As I watched Team USA lose to Argentina in the Olympic semifinals on Friday, one thought continually recurred in my mind: This was no upset.
America didn't have its best team in Athens. Yes, Kobe, Shaq and KG probably would have made a difference. But Argentina's team was simply better than the team we put on the floor.
They played with passion and poise, they worked beautifully without the ball, they passed and shot better, and I got the sense they would have beaten Team USA six out of 10 times.
So the question American basketball fans are asking is, how did this happen? How did we invent a game, dominate it for over 100 years and suddenly forget how to play it?
How can our national team go from utter dominance a mere 12 years ago to suddenly becoming a mediocre player on the national scene? (If you think we're anything more than mediocre, witness the fact that we finished in sixth place in the world championships two years ago and third in Athens).
There are probably a lot of reasons for our Olympic failure, but the first thing we have to fix is the selection process.
Ever since the original 'Dream Team' trampled the competition in Barcelona in 1992, selecting the national team has been nothing more than a popularity contest.
The NBA was interested in promoting its league around the world, so Team USA was comprised of superstars.
If a star player turned down the invitation, he was replaced by the next biggest star.
The selection committee has been largely made up of NBA general managers and officials, who frequently are politicking their own players for marketing purposes. Selections were based on star status and exchanged favors, and since we were going to win anyway, nobody cared how the team was picked.
That is about to change.
It doesn't take James A. Naismith to figure out that Team USA desperately needed a shooter, and that guys like Brent Barry, Michael Redd or Wally Szczerbiak would have been valuable assets on this team. In the past those names would have never been mentioned. Now they will not only be considered, but recruited and coveted.
But to place all the blame on the selection committee for the Olympic failure would be wrong. While I believe we could have fielded a more efficient squad, international basketball has improved so dramatically that it's no longer as simple as sending our best players.
There are more than 80 foreign players in the NBA, so teams from around the world are extremely gifted. In fact, with Tim Duncan on the bench in foul trouble, it was difficult to view a disparity in talent between Team USA and Argentina.
Luis Scola, for whom the Spurs hold draft rights, was a strong force inside. And late in the game, Walter Herrmann did his best Dr. J impersonation, swooping to the hole and closing out the Americans with his offensive aggressiveness.
These guys were awfully good.
But while the disparity in talent wasn't glaring, the style of play certainly was. I believe that the international teams are now playing the game better than we are.
Tex Winter once taught me that the best players make their decision to drive, shoot or pass within one second of catching the ball. That creates offensive rhythm and continuity.
The Argentineans rarely held onto the ball for more than a second or two as they passed, cut and shot us to death. The irony is that they ran a simple offense called the 'flex', which was a staple of American basketball 15 to 20 years ago.
It involves a pattern of back screens and down screens that are difficult to defend, especially when all five players on the floor can shoot. The Argentineans spread the floor, set great screens and knocked down open shots – something the 'Dream Team' of 12 years ago did from day one.
But the American game has deteriorated to the point where players are holding the ball for three or four seconds, over dribbling, dumping the ball into the post and not moving or setting screens. That is what Team USA did, and the lack of offensive continuity was glaring.
The Americans' play was simply an extension of an NBA game, and it was exposed in a tournament where teams employed a more traditional – and more efficient – style.
So will this Olympic loss spawn a new generation of players and coaches who are dedicated to working on their games and strategies and getting basketball back to what it was in this country just a decade ago?
The NBA game has become institutionalized, with teams playing the same way – running screen and rolls and isolations, feeding the ball to the best player and clearing everyone out.
Teams are not going to run the 'flex' offense because many players can't shoot, and without shooters the defense doesn't have to honor screens and perimeter play, preferring to simply clog the lane.
And younger players will continue to enter the league underdeveloped, having played hundreds of AAU games, but not doing what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were doing 30 years ago – sweating in a gym all summer working on their skills.
The NBA can learn a lot from the Olympic failure. The league could use more innovation and more coaches – like Don Nelson and Phil Jackson – who think 'outside the box' and value basketball skill over athleticism.
Perhaps the league can help our young coaches at the junior high and high school levels to inspire kids to develop skills – especially away from the ball.
Maybe we can adopt some of the international rules and apply them to the NBA. We could allow all-zone defenses, for example, or possibly widen the lane, or even – heaven forbid – call traveling.
But no matter what we do, the USA will never return to the dominant state it enjoyed for so long. The international game is too good. There are great players all over the world. And our game is regressing.
So even if we pick a better, more efficient team to send to Beijing in 2008, don't be surprised if we come home empty handed again.
- Team USA