Taking Team USA’s Temperature: 13 Observations From FIBA So Far
We are mercifully through the group stage of the FIBA World Cup (a.k.a. the 24-team tournament for global basketball supremacy that draws almost zero interest in the U.S.). Team USA romped to a 5-0 record in a weak group, outscoring opponents by 33 points per game and earning what should be a laughably easy path to the gold-medal game.
Here are 13 random thoughts to prep you for the elimination round, starting tomorrow.
1. This is probably the weakest iteration of Team USA since the 2006 World Championships, when the U.S. finished third and lost to Greece. Huge victory margins over our sorry group-mates obscure serious vulnerabilities. Good news: Only Spain, the host team, appears anywhere near good enough to prick those soft spots enough times over 40 minutes to actually beat Team USA. And Spain has a much thornier path to the title game.
Spain destroyed the closest thing this tournament has to a Group of Death by about 25 points per game — perhaps more impressive than the U.S.’s run, once you adjust for the level of competition. We go into these tournaments searching for a team that might challenge Team USA. This tournament hasn’t turned up a team that appears capable of challenging Spain. It just hasn’t been compelling.
Brazil has a stout defense and an elite front line, but has trouble spacing the floor and scoring enough against the best teams. (Brazil has admittedly scored well so far in this World Cup, save for a blowout loss … to Spain.) France has long struggled to score in top international competitions, aside from last year’s rousing Eurobasket championship run, and it’s missing both Tony Parker and Joakim Noah. Greece and Slovenia, the latter a likely quarterfinal opponent for Team USA, have a combined 9-1 record, but neither has the defense or athleticism to pose a serious threat.
The remaining upset candidates — Lithuania, Croatia, Serbia, Argentina — are all nice teams that have provided zero evidence they could challenge the U.S. or Spain.
2. Any team starting all three of James Harden, Stephen Curry, and Kyrie Irving would have issues with perimeter defense. Irving and Harden are visibly trying harder than they do in the NBA, to the point that it’s almost embarrassing. Even when dialed in, they’re just not very good.
If you run those guys through screens, on and off the ball, you will eventually run them into a mistake. Turkey made every high pick-and-roll a maze, setting the screen to one side, crossing back the other way, and perhaps zigzagging the direction of the pick a third time — enough to walk that guard, whoever he may be, smack into Omer Asik’s chest, juke him the wrong way, or force him to desperately go too far under the pick.1
Sometimes it took only one simple flip of the pick:
The U.S. guards are switching a lot off the ball, and they’ll botch those switches now and then, leaving shooters open. The U.S. has even switched a lot of pick-and-rolls in which Kenneth Faried is guarding the screener, leaving Faried to defend a little guy while some poor U.S. guard deals with a post-up down low. That might fly against New Zealand, but the U.S. cannot leave Curry, Irving, or Harden to deal with a Gasol brother.
Back cuts have been a major problem. Ukraine managed the rare trick of back-cutting two U.S. players — Harden and Faried — at the same time:
Faried has generally played well within Tom Thibodeau’s scheme, but he’s undersize and prone to some bad gambles. DeMarcus Cousins, playing third fiddle in the big-man rotation, has been uneven — great against the Dominican Republic, and a reaching, lurching mess against Ukraine. Rudy Gay has been functioning as the team’s backup power forward, playing a ton of minutes alongside Cousins, and Gay’s relative inexperience with big-man defense shows.
Look, the U.S. has killed everybody. It’s been the best defensive team in the tournament. But there are holes in the defense, on almost every possession. The U.S. closes those holes with lightning speed, because the U.S. has the world’s best athletes, and because Anthony Davis is a destroyer of worlds.
Our opponents so far have not been able to poke through those holes before we close them. They’re not quick enough off the dribble, with their passes, or even with their shot releases. They don’t read and react in time.
Spain will. Spain has elite shooting on the wing and elite passing at every position. Spain’s players have played together longer, by a giant degree, than this Team USA roster. Their precision will help them jet through gaps in the U.S. defense and avoid the live-ball turnovers — many of which result from telegraphed passes — the U.S. turns into Fast-Break Death From Above.2
Spain is playing at home, dreaming of vengeance for close losses in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Pau Gasol has been perhaps the best overall player in this tournament, raining 3s, blocking shots, and scoring from all over the court. The U.S. will play harder and with more focus when the games start to matter. But that potential gold-medal showdown looks like a coin-flip proposition.
