Quick Thoughts

1.    Gold:    In reality, the United States only lost one Olympics in a row but the feeling of futility has been palpable in the World Championships in 2002 and 2006 as well.  So, now the United States has returned to gold in the Olympics and the question is what does this all mean?

I suppose it does touch on all of our jingoistic pride but winning the Olympics doesn’t validate (or invalidate) the notion that the United States produces the most and best basketball players in the world.  But some notions coming the Team USA had coming into the Olympics are quite clear: –The world is continuing to improve:  While the United States had a healthy margin of victory, it’s clear that Spain, Argentina, and a few other teams can hang with the United States.  To win in international play, the United States must take the program seriously and look at fitting pieces over the long term (i.e. in three or four year increments).  This is the something the team already figured out and something that made a college coach strangely appropriate to build a team over such a time span. 

Building a program might not be so easy:  Watching the U.S. team win was interesting to me primarily on the level that that American executives knew they had the best players but could not rely solely on the fact to win.  Thus, a serious plan and system had to be implemented and how the pieces fit actually mattered.  High volume, low efficiency scorers actually hurt the team and this was realized (finally).  While national euphoria to keep the U.S. on top might be floating around now, I can guarantee that this will subside.  One of the players on the team will feel fatigued or will get hit with injuries this year and this will be blamed on the intense summer programs and the stars will want avoid the process. 

Everyone wanted to be on the original Dream Team in 1992 but by 2000 playing was considered fodder for younger guys and not as many of the established stars.  This is sure to happen again, as the demands of the summer really pale in comparison to keeping one’s NBA team (which has invested tons of cash into you) competitive.  In fact, it took losing to Puerto Rico by double digits to really spur on the likes of Kobe Bryant this time.  Stay tuned… 

-Random player/team observations:  I didn’t catch too much of the Olympics but we did see a few things.  Here some observations by team: 

Russia:  It was a disappointing showing for the Russians, who went 1-4 and only beat Iran.  Andrei Kirilenko was obviously good but Viktor Khryapa was also very good, shooting well and filling up the stat sheet.  I don’t expect him to be back in the NBA but he might be able to do so as a decent reserve.

Iran:  They were probably the weakest team in the field and we didn’t get to see big Jaber Rouzbahani but Hame Ehdadi looked like a pretty solid big man (16.6 ppg, 10 rpg).  Ehdadi may never get State Department approval to come over but he’s a viable back up big man for a few years.

Germany:  With Russia, the other big disappointment.  Unlike Russia, however, Germany did not have a realistic opportunity to get to the medal round.  Still, you’d expect them to beat China and have a shot at Greece.  Don’t be too hard on Dirk Nowitzki or Chris Kaman, the rest of the squad was much weaker than expected.  Demond Greene was third on the team in scoring at 7.0 ppg, that’s just not enough to prevent the defense from focusing totally on Dirk.

Angola:  The 2006 showing gave the team hope but Angola was its usual 0-5 in the Olympics this year. 

Spain:  Spain had high expectations and the team did not disappoint.  They only lost to the U.S. (twice) and they handled everyone else pretty easily.  It would’ve been a lot of fun to see Spain play Argentina but the match ups just didn’t work out that way.  Even though Spain missed Argentina, Spain is pretty clearly the second best Olympic team in the world and I think they’d probably beat Argentina at this point.  As for their players, Rudy Fernandez did nothing to dispel the notion that he’ll be a good NBA player, flashing a very nice and well-rounded game.  Ricky Rubio has been hyped up but it’s just way too early to project him.  He’s young but was awful offensively (9-32 from the field, 2-12 from three, and 7-20 from the line).

Greece:   Still solid contenders.  Vasilis Spanoulis still is the leader of the is team and was the best player in the tourney (leading the team in points at 14.3 ppg and assists at 3.0 apg).  Other old heroes, however, weren’t quite as good.  Theodoros Papaloukas was more of a role player this time and Sofoklis Schortsanitis barely played and has gotten heavy enough to kill his NBA chances.

Lithuania:  Just missed a bronze medal.  This is a very sold team and Linas Kleiza has helped them become much deeper.  As long as Sarunas Jasikevicius is around, they will continue to contend.

Argentina:   As anticipated, the core is older and Manu Ginobili’s untimely ankle injury was disappointing to fans who wanted to see them play the U.S. at full strength.  Still, Luis Scola is a beast offensively and they sport a nice starting five.

