Sheridan: Without changes, undersized Team USA is in trouble

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WASHINGTON — Someone has to say it first, so I’ll take the plunge.

Team USA is in trouble unless changes are made. They are too small, they are bringing their best scorer off the bench and making him guard players much stronger than him, and they are brimming with so much overconfidence that they are practically blind to the reality of the situation.

If they cannot impose their will on their opponents at the London Olympics, they will lose.

They are a one-trick pony, and everyone around the world knows it.

“We know this is a team that likes to go in transition very fast, they don’t like to go 24 seconds (on offense),” Brazilian guard Marcelinho Huertas said after his squad lost to Team USA 80-69 on Monday night.

“They’re the only team that don’t have many systems on offense, they play 1-on-1, which is to their abilities, and on defense the same. They try to steal the ball, get in the passing lanes all the time. So whenever you get a team that’s used to playing like this, you make them play 24 seconds on defense and chase you around, and don’t let them run, make them play 5-on-5, that’s when you can prosper in a game like this,” said Huertas, who would have an NBA job by now if he didn’t have a 7 million Euro buyout in his contract with Barcelona that still has three years remaining.

In case you missed it Monday night, here’s all you need to know: With 5 1/2 minutes remaining, it was a 7-point game.

Yes, the Americans held Brazil to just 5 points in the second quarter, but Brazil was playing its scrubs.

Not once did Brazil zone up and force the Americans to beat it from outside. If the teams meet again in the elimination round in London, you can bet your bottom farthing that the tactics employed by coach Ruben Magnano will change.

This is a coach who played against the original Dream Team in 1992 at the Tournament of the Americas, who defeated Team USA at the Athens Olympics when he was coaching Argentina, and who knows Mike Krzyzewski’s schemes inside and out as the two happen to be good friends.

“The American team is better than the 2010 team,” Magnano said in the postgame press conference Monday night, long after President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had left the building.

No kidding, Ruben.

This team has LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul –  the five returnees from the 2008 Beijing Redeem Team.

They also have Kevin Durant, who was a one-man machine for the 2010 Team USA that brought home the gold medal from Istanbul.

But the three-time defending scoring champion cannot crack the starting lineup on this team – at least Not yet. Krzyzewski brought Durant off the bench Monday night and played him at power forward, where he was overmatched against Brazil’s three burly bigs – Anderson Varejao, Nene and Tiago Splitter.

Anthony shot 1-for-7 against Brazil, and Durant got off 13 shots in 25 minutes off the bench, making only five of them for 11 points. If not for James, who was 11-for-20 for 30 points while adding four of the Americans’  19 steals, we might be talking today about an unfathomable loss that gave the rest of the world hope.

But you know what?

The rest of the world already has hope.

This American team is structurally flawed, especially with the way Krzyzewski is deploying his players. You have to wonder which player might subjugate his ego and do what Dwyane Wade did in 2008 – volunteer to come of the bench – in order to get some semblance of a well-balanced team on the floor.

One case in point where Krzyzewski is making a rotational mistake is with Kevin Love.

The only natural power forward on the roster, Love logged all of 5 1/2 minutes against Brazil and had zero points and two rebounds. When is the last time you saw a line like that from him? Dude should be logging 30 minutes, starting ahead of Anthony at the 4.

The only center on the roster is Tyson Chandler, as Anthony Davis already has become the 12th man in a rotation that will eventually be shortened to eight or nine.

Dwight Howard would have helped, but back surgery knocked him out. Chris Bosh would have helped, but his abdominal strain knocked him out. Blake Griffin would have helped tremendously, but his knee injury in Las Vegas and subsequent surgery knocked him out. Andrew Bynum, DeMarcus Cousins and/or David Lee could have helped, but they were passed over in the selection process.

(RELATED CONTENT: With Obama on hand, Team USA gives hope to rest of the world).

So what do the Americans have? For one thing, too many point guards. Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook are all worthy of inclusion, but this is a case of too much of a good thing. You can play one of them off the ball at 2-guard, but that shifts Bryant to 3, James to the 4 and Durant to the 5 (if Love continues to get no love).

The common belief around the world when the Olympic draw was announced was that the Americans had landed in the more difficult bracket, having to play France and Argentina and two qualifiers from the pre-Olympic tournament (those teams turned out to be Lithuania and Nigeria).

But you know what?

The Americans are lucky to be in that group, because none of their opening-round opponents have the type of big men that can hurt them. The Brazilian threesome is in the other group. Timofey Mozgov is in the other group. Spain’s front line of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka is in the other group.

Going forward, the Americans should be able to roll through group play and impose their will on everyone, using their defense to create the transition opportunities that are their bread and butter,

But when we get to the single elimination round, the caliber of competition will be different. Teams with bigs are going to pose big problems for the U.S., as will teams that can protect the ball and milk the clock. If Team USA can’t get out and run, they are going to have to beat teams in the halfcourt. And there are probably four of five teams in the tournament that run their halfcourt offenses better than the Americans.

(PODCAST: Team USA is no lock for the gold medal).

So a word of warning as we head down the road to the Olympics.

It is time for comparisons with the original Dream Team to cease. It is time to start thinking about comparisons to the teams who will be potential opponents in the quarterfinals, semifinals and gold medal game – if the Americans make it that far.

