Sportsconomics – Maximizing Team USA’s Efficiency With a Few Roster Twists

** Editor’s Note: This post is 1800 words. I hope you’re comfortable.

If there’s one basketball-related storm I can actually get behind wholly, it’s the US men’s Olympic team. All of my issues with NBA coverage/officiating and draft-night letdowns kind of vanish as all of the country gets together behind the 12 guys on the dream team or the redeem team or the esteem team or whatever -eem adjective will describe this year’s squad. In America, men’s basketball is the premier event of the summer Olympics and the U.S. team is without appropriate comparison in terms of dominance.

Last Saturday, the 12 men that will comprise the U.S. men’s basketball team were announced, and they will surely open the 2012 Olympics as the gold-medal favorites because objectively, the American talent level is unmatched.  The NBA is the best professional basketball league in the word and while most countries are lucky to have a handful of NBA players at all on the roster, the American team is made primarily of perennial NBA all-stars.

There’s no need to go on further, when the pros are allowed to compete, the US men’s basketball team is among the most dominant in any type of contest. Ever. That’s not disputed.

But that’s not where I’m going, You didn’t need to read SpreeGoogs to find out that American men’s basketball teams are good at the Olympics. You probably don’t even need to come here to see what superstar players are on that team.

in 1992, the Dream team beat Angola by 68 points. It would have been 168, but the scoreboard broke in the third quarter.

Overall, I’m very happy with this year’s American roster. It seems nearly guaranteed that in a given game, the Red, White and Bluers will have at least four of the five best players on the floor and in several cases, 12 of the best 12. But that’s not what I care about seeing. The story of American basketball isn’t just about winning, it’s about DOMINANT winning. A 100-95 victory in every game will still get you gold medals, but 150-60 wins fire up the patriotic spirit better. And that’s really what the U.S. team should do. Winning games isn’t enough, they have to be won with an iron fist.

Which brings us to the point of this post. I want the U.S. basketball team to be the absolute best possible collection of players, and I think a few of the personnel decision were incorrect. I’m sure Coach K and the basketball minds who selected the current 12 understand the game of basketball on a different level than I do, but if you care about their reasoning, go read their blog.

To help explain why I think the U.S. team isn’t at full strength, I’m going to drop some economics. In case you haven’t been reading this blog long, I love math and there are just going to be posts that are 1,000 words about numbers. Dust off those old first-semester micro-econ books, because we’re about to get on the Magic School Bus and take a half-sports, half-econ destination I like to call Sportsconomics.

First, the numbers. One of the primary laws of micro-economics is that of comparative advantage. If you don’t remember it, here’s the basic premise: in a universe with two producers and two products, one producer will always be the most efficient at producing one good while the other producer is the most efficient at producing the other good.

For example, in a universe inhabited by A and B with products X and Y, if A produces X the best, necessarily B produces Y the best. The law then suggests that maximum efficiency is attained by A focusing all efforts on making X and B specializing in Y. If you still don’t get it, here’s a video on comparative advantage.

It wouldn’t be as good if all the rings were blue, you need specialist other colors.

The principle is that maximum efficiency is obtained when producers find out what they’re good at and then focus on doing that noe thing. The same kind of thinking can be applied to basketball and putting together a team. Although you have multiple players (producers) and multiple aspects of the game (products), maximum efficiency is still gained by having players specialize in the parts of the game at which they are the best. For about the last two years, I’ve been dabbling pretty heavily in advanced basketball stats and studying Basketball on Paper and it’s led to a kind of fun theoretical way of putting together a team.

Anyway, let’s take this conversation to the selection of Team USA. Here’s the problem: the roster is full of guys who specialize in scoring and thin in other aspects of the game. After the top of the roster is figured out, the rest of the players are just watered-down versions of the same type.

For more information on what I mean, below is the actual roster of team USA broken into a couple of categories. In addition to listing the players, I’ve also provided each person’s elite skills. What does that mean? It means that in the universe of the NBA, the 12 best at a certain stat are elite. Why 12? Because the roster has 12 spots. “Best” is a bit of a troubling term, but I used stats from the 2011-2012 season to decide that for me. It gets tough in some categories (overall totals vs. percentages), but I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt to give a better idea of what each player brings to the table.

The bulk of the team is what would call “No-doubters.” I don’t think anyone in America is questioning why these guys are on the team. They are on Team USA and they should be.


  • Sorry Carmelo, but a lineup with these two doesn’t leave a lot of room for you.

