearly 33 minutes (Kobe Bryant was the next highest at 25) and led the team in points and rebounds as he dropped this line — 30 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, and 4 steals. James did lead the team with five turnovers, but his positives far outweighed his negatives. Durant and Chris Paul were the next highest scorers, with 11 and 10 points respectively. Paul led the team with just three assists.

Overall, the slow start and cold shooting of Team USA proved troubling. A strong second quarter (20-5 advantage) quickly turned things around, but Brazil hung around and gave Team USA a great test. Inconsistent performances from Carmelo Anthony, Bryant, and Durant nearly derailed Team USA as they combined to shoot 9-31 for 22 points. Although Team USA finished with just 11 assists, ball movement was not the problem  — converting open shots was. Such cold shooting could be problematic in the Olympics, especially because Team USA lacks a traditional offensive post player. Fortunately, Team USA was able to rely on speed and athleticism in order to get steals and score easy buckets.

Team USA's next test came against Great Britain in Manchester Arena. Following the close matchup and cold shooting against Brazil, Team USA looked to ace their test against Great Britain. However, such woes continued into this matchup. Team USA came out and fired up bricks in the first four minutes — shooting 2-9. Propelled by eight first quarter points from Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Great Britain trailed by just three points with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter.

However, the momentum immediately shifted on the heels of Anthony. Anthony finished a dunk and nailed two threes to put Team USA ahead 33-20 at the end of the first quarter. After watching Team USA go on a 14-0 run, Luol Deng, an NBA All-Star, single-handedly brought Great Britain back with 10 points in a two minute span — making the score 39-30. Despite Deng's effort, the offensive firepower of Team USA proved too much for Great Britain. Team USA went on an 8-0 run and they finished the half ahead 55-37.

With a 19 point lead, Team USA came out for the third quarter and put the game away. Williams came out and scored 14 points in the opening four minutes of the quarter — highlighted by a stretch of three consecutive three-pointers. Four minutes into the quarter, Team USA held a 28 point lead. By the time the quarter ended, Team USA led 89-55 on the heels of a 34-18 scoring advantage in the quarter.

The fourth quarter featured meaningless minutes, and provided some nice highlights, including an awkward alley oop reverse dunk thrown down by Kevin Love. Anthony Davis also got in on the action and he threw down some nice slams. Team USA finished the game off and won 118-78.

After a rocky performance against Brazil, the matchup against Great Britain highlighted Team USA's ability to absolutely catch fire and run a team out of the gym. Williams and Anthony took over for minutes at a time, and they tied for the honors of most points by dropping 19 apiece. Russell Westbrook led the team with nine assists — many leading to alley oop dunks. Andre Iguodala and James led the team with 6 rebounds each. Team USA shot 47-78 from the field and 11-24 from deep, good for 60% and 46% respectively.

Overall, Team USA's superior depth and athleticism proved too much for Great Britain to handle. Team USA forced Great Britain into 27 turnovers, and they capitalized by scoring 33 points off of those turnovers. Team USA picked up 16 steals and blocked eight shots. Utilizing pressure defense, Team USA often turned those steals and blocks into fast break points — 34 to be exact. Team USA also dominated the paint, scoring 64 points inside compared to just 18 from Great Britain. Team USA also turned in an astounding 39 assists on 47 made baskets, by far their highest amount of the exhibitions. Deng turned in a solid performance with 25 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists, but he couldn't do it alone — the depth on his national team is nowhere near the level of Team USA, whose bench scored 65 points. Team USA's slow start was troubling, especially considering the close matchup they had with Brazil, but over time they wore down Great Britain and blew the game open.

After dominating Great Britain, Team USA faced a legitimate Olympic contender, Argentina — ranked third in the world by FIBA. Playing at Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, Spain — the birthplace of the globalization of basketball — Team USA paid tribute to the '92 Dream Team by wearing the throwback '92 USA jerseys. Sporting five NBA players, and led by the whirly dervish Manu Ginobili, Argentina gave Team USA their toughest test yet.

Although Argentina would later turn the game into close contest, the beginning of the game hinted at a blowout. Maybe it was the OG throwbacks that turned around Team USA's early game woes. After struggling early against Brazil and Great Britain, Team USA rushed out to a 19-3 lead in the opening minutes on the heels of Durant and Bryant. Durant dropped consecutive three pointers on the opening possessions of the game. Bryant followed with a layup, a zone busting three pointer, a sweet drop off between his legs for a trailing Durant three pointer in transition, a steal and dunk in transition, and another zone busting three pointer to give Team USA a nice early cushion. Team USA shot 5-5 from deep in the first three minutes of the game. Hoping to join in on the act, Anthony hit a three with 38 seconds left, and Williams knocked down a buzzer beating three to give Team USA a 31-16 lead heading into the second quarter.

After stretching the lead to 20 midway through the second quarter, Argentina came storming back. Playing full of passion, Luis Scola turned the momentum of the game when he came to the aid of his fallen teammate after a foul by Paul. Scola immediately got into Paul's face, and shoves from both sides ensued, including Scola giving James a nice push. Scola spurred Argentina and led them on a 10-0 run. Carlos Delfino capped off the run with a three pointer, making the score 39-29 with 5:21 left in the quarter. Following many Team USA bricks, Argentina kept climbing back and cut the deficit to just five points in the final minute of the half. Fortunately for Team USA, Iguodala pulled off a sweet weak side swat in the final ten seconds, and Westbrook finished a layup in transition with just two seconds left in the half to give Team USA some momentum and a 47-40 advantage.

Team USA came out aggressive in the third quarter and immediately stretched the lead to 14 points within the first 90 seconds. Later in the quarter, Team USA went on an 8-0 run to put the lead at 20 points with 3:01 left in the third. However, Argentina once again closed well. Argentina finished the third quarter on a 12-3 run, with Delfino scoring seven of those points, and they cut their deficit to just 11 points heading into the fourth quarter.

Team USA held a double digit lead for much of the fourth quarter. James and Durant finished dunks in transition, and it looked like Team USA had finally worn down Argentina. However, Ginobili led the charge as Argentina went on a 11-0 run late in the game. Ginobili scored eight of those points, making the score 78-74 with 2:50 remaining. Throughout the run, Team USA looked out of sorts as they bobbled passes, lost control of the dribble, and missed open shots. After Ginobili capped off the run with an and-one, Argentina beamed with confidence, hope, and many fist pumps, but Durant rained on their party. Facing a 2/3 zone, Bryant fed James at the elbow, who in turned faced a double and kicked out to Durant at the wing. With two men rushing at him, Durant nailed his seventh three pointer of the game, giving Team USA a much needed bucket. Ginobili countered with a drive that led to made free throws, but Paul came right back and used a high screen from James to nail a three pointer from the wing. Paul's three pretty much sealed the deal, making the score 84-76. Argentina countered with made free throws, making the deficit just six points with 90 seconds to go, but they could not go on another run to close out the game. Team USA held on to win 86-80.

