I watched the United States play Argentina on Sunday – the first among these exhibition games that I had actually sat down to watch all 40 minutes. Before tipoff, I thought about the game in an NBA context – what if LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Tyson Chandler and Chris Paul faced Andres Nocioni, Manu Ginobili, Carlos Delfino, Luis Scola and some international no-name in Madison Square Garden? Anything less than a highlight reel-filled box score would set Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith ablaze. What about Brazil? Nene, Tiago Splitter, Leandro Barbosa and two other Brazilians no one has heard of? Even worse.
But this relies on the bombastic assumption that the best players in the US want to play in the NBA. That, because he’s a foreigner and hasn’t made it the League, (which, by the way, hails its championship as one of “world” proportions, a pretentiously inaccurate proclamation in itself), he’s just not that good. Of course this is not the case, but the general conversation surrounding our basketball culture lends itself to such a narrow-minded perspective. LeBron is the best player in the world, Michael Jordan the best player of all time. While these statements might be reasonable assumptions based on empirical evidence, they modify, and, consequently, solidify a certain unyielding line of thinking – that the NBA is the world, and foreign players are always fighting to gain entrance to this holy sanctuary.
But play the game in, say, Spain, with slightly different rules and a differently shaped painted area, and that disbelief is tempered. Announcers cited Argentina’s third overall rank in the world as some legitimate barometer of comparison – as if the two-spots-away-in-the-rankings argument holds any real weight. You just can’t compare Tiger Woods in his heyday to Phil Mickleson or Ernie Els or anyone else.
And then there’s the clumsy suggestion that Team USA is the sum of its parts. Basketball never unfolds that way. One or two players always take the lead, and the others fall in line. In theory, they’re able to better fulfill those secondary roles because they’re more talented. Except most are used to that leadership position, so we’re left with a cordial back and forth where no one wants to step on each other’s toes. (Side note: that’s the beauty of Tyson Chandler and Andre Iguodala – they know their roles and they’ve played them admirably and without complaint.) While it didn’t adversely affect the game’s result, it sparked the margin-of-victory conversation. “Are you sure you don’t want to shoot?” “No, no, no, you go ahead!”
When I watched the basketball unfold, and I saw these two games. The main attraction, of course, was the United States toying with Argentina, scoring 18 points in four minutes and reminding us why putting a bunch of superstars on the same team can be fun. But the half-court offense sideshow caught my eye as well, the inter-team identity crisis among USA players. There were no salaries and no hierarchy to dictate an order of things, so any possibility of offensive flow gave way to an overplayed adherence to etiquette, as if every player were walking on egg shells.
Over the course of 40 minutes, the Argentinians stuck around. Manu Ginobili euro-stepped his way all around the court and Luis Scola tried to barrel over every USA big like a set of bowling pins. Meanwhile, Team USA tip-toped around each other, going one-on-one in non-transition situations. Except, every player on the squad is talented enough to go one-on-one, so the strategy worked well enough to hold the lead. And so we won by six.
The truth of what should happen probably lies somewhere in the middle ground – we should be winning by more, and international players are talented enough to bridge the scoring gap. Maybe this lacks finality and clarity, if only because both of those statements seem irreconcilable. But they don’t have to be, if we can somehow acknowledge that winning by, say, 15 or 20, is enough of a statement.
What do you think is wrong with Team USA?
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