Changes?: Time To Rethink Strategy For Team USA

By Sam Smith
Updated: September 25, 2006

PHOENIX– Jerry Colangelo expected a celebration at the Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies at Springfield, Mass., earlier this month. He stumbled upon a wake instead.

Everyone was mourning the demise of the U.S. team in the world championships. The team, which Colangelo put together as director of the U.S. men’s international basketball efforts, won 13 of 14 games on its world tour and generally took the “ugly” out of “ugly American.”

“We were well-received,” Colangelo said. “People were actually cheering for the U.S. team, which hasn’t happened in a long time in international competition. Our people conducted themselves the way we wanted them to.”

But there was that loss to Greece—”a Greek tragedy,” Colangelo calls it—and a bronze medal in the tournament.

Colangelo, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and chairman of the Phoenix Suns, says he’s still distraught over the loss, and it was clear to his friends that weekend in Springfield. After all, this was his baby.

“Most guys were pretty good,” Colangelo recalled last week, sitting in an office that features antiques from his old Chicago Heights neighborhood. “They were saying we did a great job, we got the thinking back on track. Everyone is trying to lift you.

“So before the induction, some elderly gentleman and a woman come up to me. The guy had to be 85.

“‘I’m Rocco, and I’m an Italian-American from Brooklyn, and I want you to know I love you and I’m proud of you and what you did for Italians. You guys did a great job in the world championships. This is my daughter.’ “She had to be 65, and she looks at me and says, ‘What happened with the pick-and-roll?’ “That’s all I wanted to hear. How often can I answer that question?”

Probably for at least another year. A series of pick-and-rolls by Greece—the basic NBA play—was met without much resistance as the U.S. lost in the semifinals, looking like confused grade-schoolers.

It was the third consecutive finish of third place or lower for U.S. teams with NBA players in international competition.

So why can’t Johnny play basketball anymore?

Colangelo is optimistic and somewhat in disbelief that the U.S. team failed to win gold, especially after beating defending Olympic champion Argentina for the bronze in what most expected would be the gold-medal game.

“I believe we would beat Greece 99 out of 100 times,” Colangelo said. “But it doesn’t matter because we lost.

“We’re focusing on what happened and why from a standpoint of how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. [Greece] had a game plan and executed it. We weren’t able to contend with it, and they beat us.”

Colangelo remains confident the experience will be the medicine that cures last summer’s ills and that the structure now is in place for ultimate success.

Several players were hurt and missed the tournament, so there will be some changes in personnel. Don’t be surprised to see a more experienced, tougher backcourt with Kobe Bryant and Chauncey Billups.

But with NBA teams heading for training camp next week, it’s worth examining the work of the league’s best this summer. Was the world championship showing a fluke loss or another example of the parity that now defines international basketball.

It’s not so much a question of whether the U.S. still has the best basketball players but whether the NBA plays the best game. Here are four themes to examine: LeBron James James is a great basketball player. He just doesn’t know how to play basketball.

It wasn’t only James, who said he is learning Mandarin for the 2008 Beijing Olympics—free-throw shooting might help more—but also the U.S. team that failed Basketball 101.

“We invented the game and went out and taught [the world] the game,” Colangelo said. “And then our game changed and we started playing above the rim, more high-wire and flashy dunking. … It’s an exciting brand of basketball. Those who play below the rim can’t play up there. So they play the fundamentals of the game.”

Like Paris dictating fashion, the NBA accounts for style changes in basketball. But it doesn’t seem to play a pure form of basketball anymore.

Yes, Greece had a great run of shooting. And we know a hot shooter can steal a game.

But it was the pick-and-roll play that embarrassed and beat the U.S. That seems inconceivable to NBA fans.

But I remember a story Doug Collins liked to tell about an All-Star Game he was coaching. It opened with a few high screen plays, and he was about to call a timeout to adjust when Michael Jordan said the players had discussed it and knew the adjustment to make.

Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and James are wonderful players, the future of the NBA. But so many of the top players these days lack a fundamental base. Under pressure they revert to what they know, sort of a slash and burn. They slash to the basket and get burned on the defensive end.

It’s the major weakness of NBA players and it was on display in the loss to Greece.

Talent doesn’t always trump knowledge. No matter how many changes coach Mike Krzyzewski suggested—and he did several times despite Bosh’s claim that none had been offered—the main stars reverted to their old habits, not defending and not helping on defense.

Expect more veterans on the next teams. One major issue is the need for a player so revered and successful—Jordan, say, or Magic Johnson—who could be a leader. Few of today’s so-called stars have accomplished enough to have that reputation.

Defense The U.S. seemed to believe athleticism would equate to defense, a common mistake.

U.S. teams are at a disadvantage because they don’t play together. That’s why Colangelo’s three-year commitment is a wise idea and could be the difference in 2008. There isn’t enough time to fully implement an offense, so Krzyzewski thought he could rely on pressure defense to interrupt the opposition and score.

Though Krzyzewski was embarrassed about the loss to Greece, he generally was viewed as a success and a good choice. But his stubborn belief was that the athletic pressure game would be enough. That’s why players such as Brad Miller didn’t play much and could have helped against a smart, veteran team like Greece.

“What happened was we ran up against a team that pressure didn’t bother,” Colangelo said. “They played together so long, and we played into their hands. We got caught unprepared for what they hit us with.”

Colangelo acknowledged that the Greeks apparently hid part of their plan in earlier games and didn’t show the pick-and-roll as much as they used it against the U.S.

“We were prepared overall, but they threw something at us we didn’t see much of,” he said.

U.S. attitudes Are American players too spoiled? Too pampered? Afraid?

When the U.S. players returned from the worlds, they complained about how physical the play had been and how they hadn’t gotten the calls to which they’re accustomed.

The notion in the NBA is the stars get the calls. It is a subject for debate and conspiracy theorists. But the U.S. players, especially the big stars, mostly did back down from the fight in the world championships.

“We play a non-contact game here,” Colangelo said. “I know some people would say that’s crazy, but the NBA is a finesse game compared to the international game. We have to adjust. We kind of knew it was coming, but it didn’t matter.

“Against teams we beat by 25 or 30, the talent, athleticism and pressure was enough.”

The future OK, is it finally time to learn to play zone defense?

“The thing we heard more after the fact was, ‘You guys have to zone up,’” Colangelo said. “If you don’t, you have to use zone principles in the man-to-man. When they set the pick, they’re going to get away with murder (holding is pretty much ignored). You have to clog it up.

“We were not convinced going in. Our focus was on pressure and playing man-to-man. Now, having gone through the experience with a bad taste in our mouths for not winning the gold medal, we certainly will be aware [of playing zone] for future competitions.”

Despite the flaws, this U.S. team wasn’t far from its goal. It conducted itself far better than the 2002 and ’04 teams and seems to be building a foundation for success. But as with Canada, which hardly dominates world competitions in hockey anymore, when you teach the world the game and then show it your flaws, the playing field levels.

“There are no guarantees anymore,” Colangelo said. “Which is good for basketball. The gap has closed. We can take pride in the missionary work we’ve done, but by the same token the competition is that much greater, and we have to be ready for the challenge. And we will be.”

Thus far it may be more hope than promise. It’s a new basketball world, and the U.S. is just another player for now.