In 1953, the English national football team was among the best in the world. This was known by all. After all, England had invented the game, and had lost only once on English soil in it’s history. So when an upstart Hungary team traveled to play an exhibition match at Wembley Stadium in November, they had no chance to win. Though the “Magnificent Magyars” (as the team was known) had convincingly taken gold in the 1952 Olympics, they would be no match for England at the home of football.
That’s of course not the way it worked out. Hungary played the Three Lions off the park, winning 6-3 as England could not come to grips with Hungary’s “UM formation” which replaced the traditional center forward with a deeper lying playmaker. The result was shown to be no fluke the following year, when Hungary only increased the embarrassment by winning 7-1 in Budapest. England paid a dear price for their self-perceived superiority with this humiliation.
The US Men’s Basketball team is in no danger of fully repeating that debacle. Most importantly, the team’s most likely rival in the World Cup, Spain, is not the dynamo the “Golden Team” from Hungary represented, though the genius at the heart of those teams, the rotund, nonathletic looking Ferenc Puskas is not the worst analogy to the subtle genius of Marc Gasol.
Further, the aura of invincibility isn’t quite the same as with the English in ’53. The notion that as the cradle of Dr. Naismith’s invention, the USA could simply pick an all-star team, roll the ball out, and win was punctured first with the defeat of a team of collegiate stars in 1988 and then with failures in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 FIBA World Championships (renamed the World Cup for the upcoming 2014 edition) with teams of NBA stars. Still, despite the imposition of a more professional structure in USA Basketball, some of the lessons from both England’s and America’s past are being ignored.
Tactically, the implications of the differences between the international game and the NBA version still do not appear to have been internalized. The importance of big men who can shoot and play on the perimeter, much like the withdrawn striker deployed by the Hungarians, is not reflected by the team’s roster. Some of this is of course beyond USAB’s control. Late withdrawals of the Kevins (Love and Durant) took with them the players with shooting and size. Still, the size on the roster is dominated by NBA-style bangers DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Kenneth Faried and (most bizarrely) Mason Plumlee.
More worrying than specific deficiencies is the malaise of complacency which seems to have settled over the team. LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony decline to participate? No biggie. Durant, Love and Blake Griffin withdraw later in the process? We still have plenty of talent. Even after Paul George suffered that gruesome injury, taking the roster’s one dominant two-way wing out of action for a year, the pervading feeling among fans, observers and even the team itself appears to be something along the lines of “we have 12 NBA players and you don’t.”
The lack of real scrutiny for the roster decisions either internally or externally is disconcerting. Blithe assertions that Faried will make the team because of his hustle or that Plumlee might deserve a spot over the massively more talented Cousins, indicate that most are viewing selection on the team as entitling a player to a winners medal the same way one gets a participation ribbon in 4th grade CYO play.
If there were any real sense of urgency, the withdrawal of Durant would cause a reexamination of the decision to cut John Wall and Paul Millsap after the Vegas camp. The mere suggestion that Plumlee was being considered would be ridiculed, and Coach Mike Krzyewski’s continuing fitness for the job would be called into question. That’s certainly how the German press would treat the team if it was Die Nationalmannshaft.
Certainly, Saturday’s rather drab victory over a poor Brazil team would not be treated with the jubilance that game has inspired. Anthony Davis would undoubtedly be a high point. Other than that, Faried and Plumlee looked flatly not good enough. Klay Thompson was poor when attempting to create with the ball, the offense was sloppy and disjointed and the defense especially against some very basic pick-and-roll play was often porous.
The biggest indictment is the reaction to Derrick Rose’s play. Instead of celebrating his return, there would be questions as to why a player who has barely played in two years is selected ahead of other worthy candidates. This is a competitive tourney, not a rehab assignment, and he should be judged on how he will contribute to this Team USA squad, not what these games mean for the Bulls hopes or his comeback MVP chances.
All of the above analysis is harsh. Probably unfairly so. It is also what it would look like if the American basketball establishment from USAB on down was really making international play a priority.
(Photo Credit: The Daily Sports Herald)