Tuesday, January 17, 2012

If I Ran USA Basketball: The Cut List

Seeing this on the international stage would definitely increase the world's respect for us...
For 8 years between 2000 and 2008, the United States, the greatest basketball power on the face of the earth, went winless in international men’s competition. Instead of running through the competition with Michael Jordan and Shaq, the U.S. was forced to turn to players like Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson to maintain our dominance. Needless to say, it didn’t exactly turn out well.

Since then, a new generation of stars has come to power and a new group of decision makers, led by Jerry Colangelo, has come together to put together the best TEAM, not just the best players. It’s worked, and gold medals at the 2008 Olympics and 2010 World Championships, even without many of our best players, has been the reward.

With the 2012 Olympics on the horizon, Colangelo and his team are working feverishly to put together the next great American squad. Yesterday, the 20 finalists were announced, so we have a pretty good idea of what the team will look like. Honestly, didn’t we kinda know already?

Instead of breaking down whether Lebron should be on the team (Hint: Yes, he should), I thought it would be more fun to put myself in Jerry Colangelo’s shoes. Before I pick my 20 finalists, here are the guidelines I’m using for making my picks:

1. Roster Balance – The 2010 World Championship squad was very light on big men, and I don’t want to repeat that. I’m looking to put together a team that can play any size, any style, at any time.

2. Roster Versatility – Especially in these types of competitions, it’s great to have versatile players. What made Durant so valuable in the World Championships was his ability to take bigger, slower guys out to the perimeter, while also dominating smaller, quicker guys in the post. Obviously you can’t have 20 Durant’s, but there are plenty of versatile options currently in the league.

3. Shooting – The USA’s Achilles heel during that miserable 8 year stretch between gold medals was the lack of consistent outside shooting. If you’re not aware, zone defenses are legal in international play. Since teams can’t match up with us one-on-one, they simply pack it in and force us to beat them from the outside. What I’m looking for, specifically, are guys who shoot it lights out from the 16-23 foot range. With the international three point line being just 20.5 feet,  having guys who are money from that range pretty much invalidates any zone defense thrown our way.

4. Good Post Passers – Let’s just say “versatile big men” for this, OK? I’m looking for guys who are great passers out of the double team, who can step away from the basket and make plays, who can run the floor, and who can successfully find soft spots in the zone.

5. Physical Players – International play is pretty much rugby on a wood floor, and having guys who can both absorb contact and dish it out themselves is extremely important.

Thanks to those guidelines, I was able to make some very tough eliminations. Here in Part I, I’ll list the contenders I ultimately decided to cut. Tomorrow, in Part II, I’ll unveil my 20 finalists.

PG Rajon Rondo – Boston Celtics

I love him dearly, I really do. But seriously, did you expect me to pick a guy who had a TS%* of under 50% last year? Didn’t think so. Speaking of which…

* True Shooting Percentage – Weighted shooting percentage, adjusting for three pointers and free throws.

PG John Wall – Washington Wizards

Wall makes Rondo look like Steve Kerr. I’m going to advise him to stay home this summer and shoot jumpers. Lots and lots of jumpers. As in, Wall wakes up at 6am and shoots jumpers till midnight. Do that for the next four years, and then we’ll talk.

PF Amare Stoudemire – New York Knicks

Shoots it in the mid 40% range from 16-23 feet, but I’m just not in love with his game. He doesn’t pass well, he doesn’t play any defense, and he doesn’t fight for rebounds. Plus, it’s kinda tough to run a lot of screen and roll against zone defense. Unfortunately, that’s Amare’s biggest strength. Oh well, another summer to rest his knee.

C Tyson Chandler – New York Knicks

I must hate the Knicks or something! Chandler got picked for the World Championships because…well, because all the other big guys bailed. While he’s unquestionably one of the best at defending the basket, he’s too useless on offense and too foul prone to be of much use in international play.

C Andrew Bynum – Los Angeles Lakers

Because the last thing we need is for all of London to see a big giant American rolling around a basketball court like he’s been shot in the kneecap.

