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THE BACK AND FORTH: IS USA BASKETBALL REALLY GOING TO WIN IT ALL?

8/13/2008
What's going to happen to these men? Getty Images

This morning, USA Basketball—2-0 with, essentially, two routs—collides with Greece, who many international basketball observers (like Tim Warren of The Washington Post) feel is a legitimate gold medal candidate. China and Angola? The past. The future is tougher. Does the US really have a chance to become 'The Redeem Team?' Two senior NBA writers for ESPN The Magazine, Ric Bucher and Chris Broussard, have differing views. Let 'em hash it out, via The Back and Forth.

[Ed's note: This dialogue, done via e-mail, began the morning after USA defeated China in their first game of these Olympics.]

RIC BUCHER:
This really isn't a fair fight because you were already waffling after Team USA struggled to put away Australia. As good an attitude as this team has and as committed as the players are to re-establishing our supremacy, the same flaws exist—if we can't turn the other team over with our defensive pressure, we don't have enough role players and catch-and-shoot guys to run an effective half-court offense. And before you start—just in case you were thinking of going all jingoistic on me—I'm not hating on our NBA players. This isn't an indictment of their talent or their unselfishness or their game; you just can't take guys who for 80-plus games a year, year after year, are the main cogs in their teams and ask them to be effective complementary players on a world stage in a one-and-done situation.

CHRIS BROUSSARD:
Sure you can, and don't try and soften your stance by saying it isn't an indictment of the NBA players' "talent, unselfishness and game" because that's exactly what it is. I understand you've got to sugarcoat it because you want the guys to talk to you next season, but I'm here to yell loud and clear that if the U.S. doesn't bring back the gold medal it's an indictment of the NBA and its stars: it'd be a chink in the armor of Kobe, LeBron, Dwight, D-Wade and the rest of our stars. Oh, and Coach K as well.

The bottom line is that we have the best players and the most talent by far, so if we don't win there's a) a coaching problem, or b) a teamwork problem. I'm presuming that the '06 debacle against Greece taught K to listen to his NBA assistants, who guard the pick-and-roll every night in the NBA. Word is, he wasn't open to advice back then. I imagine he's changed his policy this time around. You telling me Nate McMillan can't come up with an effective pick-and-roll defense, especially with this type of talent at his disposal?

Second, these guys have shown that they're willing to put aside their egos and be role players. We know Kobe is one of the top two or three scorers alive, yet he has voluntarily taken the role of defensive stopper on this team. LeBron's defense has been terrific, and Deron Williams has willingly given the ball to Chris Paul and played two-guard. Carmelo has decided to focus on rebounding. That's teamwork, which is a part of one's "game," and it will all lead to a gold medal.

If it doesn't then we Americans—coaches and players alike—are not as good as we think we are. Period.

RIC BUCHER:
Let's dial down the American arrogance. How did you manage to type and beat your chest at the same time, my friend?

You sound like a Little League coach: "If you guys don't win, it's because you're not playing hard enough! Or together enough! Now drop and give me 20!"

Wow, Deron is letting CP3 bring the ball up. How gracious. Kobe is defending the ballhandler. Oooh, our D is impregnable now. Melo, playing more PF, finds himself on the boards more. Yeah, that's all playing a role is about.

Actually, you hit on it: there is both a coaching problem and a teamwork problem. Because it's naive or supremely arrogant to expect Coach K to match wits in the international game with guys like Aito Garcia Reneses or Panagiotis Giannakis. (Yeah, I'll wait while you look them up.) Almost as naive or arrogant as thinking our players, just because they want to—or we want them to—can transform who they've been for 98 percent of their careers for a couple of weeks during the summer.

The same is true in reverse—there are great international players who can't cut it in the NBA. Not because they suck, or don't have the desire or their success in Europe is a mirage, but because strategy and technique in the two games is different enough to make a difference at the highest levels. Especially when you're asked to switch from being a core player to a complementary one. I don't care how many summers this group has spent dabbling in the international game, its instincts are honed to play different roles in a different style.

They can adjust all they want, when it comes to crunchtime, instincts take over—and the instinct of more than half of our players is, "I'll take care of this." We've seen how well that works in recent years. (Here's another easy question for you: Who is the playmaker/floor leader on this team? No more than one name allowed, because on championship teams everybody knows who The Man is.) And here's some sugarcoating for you: LeBron's defense has been as mediocre as Kobe's shooting. I knew you'd be blown away by Bron Bron's blocks and steals and fail to recognize that he's playing power forward. For every spectacular block, he's had two plays where he watched a guard waltz in for an uncontested layup. And send me a memo the next time you actually see him box out anybody. Or you happen to say something even remotely critical about anybody.

