USA 86-80 Argentina: Team USA Has Work to Do

Team USA’s 86-80 victory over Argentina was the second unsatisfying effort in four outings by the Americans.  While the game was not as close as the final score indicated, Team USA certainly has work to do to improve.

Kobe Bryant Needs to Stop Shooting.

As I wrote the other day, being forced to root for Kobe Bryant is rather loathsome when he insists on shooting like he’s playing for the 2006 Lakers.  He shot better against Argentina, but it seemed a mirage since he was continuing to take the same largely contested shots he has been.  I could get on board with Kobe shooting more if he were able to get past international players off the dribble or operate from the post against smaller players, but he’s mostly just jacking up contested jump shots at this point.  Even after today’s hot shooting start, Kobe is at 38% from the field and 28% on the 3s which have comprised over half his shots.  Those numbers would be awful in the NBA.  For a loaded Team USA that typically averages about 1.2 points per possession in FIBA ball, his shot selection is inexcusable.  Today’s “highlight” was ignoring a wide-open Kevin Durant to launch a 30 foot 3 from the top of the key.  He also got burned pretty badly as the primary defender on Ginobili.  Manu had 23 points on 15 shooting possession and also burned Kobe on backcuts, although to be fair in Coach K’s system he is supposed to deny the ball on the wing and have help backdoor.  

Everyone Else Needs to Keep Shooting

While both Steve Smith on the NBAtv broadcast and Fran Fraschilla for ESPN decried the number of 3s the US took, I am in complete disagreement.  With the exception of Bryant, nearly every 3 Team USA took was absolutely wide open. As I predicted a few days ago, Kevin Durant absolutely had his way from 3 point land against the Argentinian zone, as he was able to shoot right over it from the wing. Even for the rest of these players, these are 22 foot 3 pointers that would be considered a good shot for any of these players in the NBA, and they should continue to take them.  Deron Williams in particular was only 1-5, with all 4 misses wide open.  He can certainly hit the FIBA 3 in his sleep.  Moreover, Team USA has had absolutely no problem getting these shots, which has resulted in only 45 turnovers in 4 games.*  Team USA was 11/34 (38%) on 3s, a very efficient number on a high volume of attempts.

*Now that the Americans are overseas and “FIBA ref” Bill Kennedy isn’t on the crew anymore, the team was called 4 times for their old bugaboo of lifting their pivot foot before putting the ball on the floor, much to the delight of the fans on hand in Barcelona.

The Team Needs to Play Harder

Quite frankly, the Americans sleepwalked through this one after breaking out to a 17-1 lead in the first few minutes.  The key problem was awful transition defense.  On pretty much every defensive rebound or turnover, at least one Team USA player loafed back.  Kobe was again the worst perpetrator, although everyone from Chris Paul to Anthony were guilty at least once.  At one point, LeBron angrily motioned for his teammates to get back as Argentina finished a 3 on 1 against him.  If these guys are playing 20 minutes a game, they can expend enough effort to get back on D.

Kobe’s 30 foot 3 again provided the lowlight, as he somehow failed to get back on D after shooting it and gave up the most uncontested layup in the history of FIBA basketball to Ginobili.

The Centers Can’t Score

Team USA’s centers have not provided an adequate performance offensively.  Tyson Chandler has only been able to find 4 shots and 6 free throw attempts in 58 minutes; chances for him should abound off passes on penetration, pick and rolls, or offensive rebounds as the other teams’ bigs go to help.  However, it must be noted that Chandler has been excellent defensively and is well-worthy of a starting role on that basis alone.  His +/- in this game was +27 in 11 minutes of action at one point in the game.

Kevin Love cannot point to the defensive end of the floor to bolster his performane.  Frankly, he has been really bad so far.  He has 7 fouls in 47 minutes with only one block.  Subjectively, his help defense has been no better than his piddling NBA reputation would suggest, and he offers little in the way of basket protection.  His offense hasn’t been much better, as he has been unable to affect the game with his offensive rebounding the way he could in short bursts for the 2010 team.

