On Wednesday, the U.S. men’s basketball team begins its gold medal defense in earnest as they square off against Australia in the quarterfinals, a contest the U.S. has been given 1/100 odds to win, according to various online sportsbooks. I happened to be in the stands for Australia’s second-to-last preliminary game, a 106-75 victory over Great Britain in which the Aussies actually trailed by 15 points in the third quarter. In the span of three minutes, a wild barrage of three-pointers from Australia, led by San Antonio Spurs point guard Patty Mills, tied the game at 53. The Aussies’ hot shooting continued into the fourth quarter, transforming the one-time deficit into a lead of ten, then 20, then finally 30 points. As I watched the Australians bring the rain down from the ceiling of the Basketball Arena, I couldn’t help but think that there was nothing the British, or anyone, could have done to stop that team-wide shooting performance. It was just their day.
The same can be said of the United States’ 83-point victory over Nigeria. Though Nigeria is the worst defensive team at these Olympics, allowing opponents to shoot 59 percent on twos and 46 percent on threes, there was no preventing the tsunami of threes that the Americans poured in on Thursday night. The U.S. went 29-for-46 from beyond the arc, ten of which came from Carmelo Anthony alone. Sometimes, you get hot.
But sometimes you’re not. In their following game, the Americans made only ten of 33 three-pointers and nearly lost to a plucky Lithuanian team, which shot a sterling 58 percent from the field. It was the type of March Madness-like near-upset that makes fans of any favorite sick. Your team clearly has the better talent but plays well below its potential, allowing the underdog to hang around for a chance to snatch away victory at the end.
In a 2009 piece for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell laid out the conditions under which Davids can beat Goliaths. In mathematical terms, Gladwell suggests that underdogs pursue a risky, high-variance strategy. Given infinite trials (or games), the better team beats the worse team a majority of the time, and the gap between them exactly corresponds to the gap in talent between the two. But given one trial, like the knockout round of a basketball tournament, the role of random chance becomes much stronger. A beneficial swing in luck can then allow a team with substantially less talent to contend, and on a few rare occasions, upset Goliath.
Of course, there’s a reason these strategies are risky. If the calculated gamble doesn’t pay off and one’s team simply cannot throw the ball in the ocean, a game can get ugly very quickly. The flip side of the U.S.’s record-setting win over Nigeria was their opponent’s inept shooting performance; the Nigerians made only six of the 27 threes they jacked up (22 percent). Had they hit a few more of these (okay, maybe about 20 more), they could have kept the score within a respectable margin.
In his piece, Gladwell seems to regard the failure of Goliaths to adopt risky strategies—in his example, the full court press—as a detriment to their success. In fact, just the opposite is true. Favorites want to take as few risks as possible because they have no need for them. More often than not, their talent advantage will be enough to secure a victory, without introducing the luck factor that comes with high-risk strategies.
Due to the large talent gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world, an upset of the Americans will likely require a would-be David to pursue such a high-variance strategy. The problem, which stems in part from the composition of the team, is that the United States’ strategy this Olympics resembles that of the world’s puniest David. The Americans have attempted more threes (168) than any other team, by a considerably wide margin; the next closest is Great Britain with 126. They play a frantic style of defense, jumping every passing lane and forcing an Olympics-best 20.2 turnovers per game, but they also allow a lot of easy buckets. The U.S. is allowing opponents to shoot 54 percent from two-point range, ahead of only Tunisia, Nigeria, and Great Britain.
The danger for the United States heading into the knockout rounds lies in the potential confluence of two extremes of luck: if the Americans can’t find the basket from outside and their opponents get hot, the game will be a lot closer than it otherwise should be. In almost every instance, the Americans’ talent advantage will still be enough to paper over any disparity in luck; after all, they possess the nine or ten best players in the entire tournament. But not always—in 2004, the United States undoubtedly had a more talented team than Argentina, but in the semifinals, the Americans shot 3-for-11 from three and 42 percent overall, while Argentina made 54 percent of their attempts, including 11 of 22 threes, on its way to the gold medal game.
With a less risky strategy, the U.S. would be virtually unbeatable, but unfortunately, the personnel on the team is more suited to the open, breakneck pace we’ve seen from them so far. Perhaps, with a frontline of Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, the Americans could pound the ball inside for easy, high-percentage (and thus, low-variance) shots, but Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love aren’t capable of the same sort of reliable, low-post scoring. Instead, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Durant are heaving up shots from all over the perimeter, which, for the most part, works just fine—they’re the best players in the world. But it leaves the door a crack further open than it should be for the rest of the world, one we can be sure they will do everything in their power to barge through.
The teams most likely to pull off the upset? Probably the pair of South American powers, Brazil and Argentina, which boast a bevy of dangerous long-range shooters in addition to a positive turnover margin. With its size down low, Brazil is better suited to keep the U.S. off of the offensive glass, but it doesn’t have quite as much offensive firepower as the Argentinians. However, don’t count out big, steady teams like Spain, Lithuania, and Russia. All three have the ability to score down low and keep the game close against a cold-shooting American team—just long enough to steal gold away from the favorites.
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He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrateds 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.
Now living in Marblehead, hes focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.