Michael Walton II writes about the NBA for We Are Regal Radio.
Michael is a student, freelance writer and burgeoning high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.
The 2014 FIBA World Championships were incredible for Team USA, but to this writer the entire experience seemed eerily similar to what I expect from the Chicago Bulls for this upcoming NBA season.
Coming into the tournament, Team USA had an unbelievable amount of hype surrounding it, ratcheting expectations up gradually before a number of crashes occurred, moving the team up and down emotionally until an eventual triumphant finish that ended with gold around the team’s necks.
Going along with the potential Bulls parallels for the Americans — who traveled and trained this summer with their franchise player and head coach in tow — there were also many broader story lines that encompassed the FIBA World Cup, such as age-limits, the competitiveness of the international field and the future of the tournament itself. Let us start at the beginning, naturally.
Before even stamping their passports, Team USA got off to an ominous start with Paul George’s horrific leg injury during an early August scrimmage in Las Vegas. The unfortunate injury inevitably brought up the discussion of whether NBA stars should be allowed to participate in international competition, including the many scrimmages and exhibitions needed to gear up for an event like the FIBA World Cup.
It would be unlikely that an uber-American like Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird would never actively restrict his players from playing for team USA, but it is also obvious that losing Paul George for a whole season in a meaningless exhibition game hurts the franchise deeply, there may be some regret emanating from the Hoosier state.
In the time since George’s injury, the stakes of simply being in the tournament were risen and reporters and websites went deep into this issue, trying to see who had the most to lose or gain from their involvement in the tournament. Coach Mike Krzyzewski continues to boost his image as the current dean of basketball coaches by leading Team USA and many of the players used the tournament as a platform to show off skills to NBA executives and either secure a roster spot or help secure an increase in value heading into future go-rounds in free agency. Motivations can be cloudy and a sketchy start leading to a disappointing end looked possible.
While all Americans looked forward to a seemingly inevitable championship game clash with host Spain, there was some doubt slowly starting to creep in about whether our young front-court could handle Spain’s Gasol brothers. There were also internal debates about whether the right players were selected for the team due to the pool of players being limited due to the drop out of stars like Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. To mine and all Bulls fans’ joy, Derrick Rose was one of the first players selected to the team and to any discerning eye, it seemed to be a case where politics could’ve been involved.
Rose’s Return Not Complete Bloom
Rose’s inclusion was no shock as the presence of his coach Tom Thibodeau on the staff as an assistant all but guaranteed Rose a spot on the team, but Rose’s play continued to be uneven despite coaches saying he “looked like the old Derrick Rose” in practice. At times, he showed some of his trademark explosiveness, but Rose also looked to distribute more, which could help in his return to his NBA team.
Still, Rose’s overall effort left many critics wondering if it would’ve better to give Rose’s spot this time around to Damian Lillard or John Wall, who specifically was miffed about being cut. With Rose, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving in the back court, the USA was still set in the guard position. The wing positions were filled with solid pros Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan and superstar James Harden.
But all along the front court it seemed the USA was struck with inexperience and uncertainty. DeMarcus ‘Boogie’ Cousins finally made the USA roster after many discussions over his perceived immaturity issues and he actually played well, his presence on the boards helped, as did the additions of Kenneth Faried and Anthony Davis. Miles Plumlee played the “Christian Laettner” role as the player whose spot on the team was questionable.
With the squad set, Team USA started the actual tournament overseas by blowing through the competition. Their strategy of in-your-face defense and constant up-tempo basketball forced the rest of the world to play America’s game and slowly garnered this team, which in all lacked the star power of a typical team fielded for Olympic competition, respect.
New Stars Emerge in International Play
USA entered the round of 16 game against Mexico confident and some players such as Faried openly admitted that they were looking forward to playing Spain in the final, and who could blame them? The game against Mexico was a fun one. Stephen (or, as he was known in Spain: Wardell) Curry came into the game shooting 37.8 percent,from the field.
Young Wardell caught fire against Mexico and scored a game-high 20 points, including a span where he scored 11 straight. Not to be overlooked on the other side was former NBA player Gustavo Ayon’s impressive line of 25 points and eight rebounds, but he was Mexico’s only highlight as they lost by 23 points.
The quarter finals presented the challenge of a Slovenian team featuring the Dragic brothers, one of whom was Goran, the Most Improved Player in the NBA last season. This game was a possible “trap game” and as much of a challenge on paper as the USA’s back-court would see, but not much of a challenge materialized as USA won by 43 points as Klay Thompson lead the way with 20 points.
That same day, the biggest surprise of the tournament occurred with Spain’s surprising lost to France, who didn’t even have Joakim Noah or Tony Parker.
In both the semi-finals against Lithuania and the final game agains Serbia, Team USA rolled. Both games were all about showcasing the immense talent of Kyrie Irving, who posted 18 points and four assists against Serbia and 26 points against Serbia. Irving was later named tournament MVP.
The main takeaway from the 2014 FIBA World Cup is that though the rest of the world is improving, the gap is still very vast when it comes to basketball. This version of Team USA didn’t have the star power of past squads and that didn’t stop the team from running through the competition. No player could be looked at as a definitive star but Irving showed some maturity in stepping up for the championship round, also deserving of props was Harden who was MVP-worthy in leading the team with 14.2 points per game over the length of the tournament.
It will be interesting to see where the FIBA Basketball World Cup goes from here in regards to Team USA’s involvement. The Paul George injury could lead to a transition back to the old system of only using NCAA athletes or it could end up with a hybrid of professionals sharing roster spots with elite college players. The coaching staff looked good in dealing with the number of tough breaks the team came across in the tournament’s run up, it also handled the still-delicate Rose well and didn’t do anything to set-back the physical side of his come back.
I feel I have to let Bulls fans know that I am both worried and relieved after the tournament in regards to Rose, he’s still obviously rusty, but at some point he has to show that he can dominate on court as opposed to the blending in he did with Team USA. Rose’s once-established ability to dominate will be of need particularly in the NBA season with Kyrie Irving looking like he finally has acquired the killer-instinct that separates championship-caliber players from the rest of the pack.
On a more positive note, Pau Gasol looked rejuvenated for Spain and finished in the tournament’s top five in scoring, averaging 20 points per game. This tournament had its moments but overall I felt it was very dis-interesting from an entertainment standpoint.
As it currently stands Team USA may not be memorable in the grand tradition of USA basketball, but they still managed a run where their average margin of victory was 33 points.
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