MANILA, Philippines — Team USA and head coach Steve Kerr arrived in the Philippine capital of Manila on Tuesday local time and received a warm welcome (figuratively and literally, given the humid tropical conditions) upon stepping off the plane, thus signaling the beginning of their 2023 FIBA World Cup campaign in an effort to improve on the disappointing seventh-place finish in the 2019 edition.
The team had their first practice in Mall of Asia Arena — the venue in which they will face fellow Group C members New Zealand, Greece, and Jordan — on Wednesday night. Although media weren’t allowed to film the practice session itself, this author got a glimpse of one particular set Team USA was practicing.
“Open” is a fairly common set throughout the NBA, which is why Kerr chose it as one of the few actions he’s bringing over from his Golden State Warriors playbook to his Team USA roster.
If you’re not familiar with the Warriors’ sets, “Open” is the term Kerr uses for a classic 5-Out “Delay” set, notable for its spacing and a big man handling the ball up top. All sorts of action — backscreens, flares, pindowns, cuts, etc. — is then run for the other four players on both sides of the court.
Spot the difference in effectiveness between how “Open” is run above with Team USA compared to when the Warriors do it below:
The main difference is obvious: Team USA doesn’t have Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — two nuclear pinballs furiously whizzing around — to put massive amounts of unique pressure on the defense, nor do they have a passing savant in Draymond Green who can act as a central playmaking hub and decision maker.
(For more about Kerr’s actions and sets with Team USA, read this piece I wrote for Dub Nation HQ.)
Kerr himself said as much when asked about the main differences and challenges from going to a familiar team with players that seamlessly fit his schemes and philosophy to a talented but unfamiliar roster.
“It was great for me to have the experience being an assistant for (Gregg Popovich) in 2019 (during the FIBA World Cup) and 2021 (during the Tokyo Olympics) because you get to feel what it’s like putting a team together for six weeks,” Kerr told Golden State of Mind. “It’s totally different from the NBA. You can’t build continuity and years of experience and piece together a team.”
Kerr, however, also emphasized how they made sure to select players who could jell together quickly, and who also had great “feel,” connectivity, and the ability to pass.
“That experience really informed how we picked this team,” Kerr added. “We wanted guys who we felt could be a team in a short period of time. We have players with great feel on this team. They’re connected, they can all pass. They’re enjoying the experience. For me as a coach it’s really all about trying to simplify everything. You have to cover all your bases and try to get everything in in a short period of time. But if you overdo it, it’s confusing for the players. We’ve just tried to simplify and get the guys playing comfortably and being themselves, and that’s the goal.”
Asked Steve Kerr what were the main differences going from a team with a familiar system and personnel w/ the likes of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green to coaching a talented but unfamiliar group: "We wanted guys who we felt could be a team in a short period of… pic.twitter.com/j39JvXYsat— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) August 24, 2023
It doesn’t seem like an abbreviated build-up process — four days of training camp in Las Vegas followed by a five-game exhibition slate against Puerto Rico, Slovenia, Spain, Greece, and Germany (which they all won) — has affected Kerr and his coaching staff’s ability to prepare a young and talented squad for a rigorous World Cup campaign.
Asked Steve Kerr to assess Team USA’s level of chemistry going into their first game. “They really get along well. We’ve had 5 games under our belt. We feel like we’re ready for the tournament.” pic.twitter.com/7s6FzRGNrD— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) August 23, 2023
Interestingly, Kerr also said that the was team holding back stuff they haven’t shown yet in any of their previous exhibition games — understandable and typical of teams aiming to gain any sort of competitive advantage they can get.
Interesting snippet from Kerr when asked about facing Greece. Says they “held some things back, just like we did.” Could see some new stuff soon.— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) August 23, 2023
Also singled out Greece’s Thomas Walkup who got a nifty layup out of “Miami” action and drilled a couple of 3s in exhibition play. pic.twitter.com/yyJ7NqLGTa
It’ll be interesting to see which of the new stuff Team USA unleashes, how opponents adjust, and how they adjust to the adjustments. The joy of watching high-level international basketball is the chess match that develops on the court.
For Team USA, their trump card has often been their unbelievable amount of talent, which makes them the natural favorites to win it all. But with the rest of the world having caught up, they may need to rely on an equal amount of cerebral play and intelligence — two tenets Kerr has highly valued throughout his decade-long tenure as the Warriors’ head coach.
Team USA opens their World Cup campaign against New Zealand on Saturday, August 26, 8:40 p.m. Manila time (Saturday, August 26, 8:40 a.m. ET in the United States).