Sunday, February 28, 2010

Total Basketball


Just a couple of days ago, as I was looking over past Olympic games, I came upon highlights of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team and was predictably entranced. The combination of an unprecedented collection of talent (MJ, Bird, Magic, Pippen, Barkley etc) trounced any and all competition. This was by far the high-water mark for USA dominance in basketball. It may not have been the last time a USA team destroyed international opposition (Vince Carter), but it was the last time the world was utterly unprepared for the onslaught that ensued.

Following that ridiculous highlight show in 1992, the traditional narrative goes that fewer and fewer top notch American stars cared about upholding the immaculate standards of USA basketball, causing an eventual deterioration of results. This culminated in the 2004 Olympics where Larry Brown’s team was unceremoniously thrashed by several upstarts from across the world. Certainly it’s undeniable that if Kobe, KG and Shaq had bothered to show up in 2004, the story would have different. Still, the typical prognosis by American fans regarding our defeats is to blame the lack of U.S star power.

It’s a classic American misconception, born out of egotism that is admittedly subconscious. We invented the game. Hence we struggle to come to grips with the harsh reality that we may no longer be the absolute best all the time no matter what. A great example of this was actually at Beijing, where the Redeem Team won gold (it’s ok to react here by asking ‘yeah, we won gold, what’s your point?’ Bear with me…) The circumstances of their victory were very interesting. It was, by all accounts, an exceedingly close game (three quarters of the game was separated by only four points). The only difference was that, at the end of the day, America had Kobe Bryant and Spain did not. Was that all though? Could that have been the only difference?

Such a small margin of victory is telling, particularly given that there was no holding back on star power that time around. Bron Bron, Dwade, Kobe, Bosh and all the other five-star guns were in the mix, so why was it so close? Man for man, Team USA wins hands-down. Collectively though, they were a good match-up. This speaks to a more interesting development. Spain was able to claw their way into a game they should have had no shot in strictly talent wise. What was it though, that gave them an inkling of a hope (where in fact they only trailed by a basket in the Gold Medal game several times in the 4th quarter.)

The other World game…

The rest of the world, while a relative infant in terms of basketball, can draw on a reservoir of experience from soccer. And while this experience may not be applicable in certain ways, it definitely is in terms of a few major categories. They know, for example, that there is infinitely more to the game than athletic ability (a lesson that Josh Smith is just learning). Tactics play a crucial role. Proper team selection and team chemistry are also critical.

Where they utilize their cross-sport methods best, though, remains in the basic composition of a player. World players (especially the continental Europeans) have a tendency to be proficient in a more diverse list of basketball traits. In shooting threes, for example, American players like Dwight Howard and Kenderick Perkins are absolutely useless while European counterparts like Mehmet Okur and Dirk Nowitzki are quite proficient from deep. Okur, who was born in (and grew up in) Turkey, knocked down 45% of his threes to rank at 6th in the league last season. Such a ridiculous percentage is something that’s made even more unique considering he plays center.

Free throws, an act that makes Shaq more worthless than a Democratic majority, is another category where world players exploit the Americans. Look at all the European forwards who, despite being in and around 6’10”, are very competent at the charity stripe. In almost every international contest where a U.S. ‘All-Star’ team is involved, the opposition will outstrip them in free throw percentage.

Why is it that players who didn’t grow up in the U.S are more capable doing a larger range of basketball tasks? What does this all have to do with soccer? It’s a very interesting answer and, like so many interesting things, it started in two very different places simultaneously: Amsterdam and Kiev.

Total Football

Dutch soccer (or football as they clearly call it) was a joke for decades. And like basketball, the standard for soccer came initially from the country where it was invented: England. Even as late as 1948, England battered the Dutch team (an 8-2 win that flattered Holland if anything). British soccer, like American basketball, was spread across the world along with their culture. It was no different in Holland, where it was a British manager (Jack Reynolds) who laid the foundation of the Dutch style during his time with their elite club team, Ajax Amsterdam.

