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July 7, 2012
London Calling
Rating the 2012 USA Olympic Roster

by Kevin Pelton

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After a series of injuries and players withdrawing, USA Basketball finally has a roster for the London Olympics. And, while it might have been stronger had everyone been healthy, this group still looks awfully impressive. With Blake Griffin, James Harden and Andre Iguodala earning the last three spots on the roster, here is the group the USA is taking to London rates:

Player               Win%    WARP    Car
----------------------------------------
Chris Paul           .740    18.2    123
Kobe Bryant          .576     9.2    203
LeBron James         .808    23.5    191
Kevin Durant         .706    19.0     60
Tyson Chandler       .595     9.5     51
Russell Westbrook    .631    12.9     39
James Harden         .642    11.3     21
Andre Iguodala       .605    10.7     70
Carmelo Anthony      .591     8.4     64
Kevin Love           .718    16.7     47
Deron Williams       .604     9.6     68
Blake Griffin        .629    13.1     26

During last month's discussion of the Dream Team, we looked at the history of USA Basketball's teams in the professional era. Now, let's re-run that chart with this year's team included to see how it stacks up:

Year    Win%     WARP     Car
-----------------------------
1992    .709    172.6    2503
1994    .622    130.6    1361
1996    .683    188.7    2419
1999    .609     99.6    1425
2000    .595    126.8    1503
2002    .602    126.2    1135
2003    .638    136.8    1428
2004    .586    105.9    1336
2006    .615    148.1    1151
2007    .614    135.3    1295
2008    .641    157.2    1378
2010    .561     92.2     633
2012    .656    162.0     963

In terms of WARP and winning percentage the previous season, this assemblage of talent narrowly surpasses the 2008 gold medalists as the best USA Basketball roster since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Whereas the 2008 team had role players Tayshaun Prince and Michael Redd on the bench, this year's group is much deeper. Everyone on the roster posted at least 8.4 WARP last season. The only group of potentials that surpasses that weakest link is 1996, when the whole team had double-digit WARP the previous NBA campaign.

Clearly, injuries did affect the USA frontcourt, with just three big men--Tyson Chandler, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love--on the final roster. Of that group, only Chandler is a true basket protector. Of course, something similar was true in 2010, and that team did not have LeBron James swinging down to play power forward or even center.

The USA big men should have little difficulty matching up with pick-and-pop international post players. The exception to this is Spain, a possible opponent in the gold-medal game that boasts Marc and Pau Gasol with Serge Ibaka coming off the bench. Those big men will be forced to defend the USA's stretch fours on the perimeter--a problem for Ibaka as recently as the NBA Finals--which could neutralize the Spanish strength advantage. Still, any mismatch introduces a source of uncertainty that tends to favor the underdog, as the Spain would be in that matchup.

The other factor worth watching as the USA begins playing exhibition games in preparation for London is help defense. Under Mike Krzyzewski, the U.S. has been most vulnerable to penetration by quick point guards like Carlos Arroyo and Patty Mills. When those small guards reach the paint, they will put players like Durant and James in the unfamiliar position of primary help defender. Durant and James are good enough that their instincts probably won't matter, but expect opposing teams to attack this weakness whenever possible.

COLANGELO AND CONTINUITY

One of the buzzwords for USA Basketball under the stewardship of chairman Jerry Colangelo has been "continuity"--maintaining a consistent core national team over an extended period of time. That's reflected at the coaching level, where Krzyzewski is preparing for his second Olympics as head coach of the senior national team since the summer of 2006. Eric Freeman of Ball Don't Lie wondered today on Twitter whether the numbers back that up in terms of player experience, and they do. Based on my research, here is the past senior team experience for each squad dating back to 1992:

Year    Ret   App
-----------------
1992     5     6
1994     2     2
1996     8    10
1999     2     2
2000     8    10
2002     2     3
2003     5     7
2004     4     5
2006     4     6
2007     5     9
2008    12    21
2010     3     3
2012    10    19

It seems a bit silly to count the five members of the Dream Team who played as part of one-off amateur teams, but they at least had some familiarity with international basketball in the summer of 1992. The 1996 team actually had solid continuity by this measure, though not all of the eight players that had previously played for USA Basketball in major international competitions had played together. Five returned from the Dream Team, two had played in the 1994 World Championship and Mitch Richmond played in the 1988 Olympics as a collegian.

Continuity started to become an issue in the early 2000s. Historically, World Championship teams have largely featured players new to the senior national team, some of whom then repeat at the Olympics two years later. In 2004, however, so many players backed out of representing the USA that there were just four players on the roster with any significant USA Basketball experience.

2008 reflects the ultimate triumph of continuity. Eight of the 12 players on the roster for the Beijing Olympics had played together in the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship, and the other four had played for USA Basketball in the past. By contrast, this year's team includes two newcomers (Griffin and Harden). However, we're now seeing players with years of experience in the USA program. James and Carmelo Anthony will join Jason Kidd in representing their country in five different major international competitions.

Assessing the importance of continuity is a slightly different question. After all, part of why this new philosophy has worked so well for the USA is that elite players like James no longer feel obligated to pass up their spot to younger peers after one or two Olympic appearances. As a result, the talent base is far better than it was early in the 2000s. That, as much as familiarity, may explain the success USA Basketball has enjoyed in the last quadrennial.

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

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