Final Thoughts on the FIBA World Championship

Posted on September 5, 2006 by


A scan of the scant media coverage of Team USA in Japan indicates that many believe our team has far to go to win a championship in international play. Although I continue to criticize both the construction and coaching of this team, I think the data suggests we should be generally optimistic going forward.

With that stated, here are my thoughts on how Team USA performed in the Bronze Medal game, the overall productivity of its players in the World Championship, and the prospects of Team USA in the 2008 Olympics.

The Bronze Medal Game

Argentina was supposed to be one of the better teams in this tournament. Before their last two games Team Argentina was undefeated, outscoring their opponents by almost 24 points per contest. In the medal round semi-finals, though, Argentina lost to eventual champion Spain by one point. Consequently, their final game was for the Bronze Medal against Team USA.

Team Argentina did manage to limit the performance of Carmelo Anthony. Entering the tournament I noted that the least productive player – in terms of NBA performance – was Anthony. During the tournament I noted that the most productive Team USA player was none other than the same Carmelo Anthony. Against Argentina, the NBA Carmelo re-appeared. In 28 minutes, Anthony scored 15 points, collected five rebounds, and dished out two assists. He also took 17 field goals and six free throws – offering low levels of efficiency at both the line and in the field. He also turned the ball over twice and committed four personal fouls. His final Win Score was -3.0, which is obviously not good.

Although Anthony played poorly, the other two captains – Dwyane Wade and LeBron James – were very good. Wade had a Win Score of 16.0 in 35 minutes of action, for a per-minute mark of 0.457. LeBron had a Win Score of 15.0 in 31 minutes, for a per-minute Win Score of 0.484. The key for each was efficient shooting. Combined Wade and James shot 70% from the field, including an 83% conversion rate from beyond the arc.

The only other players to be above average were Chris Paul – per-minute Win Score of 0.316 – and Shane Battier – per minute mark of 0.333. Every other player offered a below average performance. Still, Team USA soundly defeated Team Argentina by 15 points, an impressive results against a quality opponent.

The Overall Performance of Team USA

A problem with any tournament such as this is sample size. Team USA only played nine games. Given such a small sample the strength of our conclusions will be limited. Although strong conclusions may be out of reach, I am still going to offer some thoughts.

First and foremost, Team USA generally played quite well in Japan. The team won eight of nine games. In six of these games the margin of victory was 15 points or more. On average Team USA scored twenty more points per contest than its nine opponents. Unfortunately in one game the team did not perform well, and hence that one result leads many to conclude that this team performed badly in Japan.

The data suggests a different story. Given the dominance of this team in most of the contests played, it is not surprising that most players on Team USA were above average performers. Here are the final per-minute Win Scores for each player:

Dwight Howard (0.413)

Chris Bosh (0.384)

LeBron James (0.314)

Carmelo Anthony (0.305)

Dwyane Wade (0.303)

Shane Battier (0.273)

Chris Paul (0.254)

Brad Miller (0.250)

Kirk Hinrich (0.217)

Elton Brand (0.210)

Antawn Jamison (0.135)

Joe Johnson (0.112)

The average power forward and center has a per-minute Win Score in the NBA around 0.220. A small forward posts a mark around 0.150. And guards tend to be around 0.130. Given these benchmarks, it looks like Dwight Howard – who generally plays center – was the most productive performer per-minute played.

Joining Howard at the top were Bosh and the three captains – James, Anthony, and Wade. Bosh and Howard each played less than 14 minutes per contest, and against Greece, combined to only play 18 minutes. As noted earlier, not playing the team’s productive big men may not have been the best move.

The idea behind “small ball” is to create turnovers and easy fast break points. The counter-strategy to “small ball” is to avoid turnovers and slow the tempo of the game. This forces each team to execute in the half-court, which is difficult when you don’t have any big men or competent three point shooters. And the difficulties are not just on the offensive end, but also defensively. As has been suspected since before the days of Bill Russell, tall people help a team’s defense.

Two teams effectively attacked Team USA’s “small ball” game: Italy and Greece. Italy ultimately failed, losing by nine. Greece was ultimately successful, winning by six. In each game, though, the pattern was the same. Coach K did not play his big men as much as he could, instead relying on smaller players. The opponent, though, slowed the tempo – which we can see in the number of possessions utilized (possessions were only less than 80 against Italy and Greece). With a slower tempo there were fewer opportunities to score.

And here is the interesting pattern. I noted earlier that Team USA was primarily composed of scorers. If we look at the aggregate stats from the tournament, most players scored at a fairly high rate. This is because most of the time Team USA played at a fast tempo which allowed everyone the chance to score. However, when the game went to a slower tempo, suddenly everyone couldn’t be a scorer. When we look at the productivity of players against Italy and Greece, we see that the scorers were generally above average. But the non-scorers, though, were generally below average. In sum, when Team USA took players who are generally scorers and asked these athletes to play other roles, productivity tended to decline.

Thoughts Going Forward

First and foremost it must again be emphasized, the majority of Team USA played quite well. For most players not named Carmelo, above average productivity was not surprising. The team did tend to play players out of position and seemed to fall in love with three point shooting – a love affair that is odd given the lack of great three point shooters on the roster.

Still, going forward we can only expect this team to be stronger. Replacing Jamison and Johnson with players like Shawn Marion and Kobe Bryant immediately make this team better. And if the team is going to insist on shooting large numbers of shots from beyond the arc, players like Chauncey Billups and Michael Redd will also help.

It is worrisome, though, that slowing the tempo against Team USA is such an effective strategy. The solution Coach K employed, going to “small ball” and trying to force a faster game did not seem entirely effective. Perhaps a better solution might be to learn to play a half court game. Such a game requires effective big men and skilled outside shooters. Luckily, those players are available for the Olympic games.

In sum, after Japan I am optimistic that Team USA can win the gold medal in 2008. The team assembled in Japan was very good. With a few adjustments, the team we send to China can be even better.

– DJ