Overall, Team USA's performance highlighted extreme highs and lows. At times, Team USA couldn't miss, but at other times they struggled to buy a basket and they watched Argentina execute big runs. Fortunately Durant and Paul hit clutch shots or Team USA may have lost. Speaking of Durant, he led the way with 27 points on 10-15 shooting, including 7-11 from deep. Bryant flanked him with 18 points on 6-12 shooting, 3-7 from distance. Durant also dished out a team high six assists. Chandler pulled down a team high eight rebounds. Unfortunately, the statistics for points off turnovers, points in the paint, and fast break points are nowhere to be found.

Despite the lack of information, other points can be gleaned. It was clear that the NBA caliber talent on the Argentinian squad truly did not fear Team USA. Argentina went hard at Team USA all game long. In fact, Anthony was so upset with the rough play that he gave Scola a hard foul with the game out of reach and just 15 seconds remaining in the game. After destroying the backcourts of their previous opponents, Team USA only forced 13 turnovers, by far their lowest of the exhibition games. Team USA only picked up seven steals, although they did block a respectable five shots. Ginobili, Scola, and Delfino played well and combined for 52 points on 18-38 shooting. Lacking easy transition buckets off of steals and blocks, Team USA was forced to grind out the win. Team USA shot 29-64, and 13-34 from deep. Team USA's 34 deep attempts marked their highest total of all the exhibitions. After a hot start, Team USA fell in love with the deep ball and nearly shot their way out of the game. However, the saying goes, "You live by the three, you die by the three." Durant and Paul were able to allow Team USA to live by the three.

With Argentina out of the way, Team USA wrapped up their exhibition matches by facing off against Spain, their tough opponent from the highly competitive '08 gold medal game. Ranked second in the world by FIBA, and sporting nine quality current or former NBA players, including a formidable front line of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka, Spain looked to serve as a litmus test for Team USA. Unfortunately for Spain, and in turn the competitiveness of the game, injuries took Marc Gasol and backup point guard Sergio Rodriguez out of the game. Many wanted to see how the Gasol brothers, along with Ibaka, would challenge Team USA's front line — easily Team USA's biggest weakness.

After sending mixed messages regarding how Spain would utilize key players with nagging injuries, namely Jose Calderon and Rudy Fernandez, Spain came out strong and clearly played to win the game. Playing in front of their home crowd at the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, Spain, Spain jumped out to an early 3-12 lead in the opening five minutes. Midway through the first quarter, Team USA's biggest nightmare became a reality — Chandler picked up his second foul, forcing him to sit on the bench. With Gasol and Ibaka still on the floor, Team USA was forced to play small ball. Anthony immediately came off the bench and knocked down consecutive three pointers, cutting the deficit to just three points and serving as a calming influence.

With the younger Gasol out, Ibaka stepped up and absolutely dominated the first quarter. Ibaka poured in 10 straight points as Spain jumped out to a 13-22 lead with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter. With Chandler on the bench, and Team USA acting as a sieve defensively in the paint, things finally got rolling with their small ball lineup as Williams finished an and-one, Anthony hit a jumper, Williams sank a free throw, and Westbrook drilled a jumper — making the score 21-23 at the end of the first.

In the second quarter, Team USA thrived on small ball and picked up the defensive intensity. Team USA forced seven turnovers and thrived in transition. Team USA took the lead following three pointers from Anthony and James, making the score 28-26 with 7:06 remaining in the half. Anthony continued his hot shooting as he scored eight points during a Team USA 11-0 run. Anthony routinely hit pop a shot jumpers from the baseline as Ibaka and Gasol were hesitant to abandon protecting the paint. Following the big run, Team USA carried a 42-32 lead. Spain scored the final five points of the half to cut the score to 48-40.

After watching Anthony pour in 22 points in the first half, Durant figured it was his time to shine in the third quarter. Durant hit a three, finished a fast break layup, hit another three, and then threw down a dunk to make the score 60-46 with 6:29 left in the third. Following Durant's lead, Westbrook got in on the one man show. Westbrook scored seven straight points to put Team USA ahead 69-48 with 4:18 remaining in the third. Spain countered with a strong 13-5 run to close the quarter and make the score 74-61.

With Spain trailing 80-67 at the 6:50 mark, James smelled blood and took over. James poured in 12 of the next 14 points for Team USA, pushing the lead up to 20 points. With the game out of hand, Team USA coasted to a 100-78 victory.

Overall, the game turned out to be far less competitive than many probably expected. Spain came out strong and turned in a solid first quarter, but Team USA outscored Spain in each of the remaining three quarters. Team USA eventually wore down Spain and never looked back. Obviously, the presence of Marc Gasol, as well as some solid play from Rodriguez, would have impacted the game. Whatever the case, Team USA looked dominant, and a handful of guys absolutely dominated for stretches at a time. Anthony's efforts in the first half kept Team USA in the game, and Durant, Westbrook, and James made sure to close out the game. Anthony led the charge with a team high 27 points, and James flanked him with 25 and a team high seven assists. With Chandler in foul trouble and only able to play eight minutes total, Love responded with his strongest effort of the exhibitions by leading the team with 10 rebounds in his 13 minutes of burn.

With the floor spaced, Team USA shot high percentages from the field and from deep, 38-70 and 13-23 respectively. However, more guards also led to more turnovers, as Team USA committed 16 turnovers, their highest amount in the exhibitions. With Calderon running the point fairly well, Team USA also struggled to accrue easy steals from full court ball pressure. Team USA finished with 13 steals and three blocks. Despite giving up a size advantage, Team USA out rebounded Spain 37-26. Surprisingly, Team USA didn't accrue many assists, just 20 on 38 made baskets. Overall, the performance was solid. Gasol only finished with 19 points, far shy of what Spain would have needed for a victory, and Ibaka finished with just 16 points, scoring just six points after his personal 10-0 run.

With the exhibitions all wrapped up, Team USA looks primed for a solid Olympic run. Slow starts, cold shooting, and consistency have plagued the team, but at any moment Team USA can catch fire and dominate. In each game, at least one guy dominated for an extended stretch. Despite lacking size, Team USA has done a solid job in the paint. Sporting superior depth and versatility, Team USA has thrived with constant pressure on defense and drive and kick offense. No one in the world can match up with Team USA's small ball lineup, and it has led to a multitude of open three pointers and easy buckets in transition. Team USA has excelled by wearing down opponents with constant aggression. Due to shorter stretches of playing time, and boasting an exceptional bench, Team USA can play all out in limited bursts.