Amsterdam during the 1960’s and 70’s was one of the most liberal cities in the world (a trait that has mostly endured to the chagrin of college parents everywhere). John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously had their ‘bed in’ for peace at the Amsterdam Hilton, staying in their bed for a week. On top of this, the Dutch knew a thing or two about space and how to manipulate it, since their country is composed of manmade land that would normally be underwater.

In this way, it was the 1960’s and the city of Amsterdam that gave the world the initial concept of ‘total football,’ born out of the radical ideals that thrived in the city. Johan Cryuff, perhaps the greatest soccer player ever produced by Europe, was one of the driving forces behind it. The idea, in short, was that different players could seamlessly switch positions because they could all play everyone else’s position. In other words, Cryuff (a center forward) could switch positions with his teammate Johan Neeskens (a center midfielder) and their team would lose none of its goal-scoring potency. This concept allowed the Dutch to best manipulate the space on a soccer field (think about that in basketball terms).

Across Europe, a completely different city was producing a strikingly similar philosophy about soccer. Kiev, embedded deep in the Soviet Union, was everything Amsterdam wasn’t. Strict, authoritarian and completely Communist, Kiev also had a single-minded coach who came to the same conclusion about soccer as the Dutch. Valeriy Lobanovskyi, a Ukrainian native, determined through his trademark scientific methods that this concept of ‘universality’ (total football to the Dutch) was the best brand of soccer. Essentially, Lobanovskyi concluded that the collective whole of a team was greater than the sum of its individual parts. And the best way to achieve this was through different players being able to interchange with each other, making his team less predictable and more difficult to defend.

Don’t take my word for it though. Ajax Amsterdam won a hat-trick of European Cups in the ‘70s and the 1974 Dutch National team is widely regarded as the best national team never to win a World Cup (they lost 2-1 in the final to the host country: Germany). Lobanovskyi and his team, Dynamo Kiev, won their fair share of hardware too (a ridiculous haul of Russian titles, a brace of European Cup Winner's Cups and the 1975 European Super Cup).

This concept of universality or total football (whatever you want to call it) has persisted in soccer even as the players and coaches who developed and perfected it are now long gone. The Spanish national team that won Euro 2008 exemplified the ideals of universality, as have Barcelona and Manchester United in back to back Champions League wins. It’s no wonder then that when Europeans look at basketball, they see similar parallels.

Universality vs. Specialization

The idea of controlling and manipulating space is, if anything, more important in basketball than in soccer (the court is much smaller than a soccer field). Thus the idea of universality is equally, if not more critical. Think about it. If you can get a team of versatile players (especially big guys who can shoot from deep and a team who can all hit free throws), you could spread the floor on offense in every conceivable way. It also changes how tightly certain guys are defended (watch how many times Dirk blows by the guy defending him because he has to be guarded so tightly since he can regularly hit threes). Which brings us back to guys like Dirk, Mehmet and the rest of the European big guys who, like their Dutch and Soviet soccer playing counterparts, can do many of the tasks usually consigned to other, more specialized teammates.

In the United States, there is a set cookie cutter formula for producing basketball players. It’s the AAU camps, the endless array of talent scouts, advisors, facilitators, ‘coaches,’ etc. For them, there’s only one way to make basketball players and it involves specialization. Big guys practice rebounding, setting picks and post moves. Small guys practice shooting etc. This is the reason why American centers and forwards generally can’t shoot. It’s not that they don’t have the capacity; it’s that their taught only to improve on a certain skill set.

So that’s what it boils down to: universality vs. specialization. Is it better to be great at a few things or good at everything? The proving ground for this contest has so far been mostly restricted to the international stage. Slowly but surely, it has crept into the NBA. Time will tell to see how our model in America reacts to World’s model (refined as it has been in another sport entirely.)

Dissenting opinions and ideas lead to progress. This is exactly what the rest of world has to offer to the NBA. Conflicting philosophies and concepts about how to develop top basketball players are best sorted out in direct competition. So far, a limited group of international players have acquitted themselves very well in the NBA (just look at the San Antonio Spurs dynasty). Diversity is a good thing for the NBA. The only downside is for Team USA fans expectant on a continuous monopoly of gold medals, because I have news: unless we adapt, the party’s ending quicker than people think.

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