The End of an Era
Basketball | Allen Iverson and the U.S. Now Must Look Up at a New World Order
By Michael Wilbon
Monday, August 16, 2004; Page D01
The score may shock you but the result should not. In fact, it was entirely predictable if we look at what is instead of what was.
For first time in the 12 years NBA players have played in Olympic competition, the U.S men's basketball team lost an Olympic game. It's only the third time the U.S. men have been defeated in Olympic play, which is why Puerto Ricans screamed they had "shocked the world" in the immediate aftermath of their very thorough 92-73 manhandling of the U.S. team.
Unquestionably, the first defeat of a team of American NBA players sends reverberations throughout the basketball world, probably even the entire world of sports. In 1972, the U.S. team was cheated out of victory, which was given to the Soviet Union. In 1988, the U.S. sent a bunch of college kids to Seoul, where they lost to a Soviet team full of pro players. But there's no asterisk to attach to this defeat, no extenuating circumstances, no controversial ending or inequity of talent.
Anybody who wanted to see this defeat coming could see it as clear as an onrushing train. Teams from San Juan to China have spent the past 12 years creating clever strategies and exploring every nuance of the game's fundamentals, while Americans obsessed over dunking and reassured each other we were keepers of the global game.
Well, apparently not this time, not this tournament and not with this team. The Puerto Ricans didn't just win, they were better. The U.S. players and Larry Brown talked predictably afterward about not wanting it enough, about being flat at the beginning of the game. And it's all such a bunch of junk. It's just easier to use that excuse than to face the fact that the other team is better, that its pieces fit better and function with a smarter purpose.
USA Basketball put together a team to market, not a team to win.
And this isn't about Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady not playing.
The U.S. team didn't need more rebounding, strength or girth Sunday night against Puerto Rico; it needed shooters. But this U.S. team doesn't have any. This U.S. team has Tim Duncan and 11 guys who do the same thing: go to the rack. USA Basketball wants to sell sodas and jerseys and whatever else is being marketed. Brent and Jon Barry didn't turn down an invitation to play on this team, not that I know of. Fred Hoiberg would have paid his own way to Greece and slept on a dormitory bed with no pillows to play on this team. Casey Jacobsen didn't say he wouldn't come, nor did Brian Cardinal.
They're shooters. Not stars, but shooters.
The U.S. team's problem isn't lack of effort, it's lack of skill.
While starless Puerto Rico made eight of 16 three-point shots, the U.S. marketing machine was making three of 24. A Puerto Rican guard named Eddie Casiano hit all four of the threes, including one while being fouled and another from 30 feet just to rub it in during the final seconds of the game.
If you can't shoot the three-pointer in international basketball, you can't win.
You know who the best three-point shooter on the U.S. team is? Richard Jefferson of the New Jersey Nets. He's the 47th-ranked three-point shooter in the NBA. That's 47th. When Carlos Arroyo, Puerto Rico's point guard, was asked whether his team was concerned with any U.S. player shooting well from the outside, he said, "Not really. . . . They don't have any spot-up shooters. . . . They have more off-the-dribble shooters and free-style players."
Knowing this, Puerto Rico packed in a zone defense designed to take away the player they most respected, Duncan.
"We knew they didn't have any good shooters," Puerto Rico forward Daniel Santiago said. "Rolando Hourruitiner fronted Tim. . . . I or Jose Ortiz got in back of him, and we just packed it in . . . I mean, really packed it in and dared them to shoot. Sometimes I was out on Richard Jefferson, and I was letting him shoot it . . . They've got penetrators and slashers, so you lay off and let them take those shots."
That's the scouting report, ladies and gentlemen. The team from the country where basketball was invented can't shoot a lick. . . . Well, not the guys on this team anyway. "They're great going to the basket, they're great rebounding, and they're really strong," Arroyo said. Asked again about the shooting issues, he just smiled.
Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury are scorers, but they couldn't win a game of H-O-R-S-E against half the 12-year-olds in the state of Indiana. Lamar Odom, Richard Jefferson, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Shawn Marion, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire . . . they're all basically the same player. Slash, jump, throw it down. Looks nice on "SportsCenter." It's worthless in international play, now that kids in Europe, South America and Asia are big and quick enough to settle into a zone and play better defense than they could back in the early 1990s.
Three for 24 isn't indicative of a bad night; it's reflective of a bunch of guys who can't shoot from the perimeter. And keep in mind, while the NBA three-point arc is at 23 feet 9 inches, the international three-point is at 20 feet 6 inches. That's more than three feet closer, and U.S. players still can't shoot it. Is Shaq going to help with that? Jermaine O'Neal going to bury some threes? Ben Wallace? Karl Malone? The only guys who said "thanks but no thanks" who would have mattered in this competition are Ray Allen and Mike Bibby.
And even then it might not make this U.S. team a great team.
Fact is, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Karl Malone and Chris Mullin are not walking through that door again, to borrow a thought from Rick Pitino.
That team won by an average margin of 43.8 points. The 1996 team, which had Malone, Pippen, Stockton, Robinson and Barkley, won by an average of 31.7 points per game. The 2000 team won by an average of 21.6 points. This year's team? The average is down to 7.8 points for the qualifying games. Not only do teams no longer fear the U.S. players, they all want a piece of them. Twelve years ago the international players posed for pictures with the Dream Team before and after games. Sunday night, Arroyo and several members of Team Puerto Rico apologized for celebrating a little too enthusiastically. "I know it looked kind of cocky," he said about emphatically pointing to his jersey toward the end of the game, "and I'm sorry about that."
