This year, the disillusion happened so fast. After an easygoing preparation and a worrying first round, team France disappeared from its first post-Tony Parker-Era-Eurobasket in the round of 16 against Germany, a team most observers considered second tier. If this tournament turns out to be a major disappointment, it’s because of reasons largely unknown to French NTs in the past decade. Usually those teams had very high expectations and were led by multiple high profile NBA players — losing happened, obviously, but mostly against Spain in games that were hard fought battles against an opponent known to be better on paper. This year is a totally different story. Knowing that fewer NBA players turned up — past leaders especially — a revamped roster had to find new ways to play the game. Knowing how tough that type of process can be, the general public in France appeared to be quite sympathetic, expecting more in terms of spirit and quality of play than in terms of pure results. Here lies most of the lost hopes of this particular team.
Becoming someone else
Looking back on the last decade, the French team almost always consisted of a crew gathered around NBA players Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, and more recently the emerging figure of Rudy Gobert. Such a core provides an all-time European alpha dog (even if often on holiday until the first elimination game); a sublime creator at this level; a very reliable wing (even if the shooting never really came around en bleu); and arguably the best rim protector on earth. Building around those guys had little by little turned, during the Collet era, into a habit more than into a real choice. Old friends (Gelabale, Florent Pietrus) responded with quality play more often than not, key role players (Lauvergne, De Colo) were given a specific position in the team hierarchy that they respected and thrived in, and Collet had a few under-the-radar-but-familiar faces (Diot, Kahudi) to make it all work down to the 12th man. Moreover, the team had a real identity, that everybody knew about (and that also made this team sometimes unwatchable to non-French audiences) — physical play, all the time.
This team concept ended up being called into question by the last event of the so-called “Génération Parker” — the infamous blowout against Spain (67-92) in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics. Looking washed out to a point where it was simply sad to see, the most important thing was, in fact, the contrast between this game and the beautiful game played against Team USA a few days before. In that one, France lost to the US by only 3 points (97-100) without Parker, having been led by an impressive De Colo-Heurtel backcourt that looked as good as ever. What if this particular game, played in the absence of the shadow of the best French player ever, meant something more? A change of scenery, a symbolic handover, and the project of a free-flowing offense.
So what could Collet do with this 2017 team? Follow the last beautiful promise made by the remaining players available, or go back to basics with a defensive and physical identity? To be honest with his case, at first it looked like he didn’t have much of a choice — given Gobert and Batum were having the summer off, building a team around their profile (aggressive guards and wings backed by rim protection) was simply not possible. The idea of making Moustapha Fall this year’s Cinderella of rim protectors vanished when he left training sessions with an injury; and giving Timothée Luwawu-Cabarot a chance to be the wing with highly-touted physical profile soon became impossible for the same reason. What was left was a team full of talented players but without any margin in terms of in-game adjustments — undersized but active bigs yet with limited defensive impact; a bunch of scoring wings and guards able to create for themselves but neither impactful off the ball nor on the defensive end.
Failing with adjusting during the tournament
What happened during the tournament was a constant call by coach Collet to get the defensive groove of the old days back. The belief in the offensive talent of the team led to a defensive obsession that overshadowed the fact that the offense…well, wasn’t especially efficient nor good-looking, despite scoring a lot. On defense, the lack of rim protection (11 blocks in five games) led to less pressure put on the ball (a middle of the pack 7.2 stl/g), which limited opponent turnovers and prevented France from playing early offense. In set offense, the ridiculous amount of ball handlers and the lack of movement made the team crazily turnover prone (second only to Georgia, at team known on the contrary to lack ball handlers).
One of the most interesting facts in all this was how Collet never really tried to shake things up. His only real message was not starting Lauvergne, in favour of Seraphin, during the elimination game against Germany. What’s puzzling is how little this could have changed the fate of the game — even if not the same kind of players, both were seriously exposed in pick-and-roll defense against high octane PGs (Schröder after Dragic) and Theis certainly took advantage of the situation. As suggested by people watching games, it certainly would have been more interesting to make a backcourt change — having individually super-efficient players such as De Colo (in principle) and Fournier should have led to pairing them with an off-ball and defensive specialist as nominal PG. Antoine Diot in this regard was the better fit, at least compared with Thomas Heurtel. Another option would have been playing smaller, unleashing Toupane at the 4 and hoping someone like Labeyrie could handle some minutes at the 5. But in times of adversity, Collet ended up coming back to a conservative approach, relying on a PG that had bailed him out a few times in Heurtel, keeping Diaw and/or two bigs on the court at all costs. It can be argued that he wasn’t helped by De Colo finally looking bad after a few “walking on water” years. Yet his inner demons came back to hurt his coaching, at the very moment France needed a breath of fresh air.
Having been confirmed in his role by the French Federation only a few hours after the team’s failure, Collet will have to cope with the FIBA World Cup qualifying windows without almost all the players he coached at the international level the last few years, whether they’re NBA or Euroleague-bound. These games are coming really fast — maybe it simply wasn’t the time to put everything in question. Collet can be a very good coach, and knows his Pro A well enough to build a cohesive unit in a very short period. Yet he’ll have to do so starting from scratch — it will put a lot more emphasis on his roster than coaching choices, and on how he struggles (or not) with giving a strong identity to his team. Team France’s problems, in fact, may only be at their beginning…