Monday, August 20, 2007

Defense and Team USA

Why didn't Team USA win the world championships last year? As this article points out, while poor outside shooting got the most votes as the team’s biggest problem on an poll, the real culprit was Team USA's lack of defense.

While Team USA's defensive efficiency appeared to be a superb 98.4 (the best NBA team was over 100 last season), this defensive efficiency rating was inflated because of the lower caliber of competition faced in the preliminary rounds. Against Greece in the semifinals, Team USA lost with a terrible defensive efficiency rating of 136.2.

Based on my posts on defensive efficiency from last week (here, here, and here), this poor defensive showing is not much of a surprise. Under Coach Krzyzewski, Team USA plays a high pressure defense. Against the majority of international teams, this system works well enough--Team USA forces a high number of turnovers and this leads to easy baskets on the other end. Against the better teams, those stocked with NBA-caliber players, this pressure defense simply does not force enough turnovers to be effective. Remember: the Golden State Warriors led the NBA in defensive turnover rate last season, but they still only forced a turnover on 18% of opponent's possession.

And when Team USA did not force a turnover, they simply did not have the personnel on the floor to force bad shots and grab defensive rebounds. The main line-up for Team USA at the World Championships was Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwight Howard. Other than Howard, no one in that line-up is known for their defense, and even Howard is still learning how to rotate correctly on defense. Playing Anthony at power forward was a particular problem--his mobility helps force turnovers, but he is simply not a good enough interior defender and rebounder to play extended minutes at power forward against teams that take care of the least not if Team USA wants to improve its defense.

The crazy thing is that as bad as Team USA's defense was, they very easily could have won the World Championships because their offense was so good. For the tournament, Team USA had an offensive efficiency rating of 129.2. Even in their loss against Greece, they had an offensive efficiency rating of 128.1. If Team USA's defense had been only slightly less terrible against Greece (i.e. defensive efficiency of 128.0 or lower), they could very easily have advanced to the finals and won the championship.

Team USA will almost certainly win the FIBA Tournament of the Americas that starts this Wednesday based solely on its offensive firepower (especially since Brazil and Argentina are likely to be without many of their stars). So I won't be watching to see the final score, but I will be watching closely to see if Team USA (and its coaches) have learned anything about playing good defense.

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