Overall Team USA has shot nearly 52% from the field and nearly 41% from downtown. Team USA has won the rebounding battle, averaging 39.6 per game, although narrowly — just a 2.4 rebounding advantage per game. Team USA has played some great team ball as well, averaging 24 assists per game, nearly 8 more than their opponents. Team USA has dominated the turnover margin, sporting a 9.8 advantage per game. Even more impressive, Team USA has averaged 13.4 steals per game, 9.4 more than their opponents. Lacking size, Team USA has only averaged 4.4 blocks, just 2.4 more than their opponents. Team USA's 26.6 points per victory margin is pretty impressive considering the high quality of at least three of their opponents — Brazil, Argentina, Spain.

I fully expect Team USA to win the gold, as does the rest of the world, but I must admit, a healthy Spain could be problematic — especially if Chandler gets in foul trouble again. Overall, Team USA is clearly the favorite, but they need to take care of business and display greater focus to start games. Anyone on the team can play the role of hero, but hopefully Team USA will have such comfortable leads that hero ball won't be necessary.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Can 2012 Team USA Basketball Defeat the 1992 Dream Team? (7.12.12)

Kobe Bryant demands respect.

You may hate him for a wide variety of reasons, and you most likely will disagree with him on his stance regarding Team USA Basketball 2012, but you have to respect the confidence he has in his game — and his team.

As the elder statesman, and leader of the '12 team headed to London, Bryant sparked a seemingly undebatable debate when he responded to a question regarding a matchup of Team USA Basketball 2012 versus Team USA Basketball 1992 — you know, the one and only "Dream Team."

Rather than evade the question, or just profuse compliments to his forefathers, Bryant truthfully responded to this question, "How do you guys think you would do against them — I'm sure you've heard that before — with the team you have right now?"

The topic is nothing new — even the interviewer felt obliged to recognize the jaded subject. I remember similar questions, and the debate that followed, when the national media anointed Team USA Basketball 2008 as the "Redeem Team." The wordplay was cute and dandy, but the message was clear — the '08 team needed to return USA Basketball to the dominant standard set by the Dream Team. Forget about the fact that the world had caught up in terms of basketball skills and awareness, everyone wanted to see if Kobe and LeBron could deliver the gold on a higher level. It was clear that the national media regarded the '08 team as inferior, especially with the word "Redeem" headlining the team. Redeem implied a need to recapture the standard of yesteryear while atoning for past failure. With the Dream Team as the standard of excellence, "Redeem" explicitly implied an inferiority to the far greater concept of "Dream."

Despite the inferior label, many debated whether the '08 team was actually better than the Dream Team. After the '08 squad dominated the competition by winning by an average of 27.88 points per game en route to a gold medal over Spain (a team featuring six NBA players), the debate continued. 27.88 is nowhere near the 43.8 point differential per game served by the '92 team, but the '92 team only faced three NBA caliber players the entire tournament — Arvydas Sabonis of Lithuania in the semi-finals, and Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc of Croatia in the final round. The world has caught up, and such point differential arguments shouldn't hold credence in a debate regarding who would win in a matchup of either Olympic squad. Would the Dream Team defeat today's international competition by over 40 points a game? Bryant and company lived up to the backhanded compliment of "Redeem Team," but it seems that Bryant hasn't forgotten the slight.

After discussing the global impact of the Dream Team, a slight smile came across Bryant's face as he pondered the question for a second. Bryant bought time with a drawn out "Umm," and then he continued, "Well just from a basketball standpoint, they obviously have a lot more size than we do. Ugh, with Robinson, Ewing, and Malone and those guys." After rattling off the bigs with a conceding tone, Bryant changed gears and unveiled his true sentiment. Bryant continued, "Some of those wing players were also a lot older, at kind of the end of their careers, where we have a bunch of young racehorses, you know, guys that are eager to compete. So, umm, I don't know, I don't know, it would be a tough one, but I think we'd pull it out." As he closed up his statement, Bryant gave an affirmative head nod as he went into his final thought. Bryant nodded as he said "but," then he paused for a full second before letting a slight smile stretch across his face as he gave his final touch, "I think we'd pull it out."

In 28 seconds, Bryant sparked a national debate that many regard as blasphemous. The Dream Team is considered almost unanimously as the greatest basketball team ever put together. Headlined by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, the Dream Team brought basketball to new heights all around the globe. Bryant certainly understands that no team will ever carry the global impact of the Dream Team, but he certainly holds no reservations in regards to who would actually win a game between the two squads. Despite failing to field the strongest team possible, with guys like Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Derek Rose, Chris Bosh, and possibly Blake Griffin, out due to injury, Bryant still believes that the '12 team would defeat the '92 team in a single exhibition. Such confidence points to the rapidly evolving nature of basketball throughout the past 20 years.

Let's run down the teams. The Dream Team starting five features Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing. They are flanked by John Stockton, Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin, Karl Malone, David Robinson, and Christian Laettner. The 2012 starting five will most likely feature Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Tyson Chandler. Those guys are flanked by Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Andre Iguodala, Carmelo Anthony (potential starter over Durant), Kevin Love, and Blake Griffin/Anthony Davis. Everyone on the Dream Team, except for Laettner — the greatest college player at the time, and a representation of USA amateur athletics that had previously constituted the makeup of the team — has been enshrined into the Hall of Fame, including three of the four coaches, and the team as a whole. Obviously, the name power of the Dream Team is unbelievable, but a closer look unveils some interesting matchups and problems they could have with the '12 team.

Let's get to some of Bryant's points. First he mentioned, and ultimately conceded, size. The Dream Team seems to have an advantage in the paint. Boasting Ewing and Robinson as anchors in the middle — and potential twin towers — along with Malone and Barkley as bruising forwards, you would think the Dream Team would dominate the paint. However, if the Heat taught us anything this past year, it's that sheer size if far less dominant when you have freak of nature athletes like James who can cover every single position on the court. Length can count just as much as size, and the '12 team boasts plenty of length, and athleticism, to counter the size of the '92 team.

Although the '12 squad boasts only one true center, Chandler, I don't think that the bigger '92 squad has that great of an advantage down low. Chandler is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and I believe that he can contain either Ewing or Robinson with strong man to man defense. Chandler's only duties on the team are to play defense and rebound — his greatest attributes. Chandler will only score on dunks and putbacks, but that is all that is needed of him. Ewing and Robinson are prolific talents, but it is likely that only one of them will be on the court at a time. If the '92 team goes big with a twin tower lineup, the '12 team can punish them by stretching the court with four different options at the power forward position — Love, Durant, James, or Anthony. Each can step out to the three point line and create a huge mismatch with either Robinson or Ewing defending — especially by utilizing dribble penetration and long distance shooting. Because of his greater versatility and agility, Robinson must draw the shorter straw and line up against one of the '12 power forwards. Robinson poses a significant disadvantage for the '92 squad in terms of offensive spacing and man to man defense in a twin tower lineup. Robinson and Ewing can get buckets down low, but one of them will always be asked to play out of position on the defensive end, and neither has even the slightest chance of giving Love, Durant, James, or Anthony any problems.

