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Team USA Takeaways… and its future impact

Lost in the shuffle of this weekend’s high-profile legal troubles of the NFL, and the actual Week 2 games on Sunday, USA Basketball made some history. Their 37 point blowout win over Serbia for the World Cup Gold Medal earned them the bragging rights of being the first country to win back-to-back World Cups. As unbelievable as that may sound given Team USA’s historical dominance in international competition, it also means these 3 guys have a cool new fun fact for the back of their trading cards (or Wikipedia page, but I’m still a trading card guy at heart.)

The gears have been circulating in the back of mind for the past three days of what we can takeaway from Team USA’s unflappable 9-0 record that may apply for the future — both for USA & FIBA and the upcoming NBA season that’s suddenly right around the corner.

What did we learn?

First, though not foremost, Team USA’s Shmoney Dance (and D. Rose’s fantastic awkwardness.. again) may prove to be the lasting image of the 2014 World Cup run. Both as a somehow accurate representation of our international dominance and as a time capsule that we’ll look back on 4 years from now, laughing at our former selves for loving this silly dance.

Let’s contrast that for a moment to Serbia’s Silver Medal Celebration — a welcome home party in the heart of Belgrade, attended by avid flag-waving, face-painted fans connecting to the start of the horizon, and also featuring Serbian raps that are somehow not on RapGenius yet (they should be). I don’t write the previous sentence to mock Serbia by any means; instead, I’d like to point out that this is truly awesome. Living vicariously through the joy of these Serbians 99% makes up for the USA-Spain final we unfortunately didn’t get to see this past Sunday. That 1% still burns more than it should, but alas…

Instead of digressing further into a fantasy scenario of what could possibly inspire that amount of joy for a US Basketball Team winning the Gold Medal (let alone Silver), here’s what I think lies ahead for international basketball.

Team USA & FIBA: What’s Next

As it played out, the combination of Spain’s surprising upset in the quarterfinals and the U.S.’ subsequent dominance in the medal round created a new narrative that I didn’t even think of a week ago (week ago… damn Shmurda is still stuck in my head) — is the U.S. too good for international competition that we should send an under-23 team? Or even more: stop sending NBA players completely?

My answer echoes that of Tas Melas of The Starters who reminded us that the U.S. had a 7 point gold medal game with Spain just 2 years ago and that the overall competition is cyclical, citing USA’s fall in the early/mid 2000s. I would have even pushed it further and said that we wouldn’t even be having this discussion if we did get that US-Spain final that at the very least wouldn’t have been a blow out. It just takes one close game for us to remember that the rest of the world has, at minimum, a puncher’s chance against our all-stars. The game continues to grow and the potential for longtime non-powerhouses like Canada and Australia to pose a challenge like constant stalwart Spain is very real.

That said, I predict it’s business as usual for USA Basketball who will take the 2015 summer off with the automatic bid to the 2016 Olympics up next. Said Olympics to be a curtain call for the international careers of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul who will assuredly team up with superstars in their prime like Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. The Bulls fan in me shudders that I didn’t hesitate to put LeBron’s new sidekicks in that list and that I did hesitate to put Derrick Rose on that list (more on him later).

Kyrie Irving: A Polarizing World Cup MVP?

Kyrie Irving was certainly a well-deserved World Cup MVP — he was Team USA’s most consistent player and came up big in the medal round with 18 points in the semifinal against Lithuania and a lesson in marksmanship with 6-6 3FG and a game-high 26 points in the final against Serbia. I would have voted him as the MVP as well, and FIBA got it right when they named Irving, Faried, Serbia’s Milos Teodosic, France’s Nic Batum, and Spain’s Pau Gasol as the FIBA All-Star Five.

So… polarizing?

I studied every game of the FIBA World Cup this summer, aware of the preconceived notions of Kyrie Irving as a poor defender and a ball-stopper, and eager to see if I agree with those flaws. Admittedly the 13 games (including exhibitions) combined with my limited live game viewings of Kyrie on the Cavs are a small sample size, but that being said, I do agree. On the defensive end, Kyrie gambles at times when he shouldn’t and, as Grantland’s Zach Lowe points out, gets swallowed up by screens easily even as the US team defense has ratcheted up intensity comparatively to Game X of the NBA season.

