You guys, the Olympics start today. We’ll be recapping the three most popular Olympic sports: basketball, swimming, and gymnastics, and today, we’ll preview all their Olympic tournament business. Our basketball writer is Matt Giles. Take it away, Matt.
Twenty years ago, the United States men’s basketball team arrived in Barcelona and promptly spanked their competition. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Dream Team’s dominating Olympic performance, and there’s been some talk recently about whether this year’s team could win in a hypothetical, time-travel-assisted head-to-head matchup. (Kobe Bryant says yes; Charles Barkley says no.) But, of course, there will be no comparing the two squads unless the 2012 team wins gold in London. (Also, they’ll need a catchy nickname.) While the U.S. team is the overwhelming favorite in London, the squad — coached by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and headlined by Kevin Durant and LeBron James — will not waltz to the gold medal game. Group A, which includes the Americans, is not very strong, and the only possible upset is Argentina (August 6). But things should be a bit more dicey by August 8, when the quarterfinals begin. Russia and Brazil could pose challenges, but Spain is the one opponent to watch. Don’t be fooled by the U.S.’s victory this past week; bigs Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka played infrequently during the second half, and Marc Gasol was a late scratch from the lineup. (Spain and the U.S. could meet in the finals, by the way, just as they did four years ago.) So, what else is worth paying attention to on the hard court at the XXX Olympiad?
Kevin Durant is the team’s star.
On a squad featuring nine members of this past season’s All-Star game — including the likes of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant — Durant is the offensive alpha. During the U.S.’s five exhibition games prior to the Olympics, Durant had an offensive rating of 122.0 (offensive rating is a measure of offensive efficiency, with a rate over 110 as being above-average), while using 131 total minutes. He connected on 55 percent of his three-point attempts, and he presents possibly the toughest matchup for any Olympic opponent. No other big can truly guard Durant on the perimeter; the combination of his handle, size, and shooting touch make him virtually unstoppable. As his Thunder teammate (and potential Olympic foil) Ibaka told the New York Times, “I don’t know how you can defend. It’s hard … he has everything, man.” And while some NBA units have succeeded in locking up Durant, most Olympic squads do not have a player at 6-foot-9 who is quick enough to stay with him. Considering the fast pace in the Olympic tune-ups – roughly 81 possessions per game – a stretch 4 like Durant allows the U.S. to space the floor, widening the zone defenses that opponents will use to disrupt the squad’s offensive flow.
With Durant in the alpha role, where does that leave James?
Durant may be the most efficient player, but LeBron did post the squad’s top plus-minus rating during the exhibition tilts — plus-90. LeBron is one of the team’s few players capable of breaking opponents down off the dribble, an essential trait since the U.S. will see a steady diet of ever-changing zone defenses (as demonstrated against Uruguay and Spain). James’s presence allows some lineup flexibility for Coach K; his ability to function as a passer — twenty assists in five games — means Krzyzewski can pair James with either Chris Paul or Deron Williams and not lose an offensive spark.
Excellence on defense will indicate a trip to the final game.
This could be the best defensive squad the U.S. has ever fielded for the summer games. Their exhibition tour provides a small sample size, but the squad forced 110 turnovers – 22 per game – and their mantra appears to be “defense-first.” The U.S. team grabbed 67 steals and held opponents to 46.7 percent within the arc. It is worth nothing, however, the two-point field-goal percentage is undoubtedly inflated because of blowouts against Great Britain and the Dominican Republic. (By comparison, Argentina and Spain, two teams that potentially could spoil the U.S.’s gold medal chances, shot a combined 53.2 percent from inside the arc). James’s ability to guard multiple positions, from small forward to center, is key; Krzyzewski can rest defensive stoppers like Russell Westbrook and Andre Iguodala (who posted an outstanding defensive rating of over 100 in just fifteen minutes per game) and not lose any defensive pressure when giving James or other Olympians a breather.
Can the U.S. play small ball for the entire games?
Without Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, or Chris Bosh, there was some concern about whether the U.S. was too small for the XXX Olympiad. Tyson Chandler was the NBA’s defensive player of the year in 2012, but it is unclear if the Knick big can spend enough time on the floor to make a dent. Chandler was very foul-prone during the Olympic warm-up, and Kevin Love seems to fallen out of favor with the coaching staff (using the team’s third-least amount of minutes). The squad was constructed to be versatile, and against taller teams, James, Carmelo Anthony, and others will be forced to guard front-court players. John Schuhmann of the NBA.com, though, analyzed the exhibition data and discovered the U.S. was better on offense with at least one big in the lineup (though again, the five-game exhibition swing is a small sample size). The team posted an offensive rating of 128.2 with either Chandler or Love on the floor, as opposed to 111.5 with an interior consisting of wings. However, Krzyzewski and his staff are in the midst of an experiment: Can a team win a gold medal with a lineup of just guards and wings?
How the U.S. will guard pick-and-rolls is key.
Spanish center Ibaka has already demonstrated how easily the American defense yields to interior scoring, but Ibaka’s first-half barrage this past week was due more to slow rotations than post-up mismatches. The U.S.’s versatility, then, is crucial because opponents will repeatedly use pick-and-rolls, and the Americans ability to recover quickly will be a factor. If the exhibition matches are any indication, the U.S. will hard-hedge on P&Rs (translation: a hard-hedge attacks the ball-handler), and then rotate to guard the slipping big man.
Enough about strategy — will there be a power struggle between Kobe and company?
One school of thought entering the games is that Bryant might find himself the odd scorer out, resulting in a potential power grab from the soon-to-be 34-year-old. That line of thinking is flawed; Durant and James have emerged as the teams two options, but Bryant did use the squad’s third-most minutes during the pre-Olympic exhibition slate, and the Lakers star doesn’t seem to have any problems as a third or fourth option. Bryant seems to have modeled himself as the U.S.’s Winston Wolfe. Against Uruguay, Carlos Delfino was sparking a comeback, until Bryant began guarding the guard in the fourth quarter. Need someone to briefly take over a game? Bryant still commands respect (offensive rating of 119 percent), and the combo of his off-season training regime with a day off every other day during the games means he will remain fresh during the U.S.’s run through Group A.
This will be Coach K’s final Olympics.
Since the Duke head coach began leading the U.S. in international competition in 2006 (a six-year time span that includes exhibitions and qualifying matches), the Americans have a record of 54-1. The U.S. is the overwhelming favorite to win the gold, but how games unfold could finalize Krzyzewski’s international legacy as best-ever to lead the national team.