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Should the USA Team rely on Playoff hardened players?

NBA Statistical Analyst Hans Uy

by Hans Uy, 10/24/06

Team USA finished a respectable 3rd in this yearís FIBA World Basketball Championships amid expectations of them winning the gold. I believe the team had what it take to win the gold, but came up short in the experience department. Studying the past USA teams starting from the 1992 Dream Team, one can see a declining trend in the playoff experience of players being sent to the Olympics and FIBA tournaments, this is of course aside from the fact that other countries around the world are catching up with the USA in terms of talent.

The selection indeed valued raw talent and athleticism as valuable criteria, team chemistry (strength of Europe and South American teams) also equally important, but unfortunately, the experience part did not come through this year as several more experienced players opted out of the competition, namely Kobe Bryant and Chauncey Billups. Another unfortunate fact was that the selection committee had chosen a representative from each of the championship teams since 2000 (not sure if this is coincidental), but all of them missed this yearís tournament (Bryant, Billups, Bowen).

The players who played are shown below:

2006 FIBA World Championships Team

 NAME POS Playoffs/Yrs Playoffs/Games Finals/Yrs Rings
 Carmelo Anthony F 3 14 0 0
 Shane Battier F 3 12 0 0
 Chris Bosh F 0 0 0 0
 Elton Brand F 1 12 0 0
 Kirk Hinrich G 2 12 0 0
 Dwight Howard F/C 0 0 0 0
 LeBron James F 1 13 0 0
 Antawn Jamison F 3 21 0 0
 Joe Johnson G/F 2 15 0 0
 Brad Miller C 6 38 0 0
 Chris Paul G 0 0 0 0
 Dwyane Wade G 3 50 1 1

Although the original Dream Team did not encounter any close games, experience is often a factor when it came to clutch/crunch time situations. The main players that were captains during this yearís version of team USA combined for 77 games of playoff experience (w/ Wade having 50). From the 1992 team, Jordan alone had 92 games, Bird 164, Magic 186.

1992 Olympic "Dream Team"

 NAME POS Playoffs/Yrs Playoffs/Games Finals/Yrs Rings
 Charles Barkley F 6 51 0 0
 Larry Bird F 12 164 5 3
 Clyde Drexler G 9 87 2 0
 Patrick Ewing C 5 38 0 0
 Earvin Johnson G 12 186 9 5
 Michael Jordan G 8 92 2 2
 Christian Laettner F 0 0 0 0
 Karl Malone F 7 53 0 0
 Chris Mullin F 4 30 0 0
 Scottie Pippen G/F 7 81 2 2
 David Robinson C 2 14 0 0
 John Stockton G 8 63 0 0

Letís look at the other players who did not make the tournament and how they could have helped Team USA as far as experience is concerned.

Players selected but did not play in the tournament:

 NAME POS Playoffs/Yrs Playoffs/Games Finals/Yrs Rings
 Chauncey Billups PG 6 86 2 1
 Kobe Bryant SG 9 126 4 3
 Bruce Bowen SF 7 93 2 2

Shouldíve Been Selected?

 NAME POS Playoffs/Yrs Playoffs/Games Finals/Yrs Rings
 Tim Duncan PF/C 8 118 3 3
 Shaquille O'Neal ?x C 13 194 6 4
 Alonzo Mourning ?x C 10 93 1 1
 Richard Hamilton SG 4 83 2 1
 Ben Wallace F/C 5 93 2 1
 Allen Iverson ?x PG 6 62 1 0
 Kevin Garnett F 8 47 0 0

Could They Have Helped?

 NAME POS Playoffs/Yrs Playoffs/Games Finals/Yrs Rings
 Jason Kidd ?x PG 10 88 2 0
 Rasheed Wallace ?x F 10 116 2 1
 Robert Horry * ?x F 14 211 6 6
 Richard Jefferson F 5 66 0 0
 Josh Howard ** SF 3 41 1 0
 Udonis Haslem ** PF 3 51 1 1

x- I know they are already too old for the 2008 Olympics, but just wanted to note they couldíve helped to win it for Team USA this year; Some of the other players wouldíve gained more playoff/finals experience by then, Team USA then couldíve had its cake and eaten it too.
* - Active player with most rings
** - 2004 up players with major/most playoffs experience

You might argue that having most of them selected to the team couldíve made it a clash of egos, but statistics show that playoff experience does have an effect on how Team USA performs. The table below is a roundup of playoff experience totals of each Team USA starting from the 1992 Dream Team up to this yearís FIBA team. Player totals were computed up to when they played on that yearís tournament. As you can see, the Orig Dream Team and Dream Team II which overwhelmed opponents was clearly much more experience when it came to Finals and Playoffs experience.

