The Works: Is Team USA Doomed?
But first, some 2010 FIBA World Championship predictions.
Joga Bonito: Exactly 24 hours after this column is published, the FIBA World Championship will tip off in Turkey. In three weeks, we'll have a champion, and we'll know whether to gnash our teeth over another embarrassment for once-unbeatable Team USA or whether we'll be telling LeBron and friends the country no longer needs their services.
Of course, it's not that black and white. Among observers who write for a living, Team USA is the underdog going in -- Spain, the reigning World Champion, is a popular pick. And for good reason: the Spaniards nearly beat a balls-out U.S. effort in a warmup last week, and simply dominated in both 2006 and in last summer's EuroBasket tournament. And no fan will soon forget the test Spain gave the star-studded Redeem Team in the gold medal game in Beijing two years ago.
Greece, despite what you saw in a sham of an exhibition Wednesday, is also ready to fight. Remember: Greece is the last team to beat the Americans in a FIBA tournament (in the semifinals of the 2006 Worlds). Argentina, Serbia, Turkey, Australia and Brazil are also looking like medal contenders.
That's just the thing: it's no longer "gold or bust!" for Team USA -- the rest of the world's squads, with their valuable experience playing in the NBA and together as units for years, have caught up. Even if Team USA has the most talented bunch, and a well-built roster, they can be beat. And, without question, that makes the journey through a tournament like the Worlds much, much more interesting.
That said ...
Team USA ought to be the favorite. For all the squad's weaknesses -- shooting, size, passing -- this collection of talent seems well-suited to asserting its will against all comers. The team's defense so far really can't be touted highly enough. In warmups, Greece committed 24 turnovers against the United States; Lithuania had 23. Spain had only 14, but new lead guard Ricky Rubio committed four of those and tends to be turnover-prone in general. With Jose Calderon out, youngster Sergio Llull will be forced to play more. And with someone as impossible as Russell Westbrook staring him down in a semifinal game, can he be expected to step it up?
It's a bet I won't take. Team USA boasts two of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA in Westbrook and Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Durant showed in the waning moments of USA-Spain how versatile he can be. It's true that the Americans' interior defense is softer -- Kostas Tsartsaris proved that this week. But the list of big men available to punish Team USA at the rim is short.
Even more, Team USA has shown a remarkable ability to make up for its deficiencies on the offensive glass, especially from the backcourt with Westbrook and Iguodala. Kevin Love might be the team's 12th man, but he's one of the best offensive rebounders in the world, and Coach K is familiar with his work. Spain, in particular, is vulnerable on the boards, and that's a big part of the game.
On offense, Team USA is said to struggle in the halfcourt. But the team has become comfortable with the aggressive Derrick Rose running the show, and while shooting was a problem through warmups Chauncey Billups and Durant can stroke it, and Eric Gordon, Danny Granger and Stephen Curry are deep threats off the bench. Surely, no other team has as many legit shooters as Team USA. With the sprint pace in this tournament -- six games in seven days to start, then three knockout rounds over eight days -- the team's depth will come in handy.
And if you think the Americans are shooting poorly (30 percent from long-range over the past three games), look at their opponents: Team USA held Lithuania, Spain and Greece to a combined 23 percent from long-range.
Team USA may lack the star power of the 2006-08 edition. But its massive defensive improvement and the growing gravity of Durant should be enough to land the United States a world title. (TZ)
Medal Count: Since there appears to be no such thing as a FIBA World Championship bracket challenge, here are the official predictions of The Works. (See the full schedule.)
Group winners: Argentina in Group A (over Serbia, Australia and Germany, in that order); Team USA in Group B (over Brazil, Slovenia and Croatia); Turkey in Group C (over Greece, Puerto Rico and Russia); Spain in Group D (over France, Lithuania and Lebanon). Sorry, Canada.
Round of 16: Argentina over Croatia, Puerto Rico over France, Turkey over Lebanon, Brazil over Australia, USA over Germany, Greece over Lithuania, Spain over Russia, Serbia over Slovenia.
Quarterfinals: Argentina over Puerto Rico, Turkey over Brazil, USA over Greece, Spain over Serbia.
Semifinals: Turkey over Argentina, USA over Spain.
Finals: USA over Turkey.
Accolades: And now for some individual accolades ...
MVP: Kevin Durant, USA
All-tournament team: Ioannis Bourousis, C, Greece; Luis Scola, F, Argentina; Kevin Durant, F, USA; Juan Carlos Navarro, G, Spain; Derrick Rose, G, USA.
Honorable mentions: Ersan Ilyasova, F, Turkey; Hedo Turkoglu, F, Turkey; Marc Gasol, C, Spain; Milos Teodosic, G, Serbia; Carlos Delfino, G, Argentina; Carlos Arroyo, G, Puerto Rico; Tiago Splitter, F, Brazil; Nicolas Batum, G, France.
Also awesome: Leandro Barbosa, G, Brazil; Ali Traore, F, France; the entire German roster under the age of 22; Omer Asik, C, Turkey; Fadi El Khatib, F, Lebanon; John Schuhmann, writer, NBA.com. Note: FanHouse's Chris Tomasson disqualified due to conflict of interests. (TZ)
Averting Disaster: Yesterday, Chris Tomasson raised the terrifying possibility that failure in Turkey, coupled with a lockout in 2011, could keep the United States out of the 2012 Olympics. Forget about this year's bunch of brats; if no NBA players under contract were able to compete, Team USA would be forced to turn to free agents, college players, and scabs.
Free agents aren't likely to, in effect, cross the picket line. The best college players will already be drafted and signed. Tomasson points to 1998, when a "Dirty Dozen" from the NCAA and minor leagues took the bronze at the Worlds. But what about the 2005 FIBA Americas Championship, when there was no lockout, and Colangelo had already got started delivering us all from evil?
That team, which finished fourth, was comprised of names like Charlie Bell, Tyus Edney, Jerome Beasley, and Lynn Greer -- guys on the wrong side of thirty who had been plying their trade overseas. If you're looking for a movie nickname for this one, how about "Bad News Bears"? In 2011, fourth is enough to get USA into the wild card tournament, which presumably would pose no problem to a regrouped NBA armada.
One intriguing scenario has one-and-dones like Harrison Barnes staying in school one more year, rather than deal with the lockout during their rookie seasons. If this happens, Team USA could field a starting line-up of Barnes, Kyrie Irving, Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones, and maybe rising college frosh Andre Drummond in the middle. Drummond, along with Michael Gilchrist and Quincy Miller, are three high schoolers who deserve a look.
With this pool of players and some preparation, Team USA could easily outperform the 2005 squad. Remember, this is the Americas, not the whole world. All they would need to do is finish in the top six; winning or coming in second, while unlikely, aren't entirely out of the question. (BS)
Separation of Court and State: Troubles again for J.R. Smith, whose victim in an on-court assaulting is now cooperating with police again. Now, I'm hardly in favor of choking people, or part of the STOP SNITCHING crowd. But I find it a little absurd that dude exchanging punches with Smith ran and called the cops when things took a turn for the gnarlier.
There is such a thing as an unforgivable act of violence within the context of sports; these usually cause serious bodily harm and, eventually, precipitate some sort of police involvement. However, fighting happens all the time in practices; in the olden days, basketball games themselves were full of all sorts of butt-kicking. Was Damien Lolar in mortal peril? Time will tell. Otherwise, it seems like we're applying standards of the outside world to a space where they don't make much sense. (BS)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.