It seems like everyone has a theory about why Team USA has recently struggled in international competitions like the World Championships. Some feel they still don't care enough to take them seriously. Some feel it's a stylistic issue, with the athleticism-heavy style of the NBA being a poor fit for FIBA. Others feel the players are selfish and not willing or able to sacrifice shots for the good of the team.
All those explanations have varying degrees of merit. To me, though, there's a simple explanation for why we so often see games like today's two-point squeaker against a Brazil team missing Nene and Anderson Varejao. The bottom line is that Team USA cannot and does not put in the same kind of preparation for this tournament as these other national teams.
Just watch the stark difference between Team USA's and Brazil's offensive sets. When Brazil has the ball, there's a lot of player movement all over the court. Every single action by every single player has a purpose and directly leads to a different action if the first action does not work. On one side of the floor, there might be a pick and roll, but on the opposite side, you might see a guard coming off a screen on the baseline. In other words, the sets have multiple options, and defenses need to keep both in mind. Even a group as talented as Team USA will struggle to always account for everything against a club that runs their offense as crisply as Brazil does.
When Team USA has the ball, on the other hand, it's an entirely different story. Most of the plays end one of two ways: either with one player isolating and going one-on-one or with two players running a freelanced pick and roll. There aren't any secondary options, and there isn't any action to set up a different action. Instead, Team USA is relying exclusively on it's talent.
It's temping to say this is because Team USA has the wrong mindset. After all, these are players who have played basketball their whole life, and they should know how to cut and move without the ball, right? But it's one thing to know the importance of cutting; it's another to be able to run a multi-layered offensive set effectively enough to confuse defenses. The latter requires a ton of practice, something Team USA just doesn't have the luxury of developing as long as they stick to the pro model. When you're bringing a team that has no holdovers from the squad you brought to the last big international competition, you simply can't develop the kind of cohesion, trust and practice time necessary to be able to run an effective half-court offense. Even the best players in the world need practice running sets and properly reading the defense.
Team USA's brass knows this, which is why they do so much to encourage the players to get out in the open floor and score in transition. That's Team USA's advantage, and everyone, from the players to the coaching staff, knows it. But that strategy can often result in turnovers from forcing the tempo, something that happened a lot today to Team USA. There's a tendency for these players to try to force the action, both because that's how they play in the NBA and because their coaches keep emphasizing the need to run. That could potentially cost Team USA against good teams like Brazil.
The thing to keep in mind is that Team USA won the game and is still fully capable of overcoming the preparation problem and winning this tournament. We're a long way from 2002, simply because Team USA is full of players who want to be there. But as long as Team USA sticks to the pro model, they're going to have to sacrifice cohesion in the name of bringing as talented a roster as possible. Sometimes, that talent overwhelms their more organized opponents, like it did in 2008. Sometimes, it doesn't.
The jury remains out on whether the 2010 squad is talented enough to overwhelm their opponents. Just don't be surprised if they encounter a couple more games like this one against good, organized teams. It is in those games where the preparation gap really shows itself.