 Player Totals Result Playoffs/Yrs Playoffs/Games Finals/Yrs Rings
 2006 Fiba Bronze 3rd 24 187 1 1
 2004 Olympics Bronze 3rd 23 253 4 2
 2002 Fiba 6th * 6th 42 377 1 0
 2000 Olympics Champ 1st 51 401 2 0
 1996 Olympics Champ 1st 85 821 15 6
 1992 Olympics Champ 1st 80 859 20 12

As you can see the trend in the table, combined playoff games played has been on the decline since the 1992 Dream Team. Studying the table above, it seems that the playoff games experience level has an effect the results, with the exception of the 6th place finish of Team USA in the 2002 FIBA.

Letís take a look at the players?experience from that yearís team:

2002 FIBA Team

 NAME POS Playoffs/Yrs Playoffs/Games Finals/Yrs Rings
 Elton Brand F 0 0 0 0
 Antonio Davis C 8 87 0 0
 Baron Davis G 3 23 0 0
 Michael Finley G 4 43 0 0
 Raef LaFrentz F/C 2 28 0 0
 Shawn Marion F 2 13 0 0
 Andre Miller G 1 5 0 0
 Reggie Miller G 12 109 1 0
 Jermaine O'Neal C/F 6 29 0 0
 Paul Pierce F 3 30 0 0
 Ben Wallace F/C 1 10 0 0
 Jay Williams G 0 0 0 0
 *Nick Collison F 0 0 0 0
 Player Totals 42 377 1 0

Out of the 377 total playoff games experience of that team, Reggie Miller and Antonio Davis combined for 196 of those games while contributing just 6ppg 1.3rpg and 5.9 ppg 4.9 rpg respectively during the tournament. This means that although on paper this was an experienced team, the experience was not ďon the court?/b> very much during games as they were not Team USAís main players.

Letís look at the adjusted total if Reggie Miller and Antonio Davis were not on the team:

  Playoffs/Yrs Playoffs/Games Finals/Yrs Rings
 Totals 22 181 0 0

There is no direct correlation subtracting experience of minor players, as you can also remove Brad Miller and Antawn Jamisonís (12 and 9 minutes/game respectively) playoff experience from this yearís team to come up with a lower number.

But in conclusion, since 1992 when US basketball realized it would take professional players to win it at the world stage, it takes proven and consistent winners to be able to come up with the Gold in the Olympics or the FIBA Worlds.

The 1992 Team no question is full of proven and consistent winners. The 1996 team had big proven winners in their prime, Hakeem, Stockton, Malone, Barkley, Pippen, as well as emerging hall of famer in Shaquille OíNeal and pre-injury Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway, both touted to be the next leaders of the league in the mold of Jordan and Magic.

Team experience level dived starting the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Although they did finish a solid 8-0 with a gold medal during those games, they were not as dominant as the previous 2 teams and were led by emerging superstars Garnett, Carter, Mourning, Kidd and veteran Gary Payton. With only 401 combined playoff games to vouch for, Team USA won by more than 15 points in only 3 games, with two games winning only by single digits (nail biter games vs Lithuania 85-83 and 85-76). Closest game during the 1996 Atlanta Games was a 102-71 trashing of Croatia and they won the final vs Yugoslavia by 26 points.

With the 2002 FIBA games, Reggie Miller who had the most playoff experience only played in 6 of the teamís 9 games, starting in only 3. The 2000 and 2002 teams had very close numbers on the table above. Something to note on the 2000 batch is their leaders are future possible hall-of-famers (Garnett, Carter, Mourning, Kidd and veteran Gary Payton). From the 2002 batch, only Reggie Miller, Ben Wallace and Marion have been consistent all-stars/superstars. Other players such as Jermaine OíNeal, Pierce, Antonio Davis, Finley and Brand are all-stars, but hall-of-fame status is a big question mark, even for the case of Marion.

Although they were able to snag the 2004 Olympics bronze medal, only Duncan (82), Iverson (57) and Richard Jefferson (51) had more than 20 playoff games under their resumes. The 2000 Olympics Champs had 6 players with 20 or more.

The tournaments they joined during 1992 and 1996 were no-contest tournaments, their opponents then were so much in awe they were posing for pictures during game time! In the previous four Team USAs, other teams were already questioning the composition of the team. If they canít even get to the playoffs consistently in the NBA, how can they expect to dominate and win it all in the world championships and the Olympics?

I understand the program of Jerry Colangeloís plan is to win the 2008 Olympics. But as Iíve said, I believe they couldíve won the 2006 FIBA Championships along with 2008 with the correct mix of talent, teamwork and experience. Itís easier said than done, as unplanned matters usually get in the way ?players declining, injuries.

Time will fill in the missing crucial factors by the 2008 Olympics. By 2008, the current tri-captain of Wade, Melo and Lebron shouldíve gained more than 60-100 playoff games combined, and possibly giving solid playoff experience to Brand, Howard, Paul as well as whoever will be in that team. Add to the fact that Bryant and Billups might be available, and the US team will surely be the team to beat in 2008.

Hans is an IT professional in Manila, Philippines and a long time fanatic of NBA and NBA statisticcs. He got hooked to NBA statistics in playing NBA fantasy sports for the past 7 years, oftentimes being accused of cheating by his league-mates of exploiting system deficiencies. You can reach him through email at [email protected].

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