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Why Johnny can't win in Olympic basketball

August 11, 2008 |  7:02 am

Sarunas Jasikevicius of Lithuania and Argentina's Carlos Delfino

BEIJING -- The hardest thing for an NBA player, or an American fan, to understand is how a bunch of players who can’t play in the NBA keep sending U.S. teams home in a box.

Think of it this way:

At the elite level of the NBA, there are only a few players: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade when he’s healthy, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett.

The next level is stars who are not quite (or quite yet) transcendent, however fast some may be coming: Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire, Paul Pierce, Baron Davis, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Chris Bosh, et al.

Let’s say there are 20 of those.

Then come players good enough to make an All-Star team whether or not they have yet: Ray Allen, Elton Brand, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Carlos Boozer, David West, Richard Jefferson, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, the entire Detroit Pistons starting lineup, the Washington Wizards’ big three, Luol Deng, Michael Redd, Josh Howard, Tyson Chandler, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Joe Johnson and not-quite-what-they-were guys like Shaquille O’Neal and Jason Kidd, et al.

Let’s say there are 30 of those.

Let’s make our next level star reserves like Leandro Barbosa, Ben Gordon and David Lee; good players like Andre Miller, Stephen Jackson, Derek Fisher, Kirk Hinrich, Emeka Okafor, Jason Richardson, Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Andrew Bogut, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Chris Kaman, Corey Maggette; and comers like Andrew Bynum, Greg Oden, Andre Igoudala, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Kevin Durant, Devin Harris, Al Thornton and Rodney Stuckey.

Let’s say there are 50 of those.

Let’s make our next level rotation players — basically your fourth and fifth starters and your first two players off the bench: Drew Gooden, Jameer Nelson, Andres Nocioni, Daniel Gibson, Luke Walton, Vlade Radmanovic, Cuttino Mobley, Raja Bell, Nick Collison, Earl Watson, etc.

Four times 30 teams is 120.

That would account for about 235 of the 360 roster spots in the NBA.

As for the other 125, most of the good players in Europe or South America are on that level, if not higher.

However, for all the success stories like Ginobili, Nowitzki, Parker and Yao, there are puzzling NBA failures like Lithuania’s Sarunas Jasikevicius, who almost gunned down the U.S. at Sydney and dropped the Americans in Athens, and Greece’s Vassilis Spanoulis, who led the stunning upset of Mike Krzyzewski’s first U.S. squad at the 2006 world championships.

Spanoulis played 31 games in one season in Houston and fled back to Europe, turning down a chance to go to San Antonio, which had traded for him.

Jasikevicius played 63 games in two seasons with Indiana and Golden State and is going back to Europe.

“In the NBA, I’m sort of an average player,” says Jasikevicius, “and for an average player, it’s important to find a team that fits you.

“If you have the right fit, it makes you look better. Obviously, the superstars are going to fit in everywhere. They’re going to be dominating the game, having an impact on the game.

“That’s not the case with me. I had to find the right spot for me to be a successful NBA player and I just chose wrong, as far as going to Indiana.”

Adding to the Europeans' savvy are the international rules, which take away the big U.S. advantage in size and athleticism and make the NBA's power game counterintuitive.

Instead, the conical lane and zone defenses make it a shooter’s game. Anyone who saw the U.S. miss 14 of its first 15 three-pointers on Sunday, even as it turned its game with China into a track meet, can understand how fast a hot-shooting team that is smart enough to slow the Americans down can close the gap.

-- Mark Heisler

Photo: Sarunas Jasikevicius of Lithuania and Argentina's Carlos Delfino are average NBA players, but in the international game, which emphasizes shooting and downplays the power game, they can be stars. Credit:  Gabriel Buoys/AFP/Getty Images