Do you think the size of Ewing and Robinson is that advantageous against a tandem of Chandler and either Love, James, Anthony, Griffin/Davis, or Durant? Each '12 forward has a wingspan long enough to actually contest any shot Robinson takes. Factor in the speed and athleticism of each, and I'd say that the '92 team would be reluctant to trot out a twin tower lineup. In fact, Love is barely an inch shorter than Robinson, yet he outweighs him by over 30 pounds. I don't think that a tandem of Chandler and Love will have a significant disadvantage grabbing rebounds and playing defense against the twin towers. Well, Love will struggle defensively against Robinson, but he can at least bang bodies in the paint, and he can atone for his defensive lapses with a vast offensive arsenal. Robinson can abuse each option, outside of Chandler, in the post, but will he be on the floor if he has to step out to the three point line and matchup with someone like James or Durant? I doubt it. The biggest problem for the '12 team arises when Chandler needs a breather — then a giant like Ewing or Robinson can truly do some damage — however, if Chandler provides big minutes, the size advantage for the '92 team lessens dramatically.

Overall, the size advantage of the Dream Team can be quelled with matchups and tempo. If the '92 team consistently plays only one center at a time, their size advantage disappears because Chandler can reliably matchup with any center opposite him. Obviously, the eight minutes or so that Chandler needs a breather will be troublesome for the '12 team, but the '12 team can promptly go with a small ball lineup and force the '92 team to matchup in that manner. If the '12 team consistently pushes the ball and increases the tempo of the game, the bigs lose considerable impact. Overall, the '92 team carries an advantage at the center position, but it's by no means dominant, and a twin tower lineup isn't necessarily beneficial. The '92 team can definitely grind out a win by pounding the ball inside on every possession, but are they be disciplined enough to do so? I'm sure Johnson would feed the post, but with a guy like Jordan on the perimeter, I doubt that the post would be the focal point of the offense. Plus, would Johnson even be on the court?

With Chandler anchoring the middle, the next big man battle comes down to the power forward position. Barkley led the '92 squad with 18.0 points per game throughout the Olympics, and he carried that greatness into '93 by winning MVP and leading the Suns to the Finals against Jordan. With Barkley and Malone playing "grown man ball," who can step up for the '12 team? Once again, the '12 team has five options — Love, James, Anthony, Durant, or Griffin/Davis. Love certainly has the size and weight to battle either, but he will struggle with the athleticism and relentless grind of Barkley and Malone. Griffin boasts the most favorable frame for the matchup, but he is too limited both offensively and defensively — Griffin would be eaten alive by Barkley or Malone. Griffin also just twisted his knee, making the possibility of Davis on the squad realistic. Davis would obviously serve as the Laettner of the group and garner no playing time in a game between the two squads. James and Anthony boast frames and athleticism that can manage either Barkley or Malone defensively, but each has to completely buy in and give 100%. James has proven that he can undertake such a task — evidenced by his efforts throughout the 2012 NBA Playoffs. Anthony hasn't shown much on the defensive end, but he does sport a body and athleticism that can match up with either player. James and Anthony should excel offensively against either option. Durant would definitely struggle defensively due to his slight frame, but he can respond by lighting up Barkley and Malone with his offensive prowess. Overall, the '12 team has four realistic options to continually throw at Barkley and Malone — Love, James, Anthony, and Durant.

Defensively, the '12 team will struggle with the power forward matchup, but once again, the '12 team can counter with athleticism, speed, and a spread offense to counteract such defensive woes. The power forward matchup seems to be a wash. Barkley and Malone win the battle inside the paint, whether rebounding or scoring, but the '12 squad can counter with four viable options to bring inside/outside scoring, dribble penetration, and opportunities in transition. The versatility of the position for the '12 squad offers a strong counter to the forceful skill sets of Barkley and Malone. Style of play makes this matchup one of the most intriguing due to such contrasting skill sets.

The next matchup to examine is small forward. The '92 team can use Bird, Pippen, Jordan, or Mullin. The '12 team can use a litany of options — James, Durant, Anthony, Love, Bryant, or Iguodala. Suffering from a wrecked back, Bird retired at the age of 35 shortly after the '92 Olympics. It's safe to say that Bird would be useless in any of these matchups. Bird can spread the court with deadeye shooting and excellent ball movement, but he is an extreme liability defensively in each of these matchups. The same goes for Mullin. Mullin can put points on the board due to his excellent jumpshot, but, like Bird, he severely pales in athleticism, and would essentially serve as a gateway to the basket. With Bird and Mullin likely out of the picture, and Jordan almost guaranteed to play on the opposite wing, the '12 team can throw fresh bodies at Pippen the entire game until he wears down.

Pippen will have to play a full 48 minutes with breakneck tenacity in order to keep up with the likes of James, Durant, Anthony, and Bryant. As great as Pippen is, do you think he can shutdown a fresh rotation of James, Durant, Anthony, and Bryant?  That's a tall task, even for an elite defensive talent such as Pippen. Pippen can play outstanding defense on each guy, but doing so for 48 minutes against four of the most impressive offensive players to ever play the game is unrealistic. Imagine Pippen having to matchup with James, then against a fresh Anthony off the bench, then a couple of minutes against Bryant or Durant, and once again against a fresh James. If Pippen ever needs a breather, the '92 team is in a world of hurt — similar to Chandler at the center position for the '12 team. With greater depth, the '12 team boasts a superior advantage at the small forward position.

The most notable matchups climax at shooting guard. The '92 team features Jordan, Drexler, and Mullin. The '12 team can utilize, Bryant, James, Durant, Harden, Iguodala, Westbrook, or Williams. Once again, depth favors the '12 team. However, depth doesn't matter as much in this matchup — Jordan can play all game long, and if he needs a breather, Drexler can do just fine in spot duty. Mullin probably isn't an option, and if he is, he'd get worked. Obviously, the matchup everyone wants to see comes down to Jordan versus Bryant. At 33 years old, Bryant will struggle to defend the 29 year old Jordan. Coming off of consecutive championships, Jordan was in the absolute prime of his career heading into the '92 Olympics. Bryant can counteract Jordan with an offensive outburst, but he would have to play stellar basketball. Unless Bryant gets into a zone similar to his 81 point game, or his 62 points in three quarters, Jordan possesses a sizable advantage.

