Monday, September 15, 2014

FIBA Update: The Winner Takes It All

Final (in Madrid):
United States 129 - 92 Serbia 

On September 1, 2006, in Saitama, Japan, the United States lost in the semi-finals of the FIBA World Championship.  The Americans were beaten 101-95 by Greece.  I remember this game very well, because I woke up in the middle of the night to watch it.  It was another humiliating defeat for the Americans, who had failed to reach the final of the 1998 FIBA World Championship, the 2002 FIBA World Championship (we came in sixth), or the 2004 Olympics.  After those disasters, USA Basketball had been completely overhauled, with Coach K given sweeping powers to remake the team.  Now he had failed.  With the 2008 Olympics scheduled for China -- not exactly the Friendly Confines for the U.S. of A. -- the prognosis for USA Basketball was not good.

Here's what Coach K has done since that time.

First, the U.S. beat Argentina to win the 2006 Bronze Medal.

Then, the United States went 10-0 to win the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship, thus qualifying for the 2008 Olympics.

Next, the United States went 8-0 to win the Gold Medal at the 2008 Olympics.

Next, the United States went 9-0 to win the Gold Medal at the 2010 FIBA World Championship.

Next, the United States went 8-0 to win the Gold Medal at the 2012 Olympics.

And now, the United States has gone 9-0 to win the Gold Medal at the 2014 FIBA World Championship.

If you're keeping score at home, that's a 45-game winning streak that is now over eight years long.  No country in the history of basketball has ever won back-to-back Olympic Golds and back-to-back FIBA titles at the same time.

What's even more impressive is that the Americans appear to be getting even better.  This year's team won every game by at least 20 points -- something that had never happened before in the FIBA World Championship.

From late 2002 until late 2010, either Yugoslavia or Argentina was ahead of the United States on the FIBA World Rankings.  We retook the world ranking after the 2010 FIBA World Championship and have kept it ever since.

When they close the book on Coach K's career, his tenure as the head coach of the United States won't get much attention, at least in this country.  But he has done a phenomenal job -- one of the best coaching jobs I have ever seen.  For years and years, American coaches have been frustrated and mystified both by FIBA's rules and the way in which those rules are interpreted.  Basically, FIBA officials are quick to call touch fouls -- especially on big players -- which effectively outlaws the hard-nosed defensive style so common in the NBA.  FIBA officials are also quick to call walks and charges (at least on Americans) -- effectively eliminating much of the one-on-one drives made famous by Michael Jordan and LeBron James.  Heedless of this situation, many prior American coaches tried to win international tournaments by using their superior athleticism on defense -- the one place where it is most useless.  After watching Greece light up his team for over 100 points back in 2006, Coach K bowed to reality.  He built his teams around strong three-point shooting and high-powered offense.

This year, for example, the best player on the U.S. team was probably Anthony Davis.  Under NBA rules -- or even NCAA rules -- he would have dominated the tournament.  But the FIBA officials were not going to let him play.  He fouled out in less than 20 minutes in the semi-finals, and he had three quick fouls in the first half against Serbia.  (He only played 14 minutes in that game).  Had the team been set up around Davis, this would have been a disaster.  But Coach K was prepared -- he had loaded up with three-point shooters.  The Americans went 11-15 from three-point range in the first half, ran away to a 67-41 half-time lead, and never looked back.  Kyrie Irving went 6/6 from three-point range, scored 26 points, and was named the tournament MVP.  Team Captain James Harden poured in 23 points on 8/11 shooting.  Kenneth Faried got 12 points and 7 rebounds in only 20 minutes and made the all-tournament team.  DeMarcus Cousins spelled Davis, picking up 11 points and 9 rebounds in only 17 minutes and causing all sorts of trouble for the Serbs at both ends of the court.  It was a masterful, spectacular performance.

I am certain that the American press -- frustrated with such American dominance -- will push for changes to how the U.S. team is picked.  There will be calls to limit ourselves to an under-22 team, or some other handicap designed to make things "more competitive."  Those calls will be popular with certain owners, who don't like the chances of injury for their big stars.  If these changes prevail, USA Basketball will be much less fun than it has been in recent years.  Personally, I have greatly enjoyed watching these teams play.  I don't like the fact that so much of the officiating seems biased, but I agree with FIBA's antipathy toward physical play and hand-checking, and it is a joy to see just how good modern players can be when they are not shackled by the American rules.  In the meantime, I congratulate Coach K and his team -- especially Davis, Cousins, and Faried, all of whom played their college ball in the Commonwealth.  They were outstanding.

And we'll see what happens.  FIBA may stand their ground.  After all, if you really want basketball to reach its potential worldwide, we need tournaments where the best take on the best.  Our group this year may not have been the absolute best collection of players we could have sent, but it's hard to see how we could have fielded a better team.

One final note:  Davis now has an NCAA championship, an Olympic Gold Medal, and a FIBA Gold Medal.  If he wins an NBA Title, he will be the first player to win all four trophies.