If Coach K ultimately goes with a lineup of Chandler at 5, Love at 4, James at 3, Durant at 2 and Paul/Williams/Westbrook at 1, with Bryant as the Sixth Man, they are golden. But I don’t think he will choose to deploy his weaponry in that manner. He is too stubborn, too schooled in the West Point dogma of using overwhelming force to annihilate the enemy. But if Team USA isn’t forcing turnovers and scoring in transition, it is eminently vulnerable.

Brazil proved Monday night that the Americans are beatable. Obama himself was a witness.

If Krzyzewski deploys his talent in a more conventional way, Team USA should bring home the gold.

But if he sticks with what he went with against Brazil, his team could be in trouble. Remember where you heard that first.

Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He has covered Team USA at every Olympics and World Championship and qualifying tournaments since 1996.

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  1. Chris, was right about Ruben Magnano… 2nd quarter, he tested the verty young PG called Raulizinho, but he couldnt handle it… considering the minutes when the PG Huertas was playing, Brazil was superior… honestly, Huertas could easily playing in NBA, and being next Steve Nash….

    • I think what has become clear isn’t that Brazil is suddenly a world-beater it’s that Magnano is a GREAT coach and coaches against the US probably better than any other coach in the world. Had some success (albeit pre-Coach K/Colangelo) against Team USA with Argentina and has now battled them well with Brazil.

  2. Watch out for Spain for sure! If Rubio were around they’d be even stronger, but regardless they are a much closer knit unit, they play as a team, they don’t have the egos issues Coach K has to deal with.

    USA has incredible individual talent – but that doesn’t always transfer into team cohesion. Take a look at Athens ’04 case-in-point.

    • The 2002 and 2004 teams are not really applicable to this discussion. Those were B and C players and/or poor FIBA fits thrown together without the real “program” Coach K and Colangelo have put into place.

      Also, Rubio would probably not even start for Spain and they don’t use him to the best of his abilities anyway. Gasols, Navarro (IF healthy) are much bigger factors .. as is Calderon who, while not as flashy or NBA-good as Rubio, is a steady PG who may handle the pressure D well.

  3. You are right on two things:

    1) Team USA could lose. (Well, duh.)
    2) Kevin Love should get more minutes. (He should not, however, start … unless you start him in place of Chandler.)

    I think the line-ups could use some tweaking, but I’d rather see Paul-Bryant-Durant-James-Chandler as the starters with James playing the four and playing like he did in the Finals and spending less time on the perimeter (he started to do that last night). Then Williams-Westbrook-Iggy-Melo-Love in the second unit. Crazy as this sounds, when the rotation gets shortened to nine, I’d like Melo to be the odd man out. Love needs more minutes so that a true big (PF or C) is in the game and Iggy’s minutes cannot be cut because he is a terrific half-court defender (all those guys are good pressure defenders, but there is a difference) and is pretty much an Uber-Role Player – which is exactly what you need off the bench. Melo is, sadly, redundant with both James and Durant soaking up a lot of minutes – even though people say he is a “great FIBA player.” Kobe is a killer. His skills have declined, but he still needs minutes on this team.

    All of that said, I think if Coach K sticks with the current rotation, I very much think the US will win Gold.

    • And, to be clear, the reason I say Love shouldn’t start (unless he started over Chandler) is that if you start both of those guys together and they get in foul trouble, your size is completely gone unless you play (skinny) Davis a bunch of minutes.

  4. Is the idea that Coach K is holding back on some sets and lineup combinations until the Olympics a possibility? Everyone speaks of the gamesmanship of the international coaches who don’t show their hand until a game that matters. This US team has been practicing together for a couple weeks. We won’t deploy a conventional lineup- but why do we need to? We didn’t in 2010 and didn’t in 2008. When the team improves their ball movement and doesn’t shoot the paltry 6/24 from 3 like it did last night, it can be unguardable.

  5. Ted Singer says:

    “His team could be in trouble. Remember where you heard that first.”
    We always hear it first, from you, Chris, because you write the same Team USA article every Olympics or World Championships. “Team USA could be in trouble”…no kidding? Didn’t the loss to Greece in 2006 prove that point? You think these guys are blind to that reality? 3 of the starters were on that team that lost to Greece. They have basically had only a few days of practice together with their point guards, and Krzyzewski is about as flexible a coach as you can find (save for a reliance on man-to-man) who always builds a system to suit his personnel. Brazil, one of the gold medal contenders, who have been playing together for a month, lost by 11 after being up 10. You wanna say their coach threw the game? Fine. You think this is indicative of how good the US team will be come the medal round…fine. I hope for your sake the US keeps playing close friendlies so that you can keep trotting out your favorite “They can be beat!” story.

    • Gil Meriken says:

      This is what I came here to say. I like Sheridan’s writing and links, but he has said in the past that the Americans could lose. If you keep saying that each time, you’re eventually going to be right. That is not a difficult thing to do, especially when you say “could”, which means you will not be wrong if Team USA wins gold.

  6. Wow, Sheridan, you have one colossal ego- are you lobbying for the headcoaching job of USA basketball? There is a reason why Coach K is a legend in the coaching pantheons earning MILLIONS while you sit behind your wordprocessor earning paycheck-to-paycheck.

  7. “Remember where you heard that first.”

    And when they win by playing the same style and the same line-up, I’m sure you’ll be the first to admit you were wrong. I just know it!

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