In 2005, Mike Krzyzewski was hired to coach the U.S. basketball team for the 2006 FIBA World Championship and 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. He had worked for the US team in the past, most notably as an assistant to Chuck Daly during the gold medal winning campaign of the original “Dream Team” at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. As the head coach at Duke University, his program can be measured not only by his three NCAA national championships (1991, 1992 and 2001), but by the numerous players he coached that went on to play in the NBA. Krzyzewski attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, and also served as Bobby Knight’s assistant at the Indiana University. He currently has a75.1 winning percentage (78.1 with Duke), and has won 12 Coach of the Year Awards. He is a member of a small group of coaches, who won more than 700 games. Krzyzewski was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall Of Fame in 2001.
Soon after starting his tenure as the managing director of the USA Basketball, Jerry Colangelo appointed me as the team’s head coach, assembled an excellent team of assistants from both the NCAA and the NBA, and insisted on a thorough process of selecting players with long-term commitments to the national team. The U.S. team travelled to Japan as the favourite to win the gold medal at the World Championships. We didn’t achieve that goal (we won the bronze medal), but we did show some amazing improvement when compared to the previous U.S. teams.
We had a serious approach from the coaching staff starting at Day One of our training camp. The conduct of the players (especially the superstars), their commitment to the game plans, superior performances during the exhibition games, along with the fact that this team will stay together for the next two years, can only be a great signal for the future. Our team finished the tournament at 8-1, after winning all five exhibition games (Puerto Rico, China, Brazil, South Korea, and Lithuania). We dominated in almost every statistical aspect of the game — leading all teams with 103.6 point per game (110 during the exhibition games), and shot the ball well—50.3% (also leading the tournament). We also finished first among all teams in assists per game (18.78), free-throws attempted (182), steals per game (10.8), while finishing second in blocks per game (4.9), and fourth in rebounds per game (36.3, 13.1 offensive and 23.2 defensive rebounds per game). Until the semifinal clash with the Greeks, we won all games with an average margin of 25.8 ppg.
The reasons for the defeat in the Greece game are several. Our team faced a competitive and experienced rival, the reigning European champions, a team that had reached its peak in this tournament during this game. Our team allowed 101 points in this game (after allowing just 80.8 in the first seven games). We were unable to pressure the Greek guards down the floor or in the shooting zones. Moreover, we shot an appalling 59% from the free-throw line (20 from 34), 32% percent from three-point range (9 from 28), and managed to steal the ball only four times. In addition, Greek guards and centers caused some serious trouble with their perfect execution of the pick-and-roll. In summary, the win by the Greeks was absolutely deserved.
Considering the fact that there are some big differences in the style of play, game philosophy, and rules between the NBA and the rest of the world (FIBA competitions), some time is clearly needed for our players to adjust before facing well prepared and coached international teams that emphasize team defense and various offensive plays.
Our coaching staff managed to make the players understand their roles game after game, with the captains Dwyane Wade (19.3 points per game), LeBron James (14) and Carmelo Anthony (19.9) leading the way, along with great help from the cast of supporting players. Those three players carried the load down the stretch, playing most of the time at the guard (mostly shooting guard) position, but James and Anthony were also used as centers, both offensively and defensively, which certainly wasn’t a problem, given their size and physical conditioning.
Joe Johnson and Shane Battier were used as backups for two-guard position, Chris Paul (finished second in assists per game with 5.25) and Kirk Hinrich covered the point guard spot, while Elton Brand, Dwight Howard (1.3 blocks per game) and Chris Bosh shared the minutes at center. Brad Miller and Antawn Jamison were seldom used backups.
The Americans’ style of play can be described as a simple game with a lot of running and fast breaks. There was a tendency for flamboyant plays and many one-on-one situations, with a large number of shots taken early in the shot clock. We combined this with an aggressive defense, typically man-to-man.
Following the strategy of previous U.S. national teams, we decided to divide the playing time of players. We set the number of shots for each player, using 10 to 12 players in the rotation with frequent substitutions, sometimes changing three or four players at the same time, while rarely deviating from our game plan.
When you talk about the U.S. team’s defense, the first thing that comes to mind is the aggressive man-to-man. We started every game playing half court or 3/4 court defense, and, after the first substitutions during the first quarter, we would start to be more aggressive, making it tougher for the opponents to move the ball. Chris Paul was the usual starter at the point guard, and after Kurt Hinrich would replace him, at which time we generally used a full court press. While using the full court press, we pressed the dribbler aggressively, closed the lanes for the first pass, forced the dribbler to the sidelines, fronted the players on the low post with a strong help side, defended great from the down screens, and boxed out well after the shots. An important thing to mention was that we were very good at taking offensive charges. During the inbounds we always pressured the guards and tried to make the offense pass the ball to a taller player (in the game against Australia, Andrew Bogut often moved the ball, while Dirk Nowitzki did it during the game against Germany).
