The United States Basketball Team has lost in the last three major international tournaments in 2002, 2004 and 2006. Critics blame the losses on a lack of preparation, a lack of effort, and, most of all, a team inadequately assembled for the international game. These same critics now seem certain that Jerry Colangelo has remade the team in a better mold and the USA should cruise to gold these next few weeks. A common example given is our own Tayshaun Prince, a team-first role player who, presumably, would not have been considered for a roster spot in 2004. But what does the selection of Tayshaun Prince really tell us about the USA's mindset?
Any Pistons fan can quickly recite Tay's strengths: he's an excellent on-the-ball defender who rarely gambles; he's a decent long-range shooter, shooting over 36% from three last year, better than LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and even Kobe Bryant, one of the team's designated three-point specialists; he's unfailingly unselfish; he rarely turns the ball over, with an assist-to-turnover ration of 3:1, remarkable for how often he handles the ball; he barely ever fouls, committing one a game last year while averaging 33 minutes; he's a great teammate.
An optimist would argue that Tayshaun is the perfect example of Team USA's evolution into an international style team. A closer look at the roster, however, reveals that this evolution never took place.
The USA has Deron Williams, a perfect international point guard because of his passing, shooting and strength, third on the depth chart. He's behind Chris Paul (the best NBA point guard in the world but not the best FIBA points guard in his conference due to inability to stretch zone defenses) and Jason Kidd, a point guard who can't shoot and can't keep up with quick, small international points like Jose Calderón. Dwight Howard is starting at center, a big who can't shoot, can't pass, and will spend most of his time on defense twenty feet from the basket chasing around seven-footers with higher three-point percentages than most of USA's starting line-up. Kidd and Howard are both going to be in trouble on offense going against zones with cluttered lanes (which all be almost always) and on defense when playing man against quicker players (which will be almost always). Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James are slotted to get major minutes at power forward, when they are drastically undersized to do so. Compare their NBA rebound rates (Carmelo Anthony: 11; Lebron James: 11.1) to the type of 'soft' international bigs that play the four in the Olympics: Pau Gasol: 13.1; Mehmet Okur :14.2; Luis Scola: 14.6). Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James can't guard Pau Gasol in the post, they're simply too short, (any NBA fan who disagrees thinks James Posey deserves the contract he just got; there are more than six games a year) and Dwight Howard can't come swooping in with backside help if Spain's starting center is 21 feet from the basket and USA is playing man.
Which brings us back to Tayshaun. He could be an elite international player, with the long arms guarding a wing in a harassing 1-2-2 and his reliable jumper helping to stretch out opposing zones. Ultimately, however, we won't see Tayshaun playing much zone or stretching out defenses and probably won't see Tayshaun at all, except at the end of the bench. At heart, Colangelo selected Prince for what he doesn't do: he doesn't turn the ball over, doesn't make mistakes on defense, doesn't foul, doesn't shoot unless ordered to, and, perhaps most importantly to Colangelo, doesn't complain when he doesn't play. He doesn't get in the way of Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, on the court or in the locker room.
These next few weeks, Detroit Pistons fans won't see much of Tay, but we will see another NBA All Star Team running isos and full court presses in an effort to crush our opponents (most of whom will be better shooting, better passing and better disciplined; all will be taller) with our outrageous athleticism and individual talent. Given that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant are probably the three best basketball players on the planet at the moment, the strategy will probably lead us to gold, especially considering that Colangelo and Coach K's preparation and seriousness will be an improvement on years past. Still, it's a shame that we can't better adapt to the FIBA rules, producing a team with the height, shooting, and unselfishness of the other elite teams in the world while retaining our huge advantage in quickness and athleticism. Such a team would cruise to gold in a way that this team, win or lose, surely will not.
Tayshaun Prince is exactly the type of player who could have been part of an elite international team. These next few weeks, Team USA fans won't see much of either.
Note: After every game, you can check back in to The Ace of Sports to see analysis of Prince's performance, or lack thereof, and general observations of the game.