Offensively, Kyrie dazzles with as smooth a ball-handling flair as any and as his shooting in the final game proves, he’s a deadly entertaining mix of Clippers guards Chris Paul & Jamal Crawford meshed into one. But there was at least one time a game that analyst Fran Fraschilla noted a possession that Kyrie should have brought the ball out instead of go 1 on 4 offensively and forcing a bad shot. If there’s levels to ball-stopping, Kyrie would be on the lowest one, but this happened with enough frequency to leave me wondering how he, LeBron, and Kevin Love are going to co-exist early on. I concluded that Kyrie will have to adjust his game the most of the three since he’ll be sharing primary ball-handling duties and having to shoot and create off the catch more than he has ever had to throughout his young career. This dynamic is something to watch out for as the season progresses, yet it’s also something I believe will improve over time to balanced, offensive utopia level that’s certainly possible for years to come in Cleveland. Here’s where I cite Kyrie himself to rightfully have the last word.

Going back to Cleveland, everyone will have their assumptions of what’s going to happen, but I don’t think anybody knows what will happen until you guys see us play.

– Kyrie Irving

James Harden: The worst all-star to watch play basketball.

As pronounced as Kyrie Irving’s aforementioned flaws may be, many will argue that James Harden’s similar flaws are of an even higher degree. Harden is a capable passer and, yes, defender (remember his solid OKC days) but he is even moreso of a stepback jumper ball-stopper and a man-to-man defensive liability than Kyrie. This type of critique of Harden’s game reached an all-time high this summer since the Rockets’ first-round flameout and a (highly entertaining) viral YouTube compilation titled “James Harden, Defensive Juggernaut” that reached over a million views. Essentially, it’s plays like this for 11 minutes straight.

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Picking up where I left off 11 minutes ago, I have to admit watching James Harden this past month made me root for Spain to win the gold medal, as unpatriotic as that sounds. I’ll immediately counter myself by saying that this is an ultimately exaggerated statement because if that final did play out, at the end of the day it’s U.S. over everything. I just mean to convey an imagined scenario of a US-Spain final where a bad James Harden shooting game exposed his flaws and chiefly contributed to a US silver medal… and that I enjoyed that thought. It’s because watching James Harden play basketball is like trapping yourself in a glass case of emotion.

Any non-100% rhythm shot from James Harden already has me shaking my head. Double that feeling when that’s combined with a contested step-back J that sometimes results in the brickiest of bricks… yet also sometimes results in a swish so pretty that I marvel at it for a split second before ultimately feeling disappointed that he took a poor, selfish shot in the first place. Perhaps even worse is James Harden driving the lane with what I’m convinced is the mentality to draw contact first, then try and make the shot. I should note that he’s great at this. At both drawing the contact and finishing the shot for an and-1. This saves his efficiency numbers, and I respect the positives this part of his game brings to the table. It’s just not fun to watch. It slows down the game with more free throws and takes away from pretty fast breaks of 2 passes and a lay-up versus Harden’s conversely euro-step, contact, foul fast break. Any disciplined team defense can limit James Harden in a playoff series and that’s why I feel he and Dwight Howard are destined for 2nd round playoff exits if their games don’t grow (or that inevitable 3rd star, I suppose.)

Which brings me to my next point. Part of why I was excited of the thought of a U.S. loss to Spain was because of how a big-game loss could teach these young stars to improve even more. It goes for Kyrie above as well: what if the U.S. lost to an Spurs-y Spain team that exploited the flaws of young all-stars like Kyrie and Harden? (You can name anyone here, to be fair.) Wouldn’t that mirror check have helped the NBA careers of these guys that are entering their most important season? If Harden’s shot selection and man-to-man defense cost us 6 possible points in a 4-point loss, for example, I think he would correct those flaws faster than the small confidence boost of his great game in a 37-point blowout versus a non-competitive Serbia team (all due respect). This scenario reminded me of a sage lyric from Fabolous (he also has more on his Twitter feed, you should peep.):

Was taught to be a winner, but I learned more from my losses.

As I center back to the present moment however, I now wonder if the overall stellar performances from Kyrie Irving and James Harden this summer will lead to a 2010-esque KD, Russ West, D.Rose, K-Love leap after their World Championships… or if they’ll continue to grow at a normal rate, with these flaws still handicapping them at (possibly crucial) times? I’m more convinced the latter will play out…

Kenneth Faried + Klay Thompson: Leap-City?

Speaking of 2010 leaps, two more obvious candidates for the 2014 versions of them are Kenneth Faried and Klay Thompson. Faried, as mentioned above, made FIBA’s all-tournament team and impressed game-to-game with his ultra athleticism dwarfing that of his international forward contemporaries. His energy is well-documented even before the World Cup; it’s just now seen at its all-time highest scale now. I love his game and was just as impressed as many watching him this summer. But will this lead to a leap next year? I predict more consistency akin to his 19.8 PTS/10.8 REB in the last 25 games of last season, but a leap to solid all-star status? I’m skeptical there. His athleticism advantage will naturally be lessened in the NBA and that no doubt played a part into why he thrived in Spain. He also played a “1 of 1” role on this version of Team USA — the energy, garbage rebounder guy who benefited from all of the all-stars around him as much as he benefited them. With the Nuggets, he’ll be thrust into a greater role and to this point his skill set seems to indicate a somewhat of a ceiling (his mid-range shooting, for example). It’s something to keep an eye on this October and beyond, but I can say with near certainty that on the heels of his great progression this summer, Faried will have an impact season in 2014-15.

