Sunday, June 12, 2005

Larry Brown and American Basketball On Trial, Again

by Guichard Cadet

In this year’s NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, Larry Brown and the Detroit Pistons are facing what amounts to a team of international All-Stars. LB can opt to preach playing the “game the right way” or change with the times.

In the 1988 Summer Olympics U.S.A. Men’s basketball failed to win the gold medal. Since then, America no longer sends a team of college players, arguing their international competitors are not amateurs. For the next 3 Olympic games, USA basketball routed its international peers by sending a series of “Dream Teams” composed of the top NBA players – Jordan, Magic, Bird, Barkley, etc...

A decade after the first dream team, the court of public opinion started making the case that professional basketball in America is no longer supreme because it is not fundamentally sound.

This past Olympics the critics had their convictions fulfilled as a seemingly poorly-concocted Dream Team lost three games, on their way to receive only a bronze medal. Throughout the competition it was evident what star U.S. players lacked as a team and on an individual basis. Key to their lost: lack of chemistry, and a pure jump-shooter to beat zones.

The problem with this assessment: the squad had a good mix of veterans and young players, wherein the youth showed much respect for their elders and no ill will that the veterans were pegged as starters.

This left the jump-shot as the main Achilles Heel. Whereas no one player can be considered a pure shooter, the following players regularly knock down the outside shot during the NBA season: Carmelo Anthony, Shawn Marion, Allen Iverson, Lamar Odom, Dwyane Wade and Tim Duncan.

Though there was a slight murmur that Larry Brown was not doing a good coaching job, the majority of the blame fell on the players, especially Carmelo Anthony. His was the lone voice of dissension who allowed his body language and facial expression to simply warn the media and viewing public: Don’t drink the milk…it’s spoiled. Yes, those Little Rascals knew what was at stake.

The players left Greece with the entire world convinced they were not the world’s best players or team. Their loss either helped the NBA or hurt the league, when it comes to world expansion. It truly depends on which side of the fence you prefer to stand.

USA basketball players equate NBA success – maximum contracts, championships, all-star selection, etc… - as their crowning moment. No one had ever questioned whether professional American basketball was the world’s most competitive and complete until the 2002 World Games in Indiana.

Oddly enough right after the first loss in Greece, Larry Brown had begun separating his coaching and reputation as the reason for the team’s losses. LB is a great coach who has won in various situations, and on so many levels. He is to American basketball, what management consultants, in their heyday, were to American business. These specialists are change agents, charged with correcting a particular process that has either gone awry or failed to produce the desired result. LB and other consultant-types have generic systems they apply to all problems.

The problem with American basketball is one that can never be fixed. It is part of the sport’s evolutionary process. Larry Brown either did not realize or respect the types of weapons he had at his disposal – the combination of Speed and Power. Two players – Amare Stoudemire and Emeka Okafor - epitomized this change, and they received the least amount of playing time.

The team was doomed because LB forced them to play a slow-down, non-athletic style, perfect fodder for the zones they faced.

Of the players who played in this past Olympics, only 3 failed to make this year’s NBA playoffs. Okafor won Rookie of the Year as the center for first-year expansion franchise, the Charlotte Bobcats. If LeBron James’ numbers and team turmoil earn him a pass for not taking the Cleveland Cavaliers into the playoffs, then the same consideration should be given to Stephon Marbury of the New York Knicks.

Otherwise the other Olympic players have made their appeal they are indeed the world’s best players, playing the best brand of basketball.

Now it is the Detroit Pistons’ turn to safeguard what they gained last year when they propelled Larry Brown to greatness, by blowing up the NBA’s old championship framework that required a team to have two of the game’s most dominant players. Though the clock had moved forward one year, they applied the same logic to beat the Miami Heat in seven games, and some question whether they would have done so had Dwayne Wade not been injured.

During that series, aside from momentum-deadening calls by the referees, the Pistons had to overcome Larry Brown’s penchant for pressing his thumb over outright athleticism. They were on the verge of losing the series to a Heat team that had its 2 best players dealing with injuries. LB had them grinding it out, instead of running the Heat to death, thereby forcing Stan Van Gundy to sit Alonzo Mourning and the Diesel, who looked regular, almost as if he had lead in his shoes.

The Detroit Pistons are an affirmation of what the basketball purists have been seeking: fundamentally-sound basketball without nicknames, and no media darlings. The problem for them is that they are facing their mirror-opposites.

The Spurs feature a bevy of players with international roots – Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Rasho Nesterovic, and Beno Udrih. They also have two three-point specialists, in Brent Barry and Robert Horry, who much like Steve Kerr acts like a garment inspector, whose seal you need in order to get a championship ring. Last but not least, Nazr Mohammed plays best when he is able to fly under the radar.

In Game 1 the Spurs confirmed that “objects in mirror are closer than they appear”. Much has been written of the friendship and similarities between LB and Spurs coach Greg Popovich. There’s even talk of Pop’s proclivity for his dictatorial tendencies with players. The two coaches seem to differ when it comes to their approach toward opponents. Whereas Brown seems to be a total system’s guy, Pop showed his flexibility in the Western Conference Finals versus Phoenix. In that series, Pop allowed his team to abandon setting the pace, scoring upwards of 100 points each game, and settling for a few key defensive stops per game.

The NBA is a league of repeat championships, and the Spurs are the only team not to have done so since the 1986 Boston Celtics. For Larry Brown, not repeating as a championship coach does not diminish his legacy, but it will sure make it harder for him to walk away from this job knowing his team played the game the right way, even though the coach did not.


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