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David Thorpe Says Everything Will Be OK

I got an interesting e-mail from a Spanish reader, Jaime. He echoed an idea that has been brought up a lot, namely that Americans aren't as sophisiticated on offense as their international counterparts:

Other US teams in the past still played with different basketballs, different rules, different courts and still had to play 82 games, and they kept winning. The systems, as it is right now, is flawed, and I think we can all see that. The US offense simply sucked, that's how it was. You can't pretend to win a Championship when most of your (????)"sets"(????) consist of one pass and shoot, even if the coaches keep saying they want to play a D'Antoni system.

I had an idea for a post along those lines. I was going to say it was a joke to blame the American coaches as if they don't know how to coach complex offenses. It's entirely possible that if you did coach those offenses, the players simply wouldn't do it.

I was going to theorize that one reason for that is that NBA players, as international celebrities, are simply less coachable. The economic and social reality is that they do not always have to do what coaches want them to do. (If they refuse, there's a big fight, and eventually, in most cases, the coach gets fired, because there are lot more coaches in this world than there are international superstars.) You could have a coach teaching the most intricate offense in the world, but that doesn't mean the players will do it. Look at the trouble, I was going to write, that Phil Jackson and the Lakers have getting guys to learn and run the triangle? Or, looking at it another way, consider the evidence that credibility among NBA players is a much more important qualification for getting an NBA coaching job than being a basketball genius. (Case in point: Maurice Cheeks.)

And my ace in the hole was going to be the Serbia and Montenegro team. They won the Worlds four years ago (as Yugoslavia). They were incredible. And this year they finished 11th. Why? Well, there are lots of reasons, but one of them, I was going to argue, is the big dispute between that team's former coach and some of that teams's players. It cost them the coach and many of those players. Was it possible, I was going to theorize, that time in the NBA had made some top European players essentially less coachable?

Before I trotted out a whopper of a theory like that, I wanted to make sure I wasn't crazy, so I made some phone calls. One of those was to David Thorpe. He has been coaching forever, he works with NBA players every day--and he knows a thing or two about who's coachable and who isn't.

I told him my theory, and he cleverly gave a "no comment" to the larger issue while explaining in convincing fashion that the whole darn theory was totally missing the point. Here I paraphrase his thoughts:

Complex Offenses Are Only Better if you Need Them

Thorpe says it's a wild notion that the U.S. team should be using more complex patterns, motions, or sets. Every team has as its main goal to get high percentage shots. The U.S., thanks to its quickness, skill, abilities, etc. got high percentage shots. And, even though they played in a style that encouraged tons of possessions, the U.S. had the lowest turnover rate in the whole tournament. The defense, he argues, wasn't insurmountable.

UPDATE: Important points from Thorpe I neglected to include the first time, to bolster the notion that the U.S. offense was sound: in addition to giving up the fewest turnovers, they led the tournament in both field goal percentage and points scored.

Teams in Europe have to use more complex offenses, says Thorpe, because they don't have to skill to break down the defense without them.

He is adamant that if you look at the tape--something I intend to do in the next few days--you'll see that the U.S. got plenty of wide open looks against Greece. And they just had a horrible shooting night, at the same time that Greece shot really well. Even then they would have won if Greece would have just missed three shots that they normally would have missed, including the circus, banked three-pointer.

As long as the team is getting high percentage shots, it's hard to blame the offensive system.

NBA Rules Prohibit Packing the Middle

He also made an incredibly good point about defense. Thorpe himself used to coach a defense he called "paint," which is essentially a soft man-to-man. Thorpe told his players to keep one foot in the paint at all times whenever their man did not have the ball. It packs the middle and makes it much harder for the Dwyane Wades of the world to get to the bucket.

That defense is not allowed in the NBA, thanks to the defensive three seconds rule. Yes, that means NBA players are not as adept at using team play to create high-scoring opportunities all the same. And the solution is to simply abolish the defensive three seconds rule, let NBA defenders camp in the lane all night, and force NBA players and teams to start mastering the art of scoring in any circumstances. "It might take five years," says Thorpe, "but we would learn to really move without the ball to create scoring opportunities."

(Interesting UPDATE: AND TOTALLY WRONG (SEE COMMENTS) little side note from Henry: remember who chaired the committee that installed the defensive three-second rule? Jerry Colangelo.)

More Shane Battiers

The one criticism Thorpe really does have of Team USA is that the roster was short of good defenders, because defense is the key to winning even when you have cold shooting nights. In a seven-game series, you can have some cold shooting and win the next game instead. But in one-game elimination tournaments like the World Championships and the Olympics, you have to protect yourself against cold shooting nights with constant defense. Several players on the U.S. roster are great scorers and below average defenders. Very few of them are good defenders on or off the ball. That ratio should even out a little. Who would Thorpe add? "I'd talk to Kobe Bryant, ask him who gives him the most trouble, and then get those guys."

One True Leader

Thorpe thought Dwyane Wade was the best player on the floor, and thought that he showed great poise with his willingness to come off the bench--which made him the closest thing this team had to a true leader. But having one player clearly in charge on the floor would, Thorpe says, make things easier.

Learn to Work With the Moving Pick at Both Ends

In the NBA, the player setting the pick has to stand frozen still for an instant before the offensive player makes contact. That instant--when the picker is standing there, totally still--is a strong visual cue to everyone in the building that a pick is coming. In American basketball, the idea that a pick is coming is never a secret. But in international play, Thorpe says, picks come from anywhere, all the time. Often, there are uncalled moving picks. "The U.S. players," says Thorpe, "sometimes seemed to take a second to recognize there was a pick, which probably made them all a little bit slower rotating to defend." And at the same time, when the U.S. had the ball, they were among the least adept at employing moving, or almost moving, picks. "I bet we set a lot more illegal screens moving forward," says Thorpe.

He closed with a couple of more points: he felt that three weeks was enough time for a U.S. team to prepare, and that perhaps in this case the trip to Asia--for more than a month--was probably longer by a week or than it needed to be. By the end, the players had been gone a long time which may have affected their enthusiasm.

So, where does that leave Team USA? A couple of shots short of a world championship, I guess. But with some very achievable ways to make up the three or four baskets that kept the U.S. team out of first place. My theory about NBA players being less coachable than others? We'll have to save that for another time.