The rise and fall and re-rise of USA Basketball

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We at Double Dribble have gone quiet, still as the NBA offseason rolls along like a dried up rivulet in the African plains, muddied with hippos and the feces of hippos but otherwise wholly unsuited to habitation. And yes, in this analogy, the free agency period is the dried up rivulet, the player movement stories are the hippos, and the Dwightastrophy is the feces of hippos.

But now that the Olympics are here, new life has taken hold on the basketball Savannah. Team USA is stalking its overseas competition like a pride of hungry lions, who practice three pointers and sell sneakers while wearing lenseless glasses for some reason. Also they have backpacks and bowties. And Kobe is there.

I am an Olympics junky. I’ll watch anything if it has the Olympic rings and that bum-bum-bu-buuuum-bum music. So far I’ve seen about 6 or 7 swimming events, a bunch of gymnastics, volleyball – both beach and regular, rowing, whitewater kayaking, water polo, and highlights from table tennis, cycling, and basketball.

Basketball, sweet basketball. My drug of choice. Freebase some NBA action with a heavy cut of Olympic pomp, and I’ll go all quagmire on these posts.

Until I can actually watch team USA rundown the opposition, I keep reading little bits about how the US team might be in trouble in the later rounds against larger, more experienced teams – Pau’s Conquistadors and Manu’s Incas – and so I decided to do a little stat-diving to settle my stomach.

Backtracking, sleuthing up the past like an NBA archaeologist, I dug up numbers from the years following the 1988 silver medal disaster, the impetus for adding NBA strength to USA Basketball’s team. A simple 4 year statistical examination of the rosters of the Dream Team and its offspring tells the story of the rise and fall and re-rise of USA basketball.

What I found is that the better teams were able to fill all the necessary roles – playmaking, shooting, and size – from the top statistical players. Essentially the best teams had stars performing roles instead of role players trying to fit in with stars or semi-stars duplicating each other’s skills.

Below is a breakdown of each 4 year span’s best 10 players and an explanation of each team’s final roster. All the stats can be found here.

From 1989-1992 the 10 most productive players (asterisk indicates Team USA member) by Adjusted Win Score were:

1. Michael Jordan*
2. Charles Barkley*
3. David Robinson*
4. Karl Malone*
5. Magic Johnson*
6. Hakeem Olajuwon
7. Patrick Ewing*
8. Clyde Drexler*
9. John Stockton*
10. Chris Mullin*

Notice anything? Every one of those players, except the Nigerian Olajuwon who was not eligible, was on the 1992 team. That’s 9 out of 12 players on Team USA with statistical resumes that support their inclusion on the team. The three remaining players were Larry Bird (13th most productive over that span), Scottie Pippen (22nd on the list but also the second best player on back to back champions and the best perimeter defender in the world), and Christian Laettner (NCAA throw-in). Essentially you had 9 out of the 10 best – or at least most productive – players in the league over the previous 4 year span, one legend who brought leadership, long-range sniping, and preternatural passing skills and one utility guard / forward who turned out to be the second most essential player on team because of his defense and versatility. Bird was actually top 12 if you omit the ineligible Olajuwon, and Pippen stole his spot from 11th ranked Dominique Wilkins whose lack of handles and passing made him an inferior choice for this team. KJ was next in line and lost out to the collegiate representative.

From 1993-1996 the 10 most productive players (asterisk indicates Team USA member) by Adjusted win score were:

1. David Robinson*
2. Michael Jordan
3. Hakeem Olajuwon*
4. Shaquille O’Neal*
5. Karl Malone*
6. Charles Barkley*
7. Scottie Pippen*
8. John Stockton*
9. Brad Daugherty
10. Chris Webber

Notice anything different? This team dropped from 9 out of the best 10 to 7 out of the best 10. Michael Jordan, ranked #2, sat out. He had already won 2 gold medals, knew that 1992 could never be topped, and wanted to let someone else have a chance. Daugherty didn’t make it because injuries had removed him from the game by the 1996 Olympics – and because the team already had 3 centers who outranked him (story of his career by the way). Webber didn’t make it because the top 5 players on the team were all big men who had seniority on him. Hakeem did make it because he had gained his citizenship by this point. So the team had to fill the 8-12 spots not with the best available players but for need. The league had grown top-heavy with big men. They filled in with Penny Hardaway (ranked 13), Grant Hill (ranked 17), Gary Payton (ranked 19), Reggie Miller (ranked 26), and Mitch Richmond (ranked 33). Penny, Hill, and Glove were the next two wings and the best available PG. Reggie and Mitch were taken purely for shooting.