As for Klay Thompson, I think he’ll have the biggest leap of anyone on Team USA. His game impressed me the most as Klay displayed a well-rounded, efficient scoring skillset, combined with the pride and fundamentals he showcased on the defensive end. Klay showed some nice moves off the bounce, quick makes off of screens, and he was money from beyond the international line. The latter we knew to expect already; the other elements we’ve merely seen flashes of over his career thus far. The confidence boost that comes with being the consistent offensive leader of USA’s second unit, and the primary perimeter defender for the squad should carry over to a flourishing season with the Warriors. I can see Steve Kerr designing better offensive looks for the improved Thompson that will keep Klay moving as if he never left Spain. Though I do predict a steady increase in PPG, I’m not expecting a big leap in much of Klay’s stats this coming season. I foresee an even greater intangible impact as the clear secondary leader for the rising Warriors. I also think Klay will prove his agent right when he said this week that his client is the best two-way two guard in the league.

I view this from a 2K ratings perspective. If I were designing the game, I’d have Klay as a B+ offensively and a B+ defensively with more B+ potential for improvement. Conversely, I’d have James Harden as an A offensively and a C defensively with the same potential, for argument’s sake. From here, it’s a matter of personal preference. I’d rather have the B+/B+ combo and build my team around the flexibility of a well-rounded player. Maybe I’m slighting Harden a tad unfairly, but I’m comfortable making the argument today and feel like it will be more of an argument as the season progresses… continue this debate with me here.

D. Rose: The Next Step

Congrats for reading this far. I’m 2000 words in and I haven’t even discussed the one player I was watching this summer with a magnifying glass of unquantifiable power: Derrick Rose. In fact, I’m a little bewildered at myself that I haven’t mentioned him until now. *Family Guy cutscene*  Like that one time I was actually bewildered walking behind Derrick Rose.

There’s a degree of hometown attachment of course (perhaps Vegas in the summer type of degrees), but I was certainly not alone in watching how Rose was moving, shooting, recovering, stretching at the scorer’s table, anything to see if we can get a sense of 2011 MVP Rose.

The final grade: I — for Incomplete.

And objectively, that was the likely grade coming into the tournament, save for a scenario in which Rose dunked on both Dragic brothers or won the Gold Medal on a floater akin to his Christmas Day game-winner over (now-teammate!) Spain’s Pau Gasol. Clearly that didn’t happen.

There were positives and negatives throughout the tournament. Rose showed moments of elite explosiveness every game, and had a strong 12 point outing vs. Slovenia in the one game he actually looked to score consistently. He also showed, on the defensive end, a knack for evasively going over and under screens, and distributed the ball well as a point guard, pseudo fastball pitcher with those jump passes to Klay Thompson for open 3s that had us Bulls fans salivating over a (weird) fantasy where Klay Thompson was Doug McDermott. These positives were countered, glaringly, by 25% shooting overall, 1-19 from beyond the closer international arc, rusty ball-handling turnovers, and missed lay-ups that were close to automatic during Rose’s reign as MVP. Fortunately, for Derrick Rose, and for us, these are all positives.

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Scoop Jackson broke down how D. Rose has viewed his “A” grade USA experience differently than the other players and what his next step is in his “15-step return” better than I, or anyone else, can break down. If you’re this far down my page, make the extra pass and give his column a read too.

To quickly reflect, Rose showed me a lot in his time with Team USA and there’s much reason to be happy and optimistic with training camp looming 2 weeks from now. I’m personally just as excited as ever for Rose and the Bulls this season, and I think we have as good of a shot as the Cavs to come out of the East. Who knows what can happen? The journey is near, and that’s as great a feeling as any.

I observed something within me though while watching Rose and Team USA this summer. Would you, as a Bulls fan, be more upset if Team USA lost the gold or if Derrick Rose suffered even a minor injury? It’s unequivocally the latter. And looking ahead, I have no prediction on if that will ever change in the NBA x FIBA dynamic. I just hope I can at least remove the word unequivocally from that statement somewhere down the line (along with that US-Spain final for the 2016 Gold Medal.)