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Monday, August 30, 2004

On the state of U.S. Basketball

Lots of ink has been wasted in the past three days about the "failure" of the U.S. basketball team to bring home the gold medal (MSNBC for example). "Settling" for a bronze seems to have caused a serious identity crisis about the state of U.S. basketball, the failure of the players to be "patriotic" enough, their seeming inability to play like a team, poor coaching, poor player selection, poor shooting, yada yada yada. As mentioned here, Team USA had problems before Athens:
In exhibition games [for Athens], they lost by 17 points to Italy and needed a buzzer-beater to defeat Germany. Two years ago, the U.S. team finished sixth in the World Championship.

Here's my take on the whole situation, for what it's worth.

The U.S. basketball team found itself in a similar situation that the LA Lakers found themselves in during the recent NBA finals against the Detroit Pistons. The Lakers arguably had the better athletes but the Pistons had the better team. This is not a unique situation: the Florida Marlins were not staffed with as many great players as the Yankees in last year's World Series.

What has seemed to happen is an evolution of the professional, and to some extent the college, basketball game independent of how the rest of the world is playing basketball. It seems that the rest of the world is focusing on shooting, back door passes, and an emphasis on defense, whereas the U.S. game is evolving into one-on-one matchups with a passing attempt at playing defense, usually in the form of weak, and sometimes violent, fouls when a player attempts to score.

I was consistently amazed that the Lakers insisted on fouling Piston players who had a clear line at a layup, in the process putting themselves in fouled trouble and putting the Pistons in the bonus and double bonus. In the end, the Lakers had their hat handed to them at the foul line. Instead of playing a matador defense and letting the Pistons score, and therefore leaving the best Lakers players in the game longer (because they didn't foul out), the Lakers "danced with one that brung 'em" and continued to foul. The Lakers played the same game into which the NBA regular season as evolved, or devolved depending on your view.

Here's my economic rationale for what is going on in the NBA versus what happened at the Olympics. In the NBA, it seems that all teams have decided they are playing a repeated game, in which reputation and tacit or explicit collusion plays a pivotal key. All teams have agreed that defense will be in name only, individual matchups will be the norm, shooting from outside is definitely a specialized talent although the dunk contest, whether during the regular game or at the Allstar exhibition, is populated by all players.

The repeated nature of the game is probably beneficial for all involved - players get to make spectacular dunks or reverse layups, fans (who care about professional basketball) seem excited by the slam-ball and therefore are willing to pay some of the highest prices in U.S. sports to sit in the seats, coaches focus on player-matchups and not team-matchups and are rewarded for these skills - everyone is happy.

However, the cooperative nature of the repeated games breaks down in the final series of the season. In the finals, each game is essentially a single-shot, static game in which tacit collusion is hard to encourage. Thus, in the finals the Pistons started playing defense and the Lakers seem at a loss, trying to rely upon outside shooting that wasn't their forte.

I hypothesize that the NBA player has essentially become used to the repeated-game nature of their form of basketball. Unfortunately, in the Olympics there is no such cooperation, whether tacit or explicit. Team Lithuania has no desire to cooperate with the defense-in-name-only policy because there are no repeated games in the Olympics. In the international tournaments, every game is a static, one-shot game, wherein cooperation of the type that seems to be occuring in the NBA does not happen.

Team USA seemed to figure this out, especially in the game against Spain, but alas probably a little too late. While their shooting was better in the medal game against Lithuania, ultimately what the best athletes are worth in the sequence of single-shot games in the Olympics is the bronze medal.

How to fix the situation? Some, including me tongue-in-cheek, have suggested sending collegiate players. I am not sure that this is a good fix, although certain college players are still shooting specialists and haven't been tainted by the professional game, but there is not doubt that the type of game that is valued by the NBA influences the way collegiate basketball players approach the game.

Perhaps the best way to go about picking the next team is to have a dedicated coach for team USA, not a moonlighting NBA coach (who might have the theory of team-basketball in his arsenal but doesn't use it on a regular basis in the NBA), and this coach selects players, not athletes, to craft a team that plays a different style of basketball - focus is on shooting and defense not on the slam dunk - similar to what they do in Europe.

The women's team still dominates international basketball for this very reason - the WNBA has not yet evolved, for any number of reasons, the same way the NBA game has. The women's team is populated with shooters and defenders not with individual slam dunk contest winners. Although the regular season in the WNBA is potentially subject to the same tacit collusion that can evolve in repeated games, the WNBA season is so short that there may not be enough games to encourage cooperation.

How do you convince a kid to play for Team USA? There are hundreds of high quality basketball players who play in development leagues, minor leagues, and foreign leagues, hoping for a shot at an NBA practice squad. Team USA can be funded by the USOG, or by private and corporate donations, to pay these players a reasonable salary, just enough to convince them not to play in an alternative league. It might cost the player a chance at the NBA game in its current form, although the NBA game might devolve back into a defense/shooter oriented game - the reality for most of these players is that they will not get a chance at an NBA contract. Perhaps they post their basketball resumes?

Now, I might be all wet in this analysis. I don't follow THAT much of professional basketball and definitely follow less of foreign leagues. However, the problem is not that the US is incapable of playing basketball at the highest level, it is that the US game is evolving into something that the rest of the world is not yet playing. Perhaps in the future the European and other foreign leagues will evolve into the same slam-ball mentality, but it definitely hasn't as yet. Team USA would be better to focus on creating a team rather than staffing one.

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