Really this team wasn’t too far from the original in terms of taking the best talent. Had Jordan returned they would have had the best 5 bigs, 4 of the best 5 wings (statistically Clyde outranked Penny and Hill), the 2 best point guards, and the best shooter. Still it’s a far cry from how perfectly the 1992 team fell out. The real drop off comes in the next batch.

From 1997-2000 the 10 most productive players (asterisk indicates Team USA member) by Adjusted win score were:

1. Shaquille O’Neal
2. Karl Malone
3. Michael Jordan (retired)
4. Chris Webber
5. Gary Payton*
6. Tim Duncan
7. Kevin Garnett*
8. Grant Hill (injured)
9. David Robinson
10. Charles Barkley

And here’s the big shift! 2 of the top 10 players are on Team USA 2000, Gary Payton and KG. Of the other 8 available players, Michael Jordan had retired, and Grant Hill was coming off injury. Hill and Duncan were both also free agents looking to not get injured before big pay days. Shaq had just come off a long playoff run to win his first title and probably wanted the rest more than a second gold medal. Karl Malone, David Robinson, and Charles Barkley had been members of the ‘92 and ‘96 teams and were due to give up their spots. I’m not sure why Webber was once again overlooked. So the 2000 team had to find 10 more members. They went with Alonzo Mourning (ranked 11), Vince Carter (ranked 12), Jason Kidd (ranked 19), Shareef Abdur-Rahim (ranked 22), Tim Hardaway (ranked 27), Antonio McDyess (ranked 30), Vin Baker (ranked 33), Steve Smith (ranked 47), Ray Allen (ranked 48), and Allen Houston (ranked 85).

Zo and HalfMan are the best available and fit needs. Kidd is legitimately the 2nd best option at point guard. After that the picks become suspect. CWebb far outranks the 3 remaining big men on the roster, and Eddie Jones and Reggie Miller were better two-way players than Ray and Houston at that point in their respective careers. The league was still top heavy with big man talent, but most of that talent opted out, and the aging / retiring of the 90’s greats left the wings depleted. The team was put together based on need and had to make some deep grabs to fill its size and shooting specialties. They managed to win the gold but not without a scare. Defensive stalwarts Payton, KG, and Zo kept them on top, but just barely. Also Vinsanity teabagged some Australian 7 footer in what may have been the most impressive in-game dunk ever.

The progression to oblivion continues…

From 2001-2004 the 10 most productive players (asterisk indicates Team USA member) by Adjusted win score were:

1. Kevin Garnett
2. Shaquille O’Neal (guessing)
3. Tracy McGrady (injured?)
4. Tim Duncan*
5. Dirk Nowitzki
6. Kobe Bryant (injured)
7. Chris Webber (injured)
8. Elton Brand
9. Shawn Marion*
10. Ray Allen

Okay, quick disclaimer, I didn’t check the “Centers” box when I ran these numbers, and Shaq got left out. I’m estimating that he would be top 2. He certainly would be in the top 5.

Now, we’ve got two of the top 10 players on team USA again, but this time one of them is Shawn Marion. Shawn was a very talented player who worked exceptionally well off the ball, but without a great playmaker he was never a creator for himself or others. This is a problem because the roster was not filed out with passers… or shooters… or big men. Small score first guards Allen Iverson (ranked 13) and Stephon Marbury (ranked 19) comprised the starting back court, and the only other guard on the whole team was a still developing Dwyane Wade (ranked 70) coming off his rookie season. The remaining wings were rookie LeBron James (ranked 41), rookie Carmelo Anthony (ranked 48), and Richard Jefferson (ranked 66) – not a shooter among them. The bigs playing with and subbing for Duncan were Carlos Boozer (ranked 37), Lamar Odom (ranked 46), Amare Stoudemire (ranked 54), and 2nd overall draft pick and Connecticut star Emeka Okafur.

This is a pretty bad team build. In a few years when LeBron, Wade, and Carmelo hit their strides it would be a different story, but they weren’t really there yet. So the team offense was built around Iverson and Marbury. It had to be because neither of them has a skill set to complement another lead scorer. They don’t spot up well. They don’t pass well for point guards. They don’t work well off the ball. So they have to be allowed to handle the ball and get up shots to provide any real benefit. Unfortunately there are no other spot up shooters and not enough defensive specialists or rebounding specialists to properly execute the small scoring guard strategy. But there would have been if a few of the available stars had shown up.

My theory on why KG, Ray, and Vince Carter (ranked 11) didn’t sign up for this one is that they had such a struggle winning gold in 2000. Ironically those three would have been enormously helpful for this team. Ray and Vince stretch the defense with their shooting and KG provides extra defense, rebounding, and a pick and pop big to complement Duncan. But those three guys weren’t on the team, and they wound up bringing home bronze medals. The horror. The horror.