Australia:  Australia had as good a tournament as could be expected, they had some nice wins and even played the U.S. well in an exhibition game.  Chris Anstey was the player who most surprised.  He can still shoot a bit.  Coverage from ESPN.com notwithstanding, I really don’t think their plan to mess with the U.S. by referring to international stars by their jersey number was as unnerving to the U.S. as they thought it was.  I know the Aussies were not intimidated by the United States but let’s not get carried away here.

Croatia:   Similar to Australia, Croatia had nice showing by upsetting Russia.  Zoran Planinic looked pretty good here.  I find it very hard to believe that Roko Leni-Ukic can play in the NBA if he can’t shoot in the Olympics (17-52 from the field and 4-20 from three).

China:  Yes, the beat Germany and were respectable but is it really fair to Yao Ming to make him play basketball all year for the next 20 years?  Let the poor guy rest a little.  He’s been injury prone in the NBA as is.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rockets just sit him out with an “injury” during the regular season just to give him the rest he needs to re-charge his batteries.

2.    U.S. In Context:  How good was this U.S. team?  Let’s stack them up against the other squads: 

1992 USA 117.3 0.578 0.400 36.0 29.9 5.9 22.1
  Opponents 73.5 0.365 0.305 22.5 13.6 1.6 13.0
  Difference 43.8 0.213 0.095 13.5 16.3 4.3 9.1
1994 USA 120.1 0.576 0.464 43.3 20.9 5.5 11.0
  Opponents 82.4 0.438 0.374 28.1 12.4 2.1 5.4
  Difference 37.7 0.138 0.090 15.2 8.5 3.4 5.6
1996 USA 102.0 0.560 0.393 38.1 26.3 2.8 13.6
  Opponents 70.3 0.420 0.379 25.1 14.9 0.9 6.4
  Difference 31.7 0.140 0.014 13.0 11.4 1.9 7.2
2000 USA 95.0 0.519 0.422 42.6 19.1 3.8 7.1
  Opponents 73.4 0.390 0.281 25.0 13.3 2.1 4.4
  Difference 21.6 0.129 0.141 17.6 5.8 1.7 2.7
2002 USA 92.3 0.463 0.392 48.2 22.1 5.9 9.2
  Opponents 75.4 0.404 0.363 43.3 16.8 3.3 6.3
  Difference 16.9 0.059 0.029 4.9 5.3 2.6 2.9
2004 USA 88.1 0.459 0.314 38.9 15.1 3.8 10.6
  Opponents 83.5 0.482 0.441 28.1 11.0 2.4 5.6
  Difference 4.6 -0.023 -0.127 10.8 4.1 1.4 5.0
2006 USA 103.6 0.506 0.369 36.4 18.8 4.9 10.8
  Opponents 83.1 0.462 0.349 30.8 13.3 13.3 4.7
  Difference 20.5 0.044 0.020 5.6 5.5 -8.4 6.1
2008 USA 106.2 0.550 0.377 41.5 18.8 3.9 12.1
  Opponents 78.4 0.403 0.299 35.9 10.6 3.6 6.6
  Difference 27.8 0.147 0.078 5.6 8.2 0.3 5.5

For those who don’t remember, the 1992, 1994, 1996 and 2000 teams all went undefeated and won gold in their respective tourneys.  2002 is the first year the NBA lost, and they didn’t even qualify, as they lost a bunch of games and pretty much quit at the end of the tournament.  The 2004 team won bronze in Athens but went 5-3 and the 2006 team only lost to Greece but only got a bronze too.  

The 2008 team, matched against competition, isn’t near as dominant as any of the early squads.  Even the 1994 squad, which is most remembered as ugly Americans (Derrick Coleman, Larry Johnson, Shawn Kemp, and Alonzo Mourning were not remembered as statesmen), was really really good.  But 2008 stacks up close to the 1996 team and better than the 2000 team.  Of course, there is a plausible argument that 2008 had tougher competition than the world teams of the 1990s, which makes their +27.8 victory margin perhaps as impressive of some of the 1990s teams.  Even so, it would be really hard for me to believe that the world has improved so much that the 1992 team’s +43.8 margin can be equated with the new squads.  Suffice it to say that the 2008 team can stack up with any team since 1996, which is still pretty impressive.

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