Why Team USA Won

September 12, 2010

In spite of great criticism and scorn, I decided to make the FIBA World Championship game the centerpiece of my afternoon. My mother could not understand why I would watch it instead of the Yankees. My Denverite friend couldn’t understand why I would watch it instead of the Giants. But with the Yankees having locked up a playoff spot and the Giants having 15 more games to go, I was at peace with my decision.

I made watching the finals a priority because for one big reason: It would be a fascinating referendum on the actual importance of experience in high-level athletic competition. Here was the United States team, with six players under 22 years old and two on the roster with previous international experience, competing against the host’s national team for the gold medal. Tweet after tweet after tweet suggested that the Turkish crowd was suffocating, enthusiastic, and posed a huge challenge to the largely inexperienced Americans. Most everyone seemed to agree that the United States were the better basketball team, but most everyone also said that the atmosphere was overwhelming enough to level the playing field, if not to tip it in favor of the Turks. The game seemed like essential viewing for nerds like me who have spent hours writing about experience and leadership and their roles in both the outcomes of games and the way those games are examined. Because if you believe the conventional wisdom, the Americans would need sterling performances from veterans like Chauncey Billups and Lamar Odom, or else they would succumb to the savvy, the steadiness, and the teamwork of a Turkish team bolstered by its raucous home crowd.

The final score accurately suggests that the young United States team handled the pressure just fine. Kevin Durant continued to prove that he is simply not human, scoring 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting. Lamar Odom continued his fine work down low, efficiently scoring 15 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Russell Westbrook flashed his thrillingly unique skill set on his way to 13 points, six rebounds, and countless insertions of himself into the Turkish ball-handlers’ nightmares. Beyond that trio, scoring yielded to relentless defense, persistent rebounding, and a collective desire to give the ball to Durant and get the hell out of his way. Obviously, that formula worked.

If you look at the box score a little more closely, you will see that if this game really was a referendum on the importance of experience, the raw numbers don’t say much in favor of this supposedly necessary ingredient. Durant – the gold medalists’ leading scorer – was a 21-year-old with no international experience and one NBA playoff series under his belt. Fellow 21-year-old Derrick Rose compensated for his 4-for-11 shooting by dishing six assists against two turnovers. The aforementioned Westbrook – also 21 – was a key cog in the Americans’ defensive engine not just today, but throughout the tournament. 26-year-old Andre Iguodala put aside his role as go-to scorer on the Philadelphia 76ers, and spent most of the game battling much larger players in the post and crashing the offensive glass. Young Eric Gordon went 0-for-5, but so did Chauncey Billups, the team’s much-heralded and purportedly-clutch leader.

I think the lesson from this game is fairly simple, and one that I’ve discussed recently: Players are either good or bad based on the quality of their talent and basketball skills. The same broad criterion determines whether teams are good or bad, assuming the roster is constructed intelligently and with complementary (as opposed to redundant) players. After talent, players’ performances will fluctuate based on match-ups, randomness, and yes, experience. But those qualities are listed in descending order of importance, meaning that talent is and always will be king. The United States has a more talented and skilled basketball team than Turkey does. Along with some luck and favorable match-ups, that’s why they won today.

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Experience and the NCAA Tournament

March 31, 2010

Sherron Collins' experience allowed him to go 4-15 with 5 turnovers in the biggest game of Kansas' season

Even for a square, pop culture-ignorant guy like me, a neat part of living in Manhattan is the occasional celebrity sighting. I ran into Bill Cosby on the corner years ago. I saw Matt Damon wheeling a stroller – with, presumably, a child in it – down my block this past winter. I’m also beginning to think the entire cast of “The Wire” lives on the Upper West Side, because I’ve seen Seth Gilliam (Carver) taking his kid to school, Wendell Pierce (Bunk) outside Lincoln Center, and John Doman (Rawls) on the 3 train. Does it make me feel cool to write all this? Yes. Yes it does.

The famous person I see more than anyone else, however, is current broadcaster and former NBA player Len Elmore. He must live in the neighborhood, because I see him everywhere. I owe my first interaction with Mr. Elmore to my father. We were walking up Amsterdam Avenue several years ago when a gigantic figure emerged from Caesar’s Palace Pizza on 84th Street. My dad, a University of Maryland fan and graduate, quickly recognized his fellow Terrapin and gushed to me “that’s Len Elmore!” Naturally, my dad introduced himself to Elmore, and the three of us continued uptown together in varying degrees of shock – dad at meeting Len Elmore, Len Elmore at being met by my dad, and me at my dad’s hidden reserves of childlike enthusiasm. It was three blocks of bliss for my dad, who reluctantly parted ways with Elmore at 87th Street.

Obviously, with the NCAA Tournament in full swing, I haven’t seen Elmore around so much in March. But since he’s returned to the broadcasting booth, I’ve noticed a tendency of Elmore’s that I had never noticed before. More than most broadcasters I can think of, and certainly more than any other college basketball analysts, Elmore talks about the importance and significance of experience in the game of basketball. With Elmore, persistent shooting slumps and steady ball handling are attributed less to a simple cold streak or superior dexterity, and more to the absence or presence of a player’s experience. He’s not a radical. He’s not one of these analysts or fans that makes judgments about a player based on their look, their swagger, or any number of other arbitrary criteria on which intellectually complacent folks rely. But he really does seem to like himself some experience in a player.

As you can well imagine, I don’t think experience matters all that much when it comes to in-game activities. I suppose it matters when it comes to mental and physical preparation, but the number of variables affecting an athlete’s play in a game is so high that it strikes me as problematic to pin a player’s success or failure on the slippery and amorphous quality of “experience.” With all other factors being equal, yes, I would prefer an experienced player over an inexperienced one. The chances of “experience” being the deciding factor in any given game, however, seem quite low to me. Read the rest of this entry »