3. Another reason for that: Spain is small and skinny on the wing, with Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro, Sergio Llull, and even Jose Calderon logging almost all the minutes at shooting guard and small forward.
Spain has never had the size to deal with Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and other big U.S. wing players; the size deficit is one reason Spain has so often played zone defense against the U.S.
Team USA’s starting lineup has no such size advantage this time, and no real post-up threat on the wing, though Harden dabbles as one now and then. Klay Thompson and DeMar DeRozan are Team USA’s best post-up wings, and DeRozan is hanging on the fringes of the rotation. Gay is playing power forward, where he would line up opposite Serge Ibaka and the Gasols.
It will be interesting, should this game come about, if Mike Krzyzewski tweaks the rotation to slot more size on the wing.
4. Team USA has rebounded nearly 40 percent of its own misses, a colossal number. It has appeared at times as if Faried, Davis, and Cousins are competing for rebounds against overmatched college kids — which is not far from what has actually been happening. Cousins nearly squashed some poor Finn face-first into the court on back-to-back offensive boards in the opening game against Team Angry Birds.
Spain has two 7-footers and a 6-10 guy who can outjump everyone on the floor.
5. Team USA is lethal in transition, but the half-court offense has at times been a slog. The U.S. is devoting more possessions than usual to post-ups for Davis, Faried, and Cousins, and though some of those have been profitable, they do not represent the ideal deployment of our weapons — especially against Spain.
The spacing hasn’t been great, a natural consequence of playing two of the Davis-Faried-Cousins trio together most of the game. Davis and Faried are both at their best darting toward the rim — as cutters, screeners, and board-crashers — and they will clang together now and then.
The U.S. has sliced defenses apart with a simple Harden-Davis pick-and-roll on the right side, a play that should be unguardable if Harden gets into the middle of the floor with any breathing room:
Since Harden and Davis start the play alone on the right side, there is no natural third help defender to slide over and check Davis in the paint. Someone has to move across the lane to do it, forcing defenses to choose between a Harden-Davis lob or the possibility of Harden slinging a pass to a shooter on the weak side.
But if Faried is also in the lane, there are just a lot of bodies to navigate:
Driving lanes for Team USA’s guards, unstoppable one-on-one, have been cluttered:
The Cousins-Faried combo has been shakier in this sense, and Gay, allegedly a stretch power forward, has jacked only three 3-pointers from the shorter FIBA line. Paul Millsap would have been helpful, especially since Mason Plumlee and Andre Drummond aren’t playing meaningful minutes. Oh well. It’s so obviously a joke Plumlee is on the team that it’s almost not worth mentioning. Almost.
Playing Derrick Rose, DeRozan, Gay, and Cousins together on second units is spacing death, and lineups featuring at least two or three of those guys have been the culprits in some of Team USA’s most dispiriting stretches — including the first half of the Turkey “scare.”
6. The story with Rose is much as it was during his 10-game comeback from ACL surgery: He looks fast and explosive, but the results aren’t there. He’s shooting just 25 percent from the floor, and bricking everything near the rim — contested layups, and those reverse-pivot floaters that are such a key part of his game.
He’s working on defense, squeezing around picks and doing his best to execute the system. He’s just rusty, which was to be expected. The U.S. took a minor risk in choosing him over Damian Lillard and others.
7. Davis looks great in Thibodeau’s scheme, which is more conservative than the system Monty Williams has run during Davis’s two seasons in New Orleans. Depending on the circumstances — the identity of the screener, whether Davis is nominally at power forward or center — Williams will sometimes have Davis chase ball handlers out beyond the 3-point line on the pick-and-roll.
Davis has the speed for that, but it’s a hard pursuit for any young player to master, and it takes perhaps the world’s best shot-blocker away from the hoop.
Thibodeau keeps things simpler. Davis and the other bigs are dropping back against almost every pick-and-roll, corralling ball handlers near the foul line, and stonewalling any little guy who dares drive to the rim.
Davis looks more in command of those in-between moments in pick-and-roll defense — those one- and two-second windows in which he has to cut off the ball handler while staying within range of his original man rolling to the rim.
The very best big-man defenders induce paralysis in point guards during those moments. Davis is doing that now. Those ball handlers know they can’t drive or shoot, because Davis is ready to envelop any sad floater. But they’re afraid to try that little pocket pass to the roll man, because Davis, with his long arms spread wide, appears to be inhabiting that passing lane at the same time he’s deterring a shot attempt.