Arroyo, bless his heart, did nothing for which he needed to apologize, unless he wants to whisper a little something to Stoudemire after making him look like a chump with a move to the basket early in the game. Arroyo is part of this new world order -- a kid who grew up in Puerto Rico idolizing NBA stars, he is as good if not better than today's NBA guards.
"The game," Brown said with a sigh, "has gotten so much better around the world."
Well, everywhere except perhaps the United States, where it isn't better than it was 12 years ago, where folks are scratching their heads wondering what went wrong, like the U.S. players having failed to pay attention to an entire world gaining ground for a dozen years.
Basketball Is in a Whole New World
By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, August 11, 2004; Page D01
At opposite ends of the Team USA locker room at the 1996 Atlanta Games sat Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, two guys who usually couldn't agree on anything, agreeing on something they both thought would happen eight years down the road.
What they could see coming was Europe, Asia and South America dramatically increasing the number of world-class players they would send into international competition. What they could see coming, as the Dream Team members faded into retirement, was international teams with more depth and more experience than the United States was accustomed to facing. What they could see, crystal clear, was the time when the U.S. men's basketball team would struggle desperately in Olympic competition. Their forecasts appear to be more accurate than the presumptuous American basketball public is ready to accept.
So, the Olympics haven't even started, yet the number one question seems to be, "What in the world is wrong with the men's basketball team?"
The U.S. team, coached by Larry Brown and featuring Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, has lost an exhibition by 17 points to Italy, which doesn't have one NBA player on its roster. Then the U.S. team needed a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Germany, which did not qualify for the Olympics. A couple of nights ago in Istanbul, the U.S. team struggled to beat Turkey, which was without its best player, Orlando Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu. On Tuesday, the United States beat Turkey, 80-68, pulling away in the fourth quarter as the crowd jeered and whistled.
Iverson said the loss to Italy should serve as a wake-up call for the Americans. I agree with Iverson. But it also served as a wake-up call to everybody else that there are teams in the Olympic tournament that can beat the United States.
This is a surprise only to Americans.
This is what was supposed to happen. The sport's international governing body, FIBA, wanted to include NBA players in the 1992 Barcelona Games to provide the best worldwide competition possible. FIBA figured the only way to do that was to have the Dream Team set the standard for basketball excellence, which it did. The expected response was that the Europeans, Asians, South Americans and eventually some African nations would take what they learned and at some point try to use it to beat the teacher.
FIBA knew it, NBA Commissioner David Stern knew it, and every kid playing basketball in Croatia and Beijing and Buenos Aires knew it, too. The only folks who weren't paying attention live in Chicago and New York and Detroit and Los Angeles and Washington.
This is the state of basketball in the world this minute: The U.S. team is still very, very good. And certain teams in the Rest of the World are nearly as good.
If the United States had Shaq and Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, the team would be better, but not invincible. Remember, the 2000 team had Garnett, Alonzo Mourning, Ray Allen, Jason Kidd and Gary Payton and survived a last-second shot to beat Lithuania, 85-83, in the semifinal.
This team is an international virgin compared with that one, and therein lies its primary problem. Recently, Barkley left me a voice-mail message in which he said, "Before you write about our team, look up their international experience versus some of the other countries."
Of course, Barkley was on to something. He fully expects the United States to win and likes the fact that the team is loaded with young players who are excited about playing. "But the reason the gap is closing," Barkley said, "is because those international teams have a depth of good players now, and because they've been playing together internationally so damn long."
Here's what he's talking about: The 12 players on the U.S. team have a grand total of 116 games of international experience, and Duncan accounts for 40 of those games. Jose Ortiz, the former NBA player and veteran forward playing for Puerto Rico, has 150 games of international experience all by himself; his team, which plays the United States on Saturday, averages 43.3 games. Four U.S. players -- Lamar Odom, Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- have no international experience.
The Chinese team -- featuring four players 6 feet 11 or taller, including 7-5 Yao Ming -- averages 120 games of international experience.
Italy might not have any NBA stars, but its players average 84.8 games of experience. The U.S. players? They average 9.7 games of experience, which in international play, with the difference in rules and style of play, amounts to staggering inexperience. They're lucky to have a coach as experienced as Brown.
Also troubling is a growing sentiment in the United States that this team somehow deserves to lose, like the group is a bunch of malcontents and knuckleheads who've come aboard. Actually, it's mostly a bunch of excited young kids who've happily agreed to play after more than a dozen NBA stars said no. There's nothing whatsoever surly or obviously arrogant about James or Carmelo Anthony or Wade, or Richard Jefferson, Emeka Okafor, Stoudemire or Shawn Marion. Who has ever said a bad word about Duncan? Whatever you like or don't like about Iverson, it's admirable that he came right out at the beginning of the selection process and virtually begged to play.
Oh, it's a flawed team in some respects. It could use at least one more pure shooter (which is hard to find among Americans these days). And anybody who thinks he can break down international zone defenses solely with dribble-penetration (this means you, Stephon Marbury) need look no further than the NBA Finals when Brown's Pistons took that tactic completely away from Bryant. It ain't gonna work.
While the U.S. team figures out how to play, most of the international teams already know how they want to play, and have employed one system for years and years. They've been playing U.S. professionals for 12 years now. The novelty of it is long gone. There is no intimidation factor the Americans have working in their favor. Lithuania, Argentina and Serbia and Montenegro believe they can win. Twelve years ago, it was designed for the Olympic basketball tournament to be just this competitive, and only a handful of people with real foresight could see this day coming so soon.