Oh, and one last thing—yeah, I'm telling you that Nate McMillan, coachin g a team with Dwight Howard as his center and LeBron and Carmelo as his power forwards, couldn't devise an effective pick-and-roll defense against the world's best international pick-and-roll tandems. Nate, if he were honest, would tell you the same thing.

CHRIS BROUSSARD:
Bravo! Bravo! You went from kissing everyone's backsides to gangsta' slapping them across the dome. With your graduation ring on!

You managed to say one of the greatest coaches in NCAA history is overmatched because of the trapezoid lane (it can't be the true zone defense since, last time I checked, that was allowed in the ACC, or the 3-point line since the trey is also a huge weapon in college hoops. The 40-minute game? Oh, not that one either). You said one of the NBA's top coaches—and an outstanding defensive mind—can't teach coverage of the oldest play in the book (and since when did Dwight Howard become as immobile as Shaq? I didn't know he was playing 40 minutes a game, by the way).

LeBron's defense? I guess he has to catch every layup attempt two-handed off the glass to impress you. And do you think he missed some penetration because he was trying to stay put on the shooters out on the perimeter? Here's a hint: yeah.

Ric, is it not still basketball? I do believe the rules create an advantage for the international teams, but it's still basketball. You speak as if we're asking Dwyane Wade to hit a 94 mph fastball or Kobe to run off tackle. These are intelligent players who've been playing this game all their lives. I think they can override their "instincts" and pass the ball more, set picks and cut without the rock.

Your logic is the same one used by those who said Boston couldn't win a ring because KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were all used to being The Man—Pierce has to get his shots. Ray and Pierce will fight over the ball. Who'll get the rock down the stretch? They won't play defense." Bottom line, Ric, the Celtics had the best players—versatile ones who could adjust—so they won. They put their egos aside because a ring meant that much. The gold medal has never meant enough—at least not since we stopped pounding teams by 30 plus—for our NBA stars to sacrifice on a major and consistent level. Now it does.

Of course, anything can happen in a one-and-done situation, but these guys have made the mental adjustment from a seven-game series to all-or-nothing.

With the three best perimeter players on earth, arguably the top two point guards alive, and one of the game's best big men, I think they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

RIC BUCHER:
Saying our players shouldn't be crucified if, despite all their sacrifices and attempts to subvert their personal games, they don't win gold is kissing their backsides? Pointing out that their 30-point win over China wasn't as well played as the score might indicate is gangsta' slapping their melons? Okeydoke, Christopher A.

Why is it that LeBron can't be lauded for his other-worldly plays AND called out for lousy help D? One highlight play gets you a pass for the next three lackluster ones? If that was how your college coach ran the show, it explains a lot. What's wrong with honestly assessing a team or a player, rather than having to choose between pompons or throwing daggers? Why is it wrong to suggest Coach K, a great COLLEGE coach, might not be great at coaching pros in international competition? (By the way, Nate McMillan just called and said, if you really think the trapezoid-shaped lane is the only difference in the two games, he'd rather you not do any promotional work for him.)

But this is the line that is the true head-scratcher: "Of course, anything can happen in a one-and-done situation, but these guys have made the mental adjustment from a seven-game series to all-or-nothing." First off, nice waffle. Again.

Secondly, what's the mentality of a seven-game series vs. all-or-nothing? And how does that apply to an international tournament? And how do you know they've made that switch? But let's say I give that to you, that they've made the mental switch. That is the hole in your argument: you can't be a kiss-ass (that weak "backside" patter doesn't fly over here) and claim the US will win because it has the most talented players who are doing everything in their power to win this time around b-b-b-b-utt if they SHOULD lose, then they're obviously not the most talented players in the world and they didn't do everything in their power to win.

Get down off the barn, weathervane.

P.S. No one questioned if KG, Ray and Paul could share the ball. The question was, could any one of them be The Man when it mattered most? It was a reasonable question, considering their history. Paul proved that he could. And, excuse me, but the guys who had to adjust the most—Ray and Sam—stunk when it mattered the most. Posey, Perk, Rondo, Eddie House—they didn't have to adjust at all. They were, to quote Denny Green, who we thought they were.

