The reaction from many friends when I’ve mentioned the US won the World Championship Sunday has ranged from “What is it? I didn’t even know it was going on?” to “Big whoop.” Even though less knowledgeable (or more blindly patriotic) people assumed of course we should win, that was far from fact heading into this thing. Many didn’t even consider us the favorite. So for the less-obsessed hoops fan out there, let’s go over the seven key points that made this victory so dang impressive and surprising:
1) We hadn’t won the World Championship in 16 years, and for the rest of the world the World Championship is a bigger deal than the Olympics.
2) After not having won a Gold medal in a major international competition for many years, at the 2008 Olympics the US “Redeem Team” only narrowly beat Spain in the waning seconds. That 2008 team featured eight of the top twelve American NBA players in Kobe, LeBron, Wade, Carmelo, Dwight Howard, CP3, Deron Williams and Bosh. In fact, since Kevin Durrant was still only 19 at the time, one could argue that those first seven guys were indeed the seven best Americans at the time. And still we barely won. So it was a major concern when not a single member of the Redeem Team chose to play again this summer.
3) The 2006 US World Team only managed a Bronze despite featuring such supernova stars as LeBron, Wade, Paul, Bosh, Howard & Melo.
4) The current 2010 team featured six players 22 years old and younger. I believe they have like only 8 combined All-Star appearances, versus the 2008 had like, I dunno, 34 or 43? Hell, Kobe has four more All-Star appearances alone than this entire team combined.
5) This team had very little big game experience. Five of them had never even made it to the NBA playoffs. Only three of them had ever won a single playoff series (Tyson Chandler won once with the Hornets, while of course Lamar Odom and Chauncey Billups have wons bunches o’ times).
6) A lack of height. Only Chandler was over 6’10” and he was the only one who regularly plays center. He also barely played, so basically power forwards like Odom & Kevin Love manned the center spot (with Durant also seeing time there despite normally playing small forward, and he even played shooting guard his first two years in the league). This thus meant that the small forwards (Andre Iguodala, Rudy Gay, once-in-a-blue-moon Danny Granger, and again Durant) had to move over to power forward. As a result, the shooting guard spot was also manned by players 6’3” and under, most of who normally play point guard in the NBA (even the one true shooting guard on the team, Eric Gordon, is only 6’3”).
7) As demonstrated by that, almost everyone on the team had to learn to play a different role than they normally play in the NBA. I forget who, but someone on the team said how only three of them were playing the same role they’re used to, and that was Kevin Durant, Tyson Chandler and I think maybe they said Derrick Rose. Although the truth is really the third one who played the same game was Eric Gordon. Rose and Russell Westbrook, despite playing their traditional position of point guard, had to deal with a very different international game which necessitated those two change things up. First, without defensive-three-second rules, teams can play true zones, meaning even if they got past their guy, there was always a big defender planted in the paint. Second, because the three-point line is closer (and the court in general is smaller), there is less room to maneuver/drive into the paint. Three, with that three-point line being closer, they were also more tempted/required more by the team to shoot it. That said, Westbrook was still stunningly effective at driving to the hoop somehow, so really the only difference was he took more long distance shots than he normally would.
Okay, so before I get accused of going overboard with my rah-rah, America, hell yeah, attitude, here are two less-than-impressive things about the victory:
1) Many other countries sent their “B” teams too. Due to injuries or other factors, missing in action were top international players like Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Jose Calderon, Dirk Nowitzki, Nene, Chris Kaman (yeah, I know he’s American, but he chose to play for Germany in the Olympics), Al Horford (yes, American too, but I believe he plays for Puerto Rico) and other solid players like Ronny Turiaf, Roddy Beaubois, and probably countless others who I can’t think of off the top of my head.
2) While team USA played well across the board, let’s be honest, they won because of one reason: Kevin Durant. Take him off the team and they might not even have won the Bronze. The last few days we’ve been so busy patting ourselves on the back for how much we’ve learned the international game and grown in our respect and teamwork. All that is true, and we played phenomenal defense, plus we’ve gotten better at picking appropriate players. Still, without Durant’s unique ungodly abilities, we could’ve gone the way of Spain and not made it out of the first elimination round. And, while this is not to say that Durant is better than them, but even if you replaced him with Kobe, LeBron or Melo, we wouldn’t have been as good. We still might’ve won with one of ‘em as the alpha dog, but Durant was meant for international ball. Those other three are much more about driving (or these days Kobe posts up at the free throw line), which is far harder in the NBA. Durant, however, has the sweetest three point jumper out of all of ‘em, which is key in FIBA ball with all the zone and the defense packing the paint. Plus, with his length, he’s much like Dirk Nowitzki (I know, I know, it’s illegal in hoopsworld to compare white and black players) in that he can always get his shot off. If you cover him with a shorter player, he’ll shoot over ‘em. Against a taller player, he’d do a crossover, leaving the slower player behind and again, getting his shot off. Ironically, I think the Lakers showed in their series against the Thunder that the best way to deal with Durant is the same as with Dirk: forget covering him with length and instead have someone be very physical with him. Honestly, I was surprised no teams really tried to do that. They’d try to zone and cover him one-on-one and shade the ball away from him, but whenever he did get it, his defender always sagged a step or half-step off him.
But I come to praise Durant, not bury him. He’s frickin’ awesome. So despite the Americans never really learning how to play half-court offense, we could always throw it to him and count on him creating something outta nuthin’. The thing is that the teams on other countries practice and play together for years and years, so they instinctively know where everyone is/will be and thus move as a unit. It’s why teams like Lithuania can be so successful, despite their star player being Linas Kleiza, a guy who wouldn’t start on many NBA teams. If our players worked together as smoothly on offense as most of these other teams, we wouldn’t need a Durant. Perhaps down the road we’ll have players who stay on the team as part of the program for like five or six years, allowing us to develop a more fluid offense. If so, then the rest of the world will really be in trouble.
Later in the week I might also touch on some of the impressive indivual performances by members of Team USA.