Was there ever any doubt?
The team the United States sent to the 2010 World Championships was young (six of the final 12 were 22 or younger) and lacking in international experience (three players had worn the USA jersey before and only one of those, Lamar Odom, had any Olympic experience.) It lacked a single player from the 2008 Olympic gold-medal team.
And it just returned from Turkey with the gold medal, an automatic berth in the 2012 Olympics (read: no dreaded zone qualifier) and the realization that its so-called ‘B’ team was good enough in this particular tournament.
Maybe, just maybe, the US has reasserted itself as the Team to Beat. Certainly, the 2002-2006 period is now, officially, The Wilderness Years for USA Basketball. It’s as if they gave the world a sniff of success and then decided to put everything back in its proper place.
How did they do it? Here are a few reasons why the United States team heard The Star Spangled Banner for the first time in 16 years at a World Championships.
Kevin Durant: Oh my goodness, was he The Man in the last three games or what? One shudders to think what would have happened had Durant gone cold or been injured. But he was an iron man in the final three games and left eyebrows raised everywhere around Istanbul after torching Russia for 33 points, Lithuania for 38 and then scoring 28 in a hostile environment in the Sinan Erdem Dome in the gold-medal game against the Turks.
No one had put up those kinds of numbers for the victorious U.S. teams before, mainly because there was so much depth. Here’s a scary thought – he’s still only 21. Here’s a scarier thought for the Rest of the World who figured the U.S. was on the decline: he may be the only player on this team who is a deadbolt lock to make the London 2012 team. And if you had to pick one player to build a team around over the next decade, wouldn’t he be in the discussion?
Mike Krzyzewski: Coach K was presented with an entirely new roster. But what remained intact was the leadership group, starting with USA Basketball boss Jerry Colangelo and extending down to the coaching staff (with the exception of Jay Triano replacing Mike D’Antoni.) Continuity among the coaches was merely a concept when the U.S. was racking up gold. Every Olympiad/World Championship produced new staffs, with the exception of 1998/2000, when Rudy Tomjanovich coached both the Worlds team (which had no NBA players due to a lockout) and the 2000 Olympic Team (which won gold in Sydney.)
Krzyzewski has little to prove to anyone, especially with the run he’s on (Duke, USA Basketball.) But he was a master in this tournament. He managed egos/attitudes. He identified Durant as the leader. He stressed defense; the U.S. held Lithuania’s Linas Kleiza to 4 points. He then went for 33 against Serbia the next day. And Coach K adapted, going at the taller Turks with a three-guard unit for much of the game while giving very little time to what passed for the USA big men: Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love. It was tour de force for him and his staff.
Asked before the gold medal game if a win would be more meaningful than the 2008 Olympics, Coach K said, “this would be more satisfying.” It has to be. There were a ton of doubters (including yours truly) and he not only won the gold, he did so with a team that never was really seriously threatened in the knockout round and had only one close game (Brazil) in the tournament. Since taking over the U.S. program in 2005, Coach K’s team have one loss in international competition.
The Competition: We have assumed since the Indianapolis debacle in 2002 that the U.S. simply could not send its second-best and assume to win against the best of the rest. That could still be true because while the U.S. did not send its A Team to Turkey, none of the other top teams was at full strength either. And even with the global explosion of basketball since 1992, the U.S. still has the depth advantage. So if you want to beat them, send your best.
The most obvious team that seemed a threat was Spain, which had won the 2006 Worlds and played the star-studded 2008 Olympic team very tough in the gold medal game. But as good as Spain is, it can’t expect to win without its best player, Pau Gasol, and, arguably, its second most important player, Jose Calderon. Had those two played and played to form, there might have been a different outcome. But we’ll never know because Gasol took a pass and Calderon got hurt. Additionally, Spain had a new coach and that could have been a factor in its surprising early exit.
None of the other contenders was at full strength, either. Silver medalist Turkey did have Hedo Turkoglu and Ersan Ilyasova. But sweet-shooting big man Mehmet Okur was injured during the NBA playoffs. The Turks also missed Engin Atsur, a point guard, who played at North Carolina State for four years, and who ruptured an Achilles tendon in the Istanbul Cup in August.
Argentina entered the tournament with a No. 1 world ranking, but it had not actually won an international tournament since 2004 (the Olympics.) The Argentines still had the estimable Luis Scola, but their best player, Manu Ginobili, did not participate. Nor did tough guy Andres Nocioni. France was without Tony Parker, Mickael Pietrus, Joakim Noah and Roddy Beaubois. Russia didn’t have Andrei Kirilenko or American ex-pat JR Holden. Dirk Nowitzki stayed home.
Of the above teams, Spain and Argentina, at full strength, might have been able to produce a different outcome. Or perhaps France. But they weren’t and none of them medaled.
The United States will return to the top of the FIBA World Rankings which, of course, is the mission statement for USA Basketball. Frankly, with players like Durant in the fold for awhile, along with the others who will likely commit to London, it seems like the Yanks will be there for the foreseeable future.