Mike Krzyzewski will have the easiest and hardest job of all head coaches that descend on London over the next few weeks, the most sought-after but most scrutinized, the one likely to yield Gold but still with the least to gain and most to lose. Such is life as coach of Team USA, a squad that’s again an overwhelming favorite at the coming Olympic Games and one that, rightly or wrongly, brashly compares itself to its Dream Team predecessors of 20 years ago.
For the coach of a group this talented, the prevailing thought is that he simply sit back, watch, and “ignore” like Chuck Daly taught him all those years ago and America will leave London Golden. With names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul at the top of Team USA’s pecking order and those of James Harden, Kevin Love, and Anthony Davis at the bottom, it certainly seems that way. The coach of a team like this is more a figurehead than anything else, the easy thought goes, a successful, experienced, and well-liked leader that appeals to the country’s basketball masses and could demand respect from these superstars if there was ever a time in a game when he needed to have it. That’s what Daly was with Michael, Magic, Larry and the rest, a blurred fact Krzyzewski knows better than anyone as one of his top assistants in Barcelona.
Time has changed the game, though, and Coach K knows this, too. The Dream Team ushered in a new era for basketball, best exemplified by the NBA careers of foreign-born players like Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol and those humbling, Gold-less finishes by editions of Team USA at the Olympics in 2004 and FIBA World Championships in 2002 and 2006. Even after revamping the selection process to maintain greater commitment and continuity and winning Gold at the 2008 Games in Beijing, what’s obvious to Krzyzewski, his staff, the rest of the USA Basketball hierarchy, and even the casual but realistic hoops fans is that his job, his work, is just that.
Like James, Durant and company, Krzyzewski will need to be on top of his game and perform to the best of his ability to help this group along to standing at the podium’s peak and hearing the Star Spangled Banner. He needs to play the right players, run the right sets, mesh the right lineups, call the right plays, and in general push the right buttons to make sure this flawed, star-laden squad accomplishes what it should.
The Americans looked solid but unspectacular in their first three pre-Olympic exhibitions, beating the Dominican Republic and Great Britain with little issue while sandwiching a competitive 80-69 win against a big Brazilian team in between. As expected, defensive pressure and converting forced turnovers into transition points was hugely instrumental in each U.S. win, best exemplified by a game-changing 20-5 second quarter run against Brazil that the opponent never recovered from.
Coach K was able to tinker with lineups and rotations, starting Deron Williams and Durant in place of Paul and Carmelo Anthony against the Brits and giving extended run to reserve big men Love and Davis in that in that one, too. Despite this team’s hardly intimidating size and the unique attributes offered by both Love (three-point shooting, rebounding, outlet passes) and Davis (shot-blocking, mobility, finishing in the paint), going into Sunday’s test against Argentina in Barcelona Krzyzewski’s rotation appeared all but set in stone: his “seven starters” of Paul, Williams, Kobe Bryant, Durant, Anthony, James, and Tyson Chandler with consistent doses of Andre Iguodala and Russell Westbrook, while Love, Harden, and Davis took whatever, if any, minutes were left over.
Against the NBA-laden Argentinians, one of the couple legitimate threats to the U.S. come medal time, it was expected that we’d get the best and most accurate glimpse of the team we’ll see come early next month when these games actually start to matter. Same for the coming exhibition against Spain, the second ranked team in the world according to FIBA. This three day, two game stretch for the Americans is the perfect litmus test to how they stack up to their main competition, and on Sunday they got the game from Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and company that Krzyzewski knew they eventually would.
There’s much to take from Team USA’s 86-80 exhibition win over Argentina, and in these examinations a clear and perhaps unfixable problem for the Americans becomes clear, and it’s the one we all know about and the Olympic filed will be looking to exploit. This team, for all its prodigious talent and athleticism, is missing world-class big men. That was evident against Argentina, a team that isn’t necessarily long or thick – Scola is their only NBA post – but still big when it comes to physicality.
The United States opened the game on a tear, jumping out to a 16-1 lead off multiple three-pointers from Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. Things slowed down after the first several minutes, but the Americans remained firmly in control until a skirmish midway through the second quarter. Paul grabbed his defender after fouling him and Scola and Nocioni took exception, eventually exchanging shoves and words with Durant and James. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was called on Paul and Argentina managed six points on the possession alone, cutting the U.S. lead to 10.
By halftime Argentina trailed just 47-40 on the strength of that tough and physical nature, out-rebounding the Americans by six and forcing them into taking three-pointers. Perhaps not surprisingly, a game within the game emerged from the half; when Chandler was on the floor Team USA was dominant, and when he wasn’t they weren’t. True to form and expectation, Krzyzewski willingly and preferably played James, Durant, and Anthony as big men when Chandler was on the bench, as Love played just three minutes and Davis didn’t sniff the court.
Chandler’s influence was felt on both ends of the floor, too, his impact on the offense as the team’s best screener easily overlooked but still evident in the first half. His absence was as obvious as we thought it would be on defense, as Team USA’s litany of chameleon forwards couldn’t offer the pick-and-roll coverage and paint intimidation Chandler does, Anthony the worst offender. One wondered how Krzyzewski would react in the next stanza, perhaps abandoning extra-small-ball altogether and playing a more traditional lineup with Chandler and Love on the floor at all times. Given Love’s considerable struggles, even, maybe Davis would get some significant playing time.
Instead Coach K went the opposite route, maintaining his substitution patterns with Chandler and limiting the ineffective Love’s playing time even more, and the second half consequently played out much like the first. The United States put more space between they and Argentina, before the underdog made a furious comeback bid in the game’s final minutes that ultimately fell just short. Worthy of mention is that the Argentinians didn’t go all-out for the win. Once the game was likely out of reach at 86-80 with under 30 seconds left on the clock, Ginobili exited and Argentina waked the ball up the floor before missing a shot and opting not to foul the United States. They knew this was an exhibition and that they’d see the U.S. again on August 6, when the two face-off in Olympic pool play. Only Argentina knows the thought behind their inaction, but it seemed they were sending a message.
Argentina will leave this game satisfied and confident they can beat the Americans when it matters. Team USA? They’ll keep up appearances and say they expected a battle, but internally they’ll worry. And they should. They really, really should, because on Tuesday against Spain the U.S. will face a team like the one they just beat when it comes to confidence and attitude, but one with tangible and talented size they and Argentina lack.
Two things could beat Team USA coming into this Olympics: size/physicality and poor shot selection. Argentina gave the United States the former and forced them into the latter and almost pulled off an upset. Neither team played their best and that this game was an exhibition means all this needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but Coach K and his team are worried today, even if they expected close games like this one.
Heading into Tuesday, Krzyzewski may shorten his rotation further and rely even more on Chandler and the versatility of his world-class forwards. But that would be a mistake. Knowing his team can be beaten, knowing he needs to be his best, knowing he should play every hand until he finds the winning one, Coach K should give Davis a chance against Pau and Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. If today was any indication, Krzyzewski was right about one thing and wrong about another. Team USA can certainly lose, and if he doesn’t altar his rotation it might be his fault.