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Will new rules help or hurt Team USA?
For years, the funky trapezoid lane, too-close-for-comfort 3-point line and other wonders of international basketball — spotty officiating, swatting the ball off the rim — were viewed by Americans as not-so-charming idiosyncrasies.
Then the United States began to lose — to Puerto Rico, Greece, Lithuania, Argentina and Spain. And it was not long before nuisance was overrun by another impulse — good old Yankee imperialism.
“We invented the game and then we end up playing in international competition with their ball and their rules, the whole different thing,” said USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo, speaking for pretty much anyone who has represented the United States over the past decade. “You want everyone playing by the same set of rules.”
Well, now the United States has gotten mostly what it wants. The Olympic basketball tournament will be the first international competition played to mostly American standards. The lane is rectangular — just like in the NBA — and the 3-point line has been bumped back 1 1/2 feet to approximately 22 feet, 2 inches, so it is closer to the NBA line (ranges from 22-0 to 23-9) than to the college line (20-9).
Call it irony, or simply the basketball gods smiling, but these two subtle but significant rule changes, voted into place four years ago, may come back to bite the United States because they are reintroducing the dominant low-post center to international basketball at a time when the Americans do not have one.
“Post play will definitely be a factor now,” said Tony Ronzone, USA Basketball's director of international personnel, rattling off teams such as Spain (Marc and Pau Gasol), Russia (Timofey Mozgov) and Brazil (Nene and Tiago Splitter) that should be helped by the new rules. “Those guys are big. We used to be big.”
The great American center?
Dwight Howard is out with back surgery. Andrew Bynum preferred to take the summer off. And Tim Duncan — well, don’t get him started on international referees.
So, while the United States is hardly in imminent danger with its All-Star roster headed by LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, etc., there is only one center on the roster. Tyson Chandler, who may be one of the NBA’s best defensive centers, has an offensive repertoire that’s as thin as a supermodel. He is also prone to foul trouble.
“There aren’t centers on any level, so what do we do, cry about the fact that we don’t have any?” Colangelo said. “No. What can we do to counteract that? I think you come up with a lot of 6-10 guys who can really play, who are really versatile, who are really quick.”
And thus the United States will rely on the same formula it did in winning the gold medal in Beijing, when it overwhelmed every opponent with its full-court pressure and transition game — until the final, when it took scintillating shooting to hold off Spain.
Assistant coach Mike D’Antoni said there will be no changes to the offense, which will rely on spreading the court and driving to the basket to create, even if the 3-pointers that opponents so eagerly offered to the United States now will be a little more difficult.
“It will be exactly the same,” D’Antoni said.
Running an offense through the low post had been exceedingly difficult in international play — even with the likes of Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, David Robinson and Howard — because the trapezoid lane was 3 feet, 8 inches wider at its base than the NBA lane, forcing post players to set up farther away from the basket. Also, zone defenses (which do not have to abide by a three-second rule as in the NBA) and the proximity to the 3-point line made it easy for teams to double-team the post. Ronzone expects the United States to see 80 percent zones.
The angular lane did provide the athletic Americans with an advantage that proved to be significant in 2008. Offensive rebounds were easier to be had on free throws because the player farther from the end line was almost closer to the basket. This allowed Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony to sneak past Marc Gasol for rebound baskets in the second half of the gold-medal game.
“That’s going to be harder,” Chandler said.
Ronzone — who arrived here Monday after scouting the FIBA qualifying tournament in Venezuela, where the final three Olympic berths went to Russia, Lithuania and Nigeria — said the United States’ quickness will be rewarded in other areas.
The narrower lane means that defenses will be packed tighter, but with more 3-point shooting than exists in the NBA (and presumably a decline in shooting percentages with the line moving back), more long rebounds should be available. There likely will be more offensive tips, just to keep the play alive — a quality that Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Chandler and James should provide.
In Venezuela, quick teams such as Nigeria and the Dominican Republic — which lost to Nigeria in the third-place game — were rewarded, Ronzone said. Slower teams such as Greece — which was edged by Argentina for a semifinal berth in Beijing — were punished.
“I love the changes because it gets the game closer,” Ronzone said of international basketball and its relationship to the NBA.
And, in London, perhaps the games, too.
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