Changes are afoot that could alter the makeup of the squad—and its easy dominance over the competition.
The most striking thing about the United States men's basketball team is their frenetic pace of play. Professional basketball in the United States tends to unfold with a somewhat deliberate rhythm. Players have favorite spots on the floor from which they operate. Offensive sets are not rushed. Watch enough pro ball and you will become familiar with teams' tendencies—San Antonio's pick-and-roll, Miami's clear-outs for LeBron James. This is not the case at the Olympics. Every possession for USA Basketball takes on its own personality. Nothing is scripted. Players run up and down the floor with almost reckless abandon, looking to create opportunities on the fly. There's more scoring, more physical play and often more artistry.
Since 1989, when the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) began allowing professional basketball players to compete in the Olympics, fans have had the pleasure of watching the NBA's best players form a super team every four years to take on the best that the rest of the world has to offer. It started with the Dream Team, a group that is so routinely referred to as the greatest team ever assembled it's surprising their picture hasn't been incorporated into the official Olympic brand under the words "Faster, Higher, Stronger." And it continues with the current manifestation, a squad with arguably as much individual talent as their 1992 predecessors.
Unfortunately, this situation may soon come to end. NBA commissioner David Stern has been responding to concerns of some his league's most vocal owners by advocating that in the future, the Olympic basketball tournament essentially limit the competition to players 23 and under—which is what the men's Olympic soccer team currently does. If such a rule were applied to the current Olympics, household names like James, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Paul would not be eligible for the competition. Neither would international stars such as Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, or Manu Ginobili.
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The gist of Stern's argument seems to be that NBA owners assume unnecessary risk by lending their best players to the Olympics without getting financial compensation or insurance in return. Players can get injured during competition, jeopardizing the future of NBA teams. Blake Griffin, for example, tore his meniscus while preparing for the Olympics. The men's national team moved on without skipping a beat, while management for the Los Angeles Clippers will spend the rest of the summer worrying whether their $90 million-plus investment will regain his explosiveness before next season.
I understand where Stern is coming from. I suspect, however, that his position, like many labor disputes in professional sports, is as much about controlling what players can and cannot do as it is about money. What Stern and the owners should consider before asking FIBA to adopt their plan is that taking the Olympics away will only mitigate the risk of injury to a certain degree. Professional athletes in all sports hurt themselves in the offseason while competing in non-sanctioned activities from pick-up games to training drills. As Bryant has pointed out, when players are competing for their country they at least have access to top-notch medical care.
From a fan's perspective, the prospect that future Olympics might not feature the best professional players in the world is incredibly depressing. Olympic basketball provides significantly different viewing experiences than NBA basketball because of the logistics of the games and the way people see the competition.
The primary differences between NBA and Olympic basketball have to do with the rules. For starters, there's no illegal defense violation in Olympic competition. This doesn't mean the United States or other countries use a lot of true zone, but it does free opportunistic defenders playing in man-to-man schemes to gamble for steals without having to worry about getting whistled for an infraction. The United States takes full advantage of this situation. Under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the men's national team plays a style of basketball reminiscent of Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell." Players are always stepping into passing lanes, pressing opponents, and looking to convert turnovers into fast break opportunities. This often leads to breathtaking displays of athleticism. International referees' tendencies to allow more physical contact on the perimeter adds to the helter-skelter nature. There isn't a single NBA team that plays such an aggressive style of defense.
Olympic basketball also features a shorter three-point line. This entices players to shoot a higher percentage of shots from long distance. During the 2011-12 NBA season the Orlando Magic led the league with 27 three-point field goals attempted per game. During group play, the U.S. Men's basketball team was averaging 33.6 attempts per game. Considering that Olympic basketball games are eight minutes shorter than NBA games, that's a lot of three-point attempts.
These elements combine to create a high-octane brand of basketball whose aesthetic fluctuates between the pervasive sloppiness of the college game and the joyous celebration of offensive basketball that was so prevalent in the playoff series between the Dallas Mavericks and the Phoenix Suns in the 2000s. It is equal parts frustrating and exhilarating. Add to this mix the inflated expectations about the U.S. Men's basketball team and you have a tournament unlike any other in the world.