With the possible exception of France's win over Argentina on Tuesday, there haven't really been any surprises in the Olympic men's basketball tournament thus far. Perhaps Brazil's wins have been lackluster, maybe Spain has not been as dominant as one might have expected, one could say Russia has looked unexpectedly strong, but by and large the results have been as anticipated and the teams one expects to advance into the knockout stage are well on their way.
Why are those the teams one expects to advance? Well the simple answer is because they have the most talent. A more nuanced way to describe the better teams might be based on the strength of their point guards.
It goes without saying that point guard play is important to team success in any basketball league, at any level. The position arguably takes on even greater importance in international tournaments like the Olympics, where teams are thrown together with relatively little practice time as a unit. In that situation, having a superior floor general, a coach on the floor to control the flow of the game and get the ball to the right people at the right time, takes on additional urgency. When a coaching staff hasn't really had enough time to drill every aspect of a sophisticated offensive scheme, a great point guard is the next best thing. (Which explains why the Clippers and Chris Paul had the fourth most efficient offense in the NBA last season despite Vinny Del Negro's relatively simplistic sets.)
Put another way, it's no accident that the recent dark days of USA Basketball, with a bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics and a sixth-place finish in the 2002 World Championships, featured shoot-first point guards like Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson and Baron Davis running the show. Nor is it a coincidence that Jason Kidd is undefeated in international competition.
Russia has been impressive in two games in London in large part because of the surprisingly strong play of point guard Alexey Shved, who is leading the tournament with 9.5 assists per game after the second day of competition. Other top point guards in the tournament include Marcelinho Huertas of Brazil (known simply as Marcelinho in the Brazilian one-name fashion), Pablo Prigioni of Argentina, Sarunas Jasikevicius of Lithuania, Jose Calderon of Spain, and of course Tony Parker of France and a trio of All-NBA performers for Team USA (Paul, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook). If Australia and Patty Mills can sneak into the fourth spot in Group B, it will be a clean sweep for teams with top-level point guards advancing to the knockout stage in London.
Paradoxically, international point guards have had limited success in the NBA. Ignoring Steve Nash, who played high school ball in Victoria, British Columbia, which, with apologies to our Canadian friends, is like a suburb of Seattle, Parker is the only other non-U.S. born point guard to ever make an NBA All Star team. Calderon has had a respectable NBA tenure and Goran Dragic had a breakout season last year, but for the most part international point guards have seemed to underperform in the NBA when compared to the rest of their careers.
Take Jasikevicius for instance. The best player in Europe for many years, a Euroleague champion with three different teams, he had a disastrous stint in the NBA. During brief stops in Indiana and Golden State (where Don Nelson turned his last name into the malaprop nickname "Jazzy Cabbages") he was asked to be a role-playing, ball control backup, a terrible fit for a guy who has thrived on taking over games on the international stage. After two seasons as an anonymous reserve stateside, he returned to rock star status in the Euroleague.
Jasikevicius, Mills, Sergio Rodriguez, Carlos Arroyo, Beno Udrih, Marko Jaric -- the list of star international point guards who've met with little or no success in the NBA is long. It's difficult to say exactly why this is the case, but it could have something to do with the role these players are asked to fulfill in the more talent-rich NBA. As the be-all end-all for Puerto Rico, handling the ball about 80 percent of the time and creating or taking every shot for his team, Arroyo was nothing short of spectacular in the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 World Championships. His skills kept him in the association for nine seasons, but he was always at his best as the best player and focal point on his team. As the sixth or seventh best player on an NBA roster, he lost the spark that made him special.
Of course, the best young international point guard is sitting out these Olympics recovering from a knee injury. Is it possible that Ricky Rubio represents a new era of success for non-U.S. point guards in the NBA?
The Knicks, Timberwolves and Spurs certainly hope so. Next season alone, Prigioni has signed with New York, Shved with Minnesota and Nando de Colo (Tony Parker's backup with Team France) with San Antonio. That leaves Marcelinho as the only point guard playing for a contender in London who has never signed an NBA contract -- and goodness knows he's good enough to play in the big show if he ever wants to make the jump.
Perimeter play is the one area where Team USA remains dominant on the international stage. Both Spain and Brazil have frontcourts arguably just as strong as the United States, and Russia's bigs aren't bad either. The backcourts are beginning to catch up as well, as evidenced by these London games, and the top seven teams all have at least one quality guard -- but the depth of quality on the perimeter is what really distinguishes Team USA, and is likely what will carry them to the gold medal.
Nonetheless, these games seem to represent a new era of the point guard in international competitions. Gone are the days when Dirk Nowitzki can carry a Germany squad deep into a major tournament without a competent point guard to get him the ball. Teams have to have a very good floor general to compete at this level, and watching Shved throw lobs to Andrei Kirilenko, watching Marcelinho hit his unique floater in the lane (the guy likes the shot so much he actually took a running three-pointer as the shot clock ran done during a possession against Great Britain on Tuesday) -- these have been the most unexpected and exciting moments of the Olympic tournament so far.
We'll have to wait and see how Shved, de Colo and Prigioni (who will be the oldest rookie in NBA history when he makes his Knicks debut at 35) play in the NBA. But in London, along with a handful of other top point guards, they're leading their teams into the medal round, and perhaps onto the podium.