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July 27, 2012
Olympics
How much better could Team USA be?

by Bradford Doolittle

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It seems like so far we've heard as much about the players who aren't on Team USA as we've heard about the players who are actually playing. Sure, Mike Krzyzewski's team is missing more than a few big names. Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Dwyane Wade and LaMarcus Aldridge are among the All-Stars unable to make the trip to London because of injuries. Any and all of those guys would help just about any team that's ever existed. Nevertheless, after watching Team USA roll through five friendlies, you can't help but wonder how much better they could really be.

The Americans completed a perfect quintet of pre-Olympic games with a 100-78 win against Spain on Tuesday. Team USA won its exhibitions by an average 26.6 points per game, with a six-point win over Argentina being the tightest contest. Context is important when you're considering a program like Team USA, which is now 54-1 under Coach K. So for comparison's sake, consider that the 2010 national team won that year's FIBA tournament with average of differential of 24.6 points per game. That team was also missing a number of elite players and relied on Kevin Durant for nearly a quarter of its scoring.

The 2008 Olympic team won by an average 27.8 points per game with all the big guns in action. During its pre-tournament friendlies, that group won by 31 points per game. So even if the competition gets a little tougher in London, Team USA figures to have plenty of buffer. It isn't invulnerable. After all, there is that one loss , a six-point defeat to Greece in 2006, but all-in-all, it would be a huge upset if Team USA lost in the Olympics.

As we've seen with all the imaginary competition between the 2012 team and the 1992 Dream Team, our national hoops team is really competing with past versions of itself. That's why you'd like to see the best team fielded, even if another gold medal feels inevitable anyway.

So how much is quality is the team losing because of injuries?

Well, consider this: Using WARP projections for the coming season, the 12 members of Team USA rate from first (LeBron James) to 44th (Kobe Bryant). The top player not on the roster is Howard, who ranks fifth in our projections. WARP is based on two things: a player's individual winning percentage (or winning percentage above replacement based on his offensive and defensive ratings), and the number of minutes he plays.

By using the winning percentage projections and the total minutes for Team USA in its exhibitions, we can assign an estimated team quality to the squad, which we've done in the accompanying chart. This is of course based on NBA stats.

PLAYER             w%13  OMin
LeBron James       .800  129
Kevin Durant       .713  130
Chris Paul         .731   90
Kevin Love         .726   60
Russell Westbrook  .637   88
James Harden       .649   38
Andre Iguodala     .599   75
Anthony Davis      .598   27
Deron Williams     .599   98
Tyson Chandler     .583   66
Carmelo Anthony    .587   94
Kobe Bryant       .553   105
TEAM% WEIGHTED
BY MINUTES  .657

So if the current Team USA roster were an NBA team, it could be expected to win about 63.9 games based on its current playing time distribution and adding in replacement level of 10 wins. Of course, in reality the top players would play many more minutes, boosting this projection. Also, you'd be taking all these players away from their actual NBA teams, so that would boost the projection even more. But we won't go to that much trouble for this fantasy exercise.

Let's look at an alternate roster. This one is made up of players eligible to play for Team USA that aren't on the current roster. Their absences may be due to injuries, snubs or a lack of desire to play but whatever the reason, they aren't going to London. We'll give them the same playing time distribution as the actual team. It's not matched up in a linear fashion in the same order as projected winning percentage, giving it a degree of randomization. That's to mirror an effect such as our lowest-ranked player (Bryant) getting the third-most minutes.

PLAYER             w%13  OMin
Dwyane Wade        .704  129
Ryan Anderson      .701  130
Dwight Howard      .690   90
Kyrie Irving       .664   60
Greg Monroe        .660   88
Andrew Bynum       .645   38
Blake Griffin      .637   75
Josh Smith         .637   27
Paul Millsap       .623   98
DeMarcus Cousins   .611   66
Al Jefferson       .606   94
Brandon Jennings   .583  105
TEAM% WEIGHTED
 BY MINUTES  .651

There you have it. A team comprised of the best American players not going to London projects to be of almost exactly the same quality as the one that's actually going to compete for the gold. Anderson's projection contains a high degree of uncertainty, but you get the idea. There are a lot of good players in the NBA who won't be playing for their country this time around. You also will notice that a lot of these players are young. Anderson, Irving (who was hurt) and Cousins were all members of the Select Team that helped Team USA prepare for their journey.

A codicil to that is the glaring omission of Greg Monroe, especially given the glut of injuries to American big men. Bynum would be a no-brainer, but he opted to sit out international competition. That was probably a wise choice given his history of knee trouble. However, Monroe was willing and able to compete but didn't even land a spot on the Select Team. Meanwhile, rookie Anthony Davis is on Team USA without having logged a single NBA minute. Being that Monroe already projects as one of the rising stars in the NBA and he's voiced displeasure for his Team USA snub, this may turn out to be a good omen for Pistons fans. He'll be on a mission.

Anyway, let's combine our rosters and see how it projects if everyone was healthy, ready and willing to compete. We're not just going to cram in the 12 top projected winning percentages, but will make sure each position has an appropriate level of depth. I'm including Anderson in this group, not because I think he's really one of the top 12 players in the league but because he fills a role as a shooting specialist.

PLAYER             w%13  OMin
LeBron James       .800  129
Chris Paul         .731  130
Kevin Love         .726   90
Kevin Durant       .713   60
Dwyane Wade        .704   88
Ryan Anderson      .701   38
Dwight Howard      .690   75
Kyrie Irving       .664   27
Greg Monroe        .660   98
James Harden       .649   66
Andrew Bynum       .645   94
Blake Griffin      .637  105
TEAM% WEIGHTED
BY MINUTES  .700

That's a 67.4-win team. Yes, it's better but does it really make that much of a difference? As Tom Thibodeau would say, despite the injuries Team USA still has plenty to win with. Also, that projection is going to look low to you but that's because of the egalitarian distribution of minutes. For instance, LeBron played 129 of the 200 available minutes during the friendlies, or 64.5 percent. Last season for Miami, he played 77.1 percent of the minutes at his position in games for which he was available. If we adjusted the minutes for an NBA-style rotation, the projection jumps to about 69.3 wins. Again, if we went to the trouble to remove these players from their real teams, then it would likely project to be the best NBA team ever.

If Team USA happens to fall victim to an upset because of its shortage of big men, Coach K, Jerry Colangelo and company will have only themselves to blame because they had plenty of options to fill that void. However, they recognized that quite likely it won't matter because the overall level of talent on America's roster will simply overwhelm every opponent it faces.

Along those lines, let's use our above methodology to consider a roster made up of NBA players who are eligible to play for other countries, whether or not they are actually doing so this summer. That fictional roster would consist of Manu Ginobili, Serge Ibaka, Ersan Ilyasova, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, Marcin Gortat, Nicolas Batum, Goran Dragic, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki. It's a nice group with plenty of big men to exploit Team USA's shortage in that area. However, that team projects to a winning percentage of .611, or about 60 wins when replacement level is added back in.

In other words, you could build a team comprised of the best of every country in the world save for the U.S., and it still wouldn't be as strong as the roster Team USA will field in London. Indeed, injuries or not, Coach K has plenty to win with.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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