Team USA: Basketball-Industrial Complex

The news that Carmelo Anthony may miss this summer’s World Championship is actually far more gripping than the possibility of LeBron James or Dwyane Wade sitting the summer out, if only because Team USA has meant more to Carmelo than it has to any other player in the history of the program. Every NBA star rises with the aid of some propulsive force: Kobe Bryant’s work ethic, LeBron James’ divine right, Dwight Howard’s physical domination. It’s the means through which tremendous athletes gifted with timing, balance, and coordination are able to tap into something insanely powerful. For Carmelo, that force was USA Basketball. International play has acted as a catalyst for Anthony’s success and advanced his narrative in ways we never thought possible.

Carmelo Anthony was something of a star from the moment he stepped into the league. Fresh off an utterly dominant run through the NCAA tournament in 2003, Melo the pro was birthed a 20-point a night scorer. That scoring punch drove the Nuggets to the playoffs for the first time since 1995, and though Minnesota dispatched Denver rather quickly in the first round, Anthony’s arrival signified the beginning of a new era of Nuggets basketball.

Of course, it was hardly enough. Though Melo was the team leader in scoring by a substantial margin in his rookie season, he also attempted 500 more field goals than anyone else on the team. His effective field goal percentage was just .449, which made him about as efficient of a scorer in ’03-’04 as Baron Davis was this year (.446 eFG%). It’s still impressive for a rookie to manage that kind of output right off the bat, but unlike most first-year players, Anthony’s career was born with a silver spoon full of minutes and touches. That’s an essential component of any player’s production, but also a young player’s developmental process. Combine those conditions with Anthony’s scoring instincts, athleticism, and natural talent, and it seemed like only a matter of time before Melo made the jump to full-fledged superstar.

That process began during the 2005-2006 season (in which Anthony’s eFG% jumped to .493, and his points per 36 minutes by 4.5), but was truly crystallized in the 2006 FIBA World Championships. Even though the USA finished a disappointing third place thanks to poor pick-and-roll coverage against Greece in the semifinal game, Anthony was the clear on-court leader. He was the fifth youngest player on the 12-man roster and hardly the most accomplished or talented American to play in the championships, but he ranked 6th in the tournament in scoring at 19.8 points per 40-minute game, and was the only American named to the All-Tournament team. Melo’s unique combination of quickness, mid-range shooting, and size set him up for all kinds of success in international pla, and succeed he did. When Anthony returned to NBA action in the fall, all traces of his old, volume-scoring self had been erased; he made a big jump in per-minute scoring while maintaining an almost identical level of shooting efficiency from his tremendous ’05-’06 campaign.

The following two off-seasons were also accompanied by stints with USA Basketball (and more importantly, Anthony’s USA teammates), and the seasons that followed showed similar jumps in production. Melo’s most impressive international performance came in 2007’s Tournament of the Americas, in which he averaged 21.2 points per game in just 19.4 minutes (Leandro Barbosa was the only player to best Anthony in points per game, and he played 12.6 extra minutes per contest and could only muster a 0.6 points per game margin over Anthony). Melo spent the off-season training with the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Jason Kidd, and returned to the Nuggets a complete offensive player. He notched a .511 eFG% (partially thanks to a +4.0% increase in FG% from 10-15 feet and a +5.0% increase from 16-23 feet), significantly improved his rebounding rate, became a legitimate three-point threat for the first time in his career, and bumped up his assist rate.

However, the 2008 Olympics were, by Anthony’s standards, underwhelming. He managed just 11.5 points per game as a member of the gold medal team, but managed to surprise in another regard: with his defense. D was the calling card of Team USA, despite the fact that the roster was regarded as something of a glorified All-Star team.That couldn’t have been further from the truth, as the Americans occasionally struggled in their half-court offense against stronger opposition, but managed to decimate their opponents with lockdown defense. Those Olympics seemed like week-long alley-oop clinic because Team USA was able to create turnovers and get out on the break, where the difference in athleticism between the Americans and their opponents was the most pronounced.

Such impressive team defense didn’t happen by accident. It came through focus, intensity, and preparation, and in just a few months Anthony was transformed as a defender. Kevin Arnovitz documented Melo’s drastic defensive improvements last May:

Spend some time around the Denver Nuggets this spring and you’ll hear how Carmelo Anthony’s commitment on the defensive end of the floor has a lot to do with the team’s success. When you ask people who know Anthony where that dedication came from, you get an almost uniform response: As a member of Team USA last summer in Beijing, Carmelo rubbed shoulders with the most professional players in the game, and through the Olympic Rehabilitation Program for Uninterested Defenders, he saw the light. He realized that while his offense will always keep him in the conversation for Best Scorer on the Planet, if he was sincere about being a Top 5 player, he’d have to get serious about his defense.

This improvement can be traced as a natural development in Anthony’s game if so desired, but his involvement with Team USA at the very least acted as a hell of a catalyst.

I tell you all of this not to lament over Anthony’s absence or to provide a survey of his Team USA career. Instead, Melo’s development functions as a case study that’s pertinent now more than ever. As the LeBrons and Wades of the world inevitably wane in their excitement and commitment to USA Basketball, the American roster will experience considerable turnover. Veterans like Kidd will ride off into the sunset, and other USA mainstays will surely follow the paths of stars like James and Wade. That turnover not only means emerging stars will need to take up the mantle, but it also opens up a pretty incredible developmental opportunity.

While I’d like to pretend that such player development is directly attributable to the structure of the system or even Coach K, the noble leader/recipient of a solid book deal, neither is the case. Anthony spelled out USA Basketball’s power of reform explicitly, and it lies with the member of Team USA that is far more important than LeBron. James may be the world’s best player, but the most crucial element of our nation’s basketball program is its elder statesman, Kobe Bryant. Kobe remains firmly committed to Team USA barring injury, and is even more valuable to the national team for his will than his skill; his most valuable contribution in 2008 was giving the squad its defensive identity, and creating a similar defensive fervor in the likes of Carmelo and LeBron. Even THE CHOSEN ONE made the leap from unwilling and uninterested defender to All-NBA defense with the benefit of Bryant’s influence.

Many of the players recently named to the USA roster are incredible in their own right, but all of them boast incomplete games. Even the more versatile talents (Jeff Green, Andre Iguodala, Russell Westbrook) could benefit from a more singular focus. Plus, if Carmelo was able to successfully make the transition from great scorer to All-World scorer to fringe MVP candidate, can you even imagine what kind of evolution USA Basketball could inspire in Kevin Durant? Danny Granger? LaMarcus Aldridge? O.J Mayo? These guys are all terrific players, but could certainly benefit from a bit of Bryant-inspired osmosis.

Ideally, that is the future of the program. Kobe stays around long enough to make the defensive intensity a tradition, and in doing so inspires a wave of stars spearheaded by the likes of Durant, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Deron Williams. Those players, in turn, dedicate their time to USA Basketball until they grow tired of the competition and the commitment, leaving the next wave to lead the way with a similarly imposed focus for defense and improvement. Thus is the enduring legacy of Kobe Bryant and Jerry Colangelo: Team USA could ultimately become a training ground for the NBA’s elite, a formative step reserved for the league’s best and brightest. The program’s allure will always lie in its exclusivity (supposing that said exclusivity involves a high level of intra-roster competition), but its real value is in this untapped developmental concept. The best thing Bryant can do for Team USA isn’t to win medals or have terrific performances in international play, but to turn USA Basketball into a superstar factory. Carmelo provides the blueprint, but right now only Kobe has the tools to build it.

Seth Carstens