Lost within the mindless drivel of whether or not this year’s U.S. men’s basketball Olympic team could beat the 1992 Dream Team is the intriguing test of ideals posed by the current representatives.
First things first: this year’s team would not stand a chance against the ’92ers. Not. A. Chance. As athletic, quick and versatile as this year’s version is, there is no question the Dream Team’s vast size, bulk and efficiency (i.e. pure shooting) would be too much to handle. That efficiency would severely limit transition opportunities for this year’s bunch and force the 2012ers to play in the halfcourt more than they’d like. Not only that, the ’92ers would own the glass and do a sound job of getting to the free throw line, limiting possessions and pace, both attributes this year’s team thrives and is heavily dependent upon. So can we stop with the nonsense, please? Yes, it makes for good conversation, but the bottom line is it’s disrespectful to the 92ers, whom many – including moi – consider the greatest team of talent ever assembled.
Now that that’s over with, let’s talk a bit about whether or not we are truly entering a new era of basketball, something that’s been at the forefront of the minds of hoops enthusiasts ever since Miami won the 2012 NBA title with smallball (though many conveniently neglect how significant of a role LeBron’s improved post play figured into matters). It’s been noted how small this year’s USA team is; only two player stand taller than 6-foot-9). They are wing-heavy, reliant upon incredible versatility, interchangeable parts that cover up fantastic flaws. At one point during Thursday’s 113-59 smothering of the Dominican Republic in an exhibition in Las Vegas, the USA trotted out a lineup of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. Thirty-eight points were scored off 27 turnovers, and when the DR zoned, the good guys were able to find Kevin Durant, the team’s lone pure shooter, time and time again. It was fun basketball, pickup at its best. Run, run, run. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Wash, rinse, repeat. Rarely – if ever – was the U.S. forced to slow it down and play through a man defense in the halfcourt.
But there is a reason Americans watch the likes of Spain and Argentina with a careful eye. Spain, in particular. With an experienced point guard in Jose Calderon who can deal with pressure competently and not lose his poise when the likes of James and Bryant are in his face, Spain looms as the U.S.’s biggest threat when you add the tall and beefy Gasol brothers and stringy shot-blocker extraordinaire Serge Ibaka. Or how about France and Tony Parker? Or Argentina and Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola. If the U.S. did not boast just Tyson Chandler as its lone true center, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But competitive basketball comes down to two things: Can you stop the other team, and can you execute when it counts? And those two come hand-in-hand with halfcourt basketball and producing when stakes are high and possessions are precious; when the game has slowed to a considerable crawl and not a track meet. The optimist’s thinking is that, just as much as we consider how the U.S. is going to match up against opponents, opponents are going to have to guard them too. This is true, and no one questions how nightmarish of a headache it will be to stop the U.S., especially if racking up transition points. However, playing on a smaller court, in more limited space, size matters in FIBA, and that’s something the U.S. lacks since Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, and now Blake Griffin are all out with injury. I find it highly amusing that people think the U.S. will cakewalk to another gold medal when even the elements of the game (closer 3-point line means less operating room, and the court itself is smaller in FIBA) do not lend favor to the U.S.
I have long been a fan of traditional basketball (if you can’t tell). Give me size and bulk any day. I want rim protectors. I want guys I can throw the ball into and work inside-out. I want guys who can play with their back to the basket, guys who protect the lane. I want guys who can post up, get to the rim and draw contact and get their defender in foul trouble. That’s basketball. The idea of basketball is to put the ball in the hoop, and you have a harder time doing that if you have guys who can protect the rim and force opponents to shoot jump shots (preferably 3s). The U.S. has almost always had a team who could do those things AND outlet to the skill guys who could race the other way for easy dunks or wide open 3s. Now this bunch only does the latter. Gone are the days of a David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Kevin Garnett. And while offense struggles with a lack of size, that won’t necessarily prove the case with these U.S.ers. They’ll score just fine. It’ll be on defense where it will be felt the most, when LeBron and Carmelo Anthony are having to guard the Gasol brothers and could find themselves in quick foul trouble if Spain plays it right.
These Olympics, I can’t wait. Not only will we see if Kobe can win a gold in his (in all probability) swan song on this grand stage, or what LeBron will do for an encore after a legendary championship run, but two basketball eras are clashing – this era of speed and athleticism versus the traditional route of size and strength. Who will prosper, and is this a movement to new form of basketball? We shall see.