When the United States' men's basketball team begins Olympic play in Beijing on Sunday, more than just a gold medal is at stake. Indeed, the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team is the culmination of an experiment by USA Basketball, in the wake of 2004's bronze-medal finish in Athens, to determine to what extent the USA's shortcomings could be addressed by building a true team rather than the collection of star individuals that had previously worn red, white and blue in the professional eligibility era.
With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that the hype about selecting more role players was just that. The only true role player on the roster for Beijing is perimeter defender Tayshaun Prince, though in Jason Kidd and Michael Redd the U.S. has players who function effectively as role players in the international game.
What has changed dramatically is the consistency of the roster, thanks to the three-year commitment USA Basketball asked of interested players. For a variety of reasons, including the whims of the selection committee, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and LeBron James were the only three players to make the roster for all three years of competition (the 2006 World Championships, the 2007 FIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament and now the Olympics). However, eight of the 12 players on the roster played for the U.S. last summer and Carlos Boozer (a member of the 2004 Olympic squad) is the only player on the roster who did not suit up for the U.S. either of the last two summers. By contrast, just four of the 12 players on the Athens roster had recent U.S. experience; nine of the 12 roster spots changed over from the previous summer's Qualifying Tournament.
In the wake of the U.S. failing to win Olympic gold for the first time since professionals were made eligible, national pride is truly on the line in these Olympics in a way unlike any before them since the Dream Team. Combined with USA Basketball's grand experiment, that has produced an equally important effect: Managing Director Jerry Colangelo and the rest of the selection committee have virtually had their pick of the NBA's brightest stars. That's a distinct change from 2004, when several players begged off the team for personal reasons or because of security concerns in the first Olympics post-9/11. The result is the strongest team USA Basketball has assembled this decade.
Here's a look at the star-studded U.S. Senior National Teams dating back to the 2000 Olympics rated by Wins Above Replacement Player and per-minute Winning Percentage in the previous NBA season:
Year Win% WARP
2008 .648 163.2
2007 .614 135.4
2006 .623 153.8
2004 .597 112.6
2003 .645 141.0
2002 .603 126.8
2000 .603 120.9
In terms of both winning percentage and WARP, the 2008 group of players stands alone. To put this in perspective, the average player on this year's U.S. roster would have ranked 18th in the league on a per-minute basis last season. The average 2004 USA player would have ranked 34th. It's worth noting that the 2000 Sydney Olympic team that survived several scares to go undefeated and win gold rates little better by this measure, dragged down in large part by Vin Baker's replacement-level play during the 1999-00 season.
The 2003 team that rebounded from a disappointing World Championships performance to dominate the competition in the FIBA Olympics Qualifying Tournament was nearly as strong as this year's group on a per-minute basis (its WARP is lower in part because rookie Nick Collison rounded out the roster). However, that team may have won too easily, making players think the U.S. had solved its problems and would win in Athens.
While the number of players dropping off the team mitigates blame for the 2004 selection committee, where the committee does have to answer is in terms of ignoring outside shooting. The Athens roster shot a combined 31.3 percent from three-point range in 2003-04, which is awful. Richard Jefferson was the lone player on the roster who had shot better than league average from downtown. Unfortunately, fans and the media took this storyline and ran with it, ignoring the fact that it had never been true before. The 2000 Olympics (38.3 percent) and 2002 World Championships (37.5 percent) rosters were both filled with outstanding three-point shooters--which, it should be noted, ultimately made little difference in Indianapolis. (In fairness, sharpshooter Reggie Miller was hampered by injury in the World Championships.)
Anyway, USA Basketball has put together a strong group, something that's equally evident subjectively. The U.S. boasts four of last year's top five MVP vote-getters, a big chance from 2004 when Tim Duncan was the only legitimate superstar on the roster. However, the group the U.S. sent to the 2006 World Championships was nearly as strong as this group, and while that team performed well, it fell victim to Greece in the semifinals and finished third.
There were two reasons a strong U.S. team was unable to win gold in 2006. The first is obvious: The rest of the world has gotten better. Argentina and Spain boast teams filled with NBA players and talented players who are not intimidated in the slightest by playing against the USA. Meanwhile, teams like Greece have less NBA talent but boast stars from the Euroleague--which is gaining more respect by the day as the number of NBA veterans going to Europe continues to grow--and stronger team chemistry.
Following the 2004 Olympics, APBRmetric godfather Dean Oliver used numbers from the Olympics and World Championships with NBA players to estimate the gap between the average NBA team and the average national team. He found that the gap had shrunk from a massive 41 points in 1992 when the Dream Team romped through Barcelona to just nine by 2004. There's no reason to believe that trend has changed in the last four years.
The other shortcoming of the 2006 U.S. World Championships squad points to an area where USA Basketball's experiment may have fallen short so far--coaching. Specifically, the U.S. struggled mightily on defense, allowing 102.2 points per 100 possessions during the tournament, right about league average. When the U.S. men started 7-0, it was on the strength of terrific scoring (their Offensive Rating for the tournament was 127.9). However, their defense let them down against Greece. Though the U.S. scored at a rate of 128.1 points per 100 possessions in the semifinals, Greece's Offensive Rating was an unthinkable 136.2.
During the game, Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski had no answers for Greece's pick-and-roll with point guard Theo Papaloukas and big man Sofoklis Schortsanitis. Papaloukas handed out 12 assists, Schortsanitis scored 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting, Vassilis Spanoulis scored 22 and Greece shot 71.1 percent on two-point shots. Krzyzewski didn't help matters after the game when he infamously referred to Papaloukas and two other Greek players as "number four," "number seven" and "number 15."
If the USA is to win gold, the defense must improve, and that starts with the scouting effort of the coaching staff. They've been assisted the last two summers by former Canadian Head Coach Jay Triano, a Toronto Raptors assistant who is well-versed in the international game.
Based on the USA's 5-0 exhibition campaign, it's tough to tell whether the defense has improved in the last two years. The U.S. has done a much better job defending two-point shots against a solid group of opponents including European Champion Russia. Opponents have shot 43.3 percent on twos against the U.S. this year, down from 51.1 percent in the last World Championships. However, the USA's overall 95.2 Defensive Rating remains unimpressive, and Australian guard Patty Mills (entering his sophomore season at St. Mary's) exposed some of the same deficiencies in the USA's perimeter defense as Australia sans Andrew Bogut scored 47 points in the second half of a competitive 87-76 loss Tuesday in the exhibition finale for the Americans.
The defense will be worth keeping a close eye on early in group play as the U.S. is tested in a rematch with Greece, by reigning World Champion Spain and by Germany. If the defense holds up, it will go a long way towards making USA Basketball's grand experiment a golden success.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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