The Olympic Basketball Gap
by Dean Oliver, 8/24/04
Basketball coaches talk about the worst kind of errors being mental errors. They arenít surprised when players make execution errors because players arenít robots, but mental errors are inexcusable. In that light, the decision of the 2004 Olympic Menís Basketball Selection Committee to not take a better outside shooter (or two or three of them) is a mental error. Itís a poor decision, an inexcusable mental error. Itís like choosing a football team without a quarterback. As good as your athletes are at other skills, reducing your ability to carry out one skill makes everyoneís job a lot harder.
I donít know what the Selection Committee was thinking. No one does.
Given that mental error, Coach Larry Brown has been milking these players to make them as competitive as possible. And I donít want to pile on the players by only saying that Brown has done a good job because the players, since the Puerto Rico disaster, are leaving all they have out on the court, playing as hard as Allen Iverson always does. The players canít change their style now and the Selection Committee canít make a trade to bring in Michael Redd.
Perhaps because of the effort being put forth by the coaching staff and the players, knowing that they can lose, this is the most exciting Olympic basketball in 20 years. The games are close, the fans are cheering and jeering, the media actually mentions more than "Oh yeah, the US Menís Basketball team won again." This is actual competition with uncertain results for America and for the world.
The point of this article, though, is not to sound like sports radio. Sports radio hosts and callers are going nuts these days, getting to yell and complain and sound like theyíre sooooo smart, interrupted only by ads to improve sex drive and hair growth.
No, my goal here is to quantify a couple things that sports radio people are talking about, but donít bother to actually think about. Rational thought doesnít prevail on sports radio, so doing it here makes a bit more sense. The first thing I can quantify is "How much worse is this team than the ones the US has put on the floor in the past?" The lack of a three-point shooter is pretty obvious, but how much worse is this team than, say, the "embarrassment" of 2002? Second and more interestingly, how much has the world caught up to the US? Supposedly, the rest of the world has closed the gap. But how big was that gap to start and where is it now?
How Good is the 2004 Team?
Itís a rule that Larry Brown has generally stuck to:
Rookies just ainít that good, so donít play Ďem.
But he has 3 of them on the 2004 Olympic Team: Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade. And he has Emeka Okafor, fresh out of college and taking the same spot that Darko Milicic took for Brownís Detroit Pistons Ė designated fan. The above rule of thumb about rookies not being very effective is actually as good as rules of thumb get. Rookies, even good rookies like the ones on this team, are rarely very productive players. Most rookies donít even add as many wins as they add losses. All 3 of these guys fit that characteristic, as none of them produced as much offensively as they allowed defensively (as measured from points per 100 possessions). Theyíre all going to get good, but they arenít there now. Of course, rookies used to be more effective when they actually went to college for a while. Tim Duncan was the best rookie of the past decade, going to college for four years, and definitely contributing more wins than losses as an NBA rookie. David Robinson, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley all contributed more wins than losses as rookiesÖ Hmm, all members of the 1992 Dream Team.
Since the incomparable 1992 Dream Team, the other teams of pros that have been labeled "Dream Teams" have certainly not lived up to my dreams. Kinda like replacing Tyra Banks on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover with Meredith Baxter. Makes you cringe, doesnít it? So many of the more recent teams have made me cringe, so Iíll call them the Cringe Teams.
Many of the Cringe Teams actually werenít so bad in playing the game as they were in being diplomats for America. Crotch-grabbing and chest-bumping and chest-thumping Ė these guys really felt some need to act like they were teenagers in heat or, equivalently, professional wrestlers. Cringe. Their basketball games were so lopsided that maybe they should have had scantily clad women walk around the court with cards announcing substitutes and timeouts. And the score. And the foul situation. OK, no cringe on that one.
Though the Cringe Teams were good, they werenít as good as The Dream Team. In the table below, the individual offensive and defensive points per 100 possession ratings (their career numbers up to that point) for all the teamsí players were averaged to get a sense for how good they were. The Dream Teamís offensive rating of 116 was outstanding. No NBA team has ever been assembled that produced so many points per 100 possessions. With a defensive rating of 105, they had a net of about 11 points per 100 possessions, which would also be about the best ever. The 1996 Cringe Team actually came within a couple points of the Dream Team, but all the others have been quite a bit worse. (For reference, a team that nets 5 points per 100 possessions wins about 54 games in the NBA Ė a good playoff team.)
The 2000 Team actually was only one tiny point better than an average NBA team. Cringe. When they came within a foot of losing to Lithuania in the Olympic semi-finals, that shook peopleís faith a bit. It made people cringe, if you will. That team just wasnít great, but it was hidden by some good margins of victory. Just think of a couple players from that team that you may have forgotten about. Vin Baker was on that team and it wasnít the Baker that was an All-Star. It was the Baker that showed up after the disastrous strike season that added weight to his body and soul. That team also had Antonio McDyess, a player whose potential always seemed greater than his performance, who played on just one winning team in his career. Shareef Abdur-Rahim was on that team and, though a good player, he was still young (23) and Ė like Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Allan Houston, Steve Smith, and the aforementioned Baker Ė he wasnít known for his defense. That was the worst characteristic of this team Ė its mediocre perimeter defense, something that came close to hurting a lot in 2000.