P.P.S. The gold has never, ever meant as much as an NBA title. It doesn't even mean as much as being an NBA star. If it did, the Greek team, not Team USA, would've been mobbed by the other athletes in the village. But then I suppose all those world-class athletes recognizing greatness were just kissing backsides so Kobe and Co. would still talk to them, too.

P.P.P.S. In case you didn't have enough to chew on—the original Dream Team wouldn't be a lock for gold in this day and age, either.

CHRIS BROUSSARD:

First, I never said the only difference between the international game and the NBA is the trapezoid lane. I said that's the one major difference between the international game and the "college" game that K coaches.

Back to the matter at hand, what's the difference between a player's mentality in a seven-game series vs. one-and-done, you ask? Simple—room for error. In a series, you have it, knowing that if you lose, it's not over. In one-and-done, there is no room for error. That's a huge difference mentally, and really, it's human nature to give more than you thought possible when it's all-or-nothing.

Also, who said the gold means as much as an NBA title? I said it means much more than it used to to our pros, enough to lead them to make the necessary sacrifices they didn't make in the past. I've talked to the players (as I'm sure you have) and to a man, they said winning these Olympics would be huge. Surely you don't deny that.

Finally, it boils down to this: you don't seem to believe we have the best BASKETBALL players on the planet. Of course, you'll deny that, but your the implication of your argument is that Kobe, LeBron, Dwight, and the rest are the best NBA players on the planet, not the best BASKETBALL players period. You may believe they're the best dunkers, leapers, dribblers and one-on-one artists, but basketball is a team sport and if you can't play team ball then you're not a great player. It's as simple as that. Go join the And1 tour if you can't play effectively with four other guys, if you have to always be The Man.

Your problem is you're confusing "a different style" with "a different game." Even with the rules changes, it's still basketball and a competent player can make the adjustment, especially after weeks of practice. Manu Ginolili, Pau Gasol and others seem to have no problem bouncing back and forth between the two styles. The USA's problem with the pick-and-roll is not because the international game is different, it's because the international cats can execute and shoot. Golden State and Detroit play completely different styles but they're still playing the same game, and if you're the best in the world you'll adjust to whatever style you have to to win—or you'll impose your will and make the opponent play your style. Winning makes you the best, not hype and flash.

In your world, Ali would still be considered better than Foreman even if Foreman had knocked him silly in Zaire. And Ali would've been better than Frazier even if Smokin' Joe had taken two of their three fights (instead of the other way around). No, Ric, the best wins, and Team USA's the best.

RIC BUCHER:

Why are you trying to tell me what I'm thinking or saying? Or, worse, trying to contend that I'm really saying or thinking something other than what I'm writing? Stick to your case for why this team will prevail when the last few haven't. Here's mine for why it won't: Team USA will once again face teams who will not turn over the ball against our pressure defense, which thereby eliminates the biggest part of Team USA's offense. That will turn the contest into a halfcourt game, where our gambling defense has and will continue to be exposed by teams far more adept at back-cutting, moving without the ball and shooting on the catch than we are. Meanwhile, still having failed to develop an effective zone offense, playing against teams capable of switching from a 3-2 zone to a matchup zone and back again without missing a beat, we will live and die offensively by our ability to make 3s. Throw in the fact that beating the US is the be-all and end-all, still, for every player we face and our talent can't make up for our disadvantages. For Jerry Colangelo's sake, for Coach K's sake, for all the players' sake—heck, for my sake as an American who loves the NBA—I wish it were as simplistic as you make it out to be. The last six years are ample proof that it isn't.

As for that whole rant about seven games vs. all-or-nothing attitude: The Lakers lost the Finals, in part, because they let up in Game 1 when Paul Pierce injured his knee. So suggesting that a team can relax and not pay a price in a seven-game series is a fallacy. Team USA, furthermore, hasn't shown an all-or-nothing attitude yet. It has let up in every game it has played. It hasn't cost them, but to suggest they are going after the gold as if it was an NBA title, well, I haven't seen a single player in red white and blue remind me of anything I saw in June.

This, though, is true: The best team always wins. The best talent, as we've seen time and again in the NBA, doesn't. That's the difference here. I believe we have the best talent. But being the best team takes a little more than just wanting to be.