    LeBron James (Scoring, Steals, On-Ball Defense)

  • Kevin Durant (Scoring, D-Rebounding, 3-point shooting)
  • Kevin Love (O-Rebounding, D-Rebounding)
  • Kobe Bryant (Scoring, On-Ball Defense)
  • Chris Paul (Assists, Steals, On-Ball Defense)
  • Russell Westbrook (Scoring, Steals)
  • Deron Williams (Scoring, 3-point shooting, Assists)

There are two who probably aren’t definite Olympic athletes, but injuries and other circumstances to Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge and Andrew Bynum have left the post position pretty bare, and Chandler and Griffin will sneak into the roster for lack of other options.

Locks Due to Positional Scarcity

  • Tyson Chandler (O-Rebounding, Post Defense)
  • Blake Griffin (Scoring, O-Rebounding, D-Rebounding)

The final tier of players are who I would deem “Borderline” and that’s where the real conversation needs to take place.


  • Carmelo Anthony (Scoring)
  • Andre Iguodala (Steals, On-Ball defense)
  • James Harden

Why is Carmelo Anthony not a “no-doubter”? Because all he does is score. He’s one of the absolute best 1-on-1 scorers in the world, but in a crunch-time situation where the team would need that, I cannot imagine the ball in his hands over LeBron or Durant. He literally doesn’t bring anything that isn’t already better represented on the roster.

True story: I once stood at a urinal next to James Harden at the airport. It was so terrifying that I still remember using the urinal at the airport.

Iguodala and Harden were the last two players on the roster, so they naturally should come up for debate when determining the best possible selections. Iguodala is primarily a defender who can guard either wing position and Harden is another scorer in the vein of Kobe Bryant, who sits on top of him at the SG position.

As you can see, the nine players not up for debate offer a glut of scoring. It’s way over-represented. I’m sure it’s an annoying basketball platitude at this point, but there really is only one shot to go around on each possession, and you don’t need five guys who can take it. Technically you’re better off having a couple of scoring players and then a few offensive rebounding specialists who can create more possessions.

What’s the team missing? Let me suggest three replacement players to answer that question:

3 Players to Replace the “Borderline”

  • Rajon Rondo (Assists)
  • Al Jefferson (Blocks, D-Rebounding)
  • Greg Monroe (O-Rebounding)

Here’s the thinking behind each one:

Rondo: The way this roster is set up, the team is better served using some of D-Will’s minutes at the 2. Especially if I’m taking Harden off the team. The style of these superteams brings with it a need for willing passers, and an offense with a guy like Rondo (2.6 assists per game better than Chris Paul last year) is just going to move smoother than a team with five shot-takers on the floor. Rondo is the best passer in the NBA and he needs to bring that ability to the Olympic team.

It’s too bad the U.S. doesn’t have a shot-blocking center to defend against Spain and the Gasols.Too bad that shot-blocking center isn’t also a top-15 rebounder AND scorer. Oh. Wait….

Jefferson: There’s been a ton of complaining about the lack of a true big man to play on the US team this year, but anyone who watches Jefferson knows he’s the best true center for the roster. He is an elite shot-blocker (I know you think Tyson Chandler is, but the numbers don’t agree with that; look it up, Chandler Parsons blocks shots better than Tyson Chandler) and grabs defensive rebounds better than everyone on the roster except Griffin and Love. If he’s going to be the defensive Big that the team needs, blocks and D-rebounds are perfect elite skills to add. Does he beat Carmelo, Harden or Iguodala in a game of one-on-one? Probably not, but he adds skills the desperately needs.

Monroe: I wanted to include another Big because that’s what the team needs. The international flavor of basketball favors the more athletic Bigs, so this decision came down to Monroe or DeAndre Jordan. Although Jordan would add another much-needed shot-blocker, I like Monroe because he scores in a way that the Bigs on the roster don’t. Griffin, Chandler and Jefferson can all catch the ball and dunk it or finish an alley-oop, but Monroe is one of the best in the game at nailing the baseline jumper. He might not be the best post scorer left on the board, but the way he does it makes him a perfect fit.

This is how my ideal Team USA looks

There’s the team. I’d love for you to argue with me in the comments. Please don’t tell me that Carmelo is better than Al Jefferson and Greg Monroe, I know that. It’s not about putting a team out there with the 12 best individual players. It’s about assembling a roster with the most skills represented that will allow players to focus on the skills they have that are elite. At least that’s what economics teaches us.