Offensively he has been just as ineffective as Chandler at finding inside shots off penetration, which is not a particular strength of his game.  And while Love has been hailed in some quarters as a superior FIBA player because of his outside shooting, that isn’t what the team needs.  If he’s just going to stand outside and shoot 3s there are other players who can do that and provide much more defensively.  Unless Love is going to be a dominant rebounder, he doesn’t really have much of a role on this team to my eyes.

Surprisingly enough, I think this team really misses Blake Griffin offensively as a second string center, although I always feared Blake would have the same issues defensively as Love.

Whither Anthony Davis?

This opinion might be derided by insiders as a typical outsiders/fan perspective, but I think Anthony Davis should play more.  Granted, fans and writers often take a grass is greener approach with younger players or reserves; just look at how the backup QB is often the most popular player on the team until he actually gets on the field.  But I legitimately started with the idea that Davis was way too young, inexperienced, and weak to be a meaningful contributor on this team, although I applauded his selection for developmental purposes and simple curiosity to see what he could do.  Since then, Davis’ performance has made me think he should at least get a look as the backup center, especially with Love’s utter ineffectiveness.  Davis has scored 20 points in 23 minutes. There are a lot of inside shots to be had off the wings’ penetration, but Chandler and Love haven’t been able to find the openings to capitalize..  Against Great Britain, Davis was able to get free for alley-oops and inside finishes that Love and Chandler haven’t been able to find.  Defensively Davis is tied for the team lead in blocks with 4, in a third as many minutes as co-leader Chandler.  

Of course, caveats abound.  Davis compiled a lot of his stats against the Domincan Republic’s reserves, who included 16 year old Karl Towns at center.  It could be that Davis has not played well enough in practice to earn major minutes, or that he’s struggled with the plays or defensive concepts.  It also seems clear that he’s a bit of a fish out of water socially on this team.  I haven’t once seen him in conversation with any other player on the bench, and he seems to get only cursory congratulations after his good plays.  During the Dominican Republic game the entire bench was up cheering except for him.  Despite his attempts to own the “Brow” moniker, every impression I’ve had of him is that he’s a very soft-spoken kind of guy, somewhat like Derrick Rose.  This is compounded by the fact that he did not really come up through the AAU system like many of these other players and may not feel particularly at home in this sort of all-star environment.  

While the social life of Team USA would normally be of little interest, I think Coach K could face some political difficulties inserting Davis into the lineup ahead of established NBA stars like Kevin Love or whoever would be playing “center” in the small lineup without Chandler or Love.  (Carmelo Anthony would be my choice to lose minutes there.)  Since Team USA has won all of its games in semi-comfort so far, it would probably be impolitic for Coach K to give Davis meaningful minutes in a close game at the risk of alienating his other players.  Hopefully, this will all be a moot point and we won’t be asking whether Davis could have helped after a close US loss in the medal round.  But I do think his shot-blocking and finishing skills, however raw, are exactly what Team USA needs.

Team USA Needs to Pay More Attention to Defensive Matchups

Without Chandler in the game, Team USA has largely gone with a strategy of switching nearly every screen.  However, that strategy has been somewhat compromised when a smaller guard like Paul or Westbrook gets stuck on a big man, forcing a double team.  Team USA could maximize the effectiveness of its switching strategy by playing bigger guards Williams and Bryant together when Chandler is out of the game, as these players would be at much less of a disadvantage after a switch.  However, the most recent starting lineup featured Paul and Bryant playing with Chandler.  If Williams and Westbrook are going to play together, it would make sense for them to “cross-match” and play Williams on the opposing shooting guard so Westbrook can apply his ridiculous ball pressure to the opposing point guard.  Westbrook’s pressure is much less effective against wings who catch the ball in triple threat.  Westbrook also isn’t used to guarding wings, and Ginobili largely had his way with him.

In fact, Coach K has not been particularly focused on defensive matchups.  He apparently missed the Heat’s championship run, in which LeBron James showed himself an excellent post defender.  For some reason, James was guarding on the perimeter while Carmelo Anthony was matched up with Luis Scola in the post.  While Anthony battled hard, he picked up some quick fouls.  Another time, James was outside while Kobe took the bottom lane position for free throw rebounding.  When Team USA goes small, the strongest and best-jumping player on the floor needs to be the center on defense.