However, after trading punches with Bryant, how would Jordan fare if James matched up on him? Such great depth allows for such a possibility. James is younger, bigger, stronger, and faster than Jordan. After engaging in a battle with Bryant, it could prove difficult for Jordan to then turn around and battle James. Jordan would certainly let Pippen guard James, however, what if James specifically matched up to defend Jordan as Bryant switched onto Pippen? Pippen doesn't pose as an overwhelming threat on the offensive end, and James certainly has the necessary tools to make things difficult for Jordan. The '12 team probably needs to use James at the forward position, thus curbing his impact defensively on Jordan, but the possibility remains. One underrated matchup is Westbrook versus Jordan. Westbrook seems to have a Gary Payton like fire, and it would be a treat to see how he would attack Jordan both offensively and defensively. Overall, the shooting guard matchup will most likely feature Jordan versus Bryant, with some sprinkles of James, Durant, Westbrook, Iguodala, and Harden, but the edge goes still goes to Jordan. However, such an edge is not as immense as the edge Jordan had over the competition at shooting guard up to the Dream Team period. Due to such great depth, the '12 team can throw a couple of different options at Jordan in an attempt to wear him down and ultimately sap the energy he certainly needs in order to carry the '92 team offensively.

The final battle comes down to the point guards. The '92 team features Johnson and Stockton — that's it. Jordan can run some point, but he is far more useful as a finisher. The '12 team can use Paul, Williams, Westbrook, and James. The point guard matchup likely serves as the greatest advantage the '12 team has over the '92 team. Johnson and Stockton will each struggle on the defensive end against the speed and athleticism of the '12 point guards. At 32 years of age, and a year out of the league due to an abrupt retirement, Johnson doesn't look to fare well against Paul, Westbrook, and Williams — or the 2.0 version of himself, James. Standing 6'9", Johnson will absolutely get destroyed by the foot speed of Paul, Williams, Westbrook, and James — especially in transition. There is no way Johnson can bend over to defend the minute Paul, or keep up with the explosive Westbrook. Johnson would have to defend a slower player, thus sliding every matchup down a rung. Johnson can realistically successfully defend just three guys on the entire '12 roster — Love, Chandler, and Davis, and even Love is a stretch. Johnson obviously possesses a genius level understanding of the game, but theory and practice contain far different possibilities and realities.

Johnson will always be regarded as the greatest point guard ever, however, in this matchup, he is overmatched. Johnson will have no problem running the show offensively, but he is a liability every time on the defensive end of the court. Maybe he can control the tempo of the game and distribute the ball to all the right places, but I just can't imagine him being too successful — especially if James matches up on him. Johnson's only substitute, Stockton, will suffer the same fate. Stockton will struggle to keep any '12 point guard in front of him on the defensive end. Each '12 point guard can run an isolation and score rather easily on him. Imagine Stockton lining up against the uber athletic Westbrook — it just isn't fair, Westbrook can blow by him and attack the basket on every single possession. Johnson and Stockton both serve as significant defensive liabilities that can be exposed by pick and roll switches and a severe lack of athleticism.

Unlike Johnson, Stockton can possibly struggle to run the show offensively. Imagine if Westbrook presses Stockton full court — Stockton certainly has a great handle, but relentless hounding from a superior athlete would surely prove a strenuous obstacle. Stockton will obviously run the pick and roll to perfection with Malone, but a hard trap from a tandem like Westbrook and James could be pretty difficult to step through or turn the corner on. The '92 team will desperately miss the services of Isiah Thomas — directly left off the team at Jordan's request — against the '12 team. Thomas would have given the '92 team a perfect matchup against a guy like Paul, and a more manageable matchup against guys like Westbrook and Williams, but a beef with Jordan cost him a roster spot. Overall, Johnson and Stockton will struggle mightily against Paul, Williams, Westbrook, and James. Stockton will struggle to give much of anything against far superior athletes, leaving Johnson to run the show for a majority of the game. An '88 Johnson would have abused the '12 point guards, but a '92 Johnson — a year removed from the NBA — is definitely at a disadvantage. Overall, the speed and athleticism of the '12 point guards carries a significant advantage over the slow, plodding, mismatched '92 point guards.

So with the matchups decided, who has the advantage? The '92 team holds advantages at center and shooting guard; whereas the '12 team holds advantages at small forward and point guard. Due to styles of play, the power forward position looks to be a wash — with '92 winning inside, but '12 winning from the outside. So the advantages, position wise, are stuck at 2-2. With Jordan on the Dream Team, the '92 team has the best player on the court. However, the '12 team has a more versatile lineup that can create the most amount of advantageous mismatches.

Overall, I'm going to side with versatility and superior athleticism, therefore Team USA Basketball 2012. The '12 team can counter every single move that the '92 team makes, whereas the '92 team cannot counter every move the '12 team makes. If the '92 squad goes big, the '12 team can utilize a big enough lineup that is much more athletic and versatile. If the '92 squad goes with a traditional lineup, a traditional lineup of the '12 squad can match up just fine. If the '92 squad goes small, the '12 team can employ a faster team with greater size and versatility. The best lineup for the '92 squad is most likely Johnson, Jordan, Pippen, Barkley, and Robinson. The best lineup for the '12 squad is Paul, Bryant, Durant, James, and Chandler. The best lineup from '92 is a bit more formidable than the best lineup of '12, however once substitutions are taken into hand, the '12 team can do so much more. The '92 team will definitely struggle to counter the various matchups that the '12 team can throw at them.

Overall, the superior athleticism and versatility of the '12 team is just too much for the Dream Team to handle. The collection of individual players on the '12 team may not be as individually great as the Dream Team, but the entire whole is far greater in terms of versatility and what can be done on the court.

Despite my opinion, and Bryant's, many disagree with even mentioning the two squads together in the same sentence. Following Bryant's remarks, Barkley promptly responded in an interview, "Them point guards weren't going to beat us, I mean that's a no brainer. Listen, other than Kobe, LeBron, and Kevin Durant, I don't think anybody else on that team makes our team." Jordan followed the next day with, "I'd like to think that we had 11 Hall of Famers on that team, and whenever they get 11 Hall of Famers, you call and ask me who had the better Dream Team. Remember now, they learned from us. We didn't learn from them."

Barkley and Jordan have great points, but their points remain stuck in the past. Nearly every single member of the Dream Team has long been retired, and deservedly enshrined in the Hall of Fame. That fact can't be disputed. Stats and accomplishments really can't be compared, because the Dream Team wins in a landslide. History is obviously on their side. Using history, Barkley and Jordan dismiss the dangerous aspects of the '12 team. Barkley may be right about only three players from the '12 team even deserving to make the '92 team, but he can't honestly deny the fact that Paul, Westbrook, and Williams would give the '92 team fits. Jordan also hides behind history. Unwilling to relinquish his hold upon the greatest team of all time, Jordan brings up the Hall of Fame argument. Jordan fails to recognize that skills continually evolve. Yes, Jordan paved the blueprint, but now guys like James and Durant are running off with that blueprint and adding new wrinkles. In a matchup of the two squads, the '92 team has just two advantageous matchups. Jordan obviously poses the greatest threat on the '92 squad, but a roundtable defensive rotation of Bryant, James, Durant, Iguodala, and Westbrook can likely wear him down. Then either Ewing or Robinson serve as the greatest threat, but likely just one at a time. Chandler is a defensive stud and he can play either center without significant help.

