What makes Team Australia so good?


Do analytics matter in Olympic basketball? Maybe that sounds like an impossible or irresponsible question to ask. Then again: there is no sane mathematical equation where the Australian Boomers — with their starting lineup of NBA role players and bench of NBA Summer League auditioners — could actually go toe-to-toe with Team USA’s 12 All-Stars. America won the group play contest between the two teams, 98-88, but it felt more like Team USA only escaped the game. It was nothing if not an announcement to other countries that medals are up for grabs as the Olympic tournament churns through the knockout rounds.

In the NBA season we see, on a nightly basis, the members of Australia’s team get drubbed by the vastly superior individual players on the American roster. Matthew Dellavedova did not have a chance to start alongside Kyrie Irving in Cleveland — but Dellavedova arguably outplayed Irving as an opposing starter in Rio. It would be a surprise, and for good reasons, if Dellavedova could manage the same feat in 2016-17, when he plays Irving and the Cavaliers in a Milwaukee Bucks uniform. So what is different on the international stage?

There is only one notable way that Australia has an advantage over America in men’s basketball: continuity. Or — by continuity I mean something like “team-ness.” Australia has more team-ness than the USA. America’s team floats among a pool of like 40 players, basically taking whichever 12 don’t mind the summertime obligation. Meanwhile, the Australian team has not just kept the same team-leading nucleus in place since the 2008 Olympics, but many of the players have known each other since they were amateurs.

I don’t just mean that some Australian players were on the same AAU team, as is the case with the NBA’s surprisingly large network of childhood friends. I mean that eight of Australia’s 12 players in this Olympics at one point attended the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra, the surprisingly streamlined national training center for all sorts of Australian sports. These players pretty much walked inside a Gatorade commercial on a daily basis, practicing and working in the same building as so many Olympians grinding away on biomechanics machines operated by specialized doctors. The results have been astonishing outside of basketball, with Australia ranking eighth in the total medal count at the Rio Olympics as of this writing (tenth in gold medals) despite being the 52nd-largest country in the world — smaller than either California or Texas.

The continuity and familiarity within the Australian team is not just a maybe-useless platitude — it translates onto the state sheet and on the film. Through six games, against several of the same opponents as America, Australia has made a greater percentage of their field goals than Team USA (51.7 percent to 48.6 percent) and assisted on a greater percentage of their field goals (80.4 percent to 72.5 percent). While that’s a small edge in both categories, in-context it’s honestly one of the more astonishing stats I’ve ever seen: with two huge centers — Aron Baynes and Andrew Bogut — in their starting lineup, Australia has produced better offense than America’s 40-minute onslaught of franchise centerpieces.

Look at how differently Australia and America handled a similar action — a high-pick-and-roll — within their respective teams. First, in the Australian version of the play, Joe Ingles receives the ball off a high screen from Baynes:

InglesDish1 /
InglesDish2 /

Ingles is perfect with the ball — by taking a hard dribble right, he attracts the attention of the opposing center (Jonas Valanciunas), giving Baynes more space as he rumbles to the rim on the left:

InglesDish3 /

Just that easy, the defense has been picked apart. Ingles makes the sharp pocket pass and Baynes has an uncontested path to the rim:

InglesDish4 /
InglesDish5 (1)
InglesDish5 (1) /

A similar play run by the American team, with much more high-profile players, does not end well. It’s the NBA’s lineup-busting power forward, Draymond Green, handing the ball off and setting a pick for his astonishing new teammate, Kevin Durant:

Durant1 /
Durant2 /

Green, like Baynes in the previous example, also has an open cut to the hoop:

Durant3 /

But Green doesn’t cut — whether he doesn’t think Durant would pass him the ball or whether he just doesn’t do it, I don’t know. Durant, with eyes only for the rim, steps inside the three-point line to take a contested two. He misses:

Durant4 /

This example wouldn’t be so damning, except Durant’s new team basically ascended to greatness only when they mastered this exact action by hitting the cutting Green with a pass.

It’s a long way from Canberra — especially Canberra ten or so years ago — to Rio de Janeiro today. Australia has been incubating their roster for more than one Olympic cycle, counting on the multiplying effects of true teamwork to boost the Boomers up the FIBA rankings, eventually. If there were any doubts after Australia’s strong 4-1 performance in group play, their 26-point evisceration of third-ranked Lithuania in the quarterfinals is surely an announcement that they are now in the uppermost tier of international basketball. It may be many decades still before America is knocked off of the top of the FIBA men’s rankings, but Australia is at least showing how it would be done: with the whole country investing in and lifting up their team together.