Will Spain Crash the Glass?

Argentina’s transition defense was also pretty miserable, as their bigs’ largely futile attempts on the offensive glass* left them out of position on defense.  Were I Argentina, I would have sent the defense back the moment a shot went up.

*Argentina’s reserve bigs are absolutely hilarious, checking into the game looking like they just got back from a smoke break.  My favorite sequence from this game was the bearded Friederich Kammerichs’ crunch-time attempt to dribble the full length of the floor as 3 Team USA defenders circled like sharks before he finally lost control, dove on the floor, and was able to throw it off Kobe’s foot to save possession for Argentina.  Of course, that did not  remotely compare to my all-time favorite Argentinian reserve big moment from 2007.

However, Spain will have a very interesting decision on whether to fight hard on the offensive glass, as the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka could really hurt Team USA there.  I will be watching closely to see how hard they try to hit the offensive boards.  It’s worth noting that Spain’s problem against the US has always been much more on offense than on defense, so I would probably send them back on D.

We’ll be back with more after the final Team USA tuneup against Spain on Tuesday.


I did note one weird thing about FIBA rules, which is that the game clock keeps running after a made basket but the shot clock does not. A team could very easily take advantage of this rule with, say, 29 seconds left in the quarter on the game clock to just let it run down below 24 seconds before inbounding the ball. It would seem a pretty obvious strategy but I've never heard it anyone talk about it before. Is this something FIBA players regularly try to take advantage of?

Does the Departure of the Bulls' Bench Mob Make Sense for Basketball Reasons?

Gar Forman’s quote that the Bulls’ offseason moves would be guided by basketball reasons rather than financial reasons has been mocked quite a bit in the Bullosphere over the last few days.  The team has let bench stalwarts Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, and C.J. Watson go to replace them with minimum contracts and a $5 million trade exception for Korver.  It also appears likely that the team will not match the “poison pill” contract for backup center Omer Asik, one of the league’s best defenders.  These moves will almost certainly make the Bulls a worse team on the floor next season.

Thus, it is clearly the case that the Bulls made these choices for financial reasons.  Many have presumed that the sole financial reason is to avoid paying the league’s luxury tax.  But is it possible that the Bulls decision to let these players go was in fact motivated by a desire to put the best team possible on the floor when the team is again ready to compete for a title?  In this post I will examine the question of whether letting the Bench Mob go this year was actually the right decision from a purely basketball perspective.

The Keep Everyone Scenario

The most obvious course of action this summer would have been bringing everyone back instead of letting the Bench Mob go. This would have meant keeping Watson at $3.2 million, Brewer at $4.37 million, Korver at $5 million, and matching the Asik offer sheet with a salary of $5 million for 2013.  According to my amateur spreadsheet calculations, this would have given the Bulls a payroll of $83,743,020.  With a dollar for dollar luxury tax hit for every dollar over the tax line of $70,307,000, this would have resulted in total out of pocket costs for the Bulls of $97,179,040 for a team that would at best lose in the 2nd round with Rose at 80%.  

*For a team used to $60 million payrolls, a profit of $40 million less per year is pretty hard to stomach.

What’s worse, the team would have little hope for improving for 2013-14.  Under this scenario, Brewer, Korver, and Watson all come off the books that year.  However, Taj Gibson’s extension would kick in.  I put a conservative number of $9 million a year on that extension since it is the figure that has been bandied about in recent days. Richard Hamilton would still be on the books for $5 million that year should the Bulls elect to keep him, but he could be let go for only the cost of his $1 million guarantee.  I assumed this the likely result as Hamilton seems unlikely to contribute at a level befitting that salary (or the starting shooting guard position) by 2013-14.

Adding in a salary for a 2013 first round pick (which I assumed to be approximately #20) and assuming the rest of the roster were filled out with veteran minimum contracts, and the Bulls would have a 2013-14 salary of $79,310,465.  This would be the first year of the stiffer luxury tax, which would result in a minimum out of pocket of $93,816,529* for that season, assuming the entire roster were filled out with minimum contracts.

*All figures approximate.

