Why NBA players are off their game at the Olympics
The quarterfinal matchup Thursday may well show their weaknesses in team play and outside shooting.
ATHENS — The dilemma of United States Olympic basketball is Fred Hoiberg.
If you haven't heard of him, that's exactly the point. Hoiberg is just the sort of player that would excel in the Olympics - where defenses tend to leave the perimeter open for long-distance sharpshooters - but his name doesn't exactly send the sports world into raptures.
So far, the thought of replacing some of the big-name stars with no-name role players who would bring the team success - but not necessarily fame - has apparently seemed too much like a capitulation.
Make no mistake, the players are not blameless for the foundering fortunes of the US men's team, which heads into a quarterfinal against Spain Thursday that it could very well lose. The team represents a new generation of professionals who are less schooled in the fundamentals of shooting and defense than their forebears. But the point is, there are plenty of Americans who could do the job that the international game requires. They just don't have shoes named after them.
"USA Basketball did not take into account the necessity of having a certain type of player," says Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News. "There was a real arrogance in selecting this team."
International basketball has improved dramatically since the first Dream Team inspired the world in 1992. Moreover, international teams have no qualms about playing "negative" basketball - dropping all five players into deep zones that squelch America's inside dominance and force shooters to score from outside.
If America sent its best team - with the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and Tracy McGrady - it could probably overcome these problems by sheer force of talent. The current, hastily selected collection of young players, however, has neither the experience nor the skill to cope.
Perhaps more obvious, though, is the fact that international teams are just that - teams, which play together for years and have complementary players. By simply selecting the players who can sell the most jerseys - and assembling them a month before the competition began - America has created a team with less balance and with little time to try to compensate.
Essentially, most of the players on the US team - as good as they may be - all perform the same function. There is no true point guard to run the offense and to provide a defensive stop, and there are no pure shooters - two of the most important positions in the international game.
In its opening-game loss to Puerto Rico, the United States shot 35 percent from the field. Led by point guard Carlos Arroyo, Puerto Rico shot 56 percent. Though the three-point line is closer in international basketball, the US has shot 24 percent from behind the arc for the tournament.
Yet the top four three-point shooters in the NBA - all Americans, including Hoiberg - shot better than 44 percent.
Indeed, it's not as if the US doesn't have the players it needs in abundance. The Lithuanian guard who scored 28 points against the US, for example, plays in Israel because no NBA team wanted him. "The US has to be pretty good if he couldn't make an NBA team," says DeCourcy.
But when it comes to selecting someone like a Hoiberg over a more electric player like Carmelo Anthony, the decision has tilted toward entertainment, not results.
USA Basketball was supposed to have learned this lesson when it finished sixth at the world championships in 2002. Now, the whole country is learning it.