People (happily) forget the 1994 team, dubbed Dream Team II, a label that seemed so wrong even then, as Derrick Coleman, Shawn Kemp, Larry Johnson, Dan Majerle and others just couldnít replace the players of 1992, all of whom except one (and Christian Laettner, the college player who doesnít count, as in all the calculations herein) having been named since to the leagueís Top 50. That team also wasnít particularly good defensively, though it did have both Alonzo Mourning and Joe Dumars, two players who loved the dirty defensive work.
But notice where the 2004 team is Ė two points better than average. It is average defensively and two points better offensive than the NBA average. This is the worst offensive group assembled for international play, barely even shooting the league average from the field, so itís not a surprise that they struggle to put up points. At least it shouldnít have been a surprise.
The lack of a three-point shooter makes this worse, of course. In looking at "likely" three-point shooters for the past international teams, the three-point shooters on this team have a career average of only 32% from downtown. The only team that was below 36% before this was the original Dream Team, which had Larry Bird at 38% and a few other guys who hadnít had to shoot the three much. For the 2004 team, adding a three-point shooter Ė like Michael Redd or Brent Barry or Voshon Lenard or even the retired Steve Kerr Ė would have helped the team a lot more than just the increased shooting percentage from the outside. The team isnít making two-point shots as well as it should because most teams have sagged their zone down so far as to have five players within a foot of the key. Tim Duncan has been averaging 9 shots in 32 minutes in the Olympics, whereas he averaged 9 shots in 22 minutes in the qualifying tournament last summer. And thatís not because the US Team doesnít want to go to him. Itís because they canít go to him.
In making an estimate of how much it has cost the US to have had a bad Selection Committee, err, outside shooting, the simplest approach isnít bad. Specifically, figuring out how many points the team missed out on by not shooting a reasonable average from three-point land gives a pretty good estimate. A "reasonable average" is somewhere near the percentage that it would take for opposing teams to pull their defenders out to guard three-point shooters more. And that would be close to one-third of the offensive efficiency of the Olympic teams, which is about 105 points per 100 possessions. So, if the US were hitting just about 35% of its three-point shots, the outside shooters would have a relatively small negative impact on their big men. Instead of hitting 21 of 89 shots, they would be hitting 31 of 89. This is about 6 points per game that the NBA is missing out on. That is 6 points that you could add to the above table under 2004 and make this a pretty good team.
How Good is the Rest of the World?
Even with that extra 6 points a game, notice that the US would not have beaten Puerto Rico, which won by 19. The world has gotten better. Their fundamentals have improved so much. Their shooting is very good. Theyíre more athletic. But how much have they improved?
(Advance warning: Be prepared for a big number. The rest of the world has improved a HUGE amount in the twelve years since the Dream Team. The rest of the world would now give even the Dream Team a run for their money.)
HUGE is more than ten or twenty points. Even a straightforward look at the numbers says itís bigger than that. In 1992, the Dream Team won by an average of 44 points per game. This year, the US Team has an average scoring margin of 3 points (we really canít say they "won" by an average of three points, can we?). Thatís about 40 points of gap closed in twelve years. I looked at this in a much more refined way, accounting for the quality of the US players, accounting for the fact that the Dream Team actually let up a bit against their competition when they were winning by so much (see Chapter 12 in Basketball on Paper for how this works), and accounting for the 6 pts the current team loses by being poorly assembled (a fact that should be mentioned to the Selection Committee as often as possible), and found a slightly lower but still high number: 32 points. The following table shows the trend of the gap between the average NBA team (the Dream Team was actually about 52 points better) and the rest of the world.
The method for evaluating this difference simply looks at the average scoring margin, adding points back in if a team slacked off (as the early teams did in blowing their opponents out), adjusts for the strength of the team (the Dream Team was 11 points better than an NBA average team, for example), and, in the case of the 2004 team, adds back in the 6 points that they lose by missing a key skill that every other NBA and international team has.
The average NBA team used to be about 40 points better than the rest of the world. And the average NBA team didnít have any foreign players on the team. Detlef Schrempf was the best foreign player in the league in 1992. Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis, Vlade Divac, Rik Smits, and Sasha Volkov were right behind. Toni Kukoc came over before the 1994 season. Dino Radja, Arvydas Sabonis, Vitaly Potapenko, and Steve Nash showed up by the 1997 season. Then the onslaught: Zydrunas Ilgauskas from Lithuania, Peja Stojakovic from Serbia, Dirk Nowitzki from Germany, Hedo Turkoglu from Turkey, Jiri Welsch from the Czech Republic, Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Tony Parker from France, Yao Ming and Wang Zhi-Zhi from China, plus Manu Ginobili, Nene, and Leandro Barbosa from South America. And thatís ignoring several players that I could name, but I had to find a place to stop. Several of these players have said that the NBA is the greatest league on earth and their experience here has certainly helped cut the gap down to a modest 9 points or so.
So now the US sits about 9 points better than the "average" international team. Since the variation among international teams is well above 9 points, that implies that the best of these international teams can play decently in the NBA. This seems very feasible with the way they have been beating the US in the Olympics and with the way internationally-dominated NBA teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, and Sacramento Kings have been doing in the leagueÖ of course, all those teams figured out that itís nice to have reliable three-point shooters.For more from Dean, see:
Basketball On Paper
Roboscout looks at the Lakers-Wolves series
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