usa basketball

Kevin Durant, the Landon Donovan of Basketball

So the U.S. won the world basketball championship yesterday, defeating Turkey by seventeen in a game that was never a blowout but never got interesting, either. It felt more like one of the nineties Dream Team–era games than the kind of legitimately challenging match-up that the team has regularly faced in the last decade. The whole knockout round had the same air; anyone who watched the American team get played tough and even beaten by top foreign teams during the aughts had to be surprised by how easily the Americans took out the Russians and Lithuanians, respectively, in their quarter- and semifinal games last Thursday and Saturday.

Despite their margins of victory, the U.S. never looked like they were playing up to their potential. Their defensive effort was great, and they exploited their overall athletic advantage by scoring efficiently on fast breaks. (That’s not meant as the usual backhanded compliment, either — being able to attack upcourt at full speed without turning the ball over or taking a wild shot is really hard to do, and it’s not just a function of being a good athlete.) But their half-court offense never got into a groove. By the end of the tournament Lamar Odom had developed a good sense of where to go to receive passes from penetrating guards around the basket, but no one else looked like they’d gotten any more in tune with the other guys on the roster than they did in the first few exhibition games. It wasn’t a selfish team, offensively, but it wasn’t a smooth one, either.*

Fortunately, one of the Americans going one-on-one and launching long jumpers was Kevin Durant, who is six foot ten and lightning-quick with great shooting touch, and most of those long jumpers were launched from far above the outstretched arms of his defender and went straight to the bottom of the net. Durant averaged 33 points in the team’s last three games on shooting that neared 60 percent accuracy, and he’s the only player on this team that will definitely be playing in the 2012 Olympics.

On the whole, winning a gold medal and finding that Durant can dominate the international game is a not-insubstantial achievement for a USA Basketball program preparing for what will ostensibly be a more competitive tournament in London two years from now. And though none of the other players stood out as must-haves for that next team’s lineup, none of them stuck out as prima donnas or busts, either. A few flashed individual skills that could easily earn them role-player Olympic spots: Kevin Love’s rebounding, Eric Gordon’s man defense and three-point shooting, and Andre Iguodala’s knack for getting in passing lanes were particularly impressive. If there’s one thing the team is missing, it’s what we’d hoped Odom would provide: a big man that can help direct the offense, someone who knows when and where to set screens and can pass out of the low and high post. (Low-post offense will become even more important now that FIBA is doing away with that ridiculous trapezoid lane.) Even the smartest court-general point guard (and the ‘12 team will probably have two good ones, Chris Paul and Deron Williams) can only do so much when the other four guys are standing around aimlessly. Jerry Colangelo and Coach K have done a good job stocking the U.S. team with unselfish players, but even willing passers like Paul, Durant, LeBron, and Dwyane Wade still work best when they start with the ball.

What the team needs is someone like Rasheed Wallace, in other words, although what Sheed gains in offensive smarts he loses in being old, fat, and the kind of guy who would never, ever give up his summer to play for the national team. Unfortunately for the U.S., many of the other All-Star players who could fill this role also have various disqualifications: Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett are too old, and Pau Gasol and Yao Ming are too Spanish and Chinese, respectively. The Americans’ best choice for that role is probably David Lee, or maybe Al Jefferson, if he takes to Utah’s motion offense.

Now, you might be asking, why couldn’t Chris Bosh play that role? He’s got a finesse-oriented game and will certainly be learning to play off other superstars in Miami for the next two years. And there’s a simple answer to that: We’re big fans of international competition, but, let’s be honest, the real basketball season starts next month. And when it comes to that season, we say: Screw Chris Bosh, and screw Miami in general. Let’s go Knicks!

*Although they did run a few really effective set plays designed for Chauncey Billups and Durant in the fourth quarter against Turkey. Which were the only set plays this observer remembers them running the entire tournament. Weird, right?

Kevin Durant, the Landon Donovan of Basketball