When stacking the possible lineups side by side, the greater advantages clearly point to the '12 squad. How can the Dream Team stop this lineup — Westbrook, Bryant, Durant, Anthony, James, along with a rotation of Paul, Williams, Harden, Iguodala, and Love? The '12 squad can completely force the big men out of the game and turn the game into small ball for the entire matchup. A reasonable athletic counter for the '92 team would probably feature Drexler, Jordan, Pippen, Barkley, and Robinson. Pippen can guard either Durant or James, but that leaves Robinson on the opposite — not good. Westbrook wins his matchup with Drexler — both love to put their heads down and just attack the basket. Jordan outscores Bryant to win his matchup. Durant would have to work hard for his shots, but he has far greater odds of being a game changer than Pippen does. Pippen likely fulfills his defensive stopper role, but the impact of limiting one scorer on the '12 team isn't nearly as great as the potential possibility of Durant pouring in buckets. Pippen and Durant come to a wash, but Durant has a significant opportunity to light up the score board whereas Pippen doesn't. Barkley and Anthony each provide a significant offensive show. Both are amazing talents offensively, but lack defensive reputations. Barkley and Anthony score buckets, but they also give up buckets rather easily.

Then comes James and Robinson. James obviously destroys Robinson offensively, but he will struggle defensively in man to man situations. However, plenty of help can come James' way — following the '92 season Drexler was a career 29.3% three point shooter, followed by Jordan at 28.4%, Pippen at 25.0%, and Barkley at 24%. Barkley will primarily reside within the midrange, but Pippen, Jordan, and Drexler can all be left out on the perimeter in order to double Robinson hard. Pippen, Jordan, and Drexler can also be switched onto by every single player on the court — except for Westbrook on Pippen. With Robinson consistently doubled, the '12 team must scramble defensively, but they have the athletes necessary to successfully utilize such a lineup and tempo. With Jordan as the only significant advantage for this '92 lineup, the '12 lineup poses greater options for success.

Even further, if Robinson tires, the '92 team will face a significant disadvantage against the aforementioned lineup. Imagine, Johnson, Bird, Mullin, Stockton, Laettner, or Ewing stepping onto the court against such a lineup. Each significantly pales in athleticism on the court. They may have big names, but can any of them pose as a dual threat on the court against the likes of Westbrook, Bryant, Durant, Anthony, and James? After abruptly retiring shortly before the '92 season, Johnson didn't play another NBA game until '95 — unless you count the '92 All-Star Game. Bird retired shortly after the '92 Olympics. Mullin struggled to defend players in his own era, imagine him guarding Bryant, Durant, Anthony, or James. Stockton has no place on the court against an intimidating athletic force like Westbrook. Stockton could matchup with Paul, but Paul would still carry a sizable advantage. Laettner isn't even a consideration. That leaves the '92 squad with just one serviceable substitute for the aforementioned '12 lineup — Malone. Malone can step in for Robinson in a small ball set, but he would just screw up the matchups and place the '92 squad at a further disadvantage. Imagine Westbrook, Bryant, Durant, Anthony, and James versus Drexler, Jordan, Barkley, Malone, and Pippen. Barkley and Malone each match up better with Anthony, but only one would get the opportunity, and neither can even remotely defend Durant or James. Since Pippen must defend either James or Durant, either James or Durant pose a far greater threat against Barkley or Malone than the one Jordan has on Bryant.

Simply put, Team USA Basketball 2012 has greater mismatches to expose against the Dream Team. The '12 guys may not be able to take roster spots away from the 92' squad, or fulfill career greatness like nearly everyone associated with the Dream Team, but the '12 squad can utilize a multitude of mismatches. Paul, Westbrook, Williams, Durant, James, and Anthony each pose significant mismatches for the '92 squad to defend. Utilizing greater roster flexibility, the '12 squad can expose huge holes in nearly every '92 lineup. Jordan can potentially dominate the entire game and pull the '92 squad along with him, however, that task would certainly be arduous considering the multitude of capable bodies able to match up with him. On the other hand, the '12 squad has numerous guys that can't be guarded by the man that will ultimately be on them. Pippen and Jordan can guard every perimeter player on the '12 squad, but the '12 squad will always have a third or fourth proficient perimeter option on the floor that can't be guarded. If Johnson and Bird were in their primes, the Dream Team would undoubtedly defeat the '12 team with ease. However, such primes were considerably absent by 1992. Bryant mentioned their age in order to dispel the mystification of the Dream Team. When you hear Jordan, Johnson, Bird, the trio conjures up ideals of greatness and an aura of invincibility. By peeling away the names associated with the act, Bryant identified weaknesses in the Dream Team that he and his teammates could undoubtedly capitalize upon.

Although Bryant is the ultimate competitor, I find it surprising that he made such a bold statement. Rarely has he challenged the greats of the game in public discourse. As the eldest member of the '12 squad, maybe Bryant is beginning to enjoy his status as a grizzled veteran. Sixteen years in, Bryant felt completely comfortable stating his opinion that Team USA Basketball 2012 could defeat the vaunted Dream Team. The following day, Bryant didn't back down from his remarks. Despite Jordan offering this jab, "I imagine he's trying to say it to legitimize his own Dream Team," Bryant stated, "I'm not really tripping. The fact is they've got Ewing and Robinson, those big guys. I mean it's tough. But if you're asking me if we can beat them one game, hell yeah we can beat them one game. You didn't ask me if we could beat them in a seven game series. One game, we could get them, no question about it." Maybe Bryant did back down a little by bringing up the one game argument, but the original question is "How do you guys think you would do against them with the team you have right now?" To me, the question implies a single game, like a one time Olympic team showdown. Others may interpret "right now" as a signifier for the first of many, but I believe that "right now" refers to a sort of pickup style scrimmage. Bryant seems to feel the same way, and he is fully confident in his ability to win at least one game against the Dream Team.

I think this may represent the first time that Bryant has publicly stated that one of his teams could defeat a team led by Jordan. In a round way, maybe his statements are a good thing. With the entire world watching Team USA Basketball, maybe Bryant's words will spur the '12 team to grandiose heights. Imagine if the '12 team decimates the competition by over 40 points a game? Would such a feat change the way everyone felt about Bryant's words? Obviously, the '12 team hasn't accomplished a single thing yet, but I sure do like the confidence Bryant has entering the Olympics.