PG Jimmer Fredette – Sacramento Kings

Don’t laugh, I considered him. He’s a definite failure in the NBA, but why couldn’t he be the greatest international player of all time? Couldn’t we sell him off to China to help with the massive amounts of money we owe them? Wouldn’t that be a solid plan? How about this deal: Jimmer Fredette, the state of Michigan, full control of the BCS (isn’t it communist already?), and a promise that an NBA will play Yi Jianlian for 30 minutes a night in exchange for a clean slate. That’s killer for both sides, right? OK, I’ll make the call.

SG Monta Ellis – Golden State Warriors

Sadly, there is a tattoo cap in London. Therefore, Monta is ineligible. Also, there is a limit on guys who typically shoot 35% from 16-23 feet and who never, EVER pass the ball.

PG Kyle Lowry – Houston Rockets

He’s having an incredible breakout year, but the league is just too stacked with great PG’s to take him.

SG/SF Tony Allen – Memphis Grizzlies

In theory, this sounded like a great idea to me. If we’re making a true team, then having a guy like Tony Allen is pretty important. Allen is one of a rare breed who doesn’t need the ball to be effective, as his 19.03 usage rate suggests. Still, he’s useless on offense and he’s clearly not making the final cut.

SF Rudy Gay – Memphis Grizzlies

Gay was a part of the 2010 World Championships, though his inclusion was mostly due to the absence of Lebron, Wade, Carmelo, etc. Even then, there were probably several better choices, as his consistently low TS% makes him somewhat of a liability against zone defenses. I considered him because of his size and versatility, but he’s simply not the type of player that belongs on the Olympic team.

SF/PF Josh Smith – Atlanta Hawks

I love his versatility, I love his athleticism, I love his ability to defend the rim, and I love his defensive presence. What I don’t love is his love affair with the three point shot. You’d think this guy was Ray Allen with the way his eyes light up from behind the line! Yeah, he’s Ray Allen alright…only if Ray Allen had a shattered right elbow and was missing two fingers. Not only that, but I’d be afraid of what trouble Smith could get into on the trip to London. Best to leave him state side this time.

PG Mario Chalmers – Miami Heat

Me from last summer probably would have physically assaulted me from right now had I known I was going to consider Chalmers for the U.S. Olympic team. Seriously though, isn’t Chalmers a perfect role player for a team like that? He certainly isn’t going to remind anyone of John Stockton with the way he plays PG, but he’s found his niche as role player extraordinaire. With many teams employing a type of zone against the Big Three, Chalmers has excelled at finding the soft spots and making teams pay for playing off of him. He currently has an effective FG% of 65.1% from behind the three point line. As I said before, there are just too many good PG’s to take a guy like Chalmers, but he’d be high on my list of alternates if one of them had to bail.

SF Danny Granger – Indiana Pacers

One of the worst shooters in the league right now. Granger made it on the 2010 squad, but there isn’t a prayer for him to make it on this one.

PF Lamar Odom – Dallas Mavericks

I didn’t understand why Odom was on the 2010 team, much less why he’s a finalist for this one. Needless to say, neither he nor his wife, Frankenstein’s monster, will be on my team.

SF Gerald Wallace – Portland Trail Blazers

I love nearly everything about Gerald Wallace’s game. Even though he isn’t a good shooter, his versatility and extreme physicality make him a strong candidate for this team. Wallace can guard at least three positions, maybe even four in international play. Also, his ability to play with contact means that he will retain his value as a slasher, even in the rough and tumble international game. Still, there is just too much talent at his position to get him inside the final 20. When it came down to it, I chose size over another wing.

SF Paul Pierce – Boston Celtics

Old…very old.

PF David Lee – Golden State Warriors

Underrated mid range shooter, and would likely be a pretty nice complementary piece in this type of offense. However, while his rebounding would be welcome, his inability to defend the basket puts him in a jumbled group with Al Jefferson and Zach Randolph. I’d love to have them, but I need big, athletic defenders to anchor the back end of my defense.