From 2005-2008 the 10 most productive players (asterisk indicates Team USA member) by Adjusted win score were:

1. LeBron James*
2. Kevin Garnett
3. Kobe Bryant*
4. Dirk Nowitzki
5. Amare Stoudemire (injured?)
6. Shawn Marion
7. Elton Brand
8. Gilbert Arenas
9. Allen Iverson
10. Dwyane Wade*

They rounded out the roster with three point guards – Chris Paul (ranked 11), Jason Kidd (ranked 28), and Deron Williams (ranked 44), three wings – Carmelo Anthony (ranked 21), Michael Redd (ranked 27), and Tayshawn Prince (ranked 51), and three bigs – Carlos Boozer (ranked 15), Chris Bosh (ranked 16), and Dwight Howard (ranked 23). The rankings on this group are a little skewed by the selection process. There are only three of the top 10 players on the team in 2008, but that’s not because it was poorly selected. It’s because the selection committee committed itself to players committed to committing to multiple year commitments to international play. That meant they wanted young guys on their way up rather than a whole team of established greats like the 1992 team. There may also have been a backlash against the small gunner guards that kept AI and Hibachi off this team. Also Amare and Marion were overrated by the stats because of D’Antoni’s 7 seconds or less offense and the great Steve Nash (Canadian).

This team’s outside shooting and interior defense was suspect and exploitable, but their perimeter defense and transition offense were so strong that no one could defeat them. They had one scare against the Spanish team, but Kobe went on a Kobe tear and closed the door.

From 2009-2012 the 10 most productive players (asterisk indicates Team USA member) by Adjusted win score were:

1. LeBron James*
2. Chris Paul*
3. Dwyane Wade (injured)
4. Dwight Howard (injured)
5. Kevin Durant*
6. Pau Gasol
7. Dirk Nowitzki
8. Kobe Bryant*
9. Chris Bosh (injured)
10. David Lee

Four of the top 10 players made the team, and three others likely would have made the team if not for injuries. Gasol and Dirk were not options, and Lee’s statistics are another D’Antoni mirage. The team is completed with back-up point guards Deron Williams (ranked 16) and Russell Westbrook (ranked 38), back up wings Carmelo Anthony (ranked 15), Andre Igudala (ranked 31), and James Harden (ranked 53), and big men Kevin Love (ranked 13), Tyson Chandler (ranked 46) and collegiate star Anthony Davis. The selection of this team is skewed a little away from their historical production in favor of time spent with Team USA. Iggie, Westbrook, and Chandler don’t have the numbers on their sides, but they all competed alongside Durant in the gold-winning World Championship team in 2010.

As has been pointed out many times, the team’s size could be an issue. The team has played its most dynamic ball with a front court of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Durant, three swing forwards with guard-like handles. Putting this line-up out with Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant maximizes the total talent on the floor and limits the potential weakness than non-star role players like Chandler, Harden, and Igudala might give the opposition to exploit. With no great centers in the field to oppose them, this small-ball lineup should be fine.

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2 Responses to “The rise and fall and re-rise of USA Basketball”

  1. PBinLosAngeles Says:

    8/12/12 – A couple of nights ago, the NBC Olympics broadcast opened their show with a short, very cool, documentary on the 1992 Dream Team. And among other things Magic opined in a present-day interview (Life long Lakers fan here, BTW) was that the 92 Dream Team may have been the greatest basketball line-up ever assembled. Asked about that possibility, Kareem Abdul Jabbar gave his opinion, and while Kareem conceded that the 1992 Team USA line-up was “very formidable and impressive” he went on to say that he felt that the 1972 NBA Western Conference All-Stars was by far the greatest assembly of American basketball talent ever to be placed on the same roster. He also said that – given an equal amount of preparation and time together, like that the “Dream Teams“ have had – the 1972 roster would have crushed any team they would have been presented with. After hearing Kareem’s opinion, I checked the roster he was referring to; he was absolutely freaking correct…The proverbial “whose guarding Jordan” argument wouldn’t even apply, as Wilt and Kareem would send anything coming down the paint to the rafters. The 1972 Western Conference All-Stars were as follows: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Wilt Chamberlain Gail Goodrich Connie Hawkins Elvin Hayes Spencer Haywood Bob Lanier Bob Love Oscar Robertson Cazzie Russell Paul Silas Jimmy Walker Jerry West Sidney Wicks

    • jpalumbo Says:

      It’s a good lineup for sure. Think they’d have trouble with ball pressure from the ’92 team, but they’ve got great weapons.

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