By now, it is pretty obvious that the 2006 version of USA Men’s Basketball is much better than the team fielded in 2004, but just how much better is worth looking at. Each team played five exhibition games leading up to their respective tournaments so those are the games I compared. It remains to be seen how USA will do in the World Championships, but the outlook looks bright for the sort of success that has eluded the national teams for the last few years.
In 2004, the national team played two great games, one horrific game, and two not-quite-good games. They destroyed Puerto Rico and Serbia-Montenegro, outscoring those two teams by 15.9 points per 100 possessions and 14.9 points per 100 possessions, respectively. Italy outscored the US 33.3 points per 100 possessions, a dominating performance in every sense of the word. To be outdone in offensive efficiency by such a margin as this is reason enough to forfeit your spot in any world tournament, but the US kept playing. Overall, the US put up an offensive efficiency of 106.3 points per 100 possessions in their five exhibition games. They allowed their opponents 104.7 points per 100 possessions. That slight advantage for the US speaks of a slightly above .500 team, which is the sort of team they ended up being in the Olympics, going 5-3 (note: I have the advantage of writing this in hindsight, but the numbers did give an indication of what their future performance would be if they stayed the course they were on).
By contrast, the 2006 version has run roughshod over all five teams who were foolish enough to step on the same court. Even in their worst game, when they only beat Brazil by four points, they still had an offensive advantage of 11.9 points per 100 possessions. For the five games, the team has put up 128.0 points per 100 possessions while giving up only 89.3 points per 100 possessions. It doesn’t get any better than that.
However, the difference between the two teams does not stop at how efficiently they play on both ends. The 2006 team is also better at taking care of the basketball; they have averaged .168 turnovers per possession while the 2004 squad turned the ball over .222 times per possession. Also, USA men’s basketball version 2006 has a higher offensive rebounding percentage (.351 to .260) and they have a much higher effective field goal percentage (.613 to .568), on the strength of making more than twice as many 3′s as the 2004 bricklayers.
Those advantages for the 2006 team extend to the defensive side of the ball as well. To shorten things up a bit, here is where the 2006 team is better: creating more turnovers, getting a higher percentage of defensive rebounds, allowing a lower effective field goal percentage, and also a lower floor percentage. Floor percentage is the percentage of a team’s possessions where they score at least one point and is a Dean Oliver statistic.
One major difference between the two teams besides the 2006 team clearly being superior is the pace at which they play the game. Because the international games are only forty minutes long, I had to extend the number of team possessions to how many they would have had if they continued their pace and played in an average NBA length game (242 minutes for both 2004 and 2006). After I did the adjustment to their pace, the 2004 team played at a pace factor of 87.8. The average 2004 NBA team had a pace factor 90.1. Now, Larry Brown is notorious for playing at a deliberate pace, but when you have what are supposedly some of your country’s best players, your team should play faster than the average NBA team. If the team does not, the players’ potential cannot be maximized. Coach K has taken a vastly different approach and what looks to be the right one. Under him, the 2006 version has a pace factor of 100.9 when the average 2006 NBA team played with a pace factor of 90.6. That is how an All-Star squad should be used.
Not only has the 2006 squad played infinitely better, but they have also been coached infinitely better.
I used the term All-Star squad loosely, but All-Star teams play at a frenetic pace during All-Star games. The winners of the 2004 and 2006 All-Star Game had pace factors of 120.3 and 118.4, respectively. Perhaps I should have used the term controlled All-Star squad.