This in-between stuff is really hard, especially for young guys. They take bad angles, with bad footwork. They overcommit one way or the other, bracing themselves on two flat feet for a shot attempt that doesn’t come, or worrying so much about the pass that they let the driver just fly by. Davis has had issues in this window so far in the NBA, but he’s been clean in FIBA.
It will be interesting to see if Williams, an assistant with Thibodeau on the Team USA staff, adjusts his scheme with the Pelicans after watching Davis thrive in Spain.
8. Speaking of Davis, moves like this should nudge the Davis Threat Level up a notch:
On the surface, this is a routine miss. But Davis is experimenting with countermoves involving two dribbles, something he rarely did last season, when 94 percent of his shots came after either one or zero dribbles, per SportVU data provided to Grantland.
That’s not a damning limitation. Davis can cover giant swatches of territory with one dribble. Picking up the rock after one bounce means Davis sometimes has to lunge really far to get into layup range, forcing him to fling up awkward floaters as he descends to the floor. But Davis has a knack for hitting those shots. “For us, it’s weird,” Williams told me in April. “But for him, it’s natural.”
The Pelicans have grand visions of Davis as an offensive hub in the mold of a springier Dirk Nowitzki, and for Davis to assume that sort of centerpiece role, he has to become more comfortable dribbling into the center of the floor, creating different shots for himself, and dishing to shooters around the floor.
Kevin Hanson, a Pelicans assistant who works most closely with Davis, told me in April he spends a ton of time running Davis through these two-dribble moves. The practice work is starting to trickle onto the court.
9. Goran Dragic and others justifiably ripped Australia on Thursday for tanking its final group game against Angola. A loss gave Australia a better chance of finishing third instead of second, keeping them away from Team USA until the semifinals.
This happens in every FIBA tournament, and it will continue so long as FIBA uses a group play structure with set elimination round paths based upon group finish. What Australia did is old news in FIBA, and it’s not any different from NBA teams “resting” key players in games 81 and 82 to set themselves up for their preferred postseason matchup.
There may be ways to mitigate the problem, if not quite solve it entirely. FIBA could reseed the tournament after the group stage, and enough teams make it through — 16 of 24 — that teams on the final day of group play might not be able to predict their next opponent with as much precision. Tipping more of the final group games at the same time would help, though that would require finding more tournament sites and using some of those sites for only one game.
It’s not a particularly bothersome problem, but it’s a constant one, and FIBA should at least explore ways to quash it.
10. Irving has probably been Team USA’s best guard so far, pushing the ball in transition and sharing lead ball handler duties with Harden.
Krzyzewski has rarely turned primary playmaking duties over to Curry, who has logged almost all his minutes with either Irving or Rose on the floor as the nominal “point guard.” Krzyzewski has Curry sprinting off screens, Ray Allen–style, and that’s an effective use of his skill set; slower guards can’t keep up with him, and the threat of Curry’s shooting bends entire defenses.
But Team USA is at its best, in the half-court, when it splits the ball-handling duties up in rapid-fire drive-and-kick action:
11. Harden is not passing the ball if he’s in the center of the floor on a fast break, not even if it’s a 4-on-1 with shooters on the wing and Davis trailing for an obvious lob. It’s almost a running joke now.
12. Faried has been outstanding, and the great Fran Fraschilla will joke at least once a game that Faried’s agent must be thrilled watching this and calculating his next counteroffer to the Nuggets in Faried’s extension talks.
But I’m not sure how much of Faried’s excellence in this tournament should apply to those talks. He wouldn’t have made the team had the best U.S. guys deigned to play, and the medium-size gap in athleticism between the NBA and teams like Ukraine and New Zealand is a chasm when it comes to Faried’s specific skills.
He’s one of the NBA’s 10 best offensive rebounders, but leaping for boards against sub-NBA athletes (who are still quite good, by the way) makes him look like Moses Malone with hops. He’s snagging putbacks in this tournament that just won’t be there in the NBA. His usual speed edge is magnified in FIBA; no one has been able to keep up with him running the floor. His speed-based post-up game, which blossomed last season, looks unstoppable against defenders who can’t track his spin moves or get off the ground in time to challenge his pogo-stick jump hook.
Faried is a good NBA player who has earned himself a big contract. But the NBA limitations are still there, and his FIBA play shouldn’t impact the talks with Denver — even if Faried’s agents will aggressively introduce it.
13. It’s understandable if you haven’t paid any attention to this tournament yet. But the fun starts this weekend. Every team has NBA-relevant players, and one cold shooting half makes any Team USA game interesting. Enjoy.