Substitutions least of Brown's worries

Originally Published: August 25, 2004
By Peter May | Special to ESPN.com

ATHENS -- Rotations, rotations, rotations. Who's in the mix?

Larry Brown's substitution patterns came under fire after the United States' 94-90 loss to Lithuania on Saturday night. Specifically, why did Brown play LeBron James only five minutes?

Lebron James
LeBron James hasn't been too concerned about the minutes he's played for Team USA.
Please.

This is what you need to know about rotations at the Olympics: Compared to some of the other teams in this tournament, Brown's rotation is almost automatic. Yet he was questioned about, basically, one player, in one game -- and we're not talking about Mr. Indispensable by the way -- and now, all of a sudden, he doesn't know what he's doing?

Brown has kept the same starting lineup in every game. We know that Emeka Okafor is this year's Christian Laettner, the 1992 12th man. We know that Carmelo Anthony has played his way down to the 11th man because of his pouting, attitude and overall play.

We know that James, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Carlos Boozer alternate in for the starters. They play various stretches, depending on effectiveness and fouls. They come and go.

Marion was useless against Puerto Rico and ultra-valuable against the Aussies. Stoudemire gave the Yanks some decent minutes against Australia. Otherwise, he's a little in over his head, as are many of his callow teammates.

That's the way it has been all through the tournament; but Brown's decisions during the Lithuania loss came under scrutiny. He brushed aside the questions on James, and James himself took the high road, saying, "Of course I want to play, but the coach makes those decisions. It's tough. I feel like I can help my team when I'm out on the floor."

Luckily for Brown, serendipity reared its pretty head the next game, offering up Angola on a platter. The first easy win. Everyone played. No one asked Brown about his rotations.

"This was a fun game because we got to play a lot of people, knowing it's been hard to give a lot of guys minutes," Brown said.

Poor Larry. He's been under the gun for something almost every game. He was given a flawed team, given three weeks to get this flawed team to play together, and then present it to the hoop world as the presumptive favorite in a game none of these guys know. He's been asked why he doesn't have someone with international experience on the bench.

"No one asked that question last summer in Puerto Rico when we had Argentina down by 30 in the first half," he snapped. He then added what everyone already knew: That team isn't this team.

He's been pressed on his pick-and-roll defense -- rightfully so -- and he's been pressed about Sarunas Jacikevicius maybe being the best point guard in the world. Brown, correctly, said that that was not the case.

But the rotation question is bogus. Maybe playing James more than five minutes might have averted a loss to Lithuania, but how do you know? And do you know who was not getting out fast enough on the critical screen-and-rolls which doomed the Yanks that night? Tim Duncan, that's who.

Other than Duncan, Brown has no reliable big man. He has no point guard, unless you're one of the dwindling few who think Stephon Marbury fits that description.

Sure, maybe James could have made the outside shots that Marbury and Allen Iverson missed against the Lithuanians. But James had two shots in that game and clanged them both. He clanged two of three in the loss to Puerto Rico in 12 minutes -- and no one said a word. He had made only one of six three-pointers heading into the Lithuania game and, like everyone else on the team, had struggled with his outside shot. (So far, from what we've seen, any hoop from beyond five feet is an achievement for this group.)

But rotations are a weird thing in other teams. Lithuania has used several different starting lineups and seem to be OK with that. Look at what happened to the Serbs, for goodness sakes. In their preliminary final against China, a game they had to win to advance to the quarterfinals, head coach Zeljko Obradovic benched the top point guard for most of the fourth quarter. Another point guard also sat. Meanwhile, the team made only two baskets in the final seven minutes and lost to China. Obradovic is now a candidate for the witness protection program in Belgrade.

Meanwhile, Argentina's coach sat out Manu Ginobili for much of the fourth quarter in a close game against Italy and barely used Andres Nocioni at all in the second half. Nocioni is, arguably, the third best player on the team, albeit a hothead. Another starter, Fabricio Oberto, also sat for much of the stretch run.

I don't think we got it and understood what [the international game] was about. I don't think anybody on our team understood the passion that these teams play with. I don't think they realized how good they are, how well coached they are.
Larry Brown
By those standards, Brown is a paradigm of consistency. And there is no reason for him to change, unless Steve Kerr or Michael Redd suddenly becomes available. You're still going to see Duncan, Lamar Odom, Richard Jefferson, Marbury and Iverson in the starting five. You're still going to see Okafor in his warmups. And, yes, you're going to see more of James, certainly more than five minutes, but perhaps not as much as the 27 he submitted in the Angola rout.

Undefeated Spain awaits, but this tournament so far has been dominated by the unexpected. The United States is the fourth -- fourth -- seed in its group. Greece is the second seed, for cryin' out loud. The Serbs are out. The Chinese are still in. And don't rule out the Italians; they remind me a lot of Argentina two years ago. At least four teams have a legit chance at the gold.

No, it hasn't been the greatest week in USA Basketball history. But the issue of rotations is pretty far down the list. Or it should be. The competition is superb, as is the atmosphere. And, as U.S. assistant Gregg Popovich noted, "Anyone who wonders why we're having trouble in some these games has been living in a phone booth."

Brown, Popovich and everyone on the U.S. staff told the players from the beginning that this would be no cake walk. And they kept telling them, even after the unenlightened Anthony predicted a gold medal on the first day of practice. Still, losses to Puerto Rico and Lithuania along with close games to Australia and Greece have driven home the point better than any pep talk.

"I don't think we got it and understood what this was about," Brown said, referring to the Whole International Thing. "I don't think anybody on our team understood the passion these teams play with. I don't think they realized how good they are, how well coached they are.

"I was on that 2000 staff that barely beat Lithuania. Our perimeter guys were Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Allan Houston healthy, Timmy Hardaway, Steve Smith. Our big guys were McDyess [Antonio], Alonzo (Mourning), Kevin Garnett, Rahim [Shareef Abdur-Rahim]. We had a pretty darn good team and were very fortunate to beat them."

They don't have that team now, and no matter how Brown uses his players, he still doesn't have that team. Instead, he's got a team that has trouble shooting and trouble defending -- but still, overall, has greater individual talent than any other.

That still may not be enough, but unless Duncan gets benched, don't blame the coach. He's only using what he's got.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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