We usually used a lineup with only one big player, and given the quality and the potential of the players, we often used two point guards (Paul and Hinrich) on the floor at the same time, sometimes playing without a true center (we started Hinrich, Johnson, James, Wade, and Anthony against Greece), a lineup where everybody would switch on defense. With this style of defensive play, we allowed 83.1 points per game, while averaging 10.8 steals per game, which made all of our fast breaks and lay-ups possible. During the game against Germany, we used a full court press with double teams (diagr. 1), especially when their point guard (Hamann) was moving the ball.
While defending the pick-and-roll, we often used show-and-go over, and always switched on all screens. However, this was the segment of the game that gave us some trouble, mostly in games with some experienced teams like Italy, Greece, and Argentina, so we would quickly change the way of defending in those games. We stopped showing and started switching on the pick-and-roll. Except for the Greece game, we didn’t have problems with defensive miss- matches, which is not a strange thing considering the athletic abilities of our players.
During the entire course of the tournament, the U.S. team used zone defense only twice, against Italy, and briefly against Argentina during the bronze medal game. We used a 2-3 zone, but this defense was our secondary option, and we would go back to man-to-man after just a few minutes.
With fast breaks as our favourite weapon, the USA team had the most prolific offense of the whole tournament. We always tried to move the ball quickly to the other side of the floor, often followed by a shot from the ball handler, or by a penetration, and a kick out pass for a three-point shot. Our tendency was to continually run fast breaks, especially after defensive rebounds and allowed baskets. With this style of play, offensive plays lasting less than five seconds were not rare, but we were very good in “handicap” situations, and on the offensive glass as well. Our team’s second offensive solution was the pick-and-roll on the side (diagr. 2), which was most commonly finished by a shot by the dribbler (Hinrich), or with a pass to a player setting the screen (Brand or Howard) on the low post, or a kick off pass to the perimeter player, who spotted up around the three point arc. In transition game situations, we usually didn’t have enough patience to try to get a good position for a shot. This meant that our players would typically shoot with a defender’s hand in their face, or they would penetrate to the basket with two or three defenders standing in the way. We modelled our half-court offense on NBA standards, executing it with a small number of screens and player movement. Our idea was to create a one-onone situation where we would try to isolate the player from the help side. Players either easily handled those situations, or improvised the next move. Although the USA’s possessions rarely lasted more than 10 seconds (while not setting many screens and passing the ball too much), we were very efficient. Not only did we score 103.6 points per game, but also our two stars—Wade and James - both shot 67 % (leading the tournament in that category) from inside the three-point line.
Sometimes we would use the “On B” play, a play that called for a tall player to play pick-and-roll in most situations at the top of the key (diagr. 3).
Another frequently applied play was “horn,” a play where consecutive screens would be set, generally for Le-Bron James (diagr. 4), followed by one screener cutting to the paint, while the other one would try to get himself open for a shot.
Another play we used for James was “elbow.” A player would handle the ball on the top of the key, while the other four players would concentrate on one side, trying to take the defense’s attention from the player with the ball, while expecting a pass for a quick shot. Tall players would position themselves near the basket, trying to get in a good position for a rebound (diagr. 5).
An almost similar play was used when the passing lane was open in the corner of the key (usually for James), followed by a point guard’s cut next to the player with the ball, and by a screen from the other tall player in the high post (diagr. 6).
Another start of a play that looks much like this one was followed by a down screen for player 3 instead of the pick-and-roll (diagr. 7). The ball was handed or passed to player 3, followed by a shot. As I have already mentioned, the ball was often passed to the low post, and the isolation called for a one-on-one situation (for Brand, Howard, or Bosh). It wasn’t uncommon to see Anthony or James in that situation as well (diagr. 8).
Simple plays were called after the sideline inbounds. When the ball was to be put in play from the sideline, a down screen for a guard would be set, followed by a one-on-one play (diagr. 9), with a good positioning of the rest of the players on the floor. In the baseline inbounds situations, a tall player would set the screen for a guard, and both tried to open up and receive the ball after that. If the ball was passed to a tall player who, was not in a position to score, he passed the ball back to the inbounder, who played one-on-one (diagr. 10). If a guard received the ball, the tall player would clear the side followed by an one-on-one play. Considering that all the teams we faced often played zone defense in order to slow down our offense and make us shoot from outside, we had a couple of options in attacking the zone. When we had two tall players on the court at the same time, we attacked with a player on the high post, trying to make the high and the low posts cooperate (diagr. 11).
When positioned like this, we often used long pass to the player, who has cut to the low post position (diagr. 12), a play, which usually finished with a dunk (called alley-hoop). While playing against the zone in the game against Germany, we executed this play a couple of times, and the high pass was followed by a cut and a slam dunk. In situations when we used one tall player, the other four players would stay outside, using quick passes and penetrations, while the tall player would come out and set screens to the ball handler, followed by a shot (diagr. 13).