In addition to paying the luxury tax, the team would be over the “apron,” which is $4 million above the luxury tax level at $74,307,000.  Teams over the apron are subject to the following transactional restrictions in 2013-14:

  • They can accept only 125% of the outgoing salary in a trade
  • They cannot use the Bi-Annual Exception, which allows a team to add a player to a contract starting at $2.016 million.
  • They have a smaller Mid-Level Exception, allowing the team to offer only a contract starting a $3 million a year rather than $5 million a year.
  • They can only offer 3 years in the Mid-Level Exception rather than 4.
  • They cannot receive a player in a sign and trade.  

Because of these restrictions, the only way for the Bulls to acquire additional players would be through the taxpayer mid-level exception or signing players to the veteran minimum.  Unfortunately, with Hamilton gone the team would have no starting shooting guard and no backup shooting guard.  While the latter role could probably be filled by a minimum veteran, the Bulls would have only the taxpayer’s mid-level exception starting at $3 million a year to attract the second scorer the team has long coveted.  The inability to acquire a player in a sign and trade would particularly hamstring the Bulls, as it is really the only possible way they might acquire a star free agent.  And while the Bulls could potentially acquire a player via trade, it’s hard to see what assets they might have that would entice other teams.  The only real hope would be trading Asik (whose “poison pill” $14.5 million  in 2014-15 would likely scare off most teams) or the expiring $14.275 million contract of Luol Deng.  Trading Deng would leave the team with no starting SF, and would likely require taking back an overpriced veteran with a longer contract from a team looking to start over.  Finally, with the team so far into the tax, adding that new starting SG at the taxpayer mid-level of $3 million a year would actually cost the team about $10 million, for a whopping total out of pocket exceeding $100 million.

Thus, by keeping the Bench Mob together this year, the non-Rose Bulls would likely be worse in the first year Rose would be fully healthy.  For this privilege, the team would be paying 9 figures in salary and luxury tax with limited flexibility going forward.

The team might also consider an amnesty of Carlos Boozer before the 2013-14 season when Gibson’s new contract kicks in.  Were this to occur, the team would have $60,592,909 committed to 8 players including their 2013 first rounder. Gibson would become the starting power forward, but a new backup capable of playing significant minutes would be required since Asik and Noah cannot play together.  Moreover, the team would still need a starting shooting guard.  To fill these positions they could use the non-taxpayer $5 million MLE and the Bi-Annual exception.  Would the team be better off with Boozer gone and Gibson starting and replacing Boozer with a $2 million backup PF?  It seems unlikely to me.

The team would also would be paying Boozer approximately $27 million over the next two seasons not to play for them.*  Plus Asik’s poison pill in 2014-15 would likely hamstring the team as they attempted to provide a competitive offer to entice Nikola Mirotic stateside and re-sign or replace Luol Deng as a starting SF.

*I assumed a team would pick up $2.5 million per year of his approximately $32 million in salary for 2013-14 and 2014-15.  

Thus whether Boozer is amnestied in 2013-14 or not, keeping the Bench Mob together this year would have either severely limited the Bulls’ flexibility next offseason or given them too many holes to fill. To me, that makes retaining the Bench Mob in 2012-13 a highly unpalatable option for basketball reasons, not to mention the extra $27 million or so it would cost the team.  Were Rose healthy, it might have been worth it to keep together the 60-win juggernaut the team has been the last two seasons.  But with Rose’s injury there is no way the team can compete for a title this year.  While this Bulls team has been my favorite team I’ve ever rooted for, Rose’s injury requires that the team let the Bench Mob go and pursue other options.


  • After watching today’s USA/Great Britain friendly, I am starting to drink the Kool-Aid that Luol Deng may not need surgery on his wrist.  It looked much improved from the regular season, as he was able to take multiple dribbles left handed and even drive left.  He attempted only one shot with his left hand, a double pump that caromed wildly off the backboard, but that was probably because it was well-contested.
  • On a non-Bulls note, watching Kobe Bryant play for a team I’m rooting for is far worse than watching him play for the Lakers.  He’s somehow playing more selfishly than he plays for the Lakers.  Against Brazil, Kobe shot 3-11, and 9 of his 11 shots were heavily contested. These shots are bad enough for the Lakers; on Team USA when there are so many other great players they are inexcusable.  Not only is Kobe taking bad shots, but he almost always refuses to make the extra pass even when players are wide open with the simple next pass around the perimeter.  In fact, I think that literally every time he’s touched the ball in the half court he’s either shot it or held it for at least 3 seconds before begrudgingly moving it.
  • Moreover, Kobe’s defense has been pretty bad aside from a few good ball denials of Leandro Barbosa on Monday.  His transition defense has been especially egregious, as I noted at least 6 times in the last two games he completely loafed back.  On a loaded Team USA where he’s only playing 20 minutes a game, this is completely inexcusable.