C Roy Hibbert – Indiana Pacers

Did you expect me to not mention Roy? While Big Hib is my favorite player in the league, his inclusion on this list is much more than just a joke. I actually did consider him! He’s not going to score bunches of points, and he certainly wouldn’t be getting many post touches, but Big Hib provides a lot of value as a tall rim defender who can step out and knock down the occasional jumper. Guy is shooting 53.4% from 3-9 feet, which is exactly what I’m looking for at the center position. Alas, Hibbert struggles far too much with physical play to excel in the international game. But hey, if he can progress like he did on my 2k11 franchise, I’m sure he’ll be on the team four years from now… and he’ll also have won 4 MVP trophies. Very realistic.

SG J.J. Redick – Orlando Magic

I love Redick’s game, and I think he’d be a perfect role player for this type of team. His ability to consistently knock down deep shots is proven, and he’s actually improved substantially at creating plays since his rookie season. Still, much like with Chalmers, there is too much talent at his position to seriously consider a player like Redick. He’s just too limited on defense to get him in the final 20.

PF Ryan Anderson – Orlando Magic

Talk about a perfect international player! Anderson has blown up this season, hitting over 3 three pointers per game in his first opportunity for major minutes. Considering that incredible number, it makes perfect sense to have Anderson on USA’s short list. I’m not taking him however, as he’s too inconsistent as a defender and a rebounder to keep him on the floor for long stretches. Also, he replicates some of what I already have, just in a not as talented or skilled form. Definitely an interesting alternate though.

SG Ray Allen – Boston Celtics

I could probably just say “old” for this one too and be done with it, but I at least want to acknowledge that Ray Ray would still be a serious threat for Team USA. He’s definitely not the player he used to be, but the man can still shoot the ball. In fact, he’s shooting as well or better than ever, boasting an unheard of 86.1% TS% from behind the three point line. Allen would be, without a doubt, the best zone buster in the Olympics. That having been said, there are other nice shooters on my team, and Allen is far too limited in other areas to overtake them.

PG Russell Westbrook – Oklahoma City Thunder

Just in case you forgot what I’m looking for, turnovers and dumb jump shots are not it. Moving on…

SG/SF Andre Iguodala – Philadelphia 76ers

Iggy made the 2010 team as well, and I had a hard time keeping him off this one. He’s versatility and ability to contribute with or without the ball would be a welcome addition, but his long range shooting was just too problematic for me. Even in the 2010 tournament, Iguodala had severe struggles from the outside and pretty much turned into the “don’t ever shoot, for any reason, under any circumstance” guy that you usually see at mid-major colleges. I just can’t justify putting that guy on my team.

PF Blake Griffin – Los Angeles Clippers

I can definitely understand why Blake will make the team, as he’s an incredible rebounder and an explosive finisher at the rim. Thing is, I’ve seen too many of those types struggle in international play to take the bait on this one. For all of Blakey’s qualities, the two things that I’m looking for out of a big man are clearly lacking. Griffin shoots it very poorly outside of 9 feet, converting around 30% of those shots. Also, Griffin struggles to defend the rim, despite his extreme athleticism. A finisher like Blake sounds great in theory, but it rarely adds up to much against top level international competition.

SG Dwyane Wade – Miami Heat

And here is the most shocking omission. Before you start crucifying me for leaving Wade off the team, just here me out.

I mentioned the type of shooter that I wanted, and I mentioned why I’m looking for that. Wade does NOT fit the bill. Only one time in his career has Wade shot better than 38% from 16-23 feet. That would be fine if Wade were aware of this limitation, but the fact that he takes over six of these per game makes me think he’s still uninformed.

Look, I’m not trying to devalue Wade as a basketball player. We all know he’s one of the best in the NBA! All I’m saying is that he isn’t the best fit for this type of game. Heck, go watch some tape of Wade in the ’08 Olympics and ’06 World Championships and you’ll see firsthand what I’m talking about. His wild forays to the rim, which produce so many free throws in the NBA game, are nearly useless in the ‘no-whistle’ international game. His one-on-one prowess is negated thanks to the legality of zone defenses. His penchant for over dribbling is fatal in a style that requires quick, precise ball movement. All in all, I’d just rather not have him on the team. There are plenty of offensive weapons in my final 20, and, while Wade is unquestionably better than most of them, I chose to go with the ‘team’ concept over the ‘stars’ concept.

OK, now you can kill me…

Part II will be released tomorrow. In it, I’ll reveal my 20 finalists.

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