July 6, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Team USA forward Blake Griffin during practice at the UNLV Mendenhall Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
Have a problem with Blake Griffin being added to Team USA's Olympic basketball roster? Tom Ziller explains why adjusting to the international style of play is overrated and argues that Griffin will be the least of Team USA's worries.
USA Basketball officially announced its 12-man Olympic roster on Saturday, adding Blake Griffin, Andre Iguodala and James Harden to the previously confirmed nine players heading to London. All nine of the previously confirmed players had played for Team USA either in the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey. Iguodala played for the 2010 team that won gold, but neither Griffin nor Harden had played for the senior men's team in any competition before being selected for the London roster.
Due to that lack of service (a big deal to boss Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski, who have sought to build a commitment culture around the program), Harden's selection over 2010 vets Rudy Gay and Eric Gordon was a bit of a surprise. Given Harden's versatility and the constant need for both shooting and ball-handling, the justification for the Thunder guard over the more experienced options is pretty easy to understand.
Griffin was far from a surprise -- multiple reports preceding the roster announcement confirmed the Clipper's inclusion, and at least one enterprising reporter claimed an 18-month-old scoop on Blake's spot (I'll let you ferment in the absurdity of that). But from some corners, the Griffin nod received a good bit of criticism. In particular, the issue of Griffin's game not fitting the international style of play was presented as a reason that Colangelo and Coach K should have gone with a rim defender like Anthony Davis or a perimeter scorer like Gay or Gordon.
There are two huge problems with this line of thinking.
The first is pretty simple: Griffin is the 11th man on a team replete with talent. Tyson Chandler, an ace defender and finisher, has been penciled in as the starting center. He'll likely be joined by Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James in the starting five. Carmelo Anthony (a master of the FIBA style; if he were born in Puerto Rico, they'd already have statues of him in San Juan), Deron Williams, Kevin Love, Iguodala (a highly valued defender) and Russell Westbrook will be available off of the bench. Because Joakim Noah is missing for France, there are exactly two teams against which Team USA might need more big men than Chandler, LeBron and Love: Spain (starring the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka) and Brazil (with Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter).
Against all nine other teams that Team USA could face, Coach K can reserve Griffin for garbage time (of which there will be plenty). So even if Griffin were a scrub in international play due to a poorly fitting skillset, Coach K would only really need to potentially call on him against two other teams with NBA size and talent in the frontcourt.
The other reason the argument that Griffin's incompatible style of play should have led Colangelo and Coach K in a different direction is flawed is because the idea that international basketball is completely different than NBA basketball is vastly overstretched. There's been tons of cross-pollination over the years, and while a couple of important rule differences (taking balls off of the rim, a tighter whistle on traveling) need to be learned by less experienced players, the actual style of play is similar. After a few years of failure in the 2000s (culminating with that devastating 2004 Olympic embarrassment), the whole "style of play" issue became a marquee talking point around USA Basketball team construction.
But the problems in 2002 (USA finished sixth at home) and 2004 (bronze in Athens) weren't about style of play. They were about Team USA being woefully unprepared and, frankly, uncommitted. The Athens squad's problems began and ended with three dudes: Larry Brown, Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson. Starbury and A.I. aren't bad fits for international play; they are bad fits to play with each other in any setting, period. That Larry Brown stapled LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony to the bench didn't help at all. Neither did the fact that he either did not have a plan or had no ability to implement his plan (I'll never stop laughing at how Brown always seemed to be adamant that having Mike Bibby, who declined an invite, would have saved that team).
Blake Griffin is insanely good at basketball, and usually in international or club play, that's good enough. Those who argue he has no floor skills don't pay enough attention to the Clippers' possessions that aren't on SportsCenter's Top 10. Even adjusting for FIBA rules, Griffin is better than any other forward any other nation will bring to London with three possible exceptions: Pau Gasol of Spain, Luol Deng of Great Britain (whose face-up game is strong) and Al Horford (whose Dominican Republic team hasn't even earned a berth yet). And at this point, due to age in Gasol's case and injuries in the cases of Deng and Horford, Griffin is quite likely to be the best.
And he's Team USA's 11th man. We'll be fine. It'll be okay. The decision to pick Blake Griffin over Gordon, Gay or Davis will not cost USA Basketball the gold medal in London. Team USA can lose -- certainly, Team USA can lose -- but if it happens, it'll be because of reasons much bigger than Griffin's selection.