Ball Don't Lie - NBA

If you think I'm reading way too much into things, making mountains out of molehills, Johnny Winter Ands out of Edgar Winter Groups, fine. You can give this post a miss. 

But I can help but retch a bit after Larry Brown's recent comments to Mitch Lawrence, presented under the guise of honest-to-helpless "analysis" about why Team USA succeeded this time around as opposed to failing (or, at least, falling short) in years past. Let's bring on the quote:

"The thing is they got guys that are willing to make a three-year commitment, which I think is tremendous," Brown said of this current Team USA. "We had guys that committed (for 2004) and then all of a sudden 9/11 happened, and then there were injuries."

Gah. Are you feeling it? That burn? Are you seeing those DeLorean-sized tire marks singed into the Twin Pines Mall as Larry covers his own tracks? No? Then dig in.

And sit tight, for the history lesson. Allow me to toss on my history boffin's tweed coat and either tell you for the first time or (more likely) remind you that while the 2004 version of Team USA (which Brown coached) probably shouldn't have won in a walk, they at least should have put together a better showing than the three-loss, bronze-medal finish they mustered. That team's turn wasn't rife with bad luck and the vicissitudes of the one-game sample size, rather, it was doomed with poor planning, poor playing, and poor coaching.

There was plenty of poor planning. The Russ Granik-led selection committee put together a real cracker of a team, full of guys that just ooze with international intrigue, like Stephon Marbury, Richard Jefferson, and Allen Iverson. That was sarcasm.

There was definitely poor playing. These guys hadn't the foggiest about how to take to the international game, full of play off the ball, and its shocking lack of pick and roll play. That really happened, but the last bit was also sarcastic.

Worst of all, there was poor coaching. A good or even competent coach, in that situation, does the best with what he has, and convinces whoever will listen (it's a deep team, so you're allowed to sit the guys that don't have any clue) that playing "their game" won't win anything for Team USA.

But Brown didn't do that. He played the guys who were convinced that NBA-style ball at its worst (Marbury waiting for that screen, Jefferson chucking that fadeway 19-footer from the elbow, Iverson being Iverson) would win. It was a pathetic display. No coach of any group of whatever legends you want to bring into the fold could create a chemistry-rich group of gestalt manufacturers in that short of a summer, but somehow, Brown managed to screw up what was already a process and presentation that seemed too screwed-up to fathom.

Watching the Olympics that year, you got the idea that Brown was fat and sassy with the idea of being a martyr, a role he would take to next level as coach of the New York Knicks in 2005-06.

Coming off a win over the Los Angeles Lakers in that year's Finals (the hollowest champion in years, getting to pass on playing the KG-as-MVP-led Timberwolves, the Kings, the Spurs; and taking on a Laker team featuring a useless Gary Payton and injured Karl Malone ... but that's a post for another day), Brown was enjoying the strongest and most gushing plaudits of his long career, and he took full advantage in his own inimitable style.

I'm not going to put on my tin-foil hat and tell you that Brown was trying to throw the tournament, wanting his own country's representatives to lose as a way of showcasing the spectacle as some sort of repudiation of the non-Pistons NBA as he knew it. Brown's been deliberately obtuse before, but killing your own country's chances to make a point is a bit different than starting Qyntel Woods in a bid to take over as Knicks GM. I feel dirty just having brought it up to put the kibosh on the idea, but I don't like the idea of people taking me the wrong way.

That said, he also refused to give in when things were obviously falling apart, which leaves Brown's motivations up for all sorts of questioning. Don't take it as far as the preceding paragraph warns you not to, but you have to understand how odd things looked that summer. As a benefit to LB, however, here are some caveats:

As you're probably aware, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, and Carmelo Anthony hardly saw any playing time. Reasonable people will tell you that James, Wade, and Anthony were coming off rookie seasons in the NBA, while Stoudemire was coming off an injury-plagued and rather undistinguished second season, at least in comparison to his knockout rookie season.

As you're also probably aware, Argentina was an absolute beast that year. And Athens, in the context of the times, was more than a little scary. There were heaps of security scares, concerns that far exceeded any sort of the (non-political, if we have to get lazy and term human-rights abominations "political") talking points that met this summer's Olympic run. There was a genuine, and well-founded, fear that Athens was not ready to house the Olympics.

And that's all we're giving Brown. He can reference what happened on 9-11-01 all he wants, far more prominent people have gotten away with far worse things by doing the same, but the idea that Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Vince Carter were staying away from this team because of those sorts of security fears is ludicrous.

KG and VC had won a gold in 2000, Garnett had just undergone an exhausting MVP campaign (let's be honest, KG's 82 games plus playoffs are a bit more exhausting than the average bear's), and Carter had dealt with an unending series of injury concerns since the 2001-02 season.

Kobe, meanwhile, was essentially running the Los Angeles Lakers that summer. Flirting with the Chicago Bulls, outright dry-humping the Los Angeles Clippers, while ultimately (and rightfully, I might add) getting his way with the Shaquille O'Neal trade and re-signing with the Los Angeles Lakers, he had quite a bit on his plate. To say nothing of the, shall we say, "legal issues" that went on for all nearly all of the 2004 offseason and threatened to go on for the bulk of the 2004-05 season, before resolving themselves in September of 2004.

So, yeah, it wasn't "9-11," there, Lar.

As far as the three-year commitment, it helps. This year's team has retained six players out of 12 from the 2006 group, which may not seem like a lot, but it helps.

And with that put forth ... come on.

You inherit a team, you inform them of just how it is that these sorts of tournaments work, and you play the contributors that are best suited for the job. It's that easy.

You don't inherit a team, demand that two members of the team (Marbury and Iverson) be sent home before the tournament ever starts, inform those two players that they're cool to go ahead and play an inefficient (even by NBA standards) style of stateside ball, and ignore the players sitting on the bench who are best suited for the job. You duplicitous mug.

You work with what you're dealt. You have but a month and a half to make good with what you've been given, you don't play the hardass, you don't act as if Billy King is on board to trade any of these guys for Tyrone Hill, and you acclimate. Acclimate. Acc-lim-ate. I might as well be talking Gaelic to Larry at this point. 

Listen, I know I'm quibbling quite forcefully with a throwaway comment from a column that has to do with the 2008 team's triumph from a person who hasn't had anything to do with Team USA in four years. But I just know weaseling when I read it, and I think you do too. And this wasn't a case of a well-meaning outfit not having things go its way. The bum issues were pervasive from the outset, in the wins and in the losses. 

I'm not going to tell you that the line I shoot never misses, in work, in life, wherever. I should have nailed the column following Team USA's win over Spain, but my insecurity got the best of me on Sunday morning. I was tired from the late game start and worried that my writing was crap, and proceeded to beat the hell out of what should have been a damn good piece of writing until it turned into merely passable by 9:08 on Monday morning. But I could have done much better with the circumstances I was presented with. I had time, but I blew it. I screwed up.

And Larry, you blew 2004. You screwed it up. And if Mitch Lawrence is asking for a quick quote on the goings-on, just mention how proud you are of this year's model. Mention how good international basketball has become. Mention the fact that Team USA hasn't looked this good since 1992, and before that, probably 1968 or 1960. You should know. You were around. You know the game better than any of us. You have so much to teach us, and I mean that.

But this bit of revisionist history? It stings, it makes you look worse (as if the hole could get any deeper), and it's bound to tick off those who have been paying attention.

Let this be the foot in your mouth's last hurrah.

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