Whatever your stance is regarding the subject, we can all agree that the matchup would be an amazing event. The endless speculation makes it all fun, and no one can ever be right because the game will never take place. Just in case you have some inclination regarding who would win, ESPN Next Level simulated 10,000 computer matchups between the 1992 Dream Team and the 2012 Team USA squad. ESPN Next Level projected that the '92 squad would win 53.1% of the time while averaging 78.3 points per game, whereas, the '12 squad won 46.9% of the time and averaged 77.3 points per game. Despite the close ESPN Next Level numbers, specifically the one point game differential, Station Casinos considers the '92 squad an eight point favorite. Eight points seem rather high, but it's still within three possessions.

Although Barkley and Jordan laughed off Bryant's statement, it seems rather evident that the possibility of the '12 team defeating the Dream Team is at least up for discussion. With the '12 team possibly serving as the final USA squad utilizing pros over the age of 23, such a discussion may never come up again. We might as well soak it all in while we can.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Steve Nash Unbelievably Traded to the Los Angeles Lakers (7.6.12)

I waited an extra day to write this, you know, just in case David Stern decided to use his supposed prerogative to rip away another star player from the "evil big market Los Angeles Lakers." Nothing will be official until July 11, 2012, the date when free agents can officially sign the dotted lines on binding contracts. However, unless something crazy happens, Steve Nash is a Los Angeles Laker.

Soak it in. 

Let it permeate. 

Lakers fans, let it reach deep within your fiber, and when the time comes, rejoice. Such an unexpected signing takes a while to fully absorb and comprehend.

This move came out of nowhere.

Who, other than Mitch Kupchak, imagined Steve Nash donning purple and gold? I certainly didn't. While hanging out with family and friends on the Fourth of July, I received a call from my friend, and fellow Lakers fan, Tom. Here's how that transaction went down:

"Hey, did you hear?"

"Hear what?"

"Nash signed with the Lakers."

"What, no way! Are you messing with me? For real, are you messing with me?"

"No, seriously dude, Nash just signed with the Lakers!"

"Wow, I can't believe it!"

"I know man, he agreed to a sign and trade for three years around 25 million."

The conversation eventually wrapped up, but my initial response of shock lasted much longer. Like many, the Nash deal caught me off guard. At first, I thought Tom was messing with me just for kicks, but his rebuttal to my question was full of excitement and giddiness. Clearly, Tom was not messing with me; in actuality, he was excited to spread the news. 

I felt that same excitement as I spread the news to my friends at another gathering later that night. Responses ranged from excitement, disbelief, shock, and jealousy. Simply put, who could have envisioned Nash as a Laker?

Nash has long been an adversary to the Lakers in the post-Shaq era. After Kobe Bryant dropped 48 points on the Suns in the second week of the '12 season, Bryant stated, "I don't like them. They used to whup us pretty good and let us know about it. I won't forget that." With Nash as the only holdover from those mid-2000 Suns' teams, Bryant let his distaste be known. Bryant certainly enjoyed dismantling the Suns as a whole that night, but he also appreciated handing Nash his own whupping. 

Bryant's strong words hold some credence. In the post-Shaq, pre-Gasol era, Bryant was a one man wrecking ball. After missing the playoffs in the first year post-Shaq, Bryant turned in a remarkable season by averaging a career high 35.4 points along with a solid 5.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in '05-06. Bryant dragged along Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm, Devean George, Luke Walton, Brian Cook, and Sasha Vujacic to a respectable 45 wins and the seventh seed in the West. Despite averaging the highest points per game total since Michael Jordan's 37.1 in '86-87, Bryant was unable to overcome Nash and his 18.8 points and 10.5 assists per game in the MVP voting that season. Nash won his second straight MVP as he led the Suns to the second seed in the West. Nash thrived in the "Seven Seconds or Less" system, and his brand of basketball brought excitement around the league.

With the MVP outcome pretty much known amongst sport writers, but still up for debate in the public eye, Bryant sought retribution in the first round of the playoffs against Nash and the Suns. After losing the first game of the series, Bryant changed the tone of the series by throwing down a signature dunk, with emphasis, all over Nash in Game 2. Bryant soared over Nash and hung on the rim for good measure during a key play in the fourth quarter. The Lakers won three straight games to take a 3-1 series lead, but Nash had the last laugh. Nash withstood a 50 point outburst from Bryant in Game 6 by delivering 32 points and 13 assists to lead the Suns to a thrilling overtime victory. In Game 7, the Suns destroyed the Lakers and handed them a 31 point defeat. The Suns became just the seventh team in NBA history to ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit. After riding the high of a potential upset, Los Angeles was promptly stabbed in the heart by Nash and the Suns. Four days later, Nash was officially awarded the NBA MVP award, thus providing a "kick me when I'm down" moment to Bryant and the Lakers.

The following season, the Lakers and Suns once again matched up in the first round as a seven seed versus a two seed. However, the series was much less competitive. The Suns easily defeated the Lakers in five games. Following the series loss, Bryant commented upon trade rumors regarding the young, and ineffective, Andrew Bynum. Bryant was captured on a camera phone in a shopping center parking lot calling for the organization to ship out Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd in hopes of returning the Lakers to a championship level. Following that controversy, and awkwardness, Bryant continued to brood about his chase for more championships by flip flopping on whether or not he wanted to be traded or remain a Laker for life. With consecutive first round exits, Bryant truly questioned the future prosperity of the Lakers.

Looking back, in a broad sense, Nash nearly dismantled the Lakers. Despite playing phenomenal basketball, and hoping to prove all of his detractors wrong following the departure of O'Neal, Bryant could not carry the Lakers to championships as a solo act. Bryant gave his all as he reached Jordanesque levels of play, but he knew it still wasn't good enough. You can imagine the disdain Bryant has probably carried for Nash and the Suns since the mid-2000's. Don't forget about Nash's good pal, Raja Bell, who delivered a dirty clothesline that prompted Bryant to challenge him to stepping into the "octagon," a UFC reference. Even after obtaining Pau Gasol, winning consecutive championships, and providing quite possibly his greatest playoff series performance ever against the Suns in the Western Conference Finals on the way to the '10 championship, Bryant still felt the need to provide that quote early in the '12 season. Obviously, Bryant never let go of those feelings of disappointment, anger, bitterness, and heartbreak.

With the Raptors and Knicks pining for Nash's services, I didn't even think Los Angeles was on Nash's radar. The Knicks seemed like a reasonable option. Nash would have been a great offensive director for Carmello Anthony, J.R. Smith, and his old running mate, Amare Stoudemire. However, I truly thought the Raptors had Nash on lock. I figured Nash was going to accept his role as an ambassador of basketball in his native country, Canada, while making a boatload of cash. However, it seems that Nash truly valued the opportunity to win over everything else. Just over a week ago, Nash stated, "For me, it would be hard to put on a Lakers jersey. That's just the way it is. You play against them so many times in the playoffs, and I just use them as an example." The quote implies that Nash would prefer to lead his own team against elite competition rather than join alliances with past enemies. In fact, Nash has stated in the past that he would be fine retiring without a championship. For these reasons, I never believed Nash would be open to latching on to a championship contender, especially a vaunted rival.