Knicks' Reliance on "Unwritten Rule" Likely Cost Them Lin

The talk of the ballosphere is New York’s surprising refusal to match Houston’s “poison pill” restricted free agent offer sheet for Jeremy Lin due to luxury tax concerns. John Hollinger noted how little sense the Knicks’ sudden fiscal responsibility makes given their recent profligate ways.  In particular, Hollinger focused on the Knicks’ recent acquisitions of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, and Marcus Camby as relative wastes of money compared to retaining Lin.

But New York’s actions over the last week make a little more sense after reading this piece by Sam Amick.  Apparently, the Knicks believed there was an unwritten rule that the Rockets would not change the initial Lin offer agreed upon during the league’s signing moratorium.  This was reportedly a three-year, $19.5 million deal.  Such a deal would have included a third-year “poison pill” salary of about $9.5 million for Lin, which might have proved manageable within the Knicks’ 2014-15 budget.*  In fact, I believe it likely the Knicks found this so manageable that they agreed to the Camby and Kidd deals for the next 3 years, the length of were likely key factors in getting the geriatric duo to New York.  

*Yes, even big market teams need to have them.  Even the Yankees, in a sport with no salary cap, don’t spend unlimited amounts every year.

Of course, the Knicks’ reliance on whatever unwritten rule supposedly prevented Rockets GM Daryl Morey from upping his offer to Lin proved misplaced.  Instead, Morey upped the “poison pill” to almost $15 million in year 3, bringing the total pact to a three years, $25 million.  This would have forced the Knicks to pay $30 million in luxury tax in addition to Lin’s salary, for a marginal cost of $45 million in 2014-15.  Whatever the marketing benefits of having Lin on the team (and the Knicks would know this better than anyone), the team apparently judged them insufficient to swallow that kind of tax hit in addition to the tax the team had to pay on the Camby and Kidd contracts.*

*I discount the Felton contract from this analysis because it seems clear he was only acquired once the Knicks decided they couldn’t retain Lin.

As incompetent as Knicks owner James Dolan seems, I find it really difficult to believe that any owner would literally offer his GM a blank check, much less make the offer only to rescind it.  To me, the more likely explanation is that the Knicks assumed they could fit the original Lin offer, Kidd, and Camby within the budget but were flummoxed when Houston upped the offer sheet after they had already agreed with Kidd and Camby.

Spain 75-70 France and What it Means for Team USA

I flipped on NBA TV this afternoon for a little basketball fix, having recorded the Charlotte/Cleveland game in hopes of seeing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dion Waiters in action.  Eight minutes into the first quarter, it was 10-4 Cleveland and the announcers had revealed that MKG was sidelined with a mild knee injury.  While Charlotte was perhaps the worst team in NBA history last season, one would hope that a team with 3 of its starters from last year (Kemba Walker, Bismack Biyombo, and Byron Mullens) could manage more than 4 points in 8 minutes of a summer league game.*

*I also learned that Walker had shot 36.6% from the field last year.  Horrendous.

Suitably depressed, I decided to exercise my newly-purchased FIBAtv subscription, and was rewarded with a friendly between France and Spain, likely Team USA's two staunchest competitors in London.
The game, played before a rowdy French crowd in Paris, was far more intense than might have been anticipated.  The third quarter saw Mickael Gelabale and Rudy Fernandez both get tossed after Fernandez said something to Gelabale that provoked a two-hand shove to Fernandez's neck.  Here were my thoughts, with an eye towards how each team would match up with the US.


