Thursday , Aug , 19 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

Is Basketball still America’s Game?

Mark Cuban argues in his blog (www.blogmaverick.com) that the current Olympic team’s struggles are not a poor reflection on the NBA, but on those in charge of the team’s selection. While I agree the loss to Puerto Rico and close game against Greece exposed flaws in the team’s composition and a gross underestimation of the differences between the International and NBA games, I believe the NBA reaps what it sows, and this Olympic team perfectly reflects everything the NBA currently markets: athleticism, charisma, potential, Sports Center-worthy dunks, star-power etc.

The problem, of course, is that in the NBA, the NBA officials make calls to support the branding of the NBA game; NBA coaches coach in a manner that aids the further development of this image; and the game is played in a manner befitting the NBA’s marketing efforts. In the International game, the game many Americans believe is “foreign” or “wrong” though it is played in two hundred other countries while only one league on earth plays the NBA game, the officials are different, the rules are different, the coaching is different and the style is different, and the NBA players can no longer overwhelm opponents to overcome the inherent differences in International play.


The problem is not the team’s composition-though Michael Redd for the pouting Carmelo Anthony and Brad Miller for the towel boy Emeka Okafur may have masked the real culprit for another four years-it is the NBA’s emphasis and marketing chic. The Olympic team’s shooting struggles are simply symptoms of a significant problem. In the opening game loss to Puerto Rico, the team scored 73 points in the forty minute game, equating to 87 points in a forty-eight minute NBA game; about as many as any fan can hope for in a play-off game not featuring the Dallas Mavericks or the Sacramento Kings. So, while the 3/24 three-point shooting sounds horrendous, the overall offensive output was not much different than an NBA play-off game. The fact the media is blasting the Americans’ play only exposes their failure to examine critically and with unbiased eyes NBA basketball, as the Americans’ effort in Athens is similar to “fantastic” NBA action.


When NBA teams score 87 points in a game, the coaches, players and media laud the defensive effort; when some of the NBA’s best young offensive players score 73 points in an International game, the same coaches, players and media suddenly realize it is bad offense.


In an NBA play-off game, teams are well-scouted and offenses rely on isolation plays to get the star the ball to create a shot or draw a double-team to create an open shot for a teammate. Many coaches milk the shot clock, and thus many possessions end with forced or rushed shots; while good defense played a role, limiting lay-ups and providing help on the star player, bad offense is equally as responsible, as open shots are missed, bad shots are attempted, poor strategy is utilized and offenses lack motion to disrupt the defense’s scheme.


In the Puerto Rico game, the Puerto Ricans dared Richard Jefferson, Shawn Marion and others to shoot, an effective game plan as evidenced by the bricks off the side of the backboard. It may not be the same type of individual defensive pressure applied in an NBA game, but the strategy is as sound and the team defense equally as effective as a typical NBA play-off game.


The NBA altered its course and eliminated the illegal defense rule, a move which caused many players and coaches to cry foul. The rule change was intended, in part, to place a greater emphasis on skill and movement, rewarding creative offensive teams like the Sacramento Kings, while diminishing the effects of isolation, one-on-one and two-man plays. The greater emphasis on help defense, in theory, should force more players to handle the ball and lead to new creativity and innovation above and beyond the side pick and roll.


Unfortunately, NBA coaches and players have spent more time whining about the rule change (see Tracy McGrady and Rick Carlisle) than implementing change. With the new rules, as with International play, there is a greater premium on making open jump shots. However, great college shooters like Jason Kapono, Kyle Korver, Michael Redd, Travis Hansen, Carl English and others are ignored in the NBA Draft in favor of potential like Ndubi Ebi and Kendrick Perkins.


In a Basketball Times’ article prior to the 2003 NBA Draft, I wrote: “A pure shooter like Kyle Korver, Kirk Penney, Jason Kapono or Carl English can punish a double-team with expert marksmanship, but not wow an NBA GM with scintillating athletic ability. And, as shooting percentages steadily decline, year-by-year since the 1983-84 season, teams continue to focus on athletes, defenders, shot blockers and potential and ignore players who can shoot, who win, who take and make big shots. In last year’s World Championship debacle, the USA was near the top in almost every single offensive and defensive category except one: shooting percentage. And, while some of the NBA’s greats failed to get the job done, finishing sixth, New Zealand’s Kirk Penney was helping the Kiwis to an improbable third place finish; enough, one would think, to lead some GM to look past his average size and realize the kid can play,” (6/13/03).


While Cuban believes the Olympic team represents poor judgment by the selection committee, and not poor play in the League, the poor judgment carries over to the personnel decisions of many, if not most teams, as evidenced by selections such as Jameer Nelson falling to the 20th pick in the 2004 NBA Draft or Josh Howard lasting until the 30th pick in the 2003 draft. The Philadelphia 76ers selected two contributors in the 2003 Draft-Kyle Korver and Willie Green-without a first round selection.


The NBA is no longer about fundamental skills; it is about entertainment. As much as traditionalists decry the And1 Mix-Tape Tour and its negative influence on America’s youth, the NBA has as much in common with the games played on the Tour as it does with the style of play typical of most International teams. The Tour promotes individual stars and individual moves, mostly involving one-on-one plays that lead to dunks: the epitome of the basketball played by many of America’s brightest young stars. The International game features five players who can pass and shoot and play in constant motion, cutting and setting screens, something rarely seen in the NBA outside Sacramento’s Arco Arena.


Cuban, and the multitude of others, can stand behind the excuse of the poor composition of the Olympic team and the egregious errors made by the selection committee; but, the truth is, the Olympic team represents the good and bad of American basketball perfectly. For the purists and traditionalists-those Rick Bucher criticized in a recent column when he said nobody would rather watch a European team play rather than an NBA game- America’s lack of fundamental skill is not a sudden occurrence, or even a fluke, but the result of the NBA’s emphasis on athleticism, stars and dunks, which has created a slippery slope down through the levels of American basketball, leaving kids believing constant dribbling and one-on-one play is basketball, ignoring the beauty, the nuances and the chemistry of a true team and flowing motion offense.


This Olympic team’s performance is neither a fluke nor a surprise; it is the path the NBA has set and traveled down since Michael Jordan entered the L.


McCormick is a freelance writer and coach from Portland, OR. Check his blog (http://highfivehoopschool.blogspot.com) for more commentary.