Even more surprising than Nash's willingness to join the Lakers was the fact that the Suns agreed to trade him to the Lakers. Rarely do you see an elite player traded within the same conference, let alone the same division. You have to give Suns owner, Robert Sarver, a round of applause. Sarver treated Nash with the upmost respect and accommodation, kind of like a bizarro Dan Gilbert. After initial hesitation, Sarver reconsidered the possibilities of a sign and trade with Los Angeles, and he agreed to help out a team that poses a direct threat to the Suns. Such an action cannot be overlooked. Sarver knew that Nash deserved such treatment, and he decided to help Nash stay relatively near his family in Phoenix while giving him an opportunity to win an elusive championship. Nash gave the Suns eight seasons of stellar play, and Sarver decided to reward him for all that he had done.

I have a feeling that Arizona is not too happy with Sarver, but Suns' fans need to realize that Nash wasn't going to lead the Suns to a championship at this stage of his career. Arizona should applaud Sarver for actually obtaining some pieces for Nash. 2012 marked the final year that teams could engage in sign and trade deals under the old collective bargaining agreement, and the Suns capitalized on the situation. Understanding that Nash was going to leave in free agency, the Suns pulled off a sign and trade with the Lakers and obtained four future draft picks. With draft picks, and salary cap space, the Suns can look to rebuild rather quickly.

Overall, the Nash acquisition has been full of improbabilities — Nash teaming up with long time rival Kobe Bryant, Nash joining the Lakers, Nash shirking Canada and 36 million dollars, the Suns trading Nash within the Pacific Division, and the Lakers actually acquiring a top level talent.

Let's cover that last improbability. It seems like it has been in vogue to shun the Lakers during free agency. Dwight Howard has repeatedly stated his unwillingness to come to Los Angeles. Chris Paul was turned away due to the commissioner's veto. Midlevel players have avoided the Lakers. Even worse, the younger brother Clippers have succeeded in bringing in outside talent — Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Kenyon Martin, and Nick Young in 2012, and now Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford in this offseason. Finally, a player of value has decided to join the Lakers for less money. Look at what the Heat pulled off with Shane Battier and Mike Miller. Those guys signed for far less than what they were worth, and they both delivered remarkable performances in the NBA Finals. Guys like Battier and Miller are instrumental in championship chases, and the Lakers have failed to acquire those types of glue guys. You would think that free agents would clamor to play for the Lakers in hopes of winning a championship, but that just hasn't been the case. The last player of value to join the Lakers in free agency was Ron Artest in 2009, and before him you would have to go back to 2003 when Gary Payton and Karl Malone decided to come to Los Angeles. Maybe Nash's improbable decision will mark a change in the willingness of free agents to come to the Lakers.

After stalling out in the second round of the playoffs for the past two seasons, the Lakers should once again stand face to face with the elite teams of the NBA. As 1996 NBA Draft alumni, Bryant effectively sold Nash on the possibility of teaming up and knocking off the younger trios of the Thunder and Heat, as well as the formidable older trios of the Spurs and Celtics. With three years on his contract, Nash is in the best situation of his career in terms of winning a championship. Although Bryant and Nash probably never dreamed of this day, their old school philosophies of leading a team have been run out of the league. A lot has changed since they entered the league over 16 years ago. Dominant duos are no longer the key to success; now each of the contending teams has a "Big Three." Free agency is a huge play now for star players. Only the Thunder and Spurs have built their star trios from the ground up. Free agency is a part of the game, and Nash and Bryant might as well capitalize on the opportunity afforded them. Now the Lakers can boast a "Big Four."

The starting five of the Lakers should be formidable, and it may contain the highest basketball IQ of the entire league. Nash, Bryant, World Peace, Gasol, and Bynum should be an amazing quintet. I can already see Nash running the high pick and pop with Gasol for open jumpers, and the side pick and roll with Bynum for thunderous dunks. I can see Bynum on the block, Nash at the top, World Peace on the strong side, Gasol at the high post, and Bryant salivating to destroy single coverage on the weak side. There are a multitude of possibilities on the offensive end due to Nash's ability to spread the floor with pinpoint shooting, drive and kick ability, and correct decision making. It will be much more difficult for teams to pack the paint and double Bynum in the post due to Nash's three point shooting. I can't wait to see a Nash/Bryant pick and roll. I can't wait to see how many easy buckets Bynum gets due to Nash's amazing ability to set up the offense. I can't wait to see Nash throw a one handed bounce pass off the dribble while running down the court during the fast break. Overall, I just can't wait to see the greatest point guard of my generation playing for my favorite team.

While Nash's signing doesn't guarantee a championship, it definitely puts the Lakers right there in the conversation. The Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Heat, Celtics, and possibly Nets (if they get Dwight Howard) will all be tough outs, but now the Lakers will have the necessary firepower to throw back at them. Nash doesn't make the Lakers automatic champions, but he does provide a major upgrade to the team, especially over the disastrous Ramon Sessions experiment and the anemic performance of Steve Blake these past two seasons. Nash should breathe new life into the organization, as well as a new fire. After sixteen failed seasons, Nash should instill a greater sense of desperation for the squad. The jaded narrative of Bryant chasing his sixth ring will be superseded by Nash chasing his first. A hungry Nash paired with the ever-hungry Bryant should provide more than enough motivation for success.

Nash does bring some baggage, but not enough to outweigh his positives. Nash will still be a defensive liability, but having two seven footers behind him should help cover his deficiencies. Nash will also be a monster for Mike Brown to manage. Nash's bad back will limit his playing time, and it will be up to Brown to work out a consistent rotation to effectively utilize Nash with the right set of teammates on the court. Nash also tends to run his own show, which contradicts Brown's preference to call set plays, but I'm sure Brown will have no problem relinquishing some handle on the offense to such a proven point guard. Nash may even pose a problem for Bryant in terms of handling the ball and creating offense, however, Bryant should relish the opportunity to play off the ball and allow Nash to initiate the offense. Now, Bryant can allow Nash to be the primary playmaker and he can focus solely on what he does best, scoring. In fact, Nash should extend Bryant's career an extra year or so by handling the primary duty of initiating and playmaking on offense.

Overall, Nash is going to get the ball where it needs to go. Do you think we will be hearing Bynum complain about lack of touches when Nash is the floor general? I don't think so. Nash is going to provide the Lakers something the organization hasn't had since the days of Magic Johnson, a lead point guard that will make all the right plays, distribute the ball to key players in prime situations, and keep teammates involved and happy.

In general, Nash will make everybody happy, his teammates, his coaches, and now, Lakers fans.