Nicolas Batum only played 6 minutes for unknown reasons, although he had a couple of effective drives and finishes while he was in there.

He would have been extremely helpful in addressing that old French bugaboo, outside shooting.  The real key to the game was how Spain was able to shut down Tony Parker by packing the paint on defense.  Parker shot very poorly from outside and was unable to get loose for his signature floaters in the half court.  He was continually forced to pull up for difficult jumpers with the shot clock running down. Spurs' signee Nando de Colo had an exceptionally poor game from the shooting guard position, shooting poorly on 3s with several bad turnovers and little energy.

Like against Spain, the big problem for France against Team USA is going to be an inability to score.  This will be especially so when Team USA goes with LeBron or Kevin Durant at center, France is going to find it very difficult to get open looks because Team USA can just switch the Parker pick and roll.  Nobody on the French team is enough of a post-up threat to make Team USA pay for this strategy,* nor do the French especially intimidate on the offensive glass.

*In fairness, Kevin Seraphin did flash nice jump hooks over either shoulder, but his postups are unlikely to keep the Team USA coaches up at night.


Marc Gasol did not play at all in this game after suffering what Google Translate says is a left shoulder contusion and a sprained right ankle in the teams' July 13 game in Salamanca.  Juan Carlos Navarro also played sparingly, although he was effective in his few minutes.

Among those who played significantly, Pau Gasol led the team with 22 points, 17 in the first half. He only scored 4 of those on postups however.  He was under 50% for the game and wasn't really able to get good enough post position against Turiaf and Seraphin, often settling for fadeaways.  I'm starting to wonder if Gasol, like Tim Duncan, is reaching the time in his career when he no longer needs to be double teamed in the post.  However, Gasol was still effective rolling to the rim when he was playing center with Serge Ibaka on the floor.

The Team USA scouting report will also need to reflect that Gasol will take 3s from all over the court in FIBA play (as this highlight package illustrates), even with the now-longer 22 foot line.  (In the NBA, Gasol usually sticks to corner 3s.)  Gasol will likely be used more in this role when paired with his brother Marc, who will operate as a traditional center.  Serge Ibaka also played well for Spain, as he worked the offensive boards to greater effect than we're used to seeing while effectively launching his midrange jumper.

I took two key points from this game relating to a potential Spain/USA matchup.  The first is that Spain's best offensive lineup is Calderon/Navarro/Fernandez/Pau/Marc.  Spain really does not have a particularly threatening small forward on the roster, lacking the typical Euro 6'9" sweet shooting 3. Unfortunately for Spain, Fernandez as a 3 isn't going to work defensively against the US unless Spain plays zone.

On cue, Spain flashed a nice matchup zone against the French in the 4th quarter after made baskets.  In this game, Spain dropped back into the matchup from a 1-3-1 3/4 court press, but I would be surprised to see this against the US due to the quickness and ball handling the team possesses at the 1-4 spots.  The zone proved very effective against the French, but Team USA should be able to attack it in two ways.  The first was that the French were allowed to easily catch the ball at the free throw line.  While this was usually Ronny Turiaf or Seraphin for France, Team USA can flash their 4 man there.  Once Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, or LeBron catch the ball at the free throw line against a zone, it's all over.  Spain's other problem in the zone will be defending against 3 point shooters on the wing.  Durant especially will be able to shoot right over any of the Spanish guards, and he is absolutely deadly from the shorter FIBA 3 point line.  And if Spain presses out hard against the wings, it will open up the free throw area.  Spain has rarely played much zone against the US, so it will be very interesting to see whether they change strategies here.  I would also posit that Ibaka/P. Gasol might be a better frontcourt than the Gasol brothers against Team USA.  Spain has always struggled the most on defense against the US, and Ibaka offers the possibility of covering for the defensively overmatched Spanish wings.

I did not come out of this game thinking that either of these teams looked particularly threatening to Team USA, with the caveat that anything can happen in one game.  For Spain in particular, every notable player on the roster aside from Ibaka and Marc Gasol is worse than 4 years ago.  While the US is also slightly worse given the rash of injuries and the decline of Kobe since 2008, the added element of an incredible shooter in Durant helps make up for a lot of the deficiencies.